5 The academic chapter

The evolution of e-journals

Some of the first major print scholarly journals were published online in full-text in the early 1980s – well before the Web (which was originally created for exchanging scientific papers). An electronic scholarly journal can be defined as a digital periodical that is published on the Web. The digital medium distinguishes it from its print counterparts, but the content development processes for both mediums are very similar. However, the digital factor allows for a faster editorial process by quickly providing authors with information to revise and modify their work to meet editorial standards.

(Kasdorf, 2003:4; Valauskas, 1997:1)

Journals took the lead in digital publishing and electronic delivery, and there are many reasons for this, but the primary reason for this is because scientists are impatient with print. Many scientists respect the well-established processes of print publishing (responsible peer-review; thorough editing; professional composition; and printing and publishing in a recognised, reliable and archival form), but they want (and need) to exchange their research rapidly and fluidly.

(Kasdorf, 2003:4)

But do electronic journals now redefine the meaning of a scholarly journal? Periodical publications can be described as a sequence of articles, essays or analyses by several writers that are issued at regular or irregular intervals, intended to be continued indefinitely. This definition is, accordingly, still applicable to both print and electronic versions of the scholarly journal: electronic journals, like their paper forerunners, are also revised, examined and tested written works that appear routinely/periodically, but which can now be accessed via electronic transmission. They are just a specialised form of electronic document – they have the purpose of providing material for academic research and study.

The electronic factor of digital/online journals (allowing for the networking of authors, editors and reviewers) makes for a more interactive and instantaneous editorial analysis. This occurs through the use of e-mail and collaborative editing tools such as Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” and “commenting” functions, or Adobe Acrobat – which can create PDFs with enabled features for editing and review. But, though the method of publication is accelerated by the electronic factor, this does not mean that the importance of peer-review and acceptance is disregarded.

(Valauskas, 1997:1-3, 5)

Academic, scholarly journals are distinguished by the benefit of having the content verified by a group of reputable editors who are experts within the given discipline of publication. The content in these journals transfer ideas and data from one or more groups to a global academic community of researchers. More importantly, the publication of an article in a journal lends the article to approval and opens it to comment and criticism. This process of peer-review means that value and credibility are added to the publication of an article.

(Valauskas, 1997:2-3)

Moving from print to electronic publication

The move to electronic media is having a significant impact on the relationship among authors, librarians and publishers. Many of the more time consuming roles played by librarians and publishers will begin disappearing, for example, archiving and distribution. The key question is: who will fulfil the roles that will remain and more importantly in doing so, control the scholarly dissemination?

(Solomon, 2002:5)

Academic publishing has a long history. It is the oldest form of publishing, and has it’s roots in the reproducing of scholarly manuscripts. As long as there have been intellectuals writing down their findings, there have been contemporaries hoping to read them.

Journals, monographs, and essay collections are generally published by a variety of publishing organisations:

  1. Commercial publishers, e.g. Reed Elsevier, Nature, Brill, and Taylor & Francis
  2. Scholarly societies, e.g. IEEE, ACM, APHA, and SHARP
  3. University Presses, e.g. Unisa Press, John Hopkins University Press

The publication of these journals is subsequently paid for by library subscriptions or society memberships. However, commercial publishers are burdened by having to make a profit while publishing both print and electronic versions of their journals, so they raise prices which then puts stress on library budgets and leads to fewer subscriptions. The scholarly societies, on the other hand, usually do not have the financial resources and/or technical expertise of the commercial publishers, and therefore [can] fail to serve their members in supplying both print and electronic formats.

(Kasdorf, 2003:5)

Journals are the primary platform for long-distance academic discourse. They present research in the most tangible form so that it may be scrutinized. However, for many it is a race to the press. Publishing research grants visibility and eventually prestige, and prestige leads to financial investment, and students. Especially in the fast moving sciences, results need to be published timeously, so that they can be used in practical experiments, improve on current research. The prestige of first discovery is also granted to the fastest researcher. The same is true when disproving theories or practices, to be fast is to be a more prominent scholar.

In many fields, journal publishing does not have to move fast. In literary studies, articles are expected to be long, interpretative and individualistic. Philosophy is often better approached through books of essays clustered around a specific topic. Many human and social sciences require long testing periods and the development of theories which benefit from repetition over time, and can be discussed for a long period of time.

