Harnad 5-9-99, Revised Comments of 4-23-99

Here are some comments on the CalTech Proposal:

Scholar's Forum: A New Model For Scholarly Communication
Anne M. Buck, Richard C. Flagan and Betsy Coles California Institute of
Technology, Pasadena, CA, March 23, 1999

All the objectives of this proposal are right. Most of the pieces are there. But unfortunately they are put together into an incoherent picture. Only a few pieces need moving to get a coherent picture, but that changes substantially the path we need to take in order to reach the objective we all agree on and share.

First, a quick reminder of what that objective is:

"It is easy to say what would be the ideal online resource for
scholars and scientists: all papers in all fields, systematically
interconnected, effortlessly accessible and rationally navigable
from any researcher's desk worldwide, for free."

That is the optimal outcome, and what proposals like this one are meant to do is to help get us there.

I believe this one would fail as it stands, but with just a little rearrangement, it will succeed.

As it stands, this proposal is trying to create an ALTERNATIVE to the current peer-reviewed journal literature, because that literature is currently held hostage by access-tolls, despite having been freely contributed by the authors, i.e., by us.

The alternative is based on the correct step of decoupling (1) the quality-control component (peer review) from (2) the rest of scholarly journal publication and attempting to provide (1) in the form of an alternative service (in place of the toll-based existing journals) while providing access and archiving for free for all (2).

This is all very commendable, but it has almost no chance of succeeding, for the simple reason that it is attempting to compete with the existing journal corpus for authors, and there is no reason whatsoever for authors to prefer submitting their papers to a new, untested quality-control "board" when the existing journal labels are the ones that carry the confidence and prestige. The proposal asks authors to switch, but there is no good reason for authors to switch: The refereed journals are doing the job of quality control well. It is not their quality control function that is amiss. It is the fact that they must fund themselves by raising toll-based barriers to block those who wish to access those papers.

The way to change this is not to try to lure authors away from their trusted journals. That is like starting not one, but countless new journals, all unknown commodities, with the usual handicaps of new startup journals that must find their own niches -- except that in this case they are taking on the entire existing corpus (at least 14,000 refereed journals)!

It is unrealistic in the extreme to imagine that authors can be enticed away from their known, trusted and effective brand-names in favour of a generic "board" of some sort. With the endorsement of a Consortium of university associations and learned societies (if those can indeed be persuaded to give it), the chances would be a little better, but still tiny. The authors risk too much in moving en masse to a brand new, untested, quality-control authority, even if they are assured that as a reward, they will get a lot more readers for it. And a mere trickle of authors would quickly make this whole approach fail, with a residual shadow cast on the whole false start, thereby putting us even further away from the optimal outcome we are all seeking.

Yet, with just a few parametric changes, it will work.

First, although journals depend for their PAGES on authors, they depend for their WAGES on readers, through the Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View (S/L/P) access fees that they pay, or their institutions pay for them. There is little hope in competing for the authors, if this means asking them not to keep submitting their work to the prestigious, high-impact journals they know and prefer, and instead to submit them to an unknown new entity, be it ever so heartily endorsed.

What we CAN compete for, however, is the journals' READERS, and we can count on the authors' support in this, as long as we do not ask them to give up submitting their papers to the traditional journals of their choice.

Here is the LOGICAL (and pragmatic) role that can now be played by the very feature that makes this peculiar literature -- the refereed learned serial literature -- so anomalous among literatures: ITS AUTHORS GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE (and always have done so), to both their publishers (in the form of their submitted manuscripts) and to their readers (in the form of preprints and reprints).

[Pause to appreciate this point, perhaps for the first time: Compare this highly anomalous behavior of refereed journal authors with the behavior of all other authors: of books, magazines, newspapers. Do any of them give their texts to their publishers, desiring no royalty of fee, and, on top of that, do all they can to distribute copies for free to all who may desire to read them?]

