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Date: Sat, 24 Apr 1999 16:37:18 -0500

From: "ransdell, joseph m." <ransdell@DOOR.NET>

Reply-To: September American Scientist Forum



Subject: Re: Scholar's Forum: A New Model For Scholarly Communication


Your response to the Scholar's Forum Proposal is marvelously exact in pinpointing its weaknesses, in making clear what the pivotal issues actually are, and in describing what is really is and is not wanted now by way of support from the research university administrators. Their Proposal is quite unrealistic as it stands, and for precisely the reasons you mention. I find nothing to criticize in what you say or to add to it in further criticism of their plan as regards its viability. You' have it down cold, in my opinion -- your critique is a masterpiece and renews my faltering faith in the practical power of reason -- and our disagreement on some points in the past should indicate that I don't say any of this lightly. But I wonder to what extent the proponents of the Proposal will be willing to simplify in the direction you point out?

The answer is of course to wait and see. But while awaiting their response, I think it is pertinent to mull over the question of how much of the plan its proponents will actually be willing to abandon at this point to accommodate your criticisms, given the time and energies already devoted to developing the plan over the past couple of years, and also given what is ultimately at stake in it, which is clearly something very great. The control of scholarly communication, not only in the sciences but in academia generally, has enormous political consequences on the global as well as domestic and local levels, and not merely within academe. The plan to form a Consortium of the research universities (possibly multi-national in scope, as seems to be hinted at here and there in the document) for the purpose of administering the system of control described in the Proposal may have awakened enthusiasms among its planners that will not easily be dampened by realism as regards its use for the benefit of scholarly and scientific communication.

I think that prudence dictates that we should anticipate great resistance to throttling the plan back to any significant degree regardless of how unrealistic it is for its avowed purpose. For such a Consortium, envisioned as a sort of international mega-university meta-structure laying claim to the right to control (administer, manage) academic thinking on a global level by management of its communication, might well be regarded as suited to other and equally well-intentioned but also equally questionable tasks of control as well, once it comes into existence, and I would be surprised if the administrators who are enthusiastic about forming such an organizational structure have limited their thinking to the issues that primarily concern you and me and most of the others on this list.

That is why the clarity and incisiveness of your response is of such importance: if such an organization of communications control is to be formed by the administrators of our research universities, it should be made clear that it is not justified for THIS purpose -- which is, in effect, precisely what you have already shown, and we surely want that well understood. As I said, I have nothing to add to what you have already said in that respect and fully support it, but I thought it might be worthwhile to note a couple of things about the Proposal that seem to me puzzling, given its avowed aims, which might be worth bearing in mind while awaiting the reaction to your critical points.

The first thing I noticed was that much emphasis is put on the Los Alamos server system as a model. Indeed, the "centerpiece" of the proposal is said to be "a document database that incorporates and builds on important features derived from Paul Ginsparg's highly successful physics preprint server", and it seems likely that it was your work in publicizing its significance that brought those behind this project to an understanding of how important it is, Stevan. Yet what was surprising in reading through the document was the way its authors seemed to have overlooked one of the most fundamental principles at the basis of it, namely, the principle of unrestricted author self-archiving on public servers. This cannot be due to what they learned from you, who have consistently emphasized the importance of this from the beginning. Yet when they explicitly describe the importance of the Ginsparg archive it is said to be because it "demonstrates the viability of a large electronic archive that supports alerting services, automated hyperlink referencing, indexing, searching, and archiving." No mention there of self-archiving when it would obviously have been relevant, nor is there anything to suggest this in the description of the New Model under that heading in the proposal. It is as if "they just don't get it".

Now, it might be said that the Proposal is just clumsily written in that respect, and since there is casual mention here and there of author self-archiving, it might be said that the principle is being taken for granted and thus required no special statement. This is possible, but this charitable interpretation is not supported otherwise, and there is definite reason to think that the vision presented by the document does not in fact include that. For when we turn to the operational flow diagram which they thoughtfully provided for us we find that this basic principle of the Ginsparg system is not only missing but is in fact positively precluded by the arrangements that are being suggested. Let me explain, with reference to the diagram of the operational view of "the New Model" to be found at:


We have in that diagram one box representing the "research community" and another representing the "author", neither of which conforms to the Ginsparg model as regards the depicted relationship of researchers either as contributors to or readers accessing the material on the server.

