Electronic Journals, Evolutionary Niches

Brian Whalley describes what academics want from their journals and shows how these criteria can be met by an on-line journal.

Most academics regard themselves as radicals; in practice, they are probably as conservative as anyone else in the world, publishers included. These are generalisations of course, but regarding new and novel forms of publishing it would appear that physicists logging on to Paul Ginsparg's workstation at Los Alamos are well ahead of the field. Ginsparg is, according to some, changing the face of academic publishing. Publishers and academic authors and readers all have some experience of electronic journals, an indication that they are no longer on the horizon but have arrived. The possibilities of electronic journals have been aired in New Scientist as well as Times Higher over the last year so Stevan Harnad's views should be well known beyond the realms of Ariadne readers ( see Ariadne 2).

So, where are all these journals? Is it simply that monolithic publishing groups and their accountants keep a firm grip on the market and inhibit innovation? I shall not attempt to answer such questions here, nor indeed challenge Harnad. However, I do see a need for alternatives to traditional publishing systems to be examined. In this article, one such alternative will be presented, not so much as a highly specific proposal but rather as another way of viewing academic literature. At the outset, I suggest that the reason why there is no headlong rush to publish electronically is because of an inherent preference for academics to see their literature in paper form.

Figure 1 is a schematic of the way in which, broadly, scientific literature exists and gets communicated. There will undoubtedly be differences in treatment in various academic areas but the diagram will suffice for this review. The relatively informal reviewing direction on the right is that taken by Ginsparg and his particle physics e-journal using a sort of 'successive approximation' of pre-prints to refine the quality of the output. Experience suggests however, that most academics are far more conservative than this and (especially with the Research Assessment Exercise in mind) prefer traditional refereeing procedures, despite its acknowledged difficulties. This does not avoid the main aspect of academic conservatism, that of publishing in electronic media in the first place. The general task is to obtain quality publication at minimal costs to authors and readers.

What does an academic want from a journal? Namely, to communicate material:

  • rapidly
  • accurately
  • widely
  • cheaply and
  • which can be preserved for 'posterity' and
  • provide a vehicle for discussion.

Within these functions, there are conflicting notions, even aside from the concept of inexpensive journals. For instance, an author may be prepared to wait for some time in order for a piece of work to come out in a prestigious journal. There again, although it is desirable that a paper be widely disseminated, there is a often 'target' of readers. As Harnad and others have recognised, there is a gross waste of money in going through all the complexities of publishing for a small, and perhaps very small, number of readers. It is important for posterity that the referenced and final 'lodged' material is accessible to all.

A further, but significant, consideration not included in the above list is a journal's status. Academics wish to publish in high quality journals for prestige, believing that the journal's high status will somehow rub off onto them or their research group. We know all about this from the recent RAE just past. However, there is another consideration that is probably less prominent: not where to publish but what to read out of all the published papers. A paper published in a high quality journal is more likely to be 'must see' rather than one in a journal deemed to be of lower standing. This is likely to be true even if an article appears as a result of a literature search.

A while ago, a gap was identified in the academic journal coverage, specifically in the area of geology and physical geography dealing with glaciers. Disregarding the cry of 'not another journal' it was thought appropriate to consider the implementation of a new journal in a totally electronic form. There were several reasons for this. First, there is a need to have coloured images, not only of topographic features but geological thin sections, maps, images from digital terrain models and geographic information systems. As these are very costly for print on paper journals, a WWW distribution is clearly advantageous. Secondly, an aim is to avoid delays in printing and thirdly, to make it adaptable to changing circumstances and needs.

Glacial Geology and Geomorphology (GGG) has, from the outset, been set up as a totally electronic, peer reviewed, journal. It is mediated on the WWW and exists in a printed version only in as far as a reader may print out a selection from it. We call it a 'pure e-journal'; journals published in both electronic and paper version are 'hybrid' electronic journals. One aim of GGG is therefore to provide the benefits of electronic transfer as well as other value added products in an accepted academic, peer-reviewed system.

