Replies to questions about "electronic journals"

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 12:02:39 +0100

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 29 Sep 2000 11:37:36 +0100 (BST)
From: Stevan Harnad <>

> Do you believe that electronic journals are more effective than print to
> disseminate research? If so, why?

Yes, much moreso, because:

    (1) they can be disseminated to everyone, everywhere, instantly (no
    advanced printing, no mailing), forever

    (2) they can all be accessed from a desktop (no walking to

    (3) they can be searched online, digitally

    (4) they take up no space

    (5) they can be easily cut/paste/quote/commented

    (6) they can be printed-off only if needed (a lot of journal use is
    just scanning/skimming: best done on-screen rather than on-paper)

    (7) they can be reference-linked online to the online papers they
    cite and are cited by (also to data and comments and responses and
    corrections and updates): see

    (8) the downloads, citations, and general "digital embryology" can
    be used to develop rich, new "scientometric" measures of impact,
    influence, time-course in the growth of knowledge: see:

    (9) most important of all: all obsolete access/impact-barriers of
    the costly on-paper medium can now be bypassed, and the refereed
    research literature can all be freed online, through author

> Why is open, free access of peer-reviewed journals important?

Because the purpose of doing and reporting publicly funded research is
to make the findings public, so all interested researchers can read,
cite and use the findings. That is why they are published. And that is
why researchers publish them (and have always published them) for

The only reason tolls were ever charged for this give-away literature
(which is completely unlike the rest of the literature -- books,
magazines, etc. -- which is, and will remain all NON-give-away) is that
the true costs in the on-paper era made those access-tolls necessary if
the research was to be publicized at all.

But those gate-tolls (subscription, site-license, pay-per-view S/L/P)
were always at odds with the purposes of publicly reporting the
refereed research: a necessary evil. They restricted a report's
potential impact (on other researchers, on research, on citations)
arbitrarily to those institutions that could afford to pay the S/L/P.

Most institutions cannot afford most journals; none can afford anything
near all of them. And there is no longer any reason for this at all.
Online access to all the papers in all the journals can now be made
free to everyone, everywhere, through institutional author

So the short answer is: access/impact barriers to research findings are
bad for researchers and for research. They were unavoidable, because of
real costs, in the Gutenberg on-paper medium; they can now be
eliminated completely, in the PostGutenberg, online medium.

> Will open access open the peer review process? If so, how will free access
> change the way that publications are reviewed?

I don't know what you mean by "open the peer review process". The
immediate, attainable objective is to free the current peer-reviewed
literature SUCH AS IT IS. The question of new (perhaps on-line-based)
ways of improving peer review is a completely different one and should
be kept separate from what we are discussing now.

I happen to have an interest in peer review reform too, but that is an
untested, experimental area, where innovations must first be carefully
tried to see whether they work, whether they manage to maintain (or
improve) the quality of refereed research. Such yet-to-be-tested
hypotheses should in no way be confused with, or wrapped into, an
objective whose outcome is certain to be beneficial, and is immediately
attainable, namely: the freeing of the current refereed literature
online, right now, through author auto-archiving.

> Why are some scientists, etc. reluctant to publish their works online? Is
> trust a factor? How can Web journals gain credibility?

Your premise is wrong. All the top journals already have online
versions; soon all journals will have them. So anyone who publishes in
a journal is eo ipso publishing online!

What you MIGHT mean is one of two other things:

(a) Why are there still few online-ONLY journals (the rest are all
hybrid, with both on-paper and on-line versions available)? And why
do many of THOSE not survive?

The answer is very simple: Any new journal is competing with the
established journals. So even new on-paper journals have survival
problems. Authors prefer to trust the tried and true established
journals (and they are right to do so). Only if there is a new niche to
fill, and quality work to fill it with, does a new refereed journal
succeed. Now in the case of a new online-only journal, it has two
strikes against it: it is a new journal; and it is in a new medium.
Authors feel safer sticking with the old on two counts.

