Vol. XIII, No. 3
CSA Newsletter Logo
Winter, 2001

Publishing Electronically -- Sooner or Later?

Electronic publication is something many scholars see on the horizon -- and hope to see remaining no closer than the horizon for a good, long time. Publication in electronic form entails so many new questions and different problems that it seems the only hope is to put it off for as long as possible. There have, in fact, been enough false starts that it may yet be decades before electronic publication becomes common. On the other hand, successful ventures like the Occaneechi publication (see CSA Newsletter review "Review of Excavating Occaneechi Town: Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina," Harrison Eiteljorg, II; Winter, 1999, vol. XI, no. 3; and, in the same issue, "To E-Publish or Not to E-Publish?" ) suggest that the time may be closer at hand -- or at least give hope for a soft landing to those who wish to make a leap of faith.

As the possibilities grow, it seems a good time to consider again the pluses and minuses for electronic publication as compared with standard publication and even a mixed, part-paper, part-electronic publication. (Note: Electronic publication may mean publication on the Web or on CDs. Given the impermanence of the latter, with DVDs already becoming the new high-capacity medium of choice, the Web seems a better choice, and the discussion here will assume on-line publication rather than electronic publication on any physical media.) To keep things simpler, a comparison of the benefits of paper and electronic publishing, without consideration of the possibility of a mixed approach, is a good place to begin. (Note the use of colors to distinguish benefits of e-publishing from those of paper publishing -- and still other colors to indicate less certain benefits. The discussion is coded by color to indicate the connections between the list and the discussion.)

Possible benefits of electronic publication:

1. The number of included illustrations is virtually unlimited.
2. Color may be used freely.
3. The original publication may be altered or amended after initial publication, assuming that alterations are actually addenda, leaving the original text untouched so as to insure continuing access to the original version -- and to any intermediate versions.
4. Computer data may be included in digital forms, e.g., data tables, CAD and GIS files, spreadsheets, etc.
5. Related information may be linked so as effectively to include it in the publication.
6. Access requires only an Internet connection.

7. The presentation can be non-linear.
8. Speed.
9. Cost.

Possible benefits of paper publication

1. Permanence -- there are few archival issues with books printed on acid-free paper.
2. No equipment is required, only enough light to read. Even for those with all the needed computer resources, a book can be read on more places and at more times than any electronic document.
3. No computer skill is required.
4. Books are much better for reading than computer screens.
5. The straight-forward, linear nature of the book makes it possible to be sure one has at least seen it all, even if understanding remains illusive.
6. Vetting a linear presentation is more straight-forward and less error-prone.

7. Layout and design are more likely to be sophisticated and attractive.

Illustrations provide a simple advantage for the computer that is hard to contest. Not only can more illustrations be afforded, more can be in color, and the reader can decide which ones to look at together. Indeed, with a large monitor or two monitors -- both of which are becoming more common -- a reader can see many illustrations at once.

The ability to amend or add to a publication is another clear-cut advantage of the electronic publication. While care must be exercised to prevent alteration of the original so that citations will remain accurate and the changes can be tracked, that is not difficult. The potential to keep a major work current is a very significant advantage, and, in the long run, many authors will probably see this is the major advantage of electronic publication, since it will permit authors to be sure that their works do not become obsolete and to be sure that changing concerns can be reflected in their publications. Adding commentary, criticism, contrary opinions, etc. by other scholars is also possible and desirable.

Data in computer form should be used in computer form, not in extracts. A drawing -- even many drawings -- cannot adequately replace a CAD model any more than a table or group of tables can adequately substitute for a spreadsheet, much less a database. Here again, the advantage clearly goes to the electronic publication. Linkage to other information is certainly a benefit, and, of course, it will become a greater benefit when there are more materials on the Web to which a given publication might link. This is not a major advantage for the electronic publication today, but it will become a stronger and stronger advantage as time marches on and more materials are available for linking. The more linear an argument, though, the less one wants to distract a reader with links away from the thread of the argument.

Although many have argued against electronic publication because of the cost of computers, the long-term costs for access are probably much more competitive. Readers will be able to access Web sites from anywhere they can access the Internet, making all electronic documents available to anyone more or less anywhere in the not-too-distant future.

The non-linear publication is a double-edged sword. It may be advantageous to be able to lead a reader in many directions, but it can be disorienting. The author may also lose control of the flow of his/her argument. In addition, the reader may wonder if he/she has ever seen the entire publication. For example, it is certainly more difficult to review an electronic publication, since one cannot simply start at the beginning, read to the end, and then know with some confidence what is there and what is not. This issue is not clearly a benefit for the electronic publication, and, in fact, the potential of a non-linear approach may help convince an author that electronic publication is or is not the best approach, depending on the author's predispositions. (For a fuller discussion of some of the advantages and disadvantages of using hyperlinks as well as a different approach to electronic document presentation, see the article "Reactive documents? An experiment in hypermedia," by Jeremy Huggett in the Autumn, 2000 (no. 56) issue of the Archaeological Computing Newsletter.)

Current practices for publication on paper include a vetting process that has at least two important virtues. First, the process winnows submissions to a given publisher from a huge number to the more modest number to be published. Second, the process includes requiring authors to alter their works to make them better in a wide variety of ways, from simple copy editing to adding missing citations to making sure that consistency of presentation is achieved. This process is generally missing from electronic publications, but that is a result of the haphazard growth of electronic publications, not the medium itself. There is no inherent difficulty with properly vetting electronic publications, though the non-linear nature of some electronic publications can complicate the job. Thus, while the well-established vetting process for paper publications today may give them an advantage now, the future of electronic publication can (and should) include similar vetting procedures.

