Harnad, S. (1995) Electronic Scholarly Publication: Quo Vadis? Serials Review 21(1) 70-72 (Reprinted in Managing Information 2(3) 1995)

Electronic Scholarly Publication: Quo Vadis

Stevan Harnad
Department of Psychology
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

phone: 44 703 592582
fax: 44 703 594597

I am going to make a few specific predictions and recommendations concerning the future direction of electronic scholarly periodical publication, but it is important to note that these are applicable to "esoteric" publication only. Most papers by scholars and scientists are written for and read by only a small number of fellow specialists. Yet the economics of paper publication have until now forced this writing to be treated as if it were ordinary trade publication, in which the author is selling his words as a source of income. The benefits of scholarly publication are much more indirect than that; they take the form of influence and prestige. One influences the work of one's peers and the course of scholarly/scientific inquiry; this may in turn bring one material benefits in the form of grants, promotion, and awards. But the sole objective of esoteric publication is to reach the eyes and minds of one's peers, not to derive revenue from disseminating one's text.

What I will discuss is accordingly not generalizable to trade publication. It is unique to the peculiar motivational structure of esoteric publication. In the era of paper publication, the trade/esoteric distinction could not be made because both forms of publication cost a lot of money, and those costs needed to be recovered through the sale of the product. So both the trade author and the esoteric author had to be prepared to make a Faustian bargain with the paper publisher (who was not, by the way, the devil either, but likewise a victim of the bargain; the only devil would have been the Blind Watchmaker who designed our planet and its means of publication until the advent of the electronic publication era).

The bargain was Faustian because everyone benefits from lower costs, so if there had been a way to get the product straight from the author's pen to the reader's eye (so to speak), without the mediation of the costly and cumbersome technology of paper, everyone would have been the merrier. The trade author could sell more of his articles because of the lower price, and the virtual publisher could make his fair profit on the miraculous methodology that transformed the output of the author's pen to the input to the reader's eye. The esoteric author would likewise be heartened by the cost-cut, though less so than his trade counterpart, because he would just as soon have seen his article distributed free to all (thereby possibly increasing its readership by 100 percent to, say, 20, instead of the 10 that paper, with its deterrent admission price, might have netted him).

But in a sense the bargain is really only Faustian for the esoteric author. The trade author and publisher share the desire to restrict their product to those who will pay for it. The esoteric author would just as soon no one had to pay, but he himself is prepared to barter his words' copyright in exchange for the immortality only his publisher can confer on them.

Until the present era. For now esoteric publishing can shake free of the expensive and inefficient paper technology for the dissemination of esoteric knowledge and take flight into the free and friendly skies of Scholarly Skywriting (Harnad 1990; Odlyzko 1995).

What holds us back? Nothing but the arbitrary habits bred by the old paper technology and superstitious worries arising from them. Here is a sample, along with answers to them. I will not take to the skies because

  1. The Net is not a fit place for serious science/scholarship. (Answer: Implement peer review on the Net and it will be; peer review is medium-independent.(Harnad 1995).
  2. The Net will generate so much information that it will be impossible to distinguish signal from noise. (Answer: See (1) and tag items on the Net accordingly; the Net can generate search and selection tools that are infinitely more powerful than letting fingers and eyes -- not to mention legs -- do the walking. If I could take only one bibliometric tool to a desert island, it would certainly be something like the powerful character string-based Unix search "grep" and not an alphabetic index...).
  3. The Net will eventually cost money, just as paper did -- in fact, it already does, but the price is borne by government and universities. (Answer: The vast commercial use of the Net for selling trade products and services will make it trivial to give esoteric scholarship/science a free ride, it would amount to no more than the flea on the tail of the dog. And the concern is ironic, because it is scholarly institutions that are subsidizing trade use of the Net currently.)
  4. The Net cannot ensure archiving in perpetuity. (Answer: Can libraries? Are distributed tapes, disks and their successors more invulnerable than distributed paper? If still uneasy, save a paper version too.)
  5. The per-page costs of electronic publishing are only 20 to 30 percent less than those of paper publishing (Garson 1994). (Answer: That's reckoned as the percentage that electronic processing will save in paper publishing; if the sole goal is electronic, the saving is 70 percent or more.)

This 70 percent savings is possible because there are no paper, printing, marketing, or distribution costs for free journals that are solely electronic. The common estimate that only 20 to 30 percent of costs will be saved in moving to electronic publication is derived from an analysis bound by the terms of the paper environment; those who focus on the costs of getting the text in paper form and then subtract what electronic processing might shave off those costs. If costs are analyzed from a truly electronic-only standpoint, only two categories of the costs associated with paper publishing remain: peer review and editing. All other costs simply vanish.

