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Promises of Electronic Forms of Data Representation and Scholarly Publication

by Charalambos Vrasidas - September 13, 2000


The first scholarly journal, Journal des sçavans, appeared in January 1665 in France. A few months later the same year, the second scholarly journal came into being, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in England (Gaines, 1996; Guédon, 1996). Since the conception of paper scholarly journals, very little has changed about the way researchers and scientists report their work. As Glass (1999) argued, "a reader in the year 2000 browsing a scientific journal from the year 1910 will find the environs thoroughly familiar."

Paper journals have been used for scholarly communication and research reporting. Nevertheless, because of the delays in publishing and the exponential growth of knowledge and information, paper journals have become ineffective in promoting communication among the academic community. Interaction among scholars rarely takes place via paper journals.

However, recent advances in telecommunications and microcomputers are changing the way that members of the educational community share ideas and access information. The rapid growth of the Internet has had a major impact on how scholars communicate. Since its conception, the Internet has changed dramatically and it has evolved into a very powerful tool for scholarly communication. The use of the Internet in education is growing in areas such as online course delivery, online discussion forums, online archives, and electronic publishing. Educators and scientists from around the world communicate via computer networks and share ideas, and engage in discussions and debates.

One of the areas of academic life that has changed dramatically since the conception of the Internet is scholarly publication. The Association of Research Libraries (1998) reported that in 1997 there were 1,465 electronic journals compared to about 200 in 1996. Electronic journals are flourishing, but at the same time they threaten the well-established paper journals with decades of history. Publishers, librarians, researchers, scientists, educators, policy makers, and students all have vested interests in electronic journals. Commercial and university publishers will not give up the profits they make by publishing the work of thousands of researchers and scientists. Even though increasing numbers of paper journals are also available online, readers still have to pay a fee to access them online. Academic institutions freely share their employees’ intellectual work, and then later buy it back to have it available in university libraries for their faculty and students in the form of paper journals.

There are numerous advantages associated with electronic journals. One possible advantage is that electronic journals might lead to reduced costs compared to paper journals (Glass, 1994; Odlysko, 1998). Technology developments can dramatically cut the costs of production since online there is no paper or mailing cost.

However, some have argued that the costs of electronic journals will vary depending on what features will be included in a journal, what kinds of interactivity will be added, and what media types will be available with articles. Janet Fisher (1997) associate director for journals publishing at The MIT Press noted that overhead costs of electronic journals are much higher than print journals and sometimes as much as 1240% higher. Willis Regier (1997) director of The Johns Hopkins University Press maintained that, depending on how elaborate an online publication will be, costs will vary and sometimes will rise. Higher costs are often due to developing the online version, maintaining the server, creating interactive documents, and delivering multimedia rich content. Whisler and Rosenblatt (1997) argued that the reason in some cases publishers cannot cut the costs of electronic journals is because the first copy costs usually range from 70 to 85 percent of the print price. Therefore, even if a journal is electronic, costs do not dramatically change. Such costs, he argued are likely to remain whether the format of the journal is electronic or print.

Costs sometimes increase because publishers maintain both the print and the electronic versions of the same journal. As Odylsko (1998) argued, "established publishers are increasingly providing electronic versions of their journals, but usually only in addition to the print version. It is no surprise therefore that their costs are not decreasing." Furthermore he argued that several electronic journals "are operated by their editors and are available free on the Net. They do provide all the filtering that their print counterparts do."

For example, Gene Glass is the editor for Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPPA), a journal available only online for free and with a budget of "zero." Glass (1999) argued that several editors of online journals "will attest to the fact that professional quality editing and formatting can be achieved by individuals working in public institutions and making their efforts freely available to the world for the public good." EPAA contains several advanced features of electronic journals discussed later, and is still available online without charge thanks to scholars offering their services for free.