Research in STM (Science, Technology, and Medicine) however, is very different. Research can often have strong ethical, financial, and environmental implications for the real world. If one were to take on an issue such as natural gas fracking, it is in the scientific journals that the methods are scrutinized and it is up to the scientific community to provide any criticism. This will assist in determining whether governments will support an activity. On current issues, time is crucial.

For this reason, electronic publishing offers a lot of promise. By creating journals which are searchable, contain hyperlinks, and can be quickly compared with a few key-strokes, much more information is available more quickly. It is also a democratic publishing method, as a journal can be produced for very low cost – only design and hosting fees – and by being listed on journal databases (such as EBSCOhost or Google Scholar) it is possible for new and less popular journals to be discovered.


Some of the benefits for electronic publishers, on the other hand, include the advantage of low publication and distribution costs. These publishers can also establish partnerships with data-digitising companies, who are able to assist them in developing reading technology, maintain access control to material and implement protection of content and copyright. Additionally, they can also then offer searchable databases in order to access more information.

The movement from print to electronic publications experienced many problems and throughout the 1990s journal publishers struggled to find solutions. Nevertheless, the solutions were found in the publications’ underlying technology: it already existed for the most part and it was only a matter of figuring out how to implement them, making them commercially viable, and managing the transition from print-only to print-plus-electronic or electronic-only. Consequently, some electronic journals are only online, some are online versions of printed journals, and some consist of the online equivalent of a printed journal but with additional online-only enhancements.

(Kasdorf, 2003:5)

Many electronic journals are formatted to have certain styles, designs and layouts just like print journals, but within the limits of the internet or electronic publishing. Regardless, the electronic nature of the journal provides ample opportunity for experimentation with different formats, layouts, fonts and other design features (especially interactive features) which can make these publications more readable and appealing.

(Valauskas, 1997:1)




Differences (from print)


1. Accelerated peer-review2. Very quick editorial process[1]3. Interactive possibilities4. Access to complete archives5. Easily accessible

2. Larger target audiences

1. Revised, examined and tested2. The same editorial processes3. Similar styles, design and layout4. Fulfil the same purposes5. Publication lends approval/accreditation

2. Appear routinely/periodically

(Valauskas [edited], 1997:3-4)

Peer review

This is the brain of academic publishing, and it serves to filter out any information which is improperly researched, misleading, of a poor standard, or plagiarised. Peer review also assists to keep the quality of any particular journal alive and thriving by assessing the standard of writing, both grammatically and in terms of the logical flow of the argument, as well as by providing the journal with a clear editorial/subject focus. Creating a journal with internally consistent content is no small task.

In this way many academics often take on the responsibilities of editors by ensuring that the articles submitted are of sound research. However, the competition within academia can often to trouble with this practice and so it is the norm for publishers to establish a system of ‘double blind peer review’. In this process, the identity of the author(s) and of the reviewer(s) is removed so that the work may be judged objectively. This can be done by the publisher themselves are through online submission systems such as Thompson-Reuters Scholar One.

Electronic publishing has assisted this task by allowing the global community to participate in the peer review process. By performing peer review prior to publication, it is ensured that when the article is published, it is considered to be a fit for the journal, that it is based on sound research techniques, and is suitable for wider public scrutiny.

Through electronic means, it is possible for editors, and reviewer to be based at different points around the globe, allowing for a wider array of reviewers, which, again, leads to a more democratic publishing process.

Accessibility and dissemination

Scholarly journals fulfill three core purposes:

(a) ranking of scholarship;
(b) facilitating interactive communication among scholars; and
(c) creating a comprehensive archive of academic knowledge.

With the development of information/internet portals, a variety of communication means and archived data in a particular field can be integrated. These portals form a kind of one-stop ‘shopping mall’ for the communication of research and scholarly information. Most of the concerns about the move from traditional journals to digital models of dissemination, such as the use of these portals, revolve around the role of archiving scientific information.

(Solomon, 2002:1, 3, 6)

PORTALS: gateways / entry points for accessing information on the Web; information is gathered on a specific topic in a variety of materials – i.e. a collection of information from different sources with a single point of access to them.

