electronic publishing

Robert J. Robbins rrobbins at NOTE.NSF.GOV
Tue Aug 7 14:04:25 EST 1990


My comments regarding electronic publishing have produced a quick 
rejoinder that, presumably inadvertantly, was directly only to me 
and not to the net.  In the interest of stimulating even more 
commentary, I forward this response to the group...


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From: tmb at ai.mit.edu (Thomas M. Breuel)
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To: rrobbins at note.nsf.gov
Subject: Re:  electronic publishing

|  -  The posting is correct that the use of halftones is discipline 
|     dependent.  Computer science, mathematics, logic, philosophy, 
|     and other abstract fields don't need them.  Biology, especially
|     molecular biology, does.  Halftones are not the only problem, 
|     however.  Other graphics make for difficulty, too.  The argument,
|     raised at the meeting, that PostScript can be used as the galactic 
|     standard for page layout just doesn't hold water.  First, the 
|     standard isn't as standard as standards ought to be.  I have had 
|     people send me PostScript reports via e-mail and when I print them 
|     out using a PostScript printer at NSF, occasionally a page 
|     comes out with a screwed up format.  The source claims 
|     the file printed fine at home.  This leads me to believe that 
|     not all PS files print identically on all PS printers.  Second,
|     not everyone has access to PS printers.  Third, even when folks 
|     do have access to PS printers, they often would prefer to receive 
|     a printed article in the mail rather than fire up the printer 
|     and produce (at, say, 4 cents a page) a 100-page printout 
|     that then must be stapled or punched or whatever so that it 
|     can be carried around and read conveniently.

What is the problem with halftones? There are lots of standards for
transmitting graphics, B/W, and color images. CGM and GIF might
make a reasonable standard, so might HPGL and TIFF, or UNIX PLOT
and UNIX VIS format. For all of these, there are public domain
or free previewers for X windows, Macs, and PCs. With only a minor
amount of effort these could be integrated directly into a document
reader. 

I think it would be silly to expect that one can start electronic
publishing without any software development, but, on the other hand,
most of the code for doing it already exists--it just needs to
be put together.

There are also free postscript previewers available (try ghostscript
from prep.ai.mit.edu:/u/emacs, or ralpage (sp?) from expo.lcs.mit.edu).
These aren't very user friendly yet, but they get the job
done.

(Incidentally, the CMU Andrew system is one system that gives you
multi-media mail. Something like that might be nice to use--it does
currently require a UNIX workstation and quite a bit of memory, though).

|  -  The doing-away-with-libraries notion sounds intriguing at 
|     first, but appears more naive and silly upon further thought.
|     Libraries do not exist just to provide full employment 
|     opportunities for parasitic librarians.  They provide real 
|     functions, such as allowing researchers access to many more 
|     journals than they could possibly afford individually.  They 
|     also provide an archival function, which is essential in 
|     disciplines that are less ephemeral than computer science.
|     Quick, give five computer-science citations that are over 
|     fifty years old that can still be read with profit.  However, 
|     there are many biological manuscripts that are over a 
|     hundred years old that are still important and useful.  Many 
|     of these involve detailed illustrations (engravings, usually)
|     of anatomical studies that have not been redone, since the 
|     original 19th century work is considered definitive.  Converting
|     these to PostScript format would be costly and tedious, and 
|     would greatly reduce the value of the work.  The archival 
|     problem is perhaps one of the more acute arguments against 
|     electronic publishing.  Quick, give five examples of material
|     written electronically over forty years ago that can still 
|     be read easily with current equipment.  For electronic 
|     publishing to be considered even as a candidate for archival 
|     publishing, there will have to be some possibility that 
|     material published electronically will continue to be 
|     readable for decades, preferably centuries, without need for 
|     periodic copying onto new media in new formats.  

Archival and advice is precisely what you pay electronic publishers
for. It's not an argument against electronic publishing.

I fail to see why an electronic version of a 19th century work
would be any worse than the original. You can always store the
pages as images (with yellowing and all). It won't be long until
everyone can afford 150 or 300 dpi greyscale or color screens
together with the network bandwidth and local storage necessary
to receive and store such images.

|  -  The issue of cost is real, as well, and cannot be dismissed 
|     by doing away with libraries.  Publishers publish to make a 
|     buck, not to provide a free service to the world.  Serious 
|     electronic publishing involves user fees independently of 
|     whether the user is a library or an individual.  Serious 
|     publishing also involves a concern for the rights, economic
|     and otherwise, of the author and publisher.  Sure, you can 
|     always make 50 xerox copies of the latest issue of Cell and 
|     distribute them to your friends, but that will involve a lot
|     of work and expense and you are not likely to do it very 
|     often.  Therefore, the publisher of Cell can set subscription 
|     fees on the assumption that most readers will be looking at 
|     a paid-for copy, not a xeroxed rip off.  With an electronically 
|     delivered journal, say that arrives via email, you can, with 
|     a simple forward command, send 50 or 100 or 1000 copies off 
|     to many friends almost effortlessly.  Therefore, a publisher 
|     working in this medium must assume that most of the readers 
|     will be using non-paid-for copies and the few fools (libraries?)
|     who obtain their copies legitimately must be expected to carry 
|     the full cost for the subscription.

But the costs for electronic publishing are completely different.
Users usually pay for the transmission costs themselves. The costs
to the publisher are editorial and archival. But we know from
USENET that editors and moderators often volunteer or are sponsored
by some organization. Archival services, on the other hand, are not
made unnecessary if users can pass information freely.

Of course, if publishers approach the electronic publishing medium
with the same expectations as publishing on paper, they'll be
disappointed: readers will not pay a premium price for something
they receive electronically. But if the existing publishers don't
understand that, others will move in.

Consider, for example, DIALOG. DIALOG actually has serious restrictions
on re-distribution of data obtained from its data bases, but
I would bet they make very little difference to DIALOG's bottom line.
The reason why people (including myself) are using DIALOG is because
it provides a useful service. It would make little difference to
me if you subscribed to DIALOG and forwarded the result of your
searches to me (on the other hand, if you conducted a search for me,
DIALOG would get its money).

|I could add a few more observations, but I suspect my position is 
|fairly clear.  I believe that the idea that electronic publishing 
|will replace print publishing is about as accurate and astute a 
|prediction as the one made frequently in the fifties that private
|helicopters would replace private automobiles.  Helicopters play 
|many important roles in our society, but providing routine 
|individual transportation is not one of them.  Likewise, computers and 
|electronic communication play important roles in our society, but
|replacing the printed word as the primary medium for scientific 
|communication is not one of them.

I think your prediction is near-sighted. It may take 30 years, it may
take 50 years, but electronic publishing is already replacing printed
publishing. Many significant articles have been made and are being made
available as "pre-prints" electronically.  In some disciplines and/or
areas, paper publishing now often only serves archival purposes and is
for the benefit of those who have no access to the Internet.  Likewise,
electronic publishing standards are emerging slowly.  PostScript and
DVI are a first step. Sure, paper won't go away for a very long time,
but many people will switch over to electronic media in the not-too-distant
future.

------- End of Forwarded Message




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