Battle of the talking heads

June 9, 1995

HyperJournal-forum is a discussion list devoted to electronic journals. The list has 870 subscribers, most of whom have a professional interest in the future of electronic publishing in an academic environment. The Harnad/Fuller debate was raised on the list and members were invited to express their views on the two positions.

A synopsis of the first two papers was made available and the full text of all three articles was placed in the list archive.

The Debate

The view was expressed more than once that although The THES had played an important role in broadening the debate, neither article had succeeded in deepening it significantly. Clearly there are limits to what can be achieved in a short piece, but much of the content had a familiar ring to it, particularly to the ears of those abreast with developments.

One contributor suggested that Stevan Harnad was compulsively "tilting at windmills" in a battle that was already won. Another suggested that the debate was a couple of years late, and that attention had now shifted from principle to practice. That is, the authors should have been discussing not whether the future will be electronic but the details of how it will come about.

Although Harnad makes this very point in his opening sentence, much of his paper represents a sales-pitch for the concept of electronic publication rather than addressing practical issues of implementation. For his part, Fuller's drift into philosophical discourse left readers more bemused than enlightened.

The Contestants

When members were asked which of the two articles they found most persuasive, opinion ran roughly seven to one in favour of Harnad.

Allowance must be made for partisanship in that many subscribers are already converts to the cause of electronic publication. The general feeling was that Harnad made his case clearly and succinctly. Fuller was seen as adopting a "discursive" and "rhetorical" style that made it difficult to understand his arguments or see how they related to Harnad's position.

This left the impression of a debate oddly at cross-purposes, which explains why several subscribers felt they could endorse both positions without contradiction. Support was expressed for Fuller's viewpoint, but also regret that he had not engaged more directly with the points raised by Harnad and had failed to put the case for conventional publishing as strongly as he might.

Vox Pop

Here are four sample comments from subscribers, followed by notes on some of the issues raised.

"Harnad's article is a well-reasoned analysis of a situation, coupled with a proposed plan for action. Fuller's article is a polemical piece replete with rhetorical strategies, allusions and innuendoes that throws very little light on the problem raised by Harnad - namely how to move scholarly and research periodicals into the electronic or digitised medium."

"Probably, peer-reviewed, traditional styles will co-exist with more flexible, open fora for discussion (whether printed or electronic), because each is suitable for a particular type of knowledge-generating activity. I regret that Fuller's article was rather 'quirky' and did not set out the counter-argument to Harnad very effectively; many practical, as opposed to philosophical, points in favour of paper journals and/or professional publishers went unmade."

"The chances of resisting the move away from paper (assuming one wanted to) seem quite small over the medium term. We should therefore concentrate on ensuring that the shape of things to come has room for all the scholarly priorities we would not wish to see subverted, as opposed to the technology-based habits we can afford to drop. But how do we distinguish reliably between the two?" "As both an author and a librarian, I have felt the benefits described by Harnad, especially in speed of publication and cost savings. Free access is also important. Nothing is black and white, of course, and I believe there are many challenges to overcome in providing online access, and in preserving the scholarly record."

"Esoteric"

The point was made that Harnad's choice of the term "esoteric" was unfortunate, in that it suggested a restricted readership when in fact much "esoteric" literature reaches a wide audience. Much of this literature, it was suggested, would be commercially viable and classifiable as "trade," since consumers' reading interests are often wider than their research interests.

Management and Production

It was suggested that the production of journals (particularly those processing large numbers of items per year) is a skilled process requiring administrators, professional editors, and technical specialists. As such it is best carried out by learned societies and university presses.

An alternative viewpoint was that the electronic medium undermines this centralised model. Networking encourages collaborative ventures and once a critical mass of academics achieves Internet literacy they will reach out for the publishing opportunities which are there for the taking, buying in technical expertise as and when required.

Academic Disciplines

Several respondents mentioned the widely different requirements of different academic disciplines. What scientists may need, and need fast, is a copy of the latest equation or research data. A humanities journal, on the other hand, may seek to combine cross-currents of critical theory and the practice of individual disciplines. In this respect the latter is more proactive in extending areas of correspondence and defining and redefining their fields of research. Quite different vehicles may be appropriate in each case.

Marketing

Some support was expressed for Fuller's point about the importance of marketing. Traditional publishers have done useful work in building up specialist lists and editorial expertise in particular areas. This trend towards niche markets and customer service looks set to continue and it was suggested that for both paper and network publishers the micro-economics of publishing for smaller and smaller markets will dominate the developments of new formats for the next decade and beyond.

Conclusion

The view from the bridge of SS HyperJournal is that a substantial part of the voyage to the Post-Gutenberg Galaxy is behind us. No one seemed in any doubt that electronic publishing is here to stay. If this was the issue at the heart of the debate then Harnad emerges as clear victor. Fuller's principled objection to "Cyberplatonism" fell largely on deaf ears. The Internet seems to be regarded by most professionals not as a philosophical concept but as a tool for the delivery of information.

The question being discussed most actively is not if to use it but how. The issues on the agenda are therefore seen as economic and technical ones relating to pricing and charging structures, delivery systems, archiving, publication formats and peer-review. What is urgently required now are constructive solutions to these challenges.

HyperJournal is run by Damien Keown (Goldsmiths College, London) and Wayne Husted (Pennsylvania State University). The list has a World-Wide Web site based at Goldsmiths College in London (http://www.gold.ac.uk) from which further details are available.

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