In addition to lower costs to readers under certain circumstances, online publishing allows for a much faster review process and eliminates the long periods of time scholars had to wait to get their work reviewed and published. Consequently, disseminating research is done much faster and efficiently electronically

Furthermore, electronic journals enjoy a much larger readership than paper journals. The EPAA online journal has published about 100 articles during the last 5 years. According to Glass (1998), the editor of EPAA, these articles "are visited by Web users about 400 times on a typical day. (Of the three paper journals with which my journal competes, two have total subscribers of roughly 400 or fewer)" (p. 36). EPAA, as the major online journal in the area of education policy has a much wider readership than its paper competitor journals, Educational Policy and Journal of Education Policy.

Editors of both paper and electronic journals have argued for the benefits of scholarly communication on the web. Gene Glass has been an editor of some of the most prestigious paper journals in education such as Review of Educational Research and American Educational Research Journal. He currently edits the Education Policy Analysis Archives and the Education Review. Gary Natriello has been the editor of the American Educational Research Journal and the Teacher’s College Record. He currently edits the paper and online versions of the Teachers College Record. These editors argue that, because of the ease with which articles can be added online, electronic journals are more flexible and can have an open-ended publication schedule. That is, articles can be published as they come, without any restrictions on length and number of articles that can be included in a single issue. For more detailed discussion on the advantages of electronic publication from an editorial stand-point read Papyrophiles vs Cybernauts: The Future of Scholarly Publication, by Glass (1994), A new day in how scholars communicate, by Glass (1999), and For the record: Continuing the conversation in new forms, by Natriello (1995).

There are concerns regarding electronic publications that hinder their broader acceptance. Among the most prevalent ones are the politics of controlling scholarly communication, the economic benefits of publishers, copyright issues, bandwidth issues, access to the Internet, the lack of skills to write for the web, the technology phobia among scholars, the prestige for publishing an online article versus an article in paper, and resistance to changing the old tradition of scholarly publishing that legitimizes the academic disciplines. Although such issues exist, the emphasis of this paper will be on the advantages of electronic forms of data representation.

Effective electronic publishing should move beyond the use of the web as a simple page-turner. From a technological standpoint, electronic publishing has four major advantages: it is interactive, it allows for multiple media to be included in a scholarly report, it has no restrictions on how long articles should be, and it can publish in multiple languages. These characteristics of electronic publications revolutionize the way researchers report their work and will be discussed in detail.


Before proceeding any further, a distinction needs to be made between the concepts of interaction and interactivity. Interactivity is often used to indicate the degree to which a medium, a certain technology, or a computer program allows for interaction between the user and the machine, or between one user and another (Livengood, 1987; Schwier, 1991). Therefore, interactivity is an attribute of the medium and not of the situation in which the user is involved. Interaction, on the other hand, is the experience during which two or more parties engage in a transaction.

Interactivity is a characteristic of electronic publications in multiple ways. That is, they allow for interaction on multiple levels: between the content and the reader, between the author and the reader, and among multiple readers. The reader is allowed to make choices with a single mouse click within the journal or within a specific article thus interacting with the content on several levels. For example, in a discussion about a statistical test in the research method section of an article, the researcher can have links from her arguments, to tables of data and to graphs illustrating percentage scores on that test. In addition, the author can have hyperlinks on every reference cited in the text allowing the reader to access the full reference by clicking on the name of the authors cited in the work. Links can also be added to footnotes with more elaborated explanation of a point argued in the paper. Such footnotes or hyper-notes can open up in pop-up windows or take the reader to another part of the online document.

Another aspect of interactivity derives from the searching capabilities online journals allow. Full-text archives of all issues of a journal can be accessed by anyone with a connection to the Internet who conducts a search on the contents of the journal using one or multiple keywords. For example, the Journal of Electronic Publishing allows readers to conduct a search on all its issues using keywords.

Authors of online articles can also incorporate hyperlinks to other sites with related materials that are discussed in the specific article. For example, in cases where researchers are discussing other studies that are also available online, authors can add links to those online reports in the body of their article, or in the reference lists allowing the reader to access the full-text of the cited studies. This is another unique feature of electronic journals, the fact that they provide instant access to the sources discussed in an article. For example, in this article, readers can click on several of the complete references and access the full-text of articles and sources cited and discussed in this article.

