CHWP A.15 Heimpel, "Legitimizing Electronic Scholarly Publication: A Discursive Proposal"

A writer dies and goes to Heaven. Writer's Heaven. Being a writer, he is quite naturally curious about Heaven and Hell. So upon meeting Saint Peter at the pearly gates, he asks if it would be possible to visit Hell briefly before ascending to Heaven. Saint Peter, obliging as ever, is happy to grant the writer's request. In a flash, they arrive in writer's Hell where they feast their eyes upon thousands of writers planted in front of thousands of typewriters, arranged in rows as far as the eye could see, a damp, dark, foul place, full of the overpowering stench of decomposition and putrefaction. "Just as I expected," says the writer to Saint Peter. "I'm ready to see Heaven now." In a flash, they arrive in writer's Heaven where they feast their eyes upon thousands of writers planted in front of thousands of typewriters, arranged in rows as far as the eye could see, a damp, dark, foul place, full of the overpowering stench of decomposition and putrefaction. "But this is the same as Hell," the writer objects." Not at all," says Saint Peter. "Their work is published."

1. Introduction

Despite the recent flourish of controversy, the debate surrounding the integration of computer technology in academic publishing is not new. In fact, a few pioneering university librarians were already investigating the "electronic option" in the 1970s, at a time when computing technology was bulky, performance challenged, extremely expensive and user unfriendly.[1] Support from scholars engaged in the nascent field of humanities computing was very limited; and as with the introduction of most new technologies, suspicion was widespread. As a result, many of the sound ideas and ambitious visions of this period were never implemented. Retrospectively, however, this has in one sense turned out to be a blessing in disguise, given the fact that applications written during this period are now at the heart of the Year 2000 problem (Y2K).

Today, computers and computer networking are extremely technologically advanced and relatively inexpensive, the cost of memory and storage media is plummeting, and thanks to the popularity of the World Wide Web, academics finally have access to powerful, affordable authoring tools. Furthermore, computing has also evolved socially: the electronic environments of the 1990s have been built on and have flourished due in large part to the set of "democratic" attitudes, shared responsibilities and collaborative efforts made possible by a user-oriented approach to computing. Think of the public domain Apache server, international organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium, the LINUX movement and the trend towards voluntary compliance.

Meanwhile, in the papyrocentric[2] world of traditional scholarly publishing, the evidence of crisis has been mounting steadily, much to the horror of researchers, librarians and students. For example:

Statistics from the Association of Research Libraries show that from 1986 to 1993, the unit price of serials more than doubled (an increase of 108 per cent), while the cost of monographs increased by nearly half (46 per cent). Although expenditures on serials and monographs increased by 92 and 16 per cent respectively, the number of serials and monographs purchased declined (a drop of 5 per cent and 23 per cent).[3]

Librarians have been speaking of crisis for some time now, and administrators and scholars are slowly adopting a similar rhetoric of disaster. One issue that emerges in librarian accounts of the state of scholarly publication is the complacency, even the negligence of scholars with respect to maintaining control over their own intellectual output:

About 70% of scientific journal articles carry university addresses, but universities are increasingly unable to "buy back" their own work. It is not surprising that a vision of university-based publishing captures the imagination of parts of academe. A marketing survey in 1990 determined that universities publish at most 15% of their scholars' output. It is a stretchy 15%, including not only work of university presses, but also publications of individual academic departments, working papers and periodicals. About 90% of formal academic publications migrate outside the academy before returning home as repurchased monographs and serials. There are no hard data about what proportion of that 90% is produced by scholarly and scientific societies as opposed to the commercial sector, but soft evidence suggests that since World War II half or more of what used to be not-for-profit output is now commercially published. Universities could compete and influence price by retrieving control of a proportion of the academic literature and strengthen the arm of university publishing, withered through lack of interest, support, glamour or profitability. (Okerson 1991)

Yet it would be hypocritical to lay the blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of profiteering commercial publishers. University faculties and departments have enlisted similar attitudes and practices by accepting more and more students into graduate programs who will be expected to publish sooner and more in their careers, in order to pine after fewer and fewer attractive tenure-track positions. Alas:

Not every branch of "publishing" is equally healthy in the late twentieth century. The romance novel is robustly successful, but the scientific journal and the scholarly monograph are threatened by rising costs, rising output, and constrained academic budgets. The most painful paradox is that in the interests of science, the law of the market cannot be allowed to function. (Scholarly Journals 1998, Introduction, editors' emphasis)

While scientific journals are often more costly than their humanities counterparts, and scientific results may be more time-sensitive, the above conclusion still applies with equal force to the humanities.