But now that the established journals are going hybrid, authors and
readers are getting used to the concept and use and advantages of the
online version, and that will reduce the second count (the new medium)
against new on-line journals. But as new journals, they will always
face the first count. And whatever new online features the new
online-only journals will try to lure authors with, the online-edition
of the established journals will be able to offer too!

So I think that online-only journals will only prevail (almost by
definition) if and when there is no more demand for the on-paper
edition, and ALL journals become online-only. Brand-new online-only
journal start-ups NOW are not an especially interesting proposition
except when they happen to have unique features that the established
journals lack (such as a specialty niche that would immediately benefit
from online multimedia features, etc.)

(b) Alternatively, your question might have been not about the
reluctance of authors to publish their work in new online-only
journals, but about their slowness to go on to self-archive the same
papers that they are also publishing in the existing journals.

This is indeed an interesting historic phenomenon; and it is a historic
fact that in this regard, Physicists have been the fastest off the mark
(130,000 papers have been self-archived in the Los Alamos Online
Physics Eprint Archive since 1991) -- probably because Physicists are
smarter and more serious about research than the rest of us, but not
because there is something special about Physics.

The rest of the sciences and scholarly disciplines will catch up, and I
am betting that the critical missing feature that will get the academic
horses to drink from the waters of self-archiving will be the
availability (in a few weeks, free) of interoperable,
Open-Archive-compliant auto-archiving software that all universities
and research institutions can install easily, creating distributed
institutional open archives in which their authors can immediately, and
easily, auto-archive all their papers; these will all be harvested into
a global virtual archive, containing the entire refereed literature,
and searchable and retrievable (full text) by the same means (author,
title, journal name, key words, etc.) by which would be searched and
retrieved if the entire refereed journal literature were all in each
researcher's institution's own private online collection.

But I am certain that Physics is by no means the only discipline that
benefits from having its literature freed online: All disciplines will
benefit from the elimination of these obsolete impact-barriers,
hold-overs from the Gutenberg era.

> Is peer review the greatest topic of debate for authors in publishing
> online? If so, why?

No it is not. So there is no "why". There is no debate about getting the
refereed literature online; it has been happening very fast anyway.
There IS a debate about whether to free it, and how.

There have also been various peer-review-reform proposals floated, but
as I said, these are another issue, and as yet untested.

   Harnad, S. (1998/2000) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature
   [online] (5 Nov. 1998)
   Longer version in Exploit Interactive 5 (2000):

There was also some controversy about this in connection with the
"ebiomed" proposal as well as a number of other proposals that keep
getting floated (never by experienced journal editors, but usually by
authors, sometimes disgruntled ones, or students or programmers) about
how peer review could be improved. See the amsci-forum above.

> Why do most online journals fail?

I have replied to this already: Main reason: they are new journals;
secondary reason: it is a new medium. This will change, with the
established journals all going online (and a few online-only journals
becoming established journals)! My own Psycoloquy journal, among
others, is getting there now; after 10 years it is at last being
indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information and the American
Psychological Association's PSYCInfo. see:

> Are electronic journals a threat to print journals?

Not at all, because, as I said, all print journals are going online
anyway (and new journals are not a threat to established journals)!

Author auto-archiving might eventually become a threat to both the
print version of established journals and to their overall economic
model. I believe publishers will eventually be forced to downsize to
providing only the essential service of peer review (whose minimal
costs will be paid for on a per-accepted-paper-bases at the
author-institution end, out of a small portion of the annual
institutional S/L/P cancellation savings), and all the rest will be
taken care of by the world network of distributed institutional
author-auto-archives (probably administered by the institutional

The print edition, and the publisher's deluxe online edition, will be
optional add-ons: The give-away refereed research itself will no longer
be held hostage to the costs of those add-ons, all the needless
access/impact barriers will be gone, and researchers and research
itself (hence all of us) will be the beneficiaries, for "impact" (on
knowledge, and our lives) is what it is all about.

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00):

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Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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