Problems and the Epistemology of Electronic Publishing in the Arab World
First Monday

Problems and the Epistemology of Electronic Publishing in the Arab World: The Case of Lebanon by Ramzi Nasser and Kamal Abouchedid

Abstract
Publishing in the Arab world still is in its development stage. Many journals discontinue publication because of financial pressures, while those that asynchronously function are almost totally dependent on institutional (academic) funds. Other barriers as editorial hegemony, national and political instability, and institutional discouragement that hinder researchers and writers to submit or even try to publish work in indigenous Arab journals. Scholarly output is generally tied to the epistemological perspective of the researcher-writer; this in itself has been the major milestone to the lack and absent electronic journals in the Arab world. Electronic publishing has not appealed to the scholarly community in the Arab and Middle Eastern society and remains to be in dormant state. Scholars need to understand the World Wide Web and recognize the revolutionary elements of electronic journals as pacifiers to the hegemony of traditional publishing.

Contents

Introduction
The Development of Print Publications
Journals in the Arab World
Financial Barriers
The Influence of Editors on Publishing
Why Electronic Publishing?
Accommodating the Cost of Publication
Attitudes among Academicians Towards Electronic Publishing
Conclusion

 

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Introduction

Academic publishing in the Arab world has a great value, especially among academic circles that extend from the perceived Western reward academic system to that of position and prestige. Despite the importance of academic publishing as a venue for scholarly communication, the opportunity of Arab researchers to publish in local Arab journals is hindered by four main limitations. First, favoritism and nepotism permeate the entirety of academic publishing in the Arab world. For instance, Arab editors, who single-handedly direct journals, assess articles for publication based on patron-client relationships rather than on sound academic refereeing grounds. Second, financial constraints in higher education deter Arab academicians from conducting research. Third, the distinct paucity of local Arab journals and their limited international circulation dissuade researchers from contemplating the publication of their research papers in Arab journals. Finally and most importantly, the hegemonizing apparatchik model together with the heavy handedness of the secret police machinery over academia limit the freedom of academic expression, hence publishing.

In the light of these constraints, can Arab researchers publish their academic works and disseminate knowledge through an electronic network of scholarly communication? This paper reviews the limitations of publishing in the Arab world by focusing on the development of print publications from a historical perspective, the nature of journals in the Arab world, particularly in the case of Lebanon, in terms of their number and mission, the financial barriers to publishing, and the influence of editors on the publishing industry. In addition, this paper reports the attitudes of Arab academics towards electronic publishing as a venue for scholarly communication that might help researchers overcome the various coercive publishing constrains in the Arab world.

 

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The Development of Print Publications

In many Arab countries, print was associated with authority and power as is the case of Lebanon. Early writing and publishing came from the Lebanese Christian Maronites sect as the political and authoritative powers of Lebanon were concentrated in their hands. The invention of the Arabic typesetter by a Maronite monastic priest in Lebanon was a reflection of the French supremacy over the Levant and their constant support of the Maronite sect in cultural, political, and economic affairs. The French authorities granted the Maronites wide-ranging economic and cultural privileges, which other confessional communities in Lebanon did not have (McDowall, 1983). This situation created communities divided into distinct confessional units explicitly based on their religious identities, but implicitly on technological expertise. Those confessional communities, which have had the technological advantage regarding print, were able to use media for the perpetuation of their own political cause as well as their own particularistic cultural traditions.

It was believed that the economic, social, and political crosscutting cleavages between communities in the Arab world would be bridged by equal access to technology, particularly the Internet. However, technology seems to have deepened divisions based on social and economic dimensions.

Internet companies and Internet providers in the Arab world have substantially grown. For instance, the Yarmouk, a college town in Jordan, has the highest density of Internet cafés per square mile in the world, verified in the Guinness records. Countries like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have gone to great lengths to develop infrastructures akin to those of Silicon Valley cities to make possible mega-technology economies. Therefore, information technology does not appear as a mirage in Arab countries as it has moved smoothly into the lives and work of people just like other places in the world. However, every introduction of new technology into society carries with it a latent impact (Strangelove, 1994) such that it will have an impact on social, economic, and political structures. However, when a society is quite different in terms of socio-economic structures, it means that technology will fall into the hands of the elite, creating further societal divisions.

