Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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illustration
 

Howard Rosenbaum
Howard Rosenbaum
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller

Gregory J.E. Rawlins
Gregory J.E. Rawlins
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller

E-Publish Or Perish?

by Lauren J. Bryant

"May you live in interesting times," goes a purported old Chinese curse.

Curse or no, Howard Rosenbaum thinks these are very interesting times for scholars using information technologies to share their work with the world.

"I don't do anything in my scholarly life that involves high-energy physics," says Rosenbaum, assistant professor of library and information science at Indiana University Bloomington, "but I can visit a high-energy physics Web lab, watch the experiments, and see the research. And that's interesting."

Without question, the ever-evolving technologies of the digital age--such as Internet2, massive data storage, and virtual reality environments--have transformed how scholars of nearly every stripe find information, analyze it, and discuss their research.

But what about communicating that research? How are information technologies, particularly the Internet and the Web, transforming the dissemination and publication of original scholarly work?

The answer to that is interesting, too.

When people in the know talk about the impact of electronic technologies on communicating scholarship, they often invoke Gutenberg (as in, we are living "post-Gutenberg" now). In other words, not since the mid-1400s, when Johann Gutenberg invented a method of printing using movable type, has there been anything so important to the dissemination of text as computers, the Internet, and the Web.

Post-Gutenberg

In this post-Gutenberg world, electronic publishing is the new medium, and when it comes to research, e-publishing has some very flashy advantages. Like speed, for instance. Traditionally, the multistage process of getting a scholarly book or journal article published, from submission of the original work through peer review, corrections, editing, design, printing, and distribution, can take a year, often longer. With online submission, online review, and no need to print or bind, a scholarly e-book or e-journal can be "published" in a matter of weeks--or less.

Interactivity is another plus. Online publications can contain all manner of point-and-click links to data sets, images, animation, charts, audio files, and other multimedia materials that would never fit in a conventional volume. What's more, observes Gregory Rawlins, an associate professor of computer science at IUB, e-publication can dramatically increase "the Socratic dialogue" among researchers.

In traditional journal publishing, Rawlins observes, "you write a paper, and it takes a year or more to get out there. Then somebody reads it, gets an idea, and writes his or her own article. That article gets published, and that takes more than a year. By the time you see the article in response, if you see it, it's been years since you did the work, and the context in which you did the work may be gone."

Publishing online, Rawlins says, offers "happy coincidences" and the "ability to leverage your mind against many other minds" while work is still in progress.

J. Timothy Londergan, professor of physics and director of the Nuclear Theory Center at IUB, says physicists, "who invented the Web," benefit from such an interchange of ideas by using e-archives.

"Physicists used to print out 'preprint' papers and mail them to various places," Londergan says. "But now we submit papers before publication to an electronic archive (arXiv.org). The archives allow the papers to get more exposure. If they're wrong or the work is already published elsewhere, that often gets known through people reading and commenting on the online papers."

The Web sports a surprising number of online venues providing access to scholarly articles, journals, and books. New initiatives are under development all the time, and not solely in the sciences (see sidebar). At IU Press, for instance, Kathryn Caras, director of electronic publishing, describes a new database project called I-Africa, a site that will include digitized versions of all IUP journal articles and books concerned with African studies. Caras says the press wants to work with other university units to digitize related content, such as works from the IU Art Museum's African collection or music from the Archives of Traditional Music.

"And we'd like to find outside funding so we can offer open access to sub-Saharan institutions of higher education," Caras adds.

The Web's reach gives it enormous democratic potential. Research and information can be shared with scholars regardless of socioeconomic or geopolitical boundaries. In fact, scholars whose research is not on the Web may well be losing out on a huge and influential audience.

"Faculty who either by circumstance or by choice are not involved are at a disadvantage," observes Rosenbaum. "The world is clearly moving in the digital direction."

Open or shut?

The world of scholarly communication may be going digital, but it's hardly a simple transition. "Interesting problems" abound, Rosenbaum points out, including sites that are inaccurate or downright fraudulent and complex questions about intellectual property and copyright infringement. The long-term archiving and preservation of digital work is another tough puzzle: what machine can read information stored only on an old 5-1/4 inch floppy disk, for example? What about preserving the scholarly record in electronic publications whose sites disappear or change the access they allow users?

And the questions continue. Consider the researcher, says Rosenbaum, who is asked to give up copyright to his or her own work to a print journal, then has to purchase back (or ask the library to purchase back) that very work through a journal subscription. Traditional scholarly journal publishing flies in the face of the very purpose of scholarly work: to be freely shared with others. So say a growing number of scholars and librarians who are championing "open access."

The IUPUI University Library is one of thousands of signatories to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, a proposal that calls for worldwide distribution of and free unrestricted access to peer-reviewed journal literature online.

