Faxon Institute Colloquium

Electronic Publishing and the Scholarly Communication Process

January 7-8, 1997

Electronic publishing is changing the pattern of scholarly information. Scholars are rightfully excited by the offer of unprecedented speed of publication and the possibility of going directly from a subject index reference or a footnote to the source material, yet many questions have not been resolved, and more arise as the technology develops.

Does dissemination mean value?

One of the biggest changes — and potential benefits — of electronic publishing is its wide dissemination. Researchers don't have to come into the library to use electronic journals; if an institution buys one copy, licensed appropriately, everyone associated with the institution can read it. Publishers charge more for those licenses, but note that it is worth more to be able to provide access to hundreds of people at once, regardless of actual production costs. Yet journals with very small target audiences are not likely to be read more often simply because they are available online. English professors are not going to rush to read the latest information on thin-film solids, no matter how easy it is to access. Perhaps specialized journals, read by only a few hundred people, should be published only electronically, while widely read publications should be offered in paper in addition to an electronic format.

Constraints on publishing, including speed and distance, are being removed by the Web. Faculty members are now more connected to researchers in other parts of the world. There is a rapidly growing amount of electronic information available in all subject fields. Full texts for some materials are more easily accessible on the Web than they are in paper. If your institution subscribes to an electronic encyclopedia, you can read articles at home and at night whether the library is open or not. This is a magnificent advantage. The number of paper editions printed for general reference and ready reference books will decline as the information becomes available electronically.

What can electronic publications do that paper ones cannot?

Electronic publications can offer links to additional data and to images that can be manipulated. (At least one electronic publication has images of molecules that the researcher can rotate.) Yet differences between the electronic version and the paper version will lead scholars to ask which is the authoritative text when there is both an electronic and a paper form. A standard method of distribution for authoritative scholarly information is essential.

Is there value in trading timeliness for collegial acceptance?

Timeliness is an issue for information, and the Internet has given scholars an opportunity for scholarly communication before print publication. Electronic publishing can be a way to highlight the most relevant information by releasing it faster. Yet disciplines vary in their acceptance of pre-publication on the Web. Some publishers and reviewers will still accept an article for publication even though it has already appeared on the Web, others will not.

Will peer review committees accept Web publishing for promotion and tenure?

Someone at the colloquium cited research showing that a mathematics article has only a 1 percent chance of being read. Unfortunately, many articles are published only so the authors can get tenure or promotion. The academic reward system is based on publication. Professors have traditionally wanted to publish in the most prestigious journals, even if it takes longer to see their work in print (and even if the publications cost more for their own institutions to buy). Faculty members who want to advance professionally are not concerned with the economics of the publishing market place. Unless there are accepted alternatives for faculty that will allow them to disseminate information, enhance their reputations, and earn them rewards, they will have no incentive to change the present model of publishing.

"Electronic journals in which anyone can publish are now appearing on the Web"

Does publishing on the Web in a way that will be taken seriously by scholars require a traditional publisher?

Perhaps not. A group of subject specialists could review Web-published articles. And of course, non-peer-reviewed electronic journals in which anyone can publish are now appearing on the Web. Such Web publishing raises a question about the value of a publisher's reputation. Is a publisher's name important to a student researcher? A well-known publisher's name is similar to a brand name. If a search turns up too much material, the publisher's reputation can be used to reduce the pool of information, but many student researchers are not aware of a hierarchy in reputation among publishers. They look for information by using standard reference works that index journals from many diverse publishers, and are often unaware of which company or association produces a journal.

Will publishers stop publishing material that isn't used if institutions are still purchasing it?

Electronic access may allow more accurate compilation of use statistics, which should enable publishers to assess their products. Is what they publish really what people are reading and using in their research? If they have solid evidence, publishers could concentrate on material that is read and cited by others. A quick visit to an electronic source would have to be differentiated from a long look or a download to make such statistics truly useful, however. Only if institutions begin to use such statistics to determine whether to keep subscriptions will for-profit publishers feel any pressure to connect use with publication.

Who should be responsible for archiving electronic journals?

Archiving responsibilities and possibilities are a substantial problem for electronic scholarly communication. Print journals can be stored in a way everyone understands — build a building, put up a lot of book stacks, bind the journals, and shelve them for as long as there is space and the budget to do so. Librarians would love to save the expense of that space, shelving, and maintenance, but they are reluctant to switch to a format that gives them nothing physical to own. Librarians believe continued availability, even perpetual access, is desirable, but they still weed older material, and time and climate take their toll on paper, so perpetual access is not a reality now. With most electronic journals, archiving responsibilities are far from clear. Will the publisher, the vendors, bibliographic utilities, the Library of Congress, or selected research libraries archive them? Publishers and aggregators offer solutions such as promising to send CD-ROM versions of electronic journal backsets if a library cancels its subscription. Librarians worry, however, that changing technology could render those versions unusable in a decade.