In terms of technological transfer, we see three distinct groups in the Arab society: the lesser third, the upper third, and the middle third. The upper third of the population has become richer, allowing them to buy and use technology easily, providing them with multiple advantages in professional activities. The lower third group, which constitutes the striking majority of the populace in the Arab world, lives in rural areas and is completely alienated from the knowledge structures that technology now supports. In addition, this group is in a dire need for technological assistance whether in hardware, software, or training. On the other hand, the middle third, which currently debates the influences of globalization on cultural and social change profoundly, views the forcefulness and the speed of Western technology transfer as an extension to the colonial past. These arguments spring from a violent historical experience with the West that has extended over 100 years of colonial manipulations. This group encourages a sense of despair and places the idea of information exchange in an epistemological sphere that has a crippling effect on society and often cautions the adoption of Western technology.

 

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Journals in the Arab World

Arabic Academic journals are limited in number. While the number of academic journals in the West reaches thousands of titles and are increasing daily, there are less than 50 Arab journals. More discouraging about Arab journals is their short lifespan, where many journals are operated by a single editor, dependent on this editor's career and institutional support. In addition, these journals use the Arabic language as a medium, which limits contributions from international researchers and writers, and academicians communicating in the European languages. In addition, it is rare to find journals that deal with social issues in the Arab world; these journals are associated or sponsored by a confessional community or have the political support of the current regime in power. However, few journals have moved beyond these barriers. Bahithat, for instance, deals with gender issues and social trends in Arab countries. Through the years, it has gained international recognition, and it currently publishes papers in both English and Arabic.

From another perspective, the extent to which journals reflect world views of their editorial board, editors, and contributors probably serve those who read them. The rise of specialized journals in the West draws a small community of scholars that contribute or read these journals. By contrast, journals in Arab countries are not specialized and it is rare to find scientific journals in the area of physics, microbiology, or chemistry. This deficit makes most journals very general in scope, which undermines the ability of highly trained Arab researchers to publish their researches in specialized journals. Arab researchers, who find their writing not matched well with the scope of the specialized and Western publications, choose local and non-specialized journals to publish their work.

General journals lack the editorial intensity of specialized journals. There is also a lack of systematic archiving as well as indexing and bibliographies that leaves many researchers in the dark about work of others, reinforcing the "legitimacy hypothesis" of many Arab Journals now being published. More stunning to most researchers is the substantial quantity of scholarship that goes unreported. While the technology for archiving papers is available, rescuing scholarship has superfluous importance to cultural continuity. For instance, accessing the full text of Master and Doctoral theses in Arab countries is often impossible without going to the source university. In addition, faculties in higher education who are involved in some sort of research do little to produce their articles outside their local university journals.

Although the publication of Arabic academic journals has been limited to few professional publishing houses, scholars often use their own academic institution to publish their work, without going through a proper editorial and refereeing process. Many Arab publishing houses serve local scholars in an affiliate university. For instance, in Lebanon, the Notre Dame University Press publishes works done by its faculty and has its research journal publish papers presented by its faculty at international conferences. For instance, educational journals at the universities are started and run by research centers, as is the case of the Educational Research Center Journal of the University of Qatar. Mainly, these journals serve their own faculty, accommodating papers mostly written by faculty members themselves. These journals have grown in number, yet they often fail because of limited financial support from institutions and income from subscriptions.

As alluded to earlier, another difficulty that most Arabic scholars face is a lack of archives of print journals. There is a general absence of tracking systems for scholarship, indexing, or specialized cataloging. This means that the contents of many journals are not readily accessible to scholarly communication. There have been some attempts to resolve this problem, but they are limited to politico-national levels. For instance, a unique Syrian bibliography is solely dedicated to the published research of Syrian scholars and researchers, not the rest of the Arab world.

