Esoteric vs. Exoteric: Economic Models for Electronic Publishing


John Unsworth

Founding Co-Editor and Editor Emeritus, Postmodern Culture

Originally delivered at Electronic Publishing: A Day Conference, University of London, January 31, 1997.

In this discussion, and in its title, I am returning to a phrase that made the rounds several years ago now, namely "esoteric publishing," and I want to look at a couple of ideas and models for what I will call, by contrast, "exoteric publishing." I am particularly interested in journal publishing, and specifically in scholarly journals in the humanities. Some of what I say may have applications beyond that sphere, but I want to caution, at the outset, that, like Horton, I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and no more.

First, then, to get the terms straight:

     esoteric   213 aj .es-*-'ter-ik
     LL [esotericus], fr. Gk [es{o-}terikos]...
     1 a  aj designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone
     1 b  aj of or relating to knowledge that is restricted to a small group

Enough for our purposes...and exoteric is the reverse: something designed for or understood by the general public. The notion of an "economics" of esoteric publishing, and indeed the phrase "esoteric publishing" belongs, so far as I know, to Stevan Harnad, the editor of Psycoloquy, and an electronic publisher who has been at it as long as I have (but I think not quite as long as Willard has). In Stevan's original proposition, called a "Subversive Proposal," he defined esoteric publishing as:

(non-trade, no-market) scientific and scholarly publication (but that is the lion's share of the academic corpus anyway), namely, that body of work for which the author does not and never has expected to SELL his words. He wants only to PUBLISH them, that is, to reach the eyes and minds of his peers, his fellow esoteric scientists and scholars the world over, so that they can build on one another's contributions in that cumulative, collaborative enterprise called learned inquiry.

Stevan's subversive proposal is that, because scholars who publish for a specialized (and small, and poor) audience, and who have no expectation of being paid for their work, can now publish cheaply on the internet, paper publishers who formerly served this type of writer will have to

either restructure themselves [...] so as to arrange for the much-reduced electronic-only page costs [...] to be paid out of advance subsidies (from authors' page charges, learned society dues, university publication budgets and/or governmental publication subsidies), or they will have to watch as the peer community spawns a brand new generation of electronic-only publishers who will. The subversion will be complete, because the (esoteric -- no-market) peer-reviewed literature will have taken to the airwaves, where it always belonged, and those airwaves will be free (to the benefit of us all) because their true minimal expenses will be covered the optimal way for the unimpeded flow of esoteric knowledge to all: In advance.

The suggestion that scholarly publishing should be paid for in advance, and in effect removed from the forces of the market, is an appealing one, on a number of levels.

First, there is the importance, for research, of failure and obscurity. If you don't fail on a regular basis, then you're not doing research, you're doing production work. And sometimes, the value of research, even when it succeeds, doesn't become clear for quite a while. It's hard to countenance, much less reward, failures in a market-driven environment, and it's hard to justify those successes which take ten, or fifty, or a hundred years to bloom.

Second, there's the universal appeal of free goods: "nuthin'" is a difficult price-point to beat. As the editor of an electronic journal which has, for the last seven years, been distributed entirely free of charge on the internet and lately the web, I can tell you that there are distinct advantages to being free, chief among them being the availability, as Harnad has it, of an "unimpeded flow" of knowledge, esoteric and otherwise. There are course syllabi all over the planet with links to PMC articles, and references to it in other online publications, and links from all sorts of non-scholarly sites to particular sections of the journal or to the whole thing. All of this obviously works best when there are no barriers to access.

Third, although this should not be a consideration for some "esoteric" publications, there is the sheer size of the audience for free scholarship, and the sense that you may be reaching people who otherwise would never read such a publication. PMC receives something on the order of a million hits a year. Granted, we all know that hits aren't readers, but this is a large number for a journal whose forthcoming issue lists in its table of contents "'The Feathery Rilke Mustaches and Porky Pig Tattoos on Stomach': High and Low Pressures in Gravity's Rainbow," and "Bodily Mut(il)ation: Enscribing Lesbian Desire," and "Lenny Bruce's 1962 Obscenity Trial: Public Culture and the Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightning Rod," and "'Mais ce n'est surtout pas vrai': On Some Recent Re-Citings of Jacques Derrida," and "Currency Exchanges: The Postmodern, Vattimo, Et Cetera, Among Other Things (Et Cetera)." And a million hits does help to persuade your chair, your dean, your provost, to contribute resources to the enterprise--release time, maybe some office space even, but not cash.

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that the powers that be are organizing themselves to pay for this kind of publication in advance. Scholarly societies: the MLA, benevolent as it may be, is not going to pay PMC's operating expenses (we asked, once, just to make sure). Universities did in fact put a good deal of money and in-kind contributions into PMC, but more at the beginning, when we were in start-up mode. Seed money, as they saw it. After three or four years, this kind of benevolence is usually replaced, as it was in our case, with an expectation that you will begin to pay the rent, or at least buy some groceries once in a while. There are no author's page charges--we think it mean enough that we don't pay authors, and wouldn't go the step further that the sciences do, to charge them for the privilege of being published in our non-pages. And as far as I know, there are no governmental subsidies for humanities journals.

I think PMC, in its own way, qualifies as the sort of "esoteric publishing" that Stevan Harnad had in mind: it is written, mainly, for a specialist audience, and its authors aren't writing for money (nor are its editors editing for money, for that matter).

