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Electronic vs. Hardcopy Publication

Hal Berghel

May, 2001

Welcome to the fourth installment of DL Pearls.

Last month I described the different production streams at work within the ACM Publications division, and explained how this impacted the both the Digital Library as well as the print publication division.

The fact is, to reuse a malapropism from Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn, the scientific and technical community of which computer and information technology are a part are staying away from scholarly print publications in droves. This phenomena, fortunately, was anticipated by the ACM's Publications Board and Headquarters staff as early as the late 1980's, so it had several years to ramp up for electronic publication era.

The concept of a digital library was discussed at least as far back as 1992 when I began my first term on the ACM Publications Board, and was put into development shortly thereafter. Early prototypes began to appear in the mid-1990's, and formal deployment occurred July 1998. While the concept of offering electronic publications was maturing within ACM, the World Wide Web took off, so one of the early problems - namely, choosing an appropriate delivery vehicle - disappeared. I remember those early discussions on the Pubs board when we wrestled with the notion of delivery of publications on CD-ROMs, via ftp, and fax-on-demand. In those days, planning electronic publications was very much like trying to chart the direction of the storm from within the eye of the hurricane.

In any case, due to some pretty astute planning on ACM's part, the evolution of electronic publications, the DL and print publications have pretty much gone according to plan. Prior to the DL, subscription rates for ACM periodicals followed the international downward trajectory of between 5% and 10% per year. The downward trend was obvious to all science and technology publishers by the mid 1990's, and so everyone was considering electronic alternatives. The great trepidation was to avoid offering electronic alternatives before developing business models that could account for the overall impact on revenue-bearing print subscriptions. ACM took a leadership role in this area. It's original business model predicted declines in print revenue that would be offset by increases in electronic subscriptions.

To illustrate the point, let's focus on the most recent two-year history of paid subscriptions to journals. In January, 1999, there were 42,761 individual print subscriptions (not counting the almost equal number of digital library subscriptions already in place). By January, 2001, that number had decreased to 33,594 - a decrease of 9,167 or 21.4%. In comparison, during that same period, DL subscriptions increased from 27,049 to 37,068 or an increase of 10,019 or 37%. Put simply, the increase in electronic subscriptions through the DL more than offset the decrease in print subscriptions. This is a pleasant surprise, because the original business plan anticipated a zero-sum experience. ACM is ahead of the game in terms of subscriptions.

The ACM plan is to go all-electronic. In fact, in the mid-1990's, many thought that we'd be there by now. One of the fascinating ironies of the e_publishing age, is that waning interest in print publications seems to be flattening out. My own explanation of this unanticipated phenomena is that the world is holding out for a fast 2,400dpi, 20-bit color, double-sided printer that can either handle or create multi-sized, perfect-bound copies. But for now, the last vestiges of interest in print publications seem secure.

Now that we've plotted the course of electronic publications, at least as far as the DL is concerned, it may be useful to remind the DL Pearl audience that none of this changes the editorial policies of the ACM's publication archives. The five levels of publication (refereed, formally reviewed, reviewed, highly edited, and unreviewed) are still retained, and apply to the electronic versions of ACM publications in just the same way that they applied to their hardcopy ancestors. This will not change. The ACM imprimatur, whether it is affixed digitally or electronically, remains the reader's assurance of quality. This fact should not be overlooked by academic promotion and tenure committees.

Next month, we'll look at digital libraries through the eyes of a portal.

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Hal Berghel