From WIRED 2.10 (October 1994)

Goodbye, Gutenberg

Pixelating peer review is revolutionizing scholarly journals.

By Jacques Leslie

For a classics professor, James J. O'Donnell has a disarmingly contemporary way of summarizing how, four years ago, he considered using telecommunications to distribute a new scholarly journal on classical literature. "I compare that moment to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney saying toward the end of the movie, 'Let's put on a show.' I'm the one who got to say, 'Gosh, we can do it in the barn!'

Indeed O'Donnell - a professor at the University of Pennsylvania - is no ordinary classics scholar, and the journal he co-edits, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, is no ordinary academic journal. Like the other pioneering scholars who are using "the barn"-- the Internet -- to disseminate learned journals, he is sufficiently comfortable with the unconventional, the interdisciplinary, and the new to challenge such resisters as computer-illiterate tenure-committee members and publishers preoccupied with profit margins, while quite possibly revivifying the 300-year-old institution of the scholarly journal.

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review is one of about 450 electronic journals and newsletters that have come to life in the last few years, with many more in the planning stages. Of the 450, at least 70 are scholarly journals that accept articles only after they have been endorsed by experts in the appropriate discipline. In following this peer-review process, such electronic journals hope to attain the same legitimacy granted to their print cousins. Together, the electronic journals comprise what Ann Okerson, who follows the burgeoning field for the Association of Research Libraries, calls "the greatest time of experimentation in publishing since the 1500s."

"People have stopped saying, 'I don't know if the shift to electronic publication will really happen,' " Okerson says. "What they are now saying is, 'This is really happening, and how will it change the way we work?' " And the journal industry is surprisingly substantial. American universities and research institutions subscribe to somewhere between 30,000 and 45,000 academic journals, and sales in the US amount to between US$1.5 billion and $2 billion a year. Journals are the lifeblood of scientific, technical, and medical fields, in which they constitute the single most important means of conveying vital research findings. At the same time, the emergence of electronic publishing has evoked so much fear among print publishers that two years ago a representative of Oxford University Press, which publishes 154 scholarly print journals and a single electronic one, declared at a symposium: "I feel like a deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing truck." By now, some of that fear has been replaced by excitement over the possibilities that electronic publishing opens up, but the industry remains thoroughly unsettled. As Okerson says, "All the categories are shifting around as in a kaleidoscope."

Many journals appear in two separate formats, print and electronic (including both online and CD-ROM formats), and some are hybrids, combining features of both formats in one publication. Some online journals have tapped tele-communications' singular features to promote scholarly interaction and collaboration: perhaps the best example is Psycoloquy, a peer-reviewed psychology journal that features what Editor Stevan Harnad calls "scholarly skywriting": its scholars provide feedback on colleagues' work in formative stages.

Other journals exploit the visual potential of computers. Protein Science , for example, publishes its text in print, with images of proteins on accompanying disks; when the images are displayed on a computer screen, they can be "rotated" to create the illusion of three dimensions, enabling scientists to envision proteins with far more ease than is possible with print images.

Jean-Claude Guedon, editor of Surfaces , a bilingual scholarly electronic journal on comparative literature and a specialist in the history of science at the University of Montreal, says that the many designs of electronic journals remind him of the early days of the bicycle, when it appeared in "a bewildering variety of shapes." Just as the bicycle form eventually stabilized, Guedon expects that electronic journal design will, too, though the process may take five or ten more years. In the meantime, he says, the journals that flourish will almost certainly be those designed with enough flexibility to evolve.

Indeed, when electronic journals fail, one frequent reason is that they require readers to possess a particular kind of software or are accessible only to, say, Windows-based computers. The Bryn Mawr Classical Review appears in both print and electronic formats, but it's the electronic version that has taken off. Circulation for it and a sister electronic publication, the Bryn Mawr Medieval Review , stands at 1,750 and rising, while circulation for the print version has settled at around 300. Not all articles that appear in the electronic version make the printed one, as O'Donnell luxuriates in the freedom from space constraints that prevails in the electronic medium. He also takes advantage of the speed of the electronic format to publish articles as separate units, as soon as they are approved and edited, sometimes months before they appear in the printed version.

