Re: Nature 10 September on Public Archiving

From: John Unsworth <jmu2m_at_VIRGINIA.EDU> <harnad_at_COGSCI.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Fri, 11 Sep 1998 07:47:45 -0400

John Unsworth <jmu2m_at_VIRGINIA.EDU>Founding Editor, Postmodern Culture:

I am in sympathy wih Stevan's goals and principles, as expressed in
"On-Line Journals and Financial Fire-Walls," but I differ from Stevan
in my assessment of the savings available through electronic
publication, and I doubt that authors are likely to cotton to the idea
of paying to have their work published (and I think such a scheme
raises some problematic issues in itself, even if it were to become the

As the editor of an all-electronic journal (Postmodern Culture) that
has been in publication for eight years now (six years for free, thanks
to a series of start-up grants, the last two as a partly free, partly
licensed publication of JHUP's Project MUSE), I do agree that
significant savings are available in epublishing, but I'd argue that
there's a difference between a pre-print archive and a journal, and
that one of the major differences is editing--not just the peer review
process, but copyediting, source-checking, etc.. If we were to turn
things like copyediting and source-checking over to authors, the
consistency and quality of what we produce would go down-hill rapidly.
Authors, at least the ones I have worked with, have quite variable
standards in these matters, and often enough those standards are
surprisingly low. The work that goes into this sort of thing--as well
as the work of managing the peer review process, nagging reviewers,
nagging authors, formatting articles consistently, and so on--is paid
labor: we have two part-time employees who do this work, and often,
around issue-time, we add a third. My estimate is that this costs about
$5K an issue, in our case. Of course, one could argue that we should
chuck our standards of finish, in favor of greater access, but then
we'd be talking about publishing a different kind of product, and one
that would, in my view, have less value to the user.

Each issue of PMC contains roughly half a dozen articles--plus notices,
reviews, and other things which have value to readers, but which I
can't imagine authors paying to have published (would you pay to have a
review published?). If the cost of the whole were assessed to authors,
the per-article cost to authors would be roughly $933 per article.
Humanities research of the sort that results in articles we would
publish is almost never grant-funded, nor is it university-funded: in
short, there is no budget from which authors would normally be able to
draw this $933. If Universities elected to establish such a fund, all
at once and everywhere, and if journals in the humanities all at once
and everywhere agreed to begin operating on this basis, then all would
be well--but the devil's in the interim.

IF all journals don't operate this way, those that do will be at a
distinct, probably fatal, disadvantage--authors will not submit
articles to them. Even if all journals, tomorrow, adopted the new
economic model, if Universities didn't simultaneously and universally
establish funding for authors to pay these charges, then some, maybe
many, authors would be at a distinct, probably fatal, professional
disadvantage. And even if universities did universally adopt this
model, where would that leave independent scholars, creative writers,
and others who do (at least in the humanities) publish in academic

I am all in favor of authors retaining rights to the intellectual
property they produce, and I certainly wouldn't object to authors
posting their own work on their own sites--but I don't think this
substitutes for uniform search access across an entire journal archive
or across a whole set of journals: in fact, it throws us back out on
the Web search engines, where our chances of finding what we're after
are not very good. If the answer to that is to allow people to deposit
materials on a central server, then we're back to issues of maintenance
and paid support, as well as to issues of consistency in the data
(since inconsistently entered or formatted data will decrease the
effectiveness of tools like search engines).

The conclusions I'd draw from the foregoing are two. Firt, it is
certainly possible to publish scholarship for less in the electronic
medium than in print; quality and finish in the product, however, does
have a medium-independent cost, as do finding aids (whether a print
index or a search engine). The kind of quality I'm talking about, and
the effectiveness of finding aids, *may* be less important in some
disciplines than in others, but I doubt that they are unimportant to
any of them. Second, I think a publishing model that asks authors to
bear the cost of publication is unthinkable in the humanities, where
most research is conducted without external or internal funding.
Morever, this would be a difficult model to promulgate in any
discipline, since the penalty for early-adopting journals would likely
be death.

If we could start the world over, perhaps this would be a good model,
but if we have to get from where we are to something better, I think
it's a very long shot. Another case of "old habits find[ing] no end of
rationales for perpetuating both themselves and the status quo"? My own
view is that one is more likely to change the status quo by
understanding than by dismissing the physics of inertia.

John Unsworth
Founding Editor,
Postmodern Culture
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

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