Network-Based Electronic Serials

By Charles W Bailey, Jr.

Print version: Bailey, Charles W., Jr. "Network-Based Electronic Serials." Information Technology and Libraries 11 (March 1992): 29-35.

      New forms of scholarly communication are evolving on international computer networks such as BITNET and Internet. Scholars are exchanging information on a daily basis via computer conferences, personal e-mail, and file transfers. Electronic serials are being distributed on networks, often at no charge to the subscriber. Electronic newsletters provide timely information about current topics of interest. Electronic journals, which are often refereed, provide scholarly articles, columns, and reviews. Utilizing computer networks, scholars have become electronic publishers, creating an alternative publication system. Electronic serials hold great promise, but a variety of problems currently limit their effectiveness. Given the serials pricing crisis, librarians should encourage the development of network-based electronic serials.

Librarians have been hearing about electronic serials for a long time. There are a growing number of full-text serials on database vendor systems like Dialog; however, they are usually derived from print serials and they are available on a pay-per-use basis. These full-text databases provide improved access to serials information, but libraries cannot purchase and own them. Some full-text serials databases are available on CD-ROM. These databases are typically licensed at a flat annual fee. Outright ownership of these databases is usually not a purchase option. As a result, commercial firms own the information in these full-text electronic serials, and, one way or another, we rent it. Is access versus ownership a problem? It depends on several factors. If we pay as we go, how frequently must the information be used? How much will it cost? How will it increase or decrease the cost of accessing serials information? How rapidly will these costs rise over time? How easily can we obtain the print equivalents of these electronic serials if the vendor discontinues the electronic version or we can no longer afford it? How sure are we that information that is solely in electronic form will be preserved? As we ask ourselves these questions, we must remember that no library will be able to provide these materials to us via interlibrary loan. If we are lucky, there may be a few alternative commercial suppliers for full-text electronic serials, but we will usually be in an information monopoly situation. We will have rapid access to selected serials information using powerful searching techniques, but we will have paid for this improved access by sacrificing ownership. Given these issues, it is fair to ask the question: Where is the promised revolution in scholarly communication that electronic serials publishing was supposed to bring?1

The Net

To find the answer to this question, we must turn our attention from commercial electronic information systems to noncommercial, international computer networks.

BITNET is a sprawling computer network that links more than three thousand computers in thirty-five countries.2 BITNET has gateways that connect it with other large, noncommercial networks, like Internet, as well as with commercial networks, like CompuServe. BITNET supports person-to-person e-mail and file transfers in addition to thousands of computer conferences on a wide range of topics.

Internet, an international network of networks, is growing at such a rapid rate that estimating its size is more difficult; however, it may connect at least four hundred networks and close to a half-million computers.3 Internet offers similar services to BITNET, plus remote login to computers via the TELNET protocol.

These two networks, plus numerous other networks, form a burgeoning, complex, worldwide electronic communication system that is irrevocably changing the process of scholarly communication. This collective entity, which I will simply call the Net, will force us to rethink many of our print-based assumptions about the selection, collection, organization, provision, and preservation of knowledge.

The information packages that we are used to--primarily books and journals--have many characteristics that are artifacts of print technology. For example, we expect that a book or journal will have a familiar overall structure and layout, with features such as numbered pages. We know that it will be an immutable physical object, and we accept certain distribution and storage strategies that are necessitated by this fact, such as the grouping of a number of articles into a single journal issue. Normally, we anticipate that books and journals will be formal communication tools, with care given to their composition. Informal messages are usually reserved for one-on-one or small group communication activities.

Electronic communication on the Net has created new types of information packages, such as computer conferences and electronic serials, that are not necessarily bound by print conventions. As technology advances and mimicry of print declines, these information packages will become increasingly unfamiliar, and we will see the emergence of complex, information-rich multimedia computer systems on the Net.4-5

The Emergence of Network-Based Electronic Serials

During the last few years, a small group of pioneering publishers on the Net has been distributing electronic journals, magazines, and newsletters that are not derived from print serials. Publishers send these electronic serials to subscribers via e-mail messages or file transfers. Usually, they are free of charge, and there are typically no license agreements.

When this small group of pioneering publishers looked at the Net, they saw an opportunity to accelerate the evolution of scholarly electronic communication. Often using software designed to support computer conferences, they set themselves up as electronic publishers. Some of these electronic publishers are producing serials that are similar to familiar print publications; others are inventing new forms of serials.

Are Computer Conferences Serials?

Before we discuss the efforts of these electronic serials publishers, I'd like to pose to a question: Are computer conferences serials?

