The Internal Revenue Service has told the publishers of 90 per cent of the physics and chemistry journals in the United States that it plans to revoke their tax-exempt status.

The IRS has notified the American Institute of Physics and the American Chemical Society that it no longer regards them as tax-exempt research organizations.

The American Institute of Physics has been a tax-exempt organization since its founding in 1931. The American Chemical Society has enjoyed tax-exempt status even longer, having been founded in 1876.

"In her view, a scientific organization is one that does research," said Dr. H. William Koch, director of the American Institute of Physics. "Our role is publishing research results, which they don't regard as scientific."

The American Institute of Physics is a cooperative service for nine societies, publishing more than 40 scholarly journals that range in circulation from 300 to 65,000. Its smallest journal is a compendium of translations from the Russian of Soviet articles on physics. Its largest is a slick magazine called "Physics Today," which reaches most of the physicists in the United States.

The American Chemical Society publishes 18 journals, including Chemical and Engineering News, with a circulation of more than 122,000. Two of its other journals (Analytical Chemistry and Chemistry) are circulated to more than 29,000 people. Its 18 journals have a combined circulation of more than 30,000.

The IRS declined to comment on either of its two moves, but apparently it has given the American Institute of Physics and the American Chemical Society different reasons for wanting to change their tax status.

"They're picking on different things," said Dr. Raymond Mariella, executive director of the American Chemical Society. "That's all I want to say about it, because we're contesting the ruling."

In a letter explaining the ruling, the IRS told the ACS it questions the chemists' practice of selling subscriptions to nonmembers at higher rates than they offer to members. The IRS contends that this practice violates a provision of the tax law that prohibits individuals from reaping benefits from net earnings.

Its reason for ruling against the American Institute of Physics is that the AIP is not a research organization in the strict sense of the word and therefore should not be tax-exempt in the same way that pure research organizations are tax-exempt.

Both the ACS and the AIP have had conferences with IRS officials about the ruling, but have not been informed of the final decision. Both organization say they plan to take the ruling to court if the IRS disallows their appeals.

If the IRS ruling prevails, it will be a major body blow to both organizations. The loss of tax-exempt status would mean that the advertising income they use to help subsidize their journals would be taxable.

The IRS has already told the American Chemical Society it is disallowing its claim for a $222,736 tax refund for 1972 and 1973 relating to taxes paid on certain advertising income.

More important, the loss of tax-exempt status would mean the loss of "page charges" that scholarly journals receive to help defray publication cost. Among others, federal agencies pay $70 a page to research journals each time their scientists publish an article on research findings.

"The total physics community received $3.5 million last year in page charges," AIP Director Koch said. "But all that did was reduce publication costs so library subscription rates could be made more reasonable."

The average subscription price for an AIP physics Journal today is $200 a year, Koch said. He declined to estimate how much that would increase if the IRS ruling sticks, except to say: "We would have to raise substantially all our prices."

What will that mean? "The frontal attack by the IRS may turn out to be life-threatening to at least some of our journals," said Robert A. Day of the Council of Biology Editors. "Society journals could well move from the endangered list to the extinct list, and Uncle Sam as well as scientists everywhere will be left empty-handed."