This was the keynote address at ELVIRA '95: 2nd International Conference on Electronic Library and Visual Information Research, 2-4 May 1995, Hilton Hotel, Milton Keynes, U.K. (Conversion note: Broken links from the original article have been removed.)


I have given this address the title, "In the beginning was the word...", which is not exactly a novel coinage! However, they are words worth remembering, since they draw attention to the primacy of the word in the formation of our understanding (and, indeed, definition) of the world around us. Words still have that primacy, but they can be illuminated by images and moving pictures and by numbers and sounds. Electronic communication now provides the means for integrating words, sounds, numbers and pictures to present ideas and research findings more rapidly and more effectively - and the world is changing.

We find ourselves in a world that commentators have described as chaotic: a world in which it seems that the pace of change grows ever faster - although this may be more of a function of the apparent disorder in our lives than of any true acceleration. We are in the middle of some kind of turbulence, a space-time whirlpool in which direction is difficult to determine, since so many changes are happening apparently simultaneously and the consequences of many developments are difficult to determine. The lone pilot, flying at night, can find his way and keep his aircraft level, moving in the right direction: he (or she) has instruments that provide the necessary information for the appropriate calculations and actions. We have none, or those we have in the way of indicators and trend lines, are crude by comparison. We seem, therefore, to be buffeted by change and we grope around, seeking direction in the selection of research avenues; in the management of organizations; in decisions that affect our future, or the future of our companies, schools, and universities; and in the design of curricula for the transmission of knowledge, which, in some areas, is changing faster than we can change the curriculum.

Within this world, the idea of the electronic library has emerged as a model for future systems, already implemented in some forms and to some degree in various places. Technology drives the development of the idea: but it is not always appropriate technology - more often, it is technology created for other purposes. The possibility, rather than the proven value of the technology, is testified to by the volume of research that addresses how to work around technological limitations to implement the desired system. Hardware, software, and telecommunications standards, etc., are less than optimum for the realization of the ideal. As a result, much of the literature deals with technological aspects and the research is conducted within frameworks set by the library metaphor.

It was my original intention (as the title of the paper in the programme suggests) to talk about social and economic factors in the implementation of the electronic library. However, the more I thought, the more I came to realize that it may be the library metaphor that restricts our thinking and holds us back from the development of new systems that may approach more closely the ideals of scholarly communication and the transmission of knowledge.

I wish to suggest that terms such as electronic library, electronic journal, and electronic publishing all stem from a failure to stress that the core of the revolution we find ourselves in is not that existing systems and activities now have an electronic form, but that library, publishing and journal are archaic and obsolescent, if not yet obsolete, ideas.

When we seek the underlying concepts of these terms we discover words like store, transmit and distribute - the basic ideas are those of storage, organization and communication. It will be useful, therefore, to replace the three words I focus upon by the term communication system. System is not intended here to mean a technological system - but any system of human communication. Of course, libraries, journals and publishing are systems of communication, but I believe we need to step back from these specific manifestations of communication systems to the underlying, generic idea.

A new system of scholarly communication, based on electronic systems and networks, not only necessitates new models for the concepts of journal, library and publishing, but also new interpersonal and institutional mores, customs and practices, and a new basis for the economic conditions associated with communication.

Continuous and Discontinuous Change

History locks us into particular modes of thinking: we are what we have become, with all the baggage of the past. The past, in information terms, has been one of gradual processes of change as technology and other social and economic factors have made changes possible. Thus, the modern library would be recognized by Panizzi as being a direct descendent of the library of the 19th century, Cutter would recognize the modern OPAC as (a rather corrupted) version of the bibliographic tool for which he designed rules of preparation and arrangement, and the on-line bibliographic database is not so very different from the traditional catalogue. In other words, even with the impact of the computer on our way of doing things, what exists is the result of continuous, incremental change.

The same may be said of the book and the journal: printing technology has advanced enormously since Gutenberg set his first Bible, or since Pi Sheng in China, four hundred years earlier, produced the first movable type. But the model that the book and journal use is no different: we have had five hundred years of development in printing technology with no significant change in the fundamental form of the artefact produced.

