Electronic Media and the Future of the History of Psychology

Christopher D. Green
Dept. of Psychology, York University
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Presented to at the convention of the
American Psychological Association,
Washington, D.C., 8 August 2000


What will publications on the history of psychology look like in the coming years? Specifically, what impact will the electronic communications revolution we are currently experiencing have upon history of psychology publishing trends? These are the main questions I address in this paper. First, I review the key developments of the last few years in electronic academic publishing, particularly in the physical and biological sciences. Second, I examine what psychology's reaction, particularly that of the APA, has been to these developments thus far, and consider responses that might have been more forward-looking and beneficial to psychologists -- including to historians of psychology. Finally, I move away from the details of the current debate about electronic journals, and speculate a bit about new forms of publication that are made possible by the new electronic media, focussing in particular on one that I have been developing over the last few years.

The Electronic Journal.

Many academic journals, including those of the American Psychological Association, are now published electronically as well as in traditional print format. The vast majority of these journals charge for the privilege of reading them on-line, either by annual subscriptions, site-licenses, or some sort of pay-per-view system. For most of these, it is clear that the electronic editions are regarded as being greatly subordinate to the printed version: the electronic edition either employs Adobe Acrobat technology in order to simply produce facsimiles of the printed article, or they produce an electronic document without page numbers, paragraph numbers, or any other intra-document location indices, making it impossible to cite a passage from the electronic edition alone.

Some -- including many commercial publishers -- seem to believe that the story of electronic publication ends here, in producing electronic facsimiles of traditional print journal articles, but of course, the story barely begins here. Many new all-electronic journals have popped up over the last few years, a number offering their articles for free to the interested reader. It is often complained that many of these journals do not publish the highest quality research. This is true for some of them, but this is not necessarily due to the lack of revenue that would be generated by paying customers. It is largely because college and university tenure committees -- all too often depending very heavily on journal "brand names" to make their judgment -- do not recognize these new electronic journals, forcing prudent young scholars to submit their best work to old-line print journals, even though in principle a free, web-based vehicle would distribute their work more widely and more quickly. This is, of course, a complicated problem. Prestige and popularity play a chicken-and-egg game with each other too intricate for me to unravel here. But, there is no reason in principle that electronic journals could not be among the most prestigious in the world. To deny the possibility is simply to fall for the electronic equivalent of judging a book by its cover.

Something that we scholars seem to have forgotten over the decades is the economic model by which traditional academic journals operate: "we" give "them" our work at no cost, which "they" then have evaluated by other academics, also at no cost, and then "they" sell it back to "us" at a profit. For over a century we have submitted to this "Faustian bargain" (as Stevan Harnad has called it) primarily because "they" had the printing presses that "we" needed in order to get our work distributed to our colleagues. But the arrival of electronic communications media has changed all that. In principal, we could now distribute our own work to our own colleagues the world over for virtually nothing (of course we would use web servers paid for by our colleges and universities, but it is their primary business, after all, to supply the infrastructure needed for us to carry out our academic work, is it not?).

So, if we could do it better for free, why don't we? We are often told by the publishers that electronic publishing is not, in reality, very much cheaper than print publication. At an electronic publishing conference at Oxford in 1998, for instance, the APA's own Gary Vanden Bos, discussing the launch of the APA's electronic journal Prevention and Treatment, declared what he called the New Law of Conservation: "for every innovation that results in lower costs in one area of publishing, there is an expense that will equal the savings" (http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/icsu/vandenbosppr.htm). A close look Vanden Bos's calculations, however, shows that he included capital expenditures associated with the journal's initial set-up that would not be incurred in every year of its operation. More convincing than quibbling with his figures, however, is the fact that Stevan Harnad has actually managed the all-electronic journal Psycoloquy (http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psycoloquy/) for over a decade now, at what he says is only 30% of the cost of a regular print journal (one of which, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, he has also edited for over 20 years now). Psycoloquy is by no means the only high-quality free-access electronic journal out there. Just this year, BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com/) began a peer-review biology and medicine journal that is available for free not only on their own web site, but also on that of PubMed Central (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/), an NIH site that already makes freely available the full texts of many high-end traditional science journals, such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. One additional important advantage of most of these more progressive electronic initiatives is that the article's copyright is not transferred to the body managing the publication vehicle; it remains with the author who may republish the article wherever desired. All the publication vehicle typically receives is permission to publish it on its web site.

The long and short of it seems to be there is no reason whatever that one cannot operate a high quality electronic journal for far less money than a print journal, with much wider circulation and a much faster turn-over time from article-acceptance to article-publication, and made available to the reader at virtually no cost. The caveat is that it probably could not (or would not) be done by a commercial publisher whose bottom line is profitability. It is most likely to be done by individual scholarly societies -- the less corporate in their structure, the better -- drawing upon their own members for editorial and peer review duties, and publishing electronically on their own academic institutions' web servers. The main costs would be hiring some personnel capable of handling the administrative details of submission receipt and review, copy editing, and posting to the web.

