Do Electronic Journals Need Publishers?

Presented at the MLA convention, Toronto, December 28, 1997


John Unsworth

As background for this presentation, by way of full disclosure, I should say that Postmodern Culture, the peer-reviewed journal of contemporary literature, theory and culture, of which I'm now an editor emeritus, answered this question "yes," and has actually had two publishers--first, Oxford University Press, and now Johns Hopkins University Press. Moreover, PMC's recent decision to charge, through Hopkins' Project Muse, for certain forms of its electronic distribution has been the subject of some controversy, a controversy actively hosted by the journal itself and recently reviewed by Joel Felix in "L'Affaire PMC", published in EBR, Electronic Book Review. I'll return later to Felix's review, and to the specifics of the PMC-JHUP discussion--and when I do, I want to emphasize, I will be speaking for myself only, and not for PMC in general, since I know that each of the two current co-editors (Stuart Moulthrop and Lisa Brawley) and Eyal Amiran, my fellow retiree, would have a different take on at least some of the issues I'll discuss (see, for example, Stuart Moulthrop's Letter to the Editor of EBR). But for now, I'd like to begin by addressing the titular question in more general terms.

So, do electronic journals need publishers? Several years into the Web, the best answer to that question might be: "What's a journal? What's a publisher?" Is a journal an archive, a site, a serial? Is a publisher an internet service provider, a webmaster, or even the host computer itself? And, looking at all that's emerged over these last five years, "no" would seem to be another good answer to this question: journals, zines, and sites of all sorts are out there, published, but without publishers. Granted, the quality of what is being published on the Web varies a great deal--from very, very good to really, really bad--but these differences in quality don't consistently correlate with the presence or absence of a publisher. So, clearly, you can publish high-quality material in electronic form without the assistance of traditional academic or commercial publishers.

The odds of doing this, though, depend to some extent on what audience you intend to reach, what terms your authors and reviewers are willing to accept, and whether or not you do extensive, behind-the-scenes editorial and/or production work. The answers to these questions (which can vary quite a bit in their combinations) determine whether and how to attempt to recover the cost of producing the electronic publication. The issue of cost recovery is in turn a component of the answer to the question, "do electronic journals need publishers?" It's not the whole answer, but it is a central part, and it is also an extremely complex and contentious issue in the context of the Web, which owes its astonishing success to the principle of free access to information, and which, on account of that success, has become an extremely attractive new territory for commercialization, even though no one is quite sure how money is to be made there. So, let's begin with the question of cost recovery: whether it's necessary, and if it is, what strategies are appropriate under particular circumstances.

Some of the best Web-based publications are published independently and aimed at an educated but non-academic audience: Feed, for example, is owned and published by itself, Feed Inc.; Salon is similarly incorporated. Both of these appear to be organized, from a business point of view, like mass-market for-profit magazines rather than like academic journals--they don't have any academic affiliation, they do take a lot of advertising, and they pay their staff. If you have a payroll to meet, there's no question that you need to bring in revenue, and these magazines seem to be doing that by taking advertising from car companies (Volvo), computer companies (IBM), and other commercial sponsors. This model works (or doesn't work) in the electronic world more or less as it does in traditional magazine publishing: someone invests start-up funding, a business is incorporated, and advertising pays the freight. The difference is, of course, that there's no charge for the publication itself, a loss of revenue that we assume is offset, in successful e-zines like Feed and Salon, by the fact that there's no printing, no distribution charges, no remainders. On the other hand, most magazines fail; the ones that succeed do so by finding and holding an audience that advertisers want to reach. Feed and Salon probably have very precise demographics of their readership, and these statistics are doubtless an important instrument in marketing their ad-space.

But Feed and Salon are magazines, not journals, if by "journal" we mean a refereed or peer-reviewed publication intended to reach and serve an academic audience. "Journals" of that sort are a good deal less appetizing as advertising opportunities: the topic area covered by the publication is usually specialized, so that readership tends to be small, and academics earn and spend less than other professionals with similar levels of education and training (ask any of the hotel staff). It's possible that some academic publications could be attractive to advertisers--book review organs, for example, might attract advertising from publishers, but even there, sufficient potential for conflict of interest exists to make advertising a problematic solution, were it to work at all.

