Re: A Note of Caution About "Reforming the System"

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 16 Feb 2001 17:54:35 +0000

On Fri, 16 Feb 2001, Greg Kuperberg wrote:

> I am entitled to my own reasons for wanting an open archive of
> research papers.

Of course, and all reasons are welcome.

> I'll grant you that saving money is a worthy goal.

But it is not the (primary) goal of the self-archiving (sub)initiative.
That goal is to maximize research impact by removing needless
access-barriers (because financial access-barriers also happen to be

In other words, self-archiving is not done for the sake of solving the
library serials crisis or saving library money (though that may well
prove toto be one of its side-effects).

> But the costs have never impeded me all that much, not even indirectly
> through journal cancellations.

If you are among the lucky few who have exactly as much access to
exactly as much of the literature as you want and need, then your
problems are not the primary problems self-archiving is intended to

Most researchers on the planet are not in your lucky position. They
(and their institutions) cannot afford access to as much of the
literature as they want and need, not even close.

And most of the authors of the annual 2 million papers in the 20K
refereed journals (indexed by Ulrich's, probably an underestimate)
are not in the lucky position of having their findings read, cited and
built upon by all or even most of their potential readership.

It is the impact and access problems of these two enormous populations
that are at issue here.

But I am not so sure you are not in these populations yourself, after
all. Even if UC Davis can afford online access to all of the research
literature you need, is there not still the question of the potential
impact of your own papers, on those who cannot?

> The immediate drawbacks for me all along have been delay to publication
> and disorganization of the literature.

This immediacy below is certainly another strong benefit of online
self-archiving, but the inferences you make about it are more

> My dissatisfaction started with my very first research paper, which was
> written in my senior year in college but only finally distributed when
> I was finishing graduate school.
> My point in harping on peer review is
> that the devastating delay to publication in mathematics, half of which
> is due to stalling by referees, is also largely pointless.

Here is where you leave the domain of immediate, self-evident facts
(the benefits of free online access for all, both before and after
refereeing) for the domain of mere speculation.

Yes, refereeing delay is a regrettable fact of life. But as long as
people have more obligations than they can fulfill at once, and the
number of qualified experts is finite (and small), such delays will
remain with us.

So self-archive the pre-refereeing drafts too, by all means; but
throwing out the refereeing along with the delay would be throwing out
the baby with the bathwater...

> The math arXiv has brought real results in a second research discipline
> (after physics). I am not by any means the only supporter of the math
> arXiv, nor do I run it, but I have chipped in quite a bit over the past
> three years. Many of the other supporters share my reasons, and some of
> them have their own separate reasons. If, in addition to wanting open
> archives as you do, we also had to confine ourselves to your reasons
> for wanting them, you would be chasing away a lot of help.

But who says anything about confining anyone to any particular reasons
for self-archiving? Let people self-archive for whatever reasons they

But if their reason is that it is because they believe peer review is
unnecessary, let them express and act upon that belief by ceasing to
submit their work to peer reviewed journals (and see what happens), not
by portraying self-archiving as an alternative to peer review: It is no
such thing, as long as people keep on submitting all their work, as
they do, to peer-reviewed journals (exactly as they always did) -- no
matter what simultaneous notions they may have in their heads about
what the true significance of what they are doing might be.

And please don't reply (again) that the only reason they keep
submitting their work to peer-reviewed journals is because of the
demands of tenure committees. That too is speculation. No one on this
planet has the slightest idea what would become of the quality of the
research literature without peer review, so until the experiment is
done, I think untested peer review reform notions (hypotheses) should
not be coupled in any way with the refereed-literature liberation
movement (a sure thing), for all they can do is impede it.

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
Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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