Beyond the Journal.

Thus far, however, I have been talking as though it were essential that we continue to cling to the structures of the traditional journal. The traditional journal format, however, is deeply rooted in constraints imposed by the economies of the printing press and the postal system. It is only force of habit that leads us to attempt to recreate this format in the new electronic media. Surely there are other models for dissemination of scholarly information that the new electronic media make practicable. In the world of physics the future is already here. The Los Alamos E-Print Archive (http://arXiv.org/) for high-energy physics papers was established by Paul Ginsparg (with the support of an NSF grant) all the way back in 1991. Its submission rate has rapidly increased over the past decade to the point where it now receives over 2500 submissions per month (over 30,000/year). The Los Alamos Archive is not an electronic journal per se, but a web site on which physicists can post pre-prints of their research reports for immediate perusal by their colleagues (and anyone else who wants). (Ginsparg, by the way, estimates his overhead costs at about $1 per paper, not the thousands of dollars that each printed journal article costs to produce.) The Archive does only a cursory review, filtering for "appropriateness" of subject area and the institutional affiliation of the author, but Ginsparg estimates that 75-80% of the high-energy physics papers appearing on his Archive are eventually published (many months later, of course) as regular journal articles, but the Archive allows the work to be seen, evaluated, and incorporated into new work far in advance of that. Now, as many of you will recall, a few years ago the American Psychological Association very publicly and somewhat ominously embraced an electronic extension to the so-called Ingelfinger rule (named after the one-time editor of the New England Journal of Medicine), announcing, in effect, that any document published electronically would be considered to have been "previously published" and thus be ineligible for consideration by any APA journal. After hearing about the Los Alamos Archive psychologists often wonder why physicists would be willing to risk such sanctions from their own publishers and organizations. The answer is that the Physical Society of America imposes no such restrictions on its members. It has embraced the new technology and encourages electronic pre-publication -- the science is more important to the PSA than the sales.

The trend set by the Los Alamos Archive has rapidly spread to other disciplines as well, including some fields quite close to psychology. Stevan Harnad, for instance, established a few years ago CogPrints (http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk/), an open electronic archive of papers in psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and the cognitively-relevant parts of computer science, philosophy, biology, and anthropology. It operates along similar lines to the Los Alamos archive, and much of the material archived on CogPrints is subsequently print published as well. Indeed, there are now enough successful open electronic archives of this sort in various disciplines that their founders held an "Open Archives Initiative" (http://www.openarchives.org/) conference last year to establish a set of conventions -- the so-called "Santa Fe Convention" (http://www.openarchives.org/sfc/sfc_entry.htm) -- to enable the different archives to communicate with each other seamlessly, forming what Ginsparg calls a "global research archive." They have also made available for free download software called Eprints (http://www.eprints.org/) that enables one (with some knowledge of UNIX systems) to establish one's own electronic open archive. Harnad believes that colleges and universities are the institutions best suited to set up open archives, to be used by their faculty members. Recent tensions between the commercial interests of university administrations and the scholarly interests of their faculty members, however, have led me to believe that scholarly societies -- especially relatively small, specialized ones with few corporate aspirations -- are probably better positioned to serve scholars' interests.

Harnad argues that authors should be electronically self-archiving all their work, regardless of the Ingelfinger-inspired embargo policies of the New England Journal of Medicine, the APA, and a number of other (mostly commercial) publishers. At first glance, this may seem to be a very radical position, but once one becomes familiar with the more liberal practices in other sciences, the Ingelfinger rule seems unfairly restrictive and perhaps worthy of active resistance. Harnad believes that the electronic Ingelfinger rule is effectively unenforceable, and recommends the following procedure to evade it: First one electronically posts a pre-print of one's journal submission. If it is accepted, one should first attempt to delete the offending clauses of the contract with the publisher. If the publisher refuses, however, one should simply make the revisions that are typically required, and then post a link from the original pre-print to a second web document detailing the changes made to produce the final draft. In this way, no electronic copy fully identical to the article ultimately print-published is available electronically.

Many psychologists, of course, are going to be uncomfortable with what might be regarded as the devious nature of this evasion, and perhaps more to the point, are not willing to risk their careers against the possible wrath of the powerful APA journal system. Be that as it may, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that the APA's current publications policies are much more restrictive than those enforced by many other major academic societies, and even some commercial journals publishers (such as Academic Press).

History of Psychology.

