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October 26, 2000

SCHOLARLY PUBLISHING: Economics expected to force transition to electronic publishing

Are printed scholarly journals doomed to extinction?

University Library Systems (ULS) director Rush G. Miller thinks so. In most scholarly disciplines, the transition to electronic-only dissemination of research findings probably will come within the next decade, Miller predicted at the Oct. 18 University Senate fall plenary session.

Economics will drive the change, he said. "It costs money to put out a printed journal, over and above what it costs to produce the [scholarly] information," Miller noted. "But it doesn't cost as much incrementally to publish in electronic format if there's a wide enough dissemination and once the initial technological infrastructure is built."

Another potential nail in the printed journal's coffin is the fact that scientific information "must be very current to be valuable," Miller pointed out.

"It slows things down to get that information into a printed environment and distributed," he said. By the time cutting-edge research findings have been published, scientists often have already shared the information among themselves, he said; hard copy articles primarily serve as archives.

The word "journal" may no longer be appropriate for describing new electronic systems of sharing scholarly information, Miller said. "The systems that will disseminate research results, in many disciplines, will not look like journals but will take advantage of emerging technologies."

Scholars could electronically share raw data and multi-media materials as well as research conclusions, he suggested.

"Maybe the concept of bringing together eight or 10 articles into one publication has outlived its usefulness," Miller added. (The ULS director said he's less inclined to agree with fellow librarians who predict the demise of book-length scholarly monographs anytime soon.) The transition to electronic-only spread of research findings will occur only at the insistence of the scholarly community, according to Miller. Commercial publishers, he said, are happy with their current system of charging inflated prices for electronic as well as printed versions of journals.

Before universities, scholarly societies and faculty members can agree to go with "e-journals" exclusively, a number of issues must be addressed, according to panelists at last week's Senate meeting.

Ensuring access to journal archives is one such issue, Miller said. "At Pitt, our policy is that we won't cancel a print journal for an electronic-only version of that same journal until there is a sure way to have continued access to back issues," he noted.

And, should ULS cancel a subscription, the library system wants perpetual access to back issues that it already has purchased, he said.

Currently, few publishers can, or are willing, to provide the kind of archival access that ULS demands, said Miller.

Provost James V. Maher said electronic journals threaten the scholarly societies that were formed to promote communication among researchers — and which created the printed scholarly journal to accomplish that goal.

Maher, a physicist, said he read "with a heavy heart" an editorial in a recent issue of Physics Today, the monthly journal of the American Physical Society. In it, the society's president wrote that the organization stands ready to kill its printed journal in favor of a less expensive, electronic-only format — "even though it will sap the financial underpinnings of this organization" — if that's what it takes to guarantee the widest possible access to the latest physics research.

The provost said escalating prices of printed journals encourage scientists to rely on what he called "totally unregulated electronic communication mechanisms, the most visible one being the Los Alamos Pre-Print Collection," available on the Internet.

"You can put any junk up there" on the Los Alamos site, Maher said. "It's totally 'let the buyer beware' when you look at something on that. On the other hand, no good paper that will be published in the next year in quite a few fields of physics fails to be there [on the Los Alamos site] first. So, very few people read the journals anymore.

"Electronic publishing is here," Maher stated. "It's having an impact already. The scholarly community has not really thought through yet how to cope with it and how to take advantage of its good points and to work around its obvious weaknesses.

"Some students are reading very little that isn't on the Web," he continued, "and some of what they're reading is total nonsense. And they don't know how to figure out" the difference.

Evelyn S. Rawski, University Professor of history and a University Center for International Studies research professor, said electronic publishing "permits me to dream of access [to scholarly research] that was completely impossible 20 years ago."

But, she said, "It is time for faculty to get down to very nitty-gritty concerns about electronic publishing." Such as: How can researchers be sure that their on-line journal articles won't be tampered with? And, under what conditions should universities consider electronic writings in awarding tenure and promotion?

Currently, Rawski said: "At least in the humanities and social sciences, I am not aware of any department that accepts electronic publishing as a basis for promotion and tenure. And the reason has to do with the peer review aspect. That is to say, when a university press or other reputable press has accepted a book for publication, we know that it has already gone through a process of review. We trust the label, so to speak. If we don't have that label, how are we doing to perform this function, especially given the increasing specialization in each of our disciplines?"

Provost Maher said that, despite popular notions to the contrary, Pitt doesn't award tenure and promotions based on the number of books and journal articles a faculty member has published. "What we're really looking for are the referees' evaluations of how good the scholarship is," he said.

Maher said he would be happy to discuss changing Pitt's tenure and promotion system, which relies heavily on scholarship published in printed books and journals. But Pitt's system must continue to emphasize research that has been judged to be of high quality by scholars worldwide — and printed books and articles published in refereed print journals remain the standard by which scholars evaluate their colleagues' work.

Audience member Thomas Metzger of the mathematics department said, "We have to decide whether e-journals are journals or some specialty publishing house.

"If you're an assistant professor," he continued, "you're not going to publish anything in an electronic journal that's not going to count" toward earning tenure.

Metzger said he knew of a tenured full professor who debated for a month before submitting an article to an e-journal. According to Metzger, the prof worried that publishing in an electronic journal didn't count for anything in his department's system for evaluating faculty performance and might even lead to a lower salary raise for him.

On the other hand, Metzger said, the American Mathematical Society publishes a number of electronic-only journals that are respected among mathematicians. Conferring respectability on electronic-only journals "can be done, but it's got to be done by the individual [scholarly] societies," he argued.

ULS director Miller recalled a failed, early-1990s effort by the Ohio College and Libraries Center to create a prototype e-journal called Clinical Trials. Hoping to encourage electronic publication of reputable scholarship, the center spent more than $2 million to develop the new medical journal, even hiring away the editor of a prestigious print journal.

But medical researchers shunned the e-journal. "After four or five years," Miller said, "they closed it without a single submission."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 5

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