In the next four posts I will characterize four general types of electronic publishing, moving from that sort which is most like traditional print scholarship to that which is least so.
The first, "Electronic Conventional Scholarship," can be considered the closest to traditional publishing. It includes online versions of established print journals (such as Modern Philology) or, increasingly, journals with no print history or counterpart (such as Textual Studies in Canada). Also within this category are the many digitized issues of back issues available through collections such as JSTOR.
For either sort, manuscripts are vetted through an editorial board and are peer reviewed exactly as articles for traditional print journals. While there has been reluctance to move from established journals with a print history to electronic journals, generally the presence of a respectable editorial board and an assurance of appropriate peer review puts such journals in the running with (if not on par with) traditional print journals in the humanities such as PMLA. Such scholarship, in contrast to Open Access scholarship (see next post), is restricted through commercial means.
This is a key point. Just because something has been digitized does not mean that it has taken full advantage of the electronic medium. Consider a parallel from history. Here are images of the first page of Genesis in the Vulgate bible. Can you tell which is the vellum manuscript and which is from the first printed book, Gutenberg's Bible? Click on each for a closer look.
If you guessed that the first image is the vellum manuscript and the second is the printed version, you were right. But how could you tell? That they are nearly indistinguishable makes my point. Gutenberg wasn't aiming to do anything different from the manuscript version; he was doing his best to imitate it. He gave his bible the same size and feel as the vellum version, even creating a typeface to precisely mimic the scribe’s handwriting.
Gutenberg's bible is rightly heralded as the breakthrough that it was, but as a "book" (in the sense that we have come to understand that important format), it wasn't all that impressive. As a contrast, look at a page from the Geneva Bible from a century later.
Here we see impressive additions to the text made possible through the medium of print: a legible typeface, headings, versification, cross references, and scholarly notes. Print's most important scholarly contribution to texts came not as print imitated the limits of manuscript culture, but as print transcended them.
At the dawn of the last media revolution, the printing press was treated merely as a technical apparatus that could economically extend the reach of manuscript culture. But the way print opened access to knowledge was not so much through multiplying access to an old form; the print medium could open a text to audiences in ways no manuscript could.
Gutenberg's bible was the PDF document of his day. It successfully imitated traditional textual forms. But given all the ways the print medium opened up texts, would anyone ever go back to the old?
PDF publishing--the Electronic Conventional--is really just legacy publishing. It is an attempt to preserve a format already being transcended.
I am not shouting "print is dead!"; I'm stating publishing is different. So long as scholars and institutions conceive of scholarly publishing in terms of print, they remain subject to the limits of the print paradigm. As will be shown in my next post regarding Open Access, the most dangerous legacy of print publication culture is the expectation that knowledge is served by tightly limiting access to it.
Are you thinking only in terms of print books or articles when considering scholarship online?