So far I have had relatively little to say about history of psychology specifically, but it is easy to envision how these new formats would transfer to the discipline. History of psychology is not without electronic representation at present. I would like to mention especially a newcomer to the scene. Just this summer, Serge Nicolas and some of his colleagues at l'Université René Descartes V founded the electronic journal Psychologie et Histoire (http://lpe.psycho.univ-paris5.fr/membres/nicolas/nicolas.francais.html). Its editorial board includes individuals well-known to Division 26ers -- Ray Fancher, Harry Whitaker, and David Murray, among others. Although the articles the journal has published thus far are all in French, it accepts English submissions as well.

As for breaking through the boundaries of the traditional journal format in an electronic medium, there are sites such as Frank Pajares' "William James" site (http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/james.html) at Emory U., Turnbull and Cook's "Pictures of Health" site (http://www.cimm.jcu.edu.au/hist/main.html) in Australia, and David Pantalony's Canadian site "Brass Instrument Psychology at the University of Toronto" (http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/museum/), among many others. I would like to focus here, however, on a site I have been working on over the last three years: Classics in the History of Psychology (http://www.yorku.ca/dept/psych/classics/). As many of you already know, Classics is a repository of electronic editions of important documents -- books, chapters, and articles -- from psychology's past as well as that of other allied disciplines. At last count there were 125 articles and chapters, and 27 full books on the site. There are also about 20 introductory and explanatory secondary articles by the likes of Ray Fancher, Henry Minton, Robert H. Wozniak, and Eugene Taylor (for which I would like to take this opportunity to thank them publicly for their efforts). Classics is a unique kind of publication, not fully practicable before the era of the World Wide Web. It is much larger than a book of readings could ever be, it contains a great deal of interpretive secondary material in addition to the primary source documents, and most important of all, it has made this significant historical material available to literally hundreds of thousands of researchers and students worldwide who would not otherwise have ready access to it. In 1999, there were nearly half a million hits on Classics' pages. Thus far in 2000, there have already been over 600,000 hits; I expect it will easily break one million by the end of this year. These hits mostly come from the U.S. and Canada, many from schools whose library facilities are too small or too recently-established to have the works on the Classics site in their holdings. But there are also hundreds of hits every day from far-way lands where English-language scholarly material simply is not available in any abundance: Russia, Ukraine, Romania; China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia; Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela; and occasionally even South Africa and Kenya.

I am also happy to announce today for the first time a new component of the Classics site called "Special Collections" (http://www.yorku.ca/dept/psych/classics/Special/) A Classics Special Collection will be a selection of primary documents all related to a single topic, interspersed with secondary essays written with an eye to introducing and contextualizing the primary materials. Each Special Collection will bring together enough material to form the core readings of a special research project, or constitute a set of documents around which a graduate seminar could be formed. It will be a little like having on-line a set of books each containing reprints of a large number of primary source documents each on a key topic, along with basic interpretive commentary.

The first Special Collection, entitled "Institutions of Early Experimental Psychology" is currently under construction. It includes articles on the founding and early operation of psychological laboratories, courses, journals, and professional associations. A second Special Collection, also now under construction, is on "Women and Early Psychology" and is edited by APA Division 26's President-Elect, Kathy Milar. It will include several early studies of women's psychology and essays on women's position in the emerging discipline of psychology, many of them written by women researchers such as Mary Whiton Calkins, Leta Hollingworth, Christine Ladd-Franklin, Helen Bradford Thompson, and Ethel Puffer Howes. A third Special Collection, just now getting under way, edited by John Benjafield, will focus on the rise and fall of experimental aesthetics in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. One of my hopes for the Classics site is that it is helping to change the way in which history of psychology courses are taught -- depending less and less on traditional textbooks, and more and more on having students read and interpret primary source materials.

The format of Classics is, of course, only one of an indefinite number of possibilities for using the electronic communications revolution to advance the study of the history of psychology. For one thing, Classics is currently largely text-based, but the world wide web makes it much easier to distribute pictorial, audio, and even video recordings than ever before. For instance, a few years ago the Archives of the History of American Psychology was advertising copies of a recently-recovered Soviet film on classical conditioning originally produced, I believe, by Pavlov's Institute. Barring copyright complications, it would be an excellent resource to make universally available for download on the WWW. There are many of films of historical-psychological interest that could be posted as well. Radio and television interviews with influential psychologists, electronic editions of historically-significant psychometric tests, pictures and simulations of historical psychological instruments and experiments -- all of these things and more could be (and are being) posted to the WWW for use by students and researchers the world over.

In conclusion, my plea here is that rather than attempting to minimize the electronic communications revolution by worrying about what aspects of the old media it does not faithfully mirror, that we should dive in and use it to its fullest potential. We will figure out the solutions to the new problems it poses only by using it, just as we did when we switched from to clay tablets to paper, or from quill to typewriter. There can be no real doubt that in the long run the new electronic media offer us far more than paper and ink ever did. All we really have to lose are our chains.