Friday, June 4, 2004

Scholarly Publishing & Unforeseen Consequences of Technology

The 26th annual Meeting for the Society of Scholarly Publishing met in San Francisco June 1-3 with record attendees, focusing on the implications of technology for the world of learned societies and scholarly communication dominating the agenda. Silicon Valley met East Coast tradition, as Google courts these publishers for its new ventures into premium content.

Keynote speaker, Larry Lessig, Stanford law professor, set the conference tone in describing the "copyright war" triggered by digital technologies, and the driving force for founding Creative Commons. The copyright protections of the Constitution are benign in the public library context with unregulated use within the confines of the physical creative work. In the digital age, "copies" of a single work are created, which then become regulated by the legal system, thus restricting the creative process and burdening it with excess costs. He cogently argues that the evolution of our culture and innovation is inhibited by the extension of copyright laws, which prevent dissemination of knowledge. In practicing his beliefs, his latest book, Free Culture, is available free on the Web under a Creative Commons license, feeding a community which made seven translations and an audio version available within days of the publication. Lessig's focus is more Hollywood content than scholarly content, but the issues of copyright remain the same.

Understanding the users of scholarly information was the theme of the plenary session given by Carol Tenopir, a familiar theme in other areas of the information industry. Use of electronic information varies by discipline, no surprise, but the quantitative depth of her work over the past 17 years is impressive. One major finding is the shift from browsing behavior, with tables of contents and print copies, to searching behavior. Her studies have documented significant differences between engineers, medical practitioners, and other scientists in information consumption, which have implications for scholarly communication. Print has not gone away - even scholars print out articles that require more than 20 minutes to read, rather than reading on a screen. And academic libraries are still buying print copies of journals, with the electronic versions supplementing the print. A troublesome finding to the scholarly publishers at this meeting was the documented drop in number of personal subscriptions by scientists, implying that more of their information comes from institutional access.

Technology was a theme of most of the concurrent sessions. New players included speakers from Google and the Elsevier Scirus project, speaking on search engines and accessing scholarly content. Another session on ebooks demonstrated the confusion over ebooks vs. the now traditional ejournal processes. But not all technology resonates with the SSP publishers, as the BitPass micropayment system flunked the rights management concerns of attendees. Open access was a hot topic, which began with a panel moderated by Christine Lamb, of Shore Communications, with a packed room of attendees, and ended with a lively closing debate between proponents and opponents. No consensus was reached, but the need for experiments and data was clear. Yes, there are problems with the scholarly journal publishing process, but these lend themselves to partial solutions, depending on discipline.

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