on not sinking the paper fleet ... ERCELAA@VUCTRVAX.BITNET 19 Oct 1992 15:34 UTC

Date: 19 Oct 1992 10:49:07 -0400 (EDT)
From: Stevan Harnad <harnad@PRINCETON.EDU>
Subject: On not sinking the paper fleet...

Michael Strangelove asks for comments on his observations about
academics becoming "maitres chez eux" in the electronic publishing era:

> Date: Mon, 19 Oct 1992 07:53:26 EDT
> From: MICHAEL STRANGELOVE <441495@acadvm1.uottawa.ca>
> Consider that the average humanities or social sciences journal is
> written by academics, edited and peer-reviewed by academics, all at
> minimal or negligible wages and then disseminated by a commercial
> publisher to universities.

The publisher is often not commercial, but a non-profit university
publisher or learned society. Academics don't get wages for refereeing
but editorial offices do have budgets: editors receive (modest)
honararia and the rest of the staff gets real wages. Book proposal
reviewers are often paid (modestly) and if volume rises this may have to
happen with journal submission referees too.

> The university structure is used as a pool of near-free labour for the
> production of journals that are then charged against the university
> budget.

This is partly true, though sometimes the university receives a
(modest) editorial office subsidy from the publisher.

> Now the Net presents universities with the opportunity to act as their
> own publisher and distributer at potentially reduced costs. Eventually
> the global network will connect the majority of academic institutions
> and present journal purchasers.

True, but there will still be editorial office costs, and if submission
rates are high, with the high accompanying work-load, these costs will
no doubt rise. On the other hand, many other costs will be reduced or
eliminated by electronic dissemination (someone should do the exact
figures -- the publishers' estimates I have seen have not looked even
near accurate relative to my own experience; they seem to be
underestimating the potential savings). In my estimate, electronic
journals will have some much lower real expenses associated with them
(and, even more important, they will have an incomparably greater and
faster "reach," which is the most important factor for the academic
author, who is seeking eyes and ears for his work).

> When that time comes the main difference between network based
> distribution and print based distribution will be that of form, not
> content.

True (once the graphics problems are all solved). And even certain forms
of rapid interactive content will be possible only on the Net
("Scholarly Skywriting").

> Thus the purchase of print serials from for-profit publishers will be
> entirely gratuitous on the part of academia, when the university
> clearly has the means disseminate its intellectual production to the
> majority of "academic- knowledge consumers".

As I said, not only for-profit publishers are currently involved in
publishing scholarly journals on paper. Some of the publishers are
university nonprofit publishers -- sometimes the very same university
where the editor and authors are. And if we agree that peer review
itself is something that the academic community is performing (nearly)
gratis currently (just as it is furnishing the writing itself gratis --
the commercial model of selling one's words for profit is not the
academic one, where authors in physics even PAY to reach the eyes and
ears of their intended audience) there are nevertheless the real costs
associated with other essential fuctions -- not paper-related ones --
that the publisher provides: the editorial office, copy-editing, design,
alerting, and the all-important imprimatur of a distinguished publisher
whose level of quality control has been established and can be relied

Academics could of course become jacks of all trades and try to take all
of this upon themselves, but then we can probably also do away with
libraries, granting agencies, admissions offices etc. etc. I think a
division of labor between publishing/editorial-office functions and the
actual writing and refereeing that academics do will continue to be
optimal even in the electronic era.

And there's another important factor that individuals tend to forget in
their understandable zeal about the possibilities of the Net: We face a
long transition era in which publication will be necessarily hybrid, at
first most of it paper, then a gradual growth of new electronic-only
journals, some dual journals, some journals making a gradual transition,
etc. This means that whether we like it or not, scholarly publishing
will have to co-habit with many of the exigencies of paper publishing
for some time to come. To imagine otherwise would be to be fancy a
disastrous dissociation between the iceberg and its tip. Electronic
publishing will remain in partnership with paper publishing in a joint
custodianship over scholarly writ in keeping the paper fleet afloat
until everything has been safely transferred to the skies. A financially
ruinous move that threatens to sink the paper fleet any time in the near
future would sink us all.

Stevan Harnad
Editor, Behavioral & Brain Sciences (paper), PSYCOLOQUY (electronic)

Department of Psychology     |    Laboratoire Cognition et Mouvement
Princeton University         |    URA CNRS 1166
Princeton NJ 08544           |    Universite d'Aix Marseille II
harnad@princeton.edu         |    13388 Marseille cedex 13, France
609-921-7771                 |    33-91-611-420