Letter from the President
[Gautam Desiraju] Gautam R. Desiraju

Organizations that reinvent themselves to the certainties of the times are inevitably those that last for the long haul. Universities that have weathered the centuries are again those that have been mindful and wise enough to realize, accept and adapt to economic and political variables. Scientific academies that have survived have been perceptive to social concerns, as they fulfill obligations to communities at large. A successful academic body does not, however, compromise on its core values for pragmatism and commercialization. In doing this, it loses its innate character, becoming something it just isn't.

The IUCr was envisaged at its very inception as a scholarly organization involved in scientific publication activities. Paul Ewald was particularly concerned over the wartime closure of Zeitschrift für Kristallographie, the predominant journal of crystallography. When he and others founded the IUCr in 1948 therefore, they started a new journal, Acta Crystallographica, which rapidly replaced Z. Krist. as the nodal publication forum that synergized the whole family of crystallographers. Crystallography was a sharply focused subject with a clear theme and vision of the diffraction phenomenon and the use of diffraction in the determination of crystal structures.

The rapidly increasing popularity of crystallography and its application to vast areas of chemistry and biology, coupled with good economic times in Europe and North America, meant that the IUCr journals were pre-eminently successful in the first fifty years of the Union. So successful were they in fact, that the single journal started in 1948 became eight journals by 2008, when the Union celebrated its 60th anniversary in Osaka. The economic benefits brought to the Union by the journals have enabled the IUCr to undertake many facilitating programs and activities that have benefited the entire crystallographic community. These include supporting large and small workshops, conferences and specialized meetings, enabling students and young scientists to travel to such gatherings, helping crystallographers in less developed regions and increasing the outreach of the subject in all possible ways. The IUCr has always stood out as a humane and yet scientifically discerning body that projected the image of crystallography worldwide – thus, we are trying to get the United Nations to declare an International Year of Crystallography.

However, we have had to face many hard facts in recent times and these have increased the risks to our journals. Poor economics in regions of the world that were once fiscally and scientifically dominant, dramatic changes in the publication business with the advent of new modes of scientific publication, and the fact that crystallographers gradually became physicists, chemists and biologists, leaving their 'original' scientific families, have all conspired to render the finances of our journals vulnerable. Of the scientific merit of our journals, I have little doubt. The IUCr journals have the hallmark of the highest caliber. But what we need to ask is whether there is a comfortably large marketplace out there for the nice product on our hands. We also need to reflect on quality. What is quality? When so many people who use crystallography and do quality work do not publish in our journals, are we right in maintaining that we stand for crystallographic quality? What is crystallography? This question has been asked again and again during the last 100 years, or for even longer. Does the IUCr represent all scientists who use crystallography? Perhaps the IUCr needs crystallographers more than crystallographers need the IUCr. We need to be particularly worried about the fact that we are a single product business – and yes, we are a business because more than 90% of our income is from journals and other scholarly publications. It is a truism that without the journals, there would be no IUCr as we know it now. And I will still state this, because if there is any dramatic drop in the earnings derived from journals, the scope of our activities will be sharply curtailed.

In these straitened times, I would ask all of you to make a conscious effort to support your Union by publishing at least some of your best work in our own journals. Our staff in Chester is highly professional and our editors continue to do a marvelous job, given their active academic lives and that their services to the Union are entirely voluntary and without recompense. The journals review committee of which I wrote last year has submitted its report to the executive committee. The journal editors are now weighing this report and the executive committee expects to hear from them as to how individual journals intend to improve on the number of submitted papers and expand their catchment area of authors. I know that, in the area of structural chemistry (in which I happen to work), chemists are going out of their way to attract crystallographers to write in their journals. Are crystallographers reciprocating similarly? Are they going that extra mile to entice chemists and make them a part of their author pool? Crystallographers have had a tendency to 'lose' scientists to other communities, perhaps because of their somewhat exaggerated and purist notions as to what actually constitutes 'crystallography'. Given the uncertain economic climate in the publishing industry today, the time for fussing over genealogies has perhaps long since gone.

Gautam R. Desiraju (desiraju@sscu.iisc.ernet.in)