Publish in cyberspace -- or perish

In Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris," the archdeacon at one point brandishes a newfangled printed book against the backdrop of the great cathedral and exclaims, "This will kill that!" His argument was that printing would undermine the authority of the centralized Catholic church. Few scholars would agree with so simplistic a reading of history today, but in broad strokes the archdeacon had a point.

Have we reached a similar point? At a conference I spoke at a few years ago in the medieval walled city of San Marino, Italy, Umberto Eco gave the concluding paper and began by brandishing a laptop computer and a paperback and asking, "Will this kill that?"

The nuanced and interesting answers, including Eco's, from that conference are readily available in a very conventional printed book, "The Future of the Book "(Berkeley and Turnhout: University of California Press and Brepols, 1996), but the short answer is simply no -- the book is here to stay.

But scholarly and scientific communication will surely be transformed. There are already 1,600 electronic journals indexed on Penn's Library Web and thousands more -- many of them of a quality that our library would never catalogue -- are published, with more new ones daily. Are we ready to publish and perish in cyberspace?

In some ways the transition can seem simple: produce articles the old-fashioned way, then distribute them electronically. But the possibilities of electronic publication are manifold -- articles can now be written in different ways, illustrated with multimedia tools, perhaps supplemented by presentation of full data sets and spreadsheets, with hyperlinks to earlier articles on the same topic. Who will produce those new electronic forms? Shall we produce them on our own Web pages and let the world come find them? Shall we continue to give them away to European publishers who then charge us an arm, a leg, and assorted other anatomical parts to buy back for our collections?

If we do begin to publish in cyberspace, moreover, what will our colleagues make of those publications? Rank and tenure in academe are based on judgments which include at least in part a respect for established forms: publishers with a long track record of excellent, peer-reviewed work. Will tenure committees be impressed by a dossier that comes in one-tenth as thick as all the others and featuring only a page of URLs at the end for the author's work?

The answers to none of these questions is technological. In this area, as in pedagogy, technology races on far ahead of our ability to exploit all its possibilities. What we as academics choose to make of new forms of publication will be the result of academic decisions. Scholars and librarians have been meeting, first in small groups irregularly, and now in larger groups and with greater frequency to dream, to anguish and to wonder. There the discussion is too often left, for academics pursue their research lives more often thinking of themselves as members of a discipline than of a given institution. And yet it is the given institution that settles down to make tenure decisions.

Does it matter? Will we or the world care if we spend a few more years using a preponderance of old technologies to communicate with each other? I wonder . . . Do we as academics stand so high in public esteem that we can afford to be dilatory in taking new means of disseminating our work? I am haunted by the thought of how many genuinely curious, benevolent readers who are also voters and donors and parents of prospective students do not now have a chance to see and hear the best work that we produce.

Two electronic journals published from Penn are O'Donnell's Bryn Mawr Classical Review and Herbert Wilf's Electronic Journal of Combinatorics. O'Donnell also maintains a directory of (at last count) more than 5,100 e-journals: newjour.

James J. O'Donnell is a professor of classical studies, vice provost, Information Systems and Computing, and faculty master of Hill College House.

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Originally published on March 19, 1998