Printed journals in Arab countries play at best a diffusive role as opposed to communicational role. Publications appear at slow pace and eventually become stand-alone posts of scholarly output. In addition feedback rarely appears so there are few responses to articles or review of books in Arab academic circles. Although the situation is changing, Arab academic institutions are not using publication as part of the academic reward system. At the policy making level, most academic institutions in the Arab world recognize the need for scholarly publishing; however, ironically, organizational and structural conditions are not encouraging research.

 

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Financial Barriers

There are excellent journals in the European languages about the Middle East, which flourish outside the Arab world. Examples include the Arab Studies Quarterly published in the U.S. and the Journal of Palestine Studies which recently moved from the University of Kuwait to a U.S. publishing house. These journals would not have had financial independence by operating under university press houses in Arab countries as most university publishing houses lack the marketing and distribution strategies for their sales. Moreover, most journals are also underserved because of political turmoil and aggravating economic conditions that many Arab countries face today. Those Arab journals that survive are financially backed by an academic institution; however most operate under a deficit budget inadequate even to cover clerical expenses. Many journals are under considerable financial pressures for their survival and many are circulated through allocated university funds. For instance, journals like Annals which is published by the University of Balamand in Lebanon, Palma: A Research Journal out of the Notre Dame University in Lebanon, and the Journal of Educational Research out of the United Arab Emirates University all have a hefty university budget allocated for their continuation.

Given that a substantial funds are provided to these journals as a process of encouraging a pseudo-scholarly communication, this situation allows individuals to control academic publishing.

 

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The Influence of Editors on Publishing

Top-flight journals in the West often go through a rigorous procedure of lengthy review. The structure of review involves the initial review of an article by an editor who then sends it to co-editors who in turn delegate it to specialized reviewers. The editorial intensity that is found in international journals is not comparable to that of indigenous Arab journals. Electronic journals may go through the same process, with many of the steps of review found in traditional print journals completed electronically, where reviewers can be recruited digitally and where propitious professional relations are promoted. As Valauskas (1997) indicates, electronic publishing provides an opportunity for accelerated peer review compared to the print medium. Valauskas argues that electronic publications are just like their relatives of print in terms of validation and acceptance. Even editing of articles can be seen as a function on ordinary word processing software and copyright agreements can be easily encrypted for the authors. Editorial work in many Arab journals is not coterminous with the professional work followed by many Western journals. Local or native journals in the Arab world have a very hard time operating because of bureaucratic prerogatives bestowed to editors, who may choose articles whimsically based on an academic relations. In addition, no academic journal in the Arab world operates electronically.

 

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Why Electronic Publishing?

Academic communication has changed over the past decade, with the arrival of the Internet; authors and researchers now communicate nearly at the speed of thought. Print publishing remains a very slow process with a great deal of time dedicated to copyright transfers, layout, typesetting, and printing. After publication, libraries maintain their collections for scholars with a variety of records as well as preserve journals by binding and storing back issues. In turn, libraries with large serial collections are anticipating a physical "serial crisis," as space becomes a primary issue. Hence, traditional journals are increasingly dependent on the ability of readers to find issues via library networks or systems.

There is a fundamental change in the world of scholarly publishing represented by a shift away from the medium of print. As most journal articles in the West are constructed electronically before being typeset, it is rare to find journals accepting papers in print without some view of their electronic form. Indeed, many scholarly journals are now available in both in digital and print formats. These dual formats are to some extent expensive to produce and distribute but they accommodate researchers who are agile digitally or reluctant to take advantage of the Internet.

Publishing on the Web is relatively new to academic circles. In 1991 in the Directory of Electronic Journals and Newsletters, there were about 30 electronic journals and over 60 newsletters and digests published over the Internet. At present, thousands of publishers have jumped onto the Web; NewJour, an online forum, reports 3,634 digital titles. Elsevier has more than 1,100 titles available. Individual libraries around the U.S. subscribe to hundreds of electronic journals secured specifically from individual publishers or through intermediary sources and jobbers. In spite of these changes, Arab academic journals remain shy of this electronic wave.

