Libraries facilitating self-publishing

a case-study of the Electronic Journal of Comparative Law


Hans Roes
Tilburg University Library

Paper presented at the International Summer School on the Digital Library 1998, Tilburg, August 1998.

Version 1.0
Spring 1998

This document might be adapted as the project described is not finished yet.


After setting forth the reasons why libraries should be involved in stimulating and facilitating self-publishing initiatives by scholars, a case-study is presented of the Electronic Journal of Comparative Law. This international journal, which is published on the World Wide Web only, was developed in 1997/1998 with a grant from IWI, the Dutch platform for the innovation of the supply of scientific information, by a team recruited from libraries and computer centres of Tilburg and Utrecht University, in close cooperation with an international board of editors. The project as well as the results are described in detail. The paper ends with lessons learned, points to consider, and discussion about the future involvement of libraries in these type of projects.

Electronic journals: why libraries should be involved

Two years ago my presentation for the 1996 Summer School on the Digital Library [Roes, 1996] started with the question "What is a library without journals ?" and its corollary "What is a digital library without electronic journals ?" The answer is obvious: it is hard to imagine a digital library without electronic journals. If electronic journals are defined as scholarly, refereed journals which are only published electronically - that is, are not electronic versions of printed journals as delivered by major publishing companies like Elsevier and Springer - than recent history shows that electronic journals are one of the two main vehicles for self-publishing by scholars, the other being electronic preprint archives. Especially with the advent of the World Wide Web, it has become relatively easy, at least in a technical sense, to publish electronic journals. A study of the phenomenon also gives the main reasons why (digital) libraries ought to be involved in the development of this new medium [see also Roes, 1995].

The first reason which comes to mind is the well-known serials pricing crisis. The rate at which the volume of scholarly publishing is expanding - sometimes estimated to double every ten years - is pushing the current print system to its limits. With prices of printed journals also doubling roughly every seven to ten years, most libraries are no longer trying to develop collections but are more concerned with the question which journals next to cancel. Information and communication technology traditionally promises faster, cheaper and better services. Not so in the publishing industry, for a quick glance at electronic versions of printed journals offered by the major publishing companies shows that:

  • electronic versions are usually delivered weeks after the print versions, not surprisingly since often these electronic versions are derived by scanning the printed journal
  • electronic versions are mostly only available in conjunction with printed versions, implying a higher price - libraries are forced to pay for the extra
  • the use of electronic versions is often limited through strict licensing terms to on-campus use only

So, if we leave the matter to publishers what we seem to get is slow delivery of electronic versions, more expensive journals, and only debatable improvement in service to a limited audience. This can hardly be considered a contribution to the solution of the serials pricing crisis.

Instead of merely substituting parts of the information chain, electronic only journals are a true innovation of the information chain. Since their whole production process is electronic only, a well organized use of today's technology offers fast communication between authors, editors and referees, resulting in a potentially far more faster medium than the present printed system which is characterized by publication lags varying from three months up to, sometimes, several years. Faster and more efficient scholarly communication is the result.

By using existing tools and infrastructure, the costs of printing and distributing almost vanish, resulting in dramatically lower costs. Some observers claim that cost reductions of up to 70 percent are possible. Cost reductions for libraries are also possible since processing can be more efficiently organized and physical shelving costs are traded for electronic storage. Where costs of buildings will only go up, electronic storage becomes cheaper and cheaper every month, and, anyway, one copy of an electronic journal on the entire global network is enough to service libraries and scholars worldwide.

The first reason for libraries to be involved in the development of electronic journals is therefore their promise in solving the serials pricing crisis which at the present is seriously eroding their position in the information chain. Printed journals are under serious threat and libraries need to be involved in the development of cheaper and faster successors - which are likely to be electronic journals.

Other promises for innovation have to do with overcoming the limits of paper. Contributions can be longer, source material, experimental data, computer programs, animations and audio can be linked, and of course, electronic articles can be linked to other electronic articles. Also, the process of peer review could become more open by organizing discussions of peers around a contribution. In practice these advantages have hardly materialized yet in existing electronic journals. So as a second reason, libraries, which have traditionally been involved in the organization of information, should want to be involved in shaping these aspects of the information cycle in the twenty-first century.

