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Electronic Journals and Scholarly Communication

In recent years, scholarly communication has virtually exploded into the on-line electronic world. This has brought a number of demonstrable benefits to the scholarly communication process as well as highlighting a number of inefficiencies and obstacles to the full deployment of information technology. However, the explosion has also brought a spate of credulous accounts concerning the transformative potential of information technology. These accounts, though well intentioned, do not contribute to a sociological understanding of information technology in general, or its effect on the scholarly communication process more specifically. In order to develop our understanding of the relevant issues, a critical and empirical analysis will need to be undertaken in order to get out from under the cultural values that have clouded the analysis of information technology thus far.


(1)In just a few short years the Internet has seen a spectacular growth in the amount of scholarly material available. Some sense of the rate of growth of electronic journals is given by the Association of Research Librarians directory of electronic journals. [1] In 1991 there were 110 journals and academic newsletters listed in their directory. This grew to 133 in 1992, 240 in 1993, 400 in 1994 (Okerson, 1994) and 700+ in 1995. There has also been remarkable growth in the number of refereed electronic journals from 74 in 1994 to 142 in 1995 (Okerson, 1995).

Maverick electronic journals are no longer alone on the Internet. A string of initiatives has placed a stunning amount of textual material on-line for purchase or direct retrieval. For example publishing companies and University presses (Duxbury, 1994), recognizing both the promise and threat of electronic publication, have begun to set up shop on the internet. In addition, there are a number of initiatives designed to reproduce classic and modern texts by digital imaging or SGML [2] markup. [3]

The EJS has experienced similar growth. From sporadic access to the WWW server just over a year ago when the journal was founded, we are now viewed by over 1500 individuals each month from 38 countries around the world. Most documents are served to the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Sweden. However access by other countries is steadily increasing. [4] Curiously though, the EJS remains virtually the only journal devoted to sociology on the internet. At the time of this writing, the Yahoo index [5], generally considered the most comprehensive index for the WWW, of Sociology Journals contains two listings. One is for the Electronic Journal of Sociology and the other for a Hungarian journal entitled Replika.

In this paper, I will provide an overview of the issues surrounding the emergence of electronic journal publication while attempting to relate them to our experience at the Electronic Journal of Sociology. Some of these issues are straightforward and include the direction in which e-publication is moving, the benefits of electronic publication, and the obstacles to its full deployment. These I will deal with in the first two sections of the paper. However there are currents in the emerging debates which are strongly reminiscent of the popular and semi-academic eulogies to the transformative and revolutionary impact of technology and information technology (Toffler, 1980; 1990; Levy, 1984; 1992; McLuhan, 1969). These claims are as untenable now as they have always been. Thus an additional task will be to provide a counter point to what amounts to an uncritical acceptance of the discourse on revolutionary change as it pertains to the explosion of electronic publication.


(5)Publishing scholarly material electronically carries with it a number of widely recognized benefits. Almost all of those who care to comment on the subject recognize the extremely low cost of producing electronic texts, the high speed at which results can be distributed, and the sophisticated access to academic material through search tools and database functions that is possible with electronic publication (Readings, 1994) as benefits likely to seriously challenge traditional modes of communicating scholarly information. Indeed, many have commented on the likely demise of tradition paper based scholarly publication (Harnad, 1991; Naylor and Harnad, 1994) in the next 10 to 50 years and some (Harnad 1994) have attempted to hasten the day when all academic publication is done electronically.

The concern to get rid of traditional paper based journals is based on the recognition that with the new technologies, academics can distribute their own material more effectively than the traditional publishing houses. There is also a growing awareness that traditional publishers add very little to the process of scholarly publication. Some indeed argue forcefully that it makes little sense to turn over scholarly work to publishers since the only real function they ever performed was to distribute material to libraries and that this service is not worth the added cost or the relinquishing of copyright (Ginsparg, 1994). In order to understand this strong rejection of the status quo of scholarly publication, we will need to take a closer look at the dynamics and benefits of publishing our work electronically.


