advantages and dis- of publishing scholarship on-line?

I run a small academic press (I took over the duties of the long-time editor, who took a sabbatical leave that’s almost over, but the PTB have decided to keep me on, and to expand the Press, though they don’t really know what they mean by “expand the Press” just yet.) That, in fact, is one of the things I’m trying to define: what they mean by expand the Press and what exactly I’m going to be doing on the expanded Press.

My main idea, in this first year of editing, concerns the format we deliver our scholarly journals in. They’re all actual books, that we have printed up, and mailed out to subscribers, and the handling of zillions pieces of paper seems to be most of the job. I have assistants to assemble mailing lists, stuff journals into envelopes, get the journals from the printer, keep track of how many journals we need on hand, etc. It’s a small office, and all this physical handiing of paper is very labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Most of what we do is rooted in the past–we have several obscenely outmoded habits that make no sense at all. (For example, we design, and print, and have stuffed into envelopes, flyers for each issue that go out to all the potential subscribers, mainly those who bought the last issue, and offer them a discount for subscribing early–this is a gigantic hassle, and would be simplified by e-mailing the flyer rather than snail-mailing it. But this practice was institituted before e-mail, and like so much else has been perpetuated out of intertia.) I am going to have a meeting with the Provost after New Years, in which I will propose that we switch over to virtual printing–i.e., making ALL of our titles available on-line to subscribers, and stop dealing with paper entirely. Since this will cut back most of our production costs, I’m sure he will be open to the idea.

But I don’t know much about virtual printing, or electronic media, and I’d like to be prepared for any counter-arguments I may get along the way, either from the Provost or from someone else in power. What are the plusses and what are the minuses of such a switch?

A couple of thoughts, may not apply directly to your situation.

IME, most of the resistance to online only publication, or libraries taking out online only subscriptions, comes from the uncertainty of what the publisher may do in the future with respect to accessing archives etc. If your library suddenly stops the hardcopy series of an important journal, then you’re beholden to the publisher to maintain ‘reasonable’ subscription rates in the future. Otherwise, your institution could be effectively locked out of content. If this is important content, then the problem is obvious.

In my area, a few of the main journals are published by chemical societies, which are not strictly commercial enterprises. So the above scenario would probably never occur for these publications - there would be mass outcry and revolt. For a purely commercial publishing house, such as Elsevier, then it is certainly food for thought.

A typical chemistry paper is 4-10 pages long, reviews can be much longer. It is no hardship at all to print these articles out from an online source. You mentioned that your press deals in books - how long are the articles? I wouldn’t have thought people would be keen on printing out book-length material. Although maybe they would, if the subscription costs fell substantially.

There is always a small demand for hardcopy journals, even nowadays. People just like reading the complete journal. I subscribe to one of the Nature journals for this reason - its a bit like a magazine in that it has news and views articles, editorials etc that I’d never bother reading online.

As long as you use an “Industry Standard” format like .pdf, and make sure to print a few “dead tree” editions for the old-timers, I can’t see a problem with it. It makes sense, but you know as well as I do that just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s going to be embraced by Academia. :wink:

The first question is, as always, “Do you want to do that?”

Clearly, you wish to reduce the tangentals. The fliers, and so on. That doesn’t really cause a problem. It’ll save money and reduce waste and all sorts of lovely things.

But when you talk about switching the entire journal to electronic form, you’re changing how your customers interact with it. And I’m not going to say they’ll be pleased. And I’m betting the provost won’t be pleased either. Academia is inherently conservative, believe it or not.

Further, there will be issues. For example, do you want, or not want, people taking your publication, and e-mailing it to everyone in the department?

So, the first thing is to talk about the consequences of electronic publication. What people will be able to do with it, what they won’t.

I should mention, the Provost is a cool guy, much more of a techno-geek than I am. (We were both hired at the same time, twenty years ago, in the same department, he fresh out of grad school, me about ten years into my career, and he has risen high in academe, while I have risen a little less far, but when he was briefly the chair of my department, he kept pushing all sorts of “paperless office” stuff on us, so I don’t think he’ll have a problem with the general concept–probably he’ll like it.) The problems look to come from others and I want to have an answer to all the "Yeah, but"s.