"The University Library signed on because we believe it's important to move to a different basis for scholarly communication," explains David Lewis, dean of the University Library. "The technology of the Web allows a very different set of economies that should make the distribution of scholarship easier and freer, though not necessarily without cost."

To achieve open access, the BOAI recommends "self-archiving," meaning scholars deposit their refereed journal articles in open electronic archives, such as the physicists' e-print archive described by Londergan. The BOAI also advocates the creation of a new generation of journals that would offer permanent open access to their content.

BioMed Central (www.biomedcentral.com), an independent online publishing house, provides free full-text access to more than 60 "new generation" journals in the areas of biology and medicine. Authors retain the copyright to their work, and the articles are indexed in PubMed Central, a digital archive operated under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health.

The IUB and IUPUI campuses became institutional members of BioMed Central in June. Martha Brogan, IU Libraries' associate dean and director of collection development, says the university's membership helps to "shift the burden from the scholar (and) finance the publication of research at a lower cost."

BMC posts a separate page detailing work published by IU science faculty in the open-access model. Jyot Saini, an assistant professor at the IU Medical School who published an article in BMC's Women's Health in 2002, calls the BMC journal "substantially easier to work with, faster and more efficient."

To fee or not to fee?

While open access may be desirable, e-publishing is not without costs, as IUPUI's Lewis points out. Peer reviewers earn payments, for instance, and it costs to convert or process materials for distribution online. Who pays remains a much debated question.

Over the last several decades, the economics of conventional scholarly publishing have gone from O.K. to bad to worse to practically unsustainable. Take journals. Tens of thousands of academic journals are published, and they aren't cheap, especially in the fields of science, technology, and medicine. According to a 2002 Library Journal survey, the average institutional subscription cost for a single physics journal title is $2,218.82. This kind of pricing puts a huge burden on university library budgets, forcing tough acquisitions choices. Faculty members, too, have grown dissatisfied with high costs charged for many of their professional journals, prompting some to resign from print-journal editorial boards to start online publications.

But publishers say, to stay viable and generate the income needed to pursue electronic dissemination of research, they must charge subscription or per-article fees for their e-journals and books.

Brogan notes that publishers play critical roles in the ways they "formalize results of research and help to insure that what appears in journals is indexed and accessible for the long-term." For their part, Brogan says, the libraries can provide technical infrastructure and support for scholarly publishing alternatives that may help publishers rethink their services and electronic bottom line.

The BioMed Central Web site says BMC is "exploring other business models" that will not restrict access through subscription, providing researchers maximum exposure for their work. They will, however, charge individual authors a $500 "processing fee." (Institutional membership, such as IU's, qualifies researchers for a processing fee waiver.) The BMC site also lists other potential sources of revenue, including sales of archival paper copies of journals, advertising, and sponsorship.

Sponsorship may not be sustainable, either, it seems. The Journal of High Energy Physics is known among e-publishing aficionados for its success operating as a free electronic journal, financed by the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy. In early 2002, however, the JHEP announced on its site (jhep.sissa.it) that "this regime based solely on sponsorships is not sufficient to guarantee the journal's financial independence and sustainability." As of January 2003, JHEP is returning to a subscription basis.

A 'new academic life'

In short, nobody's figured out who's going to pay for scholarly e-publishing yet. Perhaps this is because despite dramatic e-ventures into disseminating scholarship and research, the demand is still faint.

Why? IUB's Rawlins has a quick answer: promotion and tenure. Electronic technologies may be revolutionizing the way scholarship is presented, cited, archived, and referenced, but when it comes to what gets put on a c.v., pure e-publications are not yet considered as credible as their printed-on-paper cousins.

The very things that make e-publishing attractive--speed, ease, variety--also raise serious concerns about upholding quality control and standards. In traditional scholarly publishing, the imprimatur of certain publishers on a printed journal or scholarly book has long meant the publication was peer-reviewed and vetted by experts.

But online peer-review systems for electronic publications are evolving quickly, and publishers are among the first to admit that their roles as evaluators and producers aren't tied to the mechanical function of printing."'Publish' means making information and knowledge public; it doesn't have to be print on paper," says Caras.

In the academic world, each discipline has its own culture, method, and pace for codifying and disseminating research--classics may be less ready than computer science, say, to join the electronic publishing revolution. In Rawlins' view, though, the widespread acceptance of e-publishing in the promotion and tenure process is mainly a matter of time and experience.

"Electronic books and publications will be accepted," he says. "It's inevitable. But it's happening bit by bit, as tenure-granting faculty committees who have grown up in a world where electronic information exchange didn't happen get exposure to the new scheme."

Indeed, Rosenbaum points out that his department in the School of Library and Information Science agreed some years ago that there would be no bias against electronic publication. "We've realized that it's part of our new academic life," he says.

What will the new academic publishing look like a few more years post-Gutenberg? Who knows . . . stay connected.

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.

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