However, adding links to articles can lead to confusion among readers, especially when those links are not added consistently. One of the greatest problems of interactive documents is the possibility of getting lost while navigating within an article or a journal. Very few authors can create their own interactive documents so that they are effective in communicating their arguments. It is in the hands of the editors to provide guidance and suggestions to authors on how best to utilize the medium and write for online publication.

Another aspect of interactivity in electronic publications is that such publications allow readers to interact easily with the authors of online articles. Readers can contact the author personally via email. Readers can raise issues and ask questions relating to the content, method, and findings of a study. As a result, readers are benefited by this interaction and the author is also benefited since his work is exposed to criticism. Readers can provide good feedback for improving the author’s work and call attention to aspects that the author might not have thought of before. An example is the electronic journal of Psycoloquy, sponsored by the American Psychological Association, which publishes articles in all areas of psychology. Psycoloquy publishes brief reports of research and ideas on which authors want to get interdisciplinary feedback from others. All submissions are refereed. Once a submission is posted online, readers can comment on the work and provide the author with feedback.

Such ways of receiving feedback and scholarly discussion with peers are not new. They have always existed in the form of informal feedback authors often received from colleagues via mail, the phone, or conference presentations. However, the electronic medium has allowed for a more systematic, comprehensive, and global way of discussing ideas and research that is unprecedented. Feedback from colleagues can reach the author from around world in a matter of a few hours.

Interaction allowed by the electronic medium, can move beyond the author and one reader and engage multiple readers and groups of people in discussions and debates. Several scholarly groups are using the power of electronic mail and listservs to engage in discussions about topics relevant to their fields. A listserv is based on electronic mail and brings together people online who are interested in the same topic. Subscribers to a listserv receive all messages posted to the list in their personal mailboxes. Messages posted on the listserv can be read, saved on local hard-drives, forwarded to someone else, and deleted. Scholars and researchers can discuss their research and teaching interests, share information, and get feedback about their ideas and projects.

Two examples of listservs used in academia are the ITForum (Instructional Technology Forum) and DEOS-L (Distance Education Online Symposium Listserv). ITForum is a listserv that discusses topics and research from the field of instructional technology. The list is open to anyone interested in instructional technology. DEOS-L is the listserv dedicated in discussing the articles published in DEOSNEWS, the international electronic journal about distance education.

The idea of allowing for interaction between the reader and author is something that rarely existed in paper journals. Only in special cases, and only if you are a well-established scholar in your discipline, are you given the opportunity to respond in a follow-up issue of a journal to an author’s arguments published in earlier issues. The average scholar, rarely, if ever, is given a chance to respond to "old-timers" in the field who are regarded among the authorities in their discipline. An example of a journal that allows for responses to authors is the Educational Researcher where, typically established scholars are allowed exchange ideas and, in a way, define the currently important issues in educational research. Online, everyone that has access to the Internet can respond and participate in the discussion of an electronic article.

The final aspect of interactivity of online publications and electronic forms of data representation is that they can contain links to other media such as images, audio, video, and animation. Readers can view various media files relating to the research being reported. This leads us to another major advantage of online publications, the capacity to allow knowledge and data to be represented in multiple modes.

Multiple modes of data representation

In addition to the interactivity of electronic reporting, articles can now include more than just text and a simple chart or diagram. Authors can include video, 3d graphics, audio, and animation, which allow them to communicate their ideas more effectively. Charts and graphics can be included in color, without any additional cost and without restrictions on how many colors can be used. When a researcher is reporting research she conducted in a classroom, a brief video clip can illustrate the setting in which the study was conducted. In a study of discourse analysis, video and audio vignettes can help the researcher illustrate how the exact posturing and voice intonation position individuals during an encounter. An example of the use of video can be found in the article published by Leshowitz, DiCerbo, and Symington (1999), Effective thinking: An active-learning course in critical thinking in the Current Issues in Education electronic journal. In their discussion of a course in critical thinking, the authors support their arguments using video clips transmitted via the web to illustrate the progression of methodological reasoning skills in their students. The videos allow readers to watch and listen to students arguing their cases at different moments in time, thus illustrating the change in their argumentation and reasoning skills.

