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Electronic journals and proceedings: Is there a future for small publishers?

Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University
Clare McBeath
Faculty of Education, Curtin University of Technology
Although many scholarly journals and conference proceedings owe their origins to professional societies, much of this kind of publishing has been relinquished to large scale commercial publishers. However, the rapidly growing acceptance of Internet based delivery of journals and proceedings now offers societies a unique opportunity to retain their publishing activities, on a small but viable and sustainable scale.

This article reviews the diverse perspectives upon electronic journals and proceedings held by readers, authors, professional societies, libraries and publishers. As many people have concerns about excessive amounts of screen reading, we adopt the perspective that a designer's role is to facilitate easy selection of preferred options, including whether to convert to hard copy or not. Authors have interests in facilitating the widest possible readership for their work, and in the amount of prestige associated with a publisher and the media of publication. We consider also the perspectives of librarians, professional societies, academics who serve as honorary editors and reviewers, and the commercial publishers which own many of the most prestigious titles.

For small scale, society based publishing, electronic journals and proceedings reduce the delays and expenses associated with conventional publishing. Internet delivery offers an immense increase in potential audience compared with the relatively small numbers of hardcopies distributed to society members, to participants in a particular conference, and to libraries.


Scholarly communications in the form of journals and conference proceedings are vital activities for teachers and researchers in many areas of education and training. The journals and conference proceedings which we read are key parts of our personal professional development. The articles which we write for publication are a core component of our professional output. Furthermore, many of us have other kinds of involvements with scholarly publishing, as reviewers of submissions, as members of editorial boards, conference organising committees or the publications committees of a professional society, or as workers upon editorial and business management tasks, or as librarians.

Like many other aspects of our working environment, journals and conference proceedings are being subject to powerful change agents. In this session we review the transition of journal and conference publishing, from hardcopy to electronic, with particular reference to futures for small scale publishers. We draw upon our experiences with two journals, the Australian Journal of Educational Technology [1] and Issues In Educational Research [2], and with a number of conference proceedings [3], to illustrate the potential and the pitfalls.

Perspectives and attitudes

If you ask colleagues about electronic journals, the likeliest initial reaction is a negative comment or personal opinion about screen reading. Perhaps the majority attitude at present is a dislike for screen reading and a preference for paper based reading. If you probe your colleagues a bit further, other attitudes and perspectives of a personal nature are likely to emerge and complicate matters. For example, you may encounter comments about ease of access, facilities for locating relevant articles, the level of prestige accorded to particular journals, the amount of rubbish published on the Internet, and from some colleagues, the amount of valuable, unpaid time they expend upon refereeing or other tasks in scholarly publishing.

Whilst these are important issues from an individual or personal perspective, we must consider also the perspectives of authors, professional societies, libraries and commercial publishers. Scholarly publishing is a large scale, globalised industry dominated by commercial publishers, to which in most cases we interface via our libraries. Individual readers, authors, professional societies and libraries have relatively little influence, although as we propose later in this article, collective efforts based upon electronic publishing offer scope for small scale publishers.

Individual perspectives and attitudes towards electronic publishing depend upon an individual's interpretation of the concept. Diversity rules, and electronic publishing may encompass several kinds of storage media, a range of delivery mechanisms, a variety of editorial policies, and diverse approaches to the funding of services. Even the name "electronic publishing" isn't uniquely established, as some or even many may prefer an alternative term, for example "digital" or "online" or "ejournal" publishing. However, in accord with our context, relating in particular to the futures for small scale publishers, we can sharpen the focus upon certain technical features of electronic publishing which help to define the concept:

  1. The recording medium is the hard disk of an Internet connected server. Other media, including CD-ROM and print on paper, may have a complementary or supplementary role, but in the context of "small scale", the hard disk is, or will become, the primary or even sole medium for many journals and conference proceedings. Hard disks offer the lowest costs for small scale publishing.

  2. The delivery mechanism is an Internet connected world wide web server, although postal delivery of hardcopy or CD may have a supplementary role. The web server may offer files in one or more formats, for example HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), PDF (Adobe's Page Description Format), ASCII ("plain text") or Word (Microsoft Corporation). In the context of "small scale" and "Internet based", HTML is the strongly preferred or even overwhelmingly preferred format. It offers the easiest access for the largest number of readers with the most economical amount of work upon production and distribution.

  3. Typically, though not universally, the orientation of electronic publishing is towards document delivery. The display mechanism for reading an Internet delivered document is a separate matter under the control of the readers. The reader's selection may be whichever one of "screen reading of print" or "hardcopy (paper) reading of print" he or she may prefer for any particular article at that particular time. Furthermore, depending on editorial decisions by the publisher and designer, readers may be given control over many details of the settings for document display, including font type, font size, font colour, page background colour and line length.

