The Craft (2001)
The Function Of The Electronic Journal (EJ) In The Academic Process:
The academic process - the delivery of research results and training in exchange for income - is still adjusting to the arrival of the electronic age. The publication and subsequent discussion of research results is fundamental to the academic process and is necessarily highly regulated. The worldwide web (www) is a new medium for the publication of research results but has had limited use in the academic process because of concerns over the quality, visibility and continuity of its contents. If the EJ can be given assurance as to quality and continuity its visibility will; increase and so it will function as the premier vehicle of linkage between academic and the www.
The creation, transmission and storage of knowledge is a vast human activity carried out by countless individuals, groups and institutions but it is the academic system which performs the activity for income amounting to billions of dollars each year, through some 100,000 universities, research institutes, hauts écoles and other income producing and expending variations. To underline the point, one could note that Harvard University, the world’s richest has annual sales income of US$1.78 billion, and an endowment of US$14 billion (Hoovers, 2000), far greater than the majority of the world’s states. The core of this activity or process is the publication of research findings through printed journals (PJ) and to a lesser extent books and occasional papers which are usually reviewed in a PJ. There is generally no payment for publication in an academic PJ but the paid benefits that follow such publication can be enormous as appointment, promotion, research grant funding: in other words the PJ is a very powerful gatekeeper of entry into economic academia.
The problem in the performance of this function is that of “severe restriction” because of time and cost (Edmonds, 2000) and that groups of scholars can find a minority viewpoint suppressed by prevailing editorial powerholders, and individuals can find problems of delay, as well as costs: postage, sometimes an administration fee, and physical access to libraries. The prestigious PJs are selective: many have rejection rates of 90 per cent (Getz, 1997), but such is their indirect income-producing power, that there is never a shortage of submissions.
In its explosive growth since 1990, the worldwide web (WWW) might have seemed set to be the immediate new location for the published production of the academic process, but with some notable exceptions, this has not proven to be the case, yet.
The WWW is often characterised as ether, (the outer region of space) or sky, where messages are skywritten (Harnad, 1997). Another metaphor might be that an ocean, as implied in the name of the browser Netscape Navigator or the term surf the web. The ocean metaphor is appropriate because anything from flotsam and jetsam to great battleships can float upon it, but things can also disappear without trace. The WWW is democratic: there is no gatekeeper to prevent anyone from posting a publication, but the academic process is about selectivity, not democracy. Its vastness and the impermanence of things upon it seriously weaken its suitability for the publication of research findings to the extent that EJs have “not yet been accepted as legitimate publication outlets by the scholarly communities” (Kling and Covi, 1995: 1). But its existence and the potential power of its impact indicate that, in the view of some, the demise of the PJ is inevitable (Odlyzko, 1995).
A considerable number of existing prestigious scholarly PJs are also being produced in EJ version, and are available by subscription. For example, the British Medical Journal is now availbale online.( http://www.bmj.com/). .Publishing houses are seriously worried about a transition to electronic format and are seeking ways to maintain their income flow in the new format (McKnight and Bailey, 1995).
In certain fields, academics have come to recognize EJs as valid vehicles of scholarly discourse: high energy physics and electronic communication are two salient examples (Harrison and Stephen, 1995).
It would be uncharitable to name names, but many EJs have failed the basic test of survival, thus contributing to the “lack of acceptance as a means of professional and scholarly communication” (Jul, 1992).
Is academic quality just in the eye of the beholder? The answer to this increasingly asked question is in the negative: quality is a matter of thoroughness of documentation of evidence, truth is acknowledgment of sources, soundness of logic, and reliability of conclusions presented: that is the qualities editors and their reviewers always seek. The system of assuring quality is often called peer review, that is review by supposed equals but generally by acknowledged experts and therefore authorities often on an anonymous basis. The onus is on the editor to avoid reviewers known for a bias, and the system does create bottlenecks of delay. But review is a necessary component in the process of assuring quality, and must be part of the production of an EJ which seeks prestige (Harnad, 1996: 7).
The creation of an association of peer-reviewed EJ in a specific area is a development likely to advance the reputation of quality. The Association of Peer-Reviewed Electronic Journals in Religion is such a body, lying down criteria for membership and thereby offering a guarantee of quality (APREJR 2000).