AACR2 defines a serial as "a publication in any medium issued in successive parts bearing numerical or chronological designations and intended to be continued indefinitely."6 You will note that this definition does not mention the type of information contained in serials, nor does it specify that serials must be edited works.

Each e-mail message sent out on a computer conference is identified as originating from that conference, and it could be viewed as being a "successive part" of the conference. All messages have a date and time stamp, and, thus, have a "chronological designation." Most computer conferences are intended to be continued indefinitely.

Let's look beyond basic compliance with the definition of a serial. Messages have identified authors. Although many messages are short, some can be quite lengthy, at times exceeding five hundred lines. Some computer conferences are "edited" by a conference moderator. At a basic level, this means that the moderator screens all incoming messages and sends out only those that are relevant to the conference. At a more advanced level, the moderator may assemble messages into formal "digests" and send these composite messages out to conference participants. Some moderated conferences, like the Humanist, issue messages that have volume and number designations.

Computer conferences on BITNET and other networks are increasingly vital channels of scholarly communication. Are they serials? Quite possibly.7

If computer conferences are serials, librarians need to ponder the issue of how important these computer conferences are and whether their proceedings should be preserved. We cannot assume that computer centers will treat these information resources like libraries would. The selection, acquisition, organization, provision, and preservation of knowledge is the domain of libraries, not computer centers.

Examples of Network-Based Electronic Serials

What electronic serials are available on the Net? I'll provide a few representative examples of scholarly electronic newsletters and journals. There are also network equivalents of popular and special-interest magazines. Currently, the task of identifying network-based electronic serials is burdensome. However, in the near future, the Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing of the Association of Research Libraries will publish an authoritative list of network-based electronic serials and computer conferences.8

Many electronic serials on the Net make use of the Revised LISTSERV software, which was written by Eric Thomas.9 The LISTSERV software is usually referred to as the "list server."

Electronic Newsletters

There are a number of electronic newsletters on the Net. These publications usually have small editorial staffs. In addition to short articles, news items, and editorial commentary, electronic newsletters typically contain a variety of reader-submitted material, such as brief comments on current issues, conference announcements, job listings, and other short information items. Issues are usually sent out as e-mail messages. These newsletters are typically issued on an irregular basis. Back issues may be stored as files on a network computer where users can retrieve them directly; however, in some cases, back issues must be requested from editorial staff. Normally, there are no subscription fees.

Electronic Journals

There are a growing number of electronic journals on BITNET, most of them founded in 1990-91. These journals typically have several people on the editorial staff and a formal editorial board. Many of these journals are refereed. They often mirror print journals, containing editorials, scholarly articles, columns, and reviews. Issues can be composed of a single article or multiple articles. Single-article issues are often sent as e-mail messages. Multiple-article issues may be announced via an e-mail message, with users retrieving article files of interest based on this message. Or, if the journal has relatively short issues, it may be distributed as an e-mail message. Some attempt regular publication cycles; many are irregular. Issue or article files may be archived on a network computer so that users can retrieve them as needed, or they may be available from editorial staff on request. Usually, the journal is not indexed in conventional sources. There is normally no subscription charge for issues distributed on the Net. A subscription fee may be charged for an alternative distribution format, such as floppy disk.

The Future of Electronic Serials

How will network-based electronic journals fare in the future?19 I do not anticipate that electronic serials will displace print serials in the next ten years; however, they will become an increasingly important parallel form of scholarly communication. It is possible that a significant nonprofit serial publication system will emerge from the efforts of network-based electronic serials publishers. This system is likely to be characterized by low or no subscription fees and the retention of intellectual property rights by authors. Given the grim realities of the current serials crisis and the apparent dearth of viable solutions to this crisis, librarians have a vested interest in trying to make this vision a reality.

Numerous problems will need to be overcome; however, many of these problems appear to be solvable given the dedication of adequate resources to this task. I will now discuss some key problems related to network-based electronic serials.

First, electronic serials are often distributed as ASCII text files. This distribution strategy enables users to manipulate files easily and it minimizes data-transmission overhead, but it significantly limits the kind of information that can be represented (e.g., no color, foreign characters, illustrations, or mathematical notation). PostScript, TeX, and other software tools provide limited solutions to this problem, but no easy-to-use, ubiquitous solution currently exists.

Second, many network users have fairly limited storage capacity in their computer accounts. Last year, one new electronic journal overwhelmed many of its subscribers' accounts by sending them more than two hundred pages of information at one time.

Third, users may not understand the mechanics of network e-mail and file transfers, the operation of useful mainframe software, or downloading procedures.

