Editor’s Note [18.4]: Reflecting on 20 Years of Electronic Publishing
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Anniversaries inevitably lead to introspection and retrospection. As it dawned upon the editorial and production team here at the Journal of Electronic Publishing (JEP) that our journal was twenty years old, I was cast back to my own first encounters with JEP, circa 1996, when it was already a mature publication of one year. I was a just entering the field of librarianship, in the School of Library and Information Science, now School of Information, at the University of Michigan and encountering the World Wide Web in its earliest days. As my wheels began to turn about what forms of publication might be possible through that Web, a colleague at the library pointed out that our adventurous university press had put a journal on line that was all about electronic publishing. That, I thought, was pretty cool.
Two decades later, I’m delighted that I still think JEP is pretty cool. But it has changed, as has my relationship to it. I went from reader to would-be rescuer when the next press director at Michigan decided it was fiscally unwise to be so adventurous as to publish a journal online and for free, no matter what we were learning from it; I led a library effort to change the publication’s home, but the journal and its editor went looking for more practiced publishers and while there were a few flirtations, no marriages resulted. So after a hiatus, JEP found its way back to Michigan, and I became its publisher. Professional life moves on, and in 2013, I became a faculty member at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, as it happens at a time of editorial changeover at JEP. Unable to leave the journal alone, I proffered my services to Michigan Publishing as its editor. The good people there were kind enough to accept my offer, and I’ve been enjoying the ride ever since.
Because I have editorial license to do so, earlier in 2015, I said, “let’s do a big anniversary issue.” The planning commenced; I would contact the authors from our first issue and persuade them to write retrospective pieces. I would find big thinkers to reflect upon the evolution of “journal,” “electronic” and publishing in the past twenty years. We, by whom I mean my able managing editor, would identify the articles with the greatest impact and longest reach in journal’s history. We would reflect upon the past and aspire toward an even better future.
Well, the best laid plans . . . Not all my ambitions were realized, but the ways in which some hopes were dashed are illustrative tales about the changes that have been wrought in the lifetime of this journal and also some happy tales about the successes of those who have published in our virtual pages.
First, I revisited, for the first time in a very long time, the original three issues of JEP, published just as I first became a reader. In an indication of the truism about the more things change, we find that the concern of the day in early 2005 was the economics of the internet. The lead article of volume 1, issue 1 was a reprint of Vannevar Bush’s already venerable (originally published 1945 in the Atlantic Monthly) “As We May Think,” a piece which has held both its period and present value, and is still regularly a part of the information science curriculum. From there, the first three issues of JEP are full of articles with titles like:
- An Assessment of Pricing Mechanisms for the Internet
- The Economics of Electronic Publishing
- The Body in the Virtual Library: Rethinking Scholarly Communication
- The Hundred Years War Started Today: An Exploration of Electronic Peer Review
- Information Security for Electronic Commerce on the Internet
and any number of other titles which would fit easily onto our table of contents today and feel fresh and relevant to our readers. As much as I have been able to piece together the history of those first issues they appear to have been shaped by two relatively youthful economics faculty members at Michigan who helped the Press and then editor, Judith Turner, by soliciting, persuading, pointing and cajoling so that the submissions came in on this timely topic. I aspired to have those two faculty members once again lend their voices and hands to this twentieth anniversary issue but Professor Jeffrey Mackie Mason, fresh off of several years as Dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan apologetically protested that he was too busy moving to become dean of the library at the University of California Berkeley, and his co-author, Hal Varian, who is apparently preoccupied with his duties as chief economist at Google.
The mysterious cases of several other authors demonstrated to me that the web is still not the finding aid to end all finding aids, because traces could simply not be uncovered. Those authors have disappeared, changed names or died, or perhaps I need to return to the School of Information for some refreshing of my search skills. Some searching and a plaintive email did locate Laura Fillmore, who had published three articles in our first two issues. One of them had the provocative title of “Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?” Curious as to whether she had answered that question in the ensuing decades, I asked her if she would revisit the article. She has, with good grace and extensive thought and offers us rich reflection on our publishing past and our present position.