Bad Subjects and C-Theory are two good, no-publisher electronic journals: they aim at an academic audience, they cover a fairly well-defined subject area, and they don't carry advertising. Bad Subjects is put out by an editorial collective of graduate students at UC Berkeley and elsewhere, and it is not, as far as I can tell, formally peer-reviewed. I would assume that its authors and editors work for free, and that its authors do a good deal of the formatting and production work on their own pieces. In other words, the direct costs of Bad Subjects are probably close to nothing, and cost recovery is probably not an issue. C-Theory, the electronic reincarnation of the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, is peer reviewed, is indexed and abstracted, and is published out of an academic department at Concordia, under the sign of the Krokers. C-Theory's authors and editors also, doubtless, contribute without being paid, but it does have one part-time student who is paid to do production work. I assume that the direct costs of C-Theory are carried by Concordia, or perhaps by the Krokers themselves, and as long as everyone is happy with this arrangement, cost recovery is probably not an issue here either.

This brings us to PMC, and its decision to charge, through Project Muse, for the hypermedia archive of its back issues. Like C-Theory, PMC is peer-reviewed, indexed and abstracted, and employs paid student help--one half-time graduate student who acts as managing editor, and usually two extra part-time students to help with last-minute production matters when an issue is due out. For a long time--seven years--PMC was distributed entirely free of charge. We did take advertisements, on a selective basis, for publications and events that we thought would be of interest to our readers, and from other journals, but we didn't charge for the announcements of publications and events, and with other journals we had an ad-exchange program. So why, after seven years, did we suddenly decide that we did need to recover the $15,000 or so that it costs to produce this journal each year?

For the first couple of years, at NCSU, we did all of the work ourselves, including producing ad copy for ad exchange, manufacturing disk and fiche (for subscribers who chose to pay for those formats), mailing disk and fiche and keeping track of those subscriptions, converting submissions (from whatever bizarre media and software they arrived in) into something we could use for the review process, tracking that process, printing or copying and mailing articles for review, printing hard copy for the indexes, proof-reading and source-checking, formatting files for electronic publication, constructing gopher menus and ftp archives, managing the subscriptions to our listserv, all of this in addition to the actual editorial work of soliciting, reviewing, and editing essays, and corresponding with authors about revisions and proofs.

At the outset, I think we all learned something by doing this work, but once the systems were set up and it became a series of rote tasks, it simply took time away from editorial work and from other professional obligations--teaching, research, writing. Moreover, as time went by and the volume of submissions went up, it became impossible to manage all of these tasks with two or three volunteer faculty members; at that point, the English department at NCSU provided us with a temporary, part-time editorial assistant, and we began to pay for some additional technical support out of the rather meager funds we accumulated from the sale of disk and fiche. We also benefitted, in the early days, from several NCSU grants, grants explicitly intended as start-up funding and used for equipment, stationery, and software. Start-up is the key term here: it's easier to get money for something new than for something old, especially if it's not only new but also unique. Once PMC was no longer the only peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, and once we were four or five years old, the start up funds stopped. At that point, I had the good fortune to move to Virginia and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and for a while, I carried the journal's expenses on the Institute's budget--but this was also explicitly a temporizing measure, since I couldn't justify spending twice the amount on the journal that we provide to each year's Fellows at the Institute, much less doing so year in and year out. And even if it were true, as one participant in the PMC-JHUP discussion put it, that University of Virginia has "money up the wazoo," eventually one gets tired of going up there after it.

There were, then, two choices: stop doing the things that we needed to pay people to do, or find a way for the journal to recover its costs. The most time-consuming and expensive parts of our production process were, and are, the management of the peer-review process, the proofing and source-checking of articles to be published, and formatting those articles for publication. These are all, in my view, essential parts of what it means to publish a scholarly journal, because each in its own way helps to guarantee the quality and reliability of the final, published product. Therefore, doing away with them would have meant dismantling what we had built, and we weren't willing to do that.