The implication of this for the online era is quite obvious: Let authors continue to give their papers away to their publishers to sell, but let them also self-archive them online, for free. That is all it will take! Readers will vote with their eyes. They will of course prefer to access the literature for free online -- Los Alamos has already proven that.


Once this happens across enough fields and at a sufficient scale, the library serials budget crunch will be the ally in the next logical step: With hard-pressed library serials budgets, and authors all accessing online for free, S/L/P terminations are absolutely inevitable. The journal publishers, feeling the pressure from this, will have to find an alternative, and the only alternative will be to scale down to online only, with their providing the only remaining service that is needed of them: quality control (peer review).

The result will be precisely the outcome the Scholar's Forum Proposal seeks, namely, a decoupling of peer review from archiving and access, with the publishers continuing to provide the peer review, in the traditional, prestigious journals, with their known and reliable editorial boards and referees -- but without the need for Scholar's Forum ever to try to compete with them using new, unknown, generic boards.

See: <http://www.princeton.edu/~harnad/nature.html>

There is only one issue, however, that the Scholar's Forum Proposal did not consider directly, and that is the cost of quality control. It is true that referees referee for free; and that many editors also devote their time for free, or for only a modest honorarium. But implementing peer review is nevertheless not entirely cost-free (nor is the minimal copy editing that still needs to be done by way of quality control for the FORM of papers, just as peer review quality-controls their CONTENT).

These residual costs of quality control (per published "page," say) are minimal compared to the costs of S/L/P, but they are non-zero: Andrew Odlyzko has estimated them as being as low as $10 per published page. Let us be conservative and say they might be, at most, 30% of the cost per paper page, recovered via S/L/P.


The obvious way to pay that small residual cost is up-front, so that everyone can then access the paper for free. The natural source for this up-front page-cost is of course not authors' own pockets, but just 30% portion of the annual 100% that their institutions save from the termination of S/L/P.

So now we know both what the optimal solution is, and the natural way to pay for it. The only thing that remains is to find a way to get there from here. The Scholar's Forum Proposal as it stands will not get us there, because it tries to go off in an untested direction which depends on authors' making risky decisions that they do not really have the incentive to make, abandoning their known-impact journals for brand new generic ones of uncertain provenance and destiny. (Besides, it has not explained how the "Boards" will be financed: if by S/L/P then that's self-defeating!)

Make the following parametric changes, however, and it will fly: Don't put an AAU Consortium's weight behind rival generic editorial boards; put it behind AUTHOR ONLINE SELF-ARCHIVING (in both local institutional archives and global disciplinary or multidisciplinary ones, like Los Alamos -- indeed perhaps in direct collaboration with Los Alamos itself, which is already well established and could, with support, readily scale up for the full load, with distributed and mirror sites worldwide). If this step were taken at a sufficient scale, the optimal outcome would also become the inevitable one, and very soon.

The only other concern is to make sure there is a stable transition strategy to prevent abrupt chaotic events from occurring as publishers experience the S/L/P cancellation crunch. So the second thing a Consortium could do, besides endorsing and encouraging author self-archiving, is to provide transitional support for publishers who explicitly commit themselves to scaling down and moving from S/L/P-toll based cost recovery to up-front page charges. If this is not done, quality control could break down, as known, experienced publishers pull out and nothing is in place to take over their function.

Well, that's it; it should be familiar to some of you as my "subversive proposal" of a few years ago, updated to take into account some of the further evidence and experience that has accumulated since then.


I now proceed to quote/comment mode for some of the specifics:


Precisely (see the URL above). And this is why the main function (as Steve Koonin correctly perceived) of "endorsing and encouraging self-archiving" on the part of the Consortium will be to make sure that authors are not intimidated into signing copyright agreements that deprive them of the right to self-archive online. That's all they need to retain. Publishers can continue to have full and exclusive rights to SELL the papers, in either medium, paper or online. The author need only retain the right to give them away for free online. THAT is what needs the weight of an AAU and Learned Society Consortium, NOT an alternative quality-control board!