The journals are low-circ enough that I don’t anticipate losing very many readers if we switch. Maybe it will be a good idea to consult with some professional librarians, to see what we need to do to get the journals in more libraries. I suspect we’ll pick up quite a few new customers if we e-publish, because libraries don’t have a lot of actual shelf space but they have limitless virtual shelf space. Someone must have done a study of this phenomenon, I’d think, no?

I think this will do better in IMHO. Moved.

I’m on the editorial board of one IEEE magazine, and on the editorial board of an IEEE Society portal, which features a topic a month and makes some content (like book reviews) freely available.
First, who is your target audience? Ours has no trouble reading stuff on-line, but I can see some disciplines where there would be resistance.

Second, besides just publishing on-line you are going to have to set up a mechanism by which people can access articles from previous journals, and set up a pricing structure for this. Our magazines get credit for traditional subscriptions (they are published online and as paper copies both) and for access to their articles through the IEEE Electronic Library. You are also going to get requests to put old issues on line - this costs money for scanning and editing.

It sounds like you are planning to cut over from 100% paper to 100% electrons. I assume that make sense given your circulation, but you might think about making a CD option available. That is easy to produce, and most of the conference I’m involved with are CD-only now. The one I just started gave out our proceedings on a memory stick, because I was able to publish them a day before the conference started. That would make the libraries happy also.

And yes, these things are universally published in pdf format.

What’s your cost structure like? Eliminating publication costs will help a lot, even if you lose a few subscribers because of sharing access to the material. If your area is broad enough, you might want to sell site licenses to departments, to make this sharing legal.

Oh, and I assume that the tenure committees of your authors are okay with this, right?

Academics in varied fields, mainly psych and literature. If they resist, fuck 'em. It’s the 21st Century. Deal. (See why they keep me far from interacting with the public?)

I may advocate dropping certain titles and starting up with other ones, with the understanding that the new publications will be electronic-only. What is IEEE?

Don’t know much about the business end–but I’m going to have to learn. How do site licenses work? What do you mean by “departments”?

Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, 100K members strong (at least.) They publish a ton of transactions (purely academic papers) and magazines (peer reviewed papers, but also departments.) The magazines are supposed to be more accessible to those not fully expert in a subfield. Many transactions are more or less write only - very important in getting tenure, very thoroughly peer reviewed, but with low circulations and with articles read mostly by a very few experts in the area.

Departments are things like book reviews, interviews, and roundtables. I edit a column for one of the magazines which allows a specialist in an area associated with a special issue speculate for 550 words. I even ran a cartoon once.

IEEE is a non-profit, but the magazines are supposed to make money to support the infrastructure, and this is getting harder and harder.
I don’t know the details of site licensing, but I can go through my companies internal home page to the library page and then into IEL without even logging in. Otherwise you need to pay some small amount - a couple of bucks - to download a pdf of a paper. The usual kind of model.

IEL also include IEEE sponsored conferences, and the conference I’m involve with gets some small amount of money for sending them our proceedings on a CD in a format they need.
I know this is too much detail, but it is more or less how one large society does it.

I would agree that transitioning to a CD format with individual articles as individual PDFs might be the best way to do it. I was thinking the same thing. Maybe with a nice hard binder to put them in every year. But, well… look. Talk to the provost, see what he says, we’ll be here to solve any points he brings up.

If I might make a suggestion for a potential new imprint: Short fiction.

Seriously, it’s surprisingly difficult for students to get published without resorting to blogs or e-zines, and having their stuff published from an Academic Press associated with a reputable and well-known educational institution is good for everyone, IMHO…

As you well know, my friend, “short fiction” (specifically “20th century American short fiction”) is my area of academic expertise, and I would love to put out both criticism and actual short stories–and will pitch that as one of the areas I think we should pursue to take advantage of the talents of our staff, of which I form one-half. Wish me luck me in pitching this idea.

There are two main models for academic publishing online: subscription based and open access.

