Where the action is: e-journals

Innovation with e-journals has been quite impressive. A survey of the mutated forms reveals the following: p-journals cloned into e-journals (the SAA Bulletin, which I edit, is an example of this); threaded discussion lists (like the original form of Psycoloquy); archives, either centralised (Ginsparg's Los Alamos physics preprint archive), or distributed via links to widely dispersed sites; fully digital e-journals (like Internet Archaeology); journals attached to archives (such as the Journal of High Energy Physics which is linked to Los Alamos); or so-called 'knowledge communities or networks' (Hibbitts 1996; 1997), that are in some sense seen as an antithesis to the common e-journal.

The growth in the number of e-journals (broadly defined) over the past decade has been extraordinary and, in great part, it is due to the obvious advantages e-journals offer when compared to print alternatives: the publication process is shortened even when peer review and editing is performed, as it is with increasing numbers of e-journals (Roberts 1999); WWW-based e-journals allow authors to use colour and expanded graphics as well as innovative ways of representing data (such as VRML models of buildings), and provide readers with the opportunity to interact with the article in creative ways, thus fulfilling one of the early promises of hypermedia as it was originally envisioned; the potential to access the e-journal beyond the confines of the library or office (but this is highly contingent on the publishing model used!); ample opportunity for rapid discussion; and, finally, the possibility of adding significant amounts of primary archaeological data to the article to enhance its value and utility. Internet Archaeology has certainly lived up to these expectations.

Despite the promise, all is not well in cyberspace. Yes, e-journals are more common than ever, and yes, every indication is that readership is increasing, and yes, it is probable that within the next x years (you fill in the number since honestly, your guess is as good as anyone's), all scholarly communication will be in digital form, and this will certainly include some form of e-journal. The truth, however, is much closer to Gaffney and Exon's chaos. Many e-journals that looked like a sure thing weren't, and went belly-up in a remarkably short period of time (Kiernan 1999). Predicting e-journal success has proven to be difficult, and, of course, inaccurate.

The reasons why e-journals often flounder are as numerous as the failures, but some patterns are beginning to emerge. One of the most telling causes is the failure to adopt or develop an appropriate model of scholarly interaction that is discipline-specific. The great e-journal success story has been Ginsparg's archive, and he, along with other advocates like Harnad, has touted the physics model as the true path to digital nirvana. But as other observers, such as Valauskas (1997) have noted, an e-journal ignores the culture of scholarly communication at its peril. Ginsparg's archive has worked well in physics because it already had a preprint culture. His innovation, important as it was, was simply to automate and to make more universally accessible that pool of papers. Likewise, Harnad's success was based in great part on the success of his existing journal Brain and Behavioral Science. Although many observers have argued that e-journals need not be constrained by print models, and that we should all be asking for more, the truth is simple: p-journals work because libraries and individuals buy them, and that despite costs and future, serious, problems in the format, people use them (Tenopir and King 1999). The date of x - the time when all p-journals are replaced by e-journals - is now seen to be decades, if not longer, into the future (Odlyzko 1999).

One journal that has made a very conscious and, at least to the moment, successful effort to develop an understanding of their culture is Paleontologia Electronica (MacLeod and Patterson 1998). As they put it:

"We see electronic publishing in general, and Paleontologia Electronica in particular, as being able to help reverse a worrying trend in paleontology - the decline in outlets available for taxonomic monographs. Systematic research has traditionally comprised an extremely important component of paleontological research. Unfortunately, the economics of publishing is jeopardizing the future of this important aspect of paleontological publishing."

They publish other material like a p-journal, but they have remained true to this goal over the two volumes of their existence. Usage statistics bolster their claims, as do manuscript submission rates (

Archaeological practice would seem to share much with the paleontologists. We have a strong interest in the objects of our trade, and the visual comparison of things, be they plan views, cave paintings, or arrowheads, are a critical component of what we do. Having virtual access to them is a virtue to be rewarded, and something that p-journals in our field simply cannot do. Internet Archaeology has a number of excellent examples of this approach, and John Hoopes (1997) has discussed its benefits from a museum perspective. Archaeologists are strongly journal-oriented if the sheer numbers of journals available for subscription is any indication of interest. It is also encouraging to note that Current Anthropology, the p-journal inspiration for Psycoloquy, is not only thriving, but that much of its content is archaeology-related. To me, e-journals in archaeology that combine an expanded data archive (however that is defined by the author) along with discussion and commentary, have a good chance of survival.

If it were only this simple, because other factors work against e-journal success. One of the most worrisome of these is the longevity, real and perceived, of our contributions to knowledge. Each of us wants to believe that what we have written will stand the test of time i.e. that it will be read and cited well into the future. The question that looms over e-journals is a real worry; that if your paper is only in digital form, will anyone be able to read it five years hence when the e-journal server goes offline. No one can answer this question with much confidence, and the failures of many e-journals suggests that it is a very real problem. I think it is especially problematic in archaeology if our e-journals move, as they should, in a direction that is more data rich. If substantial quantities of primary data are placed on line, provision must be made for their survival. The disappearance of my opinions may be a minor matter, but if my data are lost, then it is a real loss for archaeology. I'll return to this issue later. Mitigating this somewhat is the perhaps unhappy reality of citation dynamics. At least within the sciences, only 5% of the articles read are over 15 years old, and the majority of readings take place within the first year of publication. The estimated shelf-life of a research article is around five years (Tenopir and King 1999). I imagine that in a discipline like archaeology, these numbers would have to be increased since we are very much concerned with the things excavated whether the ideas about them have long since been discarded. Any successful archaeological e-journal, then, is going to have to convince its readership and its author pool at the start of the publication adventure that it is going to be around for the long haul.

