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September 1999, Week 2


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Leo Enticknap <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 12 Sep 1999 15:36:41 -0700
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Apropos Jeremy Butler's comments on the electronic distribution of textbooks...

Firstly I agree totally that the current situation with regard academic
publishing has become problematic.  Leaving aside the economic issues, it
seems to me that publishers are only willing to accept material that is
either by an established author or is in a fashionable research area.  When
my PhD thesis was examined in July I was told that it represented
significant new research and was of publishable quality, yet four
publishers have now turned it down on the grounds that it is a monograph in
a 'restricted' subject area (to quote one rejection letter).  If academic
publishers (including UPs) have decided that profit margins are their sole
criterion, then we have to look for ways of getting our work out in the
open that manages to bypass them.

The key problem with the  solutions Jeremy has suggested is that there is
no refereeing system built into them.  Any Tom, Dick or Harry can publish a
website or a CD-ROM from their home computer.  What distinguishes these
efforts from formally published work is that the latter has gone through a
peer review mechanism: book manuscripts are sent to second readers, whilst
journal editors operate their own vetting system.

Basically, in order for any form of electronic academic publishing to gain
the sort of status that traditional publishing currently has (rightly or
wrongly), some sort of refereeing mechanism has to exist.  One reason is
that the British research assessment exercise (RAE) system, whereby
university departments are ranked 1 to 5 depending on their research
profile, depends largely on the existence of such a mechanism for
establishing the quality of published work.  A monograph published by an
established UP carries the most weight, a journal article a little less,
textbooks a little less still and so on down the line.  Someone churning
out multimedia monographs on CD-ROMs and then selling them on an ad-hoc
basis just wouldn't count, however valuable and professional those CDs were.

One immediate possibility which could be implemented with very little
infrastructural investment is to set up a means of distributing PhD theses
electronically.  At the moment it is possible to order photocopied or
microfilmed copies of any successfully examined thesis through University
Microforms International (US) or the British Library (UK).  Supplying the
text on CD-ROM would cut costs and enable theses to be distributed more
widely.  At the moment, a bizarre situation exists whereby someone can
write a thesis which is judged to be of an acceptable standard to get a
PhD, but cannot really take the credit for it unless a version is
subsequently published commercially.  That is to say, the fact that I chose
to research an unfashionable subject has put me at a considerable
disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, even though, formally
speaking, my work is up to the same standard as someone who has written
about, for example, Hitchcock, or feminism, and have then got their thesis
published commercially.

If we could get to a situation whereby PhD theses are regarded as having
been 'published' as soon as they have passed the examination, this would go
a long way to redressing that balance.  But this can only happen if there
are changes in the way UMI, the British Library &c. distribute and
publicise the material they handle.  Substantial review sections in
established journals covering recent theses would be a welcome development,
as would adverts from the likes of UMI detailing their recent acquisitions,
and possibly an easily available (as in, no subscriptions or passwords
needed) source of abstracts via the Web.

All this backed up by electronic distribution of the texts themselves would
go a long way towards bypassing the whims of commercial publishers, and
making it possible for researchers in minority interest areas to gain the
credit they deserve.  The beauty of it is that a refereeing system already
exists - the method of examining PhDs.  If the thesis is NFG it won't pass,
thus substandard work can't enter the system.

None of this addresses the issue of more established academics who are
encountering similar problems, and here three forms of infrastructure would
need to be established: the refereeing system, publicity and distribution.
Perhaps the way forward is through a University-based initiative such as
H-Net or Screening the Past which advises on the production of electronic
materials, develops and supplies software for the buyer to read and print
the text, and organises publicity, e.g. sending copies to journals for
review.  Perhaps authors would be asked to pay up front to cover the
initial costs, but the fee would have to be kept low enough not to deter
the authors of monographs which could only ever expect to sell a small
number of copies.  I'm sure a figure such as, say, 100 could be found from
the research budget of an author's institution, if there was a guarantee
that, with favourable reader's reports, the work would formally be regarded
as having been published (i.e. with an ISBN number and all the rest of it).


Leo Enticknap
Projection and Sound Engineer
City Screen Cinemas Ltd., London, UK
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