In today's information world, however, we are now truly in the age of discontinuity (as Drucker termed it as long ago as 1968). Discontinuous change happens when an innovation, or series of innovations, (which may be social, technological, or whatever), leads to a sudden jump in the process of change, so that the smooth curve of development moves on to another plane. Numerous management gurus, from Drucker to Peters to Handy and the rest, have drawn attention to this phenomenon and have proposed ways in which organizations are likely to change, as a consequence. Whether any one of these sages is right in his forecasts remains to be seen, but there is at least some unanimity of the need for change in the information society, in the information age.

The Nature of the Discontinuity

It would be easy to describe the nature of the discontinuity as it affects scholarly communication in terms of the Internet, which is its immediate manifestation: but, in fact, the real agents of change are the standards, telecommunications systems, software systems and hardware developments that are making multi-media, interpersonal communication systems (shall we call them MICS?) a reality. And those systems are making possible many things that we could only vaguely hint at even a few short years ago, and I have seen it suggested that 1996 is the year in which everything will come together.

We are, perhaps, at the beginning of this process of discontinuous change, since some things have been possible through the Internet for many years. Mainly, however, they have been text-based: e-mail, file transfer, bulletin boards, news-groups and so on. But, quite suddenly, we have the fusion of text, sound, image and video (including live video through systems such as CU-SeeMe and the same kind of functionality delivered over ISDN lines commercially). So we have a situation in which the potential in communication systems is several times greater than we have ever previously known.

Electronic Communication

The key feature of electronic communication systems is that they offer the possibility not only of disseminating information over telecommunication networks (local or global) but of interpersonal communication among collaborating authors or producers and, perhaps more important, interpersonal communication between author, reader, user, or consumer of the information. Thus, interpersonal communication may be employed not only to give virtually instant feedback on the value, usefulness, veracity, or validity of information, but also to provide a basis for the participative development of a document - not only between collaborating authors in the usual sense, but also in terms of the participation of the intended audience in the design and content of the document.

I shall return to this aspect of electronic communication shortly.

The Social and Economic Factors

If we wish to explore the potential of electronic communication systems for academic organizations or for intellectual communities, we must examine the social and economic factors now operating in universities and in scholarly disciplines. I will consider three of these factors: the idea of an academic community, the mores of the academic reward system, and the economics of scholarly communication.

The idea of an academic community

The word university still conjures up in people's minds, I believe, the old ideal of a community of scholars; researching to advance the boundaries of knowledge, teaching to communicate that knowledge to new generations. However, over the past twenty years that ideal has taken some severe knocks. We have seen growth in student numbers, constant pressure of financial restraint, the disappearance in the U.K. of the binary line between universities and polytechnics, and the market orientation of much curriculum development. All of these have tended to move the idea of a university from that of a "temple of knowledge" to that of a factory. So, together with all of the other changes in society, we have witnessed a very significant change in the very idea of a university, and this change affects the way research is carried out and the way students are taught - there is, altogether, a more instrumental view of education and research.

The key features in the present situation are: the considerable increase in student numbers, without compensating resources from the State; the speed of change in knowledge in certain areas; and the increasing instrumental orientation of the entire system.

The mores of the academic reward system

At present, the assessment of research performance is done chiefly by examining the publications - or at least by examining the record of publication - and by looking at the range and value of research projects gained by a candidate for promotion. Citation data are rarely checked, although a candidate might refer to data if he or she had checked the databases.

Recognition within the discipline is the result of many social and professional factors, of which publication is but one. Appearance at conferences, editorships of journals, memberships of editorial boards, and, increasingly, visibility on the electronic network, all count.

In short, recognition and reward depend upon a variety of factors, most of which (but not all) relate to the dominant mode of scholarly communication. That word dominant is important, because it suggests to me that, if other modes of scholarly communication come to dominate, the change will rapidly be taken account of in the recognition and reward system.

The economics of scholarly communication

Scholarly communication has a very curious kind of economic base: I know of no other industry where the raw material is virtually free. Because of the mores of the reward system, authors are eager to give their work to a journal publisher and they are equally eager to act as referees, editorial board members, and editors of journals. Editors of journals may receive an honorarium (usually extremely small!), but that is the only example of a cash relationship in the entire process. (Having acted as founder and editor of two journals and acting now as author, referee and editorial board member, my comments are not theoretical.)

Not only do authors donate their work to the publisher, they also sign away their copyright, so that the protection of their intellectual property depends upon the goodwill of a publisher. The work may be protected, but not necessarily to the benefit of the author.