In his EBR review of the PMC-JHUP discussion of these and other related issues, Joel Felix suggests that EBR has successfully negotiated the difficulties of an all-volunteer editorial staff, with unpaid, rotating editors, but the numerous errors in his piece--ranging from punctuation errors to misspelled words and names to misused terms to garbled sentences and conflated ideas--frankly suggest otherwise. Many of these errors are minor, albeit unnecessary--misspelling the names of participants in the PMC-JHUP discussion when their archived email, with their names on it, was his source material--but some are more substantive, and although it's not my purpose to spend the time allotted to this paper in rebuttal of a piece many of you will not have read, some of his substantive errors are worth discussing because they represent what are, I think, common misconceptions about the implications of producing electronic journals under the aegis of academic publishers. Of those, the major thread has to do with the relationship between subscription, copyright, and access.

"What is the nature of copyright of hypermedia works published in a subscription domain?" Felix asks. The general answer to this question is that subscription has no bearing whatsoever on copyright. The specific answer, in PMC's case, is declared (where Felix could easily have found it) at the top of each article the journal publishes: the copyright belongs to the author, the normal provisions of fair use apply, and the compilation that constitutes the issue itself is separately copyrighted by the journal. These basic characteristics of PMC's copyright policy have not changed since the days of self-publication, have weathered negotiations with two different publishers, and have not changed a whit as the result of our decision to charge a subscription fee for access to the back issues. Later, Felix says, "I can't resist the big questions: should the web revert to print rules, structures, with subscription based distribution?" But again, the answer to this "big question" is an obvious one: subscription does not imply "print rules [and] structures" in the material itself--they are entirely separate and logically disjunct issues.

In fact, what Felix seems unable to resist is the rhetorical temptation presented by a free internet-based journal beginning to charge subscription fees. Instead, he wallows in phrases like "the Novell-ization of critical content," talks about "corporate new media forces trammeling electronic discourse into a profitability paradigm" (in spite of the fact that JHUP is a non-profit publisher), and even goes so far as to "announce the death of the internet" in a passage I will quote at greater length in a moment. He repeatedly confuses commercial and non-profit academic publishing, two very different businesses; he ignores the fact that no one seems to find it objectionable that humanities print journals charge subscription; he fails to engage the issues of economic fairness to employees who should be paid for work that brings with it little professional credit; and he seems deliberately incapable of understanding PMC's stated rationale for the unusual "commercial" arrangement by which each new issue of PMC is made available for free, until the next issue comes along. And though he gives lip service to the remarkable nature of the PMC-JHUP email discussion (when has another academic journal ever brought its editors, authors, readers, and publisher together to discuss a change in pricing policy?) , and to its outcome (JHUP's remarkable decision to make the full text of both existing and future issues available for free) he spends most of his time working himself into an apocalyptic lather over PMC's decision to charge for anything at all.

One other major thread of misconception in Felix's review is worth discussing, since it bears on what seems to me to be the other major reason for working with a publisher, over and above cost-recovery considerations, and that is the need for electronic journals to have some fixed address in the world of "404 Not Found" errors. Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive project, which archives all of the publicly available material on the web each year, claims that even though Web content is roughly doubling in size each year, fully half of what is out there one year will be gone the next. This massive rate of decay, and the doubly massive rate of growth, both make it all the more important for scholarly journals to be consistently locatable in the welter of the Web. But Felix doesn't see it this way: he quotes (skeptically) one of my contributions to the discussion, in which I say that one reason PMC wanted to work with a publisher was the desire ". . that the journal should eventually cease migrating with its editors, since (we knew from experience) changes in address mean losing and frustrating readers, and lend credence to the general perception that electronic publishing of any sort is ephemeral and unreliable." To this, Felix responds,

It is hard to believe that this last sentence comes from a founding editor of PMC, the first and still the most "credible" internet journal (a credibility in large part validated by Oxford University Press). The statement best reflects the disjunction seen by many at PMC (contributors and editors) between the desire for academic credibility (stability of publishers and editors, even of URLs) and the suspect ephemerality of electronic publishing.

Unsworth's argument for stability (seconded by Michael Jensen of JHUP and fellow founding editor Eyal Amiran) is urged as a necessary response to the realities of the tenure-review system, an argument perhaps well made in these difficult academic times, but an argument that also reveals the commodification of academic writing extant--an issue implicit in this debate that few engage. Unsworth's statement also reflects the desire of PMC to distance itself from its origins by establishing credibility in electronic publishing (with PMC's peer reviewed, cautious argumentation) while nonetheless embracing the benefits of electronic distribution. (On the basis of this I want officially to announce the death of the internet: the internet cannot/should not be print. If cultural capital and credibility must come from the ability of an electronic form to offer the stability of a print form, then why publish electronically, at all?