  4. Electronic publishing enables a number of kinds of electronic searching. Typically, readers may search for words within a document, for words within a set of documents (for example within all issues of a particular journal, or a conference proceedings) and within catalogues (for example, a library's catalogue or subject guide for serials), or readers may search the Internet more generally. Usually the publisher's web site provides the facility searching within a journal or proceedings, whilst other kinds of searching require collaboration with libraries and operators of Internet search engines (Atkinson, 1999).
The technical features identified above have far reaching implications upon the parties to publishing activities. Whilst these are discussed below, it's important to remember that in many non-technical respects, electronic publishing differs little from traditional scholarly publishing. For example, the processes of peer review (Roberts, 1999), and the styles and conventions of writing for academic journals and conference proceedings, are mainly independent of the medium of publication. This is especially the case with journals having both print and web versions, for example AJET [1] and IIER [2]. Whilst some electronic only journals have experimented with technologically mediated, alternative approaches to peer review, for example JIME [4], most have adopted traditional procedures.

Readers and authors

In response to the concerns which many people express about excessive amounts of screen reading, we promote the perspective that a designer's role is to facilitate rather than dictate the reader's options. The most contentious option, "screen versus print", is not an especially momentous problem. Typically, we locate important documents on the basis of a considerable amount of scanning of titles, abstracts, and parts of articles. We can expect that readers will do their literature scanning on screen, whilst they reserve the creation of hardcopy for the relatively small proportion of articles which match their interests and therefore warrant in depth study.

The core of the problem is not the "screen versus print" option offered to readers of electronic publishing. As discussed below, the core of the problem is traditional publishers failing to provide readers with screen options, or if Internet based delivery is available, restricting it by imposing unreasonably high charges. A related problem, especially for small scale publishers, is the high cost of producing and distributing print versions compared with electronic versions.

Reader controlled options in electronic publishing may include selection of font type, font size, font colour, page background colour and line length. This should make matters easier for publishers and designers. For example, it is not necessary to worry about deciding whether to publish in a serif font such as Times or Palatino, or a sans serif font such as Ariel or Helvetica. Readers may choose whichever font suits them, and also they may choose its size and adjust line length, within the limits of their screen's display capabilities. However, some or even many publishers appear to be uncomfortable over this degree of reader control, which contrasts markedly with the strict controls which publishers can maintain over "appearance" in traditional, page oriented hardcopy publishing. Publishers and designers may make editorial decisions to restrict the reader's control over format details, for example by giving font face instructions to the reader's web viewing software, or by adopting Adobe's PDF format. But whatever you do, you won't please everyone (see Figure 1: Signs of the times 1), so why not give the readers maximum possible room to please themselves?

"In general, electronic journals still do not support the tasks which users perform and tend to be negatively perceived. Because journal publishers tend to be author-oriented, they have ignored the human factors literature and produced electronic journals for which there is little demand.... electronic journals may well turn out to be no more than an expensive experiment, the cost of which will almost certainly be passed on to the consumer....
[list of headings]
People don't like reading from screens
People like to annotate
People know how to manipulate paper
People don't read journals at their desk
People don't sit still while they read
People like to browse
People don't necessarily want to [do] searches
People like to find things by accident
People use more than the current issue
People like stability" (McKnight, 1997)

Figure 1: Signs of the times 1 (quoted from McKnight, 1997)

Electronic publishing can provide unique and attractive services to readers. Electronic searching is now well known, and every journal and conference proceedings site should have its own search facility because most readers will expect it, even though they may not require it on every occasion. Website design should facilitate the reader's saving of a personal copy if desired. Other services or design details we have experience with include:

  1. the use of a "Please cite as" footer for every article. The reader can copy and paste a reference citation instead of having to do their own typing.
  2. use of an email list server to maintain a list of subscribers, that is persons who will receive emailed notifications of new issues or other important announcements, for example Murdoch University's E Law is supported by the email list elaw-j [5].
  3. zip files, which comprise all of the files for a particular issue in a compressed format, are a useful option for some readers who wish to obtain an entire issue for offline browsing, for example AJET offers an option to obtain each issue as a zip file [1].
One service with which we have no experience to date is the use of Adobe's PDF format. This is because no reader or author has asked for this format to be made available for any of the journal and proceedings publications we have worked on. However, some sites offer the reader a selection of HTML or PDF, for example Journal of Instructional Science and Technology [6], whilst some offer web delivered PDF only, for example HERDSA 1999 [7] and VALA 2000 [8].

