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D-Lib Magazine
October 2003

Volume 9 Number 10

ISSN 1082-9873

On-line Publishing in the 21st Century

Challenges and Opportunities


Geneva Henry
Rice University

Red Line

(This Opinion piece presents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of D-Lib Magazine, its publisher, the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, or its sponsor.)


Nell sat in the corner, opened the book, and started to read. She did not know all of the words, but she knew a lot of them, and when she got tired, the book would help her sound out the words or even read the whole story to her, or tell it to her with moving pictures just like a cine. (Stephenson, 1995, 135)

Our foray into the world of on-line publishing has been both cautious and boldly extravagant, with one foot in a camp of well-established norms and protocols and the other in the experimental, exciting world of new possibilities not previously conceivable before the birth of the Internet—in particular, the Web. When it comes to expressing our thoughts as vividly as we can, not only do we dare to dream, we move ahead, turning our dreams into reality by combining software, text, images, video, and sound to create dynamic expressions of our thoughts and knowledge. Yet, for the most part, we still cling to traditional models of publication, adhering to the protocols and the structures that have grown over 500+ years of printing and disseminating information in the forms of printed books and journals.

At the recent European Conference on Digital Libraries in Trondheim, Norway (ECDL 2003), I heard a panel discussion "The Future of Academic Publishing" during which Michael Mabe from Elsevier Science and David Prosser from SPARC Europe challenged each other's models for subscription-based vs. open access publication, respectively. In a nutshell, their debate boiled down to who should pay for the cost of publication: the consumer (or the consumer's agent such as a library) or the author who desires to be published. Aside from those differences, there was little else I could grasp from the discussion that would indicate a substantial difference between the two models. It seemed more a 20th century debate about electronic publishing than a 21st century debate. I couldn't help thinking about the activities currently underway with scholars and artists who are using the Web for peer-to-peer publication, bypassing traditional publishing channels altogether. It struck me as odd that neither panelist addressed changes in electronic publishing that we are already beginning to experience. Granted, we are at the beginning of these new publishing alternatives, and the transition from old to new models will not occur overnight. We need a 21st century debate that raises challenging questions about how publication is defined and who benefits from it. Today, there is a rich mixing of entertainment and scholarship, with the sharing and collaborative development of new, interesting works for which concepts of ownership and control are no longer well-defined. Today's stakeholders in the publishing world must look to the future, acknowledging new methods for exchanging ideas and creative works over the Internet, if they want to remain players in the evolving on-line publishing movement.

The new world of information exchange is complex; its possibilities are exciting. To understand where publishing is headed, we must not only consider the existing environment defining the roles of authors, consumers, publishers and third-party institutions in the publication process, we must also consider the possibilities of what can be achieved with new technologies that enable the exchange of knowledge and information in unprecedented ways. Understanding these possibilities will enlighten the complexities facing us during the transition to new models of publishing. How will they affect individuals, institutions, communities and society as a whole? What changes to policies and laws will be required? What skills will be needed? Which of today's skills will become obsolete? What will the costs for the new models be? How will the new publishing models be sustained and preserved? Above all, we need to keep in mind the core issue underlying this discussion: regardless of the medium or complexity of publication, what is the best means of managing intellectual capital?

The social infrastructure of publication

To understand who has something to gain or something to lose by adopting one publishing model over another, it is necessary to understand the roles involved with publication and the social infrastructure that is affected by changing publishing approaches. I identify those involved with the publication discussion as members of one or more of the following groups:

  • Authors
  • Publishers
  • Third party institutions
  • Consumers

These roles, however, are not distinct; they intermingle in interesting ways, especially as we traverse from the traditional model of publication to future models for sharing and disseminating knowledge. The variations and dependencies between the old and new account for the difficulties in moving smoothly between the traditional and future models.

With traditional publishing, the publishers have served as honest brokers between authors who wish to disseminate their thoughts, ideas and knowledge and the consumers of those works (readers; learners; in general, interested parties). Third party institutions include the schools, professional organizations, research labs and companies with whom the authors are affiliated. Book stores can also be considered third party institutions, especially more recently where their buying power has provided them with sufficient influence to determine which authors' works are sold to the masses. The relationship of publishers to third party institutions has been one of providing legitimacy for those associated with the institutions and for the institutions themselves, with published authors wearing the mantle of the institution that bestows upon them the integrity and legitimacy by which they are acknowledged in the world at large.

