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Hypermedia Online Publishing: the Transformation of the Scholarly Journal

9.2.2 Insights from research literature

The Butler study [Butler, 1995a] received responses from 199 contributors (authors and editors) to e-journals relating to perceived benefits and disadvantages of electronic publication and to informal recognition and rewards. A number of her benefits and disadvantages are relevant to the form of the scholarly journal. Perceived disadvantages were inadequate graphics (listed by 38% of all respondents selecting this option), archival instability (35%) and potential for text alteration (8%). Advantages related to the form of the journal were speed of publication (71% of respondents) and the ability to publish materials unique to electronic formats (18%).

Part of Harter and Kim's research dealt with the data formats and access methods used in the pool of e-journals they were studying [Harter and Kim, 1996a]. They found that the majority of the e-journals (at that time - 1995) used ASCII text. HTML and Postscript were the second and third most commonly used formats. In this survey, PDF was used less than OCLC's proprietary Guidon format (now obsolete). The main form of access was WWW (66.4% of e-journals) followed by Gopher (42.4%), FTP (41.6%) and Listserv (38.4%) - the numbers do not sum to 1000 because many journals used more than one access method. It is important to realise that these online technologies are quite new and without the centuries of development that underpin the print journal literature. This is visible in access problems: the portion of this study dealing with citations to other online literature tried to follow these references to test their accessibility. Only 51.8% of these references could successfully be retrieved. For the online references that were Web URLs, this percentage only rose to 66%.

Schauder's study questions dealing with the preferred form of electronic scholarly publications [Schauder, 1994, p.91] found little difference in respondents' attitudes, with CD-ROM, floppy-disk or networked media all deemed either preferred or suitable. His respondents were only moderately concerned that remote printouts appear identical to print originals, although there was a difference in responses by discipline area. Respondents from Physical Sciences and Engineering ranked this as more necessary than those from Arts, Social Sciences, Law and Business, with respondents from Biological Sciences and Medicine being least concerned about print fidelity.

The study by Berge and Collins [Berge and Collins, 1996] of the readership of the IPCT Journal found that most respondents (in 1994) preferred ASCII format documents delivered via email. At that time, the preferred retrieval mechanism (40.9%) was via Gopher. They surmised that preferences would tip in favour of retrieval from the Web.

The survey of editors, authors and readers of Journal of Biological Chemistry (both print and online) [Gotsch and Reich, 1997] found that scientists regarded the print and online versions of the journal as complementary. Advantages of the online version were rapidity of searching, convenience, timeliness and efficiency of storage. Stated advantages of the print version were ease of reading, quality of figures, serendipity of discovery through browsing (repeatedly referred to), independence from technology while reading and portability. These two sets of affordances do not overlap, and it is very difficult to see how retain all the print advantages while moving to an online only version of the journal. When asked about desirable enhancements to the online version, the two most popular choices were more hypertext links and links to a bibliographic manager (both of which have now been implemented).

Woolfrey's study of the readers of the Canadian Journal of Communication found that about half were interested in receiving the journal electronically. Her conclusion was this was so they could search a journal database for articles.

The survey by Hitchcock, et. al. [Hitchcock, 1996] of STM journals available online in 1995 found that at that time Postscript still dominated at the more technical end of the spectrum. ASCII was being mostly used as an archival format. The main changes in the form of the journal that they anticipated were changes to the structure (more broadly-based e-journals) and frequency of publication (articles released as approved rather than waiting for a gap in a printing schedule). Their later survey [Hitchcock et al., 1997] argued that journal formats based on HTML (as the native document language of the Web) and HTML (as the de facto standard for printing from digital publication systems) will inevitably dominate e-journal production. They found that PDF (as a dialect of Postscript offering significant compression options) had come to dominate the available formats. In their view, whether a journal adopted HTML or PDF depended on the origins of the journal and its production arrangements. HTML typically was used where the formatting requirements were less critical. PDF was used for journals that had begun as paper only and were now moving to parallel delivery.

