The Information Society


"Controversies About Electronic Journals and Scholarly Communication: An Introduction."
Rob Kling, 11(4) pp 243-246

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Electronic journals (e-journals), that are, by definition, distributed to some or all of their primary subscribers in electronic form, have become more visible and consequently controversial in the last few years. Some scholars argue that electronic publication is much more likely to facilitate communication in the scholarly communities because it can speed up communication and is costs appear to be much lower. Stevan Harnad, for example, makes "the subversive proposal" that all scholars should immediately "make available on the Net, in publicly accessible archives on the World Wide Web, the texts of all their current papers.... " David Stodolsky believes that we need not simply electronic publication, but fundamentally new formats for scholarly communications, such as the consensus journals, that he describes in this issue. Scholars like Harnad and Stodolsky are on the leading edge of articulating new possibilities for scholarly communications. E-journals, one format for scholarly communications, are very likely to grow in significance, and are the subject of serious official investigations by several scientific societies including the American Physical Society, the American Mathematical Society, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the British Sociological Association. 

Scholars vary considerably in their positions about e-journals. E-journals have been largely a "niche topic" that has interested a small minority of scholars. Despite rapid increases in the number of e-journals there seem to be no e-journals in some major fields, such as molecular biology and chemistry; while there are some e-journals in diverse humanistic, social scientific and engineering fields. In a few field, such as Information Systems and Information Science, the discussion of electronic publishing has a relatively high profile. But today, most scholars in most fields go about their daily rounds without the thought of electronic publication seriously crossing their minds. Relatively few of the hundreds of thousands of scholars in North America seem to have read an e-journal, and consequently many scholars reactions to e-journals is not based on substantial direct experience as authors, readers or in support roles, such as editors. 

But some scholars who are quite familiar with e-journals are also cautious in wholeheartedly supporting them as media of scholarly communication. This special issue brings together articles by scholars who are unabashed enthusiasts for e-journals, and those who see some continuing value in paper journals (p-journals) as well. 

This special issue begins with David Stodolsky's description and advocacy of "consensus journals" -- an electronic format in which invitations from qualified reviewers helps decide which articles shall be published. Lisa Covi and I follow with "Electronic Journals and Legitimate Media in the Systems of Scholarly Communication", an article that examines the ways that e-journals fit within contemporary scholarly practices. We pay particular attention to many scholar's treatment of electronic media as transient and flimsy rather than as a stable medium for "long time truths," and the pragmatics of reading paper and electronic materials. We also pay special attention to the ways that the scholarly communication system depends upon indices and abstracts systems, maintained in libraries of some form, as well collections of primary materials. We argue that the most successful electronic journals, in the near term, will need special architectures. They should be designed to be relatively accessible in both paper and electronic formats and circulated in ways that integrate readily with contemporary abstracting and indexing systems as well as with diverse academic libraries. This article is not a direct debate with Stodolsky, but it adds a different dimension -- one of the material practices that support scholarly work. 

Fytton Rowland's article, "Electronic Journals: Neither Free Nor Easy" examines the nature of material practices in producing scholarly journals. Rowland notes that some of the debate between advocates of e-journals and p-journals predates global computer networking, and rests on long standing tensions between academic authors on one hand, and publishers and librarians on the other. Rowland argues that full-time professional publishers and librarians are necessary when the scale of scholarly publication and archiving reach some large-enough scale that scholars cannot effectively handle it on their own as part-time amateurs. He observes that: 

Rowland is hardly opposed to electronic journals, since his article was previously published in the EJournal, an electronic journal. 

The next set of articles focus on Stevan Harnad's subversive proposal, which he develops in "The PostGutenberg Galaxy: How to Get There from Here". Harnad recently triggered a lively and provocative electronic discussion among some of the key players in the electronic publishing field that was recently published in book form (Okerson and O'Donnell, 1995). Doug Brent's article examines the key points of controversy, some of which echo themes raised in Rowland's article: the nature and size of publishing costs, the nature and size of network costs; how to insure that published articles are of high quality; and stewardship over electronic publications. Each of these are significant issues that have a different character for different kinds of publications. Harnad's enthusiastic arguments for the possibility of "virtually free knowledge on the Internet" focus on scholarly journals, like TIS, rather than trade magazines such as The Economist or Der Spiegel. But Brent observes that some e-journals are now beginning to charge for subscriptions. He is also specially concerned about the difficulties of maintaining high quality publications in a medium which advantages "cheaper speech." 

The next set of articles feature a heated debate between Stevan Harnad and Steve Fuller about some fundamental assumptions about the character of electronic publication. The debate starts with Harnad's "The PostGutenberg Galaxy: How to Get There from Here" in which he explains his subversive proposal of having scholars immediately move all of their articles into accessible forms on the Internet. Fuller follows with a lengthy critique, which Harnad tries to rebut. Finally, Fuller responds with a more developed statement of his position. An earlier version of the first round of this debate appeared in a more limited form in print in the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), on May 12, 1995. The second round was subsequently posted on THES' web server. While Harnad's PostGutenberg article is very similar to the version that appeared in THES, Fuller and Harnad have significantly rewritten their subsequent articles. 

Harnad's article goes far beyond advocating his subversive proposal. He is also concerned about ways to stimulate scholarly communication through rapid rounds of peer commentary in a way that echoes some of Stodolsky's concerns. Harnad notes: 

In "CyberPlatonism: An Inadequate Constitution For the Republic of Science," Steve Fuller expresses his grave doubts about Harnad's proposals. He rejects Harnad's sharp distinction between academic and trade publication and thus one foundation of Harnad's argument, and he raises major questions about the reliability of peer review. Fuller labels Harnad's position as CyberPlatonic since he believes that it focusses upon an extremely idealized view of scholarly publication and the actual costs of working with and operating computerized systems. Fuller's wide ranging article examines the role of media in communication, the structure of the publishing industry, shifting conceptions about the nature of authorship and authorial-credit, and the heterogeneity of materials available on the Internet. 

Harnad replies forceful to these criticisms in "Sorting the Esoterica from the Exoterica: There's Plenty of Room in Cyberspace" by refining his contrast between trade and academic literatures. He draws a contrast between esoteric literature (written for specialists) and exoteric literature (written for lay audiences). Harnad argues for carefully examining how to reform the current model of scholarly publishing, "as it exists in the paper medium, and simply settle for making it faster, cheaper, more efficient, etc. by carrying it over onto the Net." He notes that peer review is imperfect in paper journals, and he sees no reason why the virtues and problems of peer review would be altered in electronic journals. Harnad deepens his defense and arguments for his original positions. 

In his final easy, "Cybermaterialism, or Why There Is No Free Lunch in Cyberspace," Fuller articulates a Cybermaterialist position for

In this last essay examines the political economy of publishing and the use of computer networks and opens new ground with his "Cybermaterialist's heuristic:" 

This special issue closes with a short satirical article, "The Spiders in The Web" by Robin Peek about the popularily of the World Wide Web. 


Okerson, Ann and James O'Donnell (eds.) 1995. Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries.

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