Information technologies have facilitated the publication of scholarship on the Web. To some extent, it has altered old epistemologies of research and re-conceptualized ideas in forms that are quite interactive, global, and instantaneous (Okerson, 1991). Electronic publishing is certainly improving scholarly communication. First, it breaks the tyranny of distance between authors and editors, reviewers, and researchers. Second, it enhances global scholarly communication. Third, electronic publishing provides financial advantages, eliminating many of the costs associated with printing and distribution (Varian, 1998). Fourth, electronic journals are intrinsically archival, since it is easier to store back files of journals and linked scholarship together with hyperlinks.

In the West the concept of a digital library is a metaphor for a library of the future where journals and books can be accessed anywhere in the world over networks with storage on a single server. The substantial lower costs of digital storage mean that individual universities can maintain storage space or operate in consortia where space is shared by groups of academic institutions (Getz, 1997). In Lebanon, the American University of Beirut, Lebanon has been a pioneer in providing access to electronic databases; it subscribes to electronic publications which have encouraged other private universities in Lebanon to follow.

The cost of publishing print journals plays a fundamental role in this digital shift as Varian (1998) reports; typesetting costs are about US$15-25 per page not to mention the mark-up cost for copy editors. Because of cheap labor and high technology costs, publishers in the Arab world have been discouraged to move into the electronic medium. Typesetting costs in Lebanon range from US$7-10; in other parts of the Arab world the costs are lower.

 

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Accommodating the Cost of Publication

Print journals have always been considered as a privilege to researchers. As journals emerged from centers of power to the indigenous, they have always held a colonial spirit to them, influencing the indigenous researcher and thinker about research subjects and topics. Electronic journals to some degree have changed this relationship of authority by encouraging a plurality of voices. Digital journals have meant a reduced dependence on commercial publishing houses or academic presses. Associations, individuals, and non-profit university presses have transformed journal publishing by making new journals available on the Web and most are free. However, these journals have had to struggle competitively with many print sacholarly journals that have migrated to an Internet form, who have an added advantage of having their contents in both formats.

This Web frontier of publishing, according to Kling and Lamb (1996), emphasizes self-reliance and poses a challenge to many traditional publishing houses. Digital publishing arrived on the scene when there was a great deal of discontent in the West among academicians, librarians, and administrators with the rising costs of journals and the aggressive acquisition of non-profit journals by commercial publishers. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described how campus administrators, academic publishers, librarians, and non-profit association leaders were working together to deal with this crisis (Magner, 2000). Joining forces, they have created alternative strategies to counter costly journal acquisitions. These strategies include a new publishing venture and consortium to provide journals at more reasonable costs; improved archiving of scholarly publications; and, a common standards to assure wide access to scholarship on the Web. This serials crisis in American universities has been strongly felt as in other places in the world. Last year, in one of the institutions in which one of the authors of this paper serves, all chairpersons of various departments were asked to suggest print journals that could be discontinued; however an online service would be added that would provide access to more than 2,000 journal titles.

The rise in the cost of journals has ultimately brought into question the value of print journals compared to alternative formats. The Association of American Universities, for example, has been encouraging faculty members, universities, and specific scholarly societies to experiment with electronic publications as lower-priced alternatives. Just as individual scholars are dropping personal subscriptions to academic journals and turning to libraries and other sources, libraries are shifting from institutional subscriptions to consortia of academic institutions and the use of delivery services (Tenopir and King, 1997).

Commercial publishers have responded in part to this situation by taking many of their print journals and creating online parallel formats. For example, Taylor and Francis, an international publishing conglomerate, now offer subscriptions to all of their journals online. Non-subscribers can order articles online at a cost of US$15 to US$25 per article. Academic Press offers a subscription plan online, in which institutions can secure a site license for access to journals electronically in combination with print subscriptions (Abate, 1997). Journals are also becoming more accessible thanks to second party distributors, such as document delivery services. While non-profit Web journals represent the smallest group of scholarly distributors, they continue to grow as non-profit associations establish their own Web sites for their journals.

In the Middle East, universities like the American University of Beirut use distributors and jobbers to provide access to electronic publications. Notre Dame University, one of three American universities in Lebanon, subscribes to Infotrac, which performs searches as well as provides articles from a selection of 1,000 full text and 2,000 indexed journals and non-refereed journals at a cost six times less than the cost of its 400 print subscriptions. Other universities, like Lebanese University, lacks subscriptions to electronic services and has no network to connect its various campuses across the country. A small country like Lebanon has not been able to unify all of its university libraries, to create a consortium to purchase goods like journals and other materials.

None of the American universities in Lebanon are research oriented and none have had a healthy part of their budgets dedicated to library acquisitions. Notre Dame University, for instance, has set aside US$246,000 for journal subscriptions for a student body of 4,000. Lebanese University, the only public university in the country, has almost 60,000 registered students, but no centralized library; its budget for all of its libraries is US$435,000, which is slightly higher than that of Notre Dame University. None of its campuses around the country have access to the Internet nor are they equipped with technologies to access CD-ROMs, microfiche, or microfilm. Certainly, there appears to be a great deal of ignorance about the utility of electronic publishing. There is also a lack of awareness that there are hundreds of electronic journals that are free and available on the Web. With the rising costs of print materials and a limited library budget, there are a few individuals who use electronic publication to communicate their ideas and research. Qualitative evidence suggests that barriers such as a lack of a basic infrastructure overtly discourage researchers in the Arab world from developing and using information technologies to advance scholarly output. Certainly, there are meritorious scholars who publish extensively in the West and locally, such as Professor Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut who has over 40 publications in first tier journals. He prefers to interact directly with print and is not convinced that electronic publishing will ever replace print; for him it is a matter of style. However, many academicians may attribute value to publishing on a scale of academic work. Academicians in the Arab world assign electronic journals at the lower end of the scale, and any article published in them as a poor measure to academic performance.

 

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Attitudes among Academicians of Electronic Publishing

Electronic publishing is a frontier looked upon with great peculiarity in academic circles in Lebanon. One Lebanese scholar, for example, sees electronic publishing not in the same vein as that of print; he often demands students to exclude electronic references from their term papers. Another administrator and physicist has not used the Internet in his career and has not heard of the Los Alamos Archives, one of the largest preprint physics archives in the world (Wheary and Schutz, 1997). These attitudes do not encourage change; perceptions of publishing remain parochial.

In a recent conference on the use of information technology in higher education in Arab universities, held at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, the authors attempted to understand how Arab academicians view digital scholarly publishing. Systematic studies are non-existent in the Arab world on academician attitudes about the value of information technology or electronic publishing. Studies in the West by Schauder (1994), McEldowney (1995), and McKnight and Price (1999) found an increasing willingness of researchers in the West to submit articles to electronic journals, but also noted a concern about the permanence of digital media. A more recent study on the attitudes of 696 Canadian academicians towards electronic publishing found that more than half questioned the credibility of such journals (Archer, 2000). In all of these studies, questions probed scholars' attitudes about journal access, use, and credibility. Some of these studies demonstrated that those who work in information technology are more optimistic about digital technologies than other scholars. Some studies also found that scholars were ready to use electronic information, but felt that publishing in print was more credible than electronic formats.

We adapted Mceldowney's (1995) and Schauder's (1994) instruments and devised a questionnaire into a Likert scale. The questionnaire was distributed to by the authors to participants who were presenting a paper on the use of information technology at the aforementioned conference in Lebanon. The main questions are presented in Table 1. Scholars were present at the conference from a variety of academic fields ranging from medicine to the arts. In total, we were able to survey 21 academicians who presented papers on the use of information technology in their instruction. Although most of the respondents were pragmatic about the use of information technology, almost half of them felt that electronic publishing undermines academic rigor. Furthermore, those faculty members felt that publishing electronically should count towards promotion and more than 60% percent valued print as opposed to electronic publishing. Please keep in mind that only one respondent out of 21 has published in an electronic journal. However, 13 out of the 21 respondents have referred to electronic publications in their research. There appears a duality in the way that respondents view electronic publishing and make use of it. On one hand, academicians are willing to use electronic material to help advance their research, yet regard it as having less value in academic communication. We wanted also to see if our results were comparative to those of McEldowney (1995), who suggested that those directly involved in scientific research especially dealing with communications were more apt to use electronic published material for their own research. Of the 21 respondents, four came from science, engineering, and medicine. Obtaining their responses on the value of electronic publishing two respondents agreed with item 1 (see Table 1), and another two agreed also with the fact that electronic publishing should be counted toward promotion. None of the science faculty members have published in electronic journals. These results do not concur with McEldowney's (1995) study.