In addition to their interests as readers, authors are interested in the widest possible readership for their work, and in the amount of prestige associated with a publisher and the media of publication. The evidence is circumstantial - who has ever encountered an author complaining seriously about having too many readers (which is different from too many students)? If electronic publishing expands their readership, that's fine. If dual electronic and print expands their readership more than one medium alone, that's even better.

However, there are some problems with the status of Internet based publishing. Popular search engines are likely to find large amounts of irrelevant or even offensive rubbish, which tends to detract from the status of an Internet delivered journal - some kind of guilt by association. Nevertheless, this circumstance may present an opportunity for professional societies and their collaborators in libraries and elsewhere. Many would identify with the way in which Holling (2000) characterises this opportunity. Holling stated that one of the aims for the ejournal Conservation Ecology, which is sponsored worldwide by a number of kindred societies, is to "...nurture a quiet, reliable eddy of quality knowledge in the midst of the turbulent storm of junk on the Internet".

Another kind of status problem arises from the historical development of publishing in scholarly journals. Who wants to publish in a little known, newly established electronic journal? Naturally enough, authors prefer to publish their work, if they can, in the most prestigious, most widely read, best known and often the oldest journals in their subject specialisation. Also naturally enough, these journals tend to have the most expensive subscription rates, set by large scale commercial publishers. The author's institutional library may be unable to afford a subscription! This dilemma, although catalysed by the new technologies, is not a technological matter. It relates to the diverse non-technical perspectives outlined below, and it cannot be resolved by technologies alone, although the new technologies may be a major facilitator for competition against expensive journals.

Professional societies

Although many scholarly journals and conference proceedings owe their origins to professional societies, much or even most of this kind of publishing has been taken over by large scale commercial publishers. Some Australian societies, for example HERDSA [9] (Ling and Martin, 1997) and the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) [10], have "outsourced" their journals to a commercial publisher. Likewise, some university based journals have been taken over by commercial publishers, for example Continuum [11], originated at Murdoch University in 1987, and Australian Feminist Studies [12], originated at the University of Adelaide in 1985. Some journals have undergone little change, for example ODLAA's journal Distance Education [13], which has only contents pages and abstracts online, with no full text of articles.

Other journals, including ASET and ASCILITE's AJET [1], and IIER [2] published by the state based Institutes of Education, are seeking a renewed viability as small scale publishers. Their principal strategy for viability is to use to the utmost the unique opportunities given to small scale publishers by electronic publishing. There are numerous models and perspectives. For example:

Professional societies need to consider the perspectives illustrated above. The trend towards electronic journals is clear. A society's journal may represent valuable property, especially if it has been in publication for many years. In some or many cases, the "important attributes" contributed by a society and its members to their paper journal, through editing, reviewing and writing, are readily transferable to an electronic version. If they outsource to a commercial publisher, they may continue to do much the same work through editing, reviewing and writing, still unpaid, whilst incurring the anguish of their librarians, concerned with "prohibitively priced commercial journals". So, is "do it yourself" a viable option?

There is considerable variation. Some of the world's largest societies, for example the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE) [15], Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) [16] and the Institution for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) [17], operate on a scale which is large enough to retain their own publishing activities. These societies, and many others both large and small, may use their publishing activities as an avenue for retaining and expanding their memberships, including the granting of special electronic access privileges - see Figure 2: Signs of the times 2.

Several of AACE's MSET and SITE conference proceedings volume are online at The file format is Adobe's PDF and each conference volume is a large single file, for example the SITE (Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education) Proceedings Book amounts to 13,449 kB at address (the printed version is nearly 2000 pages).

Although a separate table of contents is available (408 kB), access to any article requires downloading the full Book. Since a download of over 13 MB may be too much for many would be readers, an alternative is warranted. And AACE duly provides an alternative - a CD. The catch is simple:

"...Join Today! All current members as of Feb. 15, 2000 will receive this CD as a special gift from AACE." [ accessed 15 Feb 2000].

Figure 2: Signs of the times 2. A society membership drive.

In the case of smaller societies, "free to the Internet" sites may serve more effectively as advertisements for the societies, compared with their potential service as inducements to purchase membership in order to obtain access, or as revenue raising agents. This because many of the smaller societies face competition from larger, similar societies, usually US based. One very useful point is that "hit count" data from their journal site can reassure societies that they are obtaining a good level of very low cost advertising - see Figure 3: Signs of the times 3.

