A User’s View of Scholarly Publishing: Are Words for Web?

Books or Computers

In a society where using technology is as natural as smiling and where the world can be explored from a screen, many industries have had to rapidly adapt or risk becoming obsolete.

What do we expect when reading for academic purposes as a result of our phone-in-hand culture? Industry experts have said, “Digital technology has become inevitable in societies that are increasingly based on knowledge.” So, why is the library still so print-heavy?

Books or Digital?

While perhaps there is sentimentality or an ideal reading experience taken from print, print certainly has its drawbacks. Whilst paper creates an impression of lastingness, it will become damaged and eventually deteriorate. Paper is expensive, it is un-ecological, it will spoil, and it is space – as well time – consuming. In a chapter of Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, Rob Kling and Roberta Lamb wrote, “Electronic publishing seems to have immense benefits – in providing economic payoffs to university presses, in making many academic practices more convenient and thereby increasing productivity, and in improving the diffusion of knowledge by reducing barriers between authors and readers.” However, a study directed in America by Student Monitor, and that appeared in The Washington Post, shows that 87% of textbook spending for the 2014 first semester was on print books. Further from this, in 2013 University of Washington lead a study that showed that 25% of humanities students bought physical versions of free eBooks. From this it could be deduced that technology is yet to banish print as an out-of-date medium of writing. If you would like read more studies, click here.

A Window of Digital Opportunity

A library, online
A library can be but a few clicks away. © Molly Jensen, 2016

In the user’s view, text availability is one of the big issues with printed scholarly texts. As students will express, it can be difficult to get your hands on specific research or additional sources. When an assessment is looming, and 50 or so students want to reference that one amazing source, which your lecturer hinted was their favourite and the perfect accompaniment, a sort of library war begins to take place. It is the library’s job to have an appropriate amount of copies of books, but this isn’t always possible due to costs and storage. One potential way to tackle this is by making texts available in an online library.

Ecosystem of Study

When thinking about whom scholarly publishing is for, we first think of the consumer; who is often either a student or a researcher. Other readers will spring to mind: lecturers, librarians, or a member of the public who has a specialist interest in a specific area, and other academics in similar fields of work. Scholarly publishing should be made easier to allow access to necessary materials.

Online libraries can be difficult to sift through in order to find that golden nugget of research. The preferred reading format, print or electronic, has been researched by the OAPEN-UK project (oapen-uk.jiscebooks.org). It was found that of those who preferred reading from print, 88.6% of people found the text in print. Contrarily, of the people who prefer electronic, only just over half, 54.9%, were able to find the text in a digital format. This could suggest the challenge of navigating digital libraries, as well as a lacking in resources.

Libraries try to fill a massive, insurmountable need for knowledge, yet they work under a maximum-capacity rule, and this is a problem. Credit: Free Stock photos ,
Libraries try to fill a massive, insurmountable need for knowledge, yet they work under a maximum-capacity rule, and this is a problem. Credit: Free Stock photos, CDC Library, 2005

It is often the case that reading lists cannot be fulfilled by an academic institution’s own library, vastly due to expense. This could lead to a student missing a vital section of research that would have greatly added to their assessment. But, does a student expect to spend money on additional texts? Should a student wish to purchase a scholarly text, the price can become rather daunting for your average twenty-year-old, who has been using pasta with sweet corn as their main nutritional source for the last week. Supplementary textbooks are often readily available in libraries (as well as to purchase), however research monographs are expensive due to their specific fields of interest, making them scarce in libraries. This becomes a problem for a student of the arts and humanities who requires this niche research in order to complete their own work.

It is in an institution’s prerogative to support the learning of its scholars. There is a potential solution to this – interlibrary loans. The OAPEN-UK project found that when accessing a book, only 4.1% of people used an interlibrary loan, compared to 35.2% of people who bought their own copy. Normally a library, or student, has to pay to put in a request for an interlibrary loan once they have reached their quota, depending upon the university policy. Interlibrary loans can be time consuming, and even unfruitful. An especially difficult time to attain an interlibrary loan is when assessments are due. As the library becomes busier and more loans are requested, the process becomes even longer.

In Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, Robin P. Peek writes “Paper has served us fairly well over the years. Before an acceptable alternative was available there was little reason to give serious discussion to abandoning it as a vehicle.” In an academic utopia, every library would have a printed copy of all the texts that anybody needed or wanted. But this is unfeasible. A library has to pay for the books it has, and a library only has so much money to spend. However, it is hypothetically doable with a suitable online library or even open access e-books.

What about Open Access? 

Peek describes, “A scholar wants people to read his or her work. For a work to be read, it must be found.” There is one very controversial suggestion that aims to solve library issues – Open access (OA).

As Martin Paul Eve explains in his book, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future, “The term “open access” refers to the removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research. Open access means peer-reviewed academic research work that is free to read online and that anybody may redistribute and reuse, with some restrictions.” Many people who have reacted to this issue have claimed that OA is pragmatically unmanageable. On an economic scale how can OA be executed? How would labour that sustains OA be subsidised and who would pay for that? Certain websites have been created to push the OA movement. It could be argued that, should all scholarly publishing move over to a digitalised platform, there would perhaps be little expense and upkeep to be done, except on an editing level. This is the fantasy that OA is trying to fulfill.

Will an evolution to digital take place in academic publishing? Credit: Jorghex, 2007
Will an evolution to digital take place in academic publishing? Credit: Jorghex, 2007

The issue that academics take with OA is: why should they pour their time and efforts into a book, for it to be free? Where is the incentive? If the incentive stops, the writing stops. If the writing stops, the learning will be damaged.

Largely, the costs within scholarly publishing lie within the editing process. We place a massive amount of trust and value within scholarly texts and this must not be tarnished by avoidable errors. The value of academic publishing would become stale should the reader encounter mistakes within the texts, thus shattering the trust that the reader has placed within the author. On top of this, an editor is not simply a person who scribbles over a manuscript; they manage a project from concept to completion, and that kind of service is invaluable.

Eve continues to explain; “open access relies upon the potential of the internet to disseminate work almost indefinitely at a near-infinitesimal cost-per-copy. This is because, in the digital world, the majority of costs lie in the labour to reach the point of dissemination rather than in the transmission of each copy. Open access was not, therefore, truly feasible in times before this technology; OA requires the digital environment and the internet.” A model of free business has been advocated in the digital age. With an ever-expanding online web of knowledge, free information is perhaps being thrust upon businesses. The business of scholarly publishing is not exempt from this tsunami of thought – the thought of “freeconomics”. Knowledge on all matters is accessible at the click of a few buttons, and if scholarly publishing wishes to withstand the test of time, it must evolve.

In an interview for this article, William Hughes, Bath Spa University English Literature lecturer and academic writer, said:

“Online publishing, for me, doesn’t carry the same prestige as print. People want to own something physical and produce something physical.

If there was a consensus across the writing and printing spectrum, the shift would have happened by now, digital is not a superior medium of publishing yet. It might become one when the computer literary generation take over. Those who are enthusiastic about digital publishing, will want, and get, everyone else to do it.”

A Final Word

Peek states, “Technology often moves faster than society is prepared to deal with the changes.” When we increasingly receive much of our news and information through the internet and digital media, it only makes sense for academic texts to be made available digitally. Peek predicts that, ‘Someday digitalized publication will be the scholarly norm, not because it is the “high-tech” thing to do but because it is the logical thing to do.’ Digital technology feeds the cultural demand that society has for information. But before this shift takes place, a suitable medium must be designed which is applicable for all forms of publishing.