Re: PostGutenberg Copyrights and Wrongs for Give-Away Research

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2001 15:38:34 +0100

On Mon, 23 Jul 2001, Sally Morris wrote:

> I was particularly interested in what Stevan said about journals: "We have
> the established journal, with its reliable, known, quality-control "tag,"
> its name, associated until now with articles of a known kind and quality."
> I think this is an enormously important aspect of what journals (and those
> who create and publish them) actually do. The journal is a kind of
> 'envelope' in which readers can be reasonably confident of finding content
> on a particular subject, possibly with a particular editorial slant or
> article type, and of a certain general quality standard.

But let us not forget that the quality of a journal is owed entirely to
the quality of its peer reviewing (and peers review for free).

So whereas it is indeed the journal's quality tag, certifying the
quality level of its contents, that authors and users need, the two
critical, substantive components on which it is based -- the research
report itself, and the referee reports on it -- are always provided
gratis by researchers. The journal merely implements this peer review
process (processes the manuscript, selects the referees, processes
their reports) -- an essential service, but a highly circumscribed

The rest of what journals provide -- on-paper and on-line versions of
the text, distribution, on-line enhancements like reference-linking,
etc.) are merely optional add-ons. They are not the essentials. Yet
that is what 90% of journal subscriptions and licenses pay for. The peer
review accounts for only 10% of the cost, and, if ever there is no
longer a market for the optional add-ons, the essentials can be paid
for up-front, by the authors' institutions, in the form of
quality-control costs for its OUTGOING refereed research, out of 10% of
its annual windfall savings from what had previously been (and is
currently) its subscription/license budget for INCOMING research.

> An established journal which performs this function doesn't just happen.
> Publishers carry out extensive market research to discover whether an idea
> for a new journal (which may have been suggested by an academic, or by a
> member of the publisher's staff) has any viability in terms of potential
> authors and readers. If the idea looks viable, then considerable time,
> effort and money will be invested in creating and launching the journal,
> which is unlikely to bring in any profit/surplus whatsoever for 5 years or
> more.

All true, but largely irrelevant to the question of freeing the
refereed research literature. The start-up costs in question were those
of establishing a paper journal. Start-up costs for on-line-only
journals are much lower, and for online-only journals that provide only
the peer-review, and none of the add-ons, they will be lower still. And
since all their contents can be archived, permanently, in OAI-compliant
Eprint Archives, their accessibility in perpetuo is far better ensured
even if their speciality niche proves unsustainable after a few years
than is the accessibility in perpetuo of unsustainable paper-journal
start-ups (of which there are plenty, despite market research).

So the market-research is a bit of a red herring -- as is the whole
question of start-ups. For it is the contents of the established
refereed journals that need to be freed online, now, not those of
future start-ups.

> Publishers don't always get it right - some new journals never reach
> profitability; they may be closed, merged with another journal, or
> continued because the publisher believes the journal is worthwhile and
> can afford to support it out of other sources of profit.

True, and all fine -- as long as the sought-after profitability for the
optional add-ons (on-paper, online, "value-added enhancement") is not
reached-for at the expense of free access to the peer-reviewed drafts;
in other words, as long as the essentials are not held hostage to the

> I think the discussions on this list have tended to overlook this
> important - perhaps the most important - aspect of what journal publishers
> actually do.

I don't think they overlook it at all: They simply place it in its new
PostGutenberg context.

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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