There are cases where animations can be used to illustrate certain concepts that cannot be presented as effectively otherwise. Authors of computer-based instruction and instructional software can have the code of their programs available online along with their article. For example in a study that examined the effects of computer animation in comprehending mathematical concepts, excerpts of the animation itself, and even the whole animation, can be included in the article as a hyperlink, that will allow the readers to see exactly what the animation looked like.

The electronic Journal of Statistics Education is an example of a publication in which authors can include software and interactive demonstrations of their work. West and Ogden (1998), while discussing the use of interactive Java applets in statistics education, include links to actual applets which demonstrate their arguments. They do this, for example, at a point in their article where they discuss the histogram as one of the procedures students are presented with when learning graphical techniques for describing data. An important consideration when constructing a histogram has to do with choosing the right bin width for a dataset. An interactive applet linked to their article illustrates how, when students manipulate the bin width and the number of bins, the histogram changes.

However, the idea of including media in an article can be misused. Often times, authors try to force the use of multiple media in their article just for the sake of playing "multimedia experts" without adding any value to their arguments. Visuals are ambiguous, and they can mean different things to different people. Video and images can be confusing and are of little communication value unless they enhance the written text that they are accompanying. There might be instances in which a graphic or a video will say a lot about the research. However, interpretive commentary is crucial to anchor the meaning of each visual and illustrate the interpretative perspective of the researcher.

New technologies, such as the Web, call for a new set of skills that authors will need develop in order to report their work effectively online and take full advantage of the Web’s capabilities. In addition, the Web has allowed knowledge to be represented in multiple modes. There are more than one ways of knowing the world, and therefore there are more than one ways of representing it. Eisner (1998) argued that language mediates our experience and that when we attempt to convey and represent that experience using language the whole experience is different than if we had chosen a different medium. Specifically he argued that "one feature of a medium is that it mediates and anything that mediates changes what it conveys; the map is not the territory and the text is not the event" (p. 27). In printed journals authors can only represent knowledge using text and a few black and white graphics, which limits what they can say about their research and the study of educational phenomena. Multiple modes of data representation allow for a more holistic and complete representation of data, arguments, and social phenomena (Eisner, 1997).

What a better description of a classroom than a live video clip or a set of colored photographs? A photograph of a classroom or a video clip of children working in a classroom with background noise and children talking, communicate a different picture of classroom life than a paragraph of narrative description or a black and white diagram of that classroom. Some people are more competent, talented, or inclined in representing the world using verbal language, whereas others can do so using other forms of representation such as imagery and interactive documents. Electronic journals allow for researchers to report and discuss their work using multiple forms of data representation.

Unlimited length of articles

In paper journals authors have a limit of usually between 30-50 double spaced pages for their submissions. Such limits rarely allow for a full, detailed report that discusses a study’s setting, method, theoretical framework, findings, and implications. Studies often last several months and even years. How can all that happened in a year be condensed in 30 double-spaced pages? Online, there is no length limit assigned and authors can provide a better picture of what they did, where, and how, thus allowing the reader to judge the study better and get a better understanding of what happened in the setting. An excellent example of an article taking advantage of the fact that there are no length restrictions for electronic publications, was featured in the online version of the Teachers College Record by Smith, Heinecke, and Noble (1999). These authors presented the findings of research they conducted about assessment policy in Arizona. The article was completed in eight parts. Every week, one part was published online until their report was completed.