 

Table 1: Attitudes Toward Electronic Publishing: Percentages (Number) of Lebanese Respondents
(In some cases the total number od responses does not equal 21 because not all participants answered all questions)
Question
Agree
Do Not Know
Disagree
1. Electronic publishing undermines the integrity of academic rigor
52.4% (11)
4.8% (1)
19.0% (4)
2. Electronic publishing should be counted for faculty promotion
19.0% (4)
 
66.7% (3)
3. Electronic publishing is as important as hard print publishing
14.3% (3)
4.8% (1)
66.7% (14)
4. Electronic publishing is more important to non-tenured faculty than it is for tenured ones
9.5% (2)
61.9% (13)
23.8% (5)
 
Never
Sometimes
Frequently
5. Have you published in electronic journals?
71.4% (15)
23.8% (5)
4.8% (1)
6. Do you use electronic journals as references for your research and/or teaching?
14.3% (3)
61.9% (13)
23.8% (5)
7. Have you been involved in electronic research projects?
76.2% (10)
19.0% (4)
4.8% (1)
8. Have you considered publishing in an electronic journal?
47.6% (10)
38.1% (8)
14.3% (3)

 

Given the small sample, we cannot assume that this survey tells the whole story; nevertheless it provide pointers for further concerns and research. It is apparent that for some academicians electronic publishing is not highly regarded. Their fears are easily interpretable. Language is an important factor to many of the scholars who write in Arabic or even approach research problems from an indigenous approach; publishing on the Web does not serve or accommodate their own style. Currently, there are no electronic journals in Arab countries. Those who legitimize scholarship and strictly control the privilege of publishing in the Arab world demonize any form that competes or attempts to supercede the current Arab model. However this paucity of journals suggests that a radical shift to the electronic formats may provide a much awaited "post-Guttenberg" revolution in the Arab world.

 

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Conclusion

Skywriting, a metaphor for electronic publication, allows researchers to interact directly with their peers in the absence of editorial maneuvers. It is also a lively symposium allowing reviewers, editors, and authors to work together to produce scholarship worthy of publication. Despite the advantages of electronic publishing, Arab academics shun it because of its distribution mode or in light of their view of its legitimacy. We hope to see our own scholarly epistemologies considerably change in the Arab world so that the richness and vast use of electronic publishing can be appreciated by scholars as a means to communicate.

The greatest challenge electronic publishing now faces is acceptance among scholars. Scholars from Arab countries need to contribute to digital publications and realize the value of this medium for scholarly communication. A large number of academicians are petrified by the magnanimity of the Internet and what it bears. They often dare not to venture into this unknown, rejecting it as a vehicle for scholarly output. Arab scholars have to realize that the Internet is transforming scholarly output into a continuous dialogue between reviewers, cyber-reviewers, and authors. The results empower scholars and allows them to reach an international audience, which in turn will change perceptions about Arab scholarship.

These changes in the potential global reception to Arab scholarship cannot take place without a change in the negative attitudes of Arab researchers towards electronic publishing. These attitudes may change with training programs, improved infrastructure, and improved academic, political, and financial incentives to encourage digital scholarship. End of article

 

About the Authors

Ramzi Nasser is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Canada.
E-mail: rnasser@ubishops.ca

Kamal Abouchedid is Assistant Professor of Education at Notre Dame University in Zouk Mosbeh, Lebanon.
E-mail: kchedid@ndu.edu.lb

 

References

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R. Kling and R. Lamb, 1996. "Analyzing visions of electronic publishing and digital libraries," In: G. B. Newby and P. R. Peek (editors). Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 17-54.

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Editorial history

Paper received 4 August 2001; accepted 17 August 2001.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Problems and the Epistemology of Electronic Publishing in the Arab World: The Case of Lebanon by Ramzi Nasser and Kamal Abouchedid
First Monday, volume 6, number 9 (September 2001),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_9/nasser/index.html





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