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From the Letters to the Editor column in the May 1999 Perspectives

E-Publish and Perish?

Victor Otto Schmidt, May 1999

To the Editor:

The recent spate of articles on the potentialities of the Internet brought a wry, and perhaps sardonic smile to my lips. I found them wildly, perhaps suspiciously, optimistic. As a published author of dozens of articles and as a person with a foot in three camps I view Internet publishing with a jaundiced eye. None of my works have been on the Internet, nor are they likely to be because I still don't see how I'm going to get paid for my work or how it will be protected or copyrighted. While I realize that payment is a nonissue for those in academia, the protection part ought not to be. Yet payment is an issue if the medium is to achieve the high status its rhapsodizers dream of, and is directly connected to protection. If there is no economic value to a work why protect it? This is perhaps why the copyright laws on electronic publishing are effectively powerless. If you disagree, read them carefully and you will find that "what the large print giveth, the small print taketh away." By the way, my own take on this is that it is precisely because academics are not paid for their work that they are held in such low esteem, and warrant such low copyright security. In this venue, academics have no one to blame but themselves.

Admittedly my "foot" in academia is the smallest, and I admit to being a member of the academic "lumpenproletariat," namely, a graduate student closing in on his PhD. Yet this does not in any way vitiate the concerns this "foot" may have, which are the same ones my "author's foot" had, with the added dimension that publishing on the Internet will not carry with it the same cachet as paper publishing because of the lack of peer review, attribution, wide readership, and, most important, permanence. How long articles will be carried in e-mail or the e-world is problematic. If an article is paper published, it sits on the shelf in the journal for all future generations. Once again, it also goes back to a question of value. Journals cost—therefore, if your article is worthy enough to get paper published it has, ipso facto, more value than one stuffed into an e-bottle and cast into the e-sea. Perhaps this is why professors and tenure committees are chary of crediting such publications. If so, I can't blame them.

My last foot is perhaps the largest—as a top-level manager in a large electronics manufacturing firm which has heavy use of, and interests in, the Internet. "Cyberspace" comes under my purview. Hardly a day goes by where a journal does not cross my desk with an article about the disappointments of the Internet. This only confirms the experience of my own staff and departments, that the "e-world" is becoming more heavily polluted than the "real world." Dead links (links that are no longer operative), endless repetitive lists (lists that just lead to more lists which in turn lead to more and you never get to the data), "black-hole sites" (places that don't respond to inquiries, or respond weeks or months later), and "marketing traps" (web sites promising information but which just are fronts to sell you something or worse, get your name on a list for marketers and telemarketers) pollute the "ether" to the degree that doing anything on it is time consuming and futile. One employee, in tracing a piece of information printed 5,000 plus pages of garbage to get half-a-page of information. The only "sites" that seem to work right on the Internet are those infantile chat lines that cater to the lowest common denominator, and pornography. The implications of this for academic publishing, and the exchange and dissemination of information, are obvious. Brett Arquette in Infoworld 20:49 (December 7, 1998) put it best. "If the industry doesn't figure out a way to clean it up, it will become a glorified game-playing, spam-advertising, sex-pandering, fraud-inducing chat room. Or are we already there?" We are Brett, we are. The industry itself has no desire or motivation to clean it up, nor do its users. It takes a lot of effort (with no financial reward) to remove the dead links, and those that are not dead are still paying customers, fraudulent or not. Like the CB (citizens band radio) craze of the early 1980s, we remain a nation of liars eager to hide behind sexy and scatological names and pretend to be something we're not and the Internet is eager, for a fee, to let us fib. For this reason my company has largely abandoned "The Net" except for our own marketing site. One of my engineers once wasted 80 man hours of searching and corresponding with what appeared to be a reputable scientific firm on "The Net" about new research only to find out that it was a snooker for a UFO cult publishing company. At $50 an hour, that was an expensive waste of money and time!

How serious academic pursuits can survive in a medium more and more dominated by white noise, lies, and sex is hard to imagine. Perhaps we ought to look for other "spaces" to fill up.

—Victor Otto Schmidt
Newton, N.J.