In recent decades, the cost of serials and monographs has skyrocketed and the number of library acquisitions has remained steady or declined. [6] This rising cost of journal publication, coupled with the explosive growth in research and the concomitant explosion of paper journals in the various disciplines, [7] has made it impossible for most libraries to maintain a comprehensive selection of literature. [8] This fundamentally contradicts the growing need for information represented by growing specialization in most disciplines. Simply put, the needs of scholars cannot be met by the current paper based publication system. These factors have combined to create intense pressure to find alternative ways of distributing academic material.

Publishing journals electronically promises to provide a solution to what some have termed a crises. There can be no doubt that publishing an electronic journal costs less than publishing a paper journal. [9] At the very minimum, printing and typesetting costs are eliminated. However, e-publication also carries with it the potential to handle submitted texts electronically. This potentially eliminates the need for a number of intermediaries or support positions. As well, it reduces or eliminates mail costs. Rather than relying on a number of intermediaries, editors who receive submissions electronically can simply forward submissions to peer reviewers who then make an optional printout of the paper and email their comments back to the editor.

Accepted papers can also be handled electronically again significantly reducing handling costs and administrative overhead. “Typesetting,” which in the electronic world amounts to nothing more than formatting the document and converting it to ASCII, HTML, TEI, TeX, or Postscript for distribution, can be done either by the editor or by a part-time editorial assistant. However there is also the potential to streamline this process even further. Because the texts are electronic, it is a relatively simple matter to write software or word processor macros that assist in the conversion process. Should editors choose this route, the slot normally associated with editorial assistants can be eliminated altogether.

(10)Further savings can be had by lowering the aesthetic standards of academic publication. Odlyzko (1994) argues that the pretty page covers, aesthetically pleasing page layouts, and article and citation standardization are artifacts of a system of scholarly publication once removed from the scholars themselves. He further argues that if scholars were presented with the true cost of providing these editorial services, they might in fact choose to get by without.

A few years ago, drastic decreases in the costs of journals would have meant going from Cadillacs to bicycles, with journals consisting of stapled collections of mimeographed copies. However, with the advances in technology described in previous sections, we can now easily move to something that is at least at the level of a Chevy in luxury, and in addition has the cross-country capabilities of a helicopter…. Many of the features of the existing system would be gone, as a typical paper might be processed by just a single editing generalist who would combine many of the roles of today’s editors, copy editors, and proofreaders. The uniformity of appearance of papers in a journal might be gone. Would that be a great loss, though? Should not the unit of scholarly publication be the individual paper, and not the journal issue? For bulky paper publications, it was natural to bundle them into larger packages. Most of the time, though, a scholar reads or even skims only a couple of articles per issue. Since most of the literature searching involves moving between different journals with different formats, why bother to keep uniform style in each journal? A uniform style of journal references also contributes to the quality of present publications. However, just how valuable is it, and how valuable will it be in the future, when each reference might have a hypertext link to the paper being referenced, or at least something like the URL address?

The only significant costs associated with publishing material electronically are those associated with the efforts of the editorial board and the peer reviewers of the journal, and with the costs for storage and transmission of electronic texts. However many editors are not paid and it is extremely unusual to remunerate editorial board members or peer reviewers. [10] These contributions are most often done on a volunteer basis though it could be argued that their respective institutions pick up the tab for the time they spend on the journal or reviewing submissions. Yet even if we were to factor in the cost of the volunteer editorial and review functions, the benefits of handling texts electronically would still reduce the cost in comparison to that associated with paper publication.

As for electronic storage and transmission costs, these are now quite trivial. In 1994, Paul Ginsparg (1994) noted that cost for gigabyte of storage was under $700. This meant that the 25,000 physics papers published each year could be stored for about 3 cents apiece. Since that time the cost for a gigabyte of storage has plummeted to about $300 a gigabyte thus further trivializing the cost of storage. However even in 1994, Odlyzko could conclude that the cost to store all current mathematical publications would be less than the subscription cost for one paper based journal! As to the cost of internet connects, these are generally shared among all members of an organization. Odlyzko (1994) noted that even with the recent withdrawal of NSF support for the Internet infrastructure and the move to commercialization, academic storage and transmission should remain trivial because network transmission will have to remain cheap enough for commercial applications (pictures, movies, etc.). He concludes by noting that the cost of fast internet connect will remain less expensive than the cost of a good collection of paper journals for only 1 discipline.

