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 educationfrom a very
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 publishingwhich includes the journals,
monographs, and other kinds of materials that we are all familiar withthis
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 sideare 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, dictionariesthese
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 publishersparticularly
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 journalrather
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
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 publishersbut they are mostly experiments
rather than large-scale change.
S: Then let's talk about the other sidethe 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 fieldscertainly 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 traditionas printed works would be. Some of them have some of the
characteristics of monographs, or encyclopedias, or databases, or interactive
games or simulationsand 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 timeparticularly
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
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 thingsrather than writing monographs
and journal articleswhen 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
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 ownso, 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
sidesboth 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 entitiessuch as authors, publishers, librarians,
or governmentare 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 authorshipby
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 scholarshipthe
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.
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 literaturesomething 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 scholarswho are in the process of turning
their dissertations into monographsto rethink those monographs for the digital
world as intrinsically digital content. And they provide some grants for senior
scholarsreal opinion leaders in their fieldsto 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 welllibraries 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
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 choiceand 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 togetherteam-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 standardswhat 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 monographyou
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 itselfwhere 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 recapitulatequicklythe 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.