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Mickey, Judy, Colin,

and Me by Judith Axler Turner

Creating an electronic journal on the Internet is a lot more like staging a musical in a Mickey Rooney - Judy Garland film than like a business venture. The Journal of Electronic Publishing doesn't pretend to be a business-in-the-making, but instead is the University of Michigan Press's basic research into e-publishing.

The Journal of Electronic Publishing has been around for three years, a long time for a scholarly electronic journal. It's featured fine writers, famous scholars, and hopeful young academics in its virtual pages. It's changed editors. It's changed format and changed focus. It's got a small cadre of dedicated readers. If that's not a real scholarly journal, then I'm Judy Garland.

Except in scholarly journal terms, I am Judy Garland. And Colin Day, the director of the University of Michigan Press, is Mickey Rooney.

Starting The Journal of Electronic Publishing was about as much like starting a real scholarly journal as acting on Mickey Rooney's enthusiastic "Let's put on a show!" was like producing a real Broadway show.

Like real Broadway shows, real (that is, paper) scholarly journals are businesses, designed to meet a market need and make money (or at least cover costs) for their publishers. Real journals start with research to assess the competition and the potential market; a business plan that includes a realistic look at income and expenses projected out five years (the time it takes for a journal to become economically viable); selection of an editorial board that includes luminaries in the field who are committed to research, publishing, and peer review; a careful search for an editor whose name recognition, based on respected scholarship, draws equally illustrious contributors; a possible affiliation with a scholarly society; dignified advertising for the journal in scholarly and library publications as well as (in some cases) a search for dignified advertisers for the journal itself; some pre-publication mailings to gauge the subscription interest; professional staff to handle everything from negotiations with the printer to copy editing to distribution; and on and on. Those of you who have done it know what is involved.

The Journal of Electronic Publishing, on the other hand, was conceived and executed on a budget best designed to procure shoestrings. The business plan could have been written on a cocktail napkin, with room left over to hold a Tom Collins setup and a pony of apricot brandy. The staff consisted of University of Michigan Press employees who fit their JEP work into the interstices between other responsibilities. Colin was the editor, the Internet was the distribution method, and market research was nonexistent. (To be fair, few university presses engage in market research. Colin says that market research for a scholarly publisher is to publish the book and see who buys it: The cost of professional market research is often far more than a press stands to lose on a single book.)

Colin came up with the idea for a journal in 1994. He wanted to bring together all the interesting papers he had been reading and hearing presented about scholarly electronic publishing. In addition, he thought there might be refereed papers, news items, and "interesting links" that would appeal to readers following electronic-publishing developments. He proposed to establish a venue for collecting that information, one that would be online, and therefore could be (or, perhaps, must be) free.

Colin had a second focus for the journal. "While I would like to establish it as a useful and respected source for thoughtful writing on electronic publishing and its implications and consequences, I would also like to view the journal as a testbed in which we could test new ideas about the way an electronic journal might operate," he wrote in e-mail in 1996.

In short, Colin Day had a brilliantly magnificent idea, and took Nike's advice and just did it.

The first issue of JEP, published in January 1995, included a chapter from an upcoming book, five conference papers (two by Colin himself), at least one paper that may have been original (at least, it has no indication that it had been or was to be presented or published elsewhere), a lecture, testimony before a government agency, and a scholarly homily against HTML.

The second issue, in February 1995, offered three articles based on conference presentations by the prolific Laura Fillmore (whose works alone are an excellent reason to collect otherwise-ephemeral papers), and one by Jeffrey K. MacKie-Mason and Hal R. Varian. There is no separate table of contents for the second issue; the listings by author, title, and subject are simply expanded, with the "publication" date in square brackets.

In March 1995 JEP went to its second volume, publishing 20 articles from the Internet Economics Workshop that had been held in early March, 1995, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jeffrey MacKie-Mason and Hal Varian, who had had a paper in the second issue of JEP, also had a paper in what JEP billed as its "Special Issue on Internet Economics." Papers from that new volume were mingled with those from the earlier volume, but identified with a yellow splash with the letters "IE" in it.

In May, 1996, JEP added The Hundred Years War Started Today: An Exploration of Electronic Peer Review a scholarly paper by John Peters, the moderator of an online discussion on the subject in the spring of 1995.