Despite the impressive projects of a growing list of scholars and a plethora of conferences and position papers,[4] as well as informal online discussions, electronic scholarly publication has not had the impact in this time of crisis that one might have expected. In the humanities, most young and senior academics prefer to publish on paper, to publish books if possible; many academics in senior administrative positions do not accept electronic publications as legitimate; students have expressed resistance to the online publication of their doctoral theses.[5] There are many new and wonderful online publications,[6] but most well-known journals have not migrated to the web, despite its clear financial and communicative advantages. And what is even more surprising is that librarians, administrators and scholars are generally in agreement as to the origin of this sluggish implementation process: the slow move toward electronic scholarly publication is predominantly a social question, and is no longer, for the most part, a technological problem.

The question therefore becomes: How can the specificity of scholarly electronic publications (e-publications) be stressed without inviting claims of inferiority vis-à-vis paper publications (p-publications)? The response I am proposing in this article treats resistance to e-publication as an essentially ideological or conceptual problematic. Examples are drawn from both scientific and humanities scholarly publication, since the conceptual problematic analysed and the solution proposed apply to both fields. Section 2 examines how different approaches to the integration of new technologies inevitably make certain assumptions about the nature of change, its "felicity conditions,"[7] and limits. In Section 3, "Metaphor as Strategy," the claims of similarity between p-publications and e-publications made by incrementalist integration approaches are analysed as a kind of metaphorical argument. Section 4 describes the extreme strain and pressure exerted on the publication metaphor by the recent barrage of new printing and publishing technologies. In the final section, "Beyond the Publication Principle," I argue for an alternative metaphorisation of scholarly e-publications as virtual communities. In other words, the legitimization of scholarly e-publication must be approached as a discursive or rhetorical issue: we do not need to change what we are doing, but rather how it is framed as a value that can be protected.

2. Approaching Change

Fine efforts have been made to overcome institutional resistance to electronic publication. These approaches to change can be roughly classified as either hard break or as incrementalist approaches. Professor Stevan Harnad's "subversive proposal" is certainly the most noteworthy example of the hard break approach (Harnad 1994). His proposal is subversive in several ways. It is linguistically subversive in its description of academic publishing as "esoteric publication": publication that targets the limited audiences of scholarly and scientific publications. (This esoteric usage of the term esoteric earned him his fair share of criticism.) Most important, it is institutionally subversive: "[if] every esoteric author in the world this very day established a globally accessible local ftp archive for every piece of esoteric writing from this day forward, the long-heralded transition from paper publication to purely electronic publication (of esoteric research) would follow suit immediately" (Scholarly Journals 1998, Overture). Despite some success with this "storm the Bastille" approach (e.g. Paul Ginsparg's HEP, see Scholarly Journals 1998), its appeal tends to be more emotional than practical or practicable. This is particularly true in the humanities where research is not, for the most part, time-sensitive.

Other less subversive, but no less thoughtful approaches have erred on the side of caution. For the purposes of discussion, I will refer to these approaches as incrementalist. These approaches have focused on aligning the infrastructure of e-publications with those of p-publications. This practice can be summarized, grosso modo, as follows:

1) Academic infrastructure: electronic publications are (or can be) refereed with the same degree of rigour as their paper counterparts. Here the intellectual standards are safeguarded against the ease and openness of the electronic frontier.

2) Publication infrastructure: electronic publications will be maintained at the same online address and will provide alternative sites in some cases, called "mirror sites," capable of rerouting traffic in the event of web congestion or server downtime. Furthermore, the more copies of a document that exist in various forms, the greater the odds that copies will survive for future generations. Here, by analogy, the enduring and reliable quality of paper publications is reconstituted in the electronic medium.

3) Document standards: e-publications adopt the standards of p-publications, including the consistent use of copyright notices, ISO characters, ISSN and pages numbers and attractive layouts. Here, by analogy, documents made available via an online environment will very closely resemble their paper counterparts.

