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Philosophy and Civil Society

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       Theme: Why sites like this one are necessary and inevitable
ESSAY 1: The Inevitable Revolution in Scholarly Publication
            


 

The only interesting questions now are about how its new electronic medium will reshape the content as well as the form of scholarly writing.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Print publication of scholarly writing is intolerably
wasteful, slow, inflexible and monological.


 

 

 

 

 

Print publication today seems less like a means of making scholarly writing public than a means of making sure it remains largely inaccessible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is doubtful that the forms of philosophical writing currently prevalent -- the article and the scholarly monograph -- will survive in the new electronic medium of scholarly publication.

 
         It is now apparent that the primary medium of scholarly publication in the future will be electronic. The only remaining and really interesting questions are about how the electronic medium will reshape the content as well as the form of scholarly writing.

          But we should not waste a lot of time or worry on this topic. Assuming that you have discovered and are reading these texts on the Web, I can assume that you are probably inclined to agree with this thesis and that it is probably unnecessary to expend much effort in defending it. But, just for the record, let me here briefly mention the three main lines of argument usually offered in support of the thesis by those who still care to debate the issue.

          1. Print publication consumes scarce resources unnecessarily

          The primary purpose of scholarly publication is to make widely available to others the results of inquiry. Electronic, networked publication achieves this goal far more effectively than print publication and at virtually no cost.
          For example, the publication of a scholarly article or monograph on the Web makes it instantaneously available to millions of readers all over the world -- providing a degree of accessibility that print publication could never achieve. Meanwhile, the production and distribution costs involved in Web publication approach zero, once the local computer hardware and network connections are in place.

          2. Print publication is slow and inflexible

          Typically, a year or more separates the completion and final editorial acceptance of a scholarly article or monograph from its actual appearance in print. As a result, in many fields, by the time an article or book is published, its content is already dated, if not obsolete.
          Electronic publication, on the other hand, is instantaneous. An article or book can be posted on a Web site (like this one) at the moment it is completed and its content can be updated at any time in response to developments within its field or as further inquiry dictates.

          3. Print publication is insufficiently dialogical

          The purpose of scholarly publication is to make available the results of inquiry to a particular audience, to contribute to an ongoing scholarly discussion. Print publication does not serve this dialogical purpose or dimension of scholarly writing with anything like the effectiveness of electronic publication.
          Using the resources of HTML and e-mail listserver software, the publication of a scholarly text can be transformed into not only an occasion for, but also a site of an ongoing critical discussion. The design of this Web site offers one model for this kind of publication. Here readers not only can access a scholarly text, but can also choose to join and participate in a virtual community of inquiry engaged in discussion of the issues raised by the text.
          Print publication can never approach this degree of interactivity. Only networked electronic publication of scholarly texts can fully realize the dialogical goal and dimension of scholarly writing.


          The three arguments sketched here should be enough to persuade anyone of the vast superiority of electronic over print publication as a medium of scholarly communication. In comparison with electronic publication of scholarly writing, print publication seems less like a means of making scholarly writing public than a means of making sure it remains largely inaccessible.

           Note, for the sake of clarification, that we are speaking here only of the publication of scholarly texts -- i.e., publication whose purpose and criterion of success is not financial reward for publisher and author, but only the "advancement of knowledge." No doubt many other types of literature, that serve other ends (entertainment, self-help, technical documentation, etc.), will continue to prosper indefinitely in the medium of print.

           This revolution in scholarly communication is already well underway, accelerated by cutbacks in funding for universities, libraries, and other research institutions. Whatever may be the more substantive advantages of electronic over print publication as a medium of scholarly communication, the fact is that we can no longer afford the print publication of scholarly texts -- particularly when a vastly cheaper and more effective form of publication is available.

           Researchers, scholars and other academics are bound to find this development somewhat disorienting, both intellectually and professionally. Electronic publication requires a new kind of scholarly writing, using new methods of content presentation and organization. These new methods will affect content itself in different ways and to different degrees, depending on the subject matter.

          Thus, something like a new world of research, scholarship, and education is now opening up. The field of philosophy in particular is bound to be radically altered in both form and content through its incorporation into this new world. The sort of transformation that this new world will demand of philosophical writing remains to be seen. But it is doubtful that the forms of philosophical writing currently prevalent -- the article and the scholarly monograph -- will survive in the new electronic medium of scholarly publication. One goal of this Web site is to offer a model of philosophical writing better suited to this medium.

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