An important third factor is that developing electronic journals offers a unique opportunity for close cooperation between library staff and their most important patrons, faculty. In the end, (university) libraries exist only to support the (educational and research) processes of their parent institutions. If you want to be good at that, you have to know what your customers want. Cooperation is an excellent way to find out what your patrons need.

A final, and perhaps more personal reason, is that developing an electronic journal is fun. It is challenging because it requires the organization and coordination of many skills, many of which are yet foreign to librarians, but which lead to a better understanding of the scholarly communication process and, by implication, the evolving position of libraries in today's information chain.

Case-study: Electronic Journal of Comparative Law (EJCL)

An important factor in developing a project proposal for an electronic journal were intensive discussions library staff and faculty had with the board of Tilburg University early 1995 about reshaping the budgeting of the collection development process. Given the ever increasing prices of journals and the not-always increasing university budget it was clear that, although we could at least stabilize collection development in the short run, in the long run we would -and will - inevitably face ever deteriorating journals' collections. So why not try and find out how difficult self-publishing would be ? To see whether we could do the job at lower cost. To gain control over - after all - our own work again and to introduce some countervailing power in the publishing industry.

This idea met response in the Faculty of Law and by the end of 1995 a first project proposal was submitted to IWI, the Dutch platform for the innovation of the supply of scientific information. This first proposal was rejected by IWI, the organization not yet being familiar with the idea and possibility of self-publishing. But, in retrospect we were fortunate because the rejection made us rethink the whole proposal and come up with a better document [Controlling Document] at next year's call for proposals, when self-publishing was in fact one of the main themes for which IWI invited project proposals. Notable improvements were a cooperation with Utrecht University and the explicit aim for an international editorial board - both factors which considerably broadened the scope of the project. Also it was decided to limit the journal's scope to comparative law, one of the important research themes of the Tilburg Faculty of Law. A project team, consisting of staff from Tilburg University and Utrecht University libraries and computer centers, and a preliminary editorial board, consisting of legal scholars from the Tilburg and Utrecht Faculties of Law, were put together.

Aim of the project, work packages and results

The project's aim was to:

"[Develop] an editorial, technical and organizational concept for an electronic review of comparative law which publishes articles of high quality in the English language contributed by Dutch and foreign scholars, as well as producing two issues of this journal." [ibid.]

An important indirect aim is to give scholars and universities more control over their scientific output. Copyright remains with authors, but articles may be downloaded, printed and circulated for scientific and educational purposes as long as the article including the copyright notice which asserts the moral right of authors remains intact.

To this end the project was divided in seven work packages. Work package one set out to make an inventory of the existing printed journals in the field of comparative law. The twofold purpose of this exercise was (i) to gain insight into the market in terms of potential readers and authors, and (ii) to get an overview of existing editorial policies which could be helpful in the design of the EJCL procedures. The report on this section [Tims, van Waelsden, 1997] led to the conclusion that there was room for a journal specifically geared toward comparative private law and the methodological issues of comparative law in general. A closer look at five of the 60 journals contained in the sample revealed that aim and scope are usually quite broadly defined. Another major finding was that guidelines for authors are rarely given and in none of the five journals refereeing policies were mentioned. Legal journals seem to operate in a sort of 'black box' mode from the viewpoint of (especially young) legal scholars. This is a result which might come as a surprise to those outside the legal profession, it stresses though that each discipline has its own culture of publishing.

Work package two was similar to the first in that it also was mainly about reconnaissance, this time regarding existing electronic law journals, again to gain insight in how these journals were set up, with a specific interest in technical models. An important secondary goal was that while surfing the Web channels for promotion and distribution of EJCL were identified [covered in Tims, van Waelsden, 1997]. Findings [Roes, 1997] were rather diverse but instructive. The Journal of Information Law and Technology was chosen to serve as an example in the development of the EJCL site.

