Academic Publishing in the Digital Realm: An Interview with Clifford Lynch

Syllabus interviews Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI).

S: Our topic today, electronic publishing, covers a lot of territory. What are the parameters of electronic publishing in higher education—from a very high-level perspective?

CL: There are two rather separate things going on, that occasionally get jumbled together under the guise of electronic publishing even though they have rather different characteristics. On one side of the fence we see the changes in the traditional business of scholarly publishing—which includes the journals, monographs, and other kinds of materials that we are all familiar with—this is the incremental evolution of print publishing to the digital world.

On the other side, we have new works of digital authorship and truly new electronic publishing models. Here is where we see an investigation of the transformative potential of digital media. Both sides can be legitimately talked about as electronic scholarly communications, but often, discussions of scholarly publishing in the digital realm focus too narrowly on one side or the other.

S: Why don't we talk first about what's happening on the traditional scholarly publishing side—are we seeing a major movement toward electronic publication?

CL: These materials are moving on a large scale now, from print to digital form. But the conceptualization of the work is still very much rooted in print. Indeed, you will often see people printing these materials out in order to read them. So, rather than producing paper and shipping it to a library, what you'll see is a publisher setting up a Web site that people browse, reading some things online but printing out what they really want to study carefully.

This move to electronic publishing has happened largely with journals. It's happened to a lesser extent with books and monographs, the sorts of things that would be read in rather large chunks, in part because they are awkward to print out on demand for readers.

S: Are the authors of these materials creating different versions of their works digitally? What are the authority considerations?

CL: When you look at how people author for these kinds of works, they are mostly still writing things which could appear equally in digital or paper form. But it's interesting that journal publishers in particular take the position that the authoritative version is the digital version. I think that is an important intellectual step, but it's one that their authors have not entirely caught up with yet. Virtually all of these authors are still producing articles for which the digital and the print versions are essentially equivalent.

So, while the editorial decision that the digital version is definitive opens the door to things like interactive simulation models or datasets that can be navigated and analyzed by readers, in practice, the tradition of scholarly authorship is still very strongly based on a print model.

S: And what about indexes and reference materials?

CL: Indexing and abstracting services, encyclopedias, dictionaries—these things have a more natural existence in the digital world as databases, so they have really gone off on their own separate trajectory and are no longer particularly recognizable from their origins as printed volumes.

S: What about the publishers? Are there new business models?

CL: This move to digital formats has been driven primarily by the same groups who were the major players in the print publishing world. The scholarly societies, the university presses, and the commercial journal publishers—particularly in the scientific, technical, and medical areas.

Obviously there have been some perturbations in business models. For instance, we now typically see site licensing, particularly for journals, giving all members of an institutional community unlimited, concurrent access to that journal—rather than adhering to the convention in the print world, where a large institution would subscribe to multiple copies of a journal to house in different libraries around the campus. With site licensing, some publishers have moved to a pricing structure that figures in the size of the institution.

S: But this is really incremental progress on the traditional scholarly publishing side.

CL: That's what's happened with the traditional publishing industry so far. They are using electronic publishing as a way to disseminate and deliver, but generally, they are disseminating and delivering things that are rather strongly rooted in print. Note, however, that this is a generality. There are some experiments going on among these publishers—but they are mostly experiments rather than large-scale change.

S: Then let's talk about the other side—the new works of digital authorship and the newer electronic publishing models.

CL: On the other side of the world, you can see a tremendous explosion of experimental sorts of scholarly authoring activities, which are aimed at exploring the potential of the digital medium for teaching, for communicating scholarship, for documenting and disseminating knowledge. And huge numbers of these experiments exist in all fields—certainly in the humanities as much as in the sciences, which I think is a very exciting development.

S: Could you characterize these works in some way? Is there any universal understanding, or even classification, of these types of works?

CL: We don't have great language to describe these things, and there is a lot of variability from one to the other because they have the nature of being individual acts of creativity that aren't firmly rooted in a multi-hundred year tradition—as printed works would be. Some of them have some of the characteristics of monographs, or encyclopedias, or databases, or interactive games or simulations—and you might see all of these kinds of threads woven into these works.

S: So how do we move forward with this? Are there going to be preservation and access issues?

CL: Until very recently, these works were mostly being done as self-publishing ventures, by their creators. These are digital sites, mounted by individual faculty or by research groups scattered around at various universities. This raises a lot of issues, sustainability and preservation among them. We have an implicit system for the sustainability and preservation of print through the whole structure of the publishing industry, and of the library world ... and of the cash flows that move among them.