It is almost entirely a volunteer production, with no paper version, and yet it costs around $15,000 a year to produce--with no marketing, no travel, nothing but salary for part-time paid employees and office expenses. Up to this point, we've been fortunate in a number of circumstances, including my connection with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, which have allowed us to conceal, gloss over, or provide for these costs in various ways, but as PMC comes into its second set of editors, and new institutional contexts, the issue of the long-term plan arises. Where's that $15K going to come from a year from now, or three, or five or ten?

Obviously, this wouldn't be important if the journal, as an institution, weren't important. Why is it important? Partly, for its editors, for obvious reasons of pride and investment. But for its authors, the continuity of the journal, the function of its peer review mechanisms, and the reputation is accrues over time, is important--the more so, precisely *because* these authors won't get paid in anything except audience and prestige.

And what do those $15K go for? Peer review and basic production, plain and simple. Managing that process, mailing things around to reviewers, corresponding with authors, tracking revisions, putting the results together in good form, source-checked, copyright-cleared, and getting the issue marked up, graphics scanned, the rest of it.

Could authors do this for themselves? Some of them, yes. Could we provide an unfunded FTP site, or web-drop, where they could deposit their materials? Yes. Could we provide a means for readers to comment on, rate, or otherwise review those materials? Yes. Would this count as peer review? Nope, not in a million years. And aside from peer review, authors (in the humanities at least) wouldn't mind their products being marketed to their peers, something that only becomes more important, not less, when the publication moves from print to the Web. And finally, it's worth noting here that the value of peer review varies quite a bit from discipline to discipline: disciplines in which results are more quantifiable tend to value it less (since if you're up to speed and have a good computer, you can verify results yourself), preferring instead immediate access to relatively unfiltered results. In fuzzier disciplines, such as the humanities, peer review tends to be very important, and the currency of the work somewhat less so.

What would we lose if we charged something, anything, for access to the journal? Ironically, the first and most obvious thing we'd lose is our exoteric audience, the million a year, and we'd lose them right away, even if the charge were a nickel. I'm certain of that.

Next, we'd lose the ready accessibility of PMC essays to course syllabi, related sites, and so forth. On the other hand, in any cost-recovery scheme that involved institutional subscriptions, we'd be likely to reach at least some of our esoteric audience, and perhaps a lot of it, in a "free" and transparent way. And though I think our authors care more about that exoteric audience than Stevan thinks they might, I expect they would all care most about that professional and pedagogical audience.

So: what will we do? Well, we're going to charge for PMC, starting with the next issue, at the end of this month, and we're going to change publishers, from Oxford to Johns Hopkins. I think I've explained why we need to recover costs; I've also explained that the peer review (the expensive part) has a value to the esoteric audience and to our authors, and conversely, the large exoteric audience has a value to the authors (albeit a more personal than professional one) and to our various institutions. I think I've also explained why it seems to me that charging costs you the exoteric audience more thoroughly and more immediately than the esoteric one.

What we plan to do is this, and I detail it here because I think it represents a generalizable model for humanities journals, which are likely to have, and value, both the esoteric audience that Stevan Harnad talks about, and the exoteric one that characterizes the Web. PMC, with the cooperation of the JHUP Muse program, is going to publish the current issue of the journal free, in perpetuity, and charge for access to the back issues. The reasoning? The casual, exoteric audience consists of browsers, and they will be willing to browse the current issue--they can even subscribe to PMC-List, and get notification when new issues appear. The esoteric audience consists of searchers: searchers are more likely to want the back issues (as well as the current one) and they are statistically likely to be at institutions which might, or could, or should subscribe either to PMC or to the entire Muse collection of 30 humanities journals. Of course, individuals can also subscribe to Muse or to PMC, outside of institutional affiliation, and the price (for PMC) will be cheap--$18 for students, $20 for other individuals, $50 for institutions. Everyone can still read the current issue free on the Web, always, and the current issue functions, in some real sense, as marketing for the archive. The archive itself can be enhanced for research (esoteric) purposes, with markup more articulate than HTML and search tools more precise than Excite.

To return, then, to Stevan's argument, I see things a little differently than he does. First, I doubt that outside sources will fund esoteric publishing in the humanities. Second, I think that there is some value, for humanities publicaitons, in an exoteric audience. Third, its clear from experience that peer review itself is the inescapable expense in all of this--not paying the reviewers, but paying the person who will track the submissions and nag the reviewers and correspond with the authors and all the rest of it. Also, I think that authors, and editors, in the humanities value the marketing function of publishers, more than they might in high energy physics--Stevan's favorite disciplinary example of esoteric publishing. And finally, the tautological point: charging money implies "fulfillment services" which are not as fulfilling as that sounds, and which you want a publisher to do.

Is this a viable start-up model for other humanities journals (current issue free, one back issue for a fee)? I don't know--but in fact, most journals that fail within the first ten years fail within the first two, and most humanities journals that survive that first two years have probably done so on the strength of institutional seed money. So maybe the applicable model is not simply PMC's Muse phase, but the entire experiment: start free, stay free as long as you possibly can, emphasize peer review and quality control, and when eventually you run out of the kind of money that can be gotten without charging your readers, then leave something--the something most likely to be of interest to the exoteric reader--out there, available, for free, and charge only for those things you think people have a reason--personal, professional, institutional--to pay for.

Additional Reading: