One of my long-term interests is the impact of digital and information technology on scholarship (especially in the humanities and social sciences). I was an early proponent of the publication of electronic journals, advocating it to the American Council of Learned Societies from the time I became president of ACLS in 1986. Many hard-scientific societies were already publishing e-journals by then, but the soft sciences were hesitant for lots of reasons, among them the expense of digital publication.
When I was elected vice president for research of the American Historical Society in 1997, I found that one of my responsibilities was oversight of the American Historical Review, and I began to work with the editor to explore modalities for e-publication; we began the e-version of the AHR just after my term expired in 2000. By now, I believe that many of the ACLS journals are digital, and I am very optimistic about prospects for the near future.
But there are always problems in paradise, and the newest issue of the research report of ARL, the bimonthly publication of the Association of Research Libraries, reports one interesting and consequential problem. Most of us imagined that at some point in the not too distant future, digital journals would simply replace analog journals. But Richard K. Johnson and Judy Luther write in ARL that in fact most societies are still publishing in both formats. There are many reasons for the persistence of print, but the most important is simply that there continues to be user demand for it. If offered the option of print in addition to digital, many people will pay extra for a print copy. Johnson and Luther describe this as the “dual-media transition zone” for libraries, which now have the cost of acquiring and preserving journals in both formats. This is a significant problem, and it is not clear how long it will persist.
But what interests me even more, as a scholar, is how little progress we have made toward what I would call “second generation” journals. My impression is that relatively few e-journals have matured past the first generation, by which I mean simply the presentation of text in digital form. There are, of course, tremendous advantages even to first-generation presentation, especially in the capacity of users to search digital text and to link to other bodies of information. But the second generation e-journal publishes scholarship that can only be presented in electronic form — scholarship that is inherently interactive, moving and/or manipulable. These are the new forms of digital scholarship that are now, slowly beginning to appear. They pose a different sort of challenge for libraries, one that Johnson and Luther do not take into account — there is no analog version of such scholarship. Analog, text-only versions of second-generation digital scholarship are not true avatars of the original, although there may be independent preservation reasons to keep them.
The library problem is thus both real and complex. But what interests me more is what it will take to promote the growth of second-generation digital scholarship. How do we teach the new strategies and train young scholars? Where do we find the infrastructural support necessary to sustain it?
Publishing is at the end of the production line. We urgently need to understand the front end of the line.