Estimates as to the cost savings of publishing material electronically range from a low of 25% of paper based publication costs to a high of 75% (Garson, Ginsparg and Harnad, 1994). The variation in estimates seems to be discipline specific. The cost of publishing humanities journals where typesetting requirements are minimal is lower than say publishing chemical journals where complex tables, math, graphics, and special characters need to be incorporated and where the labour required to incorporate these is intensive [11].

The EJS is a good example of the far end of the cost-reduction spectrum. From the very start we have exploited the potential of the information technology to the limit. Although we have a letterhead, 99% of our correspondence is electronic. Papers are submitted and distributed for peer review electronically. Authors are informed of revisions and rejections electronically, and papers, once accepted, are formatted and typeset on my computer using software freely available through public domain, shareware, or the GNU public license.

(15)Because I have the responsibility for copy editing, typesetting, production and distribution, I have been motivated to learn to program macros in various word processors and to learn the powerful programming language PERL. [12] I have thus been able to write scripts and programs that take over many of the menial tasks of publication like checking whether to see there are one or two spaces after each period. In this way I have reduced significantly the total amount of labour required to produce a single issue of the journal. If I were to give an estimate, I would probably say that it takes me 4 hours of editing and typesetting to produce one volume of our journal in both HTML and ASCII formats. And this without relaxing to far the aesthetic standards of our publication.

I have to admit that so far the type setting requirements of the journal have been minimal. We have had to deal with few tables and no math formatting. In addition, except for one article by Cuneo (1995), there has been no attempt to fully exploit the multimedia capabilities of the WWW. However the capabilities of WWW are continually being expanded and there is every reason to believe that sociologists will begin to take full advantage of the capabilities for graphics, sound and even video clips. Should it be necessary to deal with tables, graphs, and multimedia, the labour requirements of the journal could increase drastically. At that point, institutional support would become a requirement. On the other hand, as the tools for publishing on the WWW become more sophisticated, even the toil associated with these tasks may be reduced to insignificant levels. Because the WWW and HTML is still developing, it is still too soon to come to any conclusions.

One final comment before moving on. The significant reduction in the cost of producing electronic journals has one ancillary benefit. It eliminates concern over page length. Traditionally, paper based journals have placed strict limits on the length of articles they would publish. This of course has everything to do with the cost per page of publication and nothing to do with the requirements of scholarly communication. This restriction may have had an inordinate influence on the style of cutting edge scholarly discourse which, because of the need to pack as much information into 10,000 words as possible, is often thick and difficult to wade through, obtuse, and even “occasionally” poorly written. This has resulted in some cases in a discourse that, though not intentionally so, is fundamentally exclusionary. With the advent of electronic publication this straight jacket is removed since it costs fractions of a penny more to publish a 60 page document than a 30 page document. Of course, whether or not this will have a significant impact on scholarly discourse is an empirical question.


Much more interesting than the reduction in cost, from the scholar’s point of view anyway, is the significant increase in the speed of academic discourse that can be achieved via electronic publication. We are all familiar with the traditional delays associated with paper based publication. Indeed, it is not uncommon to have to wait 2 years (or more if revisions are required) from the date that a submission is received by a journal to the date that it finally appears in print. Most of this delay is caused by delays in the postal service. The submission must travel from author to editor, and from editor to reviewers. Once the manuscript has reached the reviewer, some additional delay can be expected because of the low level of priority often given to reviewing for paper based journals. As a result, brown manila envelopes that contain manuscripts for review can often go ignored more weeks.

Once reviewed, there are additional postal delays. Reviewer comments must travel back to the editor and be processed before finally reaching their destination in the hands of the expectant author. Unless the paper has been accepted for review as is, (an extremely unlikely eventuality) the process needs to be repeated a second time.

(20)Even when the paper finally appears in print, there is still a significant wait before the paper achieves its full impact on the field. Indeed, as Steve Harnad (1991) points out eloquently, because of the long delay, the author may have lost interest in pursuing the original line and thus the work may never achieve its full potential impact.