This cost analysis of the electronic-only journal is not just a theoretical construct: the actual expenses of Psycoloquy, a free, solely electronic journal, are about $15,000 per year. The only electronic journals that will report significantly higher expenses are those that are either 1) operating on a subscription model instead of offering the journal for free - and then they will have all kinds of unnecessary frills to justify charging, or 2) producing a hybrid journal, both paper and electronic (thereby retaining the expense of paper) - in which case the unnecessary frill is paper itself.

There are many more prima facie objections like the five mentioned above, all easily answered, only to be raised again by someone else, somewhere else. Clearly the transition will entail a cognitive and behavioral paradigm shift that most people have difficulty contemplating from their current vantage point.

Yet here is all it would take to bring down the (esoteric) paper house of cards very quickly: If right now every esoteric scholar/scientist were to make available on the Net, in a public ftp or http archive, the preprint of every paper he wrote from this day forward, the rest would take care of itself, and in short order, as Paul Ginsparg's remarkable and historic physics preprint archive already heralds (Ginsparg, 1994; Harnad 1995).

Human nature predicts that once those preprints were refereed and accepted for publication, the authors would neither want to keep outdated drafts in their public archives nor to withdraw them from the public eye just at the moment of publication, so they would quite naturally swap the refereed reprint text for the unrefereed preprint text. Next, the publishers of the paper journals that had implemented the refereeing would have to take steps to protect their investments:

  1. Publishers could invoke copyright and try to force authors to remove the reprints from the archive, but I predict that this would fail. The conflict of interest would be too great, and the alternatives too powerful; authors would not once again submit to the Faustian bargain now that they had a choice. There is also some indication that publishers will not challenge preprint/reprint archiving, given their acquiescence to Paul Ginsparg's Physics Reprint Archive.
  2. Publishers could discontinue publishing esoteric journals altogether. In this case the peer community would have to implement peer review and publication quality control on its own, perhaps through its universities and learned societies.
  3. Publishers could adopt a revenue model that is more compatible with esoteric publication: The true per-page costs of publishing (well below 30 percent of their current costs, by my estimate) and a fair profit would be recovered in the form of page-charges to the author, paid for by publication grants or institutional subsidy. The author's end coverage of the costs of publishing would amount to such a small annual sum for even the most productive author that it would become a standard markup for research grants as well as academic positions to include the page-charge subsidy as part of the scholar/scientist's research funding.

Once esoteric scholarly/scientific publication became airborne as a consequence of this public archiving, the rest of the revolutionary potential of Skywriting could be explored, particularly interactive commentary at a tempo closer to the speed of thought than anything that could be dreamt of in the old medium (Harnad 1991).

This new medium would not necessarily mean the demise of established publishers. A mutually benefical, cooperative solution can be found. If publishers recognize and accept the non-trade mode ushered in by electronic-only publication and reorganize their role accordingly, their role will still be important and will still yield a fair return for their contribution. If publishers will be flexible, innovative, and far-seeing, and will anticipate and adapt themselves in the valid service of the inevitable direction that scholarly publication will take in the fast-approaching electronic-only era, they will save themselves and benefit us all by making their generations of expertise and experience available in the new environment.

Garson, L. (1994) Investigations in Electronic delivery of Chemical Information. Proceedings of the International Conference on Refereed Electronic Journals: Toward a Consortium for Networked Publications, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, October 1-2, 1993.

Ginsparg, P. (1994) First Steps Towards Electronic Research Communication. Computers in Physics. (August, American Institute of Physics). 8(4): 390-396. http://xxx.lanl.gov/blurb/

Harnad, S. (1990) "Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Inquiry," Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343 (reprinted in Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991). ftp://princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Harnad/harnad90.skywriting

Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review Volume 2 1992; and in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The Last Word. Beach Holme Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove & D. Kovacs: Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (A. Okerson, ed), 2nd edition. Washington, DC, Association of Research Libraries, Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992). ftp://princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Harnad/harnad91.postgutenberg

Harnad, S. (1996) Implementing Peer Review on the Net: Scientific Quality Control in Scholarly Electronic Journals. In: Peek, R. & Newby, G. (Eds.) Electronic Publishing Confronts Academia: The Agenda for the Year 2000. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad96.peer.review.html

Odlyzko, A.M. (1995) Tragic loss or good riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (formerly International Journal of Man-Machine Studies), 42 (1995), 71-122. Condensed version in Notices of the Amercan Mathematical Society, 42 (Jan. 1995), 49-53. Available at URL http://www.research.att.com/~amo/doc/complete.html