The Digital Academic Press: An Interview with Robert D. Cooter

Syllabus interviews Robert D. Cooter, UC Berkeley's Herman F. Selvin Professor of Law and co-founder of the Berkeley Electronic Press, for his insights into electronic publishing and the impact of a digital environment on educational and scholarly publishing.

S: As one of the co-founders of the Berkeley Electronic Press, what was your reason for getting into electronic publishing?

RDC: When I first came to the University of California at Berkeley in 1975 we had electric typewriters and something called a typing pool. We'd go through a number of iterations with my penciled corrections until I had a final, correct document. But after the introduction of sophisticated word processors, I could make changes myself—on the fly—and I had more control because of this disintermediation.

S: Disintermediation?

RDC: Traditional publishers, whether you mean a large publisher in New York or the Xerox machine in the basement of a university building, stand between the professor and the students and colleagues who are going to be reading the material. With adequate software and the Internet, we ought to be able to eliminate all the intermediate steps, just as the word processor eliminated the typing pool. That's what I mean by disintermediation, and what we are trying to accomplish with the Berkeley Electronic Press—we want to allow the professor to interact directly and immediately with the students and professors who are reading the material that she or he produces.

S: I imagine that there is some economic impact too, particularly in the area of scholarly publishing—some of the print journals are extremely expensive.

RDC: There are several problems that have arisen in academic publishing. One of the problems is that the professors derive relatively little income from scholarly publication. Textbook publication is a source of income, but in scholarly publication, professors are donating their time for free to the large publishing houses to write and review manuscripts and to edit journals. Sometimes the editors are paid something, but that's trivial relative to the income that's being generated. What the professoriate primarily wants in scholarly publication is to get it read—the payoff for them is to get the material read; the payoff for publishers is to get paid.

This is a persistent problem—the level of interaction with students is affected because the traditional publishing companies hold the copyright, and if you want to put together a class reader that consists of the occasional writings or scholarly papers of various professors, you have to go through an elaborate process, as I'm sure you know, to get permission and to collect money and distribute it. And the fact of the matter is that most professors don't get anything significant at all from that; they'd rather give it away, but they can't because the system d'esn't allow them to.


S: And why are the prices so high on the scholarly journals?

RDC: With respect to the most scholarly work, what's happened in many fields is that the most prestigious journals are owned by societies or universities. And they're quite reasonably priced. However, they have expanded very slowly, so that as new subjects have developed, the nonprofit sector has not risen to the occasion; the new specialty journals are owned by private publishers. And what they have realized is that the major research universities have a very inelastic demand; that is to say that you can raise the price and they will still pay it, in order to get these specialized publications.

S: Would electronic publishing offer an environment in which these circumstances are changed, both for the dissemination of information to students and the costs associated with scholarly publication?

RDC: There is a real divergence in motivation and goals between the professoriate and the traditional publishing companies. If you could build a system of [electronic] disintermediation, you could take care of both of these problems. The professors could disseminate their work for free for things like student readers, and in addition the libraries would be charged a much more modest price for the editorial and reviewing services of the professors.

S: One of the things I've been hearing about is the concern for faculty to be compensated or otherwise rewarded for developing online course materials. Do you think that in the future faculty will generally be better compensated for developing digital materials?

RDC: Textbooks are traditionally written substantially for the economic return that they give the professors, and I think that is also going to be true for a broad range of Internet teaching materials. I think that those faculty who take the time to develop digital teaching materials should be compensated for that, but I think that the professor will get a much greater cut, and more control, if the electronic media [and associated systems of compensation] are developed properly—and the commercial publishing companies are not involved.

S: Will digital scholarly publication help speed up the research and advancement of work in the various disciplines?

RDC: Certainly the distribution of ideas is going to accelerate. For example, in the Berkeley Electronic Press scholarly journals, we guarantee that from the time of submission to publication, we will not spend more than eight weeks in processing the materials. The reason we can do this is because we have electronic technology. Everything is happening online. The author of the paper, the editor, the reviewers, and the publisher all interact with each other through software.


S: I understand how quickly the computers operate, but how do you get quick responses from the people involved?

There is a social contract that d'esn't work in traditional publishing. When you are an author, you want your paper reviewed immediately; when you are a reviewer of someone else's paper, you want to do it when you get around to it. We have established an Authors and Reviewers' Bank. Our software allows the editor to choose a group of potential reviewers from previous submitters and generate an e-mail inviting them to take up the review; the two who respond first will be given the paper, and the others will be asked again on another occasion. And if they agree to review the paper, they have to turn it around in a few weeks. We have various means of enforcement, depending on the journal, creating an incentive mechanism that is only possible because of the software.