Fourth, existing tools for creating, distributing, and utilizing network-based electronic serials are in an early stage of development, and they lack many desirable technical capabilities.

Fifth, as electronic serials proliferate, lengthy file transfers will become more common, potentially creating network performance problems. Bottlenecks may occur on network links that operate at relatively low speeds. This will become particularly problematic as electronic serials transcend the ASCII format and their files become significantly larger.

Sixth, access to networks like BITNET and Internet is mainly limited to academics and researchers. The electronic highway is there, but not everyone can get on it. The linkage of commercial networks like CompuServe and the Well to Internet has helped solve this problem. However, users of commercial networks must pay to use these services, while many users of BITNET and Internet have subsidized access to network services. Many potential foreign readers, especially those in the Third World, may not have access to U.S.-based networks at all.

Seventh, getting information about network-based electronic serials is currently a daunting task. If you know where to look, there are a few directory files; however, they may not be up-to-date. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) directory will make a major contribution to solving this problem.20 The problem is made worse by the fact that few electronic serials are included in conventional printed indexes and abstracts. Once you find an electronic serial, determining the contents and availability of back issues can be problematic.

Eighth, the publication of electronic serials is still a somewhat subterranean activity. Mostly, they are published by academics, but this effort may not be recognized as an official university activity. Electronic serials are mainly the work of a few dedicated, volunteer editors, not well-staffed institutionalized "electronic presses." This lack of institutional structure and support has a variety of problems associated with it.

Ninth, although electronic serial files are currently being archived at specific network nodes, there is no guarantee that computer centers will indefinitely preserve these files, especially when no high-level institutional commitment has been made to do so.

Tenth, the application of existing intellectual property laws to the subtleties of electronic publishing is not all that straightforward.21 The U.S. Register of Copyrights is granting the copyright applications of electronic serials publishers; however, until there are more legal precedents, this area of the law remains somewhat hazy.

Eleventh, there is the issue of acceptance of electronic serials. Will tenure committees accept publication of an article in an electronic journal as being equivalent to publication in a similar print journal, even if the journal is refereed? Will the majority of scholars want to publish in journals that are neither indexed in conventional sources nor collected by libraries?

Finally, existing network-based electronic serials have been able to develop because a large number of users have subsidized access to networks like BITNET and Internet. If the proposed National Research and Education Network (NREN) that may replace these networks is operated by commercial firms, network economics may change, and this may adversely affect user access to both electronic serials and computer conferences.


Despite these problems, a growing number of useful journals, magazines, and newsletters are being produced for and distributed to network users. With a minimum investment of resources, professional societies, university presses, individual scholars, and librarians can utilize existing software to establish network-based electronic serials.

As I indicated earlier, network-based electronic serials are unlikely to replace printed serials from conventional publishers in the foreseeable future; however, they can provide an alternative source of scholarly information. Although there is nothing inherent in network-based publishing that mandates that electronic serials be made available free or at low-cost, it is possible to do so given the radically different economics of these publications and printed serials. With future improvements in printing technology and information standards, there could be a dramatic leap in the reproduction quality of locally printed electronic serials.22 For practical purposes, printed copies of electronic serials made in the future may be indistinguishable from their conventional counterparts.

Librarians can play an important role in determining the future of network-based electronic serials. We can construct printed or computer-based tools that will help our users to identify and access network-based electronic serials. We can collect, provide local access to, and preserve these electronic serials. We can help our campuses establish units to publish high-quality electronic serials or do so on our own. We can promote the development of new standards that will improve the storage, distribution, display, and printing of network-based electronic serials. We can lobby for the establishment of a high-performance, government-subsidized National Research and Education Network.

If we do these things, network-based electronic serials may become a significant alternative source of low-cost scholarly information by the end of this decade. If not, network-based electronic serials are likely to evolve more slowly, and the serials pricing crisis is likely to continue unabated.

References and Notes

1. For a discussion of electronic journals that are not distributed on the Net, see: Anne B. Piternick, "Serials and New Technology: The State of the 'Electronic Journal'," Canadian Library Journal 46: 93-97 (Apr. 1989).

2. Tracy L. LaQuey, ed., The User's Directory of Computer Networks (Bedford, Mass.: Digital Pr., 1990), p. 2.

3. John S. Quarterman, The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide (Bedford, Mass.: Digital Pr., 1990), p. 278.

4. Charles W. Bailey, Jr., "Intelligent Multimedia Computer Systems: Emerging Information Resources in the Network Environment," Library Hi Tech 8, no. 1: 29-41 (1990).