The emergence of the Internet (especially the Web) as an alternative means for disseminating knowledge challenges the relationships that previously existed between these interested parties. As honest brokers of knowledge, publishers have provided peer review of materials authors would like to publish. The author's peers in their respective disciplines are recruited without pay, at no cost to the publisher and through a reward system by the third party institutions with which they are affiliated, to cast a vote of approval or dissention for the work under consideration. This process is long, resulting in delayed publication of new findings. Thus, the rapid sharing of knowledge is compromised. Nonetheless, the integrity of the information is assured through this rigorous process. With the Web, however, authors can publish their findings immediately, with their peers weighing in just as immediately on the legitimacy of the new knowledge. The widespread dissemination afforded by the Internet subjects this knowledge to the scrutiny of many more experts who can confirm or deny the claims of the author. What is still lacking, however, is the legitimacy needed by the third party institutions and the general audience of consumers who are not members of the peer review community.

To combat the failure of Web publications to provide the level of legitimacy demanded by consumers and third party institutions, publishers have maintained in their e-publications all the aspects of traditional print publications. This has trapped publishers in 20th century publishing models; it's time to look ahead. Making articles available online is only a first step in moving toward the possibilities afforded by the Internet. While publishers have been brave in taking this bold first step, they are already being outdistanced by those who are experimenting with new models of publication. Consumers and authors alike have much to gain from the free exchange of knowledge, especially with regard to the intellectual satisfaction of rapidly impacting the growth of enlightenment. I suspect third party institutions may find the legitimacy they seek from their esteemed association with the authors through the increased use and citation of online works; in time, this will replace the measure by which the institutional associates are judged. A void still exists, however, in providing a filter for consumers, who must figure out which findings are legitimate and which are not quite solid. Publishers take note: opportunity knocks.

Role of copyright

Copyright has presented challenges to the world of publication for as long as it has existed. Law has bestowed the ownership of a published work to its author, with all of the inalienable rights that accompany those laws. What constitutes ownership in the world of publication today is not, however, so clear. The US Copyright Act is a complex piece of legislation. It attempts to provide authors with a definition of ownership and rights for managing their works, but it is not always clear in its definitions, as those who have read it will attest. At the base of the law is the notion that authors own the material they record, "in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which [the work] can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device" (Library of Congress, Copyright Office 2000). Ownership suggests that authors have the right to make decisions about how their works can be used. This causes concern for publishers and third party institutions; how can they assure financial and authoritative credits if someone else owns the resources? To protect their investments and credibility, publishers and third party institutions alike presently demand that authors hand over their copyright, precluding original authors from disseminating their works as freely and widely as they may like. In the name of "protection," authors have become little more than necessary resources to keep publishers and associated institutions alive and in business. As long as their institutions continue to associate the authors' value with what and where they have published, there is strong incentive for the authors to bestow the ownership of their works on these entities in order to gain legitimacy. Contrast this with the original intent of copyright.

Article I, section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution grants Congress the power, "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." As legal scholars have pointed out, at the time the Constitution was written, the term "science" referred to knowledge and learning in general. Thus, the purpose of this clause is to ensure that knowledge and learning continue to flourish by encouraging scholars to share their knowledge through published works where the scholars would receive attribution for the discoveries they made (Loren, 2000). It is unlikely the founding fathers intended protection to be synonymous with locking-up knowledge, but today's copyright laws have done just that. In today's world, the term "limited times" has been stretched to mean "extended, infinitely renewable times", and current copyright law seems to assume all authors would like to have their knowledge impounded rather than allow the free and wide distribution of their ideas and discoveries. Furthermore, many publishers and institutions are increasingly demanding that authors assign them their copyright so they can ensure the "protection" of the knowledge the author desires to share widely. It's interesting that the easier it gets to share knowledge (from printing press, to photocopies, to bits), the longer the copyright terms become and the greater the demands of publishers and institutions to hold the copyright rather than allow the author to retain it.

Regardless of the arguments that fly during debates over these topics, the fundamental reason copyright has been so boldly usurped has to do with economics. Publishers and third party institutions want to stay in business. The intellectual capital that keeps them afloat resides with individuals and collaborators, not within their own entity. Publishers have become the gatekeepers of knowledge. They decide what the public will know and how widely it will be disseminated. Third party institutions legitimize this role by recognizing members who are published by the "right" publishers, rewarding them with promotions and tenure, awards of acknowledgement, and honors that accumulate to represent the prestige and legitimacy of the institution. The new author, whether writing for academia or for popular reading, fights an uphill battle to achieve the right to share his or her ideas and discoveries to further advance knowledge and learning. By controlling knowledge, publishers and the institutions that legitimize them can create a demand for the knowledge they claim as theirs, allowing them to extract a price they deem appropriate to make a profit and/or keep them in business as purveyors of the world's finest intellect.

