The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 1999, pg. B7
in "Scholarly Publishing in an Electronic Age: 8 Views of the Future"

Tearing Up the Limits Imposed by Paper


Digital publishing excites me in different ways, depending on what role I'm filling when asked about it.

As a writer, I know that, with a digital publication, I won't have to confine myself to the 350 to 500 words I'm allowed in this essay -- a very paper-based limit. Conversely, I know that the limit, like any good frame, encourages terse, efficient prose.

As a futurist, my enthusiasm is inspired and tempered by my recognition that we are years away from understanding (much less applying) the full potential of non-linear exposition.

As an information entrepreneur, I see digital publishing as a vehicle for broadening my organization's influence, scope, and significance.

As an architect of hypertextual presentation, I get completely jazzed by the tools I now have to solve problems of communication that have no correlative in the paper world: Hypertextual presentation allows diverse materials to be integrated in complicated, yet smooth and clean, ways.

As a seat-of-the-pants economist, I see in digital publishing the possibility of many content-based, rather than container-based, forms of pricing and presentation. That could transform the information economy in good ways and bad: good, by making more scholarly content available more cheaply than ever; and bad, by providing such tight encryption and security that fair use and universal access would be made moot.

As a determined idealist, I see the possibility of truly transformative social change, if the non-commercial sector emphasizes its "service and dissemination" mission and allows open access to professionally handled digital publications.

As a non-commercial publisher, I'm excited to be able to make use of digital-publishing tools to begin to fulfill the Platonic ideal of the "Disseminator," while still recovering costs. Digital publishing, for example, can gain access to small and formerly too-expensive-to-reach markets, at the same time increasing sales by using content as an advertisement for itself.

Indeed, digital publishing holds out the promise of solving the most serious problem confronting publishers whose main role is fostering the publication of new knowledge: balancing cost recovery with a mission of broad dissemination. Over the past 50 years, the capital-intensive nature of publishing has led to a largely commercial model for disseminating knowledge, filled with intermediaries that add cost. Those intermediaries have evolved as the cheapest means for disseminating printed content, but in a digitally robust world, they may not necessarily be needed.

Within the current system, hybrids like university presses struggle to maintain the balance under increasing pressure from administrators to have a "positive bottom line" -- in spite of the increased specialization of many publications, and consequently smaller, more-specialized (and more-expensive-to-reach) markets.

Those who create knowledge -- research institutions, universities, colleges, and scholarly associations -- have a vested interest in encouraging high-quality, inexpensive scholarly publications. That group must insist that college and university leaders support initiatives that encourage the acceptance of digital publication in tenure decisions, facilitate broader access to scholarly communication, allow experimentation in methodology, and support the university presses that engage and experiment in digital publishing.

I'm excited by digital publishing for all those reasons, and many more. If we're careful, we may be able to guide the evolution of the information economy to benefit more than just the pocketbooks of society: We may be able to benefit our minds.

Michael Jensen is director of publishing technologies at the National Academy Press.
Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: B7