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Technology interactions: Scholarly publishing

Roger Atkinson

The interactions between the new technologies in computing and networking and scholarly publishing present us with a curious paradox. The great advances that we have obtained in computing and networking technologies ought to give us decreased costs for scholarly journals and easier, digital network access. However, in most cases, subscription charges for print delivery and network access are rising every year. To illustrate this point, Figure 1 compares three Australian based professional society journals having print and online versions.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Institutional subscription rates 1997-2004 for HERD [1], DE [2] and AJET [3]

Data sources: Rates quoted in printed copies of the journals and the publisher's website. Prices include Internet access from an institutional local area network in the cases of HERD and DE (AJET is 'open access', being unrestricted, free to the Internet, three months after publication).

  1. Higher Education Research and Development. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/07294360.asp
  2. Distance Education. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/01587919.asp
  3. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/

How can we analyse this paradox and the differences shown in Figure 1? In particular, does the technological perspective really indicate a potential for lower rates to prevail, and for enhanced services to be offered? After all, the Taylor and Francis Group (publishers of HERD, DE and about 119 other journals under the classification 'education'), are using much the same computing and digital networking technologies as ASCILITE is using for AJET. Reviewing these technologies, let's consider three broad, key factors: cost of information storage, cost of digital network transport, and the cost and efficiency of search processes that enable readers to find the content they are seeking. Let's consider these in an anecdotal way, hopefully, this being more readable and informative than large amounts of technological detail.

My first major involvement with information storage technologies, now 25 years ago, was with a 10 megabyte (MB) "Winchester disk", part of a $100,000 investment in a word processing facility. At the time10 meg was 'huge', but now we can routinely and cheaply deploy on our desktops a personal computer with disk storage 10,000 times that capacity. AJET's online archive, a complete coverage from 1985 to the current issue, occupies 23.7 MB, and is increasing at a rate of about 2.5 to 3.5 MB per year. On a 100,000 MB (100 GB) disk that's trivial, and we really can talk about marginal costs of storage approaching zero for the online archives of a journal. HERD and DE, though their current availability online is minor, being only 2000 onwards and 2002 onwards, respectively, would require amounts of server disk storage similar to AJET.

Of course we may have to worry about the average cost of the server and disk space, and whether the journal has to have a subscription income to pay such expenses. I say 'may', because in many cases these costs appear to be 'already covered' by sponsorship, usually in cases where the sponsoring society or organisation has an operational server, and has to have it for other reasons. For a large, comprehensive list of educational research journals that are 'open access', see the web page by AERA's SIG Communication of Research, Open Access Journals in the Field of Education [4]. You may be surprised by the popularity of giving away research journal articles, free to the Internet, no subscription charges, no annual increases! Whilst you are there, note their admirable, modest intent, "...we hope to do what little we can to promote free access world wide to scholarship in education" [4].

Now for cost trends in digital network transport. Again, for many users the scenario is marginal costs approaching zero, for typical journal article content. Right now I'm busy with edits for Proceedings 21st ASCILITE Conference [5], pursuing a tough editorial line on reference list checking (among many other matters). Reference list checking requires a little more traffic on our Telstra Bigpond ADSL connection. As we are quite a bit below our monthly 'home office' allowance of 500 MB, the quota that if exceeded gets us into an 'excess' charge, I become indulgent. It's OK to download a 1 MB file, just for a simple purpose such as checking whether the author of the paper made a citation error (as an aside, easy checking of reference lists, enabled by Google searches and low charges for traffic volume, reveals that the average author is rather sloppy with referencing - a matter flagged for reporting upon in detail, soon, in another column). There is a new indulgence available to me now - often it's easier to do a network search, rather than get off my butt and rummage for hard copy in the traditional archives (now relegated to the garage - there are complete sets of HERD, DE and AJET out there, along with heaps of conference proceedings). With marginal costs of digital network transport approaching zero, let's be indulgent in the number of articles that we download!

There are downsides. The marginal costs for network transport may be exceptionally favourable, but if your campus library is not a subscriber or if you are off campus, as I am, you can hit a 'pay per view', almost invariably with the major commercial publishers. 'Hit' is the word, who is going to pay US$19 to obtain a single article from HERD? Another downside is frequent lack of stability in online sources. For example, HERDSA's 2003 Conference Proceedings were online[6], but recently the message from that webserver became "Error 404... The requested URL was not found on this server..."

