Cyberspace as an Academic Publishing Medium: Observations and Proposals

by Steve McCarty

Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan

President, World Association for Online Education

E-mail: | Online Publications

First of all it is my exquisite honor to thank the Editor, Dr. Julia "Evergreen" Keefer, and New York University for hosting this journal in a collegial relationship with the World Association for Online Education.

This essay does not aim to incorporate the experience of other scholars, compilations of which are readily available elsewhere online [1]. It will be seen here that many problems and gray areas remain before Academia is fully reconstituted in cyberspace. Yet even by acknowledging failures of online publications thus far to attain the substantiality of print publishing, standards can be discerned that would prevent future problems and provide guidelines for online journals in particular. For the substantiality of the print medium is not an absolute but rather a perception that will change as the terrain of this new frontier comes into focus.

In ancient China the medium of choice for the poet Han Shan was the bark of trees, yet others recognized the value of his message and transcribed it to other media where its influence lives on in Zen. By comparison, it can be predicted that the online medium, with its unprecented power to overcome time and space, to provide access and opportunities for action, and to amplify the message of those who have not only technical knowledge but something to say, will supersede previous media as the meeting place of human minds.

Yet for the time being various media will co-exist, like colors in a spectrum, their boundaries depending not on the reified features of objects in themselves but rather upon the perceptual apparatus and purposes of the perceiver. Nonetheless, one issue in transferring academic standards to cyberspace will be where to draw the line between media so as to establish a workable relationship among their contents. For academic purposes cyberspace will likely be seen as consisting of an increasing number of media, and the articulation of their interoperability will bear on the enduring value of their contents.

In the specifics that follow, the reader is asked to reflect on media as such along with the criteria that distinguish one medium from another. The main proposal here will be a one publication per medium rule that is arguably needed to bring academic rigor to cyberspace. As a rule of thumb, that is, the same publication may appear in different media but only at one location in each, also taking issues of accessibility and scale into account. Readers will no doubt arrive at different conclusions, as this essay is exploratory and more suggestive than exhaustive. The synthesis by each reader, however, and the continuing dialogue that results will be a measure of the contribution made here.

Actual experiences will illustrate the issues involved, but especially since hindsight eases clarity, no criticism of pioneer efforts is intended, so the publications discussed are not named.

Overcoming Ephemerality in Online Publications

The mutability of cyberspace can be an advantage over the print medium, where language education journal X distributed to 3,500 members misspelled my name throughout and promises to acknowledge the error--over three years after the article was submitted.

Electronic journal A in a public university system published one of my articles three weeks after submission and the completion of a peer review process. Yet the same journal later similarly accepted two of my papers, but a year and a half afterwards my enquiries drew no indication that the journal could still be considered a periodical.

Electronic literary magazine B at a state college published my articles in the series they requested as quickly as the day after submission, then added graphic embellishments and changes over time that would not have been possible with a print magazine. Links were made to the articles from universities in Europe, Australia and so forth. But then suddenly most of B was taken off the Web entirely, without any notification to this author.

A mainly K-12 educational technology Web publishing project C changed the URL of my article when it passed into their archives, again without informing the author.

When researchers click on ostensible links from many Websites recommending a certain article, they get the 404 message instead. So the academic sector of cyberspace is anything but seamlessly interconnected. The changed URLs and pages taken off the Web increase over time, much faster than authors can be expected to find out about the changes, find out where links have been made, and persuade the latter Website maintainers to change the URLs or remove the links. Therefore it is proposed that academic publications going online uphold a commitment to remaining available online, with URLs planned carefully in the first place so as not to need changing at a later stage.

URLs of the entire proceedings of annual online academic conference D changed after 1996 and 1997, and it should not have been necessary if the URLs had been planned to remain valid in the future. Search engines are thrown into chaos, and authors not informed tend to think that their papers are off the Web. This compounds another problem, where authors post their papers published elsewhere at their own Websites as well. Unless the original publication has actually been taken off the Web, this can be seen as a violation of academic standards, not merely as a vanity rationalized by quicker access for users near the home institution. For researchers need to cite the original source, even though they must cite the source they actually use. When they cite sources using a style guide for online publications such as those of the MLA or APA, their research can be compromised by not citing the original source URL.

In one instance, many of our papers at the first annual online academic conference D were mirrored without permission at a leading graduate school of education. The professor in charge completely agreed with my analysis and issued a letter of apology for the inadvertent violation by a graduate student of the ethics of attribution. Although the papers were removed from their Website, they remained in search engine databases for many months thereafter.

A letter of thanks from a Japanese linguist was the happy ending in another case where a professor in a nearby country had been copying reference Websites from the U.S. and Japan to his server. For an online seminar based at the University of London I explained the issues and how to catch plagiarism online [2].

All these things considered, as a general rule it is proposed that academic publications appear at only one unchanging location in a certain medium such as at a WWW URL. This means that originally print publications may be posted on the Web, or vice versa, provided that they are prefaced by the complete publication details of the original source. Yet still researchers should cite the URL if they did not first use the print publication. Only one URL is the correct or original source in a certain electronic medium for citation in scholarly research. However, if one's article in an electronic publication is removed from the medium, it is all right to post the article at another location, provided it is prefaced by the publication details of the original online publication. But then not the defunct URL but rather the new one would be cited by researchers.

There are a number of gray areas, to be sure, and there is the question of whether or not multimedia means that cyberspace consists of many media. It would be permissible in this view for an online publication to be read aloud in streaming audio or video accessed elsewhere on the Web or, as another example, rendered into a form more accessible to the sight-impaired. CD-ROM publications would be considered a different medium from the Web. It can be considered the same publication no matter the typeface, whether it is read aloud or translated into another language, provided as always that the original source is identified. That is, basically if words are used to convey certain meanings, then there is a sameness beyond the medium or the version accessed. But where images [cf. 3] or the presentation itself is an integral part of the meaning, then a qualitative difference could be discerned. At the very least, however, a plurality of versions of the same presentation would tend to make the application of academic criteria more complex.

Scale and access also complicate matters. An article may be reprinted from a print newsletter to a print publication of much greater scale if it deserves to be more widely accessible, but not very well the other way around. Many print journals have been limited in accessibility, particularly to members of a certain academic organization, and the financial aspect has tended to divide potential learners into privileged and disadvantaged classes. The WWW holds great promise to overcome this division, but access to the Internet itself and language barriers are not the only obstacles. An increasing part of the Web is not worldwide but open only to paying users, somewhat the way Internet technology is used to make an Intranet. Rather than privileged groups as if huddling in tidepools inaccessible to or from the ocean, one interconnected system with instantaneous access to needed knowledge would be in the best interests of humanity.

A murky example holds currently with the proceedings of the latest online academic conference D. The conference changed to a paying format, limited mostly to those willing to give a U.S. dollar credit card number electronically, resulting in a less international conference than the previous year. The proceedings were password-protected, with presentations available to a much smaller and more privileged audience. Then after about four months the password protection was lifted, but there has been no indication that the intention was to open the knowledge to the world.

My presentations to conference D have, without permission of the organizers, been accepted by three ERIC Clearinghouses, not so much asserting my individual copyright but on the principle that the medium is completely different. The presentations appear in one place on the Web and are processed in other ways by ERIC. One same publication per medium is the rule, but if a publication uses electronic technology but is not accessible on the scale of the World-Wide Web, the decision becomes more difficult in such a gray area.

Concluding Remarks

An ethical decision for a scholar is fallible and represents one's best attempt at a Platonic good, unlike the absolutistic certitude of a would-be saint. It is possibly out of simple ignorance of economic imperatives, but my writings are not intended to be commodities sold to those who least need the stimulus; they are meant for the world and to evoke the widest response thereof.

If nought else, this testimonial may be indicative of the work facing the World Association for Online Education. Among the ways to turn online education into a professional discipline, academic standards and ethics need to be applied to cyberspace, as suggested in this article, to establish the equivalency of scholarship irrespective of the medium. Therefore please keep the dialogue going.


1. Bailey, C. (22 July 1998). "Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography." University of Houston [WWW document]. URL

2. McCarty, S. (1 December 1997). "Academic Websites subject to Attribution Ethics." Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London: Humanist Discussion Group, 11 (433) [WWW document]. URL

3. Flanders, J. (1998). Trusting the Electronic Edition. Computers and the Humanities, 31 (4), 301-310.

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