AJET hit count
Date Home pageVol 16 (00)Vol 15 (99)Vol 14 (98)Vol 13 (97)Search
1 April 1999 13533--31834029-
3 Aug 1999 18146-1921517339811058
2 Dec 1999 23150-4252640848742099
4 Apr 2000 29248-7267768258093478
1 May 2000 30869-8079804461113887
29 May 2000 324782688562830063384215
5 Jun 2000 327953418630834563724286
12 Jun 2000 331354028701838264054361
19 Jun 2000 334734798777842764424432
26 Jun 2000 337955438850847364724496
IIER hit count
Date Home pageVol 9 (99)Vol 8 (98)Vol 7 (97)Search
12 Apr 1999 3849-1341887412
3 Aug 1999 5353-20641339949
6 Dec 1999 7588-310419541747
4 Apr 2000 106761057427526702712
1 May 2000 115061451453628942971
29 May 2000 121951733473330553202
5 Jun 2000 123651802478130943262
12 Jun 2000 125631895483231413318
19 Jun 2000 127621981489531923385
26 Jun 2000 129572059495232363437

Figure 3: Signs of the times 3. Selected hit count data for AJET [1] and IIER [2]

Professional societies often have a second avenue of publication available in their annual or biennial conferences. Many appear online, for example see "Proceedings available online" [3]. The numbers of articles published via society conference proceedings may be substantially greater than the numbers published in society journals. In some cases the standard and nature of the process for reviewing and accepting or rejecting presentations and their associated articles may be almost indistinguishable from the corresponding processes for a research oriented journal. In other cases the selection process may be much less restrictive and more oriented towards topicality and potential for interactive discussion and debate than towards research oriented, "new knowledge" criteria.

One key difference between journal and conference proceedings is that the latter enables the charging of authors for the opportunity to publish. Typically, if you don't pay conference registration, you don't get published. By contrast, traditional journal publishing does not charge authors, which may be one of the reasons for authors continuing to support prestigious, established journal titles, in spite of the crises in funding of their library's subscriptions (Butler, 1999). There is also "...the tremendous inertia of the scholarly community, which impedes the transition to free or inexpensive electronic journals." (Odlyzyko, 1999). It is difficult for a new, electronic only journal to compete effectively against established journals and popular conferences (Sosteric, 1998). It's probable that many ejournals have attained only disappointing outcomes (Kiernan, 1999). Occasionally you may encounter a new electronic journal apparently stalled forever at Volume 1, Issue 1, for example as is currently the case with websites [18], [19] and [20].

Conferences and conference proceedings provide societies with an income stream and source of new memberships. In particular, with income from conference registrations, proceedings publications may be more readily funded, compared with journals. In some cases there may be significant savings made by printing only abstracts, whilst full text is available only from the website or a subset of the proceedings selected for hardcopy or CD reproduction, for example, ASET-HERDSA 2000 [21] and TL Forum 2000 [22]. However, major publishers may become competitors in feeding upon the link between conferences and publication of proceedings - see Signs of the times 4.

For an example of a major publisher moving into the organisation of conferences, in addition to their activities in publication of conference proceedings, see:

CAL2001 (Computers and Learning 2001)

convened by Elsevier Science UK, at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, for 2-4 April 2001.

Figure 4: Signs of the times 4. A publisher's move...


Consider the perspectives of librarians, caught in escalating costs as publishers extract monopoly benefits from prestigious titles, facing increasing demands for new kinds of electronic services to readers, and often expected to take some kind of leadership in facilitating transitions to electronic publishing and information retrieval. Here is a brief sample of librarian's views: From the extensive literature on the crisis in scholarly journals, we gain a subjective impression that professional societies and academic libraries ought to be natural allies. We sense that many in the library sector feel that societies should not have capitulated and sold out to commercial publishers of journals (though this criticism is rarely made explicitly). Some or even many opportunities have been lost for new kinds of partnerships to promote a new wave of Internet based scholarly publishing, with integration of editorial, production and information retrieval processes.

Some publishing units owned by university libraries and nonprofit publishers, for example Highwire Press of the Stanford University Libraries [23], Digital Library and Archives by Virginia Tech Libraries [24], Annual Reviews [25], and National Academy Press [26] (Kline Pope, 1999) are making notable efforts to develop large scale, free to the Internet electronic publishing.

One especially significant way in which libraries can help the small scale publisher is by maintaining specialised, online catalogues to help readers to locate journals and conference proceedings. In our context, listings by ACER [27] and the National Library of Australia [28] are especially important (Atkinson, 1999).