In many cases, these new works aren't coming out through publisher channels, they are not getting into libraries, nor are they really visible to libraries as potential acquisitions. So there is a problem that is now becoming recognized, as to how these new digital works will be sustained and preserved over time—particularly over time spans longer than the active professional lives and interests of the faculty who author them.

S: Presumably there are efforts being mounted to counter these problems.

CL: We are starting in the last year or so to see some publishers becoming more engaged in these new media developments, and we are beginning to see institutions stepping up to some of these stewardship and preservation issues through the development of new institutional repositories as services to their university communities.

S: Besides these problems, are there problems of acceptance of these digital works within the disciplines?

CL: There are still very vexing issues in many disciplines about the scholarly legitimacy of these works. And what happens to a faculty member who has spent his or her time building these things—rather than writing monographs and journal articles—when tenure and promotion reviews come around? Part of this is that there is a peer review system that supports much of the traditional scholarly published literature, and that really isn't present with these new works in the majority of cases.

S: Are there different expectations that can be discerned in the different disciplines?

CL: Different disciplines are adopting these adventures into new media at very different rates of speed. This has special implications for what we can think of as cross-disciplinary evaluation. When you start looking at the tenure and promotion process, for example, it tends in many universities to require a consensus among faculty that may go beyond one's own disciplinary faculty. It is much easier to feel comfortable with a tenure or promotion candidate who has published in a well-established journal, especially when you don't know that person's field as your own—so, reliance on the traditional publications tends to get reinforced.

S: It looks like there is much ground that will have to be gained on both sides—both on the more traditional side and on the more experimental side of that electronic publishing fence! How close do you think we are to seeing the real substantive changes that will take place?

CL: The simple fact that traditional publishers are making their works available digitally is in itself a change that should not be underestimated. Yes, from an authoring point of view maybe that hasn't yet changed the world much, but from an accessibility point of view, it's already an enormous change.

You can see the ramifications echoing in all kinds of directions. For example, what were historically small schools with meager library resources are no longer so isolated. Through consortia, through programs like JSTOR, and at other levels, access to the published literature through institutions is much more equitable than it was, say 15 years ago.

S: Are there other beneficiaries of this electronic access?

CL: When you look internationally, developing countries are starting to get at least some access now, to scholarly work at a level that historically they never have been able to get. That is a significant development, particularly when you get into areas like medical and engineering literature. Another aspect of this electronic access is that the pace has picked up. We're starting to see a superstructure of electronic distribution of preprints that has democratized access outside of the exclusive professional ‘in crowd' that has existed historically in virtually every discipline.

S: What different entities—such as authors, publishers, librarians, or government—are going to be most important in moving all of this forward? Where is the real progress in electronic publishing going to take place?

CL: Ultimately the key players here are going to be the authors and the readers. We tend to forget sometimes, for example, in our frustration with the economics of the scholarly publication system as it stands today, that the system belongs to and serves the authors and readers. Everybody else is just there to help. The creativity and the requirements of the authors and the reception from the readers will drive developments.

Having said that, I think that there is a lot that other people or groups can do to accelerate and help the process along.

S: For example?

CL: Librarians and information technologists at our universities, working together, can provide more hospitable platforms for new works of digital authorship—by creating institutional repositories and addressing the digital preservation and stewardship issues around making sure this content makes it into the future. Doing these things will also help with the legitimacy questions, which I firmly believe are incremental and generational familiarity issues that will be sorted out over time.

But government has a really limited role to play here. It has tended mostly to underwrite the production of scholarship without being terribly specific about how it's disseminated. Certainly that is the pattern with the science funders who provide the lion's share of the government underwriting for scholarship—the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, ARPA. They are concerned that the results get out to the scientific community, but have not been very prescriptive about exactly how that happens.

S: Isn't there any work that could be funded specifically concerning the development of electronic resources?

CL: There are some smaller-scale things, or some things around the margins, that are really very significant, that the funding agencies can do. For example, they could support research for better authorship tools and underwrite the construction of community knowledge bases like those we now find in areas such as biochemistry and molecular biology. Or, they could underwrite efforts to integrate data sources with traditional scholarly literature—something that is becoming commonplace in astronomy and astrophysics. And agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities that underwrite the production of things like dictionaries or encyclopedias can encourage the creators of those works to aggressively reconceptualize them in the digital world.

