WWW Administration - Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld

Electronic publishing: libraries, universities, scientific societies, and publishers

Professor Tom Wilson, Ph.D., Department of Information Studies, University of Sheffield, UK


. Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen - I would like to thank the organizers of the conference for inviting me to present this paper. Although this conference is held in Germany and, naturally, German is one of the languages used, the language of current developments in information delivery systems is almost universal - terms such as 'on-line', 'CD-ROM', and 'Internet' have found their way into many languages, so that I suspect that, if only I could read the script, the literature in Japanese, or Thai, or Chinese would be relatively accessible!

And it is these developments that constitute my theme: although, when I saw the original title of my piece in the programme, I did wonder whether it was possible to cover the subject in about 20 minutes. Of course, it isn't possible to cover the subject in depth, but it is probably long enough to give my opinion on the present state of affairs and their possible future development.

The problem.

What is the biggest single determinant of the state of modern society? The answer, of course, is the economy - a country's GNP is used to further political, economic and social ends, always on the basis of a) spending decisions by individual consumers, companies and public organizations, and b) the prevailing political ideology vis-…-vis spending on welfare and social goods.

How much is spent on libraries is general a matter for the university - or in some countries, the relevant ministry - and that spend is determined in part by demand, and in part by the available resources in the institutions.

Under the prevailing, so-called 'free-market' ideology that underpins political decision-making in more than one European country today, the resources made available for public services have been declining and libraries in many countries have been suffering (or are starting to suffer, in the luckier countries!) from a lack of funding to pursue their aims and to cope with the myriad demands of a changing information universe.

This is why the issue of electronic publishing is of such relevance today - because the prospect of distributed or virtual libraries opens up immense possibilities for a new economic environment for the library - new patterns of pricing for information, new patterns of payment for delivery, new possibilities also, of a fragmented library, when anyone with a terminal can search the library cyberspace. These possibilities have immense implications for the way university research and university libraries are funded.

And of course, the growth of electronic publishing creates exactly the same problems for publishers and the scholarly societies that either act as publishers or use commercial publishers to act for them.

Given a new competitive force - independently published journals - the publishers and societies have to react, if they are to retain their share of the market or improve their competitive position in that market against one another. Because publishing is, first and foremost, a business and it is driven by the usual business forces of profit maximisation and return on investment. Faced with this new phenomenon, publishers and societies are reacting in a number of ways: by creating a Web presence for their organizations; by providing Web access to contents pages and abstracts; by encouraging existing subscribers to access Web versions of their journals; and by examining new subscription and page-use charges for subscribers and non-subscribers. For the publishers, the stakes are very high - they must either compete against the newcomers, buy them up, or lose the market.

Electronic information delivery

Electronic publishing really takes two forms: librarians are generally familiar with the first, which I shall call electronic information delivery - these are services that deliver bibliographic and financial information, news, and a range of secondary information resources. Librarians have been most familiar with on-line services delivered by hosts such as Dialog and ESA-IRS, and have become familiar with CD-ROM services. They are now becoming familiar with Internet-based information resources, but, so far as I am aware, have not really begun (in Europe) to explore the potential of consumer on-line services, such as those delivered by America OnLine, CompuServe, Delphi, Prodigy, and, most recently Microsoft Network and UK Online.

In all of these developments there is the end-user issue to be faced, by which I mean that, as these systems have developed, they have become more and more accessible to the end-user - not only in terms of their delivery to the desk-top, but also in terms of the underlying technology and software systems.

Consider, for example, they way CD-ROMS are now used over campus networks, when the same systems probably needed an expert intermediary at an on-line terminal a few years ago. Consider also, the problems of doing effective searches on computer-based cataloguing systems, with the flexible search engines used by Lycos and, most recently, Alta Vista, on the Web.

This ease of access by the end-user raises fundamental issues for the university and economic issues are paramount in the debate over extending the use of services to the end-user.