Speed can be an advantage of electronic publication, but the advantage can vanish when the publication becomes more complex. Just as a complicated book layout can delay a paper publication, a complex Web presentation can play havoc with schedules and slow the publication process to a crawl, even if the author attempts to create the electronic documents without specialized assistance. The more complex -- and the more innovative -- the electronic plans, the slower the publication will be to appear; this is an advantage for electronic publication that is often illusory; indeed, complex electronic publications may take longer to produce than paper publications.

There is another aspect to speed that may be far more important and a clear benefit for the electronic publication. Excavation reports, often edited volumes with many contributors, are frequently slowed by one or two contributors who keep an entire publication waiting while they miss deadline after deadline. In an electronic format, the work can go on (presuming that other portions are not dependent on the missing ones for information or interpretation). The project director or editor can publish what is ready when it is ready, leaving the rest for the future. This may be a very significant asset for some projects.

Cost is another advantage of electronic publication that may be illusory. First, much of the cost of standard publications is in the editing process, not the printing and distribution. Second, as with speed, much depends on the complexity of the presentation. It is quite likely that the ultimate cost of an impressive electronic publication will exceed that of a paper publication -- though, in such cases, the increase in cost yields a much more valuable product. Furthermore, there are, as yet, few ways to recoup the costs of a Web-based publication, potentially making even a modest production into a total loss.

Permanence is a major drawback of the electronic publication. Archives can insure permanence for the constituents of an electronic publication, the text, database, CAD, GIS, and images files, through data migration, but permanence of the appearance and layout of an electronic publication cannot be assured. Furthermore, the archival needs have an associated cost. Books may not last forever, but they will last much longer than computer files without requiring any effort other than the most basic. Comparable preservation for electronic files is more complex and more expensive.

Books are among the most user-friendly items in our world. One needs no lessons to learn to use a book, no special equipment, not even especially good lighting (until a certain age is reached at least). Books can be taken anywhere, and, if the cost of a computer is amortized and included in the cost of an electronic publication, books are very fairly priced. Books also give off many visual clues that are helpful to the reader -- general size, one's current position within the whole, locations of bookmarks, location of the illustrations.

Books are also much easier to read than computer screens. Reading lengthy passages of text is unpleasant on a computer today, and, though that may change, there is little in the marketplace today to suggest a quick change. Some publications have appeared on the Web as relatively simple text, and they are very unpleasant to contemplate indeed.

It may also be argued that books are more attractive than most Web pages, because the design tradition is so much longer and more highly developed for books; Web designers are less likely to have training in visual design and layout. That is not to say that Web pages cannot be as well designed, only that many of them -- at least at the moment -- seem to be intended to impress with their technology and "glitz" rather than with any subtlety or design sophistication (as opposed to computer sophistication). At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there is, if anything, more potential for superior design on the Web, since there are simply more things possible. (For instance, whether or not it is effective here, the color coding of these arguments would certainly not be done on paper without incurring significant added costs, but it is a trivial matter on the Web.)

Hybrid publications would seem to offer the potential of both worlds. With analysis, description, and synthesis on paper and supporting information on a Web site, for example, readers would have access to good printed text and appropriate digital data -- illustrations, database files, CAD files, GIS files, and so on.

There are some difficulties, however.

1. If analysis and discussion is the complete text, will the report become an article of journal length rather than a separate monograph?
2. Readers will need both the book (or journal) and a computer to gain the benefits of the publication.
3. Links from the text will not be possible.
4. Archival issues with all the difficult (i.e., non-text) portions of the publication remain.
5. A reader, accessing a publication from the Internet, will often need the printed portion as well as the electronic portions of the publication.
6. It will be much more difficult for authors to update publications effectively if the discussion is not electronic.

Considering the issues raised here, it seems that hybrid publications may offer the worst of both as well as the best. Starting with the benefits of electronic publication, it seems that access to digital data in digital form is maintained, and more illustrations, with color as desired, can still be used. However, linkage to other materials and updating of the publication become more difficult if not impossible. Archival problems are not significantly reduced from those encountered with a totally electronic work, and access to hybrid publication will require both the paper publication and use of the Internet.

Some of the benefits of paper publication -- permanence and easier reading of text -- are maintained. However, computers and computer skills will be needed for access to the digital portions of any publication. Easier archival storage of paper publications, however, is sacrificed.

Preparing hybrid documents may be easier than preparing all-electronic ones. The text can remain linear, with all the supporting digital information referenced but not included. The same, less integrated, form of publication could be used in an all-electronic mode, though.

A hybrid document is more likely to be linear, making vetting simpler. However, as previously discussed, the non-linear approach may be the best for some publications.

Layout and design will probably be simpler in a hybrid publication, since must of the digital information will be used to supplement the discussion rather than being integrated into the presentation. Authors and publishers may therefore provide only simpler, download-the-files access to digital data in a hybrid environment, rather than integrating specific views of digital sources into the whole. Again, this is a double-edge sword. As the digital information is less fully integrated, it loses some of its value.

In sum, it seems that hybrid publications represent an opportunity to augment publications that are conceptually paper-based but not an ideal way to publish an integrated presentation of both data and discussion. In any case, it seems very likely that hybrid publications will be, at most, temporary stops on the way from paper-based to electronic publications.

It seems unlikely that there will be a mass movement to electronic publication any time soon -- and the need to include a book in tenure documents will certainly slow any momentum. Nevertheless, the strengths of electronic publication are significant. Sooner or later they will become too significant to ignore.

For other Newsletter articles concerning electronic publishing or the use of electronic media in the humanitites, consult the Subject index.

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