Our next task was to assemble a list of our “greatest hits” from our twenty-year life online. In turning our attention to making such judgments, we were immediately cast into the center of the current conversation surrounding metrics, alternative and otherwise, a conversation which we hosted in an issue from last year. How do we divine our most popular articles? Page views and hit counts? The battery of evidence collected under the umbrella of altmetrics? Something as old fashioned and enduring as citations? Ever eclectic (as well as electr(on)ic), we opted for all of the above. Jon McGlone, dutiful managing editor, assembled lists of our articles, by citation count as revealed by Google Scholar, by altmetric score and by page views, garnered from the hosting environment for JEP since 2009. Those readers paying attention will immediately spot a problem posed by that date. With Volume 8, Number 1 in 2002, the University of Michigan Press ceased publication of JEP, and the journal went silent until 2006 when it was re-launched by the University of Michigan Library. Although it continued to live its online life, in another parable for our digital times, all statistics from those early years are lost to us, casualties of inattention, server moves, and the non-existence of Google Analytics (which was launched in November 2005).
Nevertheless, the citation trail leads us to evidence of a healthy continuing life for these earlier articles. Perhaps not surprisingly, our most cited articles are some of those that have been around the longest, with publication years of 1995, 1997, and 1998.
It is gratifying to see continued recognition of the value of these early articles and the steady trickle of continuing citation. In early 2015 when we first contemplated this anniversary issue, we counted citations in Google Scholar. Alok Gupta, Dale O. Stahl, and Andrew B. Whinston’s 1995 article “A priority pricing approach to manage multi-service class networks in real-time” had garnered an impressive 236 citations. About ten months later as we came to publication date we updated our counts and found Gupta et. al had amassed 244, an increase of almost one per month. Stephen P. Harter and Hak Joon Kim’s 1997 article on ARCHIVE: Electronic Journals and Scholarly Communication: A Citation Reference Study likewise rose from 224 citations through 2014 to 245 in late 2015.
While citations are a tried and true measure of research and scholarly worth and use, the widespread adoption of the web has led to different kinds of counting. While almost any conversation about the use of online resources can surface a variety of opinions on the value of page view counts, I think we can agree that those counts are informative if not always clearly illuminating. For as long as we can count, we see an accumulation of page views, but not necessarily in clear relationship to time online. High in our counts are, for instance, a 2007 article by David J. Solomon on “The Role of Peer Review for Scholarly Journals in the Information Age”, clocking in at 42,453 page views, closely followed by a 2002 Shramilla Pixy Ferris article on “Writing Electronically: The Effects of Computers on Traditional Writing”, viewed 38,388 times to date. John Hilton III and David Wiley’s 2001 piece on “The Short-Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales” with 13,475 views is narrowly trailed Shayla Thiel’s 1998 “The Online Newspaper: A Postmodern Medium” at 13,170 views. Again, these numbers are skewed by the lost years, so the counts do not accurately reflect the overall prominence of the articles, but they do tell us about relative use post 2009.
Our evaluative plot thickens when we turn to the use of Altmetric scores, intended to track the impact and prominence of articles in a number of online venues and through a variety of (mostly social) media. JEP piloted Altmetric earlier in 2015, and we are just beginning to interpret the data we collect through that service. We have watched most closely those articles that were born with Altmetric in attendance, but the service is available to our entire twenty year archive, so can collect evidence of the continuing relevance of our earlier materials.
Amongst the articles registering Altmetric from day of publication, John Warren’s “Zen and the Art of Metadata Maintenance” enjoys a solid lead, with a score of 67, a lead that brings smiles to the faces of those in our publishing house who defend the pleasures of metadata in defiance of those who pronounce metadata “BORING!” Most interesting to this editor is to see the Altmetric scores of articles that have lived on the Web since a time when such metrics were just twinkles in the eyes of authors and their publishers. So we see, for instance, Diane Harley, Sarah Earl-Novell, Jennifer Arter, Shannon Lawrence, and C. Judson King’s article from 2007 on “The Influence of Academic Values on Scholarly Publication and Communication Practices ” garnering an Altmetric score of 27, with a slight edge over Stacy Konkiel, Heather Piwowar, and Jason Priem’s more recent “The Imperative for Open Altmetrics” published in 2014 and currently registering an Altmetric score of 24. Each time I consult the exports of our Altmetric data and see the presence of articles that are years old making recent impressions, I enjoy learning that our articles are still out and about in the publishing community and that the voices of our authors are still heard across the spans of years. All of my analysis points up that the long tail of electronic publishing is still wagging.
