PMC editor Stuart Moulthrop responds

PMC editor Stuart Moulthrop responds

1998-01-15

On the futures of electronic scholarship - an exchange among editors.

There is much in Joel Felix’s “L’affaire PMC with which I agree, primarily the thoughtful analysis of the publishing options for ebr offered at the end of the article. In my less pessimistic moments I applaud his argument that hypertext represents an important kind of “meta-information” that deserves non-commodity status. I’ll concede, too, that Postmodern Culture ‘s publishing model is not as far removed from print as it might be. It’s commendable that ebr will give “downsized” publishing and banner advertising a try. Somebody needs to do it. Good luck.

Many aspects of Felix’s piece leave me puzzled, however. He says hypertext should not be turned into a commodity, yet presumably when ebr publishes hypertext, it will be under commercial sponsorship. The splash page of any such project will feature advertisements for “typefaces” and other sorts of acceptable, “guerrilla” - well, let’s admit it - commodities. Felix apparently observes no distinction between for-profit and non-profit commerce, since he is willing to lump Johns Hopkins University Press with Time/Warner (see his first paragraph), but let this pass. Commerce is commerce. From Adobe to Chank Diesel, most creators of typefaces were working in the commercial sector when last I looked. I fail to see how banner advertising protects the “free” status of electronic publishing. By this analysis, network television is “free.” Felix tasks me particularly for not providing “a specific economic framework for… new media paradigms.” This too is perplexing, since it seems that Felix’s entire critique stems from his objection to a very specific economic framework - access to electronic texts by subscription. To be sure, Felix does not like the model I advocate. As he puts it: “I would ask in the interest of those of us without institutional access to Muse content (and unlikely to pony up the $20 per year subscription cost): ‘Why not experiment with cost-recovery first?’” The crucial point here, as I see it, is Felix’s unwillingness to “pony up.” As his enthusiasm for advertising demonstrates, the real contest here is not between “free” texts and commercialization but between two different modes of “cost recovery” - subsidized and unsubsidized.

Felix repeats a complaint that came up several times in PMC ‘s on-line debate: by ending the journal’s open distribution, we give up the humanities’ traditional claim to subsidy. Felix’s sponsorship scheme ostensibly would keep this tradition alive, albeit by unusual measures. In the banner ad model, subsidies flow not from governments or foundations but from companies that sell software, and presumably also things like books, clothes, movies, liquor, package tours, and the like. People who find $20 a year too high a price for electronic text can fall back on the largesse of those enlightened corporations (pardon me, hip startups) that take out banner ads. Never mind the fact that advertising costs are ultimately passed on to consumers somewhere down the line. The perceived effect of subsidy is always local.

My skepticism about advertising and hypermedia is by now notorious. Much as it might distress the budding sales managers at ebr, there is a profound mismatch between de-centered or user-centered discourse and the traditional logic of advertising. Web pages are not print pages. Web surfing is not channel surfing, despite the strong family resemblance. Hypertext disperses attention and complicates our relationship to what we see. It suggests habits of mind that do not sit comfortably with uncritical acceptance and passive consumption. All this is implicit in Felix’s claims about hypertext as a cognitively destabilizing meta-tool - claims with which I strongly agree.

We disagree just as strongly, though, about the practical side of the matter. In my view, mass-market approaches like advertising make little sense on the Internet. It would seem more logical to develop micro-markets, of which subscriptions are one possible form. Admittedly, I ride this hobbyhorse pretty hard. Felix objects that I draw the picture too starkly, refusing to admit that on-line advertising may succeed in crafty niche ventures like ebr even if big business never learns to like hypertext. This seems a valid criticism. After all, ebr ‘s situation differs substantially from that of a peer-reviewed journal like PMC. I suspect that advertising on the Web is a non-starter in any context, but if ad revenues let ebr become a thriving, engaging, and independent journal, I’ll happily retract my doubts. It would not break my heart to be wrong about this.

On the other hand, I have recently learned a few things about editing and publishing hypertexts of which Joel Felix may not be aware. To start with, hypertexts demand enormously more attention than either print or simpler electronic documents. To evaluate, edit, and present a large number of them, a responsible editor must deal with hundreds of documents and thousands of links. This means wrestling with inconsistent software environments, making highly detailed decisions about layout and interface, and settling abstruse technical issues on the server side. Without tireless support from Sarah Parson Wells, then Managing Editor at PMC, this unpaid academic editor would never have managed it. Whatever its virtues, I doubt ebr ‘s informal, collective editorial system could carry such a load. Factor the demands of peer reviewing into the balance and the case is clear. Any extensive commitment to hypermedia (more than a few projects in the course of a year) will require at least a part-time professional editor if it is to reach reasonable levels of reliability and quality. It would be hard to afford that sort of help on revenues of $3,000-5,000. Advertising on the scale Felix proposes might support ebr in its current niche, but without room for development.

This is not to suggest that Postmodern Culture has the only viable solution for significant post-print scholarship. There is of course a radical alternative both to ebr ‘s advertising strategy and PMC ‘s subscription scheme. With modest support from their home institutions, or from more enlightened professional associations of the future, scholars could create their own systems for registering, evaluating, and presenting electronic documents - call these seals of approval, link services, virtual libraries, or something yet to be invented. Anyone who seriously undertakes such a scheme, with all the hard work and professional risk involved, can legitimately decry the crass commercialism of subscriptionists like me. Given his eagerness to hoist the ad banner, I think Joel Felix has not earned the right.

Stuart Moulthrop
Co-Editor, Postmodern Culture

>>>—> riPOSTe: Joel Felix posts a response.