Electronic publication

Now let us turn to the other aspect of electronic publishing, which raises even more significant issues. I shall call this electronic publication proper - by which I mean, the publication of original scholarly research (and research news). Increasingly, the first mode of publication an individual editor/scholar thinks of is electronic publication, of either a newsletter in the academic field, or a new journal - these may be published as e-mail newsletters (with the back-files available by ftp) or as WWW pages, or as both.

The scale of things can be shown by reference to the mailing list 'newjour' which sends out daily messages announcing new publications. This service now (12th February 1996) has an archive of 1635 announcements.

Between 18th December 1995 and 12th February 1996, the service announced more than 330 new titles. Not all of these, nor all of the archive file, were new scholarly journals; they also covered newsletters, on-line newspapers (either completely new, or Web versions of daily and weekly printed papers), scholarly journals, and popular magazines.

There are serious and silly examples in most of these categories, and many will not survive longer than the enthusiasm of the individual who starts it, or longer than it takes a commercial organization to discover that it either can't attract enough subscribers to a print publication, or enough advertising to underwrite the Internet publication.

However, the fact remains that electronic publishing is exploding as individuals and organizations test out this new mode of publishing and my guess is that many of the publications will succeed (however the originator cares to define that term) and that we are witnessing a major cultural change in scholarly communication.

The scale of what is happening suggests to me that we are at a turning point in scholarly communication - I argue that it is a turning back, to begin to satisfy, in the 21st century, the ideals of the first scientific communities of the 17th century.

In some areas (for example, fundamental physics) it is already the case that electronic files of working papers are the first mode of communicating new research findings. In other areas, which may, for example, be too small in the number of researchers to support a print journal, new electronic journals are being established. Still more areas have some close affinity with the electronic medium itself and, therefore, find it appropriate to publish electronically (for example, the new Journal of Information Law and Technology). Other fields have an in-built need for multimedia publication: for example, Postmodern Culture deals with, among other things, film criticism, where the ability to integrate video clips with the text is of major importance to the author and to the reader.

The Internet explosion

Why is this happening? First, it is very easy to do. Many academics have a good knowledge of the processes involved in publishing - since they've been working for publishers in one way or another for years and the technology of electronic publishing is pretty easy to master - until we get into multimedia publishing.

Secondly, it's fast. I edit an non-refereed journal - our 'house journal' Information Research - it took me about four hours to put the last issue together, converting word-processed text into HTML mark-up text. By the following day the issue was on our Web site and the scholarly community in the field had been advised of its existence by e-mail to a couple of lists. Within a couple of weeks of it appearing on the Web it had had more than 250 accesses - far more than the number of subscriptions to the paper version.

Thirdly, the number of times the pages have been used are an indication of how accessible the Web is - and with the Internet being used primarily by people in academic institutions (although many of them in the USA access the Internet from their homes), this is not very surprising.

Finally, and here we come to the key issue for publishers, librarians, and universities, it is economic to publish in this way.

The economic issues

Why is it economic? First, because the scholar has practically no direct economic interest in the process - the vast majority of academic writers make no money from their publications, nor do they make any by acting as members of editorial boards, or as referees, and they make very little as editors of journals. Thus, there is no economic reason for them not to give their services in the same way to e-journals.

Secondly, the university and the state, through their support for research are already subsidising the publication of results. They do so by encouraging research, by encouraging academics to publish, and by encouraging them, also, to act as editors, referees, and so forth. They further subsidise the process by not demanding of publishers any contribution towards the costs they have incurred - publishers pay nothing for contributions. There is no reason to suppose, therefore, that universities will put any impediments in the way of academics who wish to create e-journals and publish their papers electronically. True, there is the cost of maintaining WWW sites, but the main costs have already been sunk in providing campus networks and cost-recovery methods are not immediately obvious.