So far, so unexceptional, although there are technicalities in setting this up this e-journal which need not concern us here. GGG joins other Web-distributed electronic journals such as Psycoloquy, Electronic Journal of Theoretical Chemistry and Hypermedia Joyce studies. GGG does not try to break new ground in going towards a 'page charge' funding mechanism. The idea is to provide funding in a different way. We shall return to this, but first a trip back in time.

In 1939 J.D. Bernal claimed that, of papers in the thousands of journals then published, 'possibly as much as three quarters' were of little value anyway! Hence, returning to the point made earlier, concentration on high quality journals is not just a matter of prestige but is also one of selection by the reader. This may be the most important function that a high class journal can provide; that of filtering information. Of course, it does nothing to save the paper that gets 'lost' in the welter of other material that has been published over the years. Bernal's notion to make life easier for the busy researcher was to publish a synopsis rather than a full length paper (the full material would be archived 'centrally'). This idea has always appealed to me. If the gist of an argument can be describeded in a couple of pages of text then why bother with the remainder - unless it really needs to be studied in detail. This concept has been taken into GGG. In brief, an author submits a paper in the usual way together with this 'extended abstract'. If accepted after refereeing, the main paper sits in the background and can only be viewed on a 'pay per view' basis. The extended abstract also has to be paid for, but resides in an area to which access is gained through a small annual subscription. The aim is to make this payment a small one for the individual (and not large for an institution). The subscriber has access to other facilities within the subscription area we have termed the 'milieu'. These other, 'value added', facilities include book reviews, field notes and a discussion forum as well as correspondence about papers. The objective of this structure is to provide a flexible and adaptable structure within a 'one stop shop' for the academic in an area of interest. Moreover, at least with e-journals, feedback can be very rapid and this accentuates the significance of the milieu.

In GGG, the main paper, which is marked up with appropriate links to images, references etc., is available from within the milieu if a reader requires it. A password system is used for this. An alerting device to subscribers will be provided so that even if subscribers do not pay frequent visits to the milieu then they will know of the addition of the latest refereed paper. This alerting will apply to extended abstacts as well as full papers as they are reviewed together. Prices for a full paper to be downloaded have not yet been fixed but a guideline might be the price of an inter-library loan request. With this system there are no reprints provided. Production is speeded as there is no need to accumulate papers in order to produce a volume. Each paper becomes a separate 'issue' numbered sequentially for each year. There are no page numbers as a search facility is provided for the journal. We shall provide more technical information at a later date.

Although the thinking behind the formulation of a new e-journal was motivated by research interests, there has been a potential spin off into teaching. Again, it is the notion of flexibity which is significant. It is at least the potential to be flexible and to respond to needs of teachers and learners in a manner which is not feasible through traditional CAL and CR ROM distribition. Some of these ideas have been propounded elsewhere in Active Learning. To conclude, I suspect that geoscientists, if not physicists, are as uncertain and conservative as the population at large. They probably only respond when something is presented to them that works and is useful. This is where the adaptability of the WWW-based 'milieu' comes in to play. The future of electronic journals is probably assured. The form and timing of the 'domino effect' is less certain. What is not known is the direction electronic journals might take. The ideas presented here are new and untried and certainly other manifestations are possible. We suspect that trying to be prescriptive is inhibiting. Evolution of a number of different concepts is possible. Indeed, this is the only real way forward as it allows responsive changes in demand to be responsive to need and to fill different publishing niches. This flexibility is surely only possible with electronic media.

Glacial Geology and Geomorphology is published for the British Geomorphological Research Group by John Wiley and Sons.The following at Queen's University are involved with the project:

Brian Whalley - School of Geosciences, QUB
George Munroe - Projects Group, Computer Services, QUB
Sheila Landy - Science Librarian, QUB
Stephen Trew - GIS Technician, School of Geosciences, QUB
Justin MacNeil - Research Assistant, School of Geosciences, QUB (funded by John Wiley and Sons Ltd)

Further information can be found at:
'Publishing a Scholarly Journal on the World Wide Web' Forthcoming ASLIB Proceedings (ELVIRA 1996)

Date published: 
Sunday, 19 May 1996
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