Re: Reasons for freeing the primary research literature

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 18 Aug 2001 18:48:11 +0100

Sorry for a bit of phase lag here:

> Jim Till wrote:
> >
> > reasons WHY the primary research literature should be freed
> >
> > - Information gap: Libraries and researchers in poor countries can't
> > afford most of the journals that they need. [1a]
> >
> > - Library crisis: Libraries and researchers in rich countries can't
> > afford some of the journals that they need. [1b]
> >
> > - Public property: The results of publicly-funded research should be
> > publicly-available. [1c]
> >
> > - Academic freedom: Censorship based on cost rather than quality
> > can't be justified. [1d]

All good reasons (except 1d, which is nonsense) but misses the most
important reason if all, and the one that will prove to be the critical
causal factor:

  -- Peer-reviewed research articles are author give-aways, published
     for only two reasons: to VALIDATE that research, through peer
     OF that research for research and researchers. Access fees prevent
     this maximal access, uptake and impact. In the Gutenberg era, true
     costs dictated that access fees were necessary if there was to be
     any access at all. In the PostGutenberg (online) era, this is no
     longer true.

That's the gist of it. It's a conflict of interest that can at last be
resolved in favor of research itself, through author/institution
self-archiving of all peer-reviewed research articles. The other three
reasons are worthy ones (and even 1d can be reconstrued in a way that
makes sense, but has nothing to do with censorship); but like world
hunger, disease or poverty, they do not have any direct remedies unless
someone is ready to fund them. Fortunately, the self-archiving
initiative can indirectly remedy them too.

On Thu, 16 Aug 2001, Arthur Smith wrote:

> self-archiving does not solve... the library crisis, because it
> still relies heavily on the current journal system, which continues to
> be able to (and needs to) charge a lot to the libraries.

Two points of logic:

(i) Once there is a free online version of every peer-reviewed paper
available online through author/institution self-archiving, the
libraries will have more choice about what they want to continue paying
S/L/P fees to access.

(ii) The true costs for the essential service that journals will
continue to be heavily relied upon to provide are the costs of
implementing peer review. As those costs are much (70-90%) lower than
S/L/P, it will always be possible to cover them out of the
institutional S/L/P savings from (i).

So, yes, self-archiving alone does not itself solve the library serials
crisis, but it is quite clear that it paves the way for a solution...

> There is no savings to the journal publishers from author
> self-archiving, though there may be some in the long run from more
> fully electronic processes.

Correct. What self-archiving does is to free the refereed literature.
But that is an eminently worthy, attainable, and indeed overdue objective
in and of itself.

And, in addition, it can than induce a causal chain that will both
solve the library serials crisis and hasten PostGutenberg
refereed-journal publishers' inevitable downsizing to becoming
peer-review service providers and certifiers, instead of sellers of
texts as they were in the Gutenberg era.

> The only real solution to [the library serials crisis] is either Albert
> Henderson's (more funding for libraries)

Except that there is virtually no human problem (including hunger,
disease and poverty) that could not in principle be solved if there were
the funds to solve it...

Besides, why should funds, even if they existed, be redirected from
whatever they are currently committed to just -- to bail out an
obsolete S/L/P system? (And still legions of Have-Nots with no access!)

> or something like the Provost's proposal - a radically revised form of
> funding for scientific publication, or else a complete revamping of
> peer review itself.

I'm not sure which of the Provosts' Proposals you have in mind (there
have been a few!):

Provost Shulenberger's:

Provost Phelps's:

Either way, as they sort out their logic and their strategy, I hope
Provosts are in any case converging on the self-archiving initiative,
as it is really what was inherent in their proposals all along:

As to a "radically revised form of funding for scientific publication":
Apart from the fact that this is not just about science, and it is not
about all forms of publication, just refereed journals, it seems to
me there is no need to do any radical revision yet. First we need to
free the refereed literature through author/institution self-archiving,
then we need to see what becomes of S/L/P. There's no harm in some
advance planning for a possible transition, but surely infinitely more
important is getting on with the freeing (self-archiving) itself!

And I have no idea what a "complete revamping of peer review itself"
might mean: Surely we need to test modifications of peer review before
implementing them. Moreover, reforming or revamping peer-review is
another agenda, not part of the agenda of freeing the peer-reviewed
literature, such as it is, right now.

> The information gap problem (your 1a) is wonderfully solved by any means
> of electronic distribution, assuming the receiving end has the
> appropriate connectivity, which seems pretty much universal now. Many
> journals have adopted policies of country-wide site licensing, or much
> lower subscription rates for third world countries. Things are not free,
> but certainly are becoming much more available to the less advantaged.

I'll believe that when the "less advantaged" say it is so. Until the
the 2M+ annual refereed articles in the 20K+ refereed journals are
available to any and every researcher who has online access at all,
this is just so much "let them eat cake"!

(By the way, there are far more Third-World, Have-Not libraries even in
the First World than there are Harvards, and even the Harvards can
currently only afford a small subset of the annual 2K: )

(I am reminded of the response of Arnoud DeKemp [Springer] in a debate
a few years ago, in which he said that he too was for freeing the
entire refereed literature online for everyone: All that required was
agreeing on a global site-license for it all! In other words, a
click-through oligopoly, preserving S/L/P revenues till doomsday!)

(Sorry Arthur, don't mean to type-cast you with the oligopolists [APS
is anything but!], but you really do talk like them sometimes!)

> Author self-archiving helps, but only when it reaches a sufficient
> comprehensiveness. Publisher actions to reduce prices in such cases can
> make a real difference NOW.

We are at the moment waiting for two potential sources of relief:

(a) Drastic voluntary S/L/P price-cutting by journal-publishers
sufficient to make all 2M+ annual articles in the world's 20K refereed
journals affordable for every institution worldwide, so that no
researcher is denied access to any of the refereed research literature
any longer.


(b) Freeing that same literature online through self-archiving by its
own author/institutions.

The fact is that at the moment neither of these in-principle solutions
is "reaching a sufficient comprehensiveness," but you can hardly blame
me for pinning my hopes more on the strategy of awakening researchers
to what they can and should do in their own interests, rather than
waiting for journal-publishers to subordinate their own interests to
those of researchers. There's always the possibility that might happen,
but it has no precedent and I wouldn't want to hold my breath...

> [1c] [public access to publicly funded research]
> seems an issue for legislation - if the government wants to do it,
> fine. Though there is a good fraction of research that is not publicly
> funded, or only partially so.

Every little bit helps, so if for the research that IS publicly funded
it were legislatively mandated that it must be publicly accessible
online for free, that might well help accelerate self-archiving. But
it certainly won't (and shouldn't) force journals to give away their
contents for free (though it may, and should, bring their
copyright-transfer policies on online self-archiving rights into line
with PostGutenberg reality, for which your own APS policy is a model: ).

But there is no need at all to wait for government mandates,
legislation, journal publisher give-aways or journal copyright policy

Self-archiving can legally proceed apace right now:

> And there are sectors of applied physics
> research in the U.S. where the results of publicly funded research are
> not only not public, they are classified to various degrees and
> explicitly restricted from public distribution.

Utterly irrelevant, as this is all about freeing the refereed,
published literature, and that "classified" material is, a fortiori,

(But look at the endless stream of red herrings that keep being drawn
into this topic, which is at the same time so trivial and yet so
utterly confused!)

> (1d) I'm afraid I don't understand - can you describe a scenario where
> cost is involved in censorship somehow?

I agree. Such shrill terms, used with no justification whatsoever,
don't help bring clarity to this all too confused topic.

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 & 01):

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

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