Academic authors, as people, are not indifferent to money - they need it as much as anyone else and, given the decline in academic salaries in the UK, more than some in comparable occupations. However, in relation to publication, money has no place - the object is to publish, not to get paid, because the financial benefits of publication flow through the reward system, not from the accounts of the publisher. Academics will happily write away, send off their contributions to journals, cross their fingers and hope for publication - preferably in one of the more prestigious titles in their field.

This indifference to cash exists regardless of the means of publication: as long as means are found to record publication, to rank the source of publication, and to record citations in other publications, authors will be happy to publish in whatever form is appropriate. As long as the reward system can identify sources of publication, rank them and, for some purposes, draw upon records of citations, academic promotion panels will also be happy.


The first consequence of the discontinuity I described earlier, is confusion: many systems and functions are going to have to adjust and the process of adjustment is not particularly easy. Uncertainty affects all existing systems of communication and information transfer, since any innovation in communication systems is a social innovation - communication is the fundamental social act. That fact means that the social customs and practices regarding recognition and reward in scholarly communities must change in an era of electronic communication. However, given how well rooted are the present practices, it may be some time before social mores catch up with the reality of electronic communication.

The journal

From the point of view of libraries (and, possibly, academic libraries in particular) the implications are fundamental and depend on changes in the systems of intellectual communication and the mores of reward and recognition. So - what is the potential? Consider the journal: in paper form it is embedded in a set of cultural and institutional practices that have determined its origins and present form. The learned journal (originating in the scientific societies of the 17th and 18th centuries) was originally intended to disseminate the proceedings of meetings to members and to serve as an archive of the papers presented.

For so long as scholarly publishing remained the province of the learned society, and so long as the scientific community was small, the original ideals were maintained and largely satisfied. However, the increasing size of the community and the demand for copies from those who were not members of the societies, led to a need for professionally managed production and distribution systems and, hence, to the entry of commercial publishers into the process.

The entry of the commercial publishers has affected scholarly communication in a number of ways; some positive, some negative - some both at the same time. For example, journals are now marketed, whereas when they were produced by the learned societies they did not need to be, at least not to serve their functions for the membership. This results in a proliferation of titles all aimed to capture some part of a market that may have to be stimulated, rather than existing in the form of unsatisfied demand.

Some of this proliferation is undoubtedly useful and journals in new specialties get off the ground when it would have been difficult to await the emergence of a society to provide the base readership, or to have persuaded mainly conservative organizations that a new journal was actually necessary. However, there is no doubt that some publishers take advantage of the library market in particular in providing the subscriber base with something that, otherwise, they might not risk in the marketplace.

There is also no question but that some publishers take advantage of the situation to load costs onto successful journals by increasing their prices well beyond any estimate of the rate of inflation - there even exists a mailing list on the Internet to discuss these miscreants.

Electronic communication has the potential to make an impact on this situation in a number of ways: first, if the original ideal of the journal was to communicate the results of investigation among a community of scholars, that ideal can be satisfied more rapidly by electronic communication than it can by paper. Electronic communication is faster and, in some fields, the communication of results through electronic newsletters has become commonplace - the practices are changing. Significantly, publishing on a new research area or from a new theoretical perspective can be done without seeking to create a paper journal.

Secondly, developments in multimedia give a promise of a much richer kind of text than can be made available in print. The ornithologist can include bird-song, if that is appropriate; the film critic can run video-film clips; the musicologist can include recordings of strange instruments or sound clips of the composer being reviewed; the modern historian or political scientist can include sound or video interviews. These ideas are already present in CD-ROM encyclopaedias and their transfer to the Internet is already under way.

Thirdly, the economics of the situation favour electronic publication by the author, or by consortia of scholars in particular fields producing electronic journals of the type described.

Once the material is available in electronic form, other possibilities open up. At the very basic level, the inclusion of e-mail forms in papers (we'll need to find another word), will allow immediate communication of comments to the author and exchanges may take place that turns a single-authored text into a multi-authored text.

At another remove, we already have the capability to use search engines within pages to search on local or distant databases. Suppose the author of a scientific paper placed the database of experimental results behind the tables in the paper and made the graphs and the formulas relating to his or her hypotheses interact with that database. It would then be possible for a reader to test alternative hypotheses on those data, see them reflected in changes in the original author's graphs, and, perhaps, come up with alternative explanatory models for the phenomena described in the paper. Again, communication could take place around the use of the data and remote collaboration might ensue.