Considering the cost and efficiency of search processes, the ultimate in high tech, low cost is the free to the Internet search engine. Whilst numerous illustrations could be chosen, one interesting question to explore is whether the authors who have written for HERD, DE and AJET are likely to be satisfied with their exposure to one of the most popular of the modern search processes. Table 1 illustrates Google [7] results from searches simulating the outcomes that authors invariably hope for, that is the appearance of their own work near the very top of the search results. Whilst Table 1 is just a simple pilot test, it does seem to indicate that the authors of AJET 20(1) articles are likely to be quite satisfied, whereas authors of HERD 23(1) and DE 25(1) articles are likely to cry 'foul' and say 'sample size too small', or 'I demand a recount', or a different 'bias in the selection of keywords'. Or one could claim that Google, though a technological marvel and a great free resource, is not in the same class as a reputable abstracting journal, etc, etc.

Table 1: Google search results for attempts to find HERD, DE and AJET articles

Journal and search
string prefix
AuthorsSearch string suffixGoogle result
HERD 23(1), 2004
higher education research development
Moorecritical thinking debate skillsNot in first 30 of about 222,000
Maclellanauthenticity assessment academic perceptionNot in first 30 of about 7,820
Zeegerslearning academic achievement scienceNot in first 30 of about 443,000
Watson, Johnson and Austinfield study student retentionNot in first 30 of about 261,000
Ellis, Calvo, Levy and Tanlearning discussion onlineNot in the first 30 of about 888,000
DE 25(1)
distance education
Kuboni and Martinsupport web learning environmentNot in first 30 of about 994,000
Bernard, Brauer, Abrami and Surkesquestionnaire online learning achievementResult 3 of about 24,500
Louproblem solving collaboration onlineNot in first 30 of about 161,000
de Bruynonline communication social interactiveNot in first 30 of about 301,000
LaPointe and Gunawardenapeer interaction conferencing learningNot in the first 30 of about 34,800
AJET 20(1)
journal educational technology
Dalgarno and Harperspatial learning authentic 3DResult 1 of about 1,550
Kennedy and Juddaudit trail dataResult 1 of about 42,400
Wilson and Staceyonline interaction learning teachingResult 8 of about 419,000
Phelps, Graham and Kerrteachers ICT professional developmentResult 49 of about 59,200
Schwier, Campbell and Kennyinstructional design community practiceResult 21 of about 342,000

Notes to Table 1: See the home page for each journal to access the table of contents for the cited issue. The test was done on 16 August 2004, using 'Find results with all of the words'. To obtain the search string actually used in each case, combine the 'prefix' in column 1 with the 'suffix' in column 3. Key words in the 'suffix' were selected from or derived from words in the article title, in nearly all cases. Column 4 indicates the number of 'hits', and whether the authors in column 1 were found, or were not found in the first 30 'hits'.

Perhaps this brief glimpse at the interactions between the technologies and scholarly publishingwill have increased your awareness of a paradox: prices rising for commercially based journals, notwithstanding the technologically driven scope for price reductions, and the emergence of new search techniques that are beginning to weaken the ranking of articles published in commercial journals, compared with articles published in open access journals.


  1. Higher Education Research and Development. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/07294360.asp
  2. Distance Education. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/01587919.asp
  3. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/
  4. AERA Communication of Research SIG: Open Access Journals in the Field of Education. [viewed 14 Oct 2004] http://aera-cr.ed.asu.edu/links.html
  5. ASCILITE 2004 Conference Proceedings. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/contents.html
  6. http://www.conference.canterbury.ac.nz/herdsa2003/ [availability restored, verified 26 Feb 2005 at http://surveys.canterbury.ac.nz/herdsa03/index.htm]
  7. http://www.google.com/

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre in June 2001. His current activities include publishing AJET and honorary work on a number of academic conference support and publishing activities. Website: http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/ Contact: rjatkinson@bigpond.com

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (2004). Technology interactions: Scholarly publishing. HERDSA News, 26(3), 19-21. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/26-3.html

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Created 26 Feb 2005. Last revision: 4 June 2009. HTML author: Roger Atkinson [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]
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