Monday, August 06, 2007

Dead tree publishing

Had a few further thoughts on a subject I return to from time to time...

Apropos of this item I mentioned here on the subject of scientific journals and publishing: It is a general fact that paper-based publishing is expensive, because of high fixed costs and marginal costs of materials (paper), printing, and distribution. Since the fixed costs are only slightly proportional to volume, they are especially a problem for small-circulation publications such as scientific journals.

With a high-volume publication such as a celebrity/gossip magazine the fixed costs are relatively small, and in any case there is plenty of advertising revenue to cover the expenses. Not so for scientific journals, or even most scientifically oriented publications for a general audience. The net result is that writers are under considerable pressure to keep their work brief and concise – minimize page count, column-inches, and word count as much as possible within fixed limits of "available" space. "All the news" – and only the news – that fits is printed.

Consequently, in publications for a general audience, there is a lot of pressure to leave out details and background that is "too technical", in favor of light and fluffy material that readers with a 9th grade reading level can easily absorb. Experienced science writers who advise aspiring writers cringe – literally – when critiquing the work of advisees if it is too lengthly and detailed. (Yes, S. B., I mean you.)

But the other side of the coin is that the writers of papers published in scientific and technical journals are subjected to draconian page count or word count limits, or even must pay (from their grants or institutional budgets) for each page published. And so they are under pressure to leave out all non-technical details, explanations, and background that the professional audience is presumed to know. And consequently, even if some member of the public who is not professional in the specific field of the journal article should happen to gain access to it, such a reader is likely to have difficulty deciphering the necessarily cryptic language of professionals in the field.

Online publication of technical scientific research does, or can, change all that. If the publication is entirely online, the costs of materials, printing, and distribution can be drastically lower. Even if printed publication is continued, online versions can be relieved of most or all space constraints, allowing writers to add to the online version as much explanatory detail and background as they wish. And at the same time, readers benefit from greatly reduced (or eliminated) charges, and the freedom to read only the parts suitable for their level of expertise.

It seems to me that everyone – except maybe the for-profit publishers – stands to benefit from open-access, low-price or free, online publication. Am I missing something?

Comments are welcome.

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