Fred L. Bookstein (2000) On "value-added" by Electronic Journals:. Psycoloquy: 11(090) Electronic Journals (3)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 11(090): On "value-added" by Electronic Journals:

Book Review of Tenopir & King on Electronic-Journals

Fred L. Bookstein
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor
Michigan USA


The book-length essay by Tenopir and King (2000a,b) is at once too conservative and too superficial for its subject-matter. Its authors have failed to consider most aspects of the social structure of science impinging upon the transition that ostensibly concerns them: matters such as the content of an article, the metaphor of added value in comparing media of scientific communication, and the role of the scholarly community in shaping the knowledge structures it maintains over time. As a result, the authors' cost extrapolations are not likely to be of much help in the new world.


copyright, citation impact, digital library, electronic archives, electronic publishing, electronic journals, peer review, publication costs, research funding
1. "The Web is not a library," according to the chief information officer of my own university (Griffiths, 1998), as cited on page 364 of Carol Tenopir and Donald King's table-encrusted new book "Toward Electronic Journals" (TEJ; Tenopir and King, 2000a,b). Though Griffiths is right, nevertheless the Web INCLUDES my library, that is to say, the universe of information structures from which I retrieve content for professional purposes. Our problem is the absence of the rest of the customary librarianly machinery: the card catalog (Baker, 1996), the sorting by subject, the new book shelf. So I approached TEJ in order to learn how the coming revolution of access could transmutate the nature of communication among scientists like me.

2. But TEJ does not conform with any part of this critique. Instead, Tenopir and King declare that the present system of scientific information retrieval must be working pretty well, inasmuch as scientific journals have persevered over some three and a half centuries, and hence is likely to persevere in electronic format under conditions only modestly different from the present. "Much of the hope for scholarly journals has been in their potential to address some of the weaknesses of traditional print scholarly journals" (p. 8), they write, but apparently the economics is substantially unaltered. Specifically, information will still come in articles that are published in order to be browsed or purposefully retrieved by readers who decide whether to subscribe or to walk to the library according to a cost-benefit analysis of some sort.

3. This assumption is unwise. The present-day economics of scholarly publishing cannot be extrapolated while the associated social structure is being overturned, and that is what the Internet is already doing. A growing number of us have no particular use for the current system of journals beyond the role it plays at tenuring time. Any information I need from close colleagues is sent to me by .pdf files as far in advance of peer review as I can manage. If I find out, months or years after the fact, that I need an article from someone I don't know, I search it out by content on Medline or the like, and photocopies inevitably appear in my mailbox soon enough, whether two days or two months later, depending on whether the journal is physically in Ann Arbor or not. In this mode, my own university library serves mainly to collate the charges for the copying. I don't care where the journals reside, because I never touch them physically. I do visit the real library building frequently, but only to peruse actual codex books, and those mainly unrelated to my profession. As I write this, I have about 110 library items checked out. Their call numbers span most of the Dewey Decimal Classification, and their dates of publication average 1985.

4. What kind of knowledge worker ignores the conventional medium of scholarly exchange in this way? By profession I am a methodologist of biomedical visualization and statistical analysis. I build pattern detection tools intended to be applied to the supremely complex collective data sets that derive from solid images of the entire human body or its parts. Before the Internet, researchers like me had no scholarly community at all, because there was nothing we needed said that traditional print journals could say. In those days, our work was uneasily balanced across combinations of statistical graphics and medical illustration, and the best "publications" were animations, videotapes, solid models -- the stuff of colloquia or collections, not journals at all. The struggle with the limits of print as a medium for biomedical visualization has characterized this field since its founding half a millennium ago (cf. Museo di Storia Naturale, 1999).

5. In this professional context, perhaps the most troublesome aspect of TEJ is its smug conservatism regarding the "value added" by electronic journals. In fields like mine, before this electronic age there was more or less nothing to add TO. Print journals are of hardly any use where almost every finding is either an extended visual representation or else a continuum of physical quantities (decimal numbers, vectors, or tensors) spread across every point of a solid image. There is also a residual set of articles comprising the purely methodological arguments underlying these displays: theorems about mathematical formulas with their proofs, for example. But mathematics literature cumulates in a special form for which special tools can be very helpful. For the electronic version of the complete math library, journals and all, see Odlyzko, 1995.

6. This misleading metaphor of "value added," in my view, is rooted in an obsolete understanding of the rhetorical structure of the scientific literature, the naive view that acknowledges the superficial features of empiricism but ignores all the agonistic details. Here in the year 2000, a quite different construction of the scientific community, often called "the soft social construction model," has come to dominate the literature of social studies of science. It is high time for it to penetrate into the economic sociology of scientific journals as well. We have known for more than half a century (the original German publication of Fleck (1979) was in 1936) that journal articles honorably and systematically lie about the nature of scientific knowledge and the modes by which it actually accumulates. For amusing modern introductions to the rhetorical critique of this mendacious style, see, for example, Latour (1987) or Bauer (1992).

7. The new electronic context makes circumvention of this classic fictional form possible in practice for the first time. The capacity of fast Internet connections to support rich multispectral displays undergirds the recruiting of supporting evidence over an enormously broader bandwidth (no metaphor here) than print journals can muster. A journal article can hardly ever display the full data set underlying a claimed empirical pattern, but an electronic publication can do just that. My own current work deals with the applied mathematics of one single biomedical data set, the 47-gigabyte Visible Female, Eve, from the National Library of Medicine. Our first goal is to attach as much specific medical knowledge as possible to this single simulacrum. The longer-term aim is to organize that same multiterabyte medical knowledge base onto an extended archive of solid forms like hers, represented at steadily greater spatial resolution as microphotographic techniques permit, all linked from specimen to specimen according to empirical anatomical, physiological, and pathological knowledge.

8. Such a shared data structure does not conduce to piecewise publication in traditional print journals. Publication by linking to the solid photographic record of Eve is not "adding value" to a previous journal literature. It is, instead, a reversion from the agonistic domain of today's journals to the earlier domain of value-rich scientific communication by direct demonstration. As Latour (1987) scripted it: "You don't believe me? Here, let me show you!" -- but that demonstration is exactly what a hyperlink into a shared data resource manages to do automatically, disinterestedly. Data bases like Eve's are already being exploited to great effect in specific domains of biomedical research (e.g., Peter Fox's annotated Brainmap database for keying functional neuroimaging findings to standardized brain coordinates). What would have been journal articles twenty years ago, and what tenuring committees still insist take the form of journal articles today, will in twenty years be annotations of data bases like these, with little bibliographical import apart from the data resources they summarize in situ, or in which they are later summarized by hit counts, hyperlinks, and the like (cf. Odlyzko, 2000).

9. Thus even if TEJ is concerned with the economics of electronic journals, as it says it is (p. 352), nevertheless in its concentration on issues and articles and pages it has overlooked a much larger macroeconomic point about scientists and the resources they need. Unfortunately, it also misses the main point when it argues at the smaller microeconomic scale of issues and articles and manuscript pages. My concern here is for the enormous variety of marginal utilities mentioned over this book, the huge range of quantities "per" other quantities, and the carelessness with which they are strewn about.

10. On page 242, for instance, we read about the sudden decrease in "journals published per scientist." On its face, this is a ratio of arithmetic quantities: total number of "journals published" divided by "total number of scientists," each of which can be ascertained, by census or by survey, to some degree of accuracy. But whatever are we supposed to do with their ratio? That the number of journals is rising more slowly than the number of scientists does not imply the existence of any quantity named "journals per scientist" that is changing--this is just the elementary logical fallacy of reification. If there were suddenly a thousand more scientists, there would not suddenly be any additional number of journals: the ratio has no role in any realistic forecasting. (In other words, it is articles that scientists produce, not journals.) The same paragraph goes on to invoke "articles per journal," "article pages per title," and "number of pages per scientist," and earlier on the same page we encounter "subscribers per journal," "price per article," and "price per page."