Copyright and the Web have mixed as amicably as oil and water. The ease with which authors can put their works online and share knowledge far and wide clashes severely with the rights asserted by publishers. Did authors realize what rights they were signing away to publishers when they were seeking to gain legitimacy from the third party institutions with which they were associated? Wide dissemination of information is perceived as a serious threat to the publishing world because it means publishers cannot control remunerative compensation for those bits that are traveling to all parts of the globe. In fact, there was a foreshadowing of publishers attempting to control dissemination of content when photocopying debuted. Now that most information is digital, it is even easier to share it. To retain control, the licensing and ownership of content by publishers is increasing. Even authors who have retained the copyright for their works are affected, as they now face a world that is fearful of further sharing the author's knowledge because of the constant threat of lawsuits for infringement of copyright. As James Boyle has noted in his writings, the tragedy of the commons is apparent at a glance in the online world of information (Boyle 2003).

An alternative to traditional copyright

A group of legal scholars, recognizing the absurdity of the evolution of copyright "protections," realized there must be a way for authors to spread their knowledge and ideas far and wide while making it clear to everyone how the material can be used legally. In 2001, the group founded the Creative Commons with the intention of making online information more readily accessible. Creative Commons has developed a set of machine-readable licenses authors can use to share their works with appropriate rights for both authors and consumers. At present, there are Creative Commons licenses available for authors to specify whether they want attribution for the work when it is used, whether the work can be used for commercial purposes, and on what terms the work may be modified. Depending on the choices an author makes in each of these 3 categories, one of 11 machine-readable licenses will be offered to the author to attach to a work so others will know what they are or are not allowed to do with it. Additionally, Creative Commons provides a means for authors to contribute their works to the public domain. When the copyright is donated to the public, no license is involved.

Some publishers—those who want to maintain the traditional 20th century model of publication—will regard this as a threat. However, publishers willing to exploit the possibilities offered by 21st century publishing models will find tremendous opportunities for redefining their role. Content that is clearly available for free that allows commercial use (as is permitted with some of the Creative Commons licenses) is a win-win for everyone. Authors' works can be widely disseminated. Publishers can profit if they find legitimate value-add services to associate with the works. For example, as noted before, filters are needed. Software to read the machine-readable licenses is needed. Value-add services I cannot yet fathom will also undoubtedly be needed.

Collaboration, communities and how we write

"Can it be written on? I should like to inscribe it to Elizabeth."
"The paper is a subclass of both input-paper and output-paper, so it possesses all the underlying functionality of the sort of paper you would write on. For the most part these functions are not used—beyond, of course, simply making marks where the nib of the pen has moved across it."
"You can write on it," Findle-McGraw translated with some asperity, "but it doesn't think about what you're writing."
"Well, my answer to that question must be ambiguous," Hackworth said. "The Illustrated Primer is an extremely general and powerful system capable of more extensive self-reconfiguration than most. Remember that a fundamental part of its job is to respond to its environment. If the owner were to take up a pen and write on a blank page, this input would be thrown into the hopper along with everything else, so to speak."
"Can I inscribe it to Elizabeth or not?" Finkle-McGraw demanded.
"Certainly, sir." (Stephenson, 1995, 95-96)

The traditional publication process does little to encourage communities with shared interests to work together in publishing their knowledge. Yes, there are research publications with multiple authors. But 6 - 8 authors do not constitute a large community. Today it is common for researchers to work with each other across institutions and geographic boundaries. The ability to share knowledge freely, allowing works to be annotated, discussed, reworked and republished is an advantage of online publication over traditional print publication. Shared knowledge results in new ideas, hypotheses, discoveries: the advancement of knowledge. But will authors be motivated to share?

Without doubt, there will be resistance in certain authoring communities. Some authors will still seek the prestige they have come to associate with the publication of their work under the traditional publishing model. Others will fear change or will continue to be held hostage by the traditional publishing norms their institutions have established for judging their worth. Most authors will, however, seek widespread recognition by their peers as contributors to their fields of study or creativity. These authors know that the likelihood of realizing significant financial gain from publishing the definitive work in their field is low. Thus, they are encouraged to collaborate and share knowledge rather than protect it.

