Frank Hartmann on Tue, 30 Dec 1997 02:43:14 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Academic Paper Tigers

Will academic publication rituals survive the media revolution? Will
electronic publishing become a realistic option beyond printed books and
[From the December issue of FALTER, a Viennese weekly city journal]

According to new technological possibilities, one has to ask why
scientific publications all together are not online yet. If the
publishers themselves are online, it is mostly for the sake of
advertising their printed materials. 'Print' meaning their core business
asset, of course. The products: journals and books are manufactured more
or less expensively and this requires their selling as objects, to cover
printing and distribution costs, pay the publishers themselves and
sometimes the authors as well.

Scientific authors seem to have a very different interest, though: to be
read and to be quoted. This applies for academics, whose basic costs of
knowledge production is covered more or less by public funds. Scientists
should do everything possible to make their text accessible - and use
electronic publishing for instance. But this is not the case, apart from
some exeptions. Within the actual context of new media usage, the
appropriate response to the new possibilities of knowledge transfer by
the scientific community still is missing.

Within a framework of guild organisation principles, the scientific
community keeps to a restricted knowledge tansfer altogether, saving
specific gatekeeping processes against the accessibility of an open
information network. The internet is being used for restricted purposes,
mostly email or some insignificant personal homepage. And yet,
sociologists observe indicators for an industrialisation of the
scientific discourse through new media, mostly according to the higher
circulation speed of texts in general and the downgrading of the paper
medium as well, especially in those disciplines where the discussion is
focused on prepublished texts.

The technology actually used for the production, circulation and
consumption of scientific texts is rather primitive: the computer is
being used, but mostly as an eleborate typewriter. Although practically
nobody (exept for distinguished excentrics like Postman or Baudrillard,
as they themselves claim) can afford to despise the "personal" computer
as a performance enhancing device, the texts as a work result still
exists on paper mainly, the exclusive medium which enables the
circulation of thoughts in scientific discourse.

The academic community relies on the paper medium for various reasons. A
profane one - still is - the fear of contact with computer technology,
which even is part of the identity for the so-called "humanities".
Another one is the fact that career-enhancing publishing activity is
really prestigious only if the seal of quality from reviewers, editors
and publishers stays clearly visible. On the net, the practice of edited
publishing is not the rule. This is the domain of established journals
where texts get published according to a peer-review process, and where
unsolicitited manuscripts from newcomers have practically no chance at

Subscribing to scientific journals may be beyond the possibilities of an
individuum, prices reaching up to 12.000 USD and more per year for
'Nuclear Physics' or 'Chemical Abstracts'. The publishers are losing
their subscribers, which are not individuals any more but institutions
and libraries. In the scientific discourse, most texts are published for
libraries anyhow. Publishers slowly are losing interest in taking over
the exploding production costs for a shrinking audience.

Therefore, the well-established accomplice of scientists, publishers and
libraries is crumbling down. The growing output of scientific publishing
contributes to the fact that libraries may reach the limit of their
storage capacities: the number of scientific journals multiplied by the
factor of 1000 between the beginning of the 19th and the 20th century,
with an estimated number of titles now around a million. A duplication
of scientific publications takes place every 16 years. To get the idea,
the holdings of the British Library grow a 20 kilometers each year. New
ways of information retrieval and information selection react to this
situation: databases and digital research tools take over the role of
the established archive systems and libraries.

The conservative lamento over the "information flood" gets within reach
here. But there is also a chance to see this process as a
differenciation of the fields of information and communication: since
this is no effect of some unintentional technology, but the expression
of different needs for an information society towards the end of the
20th century. While the available quantities of information double with
high speed, the calculation potential of computers increases by the rate
of ten. In other words, the innovation rate of computer industry
provides much more storage capacities than all the information of our
culture produces (depending on significant storage usage of course).

The development of new software tools, like the popular HTML-editors,
contributes to the embedding of new functions within text editing:
professional publishing from ones own desktop to the worldwide Internet
is not a big thing any more, the power of the demigods in the mainframe
computing room is long broken. One should not have any illusions,
however, about any direct or immediate results from these achievements.
While most text editors are used for preparing the printing process, the
publishers widely benefit from their authors taking over the
(unrewarded) role of compositors, layouters, and proofreaders.

So why do authors - or researchers and their institutions - have not yet
decided to subvert the ruling publication system, simply by publishing
'preprints' to the net and abandon the 'print' format for good? Besides
the fact that the technical media literacy also of persons who are
supposed to be informed still is quite low, the common points usually
raised here are 'quotation' and 'copyright'. As for quotation, this neat
academic ritual is a generator of hypertext by itself. It would be wrong
to believe though, that quotations indicating editions, volumes and
pages should be tied to the paper medium. Electronically published texts
are very well traceable if indexed on a meta-text level (e.g. META
HTTP-EQUIV and META-NAME in the source code). Electronic quotations or
hyperlinks may be even more helpful than printed quotes, for providing
not only an indicator to some referred text but that text itself.
Archiving the Internet is becoming more and more professionalised now
(national libraries all over started archiving online publications
already, equivalents of ISBN and ISSN are in the making), the easier
will it be not only to follow the practice of 'quoting' a text but
getting access to it.

As for the next stereotype, there is copyright. Being a very young
privilege in modern publication practice, to protect one's intellectual
property is an interest which has to do with the condition of authors
and their pubishers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The
interest which should be protected here are rarely those of the
intellectual author (maybe a fiction anyway, concerning the
intertwinedness of texts and their contexts of production) than those of
an elaborate commercial machinery. With the modification of the
apparatus for production/distribution the existing laws tend to become
anachronistic. This rocks the foundations of an education system which
only in the turn to the nineteenth century started to replace the
lectureship, i.e. the reading, lecturing, interpreting and commentating
of given texts, with the concept of genuine authorship; a phase within
which the academic community started to favour the paper medium and
therefore journals and books were centralised as the primary source for
intellectual socialisation and also as the medium for academic
gratification. Printed matter is now losing its significance while being
replaced or at least complemented by new media. We might not only
witness a few publishers losing grounds in the near future, but also
author-centered copyrights. Who believes that this is reason enough for
profound cultural pessimism, should consider again whose economical
interests are really at stake.

The most plausible answer to our introductory question is that we live
in a time of transition. Media-philosopher Vil=E9m Flusser deciphered this
transition period as a crisis of the alphanumeric code itself, which is
not suitable any more for the present information available and the
scientific information in particular. Printed script is but one form to
process stored information to put it in public discourse. An enhanced
technology could replace publishing functions without a doubt. That of
course does not mean the end to all the publishers. A recent CEC-study
on 'electronic publishing' (DG XIII/E, Brussels 1996) defined the
organising of communities as a main strategy for the publishing
industry; electronic publishing obviously offers new possibilities for
unifying content and services. Regional and local specifications are
due, and it is exactly specific user groups which are again the target
audience for the advertising industry. While data space supersedes paper
as an organising principle, designing the new, digital context of
awareness is defined a major corporate interest in electronic

[for more background, see the interesting but dead 'paper tigers'
discussion at]

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: