Re: Scholar's Forum: A New Model For Scholarly Communication

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_COGLIT.ECS.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Mon, 3 May 1999 12:58:26 +0100

> Date: Sat, 1 May 1999 15:12:05 +0100 (BST)
> From: Stevan Harnad <>
> To: Anne Buck <>
> Lib Serials list <serialst_at_LIST.UVM.EDU>

    SF = Scholar's Forum sh = Stevan Harnad

note that since i'm unfamiliar with the above lists, i'm not Cc'ing to
avoid inappropriate or off-topic posting. but the comments below are
open and may be forwarded as desired (as long as context kept intact
and comments unedited).

sh> Subject: Re: Scholar's Forum: A New Model For Scholarly Communication
sh> First, let me make it explicit, as I have done before, that the CalTech
sh> initiative is very welcome and should be supported. Let us in no way
sh> balkanize our efforts over minor local differences. The overall idea is
sh> excellent, timely, and should be pursued with energy and speed.

(yes. but sometimes too many mentions of "short-sighted banalities",
"empty nonsense", "content-free", "amateurism and quackery" tend to
exaggerate the "minor local differences".)

a major criticism that stevan makes is that the proposal should really
have as its the natural target the authors (or perhaps their sponsoring
institutions, whether physical or funding), not publishers; and
currently that structure is not so clear.

another major concern in the proposal itself is the substantial
infrastrcture required:

SF> Before this is accomplished, research universities must assemble a
SF> Consortium to support the development and implementation of this model.
SF> The Consortium must assign lead participants from university IT
SF> departments, libraries, and faculty; identify and define elements of
SF> cost and develop a budget; establish a production schedule; develop
SF> underlying systems, standards, and protocols to enable champions,
SF> editors to create new journals; and attract funding from within the
SF> Consortium and from external sources.

this will require far too high a degree of cooperation and coordination
of interested parties in advance of getting anything off the ground
(especially considering that the research enterprise is global, not
just a national enterprise), so there must be some way to nucleate
instead on a smaller scale and grow from there (or in multiple places
and coalesce) rather than awaiting some solution to the chicken-and-egg

SF> Universities have close ties to professional societies, have expertise
SF> in information technology, and have a large pool of creative student
SF> programmers who can contribute to the infrastructure developments that
SF> will be needed.

(and for this to come to fruition i'm afraid one would have to wait
roughly as long as for the proverbial group of chimpanzees in front of
typewriters to generate the complete works of shakespeare)

sh> It follows that LANL is not a "model," but a proven, working principle.

sadly, authors are not always ready to act in manifest self-interest,
and we don't yet know precisely what forms of encouragement will be
required in other disciplines. (but we do know something more will be
needed, otherwise none of this discussion would be necessary -- all
fields would already be well on their way...)

sh> What is undeniable is that the current refereed journal literature, such
sh> as it is, is and has always been an invaluable resource to researchers.

"always" is a long time, and the current implementation of peer review
is actually a relatively recent construct. it's not at all obvious that
a one-size-fits-all approach is optimal for all disciplines --
certainly many practitioners of my own discipline would dispute the
efficacy or necessity of "classical peer review" to the advancement of
science. i certainly wouldn't be willing to presume to say for
other disciplines either that it simply must be maintained as is or that it
must simply be discarded -- that's their business.

but it is true that a raw distribution system should have a much better
chance to be based on universal principles (though even this can be
controversial, with some prominent researchers proclaiming absolutely
that their discipline would "never" be attracted to distribution of
unrefereed material ---never clear if these are representative or just
the most vocal, but they certainly exist so can't be dismissed out of

it is also true that the details of the raw distribution scheme can be
considered both before and at a logically distinct level from whether
or how exactly the peer review and other information is layered on.

SF> We are adamant in our belief that "self-archiving" to a single
SF> pre-print server by authors when they submit a work is not building an
SF> archive.

submissions to the LANL archives may turn out to be of greater
longevity than that belief (i.e., i wouldn't bet against it just yet).

SF> Archiving involves a commitment to retain and maintain a work in a
SF> secure, systematic fashion beyond the foreseeable future.

i am very skeptical of those who commit to see *beyond* the foreseeable

sh> I don't know what "duplicative journals" means, and no one wants to put
sh> publishers out of business.

(i believe SPARC does?)

SF> The Forum establishes a mechanism by which a society, group, conference
SF> committee, etc. may process and post their collected works without
SF> having to develop an infrastructure of their own. Once
SF> a standards and protocols platform is developed, it will be tested
SF> with people who have no established journals of their own before it is
SF> opened to general use.
sh> Societies, conferences, journals, etc. already have standards and
sh> protocols, and these are not uniform, nor should they be; nor is there
sh> any reason for them to want to submit their standards and protocols to
sh> any other body: This is not where the problem lies!

looks like simple misunderstanding -- at least some of the standards
and protocols mentioned would simply be technical, involving storage
and transmission formats and object identification schemes.
even (or especially) a self-archive would need some uniform standards.

SF> In addition, this platform will enable individuals to establish their
SF> own subject profiles to create personal alerting services.
sh> Also irrelevant and trivial. Why speak of such short-sighted banalities
sh> in the same breath as the revolutionary possibility of freeing the
sh> entire journal literature online?

perhaps, but there is a practical matter of making encouraging authors
recognize their self-interest and participate.

as a matter of historical fact, the LANL archives owe *all* of their
initial growth starting in '91 precisely to the daily e-mail alerts of
new material received (according to subject matter). while one might
have expected the later web access to replace this in some way, it is a
matter of empirical fact that users of the archive insist on retaining
the e-mail alert as an essential component. it is not supererogatory to
mention some of the little details that can magically facilitate the
more revolutionary possibilities in the long-term.

SF> 6. The Forum does not propose to change the peer review
sh> But then why mention peer review at all?

maybe so they won't be taken to task for appearing to want to change
peer review? (oops, can't win, they'll get taken to task anyway...)

SF> The Forum does not want to take it over, and become a megajournal

no one is suggesting megajournal, not sure why that strawperson
frequently re-emerges.

SF> Editorial Boards will continue to be established just as today by the
SF> scientific community, to serve the same critical needs.
sh> This passage has absolutely no content. It is like saying that life
sh> will go on: Of course peer review will proceed apace. Why even mention
sh> it, or link it in any way with the substantive thing the Forum is
sh> trying to do?

perhaps to make it clear precisely which elements of the current system
one expects to maintain in the short term? not everyone takes it for
granted that the current peer review system should or can be maintained
without modification, so this explains where they stand on this issue
(and if coming down in favor of the concept of classical peer review is
necessarily content-free, then others are equally guilty in this

SF> The Forum proposes to eliminate the need for an editorial board to
SF> contract with or become a publisher to accomplish copy-editing, by
SF> establishing lists of approved consultants or services to whom an
SF> author may take a work that needs to be brought up to the board's
SF> standards.
sh> It is beyond me why any of this is even being mentioned

it is certainly premature to worry about copy editing in any detail, or
of how to create additional infrastructure to certify copy editors...

SF> Conference organizers will have the opportunity to distribute abstracts
SF> or preliminary works prior to a conference without incurring the
SF> expense of printing and mailing, thus reducing the costs associated
SF> with publicizing a conference.
sh> LANL, by the way, has already implemented this for at least one
sh> conference I know of, with no fanfare, and without any implication that
sh> any new principles are involved: The unrefereed conference literature
sh> is virtually preprint literature anyway. Conference overlays, to add

there are many conference proceedings in the LANL archives. these have
always been among the most natural for the archives, with authors
supplying "camera-ready" copy to the archives and editors providing the
overlay of links that constitutes the proceedings.

SF> 10. The Forum proposes to develop a dynamic alternative to
SF> deadening email discourse surrounding works in servers. By providing
SF> a hierarchical "threaded" discourse platform, comments may be linked
SF> in a coherent and logical manner. Readers will have access to the
SF> full discussion rather than to edited email commentary.

it is true that such platforms already exist, and they're not obviously
optimal for scholarly discourse, where one might actually prefer an
edited e-mail commentary, or one in which only the threads that
actually lead somewhere auspicious are highlighted.

SF> To facilitate this new mode of discussion, the Forum will develop the
SF> mechanisms to support and retain linked commentary.
sh> Eminently worthwhile feature, but already proposed by the American
sh> Physical Society in 1992, and as obvious a capability for an online
sh> archive as citation-linking.

actually this probably refers to something we considered in 1994, and
it wasn't with the APS

sh> Please, forget about models and paradigms! Apart from a few platitudes
sh> along with a few bloopers, which should all be dropped, we have here a
sh> proposal to extend the proven LANL principle to the rest of the
sh> disciplines. Go ahead and do it! It will work, and a free, globally
sh> accessible learned journal literature WILL produce a new paradigm for the

the question is whether the "scholar's forum" is intended to be an
implementation plan or a possible end-state model.

it is unlikely as the former, since it would have to spring essentially
fully formed from the head of zeus. most of stevan's comments criticize
this, and he emphasizes instead to focus on the most practical first

as an end-state model, ignoring how exactly we could tunnel there from
here, it is not clear what exactly will be the incentives for publisher
participation. (stevan's model for supporting the organizers of peer
review entirely through page charges at least constitutes a financial
incentive structure, though some of the details of how exactly existing
publishers [whom he states he wished to see remain in the game,
maintaining the same journals as currently] could smoothly get from
here to there remain problematic [or else once again, maybe they'd
already be moving in that direction...])

Paul Ginsparg
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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