6.0673 Review: Crisis in and Visions of E-Publishing (1/141)

Thu, 15 Apr 1993 14:40:56 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0673. Thursday, 15 Apr 1993.

Date: Wed, 14 Apr 93 21:05:13 EDT
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: publishing: crisis and visions

Dear Colleagues:

The following I pass on to you from the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR),
which (for what it's worth) is my favourite example of an intelligent
application of electronic publishing. Since my days with Humanist I
have been keenly interested in the potential of the medium, and more
often than not disappointed in the unimaginative, imitative ways it is
so often used. I've spoken at conferences specifically organized to
address the crisis in academic publishing and discovered at first hand
how difficult it is for people to understand that disaster is not to
be averted by using the medium as if it were merely a cheaper and
faster means of doing what we have always done. Humanist and other
such groups have from time to time manifested the potential of the
medium do to new, interesting, hopeful, and constructive things; so
has BMCR, and so will the American Philological Association shortly,
by publishing online papers accepted by its journal (TAPA). There are
additional examples I know less well. Jim O'Donnell (author of this
review and co-editor of BMCR) and Ann Okerson (editor of the first
book mentioned here) I happen to know are deeply involved in the
hopeful and interesting aspects of e-publishing. I can therefore
heartily recommend the following to you because it does more than
descry, accurately, the signs of the times.

Willard McCarty

Date: Tue, 13 Apr 93 23:31:20 -
From: bmcr@cc.brynmawr.edu (BrynMawr Classical Review)

Ann Okerson, ed., *Visions and Opportunities in Electronic
Publishing: Proceedings of the Second Symposium*. Washington:
Association of Research Libraries, 1993. ISBN 0-918006-61-9. Pp.
vi, 178. $24 (including postage and handling) from ARL, 21 Dupont
Circle, Suite 800, Washington DC 20036; e-mail inquiries to
osap@cni.org; phone to 202-296-2296.

Anthony Cummings et al., *University Libraries and Scholarly
OACommunication: A Study Prepared for the Mellon Foundation*.
Washington: Association of Research Libraries, 1992. ISBN 9-
918006-22-8. Pp. xxx, 205. $8 from the same distributor.

Let's say you are an American classics professor, or want to
be. `Publish or perish' you have heard it said. The phrase
`tenure book' is not one you have to look up in your dictionary.
You have written a well-spoken-of dissertation, one that with just
a little effort it can be made readable, even elegant. It will
give the world just that poignant and revelatory reading of Ovid
that others have struggled for but not quite achieved.
So you take a copy around to your local university press,
introducing yourself to the classics editor with what you hope is
the right mix of deference and authority. You hope for great
There the fantasy hits some bumpy water. The traditional
system of scholarly and academic publishing in this country isn't
on life support yet, but it's been smoking heavily for years, and
the diet isn't working. How long it will be able to serve you and
us is a deadly serious question.
The main facts are simple. The costs of "serials" (journals
of all kinds) have gone through the roof, and major libraries (like
Princeton) are doing serious cutting of their subscriptions just to
stay afloat. But even so, "monographs" are a more flexible part of
library buying than serials (miss a volume of *JRS* and your
collection looks funny; miss a monograph even from Princeton Press,
and nobody much notices right away) and so our major libraries have
been cutting back in absolute numbers on monograph purchases even
as the number of titles grows. Sales per title of serious books by
university presses are in a bad way: one major press editorial
director was quoted in a national rag last week as saying that
things that used to sell 1000 copies are now lucky to go 300-500
over the natural life of the book. To price the books with those
sales projections means that prices will begin to *shoot* up, for
as total sales drop, costs per copy begin to ascend a very steep
curve. The first copy a publisher prints costs many thousands of
dollars, for editorial, composition, and production costs, and a
certain base of sales is necessary to get the per copy cost down to
where the market will bear the price, and the problem is that the
scholarly monograph market is flirting with the bottom end of the
range where it can be priced at all plausibly.
All this, and budget bad news as well: university
administrations have given libraries an ever smaller share of their
overall budget over the last ten years, so scramble as the
libraries will, they can't keep up. Even if you get your
university press to publish the book, your university library may
not be able to afford it.
The picture is clear enough. What is to be done?
(1) Get the word out and around. Scholars need to be
informed, and insofar as we are the constituency that deans answer
to, we need to make the question of how we are to do the publishing
that our careers depend on a serious issue inside the main
deliberative bodies of academe. For too long, the libraries' fates
have been a second-tier issue in our institutions, and the
university presses a third order concern at best. The libraries
are troubled, the university presses are genuinely at risk:
solidarity of the professors with their colleagues in the scholarly
communication profession is essential.
(2) Think pragmatically. Electronic publishing is not a cure-
all, and not as cheap as it might look. Estimates are that in
traditional publishing, only 30% of costs go to production and
distribution, and if you save that by not killing trees, you have
*some* costs in e-distribution. But failure to exploit electronic
publishing resourcefully and swiftly would be a culpable error for
us all.
The two books noticed here can help on both counts. I should
avow here that I have a paper in one of them and have worked
closely with the people producing both, and so cannot claim any
detached Olympian objectivity, but am frankly partisan. But I give
both my highest rating.
The Mellon study is the more historical, detailed, and
frightening. It is a careful analysis with an abundance of hard
evidence of what has happened to the scholarly publishing
enterprise in the last twenty years, with a focus on libraries as
essential mediators -- one might almost say the capillaries --
between other participants in the process. The picture drawn is
compelling and riveting. It is important to note that this is the
Mellon team that began by looking at Ph.D. productivity, the job
market, and graduate education: they turn their attention now to
libraries and publishing not because they have an agenda, but
because they genuinely want to figure out what is going on. It's
a dramatic, storm-tossed scene.
The *Visions* volume is a pragmatic guide to the state of the
art in current thinking and practice about electronic publishing as
one alternative. It includes a long-range visionary overview by a
leading software developer, and practical examples of specific
projects now under way on campuses and in learned societies --
including, e.g., Perseus, but also including large-scale corporate
undertakings like the Red Sage project that will link AT&T,
Springer Verlag, and the University of California Medical
Libraries. Some very smart people are out there working very hard
to make the future happen.
An elderly ecclesiastical historian of my acquaintance, who in
secret would probably rather have been a military historian, likes
to say (and I like to quote him), `Time spent on reconnaissance is
seldom wasted.' These books address concerns that should already
be, and at any rate soon will compel themselves to be, central to
the lives of working academics. Buy your dean a copy. Buy your
provost *two* copies!
James J. O'Donnell
University of Pennsylvania