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

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_COGLIT.ECS.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Mon, 3 May 1999 15:19:07 +0100

Date: Sun, 2 May 1999 19:14:50 -0600 (MDT)
From: Paul Ginsparg 505-667-7353 <>

   SF = Scholar's Forum sh = Stevan Harnad pg - Paul Ginsparg

sh> It follows that LANL is not a "model," but a proven, working principle.
pg> sadly, authors are not always ready to act in manifest self-interest,
pg> and we don't yet know precisely what forms of encouragement will be
pg> required in other disciplines. (but we do know something more will be
pg> needed, otherwise none of this discussion would be necessary -- all
pg> fields would already be well on their way...)

My comrade-in-arms, Paul Ginsparg, is quite right. One can lead a herd
of learned thoroughbreds to the most beneficent body of water, but it
is anyone's guess what will make them drink.

That is why as much of the time and energy of zealots like ourselves
must be spent in ostension and polemics as in concrete steps to spruce
up the communal watering hole still further.

sh> What is undeniable is that the current refereed journal literature, such
sh> as it is, is and has always been an invaluable resource to researchers.
pg> "always" is a long time, and the current implementation of peer review
pg> is actually a relatively recent construct. it's not at all obvious that
pg> a one-size-fits-all approach is optimal for all disciplines --

Indeed. Peer review is relatively recent (so is present-scale science
and scholarship) and may well be improved upon some day, some way (so
might democracy, and water-quality). But there is no reason whatsoever
for -- and many reasons against -- LINKING the incontestable goal of
making the water (such as it is, quality-controlled according according
to today's prevailing standards) available to everyone for free, with
the much more indeterminate goal of devising, testing and implementing
new systems of water quality control. Let us drink our fill for free
of what we have so far been able to drink only for a fee; do not make
the fulfilment of that basic epistemic need contingent on much more
speculative schemes for making the water taste even better!

And peer-review isn't and never has been "one size fits all":
Disciplines differ in how they practise it, and even within
disciplines, there is variation in the quality of journals, and in the
rigor of their refereeing systems. That variation is all part of today's
prevailing standard. Our goal should be to free all of this, online.
Reform is possible, but let there be no linkage, and on no account
should free availability become a hostage to the fortunes of any
particular improvement scheme.

pg> certainly many practitioners of my own discipline would dispute the
pg> efficacy or necessity of "classical peer review" to the advancement of
pg> science. i certainly wouldn't be willing to presume to say for
pg> other disciplines either that it simply must be maintained as is
pg> or that it must simply be discarded -- that's their business.

Splendid! So don't! Leave it alone, and just give all disciplines the
invaluable gift you have given to Physics: a way to access it all for
free, along with the freedom to choose for ourselves whether to read
unrefereed preprints, refereed reprints, or something in between or

pg> but it is true that a raw distribution system should have a much better
pg> chance to be based on universal principles (though even this can be
pg> controversial, with some prominent researchers proclaiming absolutely
pg> that their discipline would "never" be attracted to distribution of
pg> unrefereed material -- never clear if these are representative or just
pg> the most vocal, but they certainly exist so can't be dismissed out of
pg> hand).

I don't know about universal principles, only about the prevailing
water-quality, and the importance of all scholars' being able to drink
their fill.

It's entirely up to individuals whether they want to publicly
self-archive their (1) unrefereed preprints or only (2) their refereed
reprints (does any serious scholar prefer to keep (2) behind S/L/P toll
booths?): Vive la liberte! Nothing hinges on individual decisions about
(1); so no one need be detained by it.

pg> it is also true that the details of the raw distribution scheme can be
pg> considered both before and at a logically distinct level from whether
pg> or how exactly the peer review and other information is layered on.

Correct. Complete logical separation between archiving and quality

    SF> In addition, this platform will enable individuals to establish
    SF> their own subject profiles to create personal alerting services.
  sh> Also irrelevant and trivial. Why speak of such short-sighted banalities
  sh> in the same breath as the revolutionary possibility of freeing the
  sh> entire journal literature online?
pg> perhaps, but there is a practical matter of making encouraging authors
pg> recognize their self-interest and participate.
pg> as a matter of historical fact, the LANL archives owe *all* of their
pg> initial growth starting in '91 precisely to the daily e-mail alerts of
pg> new material received (according to subject matter). while one might
pg> have expected the later web access to replace this in some way, it is a
pg> matter of empirical fact that users of the archive insist on retaining
pg> the e-mail alert as an essential component. it is not supererogatory to
pg> mention some of the little details that can magically facilitate the
pg> more revolutionary possibilities in the long-term.

Good point. So perhaps I should have said "search/alert" tools and not
just search-tools (although I still consider all of this trivial).

