The Electronic Monograph: A Scholarly Necessity or the Never-Reached
Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow?
Over the years of the CSA Newsletter I have written almost an article every other year about electronic publication, and I return here to this familiar topic. It would be reasonable to ask why, and I looked through the previous articles to be sure I had something new to say; I did not want simply to say again how important I think it is to publish electronically. I found changes over time in my comments and opinions; there does seem to be a thread and a slow evolution to an opinion I think is well informed -- and that continues to evolve in response to changing technology.
I have written both paper and electronic books, and I have been involved in a variety of initiatives about e-publishing; so I believe I have some useful experience. In addition, the recent experiences of publishing Archaeological Computing as a downloadable PDF file and conversing with colleagues about objections to e-publishing have added to my experiences. In the end, though, the readers will judge.
I begin with a familiar distinction. Electronic publication may be taken to mean both the presentation of an electronic version of the scholarly monograph and the presentation of data -- either as whole, downloadable files or as online responses to queries from a web resource . (I omit here electronic journals.) As to presentation of data, it should now be taken for granted, in my view, that data must be archived and available in one form or another. As I have said previously, placing the data files in various physical/digital locations to take advantage of local expertise and facilities may be a desirable tactic; however, the strategy of making them available remains a given. Similarly, archiving data files remains a given. The proverbial fly in the ointment is the absence of archival repositories, making sponsoring institutions the default archival repositories, whether they are prepared for that task or not. Important as this issue is, I do not believe there is much new to say. We can plead for repositories, but that will not help. What might help would be a group of projects with data that could be pooled to jump-start a repository. That, however, is not the subject of this article.
The real subject here is the scholarly monograph. I have at various times suggested that computer use might not be widespread enough soon enough for e-publishing (one of my least prescient comments about computing) and that reading on screen is far less desirable than reading on paper. The latter remains true but is changing with the maturing of readers who have been reading on computers for most of their lives, with improvements in monitors, and with the advent of electronic books such as those from Sony and Amazon.
I have also argued that lowered cost is a major advantage for electronic publication when that is, in fact, far less true than one might expect. Particularly with small print runs, the big costs (per copy) are in the preparation -- editing, vetting, and layout -- rather than in printing and distributing. There are cost advantages, but they are smaller than once seemed the case. For the buyer, however, there may be far larger price advantages if scholarly publications can be either free or very inexpensive.
With those admissions as a starting point, I come to the issue of electronic publication of the scholarly monograph, assuming that the monograph is not the entire product and that the digital data files will be available in an archive separately. The monograph, in its e-publishing incarnation, then, is as nearly like its paper counterpart as it can be, consisting of text, illustrations, graphs, charts, and so on. 1
Before going any further, I must provide a fuller definition of what I mean by e-publishing. I mean by that a complete, coherent, edited, and vetted presentation of a work in electronic form. You will note that the foregoing definition included the phrase, "edited, and vetted." There will certainly be e-publications that are not edited or vetted (Archaeological Computing was not edited and vetted in the fashion I would have preferred), but the ultimate success of the medium will be proved by monograph series published by institutions like the AIA and the SAA, series that continue the tradition of full, careful, and meticulous editing and vetting.
I believe that such an electronic monograph can be either a website or a PDF file. Because I am not altogether optimistic about the preservation of web documents over time, I have come to prefer the PDF file. PDF files seem more likely to have a long life or, when replaced, to be directly translated into some new replacement format. This is not a fact but an opinion. However, the sure advantage of the PDF file is that, should the need arise, the file can be printed out -- and printed well. That printed version will faithfully reflect the document in a way that printed versions of web pages cannot reflect the original. (If an example is required, Archaeological Computing can be downloaded from http://archcomp.csanet.org.)
Now we turn to the crucial questions, the first being why, given its conspicuous lack of success in the "marketplace," e-publishing continues to have adherents. What is it about the idea that gives it staying power in the absence of true success? It is not cost, though I think that has remained a misperception; as mentioned already the cost advantages are minimal when print runs are small, as they are with scholarly monographs. I think the significant advantage that hangs in the air, so to speak, is the possibility of having at your fingertips a wide variety of publications that can be taken with you on your laptop (and soon on your ebook or ibook or whatever it will be called) when you go into the field and need comparanda, when you go to scholarly meetings, or take a vacation, or go almost anywhere save the bathtub (where, one day, the ebook/ibook will probably be safe).
The fact that an e-publication can be printed on demand makes its portability even more complete, but it also brings up again the question of reading on a computer screen. My own experience is mixed. I read more and more online, but I think I would choose a paper book over an e-book for straight reading (though I will confess to having ordered, but not yet received, the Amazon reader). Ah, but there is a crucial issue: "straight reading." We surely read many scholarly monographs straight through. But equally surely we consult many without ever reading the entire work, instead browsing to find the needed information, portion, chapter, illustration, etc. In addition, as I said earlier, younger readers seem to find on-screen reading more acceptable.