The big, for profit commercial publishers, and many institutional ones like IEEE, have subscription based services. I believe most journals that are published this way are also still available in printed form, although that practice may be starting to die out. As most academic journals are bought by libraries rather than individuals, this means setting up a system whereby your journal can be accessed only from computers on the network of subscribing institutions. As well as that there will need to provision for people logging on to their institutional library remotely. Students and professors no expect to be able to log on from home, but you do not want anyone to be able to log on from home, or they just won’t pay. You also need a way, presumably password based, for individual subscribers who are not associated with a subscribing library to log on. I do not know the details, but I imagine the costs of setting up and maintaining such a system are substantial. Probably the best way for a small press to deal with it is to come in under the umbrella of some larger organization: either get some major commercial publisher to distribute your journal, or some association of smaller publishers.

Open Access is a lot easier to set up, and has a lot of advantages, but also a huge and obvious downside. On this model, you charge nothing to your readers. You make the journal contents freely and openly available over the web. No more printing or distribution cost, and the cost of hosting for smallish academic journals should be minimal. You are not going to be storing or transferring huge amounts of data. Probably you can host it on your own institutions’ network effectively free.

The big downside, of course, is that you subscription income drops to zero, and there are still some costs to covered, even if they are much lower than those for handling a paper journal. You can fire all your envelope stuffers, and the people who maintain your subscription list, and you won’t have to pay the printers any more, but there are still editorial functions to be carried out, and someone has to convert all those manuscripts that come in MS Word into nice uniform looking PDF files (some open access publishers use HTML, but I think PDF is generally considered more classy, which is important in academic publishing). Open access publishers have basically three ways to cover their costs:
(1) Subsidy. Does your subscription income cover your current costs or are already subsidized by your university or other institution? It might be the case that any subsidy you are getting is already enough to cover the much reduced cost of open access publishing. Even if you need a little bit more, you might be able to persuade then that the advantages of open access make it worthwhile.
(2) Begging for money from people or institutions who would otherwise subscribe. In effect you say “my publication is obviously worth something to you, because you used to pay the subscription for it. If you do not donate money to support it (somewhat less than you used to pay as a subscription) then it will have to close down.” There may also be a way to offer some sort of added value to donors. Somewhat amazingly, some publications seem to be making this sort of tactic work, for instance, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
(3) Instead of charging subscribers, you charge your authors what are known as “page charges”. That is how they do things at PloS, which is now becoming quite a force in the science journal publishing world. They give away the content for free, but charge authors. (Some printed journals charge authors page charges too, as well as collecting subscriptions.) Obviously there are big downsides to this too: authors may not be able or willing to pay (though I think PloS and other similar open access publishers usually let authors off paying if they can convincingly plead poverty), and the esteem in which the publication is held in its field my suffer if the perception becomes that you can get any old rubbish published there just by paying for it. The prestige of a journal is very important to academic authors (and the committees that hire and promote them). Nevertheless, PloS, at least, seems to be making a big a success of doing things this way. It might work better in the sciences than in the humanities though. Page charges are likely to be a negligible fraction of the costs of a modern first-world research lab, but they could loom large in the budget of a humanities department.

Personally, I think open access is undoubtedly the way of the future for academic publishing. Academic authors do not expect to be paid for their journal publications, but they want their work to be as widely available as possible. Open to everyone is ideal. It provides maximum convenience for readers (no more schlepping down to the library stacks and struggling with a photocopier, or even wresting with the usually horribly awkward interfaces used by subscription-based online publishers) and is an enormous cost saver for academic libraries (to the extent that they are willing to contribute money and resources to encourage it).

A thousand times no! This has almost all the disadvantages of paper publication plus some. You still have to make and distribute the CDs. It will be inconvenient even for individual subscribers, but in a library it means a reader will have to go to to a special server in the bowels of the library somewhere, or else they will have to go to the desk, have a librarian find them the right CD, then almost certainly go find one of the few computers in the library with a CD drive to read the thing (and probably find it is the wrong disc and have to go back to the desk). If it is only on CD, your readers, their librarians (who are probably your actual subscribers), and probably your authors too will all hate you. If it open access online they will all love you. If it is subscription based online, then meh.

By the way, a good source for information and help with open access publishing is here:

That site is not unbiased, it is very much advocating the open access model, but there is plenty of propaganda out there attacking the open access movement. For obvious reasons, commercial academic publishers will do practically anything to squash it.

Also, you may like to see the Directory of Open Access Journals, which currently has 4521 such journals listed. Some are tiny niche journals, some have very low editorial standards, and some are prestigious, beautifully produced, and have high circulations and impact factors.