Practices like this seem to call into question the very raison d'etre of the journal, since the electronic format obviates the need for articles to be bound together in the familiar journal form. O'Donnell himself believes that as electronic journals become well established, "the journal model will evolve to-ward not a publishing operation but a gatekeeping operation"-- that is, the journal's role will be to single out from the morass of information available on the Net those articles worthy of its imprimatur. "The journal can be a vehicle for reassuring deans, provosts, promotion and tenure committees, and other gatekeepers in the system that we've succeeded in the electronic environment in installing quality controls of the kind we've been used to having in the print environment," O'Donnell says.

One reason electronic journals have evoked so much enthusiasm is that the limitations of print journals have become woefully obvious. For one thing, many are so expensive, with subscriptions ranging up to $10,000 a year and higher, that libraries have had to cut back, thus isolating scholars from information they deem important. A study conducted by the Association of Reference Libraries found that over the last two decades science-journal subscription fees increased at an average annual rate of 13.5 percent, far above the inflation rate. The high cost of journals has led scholars in many disciplines to conduct surveys to determine whether publishers are price-gouging. One prominent physicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison published a survey in Physics Today comparing the cost and citation frequency of physics journals; he and Physics Today's pub-lisher were then sued in four countries by Gordon & Breach, the lowest-rated publisher in the article.

Even if print journals were less expensive, the sheer volume of scholarly output has surpassed the shelf capacities of libraries. Andrew Odlyzko, an AT&T Bell Laboratories mathematician, has estimated that in his field half of all the papers ever published appeared in print in the last decade, and that another doubling is likely to occur within 20 years. While this growth rate threatens to exceed the capacity of even the most expansive library, Odlyzko argues that given the decreasing cost of hard-disk storage, it is likely that mathematicians a decade from now could house the entire body of mathematical literature in their desktop computers.

Finally, in some fields the increasingly common use of "preprints"-- copies of articles that are distributed to colleagues at the same time they are submitted to journals -- has already lessened the utility of print journals. The gap between preprint distribution and journal publication ranges from several months to several years, depending on the discipline, so that in many fields preprints alone have "news" value, while a journal's role is reduced to culling, editing, and archiving.

The preprint system, however, is far from ideal. For one thing, it is expensive, with some institutions paying as much as $20,000 a year to copy and mail preprints; for another, it is undemocratic, since only those scientists "in the loop" of mailing lists receive the pre-prints, while less well-connected scientists and graduate students are usually left out.

It was not an electronic journal but a mere computer bulletin board that most dramatically demonstrated the potential of telecommunications in addressing all these issues. Paul Ginsparg, a high-energy theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was frustrated both by the inequities of the preprint system and by journal publishers' disinterest in electronic media. In August 1991, after spending a few afternoons designing software, he launched an automated electronic archive using, in part, the ample data storage facility at Los Alamos. Physicists could post their preprints on the archive, read abstracts of other preprints, and, if the abstracts seemed interesting, download the complete articles into their own computers.

To Ginsparg's surprise, the system quickly became the primary means of communicating research data within his field. He eventually expanded the system to include more physics disciplines and other fields such as linguistics. According to Ginsparg, the system is now one of the largest and most active databases on the Internet, serving more than 20,000 users from at least 60 countries and processing the stunning sum of 30,000 or more messages a day.

In a stroke, Ginsparg seemed to have eli-minated the problems of print journals and preprints. Instead of paying thousands of dollars to distribute preprints, scientists could post them at virtually no cost. Whereas those scientists not on preprint mailing lists once had to wait many months to see the printed versions in expensive journals, they now enjoy the same instantaneous and virtually cost-free access of their most prestigious colleagues. The shortage of library shelf space ceased to be a problem; the only limiting factor became the size of the Los Alamos data storage facility, and in the unlikely event that it was ever filled, other facilities could be tapped.

