Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.01


Ann Okerson (ed.), Visions and Opportunities in Electronic Publishing: Proceedings of the Second Symposium. Washington: Association of Research Libraries, 1993. ISBN 0-918006-61-9. Pp. vi, 178. $24 (including postage and handling) from ARL, 21 Dupont Circle, Suite 800, Washington DC 20036; e-mail inquiries to osap@cni.org; phone to 202-296-2296.

Anthony Cummings et al., University Libraries and Scholarly Communication: A Study Prepared for the Mellon Foundation. Washington: Association of Research Libraries, 1992. ISBN 9-918006-22-8. Pp. xxx, 205. $8 from the same distributor.


Commentary by James J. O'Donnell

Let's say you are an American classics professor, or want to be. 'Publish or perish' you have heard it said. The phrase 'tenure book' is not one you have to look up in your dictionary. You have written a well-spoken-of dissertation, one that with just a little effort can be made readable, even elegant. It will give the world just that poignant and revelatory reading of Ovid that others have struggled for but not quite achieved.

So you take a copy around to your local university press, introducing yourself to the classics editor with what you hope is the right mix of deference and authority. You hope for great things.

There the fantasy hits some bumpy water. The traditional system of scholarly and academic publishing in this country isn't on life support yet, but it's been smoking heavily for years, and the diet isn't working. How long it will be able to serve you and us is a deadly serious question.

The main facts are simple. The costs of "serials" (journals of all kinds) have gone through the roof, and major libraries (like Princeton) are doing serious cutting of their subscriptions just to stay afloat. But even so, "monographs" are a more flexible part of library buying than serials (miss a volume of JRS and your collection looks funny; miss a monograph even from Princeton Press, and nobody much notices right away) and so our major libraries have been cutting back in absolute numbers on monograph purchases even as the number of titles grows. Sales per title of serious books by university presses are in a bad way: one major press editorial director was quoted in a national rag last week as saying that things that used to sell 1000 copies are now lucky to go 300-500 over the natural life of the book. To price the books with those sales projections means that prices will begin to shoot up, for as total sales drop, costs per copy begin to ascend a very steep curve. The first copy a publisher prints costs many thousands of dollars, for editorial, composition, and production costs, and a certain base of sales is necessary to get the per copy cost down to where the market will bear the price, and the problem is that the scholarly monograph market is flirting with the bottom end of the range where it can be priced at all plausibly.

All this, and budget bad news as well: university administrations have given libraries an ever smaller share of their overall budget over the last ten years, so scramble as the libraries will, they can't keep up. Even if you get your university press to publish the book, your university library may not be able to afford it.

The picture is clear enough. What is to be done?

(1) Get the word out and around. Scholars need to be informed, and insofar as we are the constituency that deans answer to, we need to make the question of how we are to do the publishing that our careers depend on a serious issue inside the main deliberative bodies of academe. For too long, the libraries' fates have been a second-tier issue in our institutions, and the university presses a third order concern at best. The libraries are troubled, the university presses are genuinely at risk: solidarity of the professors with their colleagues in the scholarly communication profession is essential.

(2) Think pragmatically. Electronic publishing is not a cure-all, and not as cheap as it might look. Estimates are that in traditional publishing, only 30% of costs go to production and distribution, and if you save that by not killing trees, you have some costs in e-distribution. But failure to exploit electronic publishing resourcefully and swiftly would be a culpable error for us all.

The two books noticed here can help on both counts. I should avow here that I have a paper in one of them and have worked closely with the people producing both, and so cannot claim any detached Olympian objectivity, but am frankly partisan. But I give both my highest rating.

The Mellon study is the more historical, detailed, and frightening. It is a careful analysis with an abundance of hard evidence of what has happened to the scholarly publishing enterprise in the last twenty years, with a focus on libraries as essential mediators -- one might almost say the capillaries -- between other participants in the process. The picture drawn is compelling and riveting. It is important to note that this is the Mellon team that began by looking at Ph.D. productivity, the job market, and graduate education: they turn their attention now to libraries and publishing not because they have an agenda, but because they genuinely want to figure out what is going on. It's a dramatic, storm-tossed scene.

The Visions volume is a pragmatic guide to the state of the art in current thinking and practice about electronic publishing as one alternative. It includes a long-range visionary overview by a leading software developer, and practical examples of specific projects now under way on campuses and in learned societies -- including, e.g., Perseus, but also including large-scale corporate undertakings like the Red Sage project that will link AT&T, Springer Verlag, and the University of California Medical Libraries. Some very smart people are out there working very hard to make the future happen.

An elderly ecclesiastical historian of my acquaintance, who in secret would probably rather have been a military historian, likes to say (and I like to quote him), 'Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.' These books address concerns that should already be, and at any rate soon will compel themselves to be, central to the lives of working academics. Buy your dean a copy. Buy your provost two copies!