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Cutting Edge Scholarship and Electronic Publishing

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 06/19/98


Scholars and publishers recently have spent a lot of time pondering whether new technologies will make it possible to publish research and other material more economically. They have paid much less attention to whether -- or how -- this "electronic publishing" will alter scholarship itself.

I believe that the way scholars write, interact with one another and with readers, and, yes, even think may evolve for the better -- if we use electronic technology to expand the number of points at which people can communicate their ideas and invite interaction.

The fundamental role of a scholarly publisher need not change in the new electronic environment. We must continue to do what we have always done best: identify the most important scholarly work being produced, help the author develop it -- through skilled editorial assistance and intelligent peer review -- and present it in an attractive format that makes it available to the widest possible audience. Now, however, the tools available to us in fulfilling that role have changed dramatically, and we should seize the opportunity they provide us to encourage new forms of scholarship.

The big change will be in our ability to present a scholar's ideas at various stages of development: We will be able to help scholars write for and respond to their colleagues and students much more immediately than was possible before the Internet and other electronic tools became available. We can present the continuing process of thought that occurs in creating a scholarly product, and disseminate that work quickly and accessibly, at several points in the process, to an audience around the globe.

We are exploring these issues at the Columbia University Press, through our new publication Columbia International Affairs Online, known as CIAO (http://www.ciaonet.org). Available only on line, CIAO was launched last August with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It contains many types of scholarly materials in international affairs, including working papers, conference proceedings, journal abstracts, and the full text of books that we have already published or are publishing in print simultaneously. It also includes links to other sites.

By creating a venue in which scholars can disseminate their work in different forms and at different stages, we are trying to encourage creative, cutting-edge scholarship that is influenced in positive ways by the form in which it is presented. In essence, we hope to create a dialogue that will affect scholars' work as it evolves.

At present, many scholars work in isolation. They may discuss their ideas with a few colleagues, and go back and forth with editors at a press, but basically they wait until their journal articles or books appear and other scholars begin to use and criticize them to reconsider, revise, or reconfirm their premises. If publishers make work available at an earlier stage, how will it affect that scholarly process?

In a focus group that we organized while planning CIAO, one scholar's comment impressed me deeply. She said: "No one in our field has a chance to publish ideas." She explained that all of the publishing options currently available permitted only the publication of results or completely developed theories, usually long after a scholar has come up with an idea. She was very excited about the possibility of communicating work at an earlier stage, getting more discussion of ideas and feedback from colleagues, and having a less-constrained relationship with her audience. Her feelings were echoed in various ways by other scholars.

Because of its subject matter, CIAO offers a particularly good opportunity to experiment with a form of publication significantly different from print. World events have a direct impact on discussion and scholarship in international affairs, and only a format that allows rapid responses can adequately reflect the constantly changing substance of what scholars need to analyze. In particular, the working papers and conference papers that we post offer a chance to present concepts and arguments as they develop over time.

Our experience so far provides some early glimpses of the real potential of on-line publishing.

In one section of the site, for example, we are experimenting with a new model of scholarship through a continuing conference on the Middle East peace process. A group of scholars from a range of specialties and institutions is meeting in various places over the course of several years to discuss "Prediction and the Middle East Peace Process." The scholars are developing a number of theoretical outcomes of the peace process -- ranging from the breakdown of negotiations and resumption of violence, to negotiations punctuated by violent moments, to full diplomatic resolution. They plan to analyze how given factors -- including U.S. influence and the perceived political needs of other states in the region -- could affect each scenario.

After the first meeting, participants brainstormed about how to keep the exciting energy and collaborative framing of questions flowing between the get-togethers. We agreed to be the on-line publisher for the conferences, and, using software developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, we are continuing on line the dialogue established at each of the meetings.

Part of our task is to help structure that dialogue. After the most recent conference, we worked with participants to assign individuals to develop position papers: Each one will explore how a particular actor, say the United States, might influence one of the theoretical outcomes of the peace process. Those papers will be posted on line before the next meeting, which will be held this fall. Particular scholars have been assigned to write responses to each paper, and the responses will be posted before the conference.

A typical complaint about on-line chat rooms and discussion lists -- even those moderated by academics -- is that they often elicit quick responses without sustained thought, and that they attract responses from everyone but the people who might contribute something highly significant to the discussion. We hope that assigning papers and responses will enhance the possibility of substantive and sustained dialogue, giving participants the chance to rethink and revise their positions during the course of the project. For now, we are making the discussion available only to participants, but our long-term goal as a publisher is to create a forum for continuing dialogue among a broader group of scholars.

Bruce Jentleson, a professor of political science and director of the University of California at Davis's Washington Center, told us recently: "With most conferences, you have a series of snapshots. With this model, you have a moving picture." After most conferences, publishers may send papers out to peer reviewers, authors may revise them once, and the whole process may require two years to produce one published take on a subject. The on-line format creates the possibility of real dialogue.

We are also beginning to answer some other questions that have been troubling publishers. Like others who are moving on line, we initially wondered what would happen when we offered the entire text of books electronically. Would people stop buying them in print? It's early, but so far we are finding that the answer is No. People tell us that they enjoy browsing the posted books to decide what they want to buy.

But what they really use on line are the working papers. We post and index working papers on a range of issues in international affairs from 65 academic centers around the world. A survey of the libraries that subscribe to CIAO indicates that the papers are among the most popular resources on the site.

While kids may love to surf the Internet, we are finding that most scholars want help in wading through the morass of materials on various sites -- and in locating materials that might not previously have been posted on line. Now we are planning another survey, to ask users how they employ the papers. Do the electronic materials affect their own research and writing?

We are also discussing whether there are other kinds of useful scholarly materials that people normally don't have an opportunity to publish or to read -- something between a journal article and a full-blown book. We all know that there are pieces of writing that are far too long for an article, but not thoroughly enough footnoted or fleshed out for a book publisher to consider. Our survey will ask whether scholars would be brave enough to post those "mid-thought" projects. Some may tell us that they worry about people stealing their ideas. But others may see a benefit to finding out at an early stage how colleagues will react to a thesis, or to discovering that someone is already at work on a similar project.

To be sure, much of the promise of on-line publishing is speculative at this point. Our experience suggests, though, that at the very least, scholars are enthusiastic about trying new forms of on-line dialogue. New technology, used intelligently, carefully, and creatively, may offer us an opportunity to define a new model for scholarly communication -- and ultimately redefine the academic process as a whole.

Kate Wittenberg is editor in chief of the Columbia University Press.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 06/19/98
Section: Opinion
Page: B6

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July 8, 1998