Faxon Institute Colloquium

Electronic Publishing and the Scholarly Communication Process

January 7-8, 1998

Balzac's novel, Lost Illusions, opens during that period in the nineteenth century when the Stanhope press, that "ravenous mechanism," completely superseded wooden presses moistened by leather balls loaded with ink. As a result of that new publishing technology, Balzac's characters are forced to reinvent themselves and redefine what it means to be an artist, a journalist, a publisher, or an inventor.

Like the characters in Balzac's novel, those of us involved in the process of scholarly communication are having to reinvent ourselves, changing the ways in which we produce, distribute and consume information. As we consider how rapidly changing dynamics affect the process of scholarly communication, it is clear that we need to work together to address the myriad issues that confront us. The ongoing discussion in the academic community is not only a dialogue about the practical issues of how electronic publishing affects the scholarly communication process, but a process in which all members of the scholarly, library, and publishing communities are being forced to reexamine — and in some cases redefine — their roles in that process.

Changes in the production, exchange, distribution and consumption of knowledge capital have both a symbolic and a material impact on those communities. We hope that the potential of electronic publication to reach even wider audiences will produce further progress toward an ideal state of universalizing access to information and scholarly research. Yet we recognize that the promise of dynamic texts also poses conceptual and technical problems. For instance, as Stanley Chodorow reminded us in his keynote speech,scholars have for centuries been concerned with definitive versions; medieval clerical scholars focused on the nature of the "text," and — poststructuralist theories aside — the nature of the text in a dynamic electronic environment has definitely changed. New media promise opportunities for wholly new forms of scholarly communication in which unidirectional exposition is replaced by a dialogue enhanced by continuous annotation.

Dynamic texts

Contemporary novelists are producing interactive texts in which no two readers will follow the same path, and theorists of narrative structures are exploring the new literary and cultural aspects of such developments. The scholars who produce and are most interested in accessing those materials are just beginning to examine the larger ramifications of those new paradigms. In literary studies questions revolve around what constitutes the "text" and the canon; in broad philosophical terms we confront questions of epistemology and truth. Just as there are no precedents in the analog world for new forms of artistic, cultural and intellectual expression and communication, there are no conceptual frameworks or technical processes for preserving the multimedia works and interactive hypermedia formats being developed.

Those closest to the practical issues have a shorter time frame in which to address and resolve some of the most pressing problems. Transformations of hardware and software (and the consequent need for migration of data to new formats) happen so quickly that some materials are at serious risk of being "lost." The challenges of archiving electronic data bring us to uncharted territories.

Who will do it?

From my perspective, one of the most significant aspects of the ways in which electronic publication affects the scholarly community is not in the potential to reach a new audience — the positive results of which it is not hard to imagine — but in the challenge of figuring out how to archive digital materials: Who will do it, and in what way, or more precisely, to what purpose? Asserting that that subject is not yet being addressed adequately is not original, but it is worth repeating. Electronic archiving tends to fall between the cracks as publishers redefine products to address new markets, and librarians respond by redefining their traditional roles. In the scramble to reorient ourselves, the critical task of ensuring the future accessibility of information with enduring value frequently gets pushed aside by efforts to enhance access to current and more actively used materials.

The question often asked is whether publishers or libraries should archive electronic information. Archiving is a "public good" in the economic sense, and publishers have understandably relied on libraries to perform that function. Yet publishers are under increasing pressure to archive their own materials. That is not a role they have played in the publication of printed materials, and one wonders if it would be wise for them to do so for new media. Publishers remind us that they are in the business of producing and distributing material. The costs of storing, preserving, and migrating infrequently used materials that produce little or no revenue is at odds with a commercial publisher's objective of maximizing profit and increasing shareholder value.

Nonprofit scholarly societies that have a mission to serve the academic community may regard archiving as a primary function, but even they often rely on surpluses from publishing to fund other activities and initiatives. Will it be in their interests to take on the added burden of electronic archiving?

"That which is used is likely to be archived"

It remains to be seen whether commercial or nonprofit publishers can be counted on to serve the archival role. In any event, as an intellectual community we need to consider and promote alternative solutions.