…now the author must wait until his peers actually read and respond in some way to his work, incorporating it into their theory, doing further experiments, or otherwise exploring the ramifications of his [sic] contribution….[this] usually takes several years…and by that time the author, more likely than not, is thinking about something else. So a potentially vital spiral of peer interactions, had it taken place in ‘real’ cognitive time, never materializes, and countless ideas are instead doomed to remain stillborn. The culprit is again the factor of temp: the fact that the written medium is hopelessly out of synch with the thinking mechanism and the organic potential it would have for rapid interaction if only there were a medium that could support the requisite rounds of feedback, in tempo giusto! (Harnad, 1991: 44).

In the electronic realm, the pace of academic discourse can be accelerated and the long and often frustrating delays eliminated. At the EJS we have no postal delays. Submitted papers are in the email boxes of reviewers usually a few minutes after I log on to my university account. Sometimes I need to convert the submission to ASCII and this may add a day or two if I don’t have the time to do the conversion immediately. But even this delay is insignificant.

Our board members and reviewers normally take a few days to no longer than two weeks to complete their review. Once I have received their comments in my email box, I have to make my final decision. Again, depending on my work load, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to two weeks. After the decision, I inform the author electronically.

If the paper is accepted, or after the author has completed revisions, the next step is to format, copy edit, and convert it to HTML and ASCII. Without interruptions, this takes about an hour depending on the complexity of the piece. Once this is completed, the article can be sent to the author for a final once over and then placed on the web page. Total time from submission to publication is 7 days to 2 months and in ideal cases, two days is not unreasonable!

Delays enter into the process when the author has to complete revisions to the paper. Since most of our submissions require some sort of revision, these delays are regular occurrences. However, perhaps as a direct result of having had their submissions handled quickly, most authors complete their revisions apace. So, even with this added delay, it is still possible to publish a paper in as little as a month from the time it is first submitted.

(25)Clearly this is a quantum time savings and the benefits are potentially enormous. Harnad (1990) has written extensively about the potentials of the new medium.

Scholarly inquiry in this new medium will proceed much more quickly, interactively, and globally; and it is likely to become a lot more participatory, though perhaps also more depersonalized, with ideas propagating and permuting on the net in directions over which their originators would be unable (and indeed perhaps unwilling) to claim proprietorship. An individual’s compensation for the diminished proprietorship, however, would be the possibility of much greater intellectual productivity in one lifetime, and this is perhaps scholarly skywriting’s greatest reward.

As Harnad suggests, there is a potential to enliven academic debates. Articles published in journals often elicit peer commentary. However this commentary can appear in the journals months after the article was initially published and years after it was initially submitted. In the electronic realm commentary can appear days after the article is published and weeks after it was first submitted. Indeed, direct email links can even be provided from the author’s signature in the article and commentators can easily contact the author directly with comments or requests for information. In it conceivable that global research partnerships could form between those with similar interests with no more effort than that needed to click on the author’s name in the article. From the very start, the EJS has provided automatic mail links to encourage this sort of global networking.

It is further possible to extend the process of commentary and make it more participatory as Harnad suggests. The EJS has installed and is currently testing software that will allow our readers to comment on submissions on-line. Responses will be archived in “forums” assigned to each submission and anyone in the world will be able to review the archived comments. We plan on making this software available for initial public testing in January of 1996.


If you have read through to this point, then you know that electronic publication offers vastly increased access to scholarly material. You are probably reading this from your home or office computer. You have not had to pay a subscription fee for this convenience and you have not had to make a laborious trip to the library. You will also have noted that I have provided hypertext links to almost all of the

in this paper. You are thus easily able to check on the accuracy of my citations and the use to which I put them -or even make copies of them yourself with the local laser printer. Again, no bothersome searching through libraries. You have easy, quick, elegant access to all the material you need to read this article. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Or does it. From my perspective, it was a joy to research this paper. Most of the material of any consequence to electronic publication is on-line and freely available. All I had to do to gather the material to write this paper was use powerful WWW search engines, follow hypertext links, browse articles, and print the ones that I wanted to use. In the process I expanded my own library of material, stored electronically of course, for future reference. The research process was easy and quick. All in all I probably spent less than 8 hours collecting material. If I had to make multiple trips to our university library, 8 hours would have been consumed in the commute and search for parking space alone.

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