To be sure, the high-energy physics community may be uniquely situated to take ad-vantage of a system like Ginsparg's. Probably more than any other discipline, high-energy physics relies on preprints, so its members can easily make the transition from photocopied to electronic preprints. And unlike many other scholars, particularly those in the humanities, virtually all physicists are experienced in computer telecommunications. Also, the field of high-energy physics is sufficiently small so that scientists' reputations are well known, and projects are often carried out by large research teams that vet articles before they reach the preprint stage. Both these factors mitigate the value of peer review, a feature of printed physics journals but not of Ginsparg's system.

The Los Alamos system, however, gives a misleadingly rosy impression of the benefits of electronic publication. Consider cost: if the Los Alamos system included editing and peer review, something most scholars value, its costs would rise. If it included such features as hypertext links, an attractive refinement of the electronic medium, the costs would rise further. And if the cost of using the Internet -- which may increase substantially as privatization proceeds -- is also factored in, then its costs would rise still more. As it is, the system is essentially cost-free only because neither Los Alamos National Laboratory nor Ginsparg have been paid for their contributions of data-storage capacity and labor.

The system also fails to address copy-rights, one of the most nettlesome problems in electronic publication. Print journal publishers currently attribute declining subscriptions to the high cost of journals; if, however, they believed that electronic journals such as the Los Alamos archive accelerated this decline, they might consider asserting their copyrights. (Publishers of print journals carrying articles that also appear on the Los Alamos system could insist that the articles be removed once print publication occurs.) They have not done so, if only because they believe the Los Alamos system so far has not cut into their subscription revenues, and because they feel some obligation not to hobble an institution that clearly benefits their scholar clients. The fact remains that electronic publication will make copyright enforcement much more difficult. How will a publisher who charges for access to an electronic journal cope with the ease of duplicating and distributing journal articles in the electronic medium? Some publishers say that if they find that widespread abuses occur, the cost of subscription to the journals will have to be higher as a result. (Currently, few electronic journals charge for subscriptions; however, many of those that are now free plan to charge in the future.)

Nevertheless, it is likely that electronic pub-lication represents the future of academic journals. Odlyzko, author of a paper called "Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The Impend-ing Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journals," predicts that the vast majority of print journals will disappear or be transformed into electronic journals in the next 10 to 20 years. Some electronic journals have already experimented with developing parallel bulletin board discussion groups, and some electronic journal editors foresee the creation of linked MUD-like "virtual corridors" in which colleagues trade ideas. Ginsparg envisions an alternative to "all-or-nothing" peer review; instead, he says, journals could embody the evolving nature of research by dividing articles into several categories, or, better yet, by placing them within a "fluid medium" in which discussion and affixing of addenda and errata are encouraged.

All these notions, of course, embody the activities that cyberspace seems inherently to promote: the materiality of printed journals and the impermeable individuality of their authors gives way to the interaction, collaboration, and community that the electronic medium fosters. If the change is only in its beginning stages now, one reason is that most of the current members of university tenure committees belong to the last generation of scholars not steeped in the computer culture, and have so far declined to acknowledge publication in electronic journals as a "credential for promotion. Poised to make the leap but uncertain of its benefits, they may not understand the trade-off. What they're being asked to give up, after all, is the illusion of permanence.

How to Find the Scholars

Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Archive site: The gopher URL is gopher://;

Psycoloquy : Anonymous ftp to and check the directory pub/harnad/Psycoloquy;

Surfaces : Anonymous ftp or gopher to and look in literature/revues;

Los Alamos National Laboratory, Physics Service: Gopher to or point your www client to;

Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists: Send e-mail to at the Association of Research Libraries, +1 (202) 296-2296, fax +1 (202) 872 0884.

Jacques Leslie ( writes frequently on the social aspects of computer telecommunications. His memoir of the Vietnam War, The Mark, will be published in 1995.