5. Stephen Bulick, "Future Prospects for Network-Based Multimedia Information Retrieval," The Electronic Library 8: 88-99 (Apr. 1990).

6. Michael Gorman and Paul W. Winkler, eds., Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2d ed. (Chicago: American Library Assn., 1978), p. 570.

7. Ann Okerson also suggests that computer conferences are serials. See: Ann Okerson, "The Electronic Journal: What, Whence, and When?" The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 18-19 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET OKERSON PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

8. The Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists was published in July 1991. It is available from: Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing, Association of Research Libraries, 1527 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

9. For a detailed discussion of the Revised LISTSERV software, see: Diane Kovacs and others, "How to Start and Manage a BITNET LISTSERV Discussion Group: A Beginner's Guide," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 128-43 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET KOVACS PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

10. Marcia Tuttle, "The Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 111-27 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET TUTTLE PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

11. Edward M. Jennings, "EJournal: An Account of the First Two Years," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 91-110 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET JENNINGS PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

12. Teresa M. Harrison and others, "Online Journals: Disciplinary Designs for Electronic Scholarship," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 25-38 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET HARRISON PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

13. Lon Savage, "The Journal of the International Academy of Hospitality Research," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 54-66 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET SAVAGE PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

14. Jane Hugo and Linda Newell, "New Horizons in Adult Education: The First Five Years (1987-1991)," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 77-90 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET HUGO PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

15. Eyal Amiran and John Unsworth, "Postmodern Culture: Publishing in the Electronic Medium," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 67-76 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET AMIRAN PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

16. Stevan Harnad, "Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of Knowledge," The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2, no. 1: 39-53 (1991). (To retrieve an article on the Net, send the e-mail message "GET HARNAD PRV2N1 F=MAIL" to LISTSERV@UHUPVM1 or LISTSERV@UHUPVM1.UH.EDU.)

17. Charles W. Bailey, Jr., "Electronic (Online) Publishing in Action . . . The Public-Access Computer Systems Review and Other Electronic Serials," Online 15: 28-35 (Jan. 1991).

18. Charles W. Bailey, Jr., "The Public-Access Computer Systems Forum: A Computer Conference on BITNET," Library Software Review 9, no. 2: 71-74 (Mar.-Apr. 1990).

19. For other visions of the future of electronic serials, see: William Gardner, "The Electronic Archive: Scientific Publishing for the 1990s," Psychological Science 1: 333-41 (Nov. 1990); Tim King, "Critical Issues for Providers of Network-Accessible Information," EDUCOM Review 26: 29-33 (Summer 1991); Paul Metz and Paul M. Gherman, "Serials Pricing and the Role of the Electronic Journal," College & Research Libraries 52: 315-27 (July 1991); Sharon J. Rogers and Charlene S. Hurt, "How Scholarly Communication Should Work in the 21st Century," College & Research Libraries 51: 5-8 (Jan. 1990); "Task Force Report Looks at Future of Information Services," Bulletin of the American Physical Society 36: 1105-1151 (Apr. 1991); and Jerome Yavarkovsky, "A University-Based Electronic Publishing Network," EDUCOM Review 25: 14-20 (Fall 1990).

20. The Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion Lists has helped solve the problem of identifying electronic serials, and it is the best guide to these publications that is currently available. The section of the directory that deals with electronic serials, which was complied by Michael Strangelove, is also available on the Net. To obtain it, send the following two commands on separate lines in an e-mail message to LISTSERV@UOTTAWA: "GET EJOURNL1 DIRECTRY" and "GET EJOURNL2 DIRECTRY."

21. For further discussion of intellectual property rights issues, see: Adrian W. Alexander and Julie S. Alexander, "Intellectual Property Rights and the 'Sacred Engine': Scholarly Publishing in the Electronic Age," Advances in Library Resource Sharing 1: 176-92 (1990); Mary Kay Duggan, "Copyright of Electronic Information: Issues and Questions," Online 15: 20-26 (May 1991); and Ann Okerson, "With Feathers: Effects of Copyright and Ownership on Scholarly Publishing," College & Research Libraries 52: 425-38 (Sept. 1991).

22. For an interesting overview of DEC's use of on-demand printing, see: Sally Taylor, "The Potential of On-Demand Printing," Publishers Weekly 238: 38-40 (June 7, 1991).

This paper was delivered at the Sixth Annual Conference of the North American Serials Interest Group, June 15, 1991.

Copyright (C) 1992 by Charles W. Bailey, Jr. All Rights Reserved.