Working against longevity are a host of other factors, some of which are probably transitory and thus are likely to be easily overcome, such as the still-limited capacity of display technology to be read effectively, the reading and browsing habits of scholars, and the question of journal indexing, which seems to be more of a concern for science, technology, and medicine journals than for their social science counterparts.

A more serious problem is the issue of academic credit and the maintenance of the peer review system. You must publish in peer-reviewed journals for promotion, job security, and tenure. Conversely, a journal that wishes to be taken seriously, and thus to survive, must be peer-reviewed. As I noted above, peer review acts to ensure quality control in a scholarly field. Some, such as Agger (1990), have argued that peer review is an essentially conservative force that often (usually?) makes it difficult for younger, not yet established, scholars to get their ideas into print, and have taken the position that peer review is detrimental to the academic enterprise. Although few have argued seriously that peer review be eliminated from p-journal production, there are proposals from the academic establishment to decouple the promotion and tenure process from publication and information dissemination (Anonymous 1998) and, paralleling this, there have been strong calls for its overhaul or replacement for e-journals (Harnad 1996). This is unlikely to happen, but it is likely that numerous mutations of peer review, such as the 'filtering' model proposed by Varian (1997) will be recommended. Getting administrators to accept e-journals as the equals of p-journals is likely to remain a problem, but there are signs that flexibility and accommodation is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

What is not likely to change in the near-term is the institutional and economic context of p-journal and. therefore, e-journal publishing, which is in considerable flux. Although a plethora of models have been proposed to overcome the gloomy economics, suffice it to say that no single initiative has been identified as a godsend. Commercial publishers have long held the monopoly on p-journal publication for both good and bad reasons. Their interest is in making money, and secondarily in prestige. The scholarly community does not publish for money but instead for academic credit, prestige, and job security, as well as an honest desire to disseminate ideas and information. As journals become more specialised, their audiences shrink, and the costs of the journal rise. Recent mergers of major publishing houses have led to near-monopoly situations, and instead of realising economies of scale implied by such mergers, we have witnessed dramatic price increases typically seen in monopoly settings. The library, the last bastion of warehoused knowledge, is groaning under the increased cost of these journals, and each of us can tell horror stories of what has been and will be cut from the shelves next.

In some ways, e-journals only make a bad situation worse. E-journals threaten publishers with loss of revenue and, in one sense, this was the original intent of Harnad's critique. Question: what value do publishers add to the p- or (e-) journal? Answer: nothing. Harnad essentially wanted to remove the middleman, assuming that scholarly societies and other entities, especially self-interested individuals, would fill the void. Libraries are uncomfortable with e-journals because of real concerns over what their role would be in their archiving and distribution. For instance, one model being pushed by commercial publishers is a document delivery e-journal in which the reader downloads and pays the publisher for access to an article. Since copyright is an issue, libraries rightly believe they could be squeezed out of any role in holding the material as an archive. University publishers and scholarly societies increasingly see themselves as opportunity zones for e-journal sponsorship, but economics and questions of ownership of the journals themselves cloud the scene. An example is instructive.

In the United States, a group called the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), is attempting to break what they see is the commercial publisher's stranglehold on journal publishing. SPARC has helped to launch a new journal Evolutionary Ecology Research, formerly Evolutionary Ecology, owned by a mega-sized European publishing conglomerate. To make this happen, the editor, and much of the editorial board, resigned en masse, changed the journal name, and now publish a p-journal with private individual and university support. In a whitepaper describing this event, 'the editor of the breakaway journal Evolutionary Ecology Research has likened this growing awareness to a "slave revolt".' (Johnson 1999; see also Rosenzweig 1999; Rambler 1999). Strong words, but accurate. SPARC is vigorously pursuing additional p-journals and plans to expand into e-journal support.

What all of this means to archaeology is this: there is an opportunity to create e-journals that can serve the ends of archaeologists. Commercial publishers, however, will not make this easy, and in the case of existing p-journals owned by commercial houses, the decision to do so will be strictly driven by economics. Archaeologists will have little say in how those p-journals will be transformed, and if recent experience is any guide, they will be little more than clones offering little functionality beyond what we currently have. This will undoubtedly be the case as new e-journals are proposed to them. University presses and scholarly societies should be encouraged to take on a leading role. However, the economics are going to be difficult to overcome. The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) has been debating in its publications committee and board of directors over the past five years if, when, and how a move to an e-journal for its flagship American Antiquity will occur. Being one of the zealots and thus impatient for change, I must recognise in my reflective moments that SAA simply cannot afford to move to an e-journal format in the near-term. SAA depends substantially upon membership dues for its operating costs, and there is real concern we would see a decline in numbers with such a move. Hanging over this, of course, is the issue of longevity. There are ethical concerns as well. As Hodder has noted in this collection, those of us in the connected world should work to ensure that our colleagues in poorer nations are not left behind in their access to data they in many cases have helped to collect. This is especially worrisome for SAA, which has a large number of Latin American members and institutional subscribers. Ginsparg (1997) has argued that, if anything, e-journals are making scholarly life easier in the third world:

"Finally, politically correct elements typically fret over leaving the third world in the dust - but the reality is that less developed countries are already better off than they were before: researchers in eastern Europe, South America, and the Far East frequently report how lost they would be without these electronic communication systems, and how they can finally participate in the ongoing research loop. It will always remain easier and less expensive to get a computer connected to the Internet than to build, stock, and maintain conventional libraries - the conventional journal system had always been much less fair to the underprivileged."

While this may be true of the physics community, it is not so in archaeology, although it is clear that if e-journals and other forms of electronic communication can be made to work successfully in our field, our colleagues in the third world will find it easier to participate in these research networks than ever before.


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Last updated: Thu Jul 15 1999