"University Presses, Computer Technology, and Human Rights Publishing"

Michael Jensen

given at The Layman Conference on Human Rights in the New Europe, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, September 1992.

You're supposed to begin this sort of thing with a joke, to put the audience at ease. I considered plays on words--human rights, human writers, or something like that. I considered some humor about how I was the last speaker, and how publishers always have the last word. In the end, I couldn't find any humor that wasn't so obvious that it wouldn't be transparent. So instead, I decided to use the paragraph I just read as a way to put you at ease. Just be at ease. Imagine that I've told a joke, and that you all laughed.

This presentation comes in the segment focusing on Human Rights Education. And I'm assuming that we all pretty much agree that at the heart of education is the ability to receive disseminated information--that is, get books, hear the news, read the journals, read the articles, see the pictures, and get the broadest possible base for forming valid opinions; to get the broadest base for turning information into knowledge. In this context, publishing is at the heart of what makes education possible.

What I hope to do today is address a few broad topics concerning publishing, education, and human rights. One topic might be titled "publishing realities: the economics of human rights publishing." Another might be titled "Alternative Publishing: non-traditional avenues of education and dissemination." In this section, I'll be talking about computers and new possibilities. Throughout, I hope there will be the implicit and explicit theme of "the responsibility of University and Scholarly Presses for Human Rights Publishing."

Each of these topics will be treated in the next half hour or so. I want to be sure to leave time at the end of the presentation so that I can answer questions: but more importantly, so that I can get answers to my own questions-- questions about what this community needs in the way of publishing, and what you want to see in the next five years.

Publishing is in the middle of a great change, as the tide of the so-called "information age" rushes over our shores. Publishers are struggling to find ways to survive in these new waters. Some are blithely ignoring it, saying to themselves that the old ways are the only ways, and that all this "electronic nonsense" is just another fad. In fact, at a panel I chaired at the Association of American University Presses conference two years ago, a panel on scholarly presses and electronic publishing, specifically CD-ROM, a press director raised his hand, and said something like this: "Huge volume, easy searching, cheap production, cheap distribution--sure, sure. We all heard those same words ten years ago, from a different forward-thinker, who was singing the praises of microfiche. It didn't change publishing. It just filled a little niche."

Of such evolutionary niches are new species born. CDROM publishing has grown exponentially. It has also been the test medium for a number of software products that are adapting to these new niches.

Microfiche was a niche market, to be sure, and still is. And so is CDROM. So is electronic mail. So is the electronic journal, a phenomenon that I'll describe later. So are multimedia, videodisk, floppy-disk publishing, and xerox journals and newletters.

The thing is, there will be are dozens of niches in the publishing world. The electronically-enhanced forms, however, are the ones that will predominate. There is no question in my mind that within ten years, hardback book publishing itself will be a "niche" market for most of the developed nations.

But I get ahead of myself. I was developing my metaphor, of the tide of the "information age." Those publishers who ignore the coming wave will drown, or will merely tread water until exhaustion forces them to succumb. Other publishers are scurrying to find rafts, boats, canoes--anything to ride atop the tide. And a few others are, in metaphoric fact, astride their surfboards, riding the forward wave itself.

What does this tide have to do with human rights publishing? A great deal. Because the economics of publishing is being transformed by these cultural and technological changes. And any change in the economics of publishing will influence what can be published, how it will be published, and even if it will be published. And, as I hope to show, these changes are particularly pertinent to the dissemination of human rights information.

One could argue that without photocopiers, faxes, telephones, PCs, and the other accoutrements of the nascent information age, the collapse of the totalitarian regimes that we've seen in the last two years would have been delayed. At the very least, I believe that most of us would agree that dissemination of facts is the best weapon that a free society has to combat human rights abuses internationally. Knowledge is what can make us, and keep us, free. And the information age is about disseminating knowledge.

From those lofty sentiments, I need to move into the realm of filty lucre, and address the economic realities of publishing.