That was the last paper added to JEP until September, 1997, when The University of Michigan Press published the first issue of Volume 3, my first as editor. Indeed, that was my first experience in scholarly publishing. Colin had approached me late in 1996, at the suggestion of Lisa Freeman, then director of the University of Minnesota Press. (Lisa's work appears in the first issue of JEP; it's a very incestuous world we live in.) Colin offered me the editorship: glory and the funding to attend a couple of appropriate conferences to be my reward. I had earlier that year left The Chronicle of Higher Education after 13 years, and missed hanging around with academics -- especially those in electronic publishing who had been so helpful over the previous five years as I created The Chronicle's daily online service, Academe Today.

My boss at Turner Consulting Group (no, I'm not the Turner of TCG) had no problem with my work on JEP, although he did point out that the psychic salary plus the academic honors would do nothing for me at TCG, where tenure was not an option, and promotion was not based on service to the academic community. Nevertheless I accepted the position in the spring.

I have long argued that electronic publication differs very little from paper publication. In January, 1992, at a Meckler conference that was later to be renamed Internet World, I spoke on electronic publishing. "A publisher's job in an electronic environment is the same as in the print environment," I said. It includes: choosing material, making it functional, making it attractive, delivering it, and promoting it.

As editor I got to choose the material. Colin had already chosen the audience -- ". . . the Journal should be primarily for publishers," he wrote in an e-mail message to me. "Of course one does not rule out librarians, academics and the generally interested, but it seems wise to have one readership in mind as the primary target." My job was to find the articles that would be most appealing to that audience.

My first issue was on electronic journals. I asked editors of about 20 electronic-only, peer-reviewed scholarly journals to write articles explaining what they were doing, why, and how it was working. Most agreed, and eight of them (including the editor of this distinguished journal) produced articles.

We then went through hundreds of hours of editing, redesigning JEP, rethinking the format, re-redesigning, re-rethinking, debating, cajoling, supporting, helping, soliciting readers among friends and acquaintances, publicizing the journal electronically and in print, and creating and supporting a mailing list of subscribers. We were virtual Busby Berkeleys, staging a musical in a barn that couldn't possibly have held that revolving stage, the water slide, and the hundreds of high-kicking dancers behind Mickey and Judy.

In truth, however, The Journal of Electronic Publishing is still just a play in a barn, and there's no Busby Berkeley pushing out the walls as we suspend our disbelief. JEP is no different from other electronic journals. None of us -- not the big university presses with lots of electronic publications, not the scholarly societies with enough money to position themselves for an electronic future, not the commercial publishers trying desperately to lower costs without lowering profits -- can put on more than an enlightened amateur production because we don't know enough.

Take market research. For most books and journals, acquiring editors or journal editors know the discipline. They spend time talking to people in the field, and they read the literature. "I pay people to accumulate a good sense of their community," Colin says. But, he adds, "We don't have that body of knowledge for online journals."

Nor do we have a clue about that most elemental of all business decisions, determining the product.

An electronic journal is not the same product as a paper journal. It is as different from a paper journal as a rented car is from a leased car, or a leased car from a purchased car. A rented car is disposable transportation; a leased car is repair-free transportation (you can give it back before it needs major work); a purchased car is an investment. The prices reflect not the make and model of the car, but the fact that sold differently, they have become different products.

We know that electronic delivery turns an item into something else: One man's Moby Dick is another man's database.

JSTOR, the Mellon-funded experiment in putting journals online, didn't create an online-journal business at all, it created a back-issue business. Publishers who had asked JSTOR to limit electronic dissemination to old issues because they were afraid of cannibalizing their current subscriptions discovered that JSTOR had opened a new market, one for old journals.

We don't know how e-journals will play out in the panoply of scholarly publishing, we know only that if we don't learn something about them and their readers, we'll never find out -- and until we do find out, we won't know how to price them.

Of course, we could follow the lead of some other electronic journals and soak the libraries. There's an interesting tendency in scholarly publication to force libraries to pony up for access to electronic journals because we can't get individuals to buy them. That seems to me to be avoiding the problem. As Colin points out, selling journals to libraries is like selling pharmaceuticals to doctors: The buying decision is made by the person who is not the consumer, and therefore price is clearly not influencing the critical decision maker.