S: Given the endless possibilities for enhancing the software, could you see putting entirely new mechanisms in place for reviewing papers…say, for example, some type of process involving a larger segment of the community in the review—maybe through some type of tabulated responses?

RDC: One of the things that is going to happen with digital publication is that we are going to have a whole new series of ways of evaluating articles, not just the traditional review, and we do have these in mind. But I think that the best way to obtain reviews is still through the Authors and Reviewers' Bank that I've just described. It's after the decision is made and the paper has been published that you need to take advantage of electronic media to get additional or ongoing reviews from people who are using the article. And we have plans for that, too.

S: Besides new efficiencies in the reviewing process, do you see a potential for the field of published papers to increase with digital publication—and what are the implications for quality?

RDC: One of the huge changes with the Internet is that the marginal cost of additional publications is zero—you don't have the cost constraints of paper publication and dissemination. So in principle you can publish everything. But you have to give the readers some signal of the quality of the papers. If you publish everything in an undifferentiated way, you are not providing the scholars with the information that they need to allocate their scarce time and decide what to read and what not to read. That's why we came up with a quality rating system—so that every paper with a minimum quality level can be published, but not every paper gets published in the more prestigious Gold series. We are able to publish more and still provide a quality signal.

This also really accelerates things: You don't need to work though a process of several months of submitting your paper to a series of journals until it gets selected. That's because the reviewer is not just recommending publication, but also the series in which the paper is to be published [so the paper can be placed immediately, within a quality range].


S: And then, what is the post-publication interaction of the profession?

RDC: What we hope to be able to do is to get input from our readers to, in effect, find out whether the initial quality rating by the reviewer was the one that is the judgment of the profession. There have been wonderful papers where the profession at first got it wrong. And later got it right. This last year George Akerlof—in the Department of Economics at Berkeley—won the Nobel Prize in economics. George's most fundamental paper was rejected at several journals before it was published, and then it became the foundation for a whole field of information economics. So that would be a case where it might be first published in the Bronze series, and then it would turn out later to be the best paper, on the basis of subsequent judgments by the profession.

S: Is it possible to track and make available all of the commentary associated with a given paper—and maybe the revisions?

RDC: The life cycle of a scholarly paper actually begins before it is published. Working papers used to circulate in just the top universities [as photocopies]. If you were not in one of those universities, it was quite difficult to get hold of those materials. Now, those working papers are posted on the Web as pre-publications, either on the professor's Web site or, more typically, by an institute or organization that has a working paper series. A paper might be revised, changed, or appear on a number of different sites before it's ready to be submitted for publication. But still, once the paper is finally published and comments are made, its life cycle is over—it's a source of reference, but it's no longer a living document. One of the things we would like to do is to have a place where the full life history of the article would be displayed, including what takes place after the article appears in publication.

S: What have you done so far along those lines?

RDC: We just opened, in early April, a digital repository with the California Digital Library (CDL) for professors and organized research units in the University of California system. The aim is to have the full life history of any given document available so that the reader could check and observe its progress. This is something that we need to construct in a unified way, so that each university in the country and all the professors who are submitting their work into that repository are using a common set of protocols.

S: I know that standards are being developed, and that the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) can play a role in how the digital resources from numerous universities might be compatible or interoperable. But how could large repositories be created that include or link all these resources?

RDC: One way is that a group of libraries would independently develop repositories that are OAI compliant and would cooperate in linking them. I think this is a path in which CDL is prepared to assume a leadership role. I think that this spontaneous growth and the linkages are simply going to occur, though another way that things could develop is that a single organization could get a grant from a foundation or from a government agency to spearhead an effort that would put an entrep–t into the repositories of various universities—I think this would be better, because there are problems that need to be explicitly addressed that no particular library has sufficient interest in solving by itself.

S: At what point will such large repositories have an impact on work in the different disciplines? Do you have an idea how this could all unfold throughout the disciplines?

RDC: High-energy physics has already been fundamentally affected in its development by the Los Alamos Server. The Los Alamos Laboratories are owned by the University of California, and the Los Alamos Server was constructed and financed with a grant from the National Science Foundation. When a physicist gets a new idea, he or she writes it up as a working paper and immediately uploads it to the Los Alamos Server. The server has a strong push technology to get that information out to anyone who's working in the field and wants to know about it. That d'es not happen now in social sciences, at least not sufficiently. But social science is ripe for just that kind of development. Other fields are ready as well. The same result we have seen with the Los Alamos Server could be produced very soon in the social sciences or the humanities.

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