Thirdly, the university pays out significant sums to publishers to buy back the results of research they have already subsidised and made freely available to the publisher. They also pay staff to monitor journal acquisition and to maintain the collection, and they pay capital costs of housing journal collections. The contrast between this situation and that of the majority of journals being freely available on the electronic networks is startling - I would estimate that any conceivable costs incurred by academic staff setting up Web sites and creating e-journals would be recouped very quickly, if that become the dominant mode of publication.

On a purely economic basis, therefore, universities have every incentive positively to encourage academic staff to create and manage e-journals, and the academics themselves have no economic incentive to remain with print-on-paper publishing.

The scholarly societies are in a somewhat different position - journal publication is partly a service to members and partly a cost-recovery strategy, if they publish themselves. Of course, many use the services of commercial publishers, who take on the costs of production and provide copies to members at subsidised prices. A society that acts as publisher may find itself needing to choose between providing a service to members, through electronic publishing, at a much reduced cost and recouping costs through the sale of copies to non-members. Of course, it could adopt a half-way house and continue to charge a subscription for non-members: the means to do that already exist and there would be little problem in moving to a totally electron-based form of publication.

The commercial publisher is in a very different position because he (or she) has no control over the original knowledge production but is dependent upon the willingness of authors to part with their product, free of charge. If, therefore, electronic publishing of the results of academic research becomes the norm, the publishers will be in a very difficult position, since the very notion of a market it scholarly research publication will disappear.

Libraries in the revolution

If electronic publication becomes the norm for scholarly research, libraries are going to have to make some adjustments. First, they have to adjust to the idea of the distributed or virtual library instead of perceiving the library as a static collection. Increasingly, the information resources will not be under the physical control of the librarian and different needs will be expressed by users as a consequence - for example, depending upon the speed of development of effective campus networks (and not every institution in the UK, at least, is well provided for in these terms), there may be a short term demand for a centralised pool of computer terminals, rather than reading space. Furthermore, if e-journals increase in numbers as they appear ready to do, the need for physical space may decline while the need for computer storage for mirror sites of the major electronic journals increases.

Secondly, as I have suggested already, they must come to terms with the fact that, increasingly, the information-user will be the information-seeker who, most of the time, will not require the services of an intermediary. This has implications for the librarian's role in academia and a good deal of creativity will need to be expended in determining what that role should be and how it should be pursued. At Sheffield we are exploring the concept of networked learner support as a basis for a new paradigm for reader service in academic libraries and that may well be part of a future role.

Thirdly, they will have to face up to the economic imperative experienced by universities to maximise the return on research resources by actively encouraging the involvement of academic staff in the design and editing of e-journals and the prospect that an information strategy will be driven by the economics of the world of electronic information rather than by a concern for preserving the well-being of the university library as the basis for a well-found research 'laboratory'.

The future?

It would be a very bold seer indeed who would try to forecast the future for all the players in this changing world of electronic information delivery - all I shall do is to offer a few keywords around which entire papers could be written.

For electronic publication, I believe that those keywords will be about multimedia scholarly communication, where the electronic, multimedia debate replaces even the concept of the electronic journal.

For libraries, an awareness of the economic imperatives in their institutions and the need to seek new roles relating to research support and networked learner support.

For the university, a hard look at the economics of their role in the research generation and dissemination process.

For the societies, an equally hard look at the established relationship with members, publishers and subscribers, which will lead to a new awareness of the potential of electronic communication.

For the publisher, establishing new relationships with the knowledge producers and, perhaps a greater concern for the re-use of information, rather than its primary publication.

Finally, for the scholar a new era of scholarly communication, in which there will be a return to original ideals of free and unfettered communication of knowledge among peers.

Further reading

Some of the ideas in this paper are related to arguments presented in: Wilson, T.D. In the beginning was the word_ Aslib Proceedings, 47, 1995, 195-202

The concept of networked learner support is developed in: Fowell, S.P. & Levy, P. Developing a new professional practice: a model for networked learner support in higher education. Journal of Documentation, 51, 1995, 271-280, and Web pages for the Sheffield FIGIT project (NetLinkS).

Sekretariat der Bibliothek der Univeristät Bielefeld