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

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 9 Sep 2004 05:28:33 +0100

Commentary on:

    Richard Wellen, Taking on Commercial Scholarly Journals: Reflections
    on the 'Open Access' Movement, Journal of Academic Ethics, 2, 1
    (2004) pp. 101-118.

This is a good article, although the author has perhaps over-complicated
what is happening and why. It is understandable that he should do so,
however, as developments are not always described or seen (or portray
themselves) in the most straightforward way.

What is really happening is extremely simple: For hundreds of years the
way peer-reviewed research findings have been reported is that scholars
first submit them to journals for peer review. These journals have
known public track-records for their quality standards. Once an
article has been accepted and certified as having met the peer-review
standards of a given journal, it is published -- which used to mean just
being printed and distributed on paper. Those users -- scholars/scientists
and their institutions, for the most part -- who can afford access to
the journal in which they are published can then use them; those who
cannot, cannot.

The only thing that has changed is that there is now a new form of access:
online access. In principle, every scholar/scientist could access every
one of the 2.5 million articles published yearly in the 24,000 peer-reviewed
journals -- if he or his institution could afford the access-tolls.

But no individual or institution can afford all the access-tolls; most
can afford only a small fraction of them.

The resulting losers are not just the would-be users who cannot afford the
access, but the authors of the articles, who lose all those would-be users'
potential impact (in the form of reading, usage, and citation). The other
losers are the authors' employing institutitions and research-funders,
who also lose all that research impact, which means lost research
productivity and progress.

And the remedy is super-simple, even though it has been obscured by
speculative and ideological talk about "reforming the system," with
reforms ranging from hypothetical changes to (or even abandonment of)
peer review to experimental changes in the cost-recovery model of (or
even the abandonment of) journals. Yet these are not the remedies at all,
and are mostly just speculations or experiments with a tiny fraction of
the literature.

The remedy is for authors to simply supplement the toll-access version
of their article -- which they continue to publish in the peer-reviewed
journal, as before -- with a self-archived (online) version that is
made accessible toll-free for all would-be users webwide.

That's all! In discussing my approach, Richard Wrllen discusses the
speculative factors that have nothing to do with the concrete proposal
I am recommending -- which does not reform or replace either journals or
peer review, but merely supplements toll-acccess with open-access. This is
already being done for 10-20% of the yearly journal articles published. It
remains to be done for the remaining 80-90%. The retardant is not the
journals, over 90% of which have already given their green light to
author self-archiving.

The retardant is the research community itself, which has not yet realized
how much potential research impact it is losing by not self-archiving:

    Harnad, S. & Brody, T. (2004) Comparing the Impact of Open Access
    (OA) vs. Non-OA Articles in the Same Journals, D-Lib Magazine 10
    (6) June

And the remedy is also already at hand: Self-archiving needs to be mandated by
their employing institutions and research-funders, in a natural online-age
extension of their exsiting publish-or-perish mandate:

It is hard to see what this simple, fully within-reach remedy has to do with
what Richard Wellen writes in his abstract:

    "certain proposals and models for reform are premised on
    over-optimistic views about disintermediation in scholarly
    communication as well as exaggerated assertions about the benefits
    of removing price barriers when larger issues about the system of
    'open science' remain to be addressed."

I don't know about other proposals, but my own is optimistic only about
one thing: that researchers (or their institutions and funders) will
realize that maximizing their impact by maximizing their access is within
their own hands in the online age, and 100% of them will accordingly
go ahead and do it, as 10-20% already have! No "disintermediation" is
needed, price barriers need not be removed (access merely needs to be
author-supplemented), and no larger "open science" issues are involved.

Richard writes write that:

    "Hence [according to Harnad], although journals will still be
    necessary, they may have to "scale-down" to become mere peer review
    "services" (Harnad, 2003b). Yet Harnad cannot explain why journals
    would still survive in any meaningful way at all, since, in his
    system, they would only be able to sell "add on" services like
    printing which he says no one will need."

My speculations about what journals may or may not have to do in response
to 100% self-archiving are merely speculations, like everyone else's. (I
rather regret having made them, as they are irrelevant and superfluous.)
What is relevant is the concrete proposal that researchers can and should
self-archive, immediately.

But there is a contradiction in the very way my view is described in
the above passage! For Richars writes I cannot explain why journals would
survive if they scaled down to just peer-review service-provision
(and certification), because they would have nothing to sell: But the
peer-review service-provision/certification itself is what they could
sell (at $200-$500 per article, to the author-institution)!

Richard goes on to add:

    "Neither can Harnad explain why academics in some (perhaps most)
    disciplines are still attached to journals as authoritative organizers
    of the literature, and not simply as review services. To put it
    simply, many academics still like to browse journals (on-line or in
    the library stacks) rather than simply search for articles through
    indexes and Google."

But (if we refrain from speculating), what is there in the concrete
proposal to supplement toll-access with open-access through author
self-archiving that prevents those who are still attached to journals
from continuing to pay the tolls to access them? or to browse them in
any way they desire?

Stevan Harnad

Pertinent Prior Topic Threads:

    A Note of Caution About "Reforming the System"

    Peer Review Reform Hypothesis-Testing

    Self-Selected Vetting vs. Peer Review: Supplement or Substitute?

    "Copyright: Form, Content, and Prepublication Incarnations"

    "Savings from Converting to On-Line-Only: 30%- or 70%+ ?"
     (Started Aug 27 1998)

    "Online Self-Archiving: Distinguishing the Optimal from the Optional"
    (Started May 11 1999)

    The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)"
    (Started July 5 1999)

    "Separating Quality-Control Service-Providing from Document-Providing"
    (Started November 30 1999)

    "Distinguishing the Essentials from the Optional Add-Ons"
    (Started July 2001)

    "Journal expenses and publication costs"
    (Started January 10 2003)

    "The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition"
    (Started January 7 2004)
Received on Thu Sep 09 2004 - 05:28:33 BST

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