The approach that Rob Kling and Lisa Covi refer to as polymorphous constitutes an important incrementalist model, combining the efficiency of e-publication with the institutional legitimacy of p-publication. Citing the example of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, Kling and Covi explain that:

Its editors cleverly exploit the broad rapid international distribution afforded by Internet services such as WWW, while simultaneously calming authors' fears of publishing in a stigmatized electronic medium because it always looks like a p-journal and can be purchased in paper form. In fact, JAIR's editors encourage readers to cite articles published in JAIR in the same format that they would cite a p-journal article (and they do not encourage citations to include URLs). [...] Its authors and readers are part of a scholarly community where there is strong consensus on a computerized typesetting format (in this case Postscript), and in which every research lab has free (or subsidized) electronic access to Internet services. And JAIR is allied with a (commercial) publisher that routinely markets and sells books to libraries, scholars and professionals. One other key feature of JAIR's stealth approach is that it doesn't broadcast its e-journal status in its name. It is a fascinating model. (Kling and Covi 1995)

All of this leads the authors to conclude that "JAIR leaves no traces of its e-journal status for academic administrators such as department chairs and deans to sneer at. If they see a JAIR article during an academic career review, it appears as a bone fide p-journal publication, and can be assessed on the basis of its content" (Kling and Covi 1995).

This approach raises the absolutely crucial point that print and electronic forms are already intimately related insofar as "every" p-publication prepared on a computer is always already an electronic text, that is, a virtual article. Of course, this realization tends to demystify print as the "origin" of ideas, knowledge and cultural memory. In practical terms, the distinction between document format and document delivery suggests that webpages, unlike their paper counterparts, do not necessarily have to actualize the content of virtual documents. In short, the Internet may best serve certain academic communities as a distribution system for virtual articles.

This advantage aside, I find that the polymorphous approach of the JAIR smacks of an ideological dodge by an ingenious double-agent who, at the end of the day, could find that s/he has merely earned the mistrust of both p-publishers and e-publishers. In other words, notwithstanding its positive points, this approach may have more points in common with a deceptive marketing strategy than it does with a workable strategy capable of addressing the problem, that is, the ideological problematic called papyrocentrism. Instead, papyrocentrism is accepted, encouraged and perpetuated by a strategy which purports to challenge it.

Elsewhere, the case made by Jean-Claude Guédon envisages an incremental transition to scholarly e-publishing which, again, is a partial solution. However, in this case, it constitutes only a partial solution, not because of its ideological weakness, but rather because it provides a temporary and intermediary solution: a tourniquet, but not a cure. In short, this approach offers incrementalism without deception. By temporarily incorporating the same characteristics of p-journals, e-journals will be able to aspire to the same legitimacy and, by extension, enter into competition with p-publications:

S'insérer dans le système de la recherche, c'est trouver le moyen de doter les publications électroniques des mêmes caractéristiques que les revues savantes imprimées de façon à pouvoir prétendre à la même légitimité et entrer ainsi dans le jeu de la concurrence entre revues. Pour atteindre cet objectif, il faut apprendre à faire temporairement de l'ancien dans le nouveau de façon à faire accepter le nouveau dans l'ancien. (Guédon 1994, author's emphasis)

Of course, Guédon admits that such a move does not produce guaranteed results since identifying which elements of the 'old' should be incorporated into the 'new' is already risky business: "Ne pas mettre assez d'ancien, c'est mettre en péril le démarrage même d'une revue électronique savante; en mettre trop peut constituer un handicap à son déploiement éventuel selon le potentiel propre au nouveau médium" (Guédon 1994).

There are essentially two important distinctions between the hard-break subversive approach of Harnad and the incrementalist approach of Kling, Guédon and others. First of all, each approach manifests a certain attitude towards social change and how it comes about. Second, the "hard break" approach emphasizes the newness and difference of e-publishing while the incrementalist approach uses similarity between competing modes of publication to introduce, but to ultimately downplay (or at least defer) difference.

