Scholarly Journal Publishing in the 21st Century
- By Benjamin E. Hermalin
The Internet's influence on scholarly publishing will return control and benefits to the academy and radically change the nature of the static print journal.
The Internet is going to forever change how scholarly material is disseminated. Although all aspects of academic (and non-academic) publishing are being revolutionized, the impact on scholarly journals will be particularly powerful.
Technological revolutions have two components. First, a new technology improves the ways in which old tasks are accomplished. Second, it expands what is possible, which leads to huge changes for society. For instance, the automobile was a revolutionary technology, not just because transportation efficiency was enhanced, but also because fundamental social changes—from drive-in movies to the growth of suburbia—were made possible. Similarly, the Internet will not only improve the efficiency of scholarly publishing, but will also make possible its radical restructuring.
Toward an Electronic Revolution
Consider efficiency. To transmit scholarship on paper is an expensive proposition: Hundreds or thousands of copies must be printed, bound, and shipped. The Internet, which allows copies to be supplied on demand, "bound" on a single Web page, and shipped through the ether, represents a considerable savings. For this reason alone, one should expect to see electronic journals eventually supplant print journals. But lowered costs, which have begun to lure even the most hidebound publishers onto the Net, are only a minor component of the Internet revolution. To focus only on transforming paper journals into "e-journals" is to miss the big picture of how the Internet will revolutionize scholarly publishing.
Paradoxically, to appreciate this big picture, begin with a close look at what's wrong with scholarly journals from a narrow perspective—namely, that of the scholar as "content producer." A scholar conducts research and wishes to disseminate his or her findings. Even today, self-publication is not a valid option: More research is produced, even in the smallest fields, than any individual scholar has time to read. Scholars have historically relied on editors or ad hoc reviewers of academic journals to review scholarly papers and identify what is worthwhile (so-called "peer-review").
The problem is that the peer-review process is slow. As MIT's Glenn Ellison observes, the average time for an author to receive a first editorial response is three to five months at the top economics journals, and the overall publication process at any given journal averages two years (moreover, these delays are not unique to the field of economics). The Internet can radically speed up the process. How?
First, working with digital versions of papers eliminates the delays inherent to paper, such as manuscripts being mailed among authors, editors, reviewers, and publishers. No paper also means shorter, or even no, delays in typesetting.
Second, publication is often delayed because the economics of paper publishing dictate the size of issues and the frequency with which they can be shipped. Often, accepted papers must wait in a queue until there are enough other papers to fill out a particular issue, or until there is an issue that has sufficient space available. But on the Web, the cost of publishing articles as soon as they are accepted is zero, at least if the process is automated.
Third, print publication is often delayed because of poor oversight of the process: Editors fail to keep track of papers as they go through the review process, reviewers are not reminded to complete reviews, and so forth. The Internet makes possible a Web-based back-office solution that improves tracking and speeds the process. (Highwire, the Berkeley Electronic Press, and others currently offer such solutions.)
Finally, publication is often delayed because any given journal has limited bandwidth, due to the economics of publishing on paper and to the cachet derived from exclusivity. The Web offers nearly unlimited bandwidth, which can help eliminate two principal sources of delay: sequential submission of papers to different journals, and numerous rounds of revision at the same journal.
A Quality-Rating System
Almost all scholarly journals require exclusive submission. But myriad factors, such as bad luck in reviewers, or an editor's quirks, make rejection all too common. If a journal rejects your paper, you've lost the months it was under review and you must begin the process anew. By the time two journals have rejected your paper, you've lost a year, and you could face two more years to publication, even if the very next journal you approach decides to publish your paper.
A better system would allow you to submit to a family of journals of differing prestige with a common set of editors who match your paper to the appropriate journal. Such a quality-rating system could save a third or more of the time between the completion of a paper and its ultimate publication. Elimination of sequential submissions has another benefit: Fewer editors and reviewers would deal with a given paper.
Why is the Internet essential to a quality-rating system? First, a good back-office solution with distributed access is essential for the editors, who are likely scattered around the world, to oversee the higher volume of submissions such a system will generate.
Second, in the early stages, the editors will likely have too few articles for the top-tier journals to be cost-efficient if they had to be published solely on paper. In a paper-only world, top-tier journals would not be viable, or the editors would be pressured to lower their standards, thereby undermining a quality rating. But on the Web, cost issues are irrelevant and top-tier journals that adhere to high quality standards are viable. Hence, although some have expressed the concern that online journals will lack the prestige of print journals, the truth could be the reverse—the Web can make it easier for journals to commit to high quality standards, which in turn establishes their prestige.
Revisions constitute another bane of scholarly publishing. Ellison notes that the average economics paper g'es through two rounds of revisions (the infamous "revise and resubmit"). He estimates that such revisions add four to seven months, on average, to the publication process. Although revisions typically improve a paper, the problem is that the journal reaps the benefits while the author bears the costs. Hence, editors tend to be excessive in their requests for revisions. Facing the alternative of not publishing his or her work, the author has little choice but to revise again and again.
When a family of quality-rated journals is involved, the author has the option of not revising, but rather accepting publication in a lower-tier journal. Some authors will undoubtedly see this as an acceptable tradeoff, in which case editors will likely become less demanding in terms of revision. If, as Ellison suggests, most revisions are concerned more with style than substance, this change will help rationalize the use of authors' time, to the benefit of the academy.
Will multi-tiered journal families fly? Evidence from the B.E. Journals in Economics indicates that the answer is yes. Such journal families have received submissions from every top-ranked economics department, and the list of initial contributors is a veritable "who's who" of top economists. This positive response also indicates that scholars view online peer-reviewed journals as acceptable alternatives to print journals, a response ech'ed in numerous surveys. See, for example, Keith Archer's study in which only 23 percent of scholars indicated that online peer-reviewed journals were not fully acceptable.
The Net's Impact on Change
In addition to improving scholarly journals for the scholar as author, the Internet will also improve scholarly journals for the scholar as reader. Some of the lower costs of Internet publishing will benefit both the reader and his or her institution. Desktop access will save scholars time. The Internet's capability to transmit computer programs, data sets, hypertext bibliographies, audio, and video, in addition to text, will make e-journals more valuable than print journals. Moreover, the whole notion of a journal will change: Comments and discussions of articles can be linked, allowing the reader to see not only the article, but also commentary, from a single Web page.
The Internet also lowers the barriers to entry into publishing. Motivated by a desire to find low-cost alternatives to existing journals and to associate better the research with themselves, numerous universities and scholarly groups are seeking to move into online publishing. BioOne, Highwire, Project Muse, and Project Euclid are helping university press and scholarly organization journals do just that by realizing the basic cost advantages and greater distribution offered by the Internet. These outfits, however, have so far paid only modest attention to changing the underlying functions of the journals or to allowing them to take full advantage of the power of the Web. Other efforts, such as those of the California Digital Library (www.cdlib.org), focus more on founding new journals that will more fully utilize the capabilities of the Web.
The Internet's impact on scholarly journals will be immense. Beyond the obvious benefits of lower expenses for production and distribution, the Internet will cause changes that are even more profound. More organizations will become publishers, and thus, much of the control and benefits of scholarly publishing will return to the academy. Scholarly journals will go from being static printed documents to dynamic multimedia presentations of research and ideas. Finally, the practices of journals will change radically to better accommodate the needs of scholars.