You are right, though, that sometimes an incidental feature, even a
nonoptimal one, can turn out to be the critical one that set the
cavalry a-drinking. (But the reason email was the "hook" with LANL in
'91 might have been that the Web was still young and not as widespread
then. Who knows? But, fine, my buzzword will be search/alert

    SF> 6. The Forum does not propose to change the peer review
  sh> But then why mention peer review at all?
pg> maybe so they won't be taken to task for appearing to want to change
pg> peer review? (oops, can't win, they'll get taken to task anyway...)

The truth is, that the Forum said it was wasn't out to change peer
review and then described speculative structures in which it was
changed after all!

(Yes, the only sense in which peer review need be mentioned in
connection with free archiving initiatives is (1) the archive does not
provide peer review, (2) authors can self-archive both peer-reviewed
and non-peer-reviewed papers, and (3) the possibility of official
journal overlays is there too, along with overlays for new peer review
schemes and entities, should anyone care to implement them.)

    SF> Editorial Boards will continue to be established just as today
    SF> by the scientific community, to serve the same critical needs.
  sh> This passage has absolutely no content. It is like saying that life
  sh> will go on: Of course peer review will proceed apace. Why even mention
  sh> it, or link it in any way with the substantive thing the Forum is
  sh> trying to do?
pg> perhaps to make it clear precisely which elements of the current system
pg> one expects to maintain in the short term? not everyone takes it for
pg> granted that the current peer review system should or can be maintained
pg> without modification, so this explains where they stand on this issue
pg> (and if coming down in favor of the concept of classical peer review is
pg> necessarily content-free, then others are equally guilty in this
pg> regard).

Please re-read the Scholars Forum Proposal. There is a profound
ambiguity about just who/what those "Editorial Boards" are to be.
If they are the current journals (and their successors), there is no
problem, and this should be stated explicitly. If they are meant to be
new entities to compete with these current journals, spawned somehow in
conjunction with the Scholars Forum Initiative, then again we are in
the speculative reform business instead of the business of freeing the

    SF> To facilitate this new mode of discussion, the Forum will
    SF> develop the mechanisms to support and retain linked commentary.
  sh> Eminently worthwhile feature, but already proposed by the American
  sh> Physical Society in 1992, and as obvious a capability for an online
  sh> archive as citation-linking.
pg> actually this probably refers to something we considered in 1994, and
pg> it wasn't with the APS

Have another look at the reference below. The APS Task Force was
definitely considering this already in 1991, although, as I note in
the paper, they did not fully appreciate its implications:

    Harnad, S. (1992) Interactive Publication: Extending American
    Physical Society's Discipline-Specific Model for Electronic
    Publishing. Serials Review, Special Issue on Economics Models for
    Electronic Publishing, pp. 58 - 61.

    The American Physical Society's Task Force's Report on Electronic
    Information Systems (this volume) has sounded all the right chords:
    The idea is to develop a world scientific information system that
    will include all the formal scientific literature that has been, is
    being, and will be published, as well as the informal unpublished
    scientific communications that surround it, all in an electronic
    form that is searchable and accessible by any scientist anywhere in
    the world. The system would be furnished and administered by a
    collaborative effort among the scientists themselves through their
    learned societies, universities and libraries, and perhaps some
    publishers and data-base producers too. The Report discusses
    knowledgeably the technological state of the art in the software,
    hardware, and telecommunications resources that will be required to
    implement this ambitious system. Sounding the appropriate notes of
    caution about the economic and psychological factors that must be
    reckoned with, the Report confidently describes the electronic
    medium as poised for a series of revolutionary changes, changes
    that will be as beneficial as they are inevitable.

    I am in complete agreement with this assessment and will add only
    one specific detail that I believe will play a much more
    significant role in hastening the revolution than what is implied
    by the APS Report. I will close with some reflections on the
    economics of information.

    The APS Report notes (in section 2.2) "the blurring of distinctions
    between private [scientific/scholarly] communication (the "informal
    literature") and published articles (the "formal literature")" and
    devotes an entire section (4.5) to "Novel forms of "informal
    literature" " (namely,"preprints and comments/discussions"). Yet
    the implications of this seemingly minor detail do not appear to be
    appreciated in the Report's conventional (and distinctly
    nonrevolutionary) conclusion (section 4.3.2) that the "publication
    process will be completed by the journal or book publisher who will
    produce blocks of code for each document."

sh> First, let me make it explicit, as I have done before, that the CalTech
sh> initiative is very welcome and should be supported. Let us in no way
sh> balkanize our efforts over minor local differences. The overall idea is
sh> excellent, timely, and should be pursued with energy and speed.
pg> (yes. but sometimes too many mentions of "short-sighted banalities",
pg> "empty nonsense", "content-free", "amateurism and quackery" tend to
pg> exaggerate the "minor local differences".)

Fair enough. I'll curb the cavils lest they be misused by the
opponents of free archiving. (I think Steve Koonin knows that my
critique is intended to be a constructive one, and that once the weak
parts of the Cal Tech proposal are removed, it could form the basis for
a very powerful and important initiative that could play a historic
international role in hydrating a thirsty Global Academy.)

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 1703 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 1703 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:45:30 GMT