Olsen's study [Olsen, 1994] was largely carried out before the Web technologies and used informants with no experience of e-journals. As a result, much of her reported interview material deals less with new things that e-journals could offer and more with the indispensable attributes of print. Her list of key points related to print journals derived from her interviews was:

The improvements over print expected of an electronic system included:

She argues that:

In the same way as the printed text on paper has been honed over the centuries to achieve usability, so will the electronic text have to be designed and presented to allow users to achieve their objectives in using the material [Olsen, 1994, p. 32].

The question is, given the list of indispensable attributes (some of which will be very difficult or impossible to provide in an online environment) demanded by the scholars she interviewed how could one proceed to do this design? Would it be possible to sacrifice some of the benefits of print for extra advantages of online publishing? Olsen's conclusion is that:

Building an electronic journal system cannot be viewed as the same kind of task as building the text systems we have experienced thus in information systems development ... (it) will require a new frame of mind, an imaginative approach, and an unconventional configuration of technology [Olsen, 1994, p. 73].

Stewart's analysis of interview data from users of the CORE system shows that all of the respondents ranked most of Olsen's list of essential functions as at least 'important'.Their three areas of concern regarding an ideal e-journal system were period of coverage, presentation of graphics and presentation of text. Interestingly, fewer of Stewart's respondents than Schauder's [Schauder, 1994] regarded exactly the same presentation of text online (via page images) as important.

Stewart's conclusion (quoting [Schaffner, 1994]) is that

Electronic journals must, at the start, at least serve the basic functions that print journals have traditionally served. Once the transition has been made, new technologies may allow us to add new roles, to drop some of the traditional roles, or to fill them in intrinsically different ways [Schaffner, 1994, p. 240].

The question is, if it is not possible to provide some of these functions (fast flipping between pages, easy annotation) will added features like full-text searching and hypermedia additions be sufficient compensation?

Schaffner herself argues that enabling technologies may not be sufficient to bring about major change and that new forms of communication are slow to develop and take full advantage of new capabilities [Schaffner, 1994].

The analysis of user responses to the CORE system reported in [Entlich, 1994] provides a number of interesting pieces of data as well as some significant conclusions. They found that the ratio of printing to viewing of articles was 1:4. This was consistent across the two CORE interfaces (Scepter and Pixlook). (It is also consistent with anecdotal evidence about use of PDF documents inside Adobe). The interpretation of the CORE group with respect to printing is that "online full-text systems are used ... as a convenient way to discover articles of interest, but not to read them in depth" [Entlich, 1994, p. 110]. This article ends by applying the insights from the CORE project to the form and functionality of the then (i.e. late 1995) current e-journals. Their main conclusions were:

Loch and Huberman in their application of punctuated equilibrium theory to technology diffusion [Loch and Huberman, 1998] argue that in an environment where there are two alternative technology solutions with one being superior both technologies exhibit positive externalities (performance benefits from others using the same technology). The externalities initially produce two stable usage equilibria, one for each technology. These equilibria are subject to sudden punctuatory shifts, with one technology being adopted as the new standard. Critically, they found that the time before such an equilibrium punctuation takes place is dependent on the rate of incremental improvement of both technologies and on the system's resistance to switching between equilibria.

Ann Okerson and James O'Donnell make the excellent point that changes in technology change the way in which we categorise the world. She provides as an example the telephone directory and the novel. Both are currently included (for most of us) in the category 'book'. As efficient on-line indices with free-text searching and hyperlinks begin to replace the telephone directory, it will no longer be thought of as a book. This removal of an item from the category will in turn subtly redefine the category for us. As they delightfully put it:

Even as we are all reading our Jane Austen on a summer's day in a hammock twenty years from now, the 'book' will have changed by virtue of the things that won't be in book form any longer." [Okerson and ODonnell, 1995', p. 2]

A good way to end this discussion of the effect of changes in the form of the scholarly journal is with a quote from the summary at the end of Appendix A of Gotsch and Reich's survey of scholars associated with JBC:

The results of the survey point to a group very much in transition. Their answers can perhaps best be likened to respondents who were asked about the Iron Horse in the 19th Century. It was obvious that the steam locomotive was something important but no one had an inkling that it would revolutionize transportation to the extent that it did. [Gotsch and Reich, 1997]

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© Andrew Treloar, 2001. * http://andrew.treloar.net/ * andrew.treloar@gmail.com