CHWP A.12 Michelucci & Marteinson, "Paradigm Lost? Electronic Publishing and the Renewal of Research"

4. The Peer-Review Process

Indeed it is not enough to attempt to make oneself the harbinger of an upsetting wave of editorial Darwinism ready to sweep over the scholarly world. Natural selection in the homo sapiens periodicalis species will not operate solely on the basis of medium. For it is the importance (both in stature and in number) of referees in the peer-review process that makes or breaks a journal through the institution of criteria for academic excellence, a process which is contingent on an operation of legitimization: the selection and promotion of scholars depends on peer-appreciation. Jean-Claude Guédon, editor of the pioneering French on-line periodical Surfaces writes: "For centuries, mechanisms have been developed for providing evidence, acceptable rhetorical codes of argumentation, unequivocal tokens of authority and prestige, which have been instrumental in creating a device of paramount importance in the conduct of research: legitimacy" (Guédon 1994) [9]. Periodicals should indeed keep this feature of standard academic research, through editorial boards, for the sake of integration within the existing system, rather than inventing entirely different research paradigms -- such as wayward publishing of the genus samizdat or da-zi-bao. Guédon's answer is AS/SA's too: "elements of the old system have to be maintained temporarily in the new medium to ensure that it takes root, and comes to full fruition" (Guédon 1994).

But an editorial board simply makes good sense: one need only recall that, during the Renaissance, the advent of the printed book brought about a considerable transfer of control, when specialized clerics handed over their highly exclusive domain to political censors with a social and commercial agenda. For the same reason, it is in a modern research discipline's interest to be at its own helm.

5. The Editing Process

And at that helm, the editors? That professional "editing" is not merely clerical is a truism, even though it has a particular relevance in today's electronic editing, but here we disagree with Guédon's statement that editors are the intellectual gatekeepers of a discipline. We would represent them rather as fussy gardeners trimming a bush here, weeding the grass there, deciding the forsythia will go opposite the magnolia.

Yet electronic periodicals such as AS/SA are well-positioned to stimulate evolution in the paradigm of research through a redefinition of the role of the editor. In our experience, through frequent interaction with authors and readers, editing moves far beyond the technical and theoretical strictures of the job. Indeed, we had to take the lead in the AS/SA endeavour somewhat and shape our editorial board, interact with potential collaborators (at first through the post office, and later almost entirely through e-mail), and readers. The final issue brought out by this is in fact, as it appears to us, the outcome of a synergy of effort and decisions -- not merely ours -- which all to a varying degree have shaped the final product. It is therefore a multiplicity of voices, not only those of single authors, whose tangible input has fashioned the periodical at the intellectual level, so that in fact AS/SA appears, to a considerable degree, to reflect the image of the intellectual community it aims to serve.

Even as we are now weighing the advantages of mandating specialized guest-editors for particular issues against the importance of having a publication agenda, we must bear in mind, too, that conference proceedings are an important source of relevant material for electronic periodicals -- especially in our field which, like linguistics, experiences widespread colloquia but little print publication --, for the latter, like the hard-bound German series Approaches to Semiotics published by Mouton de Gruyter, is often costly [10].

In the mid-term, beyond the phase of the necessary banalization of electronic periodicals, we assume that we will have to supply a forum for interested readers. The physical distance between scholars in a discipline like semiotics, which has a very strong European basis, has been alleviated by e-mail. It will soon be made even less a barrier by the arrival of so-called "chat" and phone applications (already integrated into Netscape 3). Indeed Guédon foresees a fluidification of scholarly documents, through discussion lists, forums, dialogues and on-line colloquia. This will herald the rebirth of a genre that has been waning since the late Middle Ages, along with disputation and controversy, which will ultimately again replace the urbane agreement sought by contemporary theory.

6. AS/SA, Incunabula

Since it is often said that technology, in true Tofflerian fashion, moves faster by the day, we find it appropriate to relate here the story of the genesis of AS/SA, so that those with little understanding of the intricacies of setting up an electronic periodical might obtain a better idea of what such an enterprise entails.

Although both well-versed in the use of computers, we were still, in November 1995, mere curious on-lookers of the Internet, and had little or no notion of the workings of home pages, HTML code or the software that went with it.

In fact, although we knew each other quite well, and both nursed somewhat secret desires to found an electronic academic journal, neither of us knew of the other's interest until, through a rather unlikely series of fortuitous peripateia, we found ourselves discussing the idea of working together. We almost immediately agreed on semiotics, and for reasons decribed above, on applied semiotics. So we soon found ourselves working together on two rather disparate aspects of the project.

