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
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
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
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
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
S: Given the endless possibilities for enhancing the software, could
you see putting entirely new mechanisms in place for reviewing papers
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
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
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
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.