"The pressure of rising prices is leading academic administrators to wishful thinking$"

How can one browse online?

Direct access to information on an article-by-article basis through electronic resources appears to be a reasonable alternative to the high cost of journal subscriptions. But faculty want to browse. Many mention the absence of browsing capability as a drawback to the use of electronic formats. Where browsing is possible, no scholars admit they enjoy browsing screen after screen of electronic text.

What electronic products will work?

During the experimental phase in which we find ourselves, publishers are offering new products without adequate usability studies or market surveys. Just because a product can be created doesn't mean anyone will buy it. Too often research methodology is ignored when publishers plan products: Researchers want ease of use and universal indexing rather than publisher-specific indexing, and libraries want freedom to use products as they see fit once they purchase them.

And what about pricing?

Electronic publishing is changing the economic climate of scholarly communication. Costs, payment structures, and fees are confusing and a source of friction between publishers and libraries, as publishers try to determine how to charge for scholarly information in electronic form. The pressure of rising prices is leading academic administrators to wishful thinking: Everything, they say, will appear online and be inexpensive. Librarians, however, note that in many cases electronic access costs more.

Nearly all libraries, whether or not they subscribe to many electronic journals, do subscribe to expensive electronic reference sources that are published as serials, such as BIOSIS, Compendex, and InfoTrak Searchbank. Scholars become accustomed to using those resources. As a result, both libraries and publishers are making huge investments in electronic infrastructures — wiring, hardware, and software, as well as personnel. Libraries are expected to absorb their own costs as well as pay for publishers to convert their infrastructures to electronic publishing on an immediate full-recovery basis.

In addition, pricing for electronic research materials is not standardized. Each publisher seems to have a different system for pricing, creating a small but bewildering array of choices for librarians and scholars. For example, Academic Press prices its electronic journals and treats the paper as an add-on in an electronic package. The whole collection is bundled; the Press sells the entire package only to consortia. Thus it reduces the number of contractual agreements it has to negotiate and offers a wide dissemination of information. Elsevier offers electronic journals at a percentage of the paper price, with a built-in inflation rate that is agreed upon at the time of purchase. Another publisher charges a flat rate for Web-based services based on the number of full-time potential users. Other publishers offer different systems.

The influence of electronic publishing on the economics of the book and journal trade will be immense, encompassing not only the way publishers charge for material, but issues of intellectual property ownership. Faculty are hired to create knowledge through research and to impart knowledge to others through teaching and publication. As publishing patterns change, new questions will arise concerning who owns what faculty produce.

Economic pressures also lead to questioning the tradition that publishers sell information back to the institutions that produce it. Librarians are asking what the reaction of publishers would be if they had to pay scholars or the universities that support them for their work. Such an arrangement, added to the current system, would add to the price of journals and could backfire as far as overall savings to the academic community are concerned.

Web-based services are perhaps only a transitional stage; their development has been recent, and technology seems to be changing almost daily. The danger of investing heavily in a new technology, only to find a demand for a newer one with another hefty price tag, does not appeal to conservative budget officers. A few years ago librarians were horrified at the thought that they would have to replace computers every five years. Now they are faced with replacing more computers than they ever imagined they would need, even more frequently than that!

Nor is there enough money to continue a publishing model that involves annual price increases of 10 percent or more, no matter what the format. The scholarly journal death spiral is not going to be stopped by changing to an electronic format at nearly the same price as paper (or perhaps at an even higher price), especially with double-digit inflation increases each year. Library budgets won't increase at that rate. They never have, they never will. Canceling more journals every few years has been the usual response to the problem of runaway serials prices, document delivery has been another, and now there is an increasing demand for a non-profit publishing model using the new technology to deliver scholarly communication in a fast and authoritative manner at break-even prices. Conditions are ripe for scholars to take control of scholarly publishing.

Librarians, confident in their abilities to manage information, are in a position to lead the way as researchers take advantage of the new possibilities in the publication of scholarly research.

Terry Ann Rohe is the Assistant Director for Technical Services and Collection Development at Portland State University Library, in Portland, Oregon, where she has the rank of Professor. She has an M.L.S. in Library Science and an M.A. in English from the University of Oregon. Before joining the faculty at PSU, she was the Assistant City Librarian for the City of Beaverton, Oregon.