Private foundations also have some important roles to play here. I point you to the work that the Mellon Foundation has been underwriting to encourage humanists to author works for the digital medium. They are working with university presses and scholarly societies, to urge young scholars—who are in the process of turning their dissertations into monographs—to rethink those monographs for the digital world as intrinsically digital content. And they provide some grants for senior scholars—real opinion leaders in their fields—to produce their next “book” as a work conceived for the digital medium.

S: Is there a role for the university?

CL: Provosts, university administrators, and academic leaders can also help the transition by pursuing the issue of legitimacy of scholarly works. I worry a lot that too many universities are pushing off some of the very hard work of faculty review and evaluation onto the peer review process rather than grappling with the content of the scholar's record, irrelevant of where it appeared and how it was produced.

S: Libraries have played an important role in building our knowledge systems. I know that you've already mentioned libraries in this discussion, but I'm wondering how you would characterize their role as we move forward with digitized information and electronic publishing.

CL: Indeed libraries have had an important role in knowledge structuring and organization and preservation systems as the world of scholarly communication has changed. But they do sometimes tend to hang back for a while, waiting to see how the world is going to settle down before moving in. I think that we are now in an era where being a bit more aggressive might be a good thing. The world is changing fast and yet there are a lot of conservative forces at work as well—libraries can do a lot to help make this transition to thinking about authoring in the digital environment, of going beyond just using the digital technologies to re-disseminate print. They also are going to need to continue to collaborate with IT to cope in this new world.

S: Do you see IT departments and libraries in colleges and universities having more of a relationship?

CL: Yes, in fact, that's one of the things that CNI has been all about, and I think this is certainly something that is inevitable. And more and more you will see a third player in the collaboration, and that will be the instructional technologist.

S: What will be the essence of that relationship?

CL: Libraries are going to get very involved now in some things that historically they haven't been doing in support of the faculty. Rights clearance in particular will be one of those areas as faculty wish to repurpose material into digital works. Preservation and stewardship, as I already discussed, is another. And helping with knowledge and information structuring and organization

S: Today, we hear a lot about collaboration. Do you think that the notion of individual authorship is going to give way to more collaborative works, particularly given new opportunities to collaborate electronically?

CL: I'd be cautious to say ‘give way.' There are some kinds of scholarship, some kinds of creative work, that some people prefer to pursue on an individual basis. And where individualistic thinking is highly valued and very important. You don't see that much collaborative p'etry, for example.

Having said that, I think that in fields in which scholars want to collaborate, our abilities to do that are getting better and better. There are great opportunities to work collaboratively where that is appropriate, or in the case of interdisciplinary research where there is just no choice—and in order to solve hard problems you have to bring together groups of people with different expertises.

Developments such as collaboratories, and instructional support systems that permit discussions among classes and faculty in digital space are very powerful. But it is interesting that there is a little bit of a gap between how people work together and how they author together. People now have a lot of experience in working together—team-based problem solving is widely practiced in industry and in higher education. But when it comes time to write it up, I'm not sure that we do a really great job of teaching people to write or to author collaboratively. Often, collaborative work is written up by one person with the approval of the others. I wonder that if at some point we're not going to have to address that question a little more.

S: I'm wondering about document formats and standards—what will it take to arrive at universal capabilities for search, storage, retrieval, display, and collaborative work on electronic publications?

CL: I think that it g'es much deeper than document formats. We actually have component formats that are reasonably far along for multimedia works. If anything, we may suffer from too many standards in this area. What we really don't have is anything comparable to all of the conventions that have arisen around scholarship in printed form over hundreds of years. We really are unsure about how to represent them in the digital world.

Just think about the rich set of practices around a scholarly monograph—you come to it with the expectations for a title page, giving you metadata about the work; then it is going to have an introduction or a preface; it's going to have a table of contents; it's going to have pages that you can navigate through either sequentially or by using various kinds of indexes ... there are many additional things you've come to rely on in printed works.

How will we rethink those kinds of things in terms of digital works that are fundamentally nonlinear in nature, that can incorporate computational word and phrase search, that could include tagging in the text or might integrate source material or plug into live data resources?

These are things that go much deeper than document formats. There is a tremendous history in terms of refining written communication practices that's implicit in printed works today; we can see the results of this evolutionary process, but very few people know much about the process itself—where did indices, footnotes, tables of contents come from, why do they look the way they do, what drove their invention? We are now going to have to recapitulate—quickly—the evolution of conventions for the digital world paralleling those that have arisen over four centuries during which we have developed our expectations and practices around printed books and journals. It's a very, very different world.

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