Where to begin with this? The desire for the journal not to migrate with its editors is not an argument for the subscription model per se: it is an argument for working with a publisher, in particular one who will publish the journal in its networked form, as JHUP does, and not just in disk and fiche, as Oxford did. Stability of this sort--a permanent address--is important, absent a URN system. When electronic journals change address, they seem from some perspectives to have disappeared--there is still, out there in the ether, a raft of electronic documents that bear old and now non-functional PMC addresses (email, gopher, ftp). Someone coming across one of those documents in a search, as could easily happen, and trying to follow that address, would find nothing. This kind of thing doesn't happen with print journals--not because they never change address, but because even if they do, the print copy is sitting on a shelf in the library, catalogued under the same old Dewey Decimal number. Ergo, the impression is given that ejournals are more ephemeral than print journals, and this permits people to dismiss the medium's viability for scholarly work, as many still wish to do.

As for the commodification of academic writing, if this is news to Mr. Felix, one wonders what business he's been in. Of course one publishes for tenure, and for promotion, as well as for the love of learning, the spirit of inquiry, and other more laudable motives. We established PMC as a peer-reviewed academic journal, and we hoped that it would participate in the system of scholarly publishing: Felix's notion that PMC wants "to distance itself from its origins by establishing credibility in electronic publishing" is absurd, because establishing credibility in electronic publishing constitutes PMC's roots: that's what we've been trying to do, since the beginning. I hope we've done it, too.

Why publish electronically if you want the stability (for purposes of location) and the credibility (for professional purposes) of a print journal? For multimedia, for hypertext, for search and retrieval, etc. etc. The only explanation for Felix's reading of these points would be an assumption on his part (held as a positive thing) that all electronic publishing is (and should be) un-stable, un-credible, non-academic, non-professional, non-peer-reviewed . . . exactly the perception PMC has since its inception been trying to dispel, and exactly the assumption that Felix can't see as a problem, and therefore breezes past in his reading of the discussion on the importance of a permanent address.

My own position is a more catholic one: there's plenty of room on the Web for ephemeral, nomadic, even fugitive publications, plenty of room for good magazines that don't intend to be scholarly journals, for self-publication of the best and the worst sort. But there's also room for publications that aspire to meet high scholarly standards and would like to be able to be found, at the same address, ten years from now. High quality digital information costs something to produce, and large collections of it, produced over a long period of time, always entail significant costs. There are lots of ways of raising the money to pay those costs: not only advertising and subscription, but pay-per-use, donations, start-up grants, merchandising (Suck T-shirts, for example), even page charges. Whether costs need to be recovered depends on audience, production values, and the economic expectations of authors, editors, and staff; how to recover them is a matter of finding the least objectionable solution, instance by instance.

Finally, beyond the economic questions, beyond marketing and fulfillment services, there are considerations of stability and visibility that may favor the involvement of a publisher. And even beyond that--and beyond what most publishers offer at this point--there is the fact that as the medium of the Web increases in complexity, moving from HTML to XML, incorporating Java and Javascript, raising its standards of graphical design and functionality, technical support will become an increasingly important service that publishers can, and should, offer to the journals they publish. Sophisticated software for searching, rendering, and assembling Web-based content is still extremely expensive and highly specialized. Industrial strength markup software can cost thousands of dollars; document management systems and sgml-aware search engines can cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are economies of scale to be realized by assembling publications that need this software under the wing of a publisher who can amortize the cost of the software across multiple publications, a cost that includes the trained support personnel who install, update, and operate it. Even if they wanted to, volunteer editors and authors could not master these things themselves, and in most cases they will not want to, and should not need to, become programmers or system administrators in order to do their scholarly work.

In the future, if publishers want to make it easier to answer "yes" to the question, "do electronic journals need publishers," they would do well to develop their ability to deliver this high level of software sophistication and technical expertise, without abandoning the more traditional but still potentially valuable services they have offered to authors and editors. JHUP has done a good job in that respect, certainly better than most, but I know that they realize this medium is still changing from day to day, as are the common desktop authoring and site-development tools, with the result that the dividing line between what we can do for ourselves and what we need publishers to do for us is a moving target--or, more accurately, a rising bar.