Re: The Urgent Need to Plan a Stable Transition

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_COGSCI.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Wed, 2 Sep 1998 09:44:44 -0400

On 4 September 1998 in Science magazine there will be an article on the
topic of "Who Should 'Own' Scientific Papers?" by the members of the
study, "The Transition from Paper," sponsored by the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences, proposing that it be made a condition of funding
that authors retain copyright (hence the right to archive) for all
published reports of the funded research. It will be accompanied by a
dissenting Editorial by Floyd Bloom, Editor of Science:

On 12 December 1996 the following text appeared on the USENET newsgroup:


The American Psychological Association (APA) is the learned society
that publishes the most prestigious journals in Psychology:

The APA has since its inception in 1990 been providing support for
Psycoloquy, a free, refereed, online-only journal:

The APA's counterpart in Physics, the APS, has since officially
allowed its authors to publicly archive both their preprints and
their reprints on the Web:


>From: harnad_at_phoenix.Princeton.EDU (Stevan Harnad)
>Newsgroups: sci.psychology.research
>Subject: Re: APA Discourages Internet Publishing
>Date: 12 Dec 1996 01:36:37 GMT
>Organization: Princeton University
>Lines: 375

> From: (Alan D Mead)
> Subject: APA Discourages Internet Publishing
> Date: 6 Dec 1996 00:01:20 GMT

> The latest APA Monitor has a small article on page 15 discouraging
> researchers from making their work available on the Internet. This
> seems to some (i.e., beside myself) to be in contrast to recent
> precedent allowing the current of circulating prepublication copies of
> manuscripts to colleagues for comment. I have also seen innumerable
> instances of papers being "published" as technical reports and then
> submitted for Journal publication; as far as I know, this practice was
> also permitted.

The publishers of paper journals are (understandably) worried about
their revenue flow if people make their work available for free on the
Net. But the reality is that there is a huge conflict of interest here:
What's best for the publisher is definitely not best for the author
(not to mention the reader).

There is only one way that this conflict of interest can be resolved.
That resolution is inevitable, and it is optimal: The much-reduced cost
per page for producing a peer-reviewed all-electronic journal is much
more sensibly paid for by authors rather than by readers. The cost will
be written into research grants as part of the expense of disseminating
the results. And the work will be available to all readers for free.

If this solution is not obvious to you, then you need to remind
yourself of a few facts about the differences between scientific
periodical publishing and trade publishing: Trade authors are selling
their texts, hence there is no conflict of interest between themselves
and their publishers: Both want to charge for access, and to prevent
theft of their product. But the authors of scholarly/scientific
articles are not selling their texts: No author makes a penny from
their articles in APA journals or in any other learned journal. Their
reward is elsewhere: in making their findings known to their fellow
specialists and in receiving academic credit and advancement for their

The present conflict of interest seems to be coming to a head at the
prepublication stage: If authors make their papers available on the Web
in the form of the unrefereed preprint, then publishers feel there is a
risk that readers will no longer consult the refereed, published
version in paper. I think this fear is misplaced. When there is so much
unmoderated garbage on the Net, it is highly unlikely that readers will
want to spend their limited time in winnowing through it all, looking
for what's worth reading and can be trusted. So electronic preprints
are not really a direct threat to paper journal revenues.

They are definitely an indirect threat, though, in two ways:

First, because of the conflict of interest, it is highly unlikely that
authors will comply very long with the ironic directive to remove their
preprint from the public eye on the Net at the moment of PUBLICation of
the refereed version. They will instead do the natural thing, which is
to withdraw the obsolete unrefereed preprint from their electronic
archive and swap the refereed, accepted, final draft in its place. Ask
yourself what earthly incentive a scholar/scientist might have for
blocking access to his findings precisely at the moment that they are
meant to be made public in their final, validated form.

Second, the locus classicus of their work will rapidly become the Net:
That is where people will find it first, and that is where they will
continue to seek it. There is no contest between the power and scope of
having the entire literature at your disposal on your desk whenever you
want it versus doing it the old way (ordering a reprint, going to the
library, interlibrary loan, or personal subscription).

Invoking copyright to try to force authors to keep their refereed work
out of the public eye except for those who pay to view it will simply
fail: Copyright only works if the author wishes to protect his work
from theft. And let everyone be clear about the fact that "theft" by a
reader is a very different sort of thing from theft by an author. The
theft of a scholarly/scientific article by a reader is a victimless
crime insofar as the author is concerned. If you want proof of this,
remind yourself that most authors have been willing to pay good-sized
sums to purchase reprints that they then mail to reprint-requesters.
Consider the Net as one big repository of authors' free reprints.

So "theft" by a reader is not theft from the author in nontrade
publication, and hence "violations" of copyright by readers are not
violations at all -- from the author's point of view. We will defer the
question of whether it is theft from the publisher for a moment. For
the time being let us just recall that there is a profound conflict of
interest here, an old conflict whose resolution was born with this new

The other kind of theft -- another author that steals the text and
publishes it as his own -- is definitely not a crime the real author
wishes to encourage. The Net, it is true, has made it much easier to
plagiarise, and authors will be very eager to ensure their priority and
to detect any instances of auctorial theft. A proper system of
date-stamping and encryption can ensure priority at least as well as
paper publication can, and the theft of text, though easier to
accomplish, is also easier to detect on the Net. In any case, this
second sense of copyright protection is the author's concern, and it is
even the concern of the author of a paper preprint. Authors can
presumably make up their own minds about whether their articles are
likely to be so important that someone else may want to steal them and
pass them off for their own.

