Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads
a subversive proposal for electronic publishing
It had to happen: an email discussion so interesting, it has been published between paper covers. Don't be put off by the long title: this is a debate which embraces a number of important contemporary issues, from digital publishing to intellectual democracy and the politics of knowledge.
The discussion was one which exploded in the summer of 1994 on the discussion list VPIEJ-L [Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Electronic Journals]. Steven Harnad [then at Princeton] posted a brief article concerning the future of scholarly journals. His argument is that scholars working in what he calls the 'esoteric' fields of narrow specialisms (particularly the sciences) do not need to publish on paper; they merely wish to be read by their peers. And since they don't expect to be paid for what they make public, why shouldn't they put their work straight onto the Net in preprint form. They can invite comment, make whatever revisions they feel warranted, then archive the finished article in digital form. By following this procedure, peer review is maintained, but the system works more rapidly and less expensively. Most importantly, they can avoid the dinosaur procedures and high costs of traditional print journals. As he puts it himself (in characteristically succinct form):
Many other advantages to this proposal were outlined during the debate which followed. Put everything On-Line, and access is free at the desktop twenty-four hours a day. Scholars in fields such as mathematics are already editing their own work for publication (using TeX) - so why should this work be done again less expertly by editors? Fellow scientists and librarians were quick to see the good sense of these proposals.
Objections followed too, of course. His critics come up with compromise and half-way-house solutions, mainly resting on the 'tradition' and 'authority' of the refereed and printed journal. But Harnad sticks to his proposal that for esoteric publications where authors simply want their work to be read, and do not expect any payment, there is no reason why their work should pass through the laborious, slow, and very expensive process of print publication.
Having established the 'Subversive Proposal', he defends his essentially clear view and simple suggestions against all comers. His are opinions which threaten those who currently control the means of production, distribution, and exchange of intellectual property. He takes on criticisms, subjects his own views to inspection, and sets a tone of 'collegiate debate' which is commendable.
The editors have retained on-page some of the typographic flavour of email discussion. There's a lot of repetition of quotes from earlier messages - as well as some revealing date-stamping, which shows major contributions being answered by others within two hours. Quotations have mercifully been attributed, but for the sort of audience this book is aimed at, this degree of 'full explanation' may not really have been necessary. However, this is a very small quibble.
Midway through the debate there is major intervention by Bernard Naylor from Southampton University (UK) [where Harnad transferred a few weeks later]. Even though he wishes to support the subversive proposal, he points to the problems it would raise for paper publishers. It is then fascinating to see how Harnad subjects this contribution to rigorous clear-thinking and shows it to be held back by what he calls a "papyrocentric" view of publication. In the course of pursuing this argument he throws up a number of important distinctions to be made about the different forms 'publication' may take, and the implications these have for scholarship, economics, and intellectual culture in general.
The other main contributor is Paul Ginsparg, who maintains an archive of scholarly materials at Los Alamos which receives more than 20,000 hits per day. That is, more than twenty thousand physicists from all over the world download articles in electronic form - a medium which as he points out, has advantages possessed by no other:
He also mentions - en passant - the advantages of directly digitised text over scanned page images (a ratio of 1 to 500 in disk space required). These exchanges explore in concrete detail the possibilities of electronic publication which have been discussed in theory by people such as Ted Nelson, Jay Bolter, and George Landow. Here we have the financial and practical minutiae of editing, printing, and distributing knowledge in electronic form - with the World Wide Web looming larger and larger as each page is turned.
Discussion of costs becomes very detailed on the varying practices in different disciplines - yet none of the contributors seem to take into account the hidden subsidies of people doing editorial work in time which is paid for or made available by their universities. Bernard Naylor gets near to this point when he queries "the propriety of academic institutions using public money ... in order to drive a viable industry ... to the wall". However, his observation is made to cast doubt on the wisdom of scholars exchanging information freely instead of passing it through the hands of all those poor publishers.
There are one or two other academic blind-spots. It would be easy for a reader to get the impression from some contributions that scholars do not profit from their work. This might be true superficially - they will not get rich by selling the words they write. But of course as a result of publishing they are able to secure promotion. The progression from lecturer, to senior lecturer, and on to Professor involves a not-inconsiderable salary increase - and let's not forget that the writing of these articles and books is often done [largely] in time which is payed for at taxpayers' or funding agencies' expense. Which other occupations have paid sabbatical terms and periods of study-leave up to a year long? However, this is another strength of Harnad's argument. He suggests that electronic publication releases authors from what he calls a Faustian pact with commercial publishers.
On a peripheral note, it is interesting that these experienced and fairly high-level scholars from fields as diverse as mathematics, psychology, and particle physics, all manage to communicate with each other in a manner which is clear, direct, and sometimes quite elegant. None of them resort to the silly show-off jargon of the academically modish and the fashion victims of 'Cultural Theory'. They don't even push forward their own subject specialisms, but concentrate on the issue in question - electronic communication between peers.
The more books one reads on electronic publication, Hypertext, and digital technology, the more one realises how convenient, comfortable, portable, and aesthetically pleasing the printed book remains - produced by what Nicholas Negroponte describes as "squeezing ink onto dead trees". But this does not invalidate Harnad's proposal: if a text is urgent, hot, and written for a minority - we'll read it on-screen, add comments, and send it back within the hour, rather than wait for the Dinosaur Publishing methods (and timescale) of 'getting it onto paper'. The editors make the point that there is no sharp 'answer' or 'conclusion' to these issues. [In fact this debate is still currently raging in the Hypertext-Journal discussion group].
This is a book for specialists, but it encompasses issues which are part of the profound effect of the forces of digitisation and the Internet. The vested interests of commercial publishers and academic institutions may take some time to shift, but their fault lines are remorselessly exposed here. Harnad's vision and his debate with contemporaries gives us a view of a world which is breaking apart, in the very process of being overtaken by the forces of New Technology.
© Roy Johnson 1995
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