I admit that there may be something I don't understand here. My career has been in consumer products -- newspapers -- and I am aghast that scholarly publishers have chosen not to compete for public acceptance. I've heard the arguments about scholarship not being a consumer item, and I don't buy them. True, the consumer is part of a specialized audience, but heck, so is the consumer of, say, Franklin Mint reproductions. I think one of the problems in scholarly publishing is that libraries are stand-ins for the ultimate consumer, and libraries don't have the same impetus that buyers for Nordstrom's have -- the piles of unsold garments that have to be discounted or dumped when ultimate users don't like the product. So librarians are forced into CYA purchasing decisions (no, I'm not going to expand that TLA) with their only curb the size of their budget. And scholarly journals and monographs are churned out without regard to their value to the ultimate consumers.

Colin's economics training leaves him loathing the imprecision of the surrogate buyer. He and I both are eager to find an economic model based on the value of the journal to the user, and so we are trying to understand what JEP means to our readers -- publishers, usually scholarly, who are grappling with what we both believe is inevitable, the growth of the on-line journal. In e-mail early this year he outlined the need for JEP:

There is much literature on this topic for librarians and much written from the viewpoint of the reader (or, if I may permit myself an acid aside, from the presumed viewpoint of the reader), Colin wrote early this year. But there are no places where the broader issues are consistently discussed from a publisher's point of view. The regular trade press of course deals with today's happenings, but not with the longer term, nor with the impact of publishing innovations on readers (and scholarly readers in particular), nor with the way technical change may alter the institutional structure in which publishers are embedded.

JEP is a broader, more intellectual approach to the universe of issues that cluster around the topic of electronic publishing: We do not seek how-to articles but we do seek how-to-think-about articles. . . . (W)e want to seek widely for people thinking in interesting, fundamental and original ways about the issues of electronic publishing. (W)e also see the JEP as a vehicle for experimentation, so in a rather appealing self-reflexive way, it is not just the contents of the journal that have a message for its readership but the form (or rather forms) of the journal that should convey a message.

That focus on learning rather than doing explains Colin's (and my) rather cavalier attitude toward the business end of JEP. I have a budget of $2,000 a year to spend on meetings and conferences. In addition, Colin authorized a one-time expense of $750 for redesign of the journal. He also pays the press's freelance copy editor to do her magic on JEP articles, and frees up staff -- notably Eve Trager, the press's guru on technical issues -- to produce each issue. (On my end, I find I spend over 100 hours in a production month, and about 40 hours a month other times.)

When asked how much JEP costs the press, Colin answers, " I don't know the cost and I don't want to know it." The resources come from diverting money from other things, without noting it on the bottom line.

As an economist and businessman, Colin recognizes that JEP and other electronic journals cannot continue to be financed by the money pilfered from other press businesses. He wants very much to "engage in some pricing experiments and perhaps (thus showing my touching optimism or naivete) generating significant revenue for the journal." We're doing a little experimenting with advertising in JEP. The press has an ad, and the company I work for has one. TCG's ad accounted for 51 clickthroughs to the TCG Web site in almost three months. That's not much, but considering JEP's readership it's a surprising number -- and it's eyeballs TCG would have attracted no other way. Perhaps more appropriate advertising would be more interesting to our readers. That's one of the experiments we'd like to try.

At its core JEP is basic research. The University of Michigan Press is providing the money to prove or disprove theories. We are not trying to design the best e-journal, we are trying to understand the issues involved in electronic journals. "We need to know how to do this for when it becomes an essential process," Colin says.

Meanwhile, we figure we are ahead of the game. After all, Mickey and Judy's show had only one performance. I've just produced my second issue, and I'm aiming for a run that will surpass Cats!

About the Author

Judith Axler Turner is editor of The Journal of Electronic Publishing. In real life she is Director of Electronic Publishing at Turner Consulting Group, which tolerates her interest in academia (but won't give her tenure no matter how many quasi-scholarly articles she writes). A career political reporter, she jumped on the computing bandwagon early and in 1980 wrote a weekly column on personal computing syndicated to hundreds of newspapers nationwide. She was the first information-technology reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she created Academe Today, The Chronicle's daily online publication. She also writes for University Business, a new magazine from the publisher of Lingua Franca. UB is schedule to debut in February, 1998.


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