11. Each of these is a ratio of totals, but none is of any use for policy planning, as each is historically labile during precisely the period over which any extrapolation would have to be numerically grounded, for "rules of thumb" (p. 380) or anything else. Aggregate quantities like these must be spurious in the small. Consider, for instance, this argument, from page 185:

    "At an average distance to the library (i.e., just over 5 minutes)
    and a [journal] price of $100, the break-even point is thirteen
    readings. In other words, for fewer than thirteen readings it is
    less expensive to go to the library, while above that number it is
    less expensive to subscribe."

But this calculation assumes that the scientist is paid $48 per hour (p. 171). It follows, then, that highly paid researchers ought to have more personal subscriptions, either up to higher prices or down to fewer articles browsed, since their time in transit to the library should be worth more, and this effect should be the stronger as the highly paid researcher has a prestigious office in a new building farther from the library. But I see no such pattern of behavior in my colleagues, nor do Tenopir and King ever attempt to validate their choice models by the explicit confrontation of correlations across individual decisions in this way.

12. That these aggregate ratios do not drive any model relevant to forecasting is made clear by the book's only formal foray into actual econometric modeling, the analysis in Chapter 12 of the "costs of publishing." The authors present a "rough cost model," page 256, of five terms, each modulated by a coefficient that is the cost "per page" of some activity. However, the text goes on, these cost elements "are found to vary in the literature or are not available..." (p. 257). In fact, the text goes on to retrieve values for these coefficients "from the literature" that vary by factors of five or more. Another model of the same sort, for "non-article processing costs," appears a few pages further on, for which "in the absence of evidence" (p. 260) the authors guess at coefficients that sum to about half of what the previous formula yielded. "In the absence of evidence" means, once again, that we are facing the reification fallacy: guesses by analogy are being used as if they represented stable marginal rates, all the while the system is being altered out of all recognition by technical and sociological factors.

13. My colleagues and I are working toward a scientific community of electronic resources that has no counterparts for "volumes," "issues," "articles," "pages," or "subscriptions," and for which even some more explicitly networked notions, such as "peer review," have been rebuilt without precedent. (For instance, in the world of algorithm design, peer review usually comes after publication, not before: it deals with the comparison of algorithms against others published later.) The collective goal is an intensive shared library of annotations of one single data resource. We would indeed like to understand some of the economic aspects of this brave new world: economic aspects of "publication" and archiving, of librarianship, and of prosopography. What is authorship in this new domain? How does one rate the continuing creative potential of individuals?

14. TEJ, though subtitled "Realities for Scientists, Librarians, and Publishers," takes too blindered a view of this new reality. In concentrating on value that might be "added" by electronic journals, Tenopir and King have mostly ignored those values of scientific communication that were long since subtracted off by the present system of print-based journal publication. The importance of electronic journals is not the good things they add to print journals, but the bad things they circumvent that no longer need to go wrong--the unfortunate separation of nuanced evidence from inferences, and of both from the later arguments to which they lead. The present volume ultimately fails to comprehend the import of its subject matter for scientific praxis over the next decades, and so its econometric arithmetic, for all of the detailed tabulations, is mere historiography, the accounting of an obsolescent medium: the printed scientific journal.


Baker, N. Discards. Pp. 125-181 in The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. London: Chatto and Windus, 1996. (Original publication, 1994.)

Bauer, H. H. Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Fleck, L. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. (Original German, 1936.)

Griffiths, J.-M. Why the Web is not a library. In The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, eds. B. L. Hawkins and P. Battin, pp. 229-246. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998. Cited in Tenopir and King, 2000.

Latour, B. Science in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Universita di Firenze, sezione di zoologica La Specola. Encyclopedia Anatomica: A complete collection of anatomical waxes. Cologne: Taschen, 1999.

Odlyzko, A. M. Tragic loss or good riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 42:71-122, 1995.

Odlyzko, A. M. The rapid evolution of scholarly communication., 2000.

Tenopir, Carol, and Donald W. King (2000a) Towards Electronic Journals: Realities for Scientists, Librarians, and Publishers. Washington, D.C.: Special Libraries Association.

Tenopir, Carol, and Donald W. King (2000b) Precis of: "Towards Electronic Journals" PSYCOLOQUY 11(084) psyc.00.11.084.electronic-journals.1.tenopir

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