Indeed, we could reach the point at which the best term to describe what the paper had become would be to call it an electronic seminar or, perhaps, an electronic senior common-room, or even, as one colleague suggested on hearing my propositions - a kind of scholarly MUD! Whatever we call it, there can be little doubt that what I have described is likely to serve the purposes of scholarly communication rather more effectively than delayed publication in print.

The book

The book in academia takes three main forms: the reference work, the specialized monograph and the text-book. All three are open to competition from electronic communications and, of course, reference works have been the first to be affected by that competition. The on-line financial and numeric databases have all but replaced their paper versions, certainly so far as the business user is concerned, and other areas are being encroached upon. In this area, the traditional publisher is on surer ground, since publication demands effort and cost in compilation and products are priced accordingly - although even here, the packaging of products with computer systems, as in the case of the various CD-ROM encyclopaedias, can reduce costs considerably. While much of this material may take electronic form, it seems unlikely that much will be made freely available by enthusiasts. Perhaps the only question is, "Which electronic form will be used - CD-ROM or publication over the Internet in the form of World-Wide Web pages?"

The specialized monograph is a different matter. Highly specialized publications generally mean small markets and one is never surprised to find highly priced monographs remaindered at less than half their original selling price. There is clearly scope here for electronic publication, since again, even with a high price-tag the author is likely to have very little cash interest in publication. Furthermore, electronic publication is likely to reach a wider audience, and, through targeting publicity to relevant mailing lists, can reach an appropriate audience of academic peers. Recognition then becomes the extent to which the work is cited by others, perhaps the extent to which print copies are requested, and, if mounted on Web pages, the extent of use of those pages by others. The stage may even be reached that demand for cheaply produced paper copies reaches a volume that makes it worthwhile for the author to publish a cheap printed version - electronic communication makes the sensitization of the market and the estimation of demand very much easier.

However, it is with the text-book that the most interesting possibilities arise. Unless a text-book is chosen as the standard text for a subject in the National Curriculum, or is chosen by a significant number of universities as a first-year text in a particular field, it is unlikely that the author will make a great deal of money. Indeed, the main motivation for writing a text-book appears to be dissatisfaction with the text-books currently available: they either fail to cover those aspects of a subject a lecturer thinks appropriate, or they are out of date.

Furthermore, it is highly likely that the lecturer has been making handouts available to students for some years, trying out ways of presenting material, illustrating that material more effectively, devising exercises and so on. Today, much of that material is likely to be available in machine-readable form. And so the scene is set for the delivery of the same information to students over the campus network. Once the material is made available in this way, the process of developingthe electronic text can be made thoroughly interactive.

Students can e-mail the author with problems of interpretation, ideas on illustrations and examples, additional bibliographical references - and similar information can be culled from term papers and essays, or from experiments, if the subject is laboratory-based. The text may have hypertext links to Internet resources and these may be added to by the students as searching the net becomes a normal part of learning. Self-assessed or computer-marked tests can be delivered as part of the electronic text, thus enabling the students to monitor their own progress and the author not only to do the same, but to identify points in the text that have failed to get across the necessary understanding. Logs of the use of the text and the way the students navigate through it become available as research data on the use of electronic texts - either for the author or for colleagues working in this area.

"Text-book" is hardly a word to be applied to an artefact of this kind - the text has become an interactive electronic classroom.

And, having done this for one group of students, why not seek fame on the Internet by making it generally available?

The library

If scholarly communication and the transmission of knowledge develop in the ways I suggest, what happens to the library? Is the term electronic library based on a valid metaphor? Will the future library be anything like the modern library?

Anyone who preaches the disappearance of the book and the journal, in totality, is likely to be on shaky ground. The death of libraries has been much exaggerated over the past forty years but there can be little doubt that libraries, like all organizations, are subject to change, and considerable changes have been experienced in the recent past. In spite of this, however, they remain recognizably the same kind of institutions as they were one hundred years ago, particularly those that serve academic communities, and I suspect that there is huge, fundamental inertia in the system that will be difficult to overcome in moving towards a new metaphor of information in learning.

When we consider the kinds of changes in the scholarly communication I have hypothesized, however, it is clear that if they happen (or perhaps it is even now possible to say when they happen), libraries must change radically. I have no doubt that the book has a future and that future libraries will have book-stocks. But I suspect that the books and journals will play a lesser role and the role of the librarian will be to provide a learning support system for the complex computer-mediated interactions that will take place among scholars and between teachers and learners.

