Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 4 — April 2001
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• Focus on Publishing •
The Tangled Scholarly Publishing Mess
Now that we’ve digitized most of the journals, what comes next? 
by Robin Peek

A representative of the scholarly publishing establishment recently asked me when I thought the task of shifting paper journals to the digital environment would be complete. Is this task nearly finished? If not, what more really needs to be done? The scholarly community wanted digital journals, and, for the most part, we certainly have gotten them. Indeed, it could be argued that we have so much "stuff" available in digitized formats that for many college students the selection of information now seems to be driven by whether or not the article is in full text. While academics and librarians may wring their hands at this new reality, it’s in many ways no different than other forms of user-information decision making that were based on either convenience or cost. 

So, I’ve been thinking about what’s been accomplished in the arena of scholarly publishing. Upon reflection, the act 
of digitizing the journals was, well, pretty darn straightforward. Oh sure, it seemed like a monumental, if not impossible, task a half-dozen or so years ago, but today it’s so commonplace that it almost seems mundane. Thanks to the entry of the major players, electronically published scholarly journals are truly legitimate and are the first place many scholars go. In fact, the next generation of scholars is being groomed to live in a digitized world that now closely mirrors the world of paper. 

The parallel being created between the print and the electronic publishing arenas has altered the stakes for the strictly electronic venues. Now that the old guard has shape-shifted into the vanguard, new efforts sans paper have an easier go of achieving legitimacy. At the same time, they have a more difficult task because they must compete against the established players. 

We can see just how established the scholarly publishing sector truly is because it seems to be immune from the recent economic trials and tribulations in the dot-com and technology sectors. This demonstrates just how strange the economics of journal publishing really are. But in trying to predict the next phase of scholarly publishing, can we completely ignore the economic storm clouds? If the seemingly unending financial gravy train that’s been the Internet really goes south, then how many resources will be available for further improvements in scholarly publishing? 

Internet Fatigue
Another factor that I think is going to influence the future direction of scholarly publishing is a growing sense of Internet fatigue. It was relatively easy to rally the academic troops when the issue was merely to "make it digital." And, victory was easy to measure because either something was digital or it wasn’t. 

It was possible to get academics excited about the prospect of having the library delivered to the home or office. OK, we accomplished that—product delivered. Now the attention seems to be returning back to the lab, to research, and to the classroom. So the briefly held unity and enthusiasm seem to have scattered. But therein lies the problem: The task is not really finished yet. Academia may need some breathing space to catch up with all the changes the Internet has wrought before different sectors of the scholarly community can embrace yet another sea change. 

Unfortunately, the academic community wrings its collective hands at the cost of the scholarly publishing enterprise, but change is slow and attention spans are short. Academics, by and large, see the world through very personalized lenses. Librarians and publishers are limited in what they can do to invoke interest by learned societies and college faculties. For example, much attention has been given to the alternative forums for scholarship in the particle physics community’s pre-prints. However, it’s often overlooked that the original proposal credited for a central pre-print registry was by Michael J. Moravscik and is over 35 years old. This isn’t something that just happened in the past decade. And Moravscik was a highly respected member of both the physics and the information science communities. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Moravscik was once a next-door neighbor and friend of the family.) 

So, given that new federal pre-print efforts such as PubSCIENCE and PubMed Central are less than 2 years old, their fate could take years—perhaps even over a decade—to fully play out. And now that the Internet’s go-go champions, Clinton and Gore, have left office, it remains to be seen how the Bush administration will boost and promote Internet-related activities. Further, efforts from learned societies and professional associations can assist in raising awareness, planning, and proposed directions, but they themselves lack the financial resources to fund significant projects or to take risks with their own revenue streams. 

The Tangled Web We Weave
The future of scholarly publishing is not merely based on how scholars publish their works. We have another problem in the tangled Web that’s being created. Here is where we have some of the thorniest issues that must be addressed. The technical concerns—such as article linking and archiving multimedia—that are necessary to make this whole system really work aren’t going to generate the same type of interest from the scholarly community that the first great wave of digitization was able to accomplish. XML, for example, is all well and good, but for the vast majority of the academic community, the topic is a real yawner.

Indeed, the next great phase of scholarly publishing will involve straightening out the tangled mess, and topics like XML will be needed to do it. Right now we’re only dealing with the equivalent of scholarly digital molehills, but they will soon become mountains of data—disconnected, unevenly linked, and not effectively searchable stuff. Today, with so many items in so many different Web locations, one practically has to have the finesse of an interlibrary loan manager to find out where a particular item might be residing. 

But whose job is it to fix these mountains of digital scholarly words? Yes, we’ve effectively moved the paper to digits, but we haven’t created the containers that really make the system work. Are the learned societies going to provide conferences on how to work with XML and metadata? Or on how to create active links and enhance searching? How about economics and copyright? 

I think most academics will probably try to make do with whatever they’re given unless it becomes such a mess that it’s wholly unworkable. If it really should reach such a point, then it may turn out to be an unsolvable mess to boot. But I’ll be surprised if any but a few pockets of the academic community show the same type of interest as they did for the first phase of scholarly publishing. And this factor, coupled with an uncertain future about the availability of resources to address the problem are, in fact, cause for concern. Internet-time taught us to believe that solutions would come quickly. We also grew accustomed to the seemingly boundless financial windfall from government, technology companies, and even venture capitalists to fund anything Internet. This is a situation that may easily change. In other words, there are bigger challenges ahead, but there could be less support and resources to fix them. 

Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. Her e-mail address is

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