Commercial publishing houses have a powerful grip upon electronic publishing through ownership of large numbers of established, prestigious journals. However, their hold upon authors, editors and editorial boards may be weakened if they don't exercise restraint on subscription rates, if they fail to deliver electronic versions in a reasonable way, and if the Internet based alternatives to commercial publishing expand their bridgeheads. Nevertheless, some publishers have taken radical steps in adopting free to the Internet methods. Here are some illustrative quotations:

The opportunities

From this wide diversity of case studies and perspectives, we can identify some unique features which ensure a future for small scale electronic publishing of journals and proceedings by professional societies. Internet delivery offers an immense increase in potential audience compared with the relatively small numbers of hardcopies distributed to society members, to participants in a particular conference, and to libraries.

Small scale electronic journals may increase their readership by securing listings in library catalogues, submitting URLs to Internet search engines, and using emailing lists for publicity (Atkinson, 1999). For small publishers, electronic journals and proceedings can reduce delays caused by waiting for enough articles to fill a hardcopy issue, substantially reduce the costs of production and distribution, decrease the requirements for honorary or unpaid labour, and offer scope for judicious combinations of hardcopy and electronic versions.

However, are we, in our various professional societies, being effective in overcoming conservatism or indifference towards electronic publishing? (see Figure 5: Signs of the times 5). Will we surrender our initial lead in using the Internet for society and university based scholarly publishing to the large commercial publishers? How do we act, or should we act, to subdue the e-commerce aspect of e-publishing and promote the e-learning and e-scholarship aspects?

Society committees and editorial boards?

I belong to the committees of the professional societies which publish IIER [2] and AJET [1]. I desk top publish IIER's print version and prepare the HTML files for the web version. I am joint editor elect, and will take over the editorship with Dr Tony Featherstone for the next edition of IIER. I am on the editorial board of AJET, do some of the reviewing and assist Roger Atkinson with the HTML files for the online publication.

My two roles as a hands-on worker in publishing and as a committee member do not blend as closely as perhaps they should. I feel that our committees are not sufficiently interested in using our publications to promote the professional endeavours and needs of our members. How the publications are produced, who does what, how much work is involved, or even how much they cost, doesn't seem to interest the committees. It would be a pity if indifference leads to yet another "outsourcing" to Carfax of the Taylor and Francis conglomerate.

In the same way, editorial boards, do not appear interested in how the Journal is published, what goes in it, or how the editor goes about the business of selecting papers. Considering that we earn RPI points (from the DETYA Mechanism B funding) for belonging to editorial boards, I am rather dismayed at the lack of involvement required of members of editorial boards.


Figure 5: Signs of the times 5. Societies struggle.... (Clare McBeath, May 2000)


  1. Australian Journal of Educational Technology (AJET).
  2. Issues In Educational Research (IIER).
  3. Proceedings available online. A brief listing for some Australian and New Zealand professional society conferences in the past decade.
  4. Journal of Interactive Media in Education (JIME). Open University, UK. "JIME's innovative review environment gives us an opportunity to redesign the conventional journal review model to be more open, responsive and dynamic."
  5. E Law, Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law.
  6. Journal of Instructional Science and Technology.
  7. HERDSA Conference 1999.
  8. VALA 2000.
  9. HERDSA's journal Higher Education Research and Development. and
  10. ATEM (Association for Tertiary Education Management) Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.
  11. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. Initiated at Murdoch University in 1987, Continuum has 15 of its first 16 issues free to the Internet at Current issues (subscriber access only) at
  12. Australian Feminist Studies.
  13. ODLAA (Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia), Distance Education.
  14. "SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition, is an alliance of libraries that fosters expanded competition in scholarly communication."
  15. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE)
  16. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  17. Institution for Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Society (IEEE)
  18. Journal of On-Line Learning and Technology. [verified 28 June 2000]
  19. Flexible Online Learning. [verified 28 June 2000]
  20. Re-Open. [verified 28 June 2000]
  21. ASET-HERDSA 2000.
  22. TL Forum 2000.
  23. HighWire Press.
  24. Digital Library and Archives.
  25. Annual Reviews.
  26. National Academy Press.
  27. ACER (Australian Council for Educational Research). Core Journals indexed in AEI.
  28. National Library of Australia. Australian Journals Online - Education.
  29. Taylor & Francis Group.
  30. Elsevier Science.


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Authors: Dr Roger Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150. Tel: +61 (0)8 9360 6840 Fax: +61 (0)8 9310 4929. Email:

Dr Clare McBeath, Faculty of Education, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth Western Australia 6845. Tel: +61 8 9266 2182 Fax: +61 8 9266 2547. Email:

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. and McBeath, C. (2001). Electronic journals and proceedings: Is there a future for small publishers? In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA.

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