Towards Electronic Journals
future directions for academic publishing
Academic publishing is in crisis. In the past, university researchers have been dependent on publishers to print and distribute their work in the form of books and scholarly journals. Now that they realise they can use the Internet, it’s time to change. Here are the arguments. Academics are under pressure to publish. If they produce articles, books, and research papers which are assessed by their peers, this helps them to promote their careers – and we may or may not be wiser for what they write. All this is done at the expense of taxpayers, who foot the bill for their salaries whilst they spend time writing. Academic publishers take their works and turn them into marketable products. And who buys these very specialised products? Well, very few people actually. Mainly research libraries – also funded by taxpayers’ money.
There’s an interesting conjunction here. Academic authors receive very little in the way of royalties from these sales. A five percent payment on sales is normal for a book. Zero percent is equally normal for a journal; and there have recently been tales of writers paying publishers to produce their work.
D’you think that’s bad? There’s worse to come. At the moment, because the UK academic ratings are taken at fixed intervals, some publishers have recently been making it known that a payment from authors would help, just to move their work up the production schedule, in time for the next assessment.
The authors have actually been paid already in terms of time off from a salaried post to produce the works [the system of termly and yearly ‘sabbaticals’ – that is, fully paid leave]. They will be rewarded by the salary increases (and more time off) which come with promotion. But at the very time when cuts in public expenditure mean that libraries are no longer able to subscribe to expensive journals and books which only a few people read – along comes the World Wide Web.
This was actually created (and here’s a further irony) so that academic researchers could share their findings across the Internet – doing so quickly and free from any commercial restrictions. If you write a paper on rocket science, you can put the results directly onto a web site and announce the fact to special interest groups. That way, you can invite feedback, critical comment, and peer review – and receive it fairly quickly, instead of having to wait up to two years as you would if the paper was put into the dinosaur production methods of commercial publishers.
Everyone loses as a result of this sequence of events: scientists are paying more in their time to obtain needed articles, libraries are paying higher subscription fees while providing less information, and because of this, their funders are concerned and sceptical about increased costs.
Publishers, on the other hand, are severely criticized, and they continue to lose subscribers, prestige, and the potential advertising revenue that accompanies higher circulation. In other words, the increased prices have resulted in a lose, lose, lose, lose situation for publishers, scientists, libraries, and their funders.
Scholarly journals take a long time to produce; they are very expensive; and very few people read them. Why bother then, when the same results can be made available fast, free of charge, and to a much wider audience? These are some of the fundamental issues underpinning this book. It’s an investigation into basic questions related to publishing in this form. How much does it cost? What are the trends in scholarly article authorship and readership? What are the overall implications of electronic journals to publishers, libraries, scientists, and their funders?
The argument on costs is overwhelming. Electronic publishing saves on printing costs, re-printing costs, storage costs, archiving, and inter-library loan costs. And all the other arguments return again and again to the obvious advantages of electronic publication. Yet Carol Tenopir and Donald King are no revolutionaries – in fact they are not even very radical.
They point out that readers both inside and outside universities will continue to demand materials in printed form. Which is true. It’s amazing how many people continue to print out documents – for the sake of convenience, and habit. And throughout the entire study they assume that the production of journals will be organised and conducted by commercial publishers, making charges for access and subscriptions. This might be true – for a while.
The information they assemble in answer to their own questions seems therefore to be provided as answers to the basic questions raised by this interesting cultural phenomenon.
It’s a study which is aimed at researchers, librarians, publishers, and anyone interested in electronic publication, and they go out of their way to provide hard evidence for decision-makers.
They offer a realistic examination of what scientists, publishers, and librarians can expect from scholarly journals, based on hard quantitative evidence. This provides revealing information with which to address such searching questions as:
- Are printed journals worth saving?
- What are the consequences of escalating journal prices?
- Will electronic journals replace print journals?
- What is the current readership of scientific journals – in both print and electronic form?
- What are the costs of publishing in print and electronic form?
They go into the finest details of pricing, cost-per-reader, and variations of delivery – but it is all posited on the notion that ‘journals’ are most naturally available in printed form. The details even include the history of scholarly journals; subsidies; and readership behaviour – including even the number of hours required to keep abreast of a subject.
If you are interested in one of the lesser-known but burgeoning forms of electronic publishing – then you should find this a rich source of hard facts for the debate. And if it’s a subject close to your academic heart, let me strongly urge you to read it in conjunction with Anne Okerson’s Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads in which the arguments for electronic publication and self-archiving were first made available in printed form.
© Roy Johnson 2001
Carol Tenopir and Donald W. King, Towards Electronic Journals: Realities for Scientists, Librarians, and Publishers, Washington, DC: Special Libraries Association, 2000, pp.488, ISBN 0871115077
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