Raising the prestige of online journal articles

Lorraine Sherry
RMC Research Corporation

Full citation:

Sherry, L. (1996). Raising the prestige of online articles. Intercom, The Society for Technical Communication Magazine, 43 (7), 24-25,43.

Copyright © 1996 by the Society for Technical Communication. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of STC.

The World Wide Web--timely information at your fingertips! Considering that it usually takes a year or more from the time a scholarly article is accepted by a "good" journal until the time it finally appears in print, you can see how powerful the incentives are to publish research on the Web. However, there's one serious drawback to this tempting option: quality control may be sacrificed in the interest of ease and speed. Thus, many academics tend to steer away from accepting online articles in bibliographies for serious research articles, even though they might willingly share their ideas with their colleagues via e-mail and LISTSERVs. Steven Harnad (1996) discusses this hotly debated issue in a thoughtful article, "Implementing peer review on the 'Net".

To avoid fiascos such as the purported discovery of cold fusion a few years ago, researchers have traditionally distributed photocopies of pre-press publications to circles of friends and colleagues for a "reality check". Alternatively, they may hand out drafts with preliminary results to their peers when presenting their work at professional conferences. Through this informal review process, they are able to refine their work. After the necessary revisions, they are ready to submit it to a journal, where it must undergo a formal review by an editor and a committee of three or more referees. Only after the manuscript has passed this formal refereeing process will the authors see it published in a reputable journal--often a year or more after it was submitted.

The slowness of paper publication has less to do with printing than with the slowness of the peer-review process described above. Often, drafts are circulated via the post office. Does this mean that the peer-review process is medium-dependent, that there is some magical quality peculiar to paper that is lacking in an electronic publication? Not necessarily. It's just that the paper-based review process is quite familiar to all academics, whereas the idea of using the Internet for peer-review is still new to many.

Some researchers have been using e-mail and the Internet for years to share scientific discoveries with their colleagues. The simple fact that the manuscript is circulating among peers via e-mail rather than regular mail speeds up the review process and increases the chance that the research will still be valid by the time it's available to the world.

Electronic publishing via the Web has the virtue of being free for the readers. This is important, since the cost of subscribing to paper-based publications can put a toll on some scholars.

However, anyone with a computer, a modem, and an Internet account has access to a wealth of online articles from all over the world. Moreover, we are now beginning to see more refereed electronic journals on the Web, as well as edited proceedings of professional conferences.

The beauty of the Web is this: once a manuscript is online, it is answerable to the global learning community, not just to a group of journal referees. Since an electronic document can be circulated much faster than a paper-based one, anyone can e-mail the author. Public response to the article and interaction between the author and any interested reader leads to a new form of informal review that goes well beyond the small circle of friends and colleagues that characterize the usual paper-based informal review. Harnad calls this process "scholarly skywriting." It may take place through structured conferences such as the American Educational Research Association's VIRTCON III, a new form of interactive publication. Alternatively, once a professional society puts its proceedings online, an author may receive an e-mail message from a colleague who has found the article through a Web search.

In the VIRTCON III model, an electronic manuscript is initially reviewed and accepted, and then circulated to many potential readers within the professional organization, through a discussion list on the Web. Reviewers generally choose manuscripts for open peer discussion for which feedback to the author would be most valuable. The author is asked to post an abstract, the accepted proposal, synopsis, or full manuscript, and a provocative statement and/or a short set of questions to stimulate discussion. All participants are invited to submit comments to the author. In response, the author must defend the research, creating a discussion among those who choose to participate. This electronically mediated discourse is quite exciting, since it helps researchers expand the frontiers of knowledge within their disciplines. Interactive peer commentary is actually another form of peer review, though on a much less formal basis than the usual refereed process.

The key issue here changes from the medium--paper vs. online--to the review process itself. Does scholarly skywriting, the informal, interactive review process on the Web, strengthen or weaken the formal review process? I can only answer this question from my own experience, having published articles in refereed electronic journals and participated in VIRTCON III. I have found that distant colleagues are willing to contact me via e-mail, asking for clarification of specific topics, wanting to see clearer linkages between data and conclusions, and engaging me in an e-mail conversation about critical points raised in the article. They have also requested permission to link or download the article to their own Web site so they can share it with friends and colleagues. This process has put me in touch with many researchers who share my own interest in cutting-edge issues, and who often have valuable comments and questions that can help me improve the final publication. In addition, they have been willing to share their own research with me: a mutually beneficial situation.

In the academic community, it is as important to have an article cited by others as it is to have it published in the first place. Therefore, it is crucial to know whether or not your article is being read, used, and circulated by your peers. Given the eclectic reference list usually found of an STC Technical Communication article, you would have to subscribe to dozens of paper-based journals and read them all just to find out whether your article was cited by anyone else. With the interactivity of scholarly skywriting, you know not only who has read your article, but also what they thought of it and how they are using it.

Does this mean that there is no place for the traditional journal? Absolutely not! An article that has been through an informal review process is in a much better position to be accepted by a prestigious professional journal, whether paper-based or electronic. This is due partly to refining and revision and partly to the fact that electronic journals can attract referees on a broader and more systematic basis.

Electronic journals such as the Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture (EJVC) and the DEOSNEWS (the journal of the distance education online symposium) have editors who choose their referees carefully and trust their judgment. The learned referees advise the editors as they revise the manuscripts and make suggestions. As a result, some electronic journals have now achieved the same level of prestige as paper journals within their respective disciplines. Once this form of peer review is firmly in place on the Web, serious scholars should no longer have reservations about publishing their best works electronically.

There is another issue that researchers must deal with besides peer review--copyright issues for Web documents. (See O'Mahoney 1995.) There is an unwritten doctrine of implied public access on the Web. In other words, by putting your work on the Web, you have implicitly granted permission for anyone to link to your URL (the Uniform Resource Locator or address on the Web). You have not, however, given everyone permission to download your entire document to their own server. The Fair Use provision of copyright law protects your work, though it does state that documents may be reproduced for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.

A key element of the Fair Use provision is that such copying should not have an adverse effect on the market for the work. Thus, if your work is in progress, it's advisable for you to place an "address" tag at the bottom of your document, as shown in this example:

Copyright © 1996 Lorraine Sherry
All Rights Reserved
Last Updated: June 11, 1996

If your work is published, some journals require you to sign the copyright over to them. However, when you fill out the copyright transfer form, you may request permission to keep your document online, as part of your online portfolio or a compilation of your electronic publications. The journal will decide whether this is appropriate, and you must abide by this decision. If permission is granted (usually in writing), then you should include the journal's copyright information at the top of your page. This is a signal to the casual reader that the entire document is copyrighted information, and that it is subject to the same copyright law as a paper-based article. It also allows readers to cite your work properly, as they would any published work.

Are there drawbacks to this scenario? Clearly, not every online publication is suitable for rigorous peer review. Nor is every electronic article suitable for scholarly skywriting. Nevertheless, the system can definitely increase individual authors' productivity without sacrificing peer review in the process. Furthermore, there will continue to be a spectrum of LISTSERVs, online discussions, and public postings, thereby allowing every author to find his or her own niche in the research community, and furnishing outlets where everyone can participate in this dynamic learning and sharing process.


Harnad, S. (1996). Implementing peer review on the 'Net: Scientific quality control in scholarly electronic journals. [On-line.] Full path: http://www.princeton.edu/~harnad/

O'Mahoney, P.J.B. (1995). World Wide Web issues. [On-line.] Full path: http://www.benedict.com/webiss.htm#webiss