I will now pass into quote/comment mode:

> The article says researchers should consider three points before they
> make their work accessible on the Internet:
> 1. Some editors may consider works posted on the Internet as
> previously published (and thus not generally publishable under APA
> policy).

It is not the journal editor (who is simply a member of the peer
author/reader community) who would object to considering manuscripts
that have appeared on the Net as unrefereed preprints, it is the
publisher. This is again the conflict of interest I spoke of.

In any case, this would be an unenforceable injunction. At best, it can
only force authors to make some cosmetic changes to the title and
format of the version they make available electronically, so that it is
not obvious that it is the same draft as the submitted version. At
worst, authors will openly ignore it, forcing editors to become
Net-sleuths, trawling hopelessly for lookalikes of every submitted

Even if detected and confronted, the author could rightly claim that
until the final draft is accepted by the referee, prior drafts are
simply that: prior drafts, which the author is and always has been free
to circulate for comments that might help improve the final version.
And unlike the case of photo-copying, it is not the page-images that
are archived on the Net but the bits, which are the author's
intellectual property, and can be reformatted into a new entity at

> 2. Articles posted on the Internet may be considered public domain and
> thus could be "incorporated into some else's work and copyrighted."

This is utter nonsense. Eprints are no more "public-domain" than paper
preprints. The Net does make it simpler to steal texts, to be sure, but
there are powerful ways to establish priority electronically. And it's
enough of a job to get one's papers read and understood, let alone
worrying that others have nothing better to do than to claim to have
written them.

> 3. Posting published papers could violate the journal's copyright.

It is not at all clear that it would be: If distributing free reprints
of one's own work is not a violation of copyright, neither is
distributing free eprints. It would be inadvisable for publishers to be
too explicit about forbidding free electronic distribution in their
copyright agreement lest they make the deep conflict of interest
involved here too apparent, and thereby inadvertently hasten the
optimal and the inevitable.

In any case, there is no need to treat this question hypothetically:
There has already been a test case: Paul Ginsparg's remarkable Physics
Eprint Archive at Los Alamos ( [Since 1991] it has
already "captured" almost 75% of the physics literature, and not once
has anyone dared to invoke copyright. The momentum is simply too large,
and the conflict of interest too obvious. The APS (American Physical
Society) is simply trying to come to terms with this, negotiating a
cooperative solution whereby it can continue to provide the quality
control and validation (through peer review, editing, and formal
acceptance), but the locus classicus for both the unrefereed preprint
and its refereed, edited successor has clearly become, and will remain,
the Electronic Archive.

My prediction is that as libraries begin to cancel subscriptions, the
economic model for cost-recovery will shift from the reader-end
subscription or site licence or pay-per-view model to the author-end
page charges I mentioned earlier. That is the natural way to pay for
the dissemination of refereed scientific/scholarly research findings.

> And thus the APA's Publications and Communications board has adopted an
> interim policy to the effect that
> 1. researchers should not allow Internet access to their work

This is a hopeless injunction: How will it be enforced? And how will
authors be persuaded that it is in any way in their own interests? On
the contrary, it will highlight the conflict of interest (and hence the
optimal and inevitable solution).

> 2. that researchers who ignore #1 run the risk of having their work
> "stolen, altered" and "not eligible for submission"

We have [eight] years of successful public archiving of papers in
physics without anything like this. Why should psychology be any

> 3. the APA (which generally owns the copyright to your work after it
> is published) does not allow the full text of any APA-copyrighted
> work to be placed on the Internet.

The APA will find a way to allow authors to make their papers available
for free on the Net. Trust me. [The Ametican Physical Society has
already done so.] They will also find a way to recover the costs and
make a fair profit on the essential service they provide, namely,
quality control and validation through peer review (and editing).

> The issue of publishability is, perhaps, the most problematic as tenure
> and professional advancement in academic (and to a lesser extent
> non-academic) positions depends upon a publication record and non-
> peer-reviewed publication outlets are seldom given appreciable weight
> by tenure and hiring committees.

Correct. So everyone should be clear on the fact that unrefereed
preprints are not refereed publications. Refereeing (and editing) are
medium-independent. There will continue to be a hierarchy of journals,
based on the rigour of their peer review and the quality of their
authors and articles. This too is medium-independent.
Promotion-committees will continue to put greater weight on
publications in APA journals than on publications in other journals. It
is just that the medium in which people will be accessing and
retrieving the refereed literature will change.

> Does anyone know how a work can become public domain simply by allowing
> it to be accessible from the Internet? This seems at odds with the
> spirit of US copyright law and common sense...

It is not just at odds; it is false.

> Does anyone know anything more about the motives and rationale of the
> editors? I have heard some researchers actually accuse the APA of
> being frightened of the Internet; allegedly the Internet is a threat to
> the profitability and perhaps the existence of traditional journals.
> This seems obviously false to me; am I missing something?

It is not obviously false, but it is only a half-truth: Yes, the
electronic medium will force paper journal publishers to restructure
themselves: They will have to abandon the trade model (which had always
sat uneasily with research publication, where the authors were not
interested in selling their words but in advertising their validated
work, to put it crudely) and to adopt a different economic model for
cost recovery. There will be considerable scaling down, which will
reduce the absolute profit, but there will still be a fair profit to be
made from providing the service of peer review, validation and editing
to the research community.

The following files are on the Web or retrievable by ftp at the
URLs below:
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:45:26 GMT