He kept flipping through the book, waiting for something to happen.
"It is unlikely to do anything interesting just now," Hackworth said. "It won't really activate itself until it bonds."
"As we discussed, it sees and hears everything in its vicinity," Hackworth said. "At the moment, it's looking for a small female. As soon as a little girl picks it up and opens the front cover for the first time, it will imprint that child's face and voice into its memory..."
"Bonding with her. Yes, I see."
"And thenceforth it will see all events and persons in relation to that girl, using her as a datum from which to chart a psychological terrain, as it were. Maintenance of that terrain is one of the book's primary processes. Whenever the child uses the book, then, it will perform a sort of dynamic mapping from the database onto her particular terrain." (Stephenson, 1995, 94)

As authors take advantage of the way they can communicate online, they are finding it is possible to communicate much more effectively by incorporating simulations, images, audio and video in their works. This promotes further collaboration as knowledge creation becomes a team effort, with programmers, artists, and multimedia specialists working with the author, who is trying to find the best way of delivering his or her message to interested parties.

Interactive content not only conveys knowledge in new and exciting ways, it has a property that can be a bit unnerving for the publisher whose thinking is still based on 20th century models: by its very nature, interactive content cannot be static. Thus, traditional publishers are limited in what they can do with these works. To address the interactive nature of an online publication, some publishers are beginning to issue CDs with their print publications, enabling interactive elements to be captured for the consumer. However, more and more, authors are working in the "web" of collaboration, with works not being self-contained; they link to other resources that help to complete the message the author wishes to convey. New forms of dynamic publication come much closer to approximating a dialog, engaging consumers in the work by inviting feedback and allowing them to derive new works from ideas expressed online.

In education, attempts are being made to understand readers so that materials can be customized to meet the individual needs of learners.

The Primer didn't speak to her as often as it used to. She had found that she could often read the words more quickly than the book spoke them, and so she usually ordered it to be silent. She often put it under her pillow and had it read her bedtime stories, though, and sometimes she even woke up in the middle of the night and heard it whispering things to her that she had just been dreaming about. (Stephenson, 1995, 167)

The spectrum of shared online content traverses the publishing continuum, with some projects simply collecting existing Web resources and providing services to help users explore relevant sites for their use in education (e.g., the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), while others provide free access to full courses an institution has developed (e.g., Open CourseWare (OCW). One project has ventured further along the spectrum, providing a repository of openly licensed content where knowledge is "chunked" into modules, with each module representing a single concept. That project is Connexions.

In Connexions, knowledge modules can be reused, modified, and placed in different contexts to meet the overall objectives of an instructor. Available to anyone, anywhere, at no charge, Connexions provides an environment for creating and managing knowledge at levels at which authors can demonstrate their true expertise. By collaborating both within and across disciplines, communities of authors work together to pool their expertise so that courses, created by stringing together knowledge chunks, are authored by many, with each author receiving attribution for his or her contributions. Information can be modified under an open license to tailor the material for the audiences of learners. This approach invites contributions by authors, whether they are senior or novice, recognizing that each may have valuable insights that will advance overall knowledge and learning. In this environment, the peer review communities collaborate directly with each other, modifying contributions as they go and keeping the knowledge current. Authoring becomes a much simpler task. Rather than write an entire book or article, individuals can write on a single topic in which they are expert. Reuse of knowledge is encouraged and new ideas can readily evolve without waiting for the long pre-publication peer review process to take place. While initially focused on creating customizable courses, the Connexions concept works just as well for the publication of research articles. As new findings are published, the relevant concepts can be picked up by multiple disciplines that may be affected and can be quickly integrated into the curriculum or used in further research activities to promote new discoveries at an increasing pace.

With a view to incorporating "lenses" that will filter the content according to a preferred view (e.g., recommendations of a professional organization or recognized authority), Connexions challenges traditional publishing models by relying on post-publication peer review. While this approach is not new to the software development community where it has proven to be successful in open source software development, it is new to content. How will someone be able to confirm the validity of the content if anyone can contribute? For peers in a scholarly discipline, it is easy to collaborate and judge materials in their field. After all, they are the peer review process that has already been in place for traditional publishing. For the public at large, however, the availability of trusted lenses for looking at materials in the repository will be important. There is value in a lens. Will publishers find ways to redefine themselves to work in this new environment of shared knowledge? Trying to maintain 20th century publishing models will not stop the wave that is sweeping new scholarly publication processes already underway. Will publishers—and libraries—find a way to fit in?