The goal of work package three was to develop an editorial policy, guidelines for submissions, and a style-guide for contributions. Other important tasks for the editorial board in this work package were the expansion of the editorial board with distinguished foreign scholars, and the recruitment of a panel of independent referees which would be able to judge contributions, and of course soliciting publications for the first issues. The input of work packages one and two proved, of course, to be of considerable value. The result of this work is clear from the journal's site: Furthermore the editorial board was expanded with scholars from Sweden, Germany and the UK. What proved to be far more difficult was the implementation of proper refereeing procedures, a task so far carried out by the editorial board itself. Also soliciting publications proved to be a difficult task, although it should be mentioned that this was predicted in the project proposal since an electronic journal not only suffers from the fact that is a new journal which has yet to prove itself, but also because it is a relatively new medium, introduced in a culture still governed by print.

Work package four, using the results of work package two, involved the development of the journal's Website as well as the supply of tools necessary for the editorial board to cooperate in an internationally distributed context. With the help of an external graphics designer, the project team designed a dummy site which was demonstrated to the editorial board, adapted, ergonomically tested to see whether the site was easy to navigate, and again adapted after which the editorial board finally approved. The issue of tools seemed difficult at first, then easy and, in the end, again difficult. Difficult at first because the presumption was that editors would also be responsible for the actual production, which meant a lot of effort would need to be put in the development of HTML-templates and instruction. After the Tilburg Faculty of Law decided to appoint an assistant editor (0.2 full time equivalent, two years) to take care of the technical tasks, matters seemed much easier. Now the presumption was that editors could rely mainly on electronic mail with attached manuscripts to support the editorial process. The use of different, and differently aged, mail packages made this presumption illusory. At the time of writing of this paper, a WWW-based groupware tool, BSCW - Basic Support for Cooperative work ( - is being implemented to better support the exchange of manuscripts as well as the editorial workflow. The choice of BSCW illustrates the preference for existing public domain tools where possible, another example being the use of standard list server software for the notification of subscribers to the list of newly published issues.

Work package five concerned the actual production of two issues. Of course this also implied the actual test of the design work and the procedures, which both turned out to be robust, except for the support of editorial workflow described above. Because of this, and because soliciting manuscripts proved to be more difficult than expected, the project cycle was extended with three months, now covering March 1997 till June 1998. The first issue was published in November 1997, the second issue was planned for late March 1998 but was published in May. Both issues carried two extensive articles which would have been difficult to publish in printed journals. In this way, one of the goals of the EJCL project, namely to provide a much wanted outlet for more extensive publications, was met. The third issue is, at the time of writing, scheduled to appear late June 1998, after which the project will end and the editorial board supported by the assistant editor will carry on.

The final two work packages are of a supportive nature. Work package six is concerned with costs. The issue of the cost of electronic journals is widely debated in the literature. Work package six/a set out to contribute to this discussion by asking an independent accountant to develop a general costing model for publishing an electronic journal. This model, developed by Coopers & Lybrand, will be tested by using the actual costs incurred in developing and maintaining EJCL. At the moment of writing of this paper this latter exercise still needs to be carried out. Work package six/b explored the technical possibilities for selective exclusion of non academic users, or, stated otherwise, the effective possibilities for price differentiation between academic and non academic users. At the time of writing of this paper it is unlikely that any barriers will be raised for non academic users since (i) marginal costs might well exceed marginal revenues as the expected interest in non academic circles is not high and (ii) these barriers might also well be a nuisance to academic users.