The Economics of Publishing

The unfortunate reality of publishing is that it costs money. Making books of any kind isn't cheap. Each of the many tasks involved in the process, from the telephone call between the author and the acquiring editor, to copyediting the manuscript, to setting the type, to shipping the book to the bookstore, costs money. And the only way a publisher can stay in business is by selling books.

These things may seem self-evident, but are often forgotten by authors, readers, and even the publishers themselves.

University presses differ from commercial publishers in several areas, but not so much as to merit a popular misconception: that is, that university presses exist to publish valuable scholarship. While this is true, it's not the exclusive truth. University presses do indeed exist to publish valuable scholarship. But to do so, they must survive. This is the prime directive: to continue to exist in order to continue to publish valuable scholarship.

Nearly every university press is a non-profit organization--a department of the university, or at least an arm of the institution. It is in many ways a PR tool for the university, bringing prestige to its parent institution. For this prestige, the universities pay--usually office space, or an annual subvention of some kind. But beyond that, the books that university presses publish must fund the Press's own internal workings: salaries, production costs, equipment, etc.

So while being non-profit--having no stockholders to pay off, or owners to reward--it is still required to break even. And given the exigencies of publishing, this is no small feat.

Which means that every book chosen to be published by a university press must be chosen carefully. The scholarship is considered carefully, as is the potential market. These are weighed against one another (or atop one another)--as well as other issues, such as compatibility with the existing list of books in print--to determine whether a book gets printed.

Finally, most university presses have limits to how many books they can undertake in a given year. They must determine whether the payback--in either prestige or money-- is worth the energy expended.

Regardless of the merits of the text, there are limits on the publisher. Human rights scholarship may be the most important topic around, but that won't change the realities of publishing. Non-profit or not, we must live within our limits.

I pulled together some listings of human rights texts some weeks ago. Though the results are by no means comprehensive, I've got some photocopies of those lists of texts here in front of me. These all come from the CDROM version of Books In Print; because of the interdisciplinary nature of human rights, there are many texts in the fields of history, women's rights, and the like that are not included. Nonetheless, I was struck by the limited number of texts, and somewhat chagrined by the proportion of university press titles. It is much smaller than I had expected.

From my discussions with acquiring editors at several presses, and discussions with some of the participants here as well as other professors, it's clear that the limited number is not necessarily because there are limited texts, or that publishers don't think the topic is important. Instead, it is that there is "less wallet than will," to paraphrase a recent president. So while publishers are wary of underwriting the risk of human rights texts, there is good information out there whose absence is affecting the study of human rights. Manuscripts are going begging. Scholarly discourse is being limited by economics, and in this case it may be affecting populations worldwide. How do we remedy this situation?

Self-publishing is one alternative, especially once you've got camera-ready copy. But self-publishing is a rough row to hoe, unless a writer is very lucky.

Early on I mentioned that publishing is undergoing great change. But what I've been talking about are publishing realities as they are right now--the economic realities. Those economic realities are predicated on the assumption that printing is the only means of publishing. And that assumption is open for a great deal of discussion.

As I said, I think that within ten years hardback book publishing will only fill a very small niche. What I expect to see instead is electronic media--online systems (in which you can call up a central computer on a modem), floppy disk publishing (either by mail, or within stores), optical disk publishing (CDROM, magneto-optical, or some other large- storage medium), or whatever comes next--whether that's electronic kleenex or magic crystals.

Electronic Media

As I said at the begining of this talk, we are watching a tide rise. The tools we use for getting information are changing. The tools we use for education are changing. And thus the tools we use for disseminating information will also change.

The personal computer is at the heart of it. Like it or not, personal computers have changed the way we write, the way we read, even the way we talk. In short, computers are changing the ways we communicate.

What computers are best at is sorting the mundane. Organizing chaff, separating wheat, putting stuff in cubbyholes, totaling counts and connecting congruencies.

The machines are getting faster, short-term and long- term storage both are getting bigger, interconnectivity is getting easier, screen clarity getting better, and all prices are plummeting. And most of all, the information access software to run on these computers is beginning to fill the real needs of students, scholars, and thinking people all over the world.

Let me take a minute and explain something. First, I must confess that I love books. That's one reason I'm in publishing. But I also love knowledge. And for knowledge, books are not always the optimal medium of information transfer.

Now that I've experimented with alternative publishing media, I'm even more frustrated by the limitations of books for what I want to do--which is to quickly find the information I want.

A book is linear, a passage of text that moves from page i to page 300, broken into segments called chapters, which are perhaps broken down into even smaller chunks, each with subheadings. The only thing, though, that really prevents a book from being one long string is an index. An index allows the reader to find particular information without being forced to read the entire 300 plus pages. And like it or not as an author, most books are not read in their entirety.

Especially in academic disciplines, the tendency is to dip into a text in areas of interest. The text is used for research mostly, not as a relaxed afternoon's read. For these sorts of books, an electronic form may be much better for the reader--and certainly more efficient--than a linear text.

Because an electronic text need not be linear. Any electronic text software worth its salt allows term-searching, and proximity-searching (where a term is found within, say, fifty words of another term), not to mention so-called "hypertext" links, which allow the reader anything from instant definitions of terms to pointers toward other areas of related interest in the text.

This is the text "interface," the engine for searching out information that you want--or places in the text that you want.

Software is being developed that will allow you to "personalize" your search engine, so that much of the mundane searching for information can be done automatically by your "computer agent." Right now there are several services that will provide you with your own "personalized" newspaper, faxed to you, based on a profile you've given the company that makes it. This sort of thing will soon be available for home use.

This may sound like science fiction, but so did laptops, five years ago. So did multimedia CDROMs five years ago. So did international networking, so did faxes, so did videodiscs, five years ago. It's happening, and will continue to happen.

Computers are becoming ubiquitous, as are the connections between them. Online systems in this country are proliferating--that is, the means to send or recieve messages from other computers. The Internet, and systems like it, means that for little or no money past the initial setup and equipment costs, scholars can send messages or entire texts, across the country or across the world. And the "publishing" media are rapidly blending with the transportation media.

Several qualities of electronic texts combine to make me certain that for economic and utilitarian reasons, electronic texts will become the medium of choice:

1) Electronic texts are virtually infinitely combinable and manipulable. A text that is coded and prepared for publishing on floppy disk can relatively easily be transported to an online document, or a CDROM document, or be transmitted from here to Czechoslovakia.

2) Electronic texts take virtually no physical storage space. CDROM or floppy disk publishing can be done on-demand, rather than the current necessity of printing thousands of texts first--so that you can get a low per-unit cost--and then hoping that you can sell them all.

3) Electronic texts are faster to produce--going from the 18 months that are standard for most university press titles down to perhaps four to six months with a publisher. For an individual, of course, or in an e-mail or internet- publishing context, one can go from finished author's manuscript to "transmitted" document in a matter of minutes. Given the rapidity of changes worldwide, this is very important. A text published six months ago may have been written two years ago or longer--back when the Cold War was like the air we breathe. The warehouses are chock-full of texts that are now completely outdated.

4) Electronic texts are much cheaper to reproduce, going from anywhere from the telephone time to the floppy disk cost plus markup. CDROMS, for example, cost about two dollars to physically produce, and can hold superindexed texts to the tune of 400 to 500 megabytes--roughly 400 book-length texts.

Online systems create different economies, and raise new questions about how publishers will recover their expenses, how copyrights will be protected, and other questions still. These questions will be resolved--either neatly or in a proliferation of lawsuit-driven frustrations, but they will be solved.

These advantages mean that the end product is much cheaper for the publisher to produce, and thus much cheaper to sell to the interested readers.

I'm drawing this outline of available systems so that it's clear what is happening. Scholarly presses must find their own way in this labyrinth of possibilities. And they must find ways to add value to existing texts; that is what publishing is. It is especially imperative that we do it fast, because otherwise we may become a moot point.

