Caxton: is he dead or merely resting?

Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads
February 9, 1996

Is the printed journal dead? This volume records an online debate about the future of academic publishing which took place in 1994 on the discussion list VPIEJ-L (a list devoted to electronic journals based at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute).

The opening shot was fired on June by Stevan Harnad, the author of the "subversive proposal" referred to in the title. In a message to the list Harnad, formerly of Princeton and now professor of psychology at Southampton University, set out his vision of a paperless networked publishing in which academics are freed from the "Faustian bargain" they made with the publishing industry and "go it alone" using the Internet as the primary channel for the distribution of academic research.

Harnad's subversive proposal is that scholars should short-circuit the conventional process by making their research papers immediately available to one another online through the medium of the Net using facilities such as anonymous FTP sites, gopher, and the World Wide Web. Taking to the airwaves en masse, he suggests, would radically hasten the demise of paper publishing, or at least the "esoteric" kind, of interest only to specialists and for which there is no trade market.

The questions Harnad's proposal raises are simple yet challenging: Why wait for the painfully slow gears of the printing press to grind when research - produced almost universally these days in digital form on computers - could be available almost instantly if it remained in that format? What value is added to research that can justify the average ten-month delay from submission to publication which the conventional publishing process takes? Why should publishers profit from the unremunerated labour of scholars? Why should libraries continue to pay spiralling prices for serials and periodicals when the average journal article is read by less than two readers?

The discussion is in 19 sections in the course of which a range of supportive and challenging voices - scientific researchers, librarians, archivists, learned societies - are heard. Many detailed questions are raised about the new cyber-Utopia: Who will be the custodian of the new archives - disciplines or institutions? How much does electronic publishing really cost? What strategies, systems and models for online publication should be adopted? How will peer review operate in the new environment?

These central issues flow through the discussion, appearing and re-appearing as they would in a conversation, which, of course, is what this book really is - the paper record of a two-month long electronic conversation.

Despite the diversity of disciplines and backgrounds from the which contributors approach the issues, the quality of the discussion is extremely high, and tone is spirited yet collegiate. Although this is not intended as an introductory volume, and many high-level issues are discussed, the discussion is remarkably lucid and a good starting point for anyone seeking an informed appraisal of the issues raised by electronic publishing.. The issues are thoroughly aired in the course of a well-informed debate, one that has since continued in The THES and THESIS.

One is conscious of a certain irony. The "subversive proposal" - that authors should migrate from paper to cyberspace - has itself moved from email to paper. Perhaps some of the contributors are right to suggest that rumours of the death of the printed word have been exaggerated.

Damien Keown (d.keown@gold. is lecturer in the department of historical and cultural studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is co-moderator of Hyperjournal-forum, an online discussion list devoted to electronic journals.

Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing

Editor - A. S. Okerson & J. J. O'Donnell
ISBN - 0 918006-26-0
Publisher - Association of Research Libraries
Price - $20.00
Pages - 242

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