Work package seven, finally, was concerned with dissemination. This involved publications, presentations and the organization of a seminar on self-publishing by legal scholars in Tilburg, early May 1998. Promotion of the journal was carried out through the network through the channels identified in work package two. This proved to be more difficult than expected, so it was decided to design a printed leaflet which was sent along with correspondence, a print journal, and was handed out at seminars and conferences. The interest of legal scholars for the journal can be measured by the number of people who have subscribed to the list server which notifies of newly published issues. Just prior to the publication of the second issue, a little less than a hundred legal scholars had subscribed worldwide: 33 from the Netherlands, 23 from the USA, 12 from Germany, the rest coming from such remote places as Argentina, India, Singapore and China. These numbers are still too low to conclude the journal is successful. On the other hand, establishing a new journal takes time, in the publishing industry it is not abnormal for a new journal to reach break even in five years [Page, Campbell, Meadows, 1987, chapter 4]. Analysis of the log files of the journal's Website still needed to be carried out at the time of writing of this paper.

Lessons and discussion

Don't get frustrated if a project proposal is turned down. Reconsider it and if you still think your project is worth pursuing, redraft it, chances are you might still find resources.

In order to facilitate the transition for authors and readers from print to electronic and also to keep the maintenance effort to a minimum, an explicit choice was made to keep the site as simple and effective as possible. The journal's site is easy to maintain by the assistant editor who had no prior background in WWW-publishing. Manuscripts, which can be in English, German or French (notice the difference with the original project's aim), are received in either Word or WordPerfect formats with relatively little markup as required in the Guidelines for Authors. From these originals, after copy-editing, HTML, ASCII and Word and WordPerfect versions are created. In a sense the journal's site is not so much designed for reading, it is rather a medium for distribution. Most readers will probably choose to print out an article after a quick scan of the abstract and the article. Also the choice of public domain solutions again stresses the idea to make the most efficient use of what is available. The Internet is full of building blocks and ideas, don't try to reinvent a wheel others have invented before you. Always keep in mind the specific group you are working for.

The most difficult factor, as rightly foreseen in the project proposal, proves to be the attraction of high quality manuscripts. Three factors are at work here which make this task not easy: (i) a new journal is being published and has to attract authors which would rather publish in well known printed journals with well-known prestige, a new journal has yet to establish its prestige, this can take up to several years to achieve, (ii) not only the journal is new, but there is also a new medium involved, one with whom most authors, and especially established authors, are not yet familiar, (iii) the journal introduces refereeing, a practice not yet too common among legal scholars, and a possible threat for again, especially, established authors.

The only possible way to overcome these hurdles are enthusiastic editors who believe in this new medium and can persuade their peers of the necessity to make this new venture a success because it is in the interest of the profession as a whole, since the existing print information cycle is under threat. Since we are dealing mainly with cultural issues here, editors need in effect to be change agents, willing to make use of their professional networks. In the EJCL project it seems necessary to enhance the editorial board so as to divide this task among more scholars. The focus will be on North American scholars, expected to be more accustomed to self-publishing, and Eastern European scholars, since the outlets for publications are limited in Eastern Europe. Physical contact between editors at least once a year seems also of importance here since the asynchronous communication via mail and WWW is probably not enough to generate the necessary commitment in this culture at this moment. International conferences provide a good and efficient venue for these meetings.

The main discussion point here seems to be whether scholars, whether or not aided by libraries, should become publishers, or that publishing is a trade best left to publishers.

Another discussion point is whether we are able to confront scholars with the consequences of the present system of tenure track decisions. This system is becoming more and more centered around publications in well-established journals with preferably high impact factors. More and more of these publications are in the hands of publishers which to date have done little to alleviate the serials pricing crisis. The logical consequence of this development is the paradox that in a world where more and more knowledge is being produced every day, this knowledge is becoming more and more inaccessible.

Accessibility of knowledge leads us, finally, to the role of libraries. As stated before, cooperation with scholars is a major reason for getting involved in these kinds of projects. Not only to get to know your patrons better, the corollary is that your patrons also get to know the library better and become aware of accessibility issues. Not only librarians, but also scholars will be in a better position to judge their position in the information chain in which they are the beginning (as authors) and the end (as readers). Whether libraries will stay involved in facilitating self-publishing remains to be seen with technology still evolving. Important tasks remain though in the organization and preservation of scholarly information. And in stimulating and facilitating self-publishing in the meantime.


© Hans Roes, 1998