Because finally, there is the possibility of avoiding publishing houses altogether. While on the one hand I ought not to bring this up at all--just in self-protection terms-- it is important. Especially to people like yourselves, in an interdisciplinary field which is vitally important, but not lucrative. As I pointed out, few human rights texts will ever sell well, even if they are used in many classrooms. Further, they go out of date rapidly.

But my impression is that the human rights scholars as a whole are a relatively close-knit group--that is, they are frequently in contact, or would like to be if there was a simple way to do so. Electronic methods of information dissemination could be a very effective means of sharing scholarship and bolstering the availability of educational distribution.

I'd like to draw a picture of a possible future, one that could be perhaps six months away, if people pressed for it.

Using the Electronic Web for Human Rights Education and Scholarship

Most human rights scholarship is located in a university. Nearly all major--and most minor--universities have access to Bitnet and/or Internet, a means of connecting computers and communicating. Right now, for example, there are dozens of electronic journals (none that I know of on Human Rights) whose only distribution system is the information web connecting academic institutions.

These journals are peer reviewed, have boards of directors, editors, and production supervisors--though almost exclusively volunteer. They are periodic, and they are rapidly developing their own reputations for being respectable publication venues. Subscriptions are free for the asking, usually; Also usually, the table of contents is sent to any subscriber, who then requests particular articles (or the entire "issue") to be sent to their host computer--usually a mainframe at a university on which the subscriber has an account. The subscriber can then download the text into his or her own personal computer for importation into the text editor of choice.

The advantages of this form of scholarship is readily evident: faster turnaround, faster publication, lower costs, and a potentially infinite readership.

These advantages could be further enhanced by a few institutions taking the initiative to be the host for a "human rights library." Dr. Claude mentioned earlier the need for a "clearinghouse" for educational tools and texts. The electronic information web is a great way to do this. A great deal of the information, not to mention the knowledge and wisdom, in the field of human rights is not necessarily publishable. Lectures, essays, facts, field reports, legal briefs, as well as electronic discussion groups of responses to the other texts, are all an important way for students and scholars to learn what is going on in the field of human rights, international law, and similar disciplines. But they don't make good books, and may not even make good print journals, merely because the volume necessary to cross the "critical mass" point of usefulness is so large that printing is cost-prohibitive.

But if these texts were to be routinely accepted, with attribution, in a few central locales, then there would be an "distributed Alexandrian library" for the study and teaching of human rights. The biggest obstacles for utility is bureaucratic inertia and lack of technical expertise. Further, cheap software for finding the particular gems you need for your research, or that pertain to your particular interest. These search engines exist, or are being developed, and the prices are coming down.

Other obstacles such as translation problems, multilingual character sets, copyright and royalty issues, and the like are there, but all of these can be solved. The possibilities are too appealing to allow a few logistical issues to stop the process.

In Prague, let's say, there could reside the computer- generated index to the electronic library residing, say, here in Lincoln, Nebraska. A scholar, student, or professional in Prague could ask the search engine to investigate the index for texts relating to, say, treatment of minority populations in the former Soviet republics, and a listing of possible texts would come up on the screen in Prague. Those of interest could be requested from the holding library in Lincoln, and then transmitted overnight to the computer in Prague. The authors--whose names and e-mail addresses might be attached to the documents--could then be asked for clarification on points, should they be necessary. Or the library itself could exist identically in locales around the world.

This is no dream, and though there are logistical issues, legal issues, and personal-protection issues to be sorted out, those issues can be sorted out. And the gains made by the scholars would more than compensate for the frustrations created by the real-world constraints.

The future of publishing seems clear to me. Systems like this will exist. As my friend Vaclav Trojan, the man who spoke just before me, has said about electronic publishing, "since we know it will happen, we must make it happen."