Because there are no limits imposed on the length of submissions and there is no additional cost for lengthier transcripts, researchers can have their complete interview transcripts available online allowing readers to make better judgments about the authors’ interpretation of the data. By including the complete observation and interview transcripts, authors allow readers to reach their own conclusions about the validity of inferences and be co-analysts of the study, therefore, increasing the validity and plausibility of their account. An excellent example of making available the interview transcripts can be found in an article published in the Education Policy Analysis Archives by Glass (1997). The article was titled Markets and Myths: Autonomy in Public and Private Schools. Glass interviewed more than thirty teachers and administrators to examine the impact of school autonomy on schooling. All the interview transcripts are available online linked to the article, allowing readers to reach their own conclusions about the validity of inferences.

In addition, authors can include their complete data sets along with the article, allowing readers to download them and run their own statistical analyses and reach their own conclusions. An example of an article that made available data sets for statistical analysis was published in the electronic journal Current Issues in Education by Dugan and Behrens (1999) with the title A Hypermedia Exploration of the Classification Problem in Special Education. The authors presented the original data used in previous publications that examined the relationship between levels of social/demographic variables and rates of classification in special education programs. They reanalyzed the data and showed how one can reach different conclusions. By making the original data sets available, Dugan and Behrens allow readers to judge the authors’ analysis and discussion by running their own analysis.


Publishing in only one language limits the readership of a journal. Occasionally, some paper journals may provide the abstract of an article in multiple languages. For example, Educational Media International publishes the abstracts of articles in English, French, and German, and the complete article in English. However, the length limit and costs of printed publications, do not allow multilingual journals to flourish. Computer networks and the Internet managed to bring together an international community of scholars that share similar interests. Online journals can publish complete articles in any language they are submitted. For example, EPAA publishes articles in English and Spanish.

Editors of online journals can link for free to sites, such as the altavista site that translates any article into the language of their choice. With a link to the translation site, the reader can type in the URL of the article of their choice and get a translation of the first section of the document in several languages for free. Furthermore, editors of electronic journals can install SYSTRAN translation software on their server, which will allow readers to translate the whole article to several languages with a single mouse click. Translating full articles using software does not always result in very accurate translations. However, it is a good alternative that can promote a multilingual readership for electronic journals and promote scholarly communication around the world.

Looking ahead

In the future, electronic journals will become more "intelligent" and be more sensitive to the interests and needs of the audience they target. Readers can be asked to fill out a brief online survey about their academic and research interests. Then, every time they visit an online journal, the first links to appear on the top part of their browser’s window should be those that relate to their interests. Furthermore, when a new article is posted online that is of interest to a reader, the reader can receive an automatic email announcing the availability of that article. Such intelligent electronic journals can easily be customized to meet the needs of readers, and alleviate the burden of researchers who have to surf through thousands of online documents until they find what interests them.

Technology is only effective when people have the skills necessary to use it to meet their needs. There is a need to educate members of the academic community on how to use technology and the web to report their work and share ideas. The Internet is the technology that educators and researchers have been waiting for to reach out and communicate with peers around the world.

Electronic journals will not replace paper journals, at least not for a while. They will co-exist. Even though the gains for the academic community from electronic publishing are high, politics and the strong economic interests of publishers will not let paper journals die easily. Paper journals constrain scholarly communication and the sharing of research and ideas. Electronic journals transcend the constraints set by paper journals on scholarly communication. The advantages associated with electronic journals and the necessity of adapting to the new ways of scholarly communication that technology allows, are reasons strong enough to support the further growth of online publishing and electronic scholarly communication.



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Charalambos Vrasidas is a postdoctoral researcher working in Cyprus. His research interests include computer mediated communication, interaction in online learning environments, distance education, and scholarly communication. His recent publications include "Constructivism versus objectivism: Implications for interaction, course design, and evaluation in distance education" in the International Journal of Educational Telecommunications (in press) and "Pictures in our head and sociocultural issues of the moving image" in the Journal of Visual Literacy (in press).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10546, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 6:19:49 PM

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