First, we had to discuss prospective members of our Advisory Board, both in terms of our somewhat unorthodox disenchantment with rationalist theorizations which we saw as all-too-prevalent in semiotic literature, and not really very useful, and in terms of the novelty of the medium. We ended up inviting some forty-three scholars we felt were likely to share both our appreciation of applied semiotics and our conviction that the World Wide Web was not simply one more tool among many, but perhaps the first stage in a revolution, as it were, a new possiblity for the future of academic research itself. To our pleasant surprise, nearly all the scholars we invited accepted our proposition almost immediately.

Secondly, we had to address then-unknown technical issues. We decided to make our Internet home page, as a necessary first concrete step, into an autodidactic apprenticeship. After having learned the basics of HTML code, which is in fact similar to code-based applications such as WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, and the basics of file transfer protocol, we put a home page together and posted it on our University's server. This was ready in a few short weeks, that is, by the first week in December 1995, by which time we felt ready to send our first call for papers to about eight hundred departments of literary interest around the world.

It took a couple more weeks to research and then data-enter the addresses of these departments. We sent the packages out on December 20.

The next stage was to design and implement a format for the first issue. This required answering a number of unclear questions. How would we integrate the academic essay with the World Wide Web? How can an electronic issue be given an intuitively logical structure? What Web-browsers would we take into account when designing our format and writing code designed to realize it? After some experimentation and much consideration, we decided it was most suitable to take a longer-term view of the project, and we decided that the emerging market leader, Netscape 2.0, would be the basis for formatting, at the expense of older text-only software and perhaps to the disapproval of potential readers who did not yet have the latest "multi-media" computers, modems and monitors. Fortunately, our partnership allowed us to work efficiently in English and French, as well as in the DOS, Windows, UNIX and Macintosh environments. We both know all of the above, but our strengths and preferences proved to be entirely complementary.

By mid-February 1996 we had a working sample which included graphics and text, including accented characters for French and foreign citations, and which divided each essay into several pages, an arbitrary choice given the medium, but one which we felt would facilitate citation of our articles, and retain the intuitive feel of academic publications. Meanwhile on the purely academic plane, we ended up with three suitable and approved essays. This was not as disappointing a figure as it might sound. Considering the novelty of the medium, and of the journal, we gradually began to qualify this as a degree of success. (This optimism has since been well-met, as we are now receiving unsolicited offers of papers and even of entire special issues devoted, for example, to the proceedings of prestigious colloquia.)

So the set-up and launch of the journal took only three months; then the articles, once approved and corrected, were typeset in HTML and posted on the server within three days, which we feel is a remarkably short delay. It was now early March, and we decided to announce a final date for the launch of the first issue, March 18, by which time we were confident we would overcome the last technical difficulty, the creation of a table of contents which would provide links to the editorial material and the articles in the launch issue.

We chose to marry accepted Web practice, following standards such as "page one of eight" for example, and a global pagination reflecting an imaginary structure for the issue as a whole. Finally, we invented a makeshift, yet effective, way of integrating standard bibliographical formats into HTML, which was not designed with such features in mind. Our solution was to define a formal table for each line of the bibliography, which allowed us to fix line length and specify indentation, so that the hanging indentation of the authors' names could be preserved no matter which browser was used, or how any individual copy was configured.

But there was still one aspect which left us less than satisfied. Each page took readers about two to three minutes to load, for users who were not directly connected to a University of Toronto node. First we attempted to remove any unnecessary code or repetitions of graphics. This did not help much, and today, the site is still slow enough for worldwide users that some individuals probably do not have the patience to consult our primary address. Fortunately, through friends in the private sector, we were able to post a mirror site on a considerably faster server enjoying wider band-width than our own system at Toronto. In practice, this means that only Toronto readers generally use the Toronto site, while others consult our mirror address on the Digital Alpha Server at Cyberplex Interactive Media of Toronto.

We now feel prepared to take AS/SA into the future, as a semi-annual periodical featuring regular issues as well as special ones which include the acts of colloquia. We are pleased to consider AS/SA an ongoing project which may constitute a very long-term collaboration between the two of us, and which we feel might contribute actively to a revolution, a new technological explosion, in academic publication. Indeed, the Internet is here to stay. We feel academia should exploit it fully, and in a small way, make it our own, and welcome the changes this may entail in what we have called the traditional academic "paradigm".

It is not our intention to argue that all members of the academic community should feel the need to rush to the office and set up an electronic periodical. It is feasible; but as we have attempted to illustrate in this brief paper, the problems behind electronic publishing are not only technical, but attitudinal and dependent on disciplines. It is therefore a matter of time for AS/SA, but we are convinced that from the cradle onward, its growth will be steady and long-lasting. The child is now in the hands of the institution. And that institution, we feel, must seize Opportunity by the forelock.

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[9] Quotations from this paper are translated by its authors. See also Unsworth 1995, Lancashire 1995, the less interesting Michon 1994, and the less relevant Cossette 1995.

[10] Books in Print lists Sebeok's standard Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (2 vols.) at Mouton at some $475.00 US.