Some things are happening. I recently learned of several discussion groups on political science and human rights that have sprung up on the European Internet. there's also something called Huridocs, mentioned by Dr. Claude earlier, which is a Ford-foundation-funded software package that systematizes the collection of human rights statistics. This software package is addressed in an publication, Human Rights and Statistics: Getting the Record Straight, from the University of Pennsylvania Press, coedited by Dr. Claude and Thomas Libine(?)[lookup] on human rights and statistics, and is exciting indeed. At this point the publication and its data are unavailable in electronic form, although the software itself--distributed by a different organization--comes with a virtual library of data. This is a good example of university presses facilitating the dissemination of data, and the dissemination of information regarding electronic data access.

It is a very short step from publishing a paper regarding software-assisted information gathering to publishing the information itself, and is an example of the sort of publishing for which university publishers are ideally suited.

There are many other ways that University Presses will fit into this particular New World Order. In an information flood a good filter is invaluable. A self-published manuscript is presently somewhat tainted, because it hasn't gone through the process of being read by experts, deemed valuable, and published by an established publisher.

And that's one reason that I feel lucky to be working in a university press. In the coming years, university and scholarly presses will hold a unique place in the publishing community, and in the eyes of the scholars. Because we are nonprofit, our trustworthiness is valuable. Our function as a gatekeeper for the reader becomes ever more valuable.

The Role of University Presses

Scholarly publishers will serve as a filter in the information flow. I firmly believe that publishing won't die, and I also believe that university presses can fit in very well with the new electronic publishing paradigm.

Compilations of previously electronically-published texts will be likely. Other texts may be partially published on the Internet, while the full text is published in electronic disk form by a publisher--a sort of "greatest hits" approach to publishing. There are dozens of ways to work within this new environment, because there are at least that many different needs by various readers. Scholarly publishing, like commercial publishing, will respond to a need in the market.

I began this presentation by discussing the economic constraints on publishers. One might ask why I have talked so much about publishing realities, not to mention the publishing future, when my talk was supposed to be about the University Presses' role in education vis a vis Human Rights. The biggest reason is this: we are at a nifty little "Y" in the road of progress. The human rights community has, as do nearly every other scholarly community, the opportunity to craft communication methodologies that make the most of the new technologies.

So what I'm saying here is that the human rights community, the political scientists, the students and scholars in general, and the scholarly presses themselves have an opportunity to vastly broaden the educational and publishing possibilities, and thus enrich the information web. By getting an e-mail account on a university mainframe or computer, scholars suddenly can communicate with colleagues worldwide. But e-mail is a relatively passive medium for information gathering, compared to what I'm waiting to see--the ability to ask my software for particular data or information, and then letting the software find it for me from within an online library of other scholars' work.

I'm suggesting that by planning electronic information centers at your universities, you can begin the process of online availability of the texts you want. By asking publishers for cheap electronic versions of texts, you begin to pressure them to respond to your needs. And with even a little discussion, an organization could be developed that could become a sort of "electronic clearinghouse" of human rights information--legal briefs with commentary attached, reports of atrocities, analyses of cross-discipline information, statistical reports, and roundtable electronic discussions of principles and policies. In relation to Dr. Blahoz's comparison of Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, and Polish legal codifications of human rights, for example, it would be simple to have those three countries' codes available online for easy and direct comparison by any scholar who wanted to download them (I'll ignore the problems of translation for the purpose of this discussion).

What the human rights community could have, then, within a few years, is an educational tool of great consequence. And there would be a primary pool of information for researchers to use for the monographs and studies that will continue to be written. Monographs, studies, and texts that I expect (and hope) will continue to be published by university presses, in any and all forms.

What is the responsibility of university presses to the human rights community? How can we best assist your work? By continuing to do what we do best--finding the highest quality scholarship, assisting in its development, and then making it available to you, in whatever form is best for you, and at prices you can afford, so that students and scholars alike can have access to it. If there is a single role for the university presses, it is in facilitating the dissemination of scholarship in the best ways we can.

Thank you.

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