Any discussion of publishing models will inevitably lead to the very real, very bottom-line concern: who will pay? Regardless of the medium, regardless of the licensing, regardless of the interactive vs. static content, there are costs. No publishing model is free. Online publications require financial resources to sustain an infrastructure of equipment, software and basic services and to ensure that intellectual resources will be available well into the future. The traditional publication models have the cost issue all worked out; thus, they challenge the new approaches that are emerging. It is important to note, however, that these challenges are not stopping the rapidly evolving behavior of those wishing to advance knowledge and learning by freely sharing their knowledge.

Starting a new direction, if deemed viable, can have the advantage of attracting philanthropic funds to support initial startups. Philanthropic funding is even more likely when it is possible to demonstrate the feasibility of achieving a noble objective such as the free exchange of information to improve societies around the globe that have previously been unable to share in the wealth that results from advances in knowledge and learning. Foundations such as The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have been extraordinarily generous in their support for new projects that might demonstrate new ways of providing knowledge globally to enlighten and advance civilization. Expecting philanthropic organizations to sustain these projects, however, is unreasonable. So the question remains: what is the sustaining model that will ensure the longevity of new publication models where neither authors nor consumers should be expected to shoulder the costs?

It is possible to re-examine the roles involved in the social infrastructure of publication when the motivations are free, collaborative development and sharing of knowledge vs. protection of knowledge. Authors and consumers will align to focus on sharing and evolving knowledge. At micro, distributed levels, the costs each bears for sustaining their own individual infrastructure is tolerable. For third party institutions and publishers, however, the greater value comes in the management of knowledge environments where aggregation is more readily facilitated and services can be provided that enhance the free exchange of knowledge. In this view, the knowledge repositories become valuable assets on which the publishers and third party institutions are dependent for their continued growth. Without ever-evolving knowledge, which leads to new innovations, the publishers and third party institutions will wither. This is true, however, only if it is possible to define the new services that can be provided in this new publication model. If they can be defined, providers of valued offerings will be motivated to sustain the new model.

Until the question of sustaining support can be answered, traditional publishers will continue to insist that the newer models of sharing knowledge are flawed. On the question of sustaining support, unfortunately I have no silver bullet to offer at this time. There are opportunities, some identifiable now, but likely many more that will only be realized by creative entrepreneurs who will find more than cerebral gains in exploiting the free sharing of knowledge. If today's publishers continue to point to the problems rather than looking for ways to benefit from the emerging publication paradigm, they will miss their opportunity to play in the publishing world of the 21st century. It's a gamble.


While the debate has been raging over who should pay for publication—authors or consumers—the focus of those two groups has changed. With the possibilities enabled by the Internet, authors and consumers are realizing the greater benefits to be gained by freely sharing their knowledge. Learning can occur more effectively and efficiently when knowledge is tailored to the needs of the consumer. We cannot afford to let new discoveries to be hampered by delayed publication of findings. Collaboration allows communities to form to share their knowledge in new ways that no one individual would previously have conceived. Is this an altruistic vision that will never be realized? Is there a role for traditional publishers in helping to make this vision a reality? The answer will not come tomorrow or next week. In time, however, we will all understand a new publishing model that we are only beginning to move towards. The final shape is yet to be determined. It will require answers to the unsolved problems of sustainability, preservation, and value-add services needed to support this altruistic vision. These are exciting times to be alive and aware of the emerging means of exchanging knowledge. Opportunities abound. Recognizing that we don't have all the answers right now is the first step to finding them in the future.

"[T]he difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward."
"In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. Your life up to this point has given you all of the experience you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent, and then, a few years down the road, you will probably give me cause to wish I were several decades younger"
The Constable turned and walked back into his house, leaving Nell alone in the garden, pondering the meaning of that last statement. She supposed it was the sort of thing she might understand later, when she had become intelligent. (Stephenson, 1995, 256-257)


Boyle, J. 2003. "The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain." In Law & Contemporary Problems, 63(33), 33-74, February 2003. <>.

Library of Congress, Copyright Office 2000. Circular 92. Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws. Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code, June 2003, <>.

Loren, L. P. 2000. "The Purpose of Copyright" [Electronic Version]. In Open Spaces Quarterly, 2(1), February 7, 2000, <>.

Stephenson, N. 1995. The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. (New York: Bantam Books).

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DOI: 10.1045/october2003-henry