An interesting variation on the peer-review process is the post-publication review whereby articles are published as received and then voted on for publication in a more prestigious electronic archive (Nadasdy, 1997).
Recognition by an official body, which is part of government, is a profoundly valuable indicator of quality in those countries where it is available. An example is the Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics ( http://www.ncl.ac.uk/~njw5/ ) which is recognised by the Higher Education Funding Council of England for the purposes of appointment, promotion and granting.
The problem of discontinuity could be the greatest disincentive to an academic contemplating submission of his/her valuable research findings to an EJ, or in other words, the “fear of transience” (Jull, 1992: 3).
A PJ is expensive to produce but the printed records lasts: an EJ is cheap to produce but there is a cost to maintain it. Social Science Publication Papers ( http://www.sspp.net/ ) costs US$225 per year to produce and maintain, a cost shared among its editors (from the Editors Volume 3, Issue 2). A strong indicator of continuity (and quality) is the official backing of an educational institution, such as for Language Culture and Society. ( http://www.edc.utas.edu.au/users/tle/JOURNAL/Journal..html ) which is underwritten by the University of Tasmania. The cost of production can be reduced by the use of text editing software which will avoid the “tedious, time consuming and error prone” process of manual HTML markups (Sosteric, 1999) and therefore aid in ensuring continuity.
The archiving of electronic documents is another on-going problem which will have to be managed before the EJ can assume a full role in the academic process (Task Force, 1996).
Profile building of an EJ requires the endorsement of the prestigious academic figures from prestigious institutions, and many EJs have editorial boards whose distinguished members confer status to the EJ. The dynamics of prestige in the world of academia are the same as those of the fashion world or nineteeth century Parisian society as analysed so effectively in Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. Sometimes prestigious academics contribute articles themselves to EJs but mostly only as reprints..
Multi-lingual publishing is another proven method of visibility enhancement. Mots Pluriels ( http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP.html ) is a bilingual French/English literary journal which meets these criteria: its Editorial Board is a distinguished group of international academics, as it is a panel of Editorial Consultants. It has the official endorsement of the University of Western Australia, and it is archived by the Australian National Library and is publicly available in the ANL’s PANDORA Archive (Pandora, 2000). Problems of visibility are also caused by the absence of integrated cataloging, indexing and abstracting services for electronic publication (Jul, 1992), but when these problems have been solved, the visibility of an article in an EJ will be geared for exponential growth.
The University of Tasmania Library, to take one example, has licenced access to over 2500 electronic journals which are listed on the Library’s EJ subscription page but unfortunately
“We have a great deal of difficulty finding out which issues of which journals are available through our databases and sites. Lists provided by the vendors are often inaccurate and titles are often removed without notice” (Bulletin, 2000).
Discontinuity is therefore a major factor militating against the building of trust and confidence necessary for the sustaining of EJs in an important role within the academic process.
A major factor advancing their acceptance is the possibility of “hyperlinking”, where hypertext links are provided in an article to works cited in the same article, a quantum leap forward from the traditional reference lists of PJ articles, though the transition to clickable links is still fraught with social, commercial and legal difficulties, not to mention the conceptual one of relevance (Hitchcock, Querk, Carr, Hall, Witbrock and Tarr, 1998).
The academic process is a vast economic system providing livelihood for some one million academics and their families. The PJ has traditionally performed the function of bringing research findings to the attention of highly specialised readerships in possession of the power to grant academic income, but this function is being encroached upon by the EJ. There are problems in both formats, but if the EJ can resolve a number of problems, then the scope of its function will continue to expand until its takeover is complete. Sound application of quality and continuity guidelines in the production of EJs will minimise the amount of wasted effort in the process of transition to the electronic age which is inevitable.
APEJR (Association of Peer-Reviewed Electronic Journals in Religion), July 2, 2000. http://home.apu.edu/~CTRF/News.html
Bulletin, (2000). Morris Miller library Bulletin, (University of Tasmania), April/May, n50, p1.
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Bostock, William (2001). The Function Of The Electronic Journal (EJ) In The Academic Process: An Appraisal. The Craft: [iuicode: http://www.icaap.org/iuicode?4.2001.1]