In any consideration of our metrics, I would be remiss not to play proud editor and point out what appear to be our run away favorites. Michael Bergman’s white paper on “The Deep Web: Surfacing Hidden Value”, published in 2001, has been viewed 196,833 times, far outstripping the next 3 most viewed articles (which come in near 40,000 page views each. Bergman’s paper also tops our citation counts, with 1,369 citations through 2015, again out-distancing our other articles. The next ten articles in our citation ranking all come in well above 100, but not in the thousands of citations.
While it is tempting to dwell upon an editorial analysis of past successes, challenges, and mysteries, I am happy to turn to highlighting our newest content, articles that both look backward and look forward. In honor of the JEP anniversary, I put out a call in the publishing community for volunteers for reflective interviews. I was delighted to see raised the hands of Tzviya Siegman and Richard Nash. Both are veterans of publishing, electronic and otherwise, and both offer a rich perspective on this ever-emerging industry. Tzviya Siegman, Digital Book Standards & Capabilities Lead at John Wiley and Sons, shared with me her career development and the parallel development of standards for the book publishing industry, emphasizing that standards are part of innovation, cost efficiency, and the continuing relevance of book publishers in an on and off line world. Richard Nash, self-described serial entrepreneur and ever entertaining and provocative big thinker about publishing, talked about helping readers (and buyers) to books through discovery promoting maps rather than clinging to the notion that publishers are filters, selecting out what is appropriate for their readers – work that readers really want to be doing for themselves.
Two of our articles reflect on the past, while also looking at our present. As I described above, I was able to locate Laura Fillmore, President of Open Books System and frequent contributor to JEP in its earliest days. In revisiting ”Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?” she points to the challenges the publishing community has met and the ones that still confront us. I was also delighted to succeed in persuading Judith Turner, JEP’s original editor and Eve Trager, the first managing editor, to revisit the process of publishing JEP in the mid nineteen nineties. In a gesture toward that era, they assembled a list of Top Ten Reasons We Wish We were Starting JEP Today, a list that casts an informative and entertaining light on the development of online publishing in the past twenty years.
New to JEP in this issue is Cheryl E. Ball and Douglas Eyman, with their article on “Editorial Workflows for Media Rich Scholarship”. As they point out in their abstract, this article described a number of academic research genres in which multimedia is a primary form of argumentation, and the article helps us to understand the kind of editorial work that needs to be undertaken to support such scholarship. It is particularly fitting that these authors appear in this issue of JEP. Their own editorial experience emerges from their work at Kairos. Kairos is a refereed open-access online journal exploring the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy and turns twenty in January of 2016, just one step behind JEP, and I’m sure with as many illustrative tales to tell about the past two decades of online life.
As JEP began, so do we mark this occasion, with attention to the economics of publishing. In this issue, we present Michael Elliott’s “The Future of the Monograph In the Digital Era: A Report to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation”. The report details how, over the course of six months during the 2014-15 academic year, a working group of faculty and administrators at Emory University met regularly to explore and understand the development of a new model for supporting and disseminating book-length publication in the humanities. The report provides valuable insights from a number of perspectives on the value and feasibility of shifting to scholar-funded publication.
Finally, we are happy to mark our twentieth anniversary with new possibilities for JEP. Although JEP has published book reviews, as opportunity has arisen, for a number of years, the reviews have not had formal editorial oversight or a Person In Charge. By good fortune, John Warren, Head of Mason Publishing Group / George Mason University Press and an adjunct professor in the Master of Professional Studies in Publishing program at George Washington University has offered his services as Review Editor for JEP, an offer which we are delighted to accept. The first review done on his watch appears here, a review of John Regazzi, Scholarly Communications: A History From Content as King to Content as Kingmaker (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). As well as being more attentive to review generation and production than JEP has been in the past, Professor Warren also has ambitions to broaden our review portfolio so that we review publications that are of and for the Web as well as familiar printed texts. We look forward to seeing this portfolio build in the next year.
We also look forward to the next decade and to what it teaches us about digital publishing and the expressive possibilities of the media and methods that our authors use to communicate their work. I suspect by that time there will be another editorial hand on the helm, but I will still be reading with interest.