There is another advantage to the electronic publication that I believe to be significant, but I do not think it is widely held to be key. That is the ability to use color in illustrations. Whenever pottery is illustrated, for example, color is a significant, often critical aid. Its absence is something we have grown accustomed to because we have had no choice until now. E-publishing gives us the choice -- without a cost. Not only may we use color, but we may include as many illustrations as needed without fear of driving up costs. Furthermore, a properly prepared PDF file permits enlarging images without loss of detail so that even size is less constrained.
Another of the advantages is speed. Publishing electronically eliminates the time-consuming requirements of checking proofs and blue lines. It also eliminates the time required for the physical activities of printing, binding, and distributing. When the editor and author are satisfied, the book is complete.
Yet another advantage is the potential to publish a multi-authored monograph in pieces, as it is completed. This would remove the effective veto over publication that is often wielded unintentionally by the one colleague who simply does not produce his/her chapter. Of course, that also removes the excuse of, "it's all finished except for xxx's piece."
Ease of access is another important asset. Many of the books in a field like archaeology are hard to find. The smaller the institution, the more remote the place, the harder it is to find many books. Even online sellers may not have the kinds of specialists' books we often crave. For an e-publication available online, however, there is no impediment to obtaining it anywhere at any time, assuming only internet access. And, in an electronic world, nothing need ever go out of print.
Changes to an electronic publication are relatively easy to make. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Fixing typos and correcting other trivial errors are simple and should cause no problems or concerns. More significant changes, things that alter the meaning of the text, on the other hand, are very problematic. While I would argue that the benefits outweigh the costs, I firmly believe that any e-publication that may be changed must have a carefully controlled process for change and must, at a minimum, archive all versions and make updates available without additional charge. In addition, it would be my view that the alteration progress should normally retain the original and add changes in ways that permit readers to see any and all versions, from first to last. In short, the electronic publication process must make certain that later editions undergo the same careful editing and vetting processes as the first edition.
A web publication, as opposed to a book or PDF, can easily be non-linear by design. Some would consider this a great benefit; others a curse. It can be either, but it is also not a requirement of the e-publication.
An e-publication can also refer directly, with a link in the document, to another resource or to a related portion of itself. While this is convenient, I consider it to be no more than a minor convenience. A reference that is more convenient to find may be used more, but there will still be references to crucial non-electronic sources for many years to come. A link within the document is convenient but not essential.
Given these advantages for electronic publications, what are the impediments? The obvious one is that a book is just that. It is a stand-alone object that can be carried and used alone. It needs no electric outlet, no batteries, nothing. Ebooks and ibooks may arrive, but they will always require some form of support that the traditional book does not need.
Paper books are also automatically archived. Acid-free paper is required, to be sure, but that's it. Books will last without requiring any significant help.
I was surprised to hear a colleague cite a different problem that he took to be crucial. He pointed out that the publisher of an electronic publication loses control of the quality of the final copy. Paper quality, print resolution, and other matters that impact the final, printed output cannot be controlled in the e-publishing world, and he believed that to be critical as a quality-control matter, especially for illustrations. If a reader is sure to print out the text, how much loss if there? Certainly some, more if the printer used is of low quality, and the use of coated paper, normal in high-quality publication, is so rare elsewhere that the qualitative difference is inescapable. On the other hand, my own experience with Archaeological Computing suggests to me that the quality of line art is better than on paper because of the potential for enlargement on screen and that the same is true for photographs. Balancing any perceived qualitative differences, though, is the opportunity to include more images and to use color. True, those images may be best seen on screen rather than on paper, but I would strongly argue that the total package is better when it includes color, more images, and the potential for on-screen enlargement.
As I examine these arguments, I am forced to return to the missing item, the proverbial elephant in the room: tenure and promotion committees. I hear different reports regularly about the nature of those deliberations. Some argue that the value of e-publications has become equivalent to that of standard paper publications. But every time I hear such a claim there is a counter-example. In my very limited and anecdotal experience, I am not aware of a single case where a tenure or promotion decision was based on an electronic publication of the kind discussed here: a fully reviewed, edited, and vetted scholarly monograph that happened to be electronic. I am therefore inclined to believe that this issue may or may not be real and that we will probably not know what the biases are for some years because we will not have e-publications of this kind for some years yet.
In the end, then, I have to ask myself if I would seriously recommend to a junior scholar the creation of an e-publication. My sad answer is that I know of no e-publisher for monographs in archaeology, no publisher who will treat a manuscript with the kind of care normal in the print world while creating a final publication in electronic form; so such a recommendation is not possible. It is easy to understand why traditional publishers have not flocked to create e-publications that may too easily be copied and shared without payment, but that is not a real problem for a professional organization. However, where are the professional organizations on this? Some have spoken out but no more; they must put their resources on the line if they are to make a difference in this realm. As is so often the case, we seem to be marching firmly into the future with our faces turned to the past. I think it is past time to turn around and face the future, letting the past be our subject, not our ball and chain.
-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II
1. I ignore here the possibility of complex software-driven products that provide multi-media-type experiences, not because they are inferior but because they present a host of preservation issues that make them, from my point of view, too risky at this time. See "Review of Excavating Occaneechi Town: Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina," Harrison Eiteljorg, II, CSA Newsletter, XI, 3; Winter, 1999; http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter99/nlw9904.html. Return to text.
For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.