We have become accustomed to the term intermediary in the information world, to denote the role of the librarian in aiding on-line search and retrieval: perhaps words like facilitator and mediator will become more common. These words signify role changes, as the person needing information, or access to networked learning resources, seeks help in negotiating the maze. That help may take the form of face-to-face assistance, or of remote assistance over a network, or the librarian may be the creator of helpful Web pages (or whatever comes next) that provide links to the really useful resources in the institution's own network, or in the wider world Web.

Interestingly, this is also likely to be what teachers are increasingly doing and perhaps we can envisage an entire university as a learning support network, with the roles of teacher and librarian overlapping and interacting.

In circumstances such as these, the word library, with all its historical connotations, seems very inappropriate: I expect that we shall get lots of new words - learnet, perhaps, or cyberstudy - no doubt Wired magazine will come up with one or two more.


As for publishing: what future can I suggest? The publishing industry is subject to these forces of discontinuous change as much as, if not more than, libraries and librarianship. They, too, will continue to exist in all kinds of ways: I do not see popular magazines, for example, turning into World-Wide Web pages (except for marketing purposes); I do not see the disappearance of fiction or its total transformation into multimedia games. However, scholarly publishing is going to be electronic - of that I have not doubt - it is merely a question of time. The question publishers are asking is, "How do we retain a role in the process?" and I do not find it easy to suggest an answer.

Patterns are emerging, with some publishers providing contents lists and abstracts through gopher menus or on Web pages, mostly freely, but some are making abstracts available only to subscribers. Some are making electronic copy available before the printed version - but only to subscribers, of course; and I am sure that all are thinking seriously about pricing on the basis of providing electronic access to individual papers - to all potential buyers, rather than only to subscribers. I think that it is pretty certain that scholarly publishers must go down this route if they are to continue to have a role: it will certainly provide some very interesting data on the extent to which scholarly papers are actually used!


In this exploration of possible electronic futures we have seen the journal become the electronic seminar, the text-book the interactive electronic classroom, the library the networked learning support system. Publishing remains publishing - since documents are published whether the medium is print or electronic - but perhaps publishing will be taken back into the scholarly community, or perhaps the scientific and scholarly societies and institutions will take it back, and possibly the role of the commercial publisher will be reduced. Whatever happens it seems possible to say that the mores of reward and recognition are changing and will change further and that the change will be reinforced by the economics of the situation. But there is something more than economics involved: I believe that we will also see the original ideals of scholarly communication realized on a wider scale than any Fellow of the Royal Society could possibly have imagined and that electronic communication will actually reinforce the idea of community.

A Note on the Lack of References

I have assumed that a keynote address is intended to convey the author's personal thoughts, rather than to act as a kind of literature review. So, I have refrained from quotation and citation, although much reading (of electronic sources as well as the traditional printed forms) and discussion with colleagues has informed my thinking.

Some useful links:

Since writing this paper I've come across some useful links to other places.

University Libraries and Scholarly Communication: a Study Prepared for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation by Anthony M. Cummings, Marcia L. Witte, William G. Bowen, Laura O. Lazarus, and Richard H. Ekman. Published by The Association of Research Libraries for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in November 1992, it is a comprehensive piece of work, although the date means that it misses the Web development.

Symposium on the role of network-based electronic resources in scholarly communication and research is exactly what it says - a transcript of a symposium on the subject, with particular reference to the role of libraries.

Scholarly communication and technology: Papers from the Conference Organized by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at Emory University April 24-25, 1997)

Scholarly electronic publishing bibliography, by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.

Tom Wilson is research professor in information management at the University of Sheffield. For the Autumn 1997 semester he is also a visiting professor at Tallin Pedagogical University, Estonia. He came to academia more than 25 years ago after a decade as a practicing information manager.

He was the founding editor of the journal Social Science Information Studies and its successor, the International Journal of Information Management.

He is currently running two funded-research projects, Networked Learner Support (the NetLinkS project in the UK electronic libraries programme) and Uncertainty in Information Seeking, supported by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre.

He founded the journal Social Science Information Studies and its successor, the International Journal of Information Management. He was the first editor of those journals and now serves on the Editorial Board of the latter and acts as an assistant Reviews Editor.