Most electronic journals are disseminated through services such as Project Muse, J-Stor, EBSCOhost, and so forth. These services are vast databases containing multiple journals, and access is granted to individuals and institutions. Access to the database does not guarantee access to all journals, but rather access to those specific ones to which you subscribe.

While it is possible for an individual to have a subscription to a particular journal, normally it is an institutional subscription, and employees are granted access. These subscriptions are often very expensive, but are seen as a necessary cost to provide material to researchers.

Eventual publication on paper (if it even reaches this stage) has become an almost archival function. In almost every discipline journals have felt the pressure to, or already do, publish electronically. It has also been questioned whether the stability and heftiness of electronic archives can be maintained without the reliance on traditional publishers. There were concerns that the quality of peer-review, copy-editing and formatting would suffer without the expertise and resources of the traditional publishers.

(Kasdorf, 2003:4; Solomon, 2002:7)

Most commercial sites for electronic journals are subscription-based, or allow pay-per-view access. Many universities subscribe to electronic journals to provide access to their students and faculty, and it is generally also possible for some individuals to subscribe. An increasing number of journals are also now available as open access journals, requiring no subscription..

There seems to be a trend among journal publishers to move away from the reliance on copyright[-based purchases] and move towards licensing agreements – much in the way software licensing works. According to Kasdorf (2003:555), “License is the term generally used when the copyright owner grants one or more specific rights. ‘License’ is the correct term when the grant is of a limited duration, although the term can just as properly be used when the arrangement is good for the entire term of copyright.” With these licensing agreements materials are “rented” for a fixed period of time and after the period ends the arrangement is up for further negotiations/renewal. Licensing agreements also make provision for what the users of works can do. For example, a publisher may make its entire database, and the articles within it, open to a library, but no copying, downloading or printing will be allowed – i.e. the content may only be viewed online.

(Solomon, 2002:5)

In this way journals are, for the most part, not purchased as single issues, or even subscribed to the traditional way. Modern subscription provides access not to individual issues but to a database containing the full catalogue of journal. This method grants the subscriber a license to access the database and may pull from it any article, published in the digitized history of the journal. This is a great advantage as it opens up scholars to be able to search through vast amounts of publications. The downside to this, however, is that when a subscription is terminated, so is the access, meaning that former subscribers only has access to those articles which they have managed duplicate.


Academic books

Many books continue to be published for academic and scholarly audiences and in this sector of publishing there is still a dominance of paper. While e-books allow for worldwide distribution, and in scholarly circuits it is common to distribute academic titles as PDFs and in e-reader formats,  there is still a large reliance on print for textbooks. Print holds many advantages in terms of format and personalisation, and digital technology has been used to augment these publications to make them more viable options to lecturers by supplying rich supplementary materials, such as class slides, and question banks, whilest providing students with rich supplementary content and external resources.

In this field it is largely the production technologies that have affected the means of commercial publishing. Many textbook providers are attempting to provide more sophisticated electronic books, but much of the advancement here occurs in the educational sub-sector in which complete digital learning packages are provided.

Professional and custom publishing

While outside the scope of commercial academic publishing it should be noted that researchers and research institutions (often nestled inside auditor companies), as well as large (often multinational) companies do a large amount of professional publishing. To this end, many publishing systems have been created not with the intent of producing books, but on creating reliable manuals, cross-referenced information, and statistical information.

To this end, many publishing programs have been devised to work within fields of engineering, to accurately reproduce methods, diagrams, and mathematics, while saving time on formatting. These systems are designed to interpret data, and re-combine pre-existing content for rapid content production.

All their technology however has been developed from the systems created by scholars for academic journals.


KASDORF, W. (ed.). 2003. The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing. Columbia: Columbia University Press. (Chapter 1 and 13).

SOLOMON, D.J. 2002. Talking Past Each Other: Making Sense of the Debate over Electronic Publication. IN: First Monday 7(8), August. [Online]. Available: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_8/solomon/index.html

VALAUSKAS, E.J. 1997. Waiting for Thomas Kuhn: First Monday and the evolution of electronic journals. IN: The Journal of Electronic Publishing, 3(1), Sept. [Online]. Available: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=jep;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0003.104 or http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/567/488

  1. Keep in mind that the mention of speed is a comment on the time it takes for comparison, collation, mailing, and source-checking. The same rigorous editorial process that would be applied to another type of publication is followed.


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