The American Physical Society has provided a fine model for the self-archiving policy of publishers who promote rather than oppose what is in the best interests of both learned researchers and learned research. This is the model to be adopted by all learned journal publishers:


This is all unrevolutionary and uncontroversial! I would add only the importance of CITATION LINKING of the entire refereed journals corpus (which can be readily done in a global Archive like Los Alamos, as well as an interoperable integration of the local Archives). Citations are the seamless pathway that links the entire literature. Publishers are planning to provide them as an "add-ons" to the online version, in order to hold it hostage to S/L/P (mainly L/P), with a kind of "click-through monopoly" uniting their respective proprietary data bases through an "interoperable" network of toll-booths.

The self-archived literature can provide this for free, without the firewalls, and this may prove to be a critical incentive to authors to self-archive.

As long as online (networked) access is free of S/L/P, this is fine!

There is a fallacy here: Copy-editing occurs AFTER a paper has been refereed, revised and accepted. Whatever stylistic help an author gets before that is very important and welcome, but not the real thing. Quality control for FORM begins after quality control for CONTENT, and it will continue to be the responsibility of the publisher (quality-controller); that is part of what the journal "label" attests to; the author cannot be his own quality-controller.

The possibility of authenticated journal overlays for a Global Archive is NOT captured by this unfortunately rather naive and unrealistic last sentence. Archives can be sectored, and sectors can have "certification" tags that are officially controlled by journals. But there is a confusion here between self-archiving and refereed publication again. An author can self-archive both unrefereed preprints and refereed reprints, but he cannot CERTIFY that the latter have been published by Journal X; only Journal X can do that. THAT is what the journal overlay on the archive can provide.

This notion of "aggregating" archived papers into one or more "journals" does not make sense in the online medium: We don't need aggregations. Even online journals will stop aggregating issues and will instead publish single articles at a time. The rest will be done by intelligent search and alerting engines (especially guided by certification tags authenticated by the Journals), as well as by citation linking and searching. Gather readings together for a course, if you like, but there's no need for the notion of recombining them into different "journals." That's just an obsolete and useless holdover from the Gutenberg Era! This is the PostGutenberg Galaxy!

Not sensible in this new medium again, I'm afraid. The way to establish reputations in a variety of fields in the online medium is not by doing "virtual multiple publication" with spurious collation "journals," but via links, index words, and interdisciplinary contents and mailing lists. This sort of thinking is still papyrocentric.

The only residual function of journals is the service of quality control. Referees are a scarce, over-used resource (who work for free). Multiple submission is already an abusive drain on the system (rightly outlawed by most journals -- except Law journals, where student-review rather than peer-review prevails, and student labour comes cheap). Once a paper has been refereed and accepted once, it need not appear in further journals. It is already there on the Net! It can be linked to; it can be reviewed by review journals; it can be commented on, formally and informally, linked to by citation; but there is no point whatsoever in having it re-appear in still further "journals."


One (suitably backed up, mirrored, distributed and protected) certified journal version is enough. The rest is just about tagging and linking.

What has been described here is precisely what will be left of the established refereed journals once they become online-only. It is not a "new alternative" in any respect -- except inasmuch as it pertains to journals that are NOT established. That is hardly an advantage in itself...

Unrealistic again, alas, and extremely naive about what a scarce resource peers' finite refereeing time is. One (successful) peer-review per article is enough; the rest is just a matter of citation, linking and commentary.

This, in contrast, is an extremely important and substantive point, for the Consortium must encourage and support authors in every possible way (and there are many) in self-archiving preprints in defiance of arbitrary and counterproductive strictures, such as the "prior-publication" exclusion clause that some journals still try to invoke to prevent the self-archiving of preprints.


These arbitrary and extremely counterproductive strictures are probably also unenforceable: How many changes do I have to make in a self-archived preprint before it is no longer the same draft I submit to a journal that endeavours to exclude papers that have already been self-archived as preprints? And how are journals to enforce this? By constantly trawling the Net for lookalikes for every paper submitted? How look-alike?