Harnad's approach is not very realistic in that people generally do not modify their beliefs until they are forced to do so.[8] One should bear in mind that "good reasons" are rarely good enough to dislodge or destabilize beliefs that have always stood their believers in good stead. By what stretch of the imagination would the scholars who control the A-list journals in their field feel obliged to start anew in the world of e-publications? Since Harnad does not suggest the use of force, one must assume that the force of his attack on traditional p-publishing lies in the value – rightness, usefulness, appropriateness – of e-publishing. In the last analysis, the claim is quite untenable because it does not target the strong beliefs about p-publications which determine the behaviour and attitudes of those who leverage the most power in the academy. Whereas cultural, racial and linguistic difference make legitimate claims to "protected status," e-publication has yet to invent such a claim.

Incrementalist approaches are founded upon a better understanding of how change works and how minds are changed.[9]  Major changes imply major work, and believers do not change their minds when the work involved does not bring about significantly improved coherence among consciously held beliefs. Small changes, so the axiom goes, imply less work and, as a result, have better odds of succeeding. It is easier to make people believe that certain aspects of journals and books are more useful and functional in an electronic environment than it would be to make people believe that p-publications should be eliminated and replaced with e-publications. This may be especially true in the case of scholarly publication since, for academics, this constitutes or at least approaches the equivalent of what Charles S. Peirce once referred to as the "beliefs we learn on our mother's knee." These beliefs, he argues, cannot be changed; they are non-negotiable (Peirce 1955).

However, this said, it is true that stressing the similarity between p-publications and e-publications has had some negative effects. For example, considerable energy has been dedicated to formatting online documents to resemble p-journal pages when the energy could have been more gainfully applied to resolving more pressing questions such as: How will scholars locate and search electronic texts? A wider implementation of multimedia objects in e-publication may also have been hindered by incrementalist approaches.[10] And finally, the incrementalist approach may also prove too incremental, that is, too slow, for those of us who are used to the speed of modern communication systems.

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[1] See Okerson 1991 and Bailey 1995.  Also available online: "Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography."

[2] I have borrowed this term from Steven Harnad (Princeton University). See "Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing: An Internet Discussion about Scientific and Scholarly Journals and Their Future" (Scholarly Journals 1998).

[3] See Changing World 1996 ("Knowledge Dissemination"): "Publishing scholarly journals is certainly a profitable business. According to Forbes magazine, London-based Reed Elsevier, the largest publisher of academic journals, probably earned US$225 million before taxes on 1994 revenues of US$600 million from its academic publishing operations. Further complicating this cost picture, since the great majority of academic commercial publishers are located outside this country, are the ups and downs of international currency exchange."

[4] For a useful summary of this activity, see "The Electronic Library and the Future of Scholarly Communication" (Electronic Library 1997).

[5] See DesJardins 1997, in particular the section entitled "Student Opposition": "Objections included in a rather long list were: lack of control over their own property, the sense of being human test subjects, future preservation of their thesis, draconian contractual agreements. The bottom line for many was simply that publishers such as the American Psychological Association, American Chemical Society and University of Chicago, for example, do not consider web-published material for p-publication."

[6] For example, see "New Jour: Electronic Journals and Newsletters." At last count, there were 6764 electronic publications on this list.

[7] I have borrowed this term from John L. Austin. In How to do Things with Words, Austin proposes this term to describe the conditions which must be fulfilled to bring about a successful speech act (Austin 1962). Since change is often effected via speech acts and other discursive strategies, the analogy is, I think, quite felicitous.

[8] See also Kling and  Covi 1995: "Harnad's proposal to move scholars from one set of communication systems to another has much in common with many utopian proposals: there is no effective analysis of how to encourage diverse scholars make a workable transition. In practice, scholars will become interested in e-journals at varying rates. Today, a scholar who is facing a choice between publishing in a p-journal and publishing in an e-journal (other than JAIR) faces a choice between legitimate (but perhaps slow) publication, and more rapid publication in e-journals that are viewed as of lesser quality (or even not serious journals). The e-journal may promise world-wide accessibility. But the scholar who wants to be read by his or her colleagues is more concerned that the article be seen by valued peers than that it be seen by a possibly larger but much less influential group of readers. Today, p-journals are better able to promise appropriate readership than are e-journals, with a few exceptions."

[9] See Harman 1986.

[10] See Okerson 1997.