Now, the term "research community" is not defined in the document, but it actually seems to mean "privileged research community" since that community is shown as having direct access to the central server in contradistinction from whoever would have access to it via an "outside server" mediated through a "read only participation agreement". This latter phrase does not, however, suffice to identify by implication the class of persons whose access is only via the outside server; for I find to mention of such an agreement in the body of the Proposal, except for what may be implicit in the following paragraph:


Does "all readers" mean both those who use the outside server and those who access the central server directly? It seems impossible to say for sure, but I suppose it might be reasonable to assume that those with the privilege of direct access will have previously agreed to something in order to get that sort of access, and it could simply mean people within the university system governed by the Consortium who have already agreed via their basic contract with their university. What is not clear, too, is what their privilege is supposed to be in respect to document access unless it is the distinction between those who are allowed "to "print out papers and make personal electronic copies for personal use only" and those who are limited to on-screen reading. (In other words, the outside server may just mean the server that serves up on-screen access only, or perhaps some feebler access than that, such as access to abstracts and tables of content only, as is already the practice in the case of some electronic journals.) In any case, those in the privileged research community are also shown as being able to participate in the "threaded discussions" (provided they go through some special registration process). But you rightly regard that sort of thing as "na´ve" in conception, Stevan, and not of critical significance for us here, and I agree with you on that, too, and will not pursue it further here.

So much for access to the database and the use of the server from the point of view of the reader of scholarly/scientific documents.

As regards input into the system by the author, this is shown in the connections between the box labeled "authors" and two boxes labeled respectively "archives" and "servers" (meaning the central server system). This gets complex but the point of basic interest to us is that the author can in no case get anything into the server without passing through (1) input protocols, (2) tech program committees, and (3) copyright agreement. Now, (1) input protocols governing style (i.e. the basic format of scientific publications) are built into the procedure of using the Ginsparg server and are of no special interest here at the moment, and (2) the function of the "tech program committees" is perhaps that of insuring effective differential treatment for preprints and for papers subject to peer review or already reviewed, and although this is important I assume that it has chiefly to do with matters of technical interest only. The passage through (3) the copyright agreement is clearly the key factor for us to get clear on.

But let me just note before proceeding that, first, there is no significant resemblance between the system of document management that I have just described -- the so-called "New Model" -- and what is of distinctive importance about the Ginsparg server system, in spite of the talk about the Ginsparg system which seemed to suggest that it was something that was being reincarnated in the New Model; that, second, they are in fact radically incompatible as regards unrestricted author self-archiving; and that, third, the New Model makes the system of publication which the Ginsparg archive has been in the process of defeating seem by comparison like something from a veritable Golden Age of open communication! Once again one gets the impression that the point is being missed somehow by the proponents of this Proposal.

In any case, the copyright section is where the "nitty-gritty" is to be found as regards the basis for forming the Consortium, since without control of that sort being giving to the Consortium there would appear to be little or no justification for it as a communcations control system since its control procedures would have no clout. As Hobbes said, "Covenants without the sword" are just empty words, and the sword here lies in the legal powers implicit in copyright. Given certain kinds of control over copyright, though, the Consortium would indeed be a viable new Leviathan. Whether we need any further such organization, regardless of the benevolence of the intent, is surely questionable, if it is conceived as a document control system, as it plainly is the Proposal. The uses of a Consortium as a support system, providing protection of the sort wanted rather than imposing administration where none is required, is quite a different matter, though.


Note that with the plan being based on the idea of forming a controlling Consortium, interest in the question of whether the individual shares or gives copyright to the university or not is of secondary importance. It is the agreement with the Consortium that counts, first of all, in this arrangement. (The agreement with the university could be of importance, too, but I will leave that aside here in order not to lose focus on the Consortium agreement.) Now, the third sentence in the passage above contains an ambiguity which is of the first importance: Is it saying that "the agreement grants the right to provide unlimited access to all work in either preprint or archival servers, etc." to the CONSORTIUM or to the AUTHOR? Formally, it may look at first as if it could be either one since the agreement is bi-lateral, between author and Consortium, so that the agreement could be to assign that right to either of them. Yet in view of the fact that the author already has that right prior to the agreement, as original copyright owner, whereas the Consortium does not, it seems odd to word it that way since the Consortium is in no position to grant any such right until after the agreement has been made! Unless this is merely poorly worded, then, the agreement says nothing about the right of the author in consequence of the agreement and merely assumes that the Consortium will thereafter choose freely to protect the author's rights to unrestricted self-archiving on a public server. This is not an assumption many would be willing to make about an organization of the power latent in the one envisioned.

In view of its importance, I find this seemingly clumsy wording just as troubling as I find the misleading reference to the Ginsparg archive as model for the basic relationship of authors and readers to the document database. But you are no doubt right, Stevan, in taking the stance that we should presume the best of intentions on the part of the authors of the Proposal and regard the needed corrections of the plan as a matter of guiding its proponents -- the administrators of the research universities -- towards developing a more realistic understanding of where support is really needed.

In any case, it seems to me that we can reasonably expect (1) a radical rectification of the plan for access to the database by author and reader alike with the aim of restoring the principles of the Ginsparg archive, and (2) a rewording of the statement about copyright agreement that unequivocally leaves authors with the rights to make their work unrestrictedly available, and not merely available through a restrictive system of document control such as is described in the graphical representation of the control system in this Proposal. As you say:


Joseph Ransdell


Joseph Ransdell <ransdell@door.net> or <bnjmr@ttu.edu>

Dept of Philosophy Texas Tech Univ. Lubbock TX 79409

(806) 742-3158 office 797-2592 home 742-0730 fax

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