The very same slippery-slope logic of course applies to any attempt to forbid self-archiving of refereed reprints: How many changes turn my preprint into a reprint, and vice versa? The absurdity and counter-productiveness of the exercise is also made apparent by this slippery slope. Authors GIVE this literature away, and there is no ethical or enforceable way or reason to stop them from doing so in this new medium. The rules were made for another medium (paper), and another kind of literature (the vast, non-give-away, trade literature of books, magazines, etc.).

Copyright laws were not invented in order to prevent authors from giving away their own intellectual property, i.e., to protect them from themselves! They always had two purposes:

(1) The first was to protect authors from THEFT OF TEXT-AUTHORSHIP, i.e., to outlaw plagiarism. This still applies to the online literature and is not at issue.

(2) The second was to protect authors from THEFT OF TEXT. Publishers shared an interest in this, for they had royalty agreements with the authors, and both authors and publishers would have lost revenue if the text could be stolen.

In a nutshell, for the refereed journal literature (only), the online-only era means that (2) is no longer justified or necessary. Authors can self-archive their own texts, free for all, and publishers need only provide quality control and its certification, a service they can be paid for up-front, once there is no longer an S/L/P market for the freely available texts. Until then, a license to sell the texts by S/L/P is all that publishers need; there is no justification whatsoever for attempting to prevent self-archiving. Attempts to do so should be countered by Scholar's Forum (and all of us) head-on, by all legal and practical means.


Fine, but don't confuse presubmission stylistic help with post-acceptance editing and copy editing. The former can come from colleagues and institutional writing assistants under the author's solicitation and control, but the latter comes from the quality controller/certifier.

This is critical: Authors must be protected, and feel protected, from any need to give up self-archiving rights. THAT'S ALL!


Open Peer Commentary is my specialty, and the above component is well-intentioned but again naive. Nothing critical hinges on it, however, so I will pass over it.

See: http://citd.scar.utoronto.ca/EPub/talks/Harnad_Snider.html

One thing to consider is sorting commentary into (1) comments on unrefereed preprints and comments on refereed reprints and (2) refereed vs. unrefereed comments.

Again obsolete, if thought of as further collation-journals. All that is needed is citations and links!

Updates can be archived and linked too, both refereed and unrefereed ones.

And one of the best ways of all: via citation links.

The only thing that needs championing is self-archiving. Once that is practised, everything else will follow suit. To champion forfeiting the established journals and turning to an untested new generic journal is, in my opinion, Quixotic; nor is it motivated, if the new journals are still supported by S/L/P.

There is no model here yet! Why should universities back the abandonment of the established journals for generic newcomers? And how are the newcomers to be funded? Through S/L/P again? But that just defeats the purpose.

But once the irrelevant and doubtful components are dropped, a model does indeed emerge: Scholar's Forum will be a robust, interoperable Archive in which authors from all disciplines can self-archive their unrefereed preprints and their refereed preprints. The Consortium will not only provide the Archive, but it will also use its collective influence and resources to facilitate its use, by helping to protect authors from attempts to prevent self-archiving, and by vigorously promoting it in their institutions.

This sounds like getting busy planning new online journals. But we don't need new journals, online or otherwise! We need to free the existing journal literature. That requires a realistic plan, and a careful transitional strategy. So far, this "Model" can be misinterpreted as just a lot of hoopla about establishing new online-only journals. But that's not the point! Most of the established journals are or will soon be available online too. What is needed is a way to free them from all access barriers.

But local and global (xxx.lanl) self-archiving IS the new prototype! You need only put your own pieces together slightly different to see that.

A Consortium will certainly provide the clout, but it won't do any good until the game-plan is tightened into a coherent one (along the lines described here, in my opinion)


Stevan Harnad harnad@cogsci.soton.ac.uk

Professor of Cognitive Science harnad@princeton.edu

Department of Electronics and phone: +44 1703 592-582

Computer Science fax: +44 1703 592-865

University of Southampton http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/

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