Libraries lack resources

Librarians, whose traditional activities include preservation and archiving, face increasing pressures to provide access to and keep track of a staggering variety of formats. As the librarians participating in the roundtable discussions made abundantly clear, current budgets are largely insufficient to the tasks required. Much still remains to be done to preserve cultural, intellectual and scholarly materials in traditional formats; digital formats are a separate problem. The task of archiving electronic material is radically different from warehousing traditional materials. At the very least, archiving is no longer a matter of preserving and storing material and providing the cataloguing expertise and the research skills for finding relevant materials. Electronic archiving involves significant investments in technology, plus new kinds and combinations of skills and capabilities to house, organize, and offer convenient access to information. That combination points to the need for the library professional who possesses both the traditional library skills and a clear understanding of and facility with emerging technologies.

While that presents a significant challenge, it also highlights the emergence of a new paradigm: Two previously opposing activities now work together. Increased access is no longer an enemy of preservation: That which is used is likely to be archived. The technology that makes possible wider distribution of scholarly materials also offers opportunities for preserving those materials. In traditional formats, each time an artifact is "used" it is damaged in some way. Over time, high-use items get worn down. In the digital arena, access to the artifact is separate from its possession because of the ability to make and distribute digital duplicates. Therefore high-use items are the most likely to be preserved. The demand for them will insure that they are migrated, and will reduce the risk of their being "lost." The question is how to insure that less-used materials in those new formats are protected.

Digital materials both pose challenges to preservation, and offer opportunity. The ability to distribute information over networks means resources can be pooled to store information centrally and distribute it easily. The economies of scale inherent in that approach offer real promise that materials can be protected for the future at reasonable cost.

Still, there remains justifiable concern about the stability of digital information; for example, some argue that it cannot be relied upon to last as long as paper or microfilm. That concern will most likely — and sadly — prove to be warranted for some little-used materials. That points to the need for continued dialogue about those issues. Any dialogue that does not include all members of the scholarly communication process — scholars, librarians, publishers, legal experts, IT scientists, and academic administrators — will inevitably reach myopic conclusions. The dialogue needs to focus on new and creative ways to bear the costs of archiving.

"In broad philosophical terms we confront questions of epistemology and truth"

In an earlier era, substantial investments were made in bricks and mortar specifically to enable libraries to perform the archival function. We now need a redeployment of resources that recognizes the changing nature of scholarly communication and the fact that new mechanisms must be employed to insure future access to materials.

With the advent of electronic technologies, it is no longer necessary that the archiving function be distributed to individual libraries storing and maintaining duplicate copies and performing redundant functions. Resources can be reallocated more efficiently with the same aim: to insure that future generations of scholars and researchers have access to yesterday's and today's information.

In recent years libraries have cut as much as they can conceivably cut from limited budgets. As Dana Rooks, University of Houston; Doug Jones, University of Arizona; and Michael Binder, Western Kentucky University; discussed in their panel on funding issues, in budget management there are always alternatives to belt-tightening. Institutional administrators need to recognize and reward librarians for addressing the challenges of limited resources by looking to electronic resources as a way to save costs of shelf space, replacement, and binding, and long-term capital-budgeting funds. In addition, libraries must continue to seek ways to share resources and act collectively to fulfill their important archiving role most efficiently.

The JSTOR story

JSTOR has taken on archiving in the electronic environment as a central component of its mission. All aspects of our activities, from the technologies employed to the prices charged to our long-term strategic planning, take that responsibility into account. Still, the problems surrounding long-term archiving of electronic materials are complex and constantly evolving; there is no single solution that can be employed today. What is required is a commitment to the task and a flexibility to evolve with the changing technological and economic environment.

At JSTOR we have been encouraged by the enthusiastic support of the library and publishing communities for our important collaborative effort. JSTOR's Phase I database will contain the backfiles of at least one hundred scholarly journals. We are already working on the identifying materials to be included in future phases of specific disciplinary clusters, and we will increase our production capacity threefold. But we cannot and will not be able to do everything that deserves attention. As others have pointed out, preservation responsibilities will most likely be distributed to individual creators, rights holders, and distributors in addition to libraries, institutions, and organizations dedicated to archiving those materials.

JSTOR will support positive interchange about archiving issues, but as an intellectual community we need to foster an environment in which the needs of all interested parties — scholars, publishers, and libraries — are taken into account as we develop mechanisms to insure that the important task of archiving makes the transition to the electronic environment. It is a task which will demand creative thinking about how allocations and investments of time, energy and resources are made by all members of the community.

Margit Dementi is the Associate Director for Library Relations at JSTOR, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the scholarly community take advantage of advances in information technologies. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, where she was on the faculty in the Departments of English and Romance Languages and Literatures prior to joining JSTOR.