Re: E-Biomed: Very important NIH Proposal

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 13 May 1999 18:56:52 +0100

On Thu, 13 May 1999, Thomas J. Walker wrote:

> Here is the current draft of what I intend to send Varmus. Any comments?

> You can quicken the shift to free access by requiring NIH-supported
> researchers to post their manuscripts on E-biomed at the time they submit
> them to the journals they choose and by requiring that the refereed version
> be made publicly Web-accessible on E-biomed within one year of publication.

There is no rationale or justification whatsoever for delaying
self-archiving by one microsecond from the instant the final draft is
accepted (which is the instant when the unrefereed preprint should be
replaced by the refereed reprint in the free online archive).

> The reason for giving a one-year grace period before the refereed versions
> must be freely Web accessible is twofold. (1) It allows publishers to
> maintain or greatly slow the loss of subscription revenue so long as paper
> remains the archived format.

Paper can pay for itself as long as it is needed; when people no longer
want to pay for it, it means it is no longer needed! There is no sense
at all in continuing to hold the literature hostage to paper and its
expenses when freedom is at last within reach.

> Subscriptions will continue because
> researchers want the refereed versions of articles as soon as possible and
> research libraries will continue to provide such access.

Translation: The demand for the S/L/P subscription will be artificially
propped up by continuing to deny free access to the online version.

> (2) It offers
> publishers a means to smooth the transition from the present users-pay
> system to a future authors-pay system. The permitted delay of a year
> allows publishers to charge authors for immediate posting to E-biomed.

On the contrary, it gives a longer lease on life to the status quo,
delaying the optimal (free, instant online access, from the moment of
acceptance), keeping papers hostage to S/L/P, and now even compounding
this with arbitrary and unnecessary page-charges for self-archiving!

You are encouraging publishers to force authors to pay for
self-archiving at a time when (1) it is not yet prevailing practise to
self-archive at all, when (2) page charges are extremely ill thought of
(as well they should be, while S/L/P tolls still prevail), and when (3)
it is clear to anyone and everyone that authors could self-archive their
accepted papers for free (just as they can self-archive their
unrefereed preprints) unless arbitrarily prevented from doing so.

In other words, as if S/L/P were not already enough of a barrier to
access, you are recommending page-charges to be erected as a FURTHER
barrier now, when they are totally unnecessary, and could only serve as
a disincentive to self-archiving (and, I predict, a powerful
disincentive) -- and this in the interests of helping the transition

Page charges will only become functional and respectable if/when S/L/P
barriers (and revenues) are going or gone, the literature is free, and
only page-charges can cover the cost of quality control.

> Many NIH-sponsored researchers would pay the charge because it would make
> the formatted, refereed, archived version of their articles freely Web
> accessible at least a year sooner than otherwise, and it would save them
> the trouble of complying with NIH's requirement to post the refereed
> version in some other fashion.

Such as the natural way, as 100,000 physicists are already doing: by
self-archiving it for free... (PLEASE, don't save me that trouble!)

> Publishers could charge for this service
> what the market would bear, but, until their subscription revenues are
> threatened by all or nearly all authors paying for immediate free access,
> they will likely keep the price modest. A modest price will entice more
> authors to pay for a service that costs publishers next to nothing to
> implement.

ANY price will simply deter authors from seeking a "service" they don't
need, and could perform for themselves for free, unless arbitrarily
prevented from doing so.

> The price of immediate free Web access to the refereed version will
> eventually influence which journals authors choose for their manuscripts.

I doubt it. I think the current journal prestige hierarchy and its impact
factors, etc., will FAR outweigh any of the advantages of free online
accessibility. Considerable though those advantages will be, to both
authors and readers, they are predicated on sustaining the current
quality of the literature, and its known sign-posts (the journals).

I am tempted to say that if I had a choice between submitting to a
journal that DID require page charges for free online archiving (while
S/L/P was still in force) and one (like the APS journals) that did not,
I would choose the latter, but even that is nonsense: My choice of
journals will continue into the foreseeable future to be governed 100%
by the quality of the journal (hence of its peer review) and not by
what either authors or readers or their institutions pay.

> If subscriptions to a journal decline because all or nearly all authors
> started buying immediate free access, the publisher would have to raise the
> price for such access, or cut costs. Those of us who predict free access
> to the journal literature after paper publication stops see competition in
> the status of journals and in the prices of their services (largely
> refereeing?) as the way to an efficient system for certifying published
> research results.

This is not the trade literature! Authors are giving away their papers.
The competition, if peer review ever becomes a paid-for service, will
NOT be for authors' dollars but for high quality papers, as it always

I don't know if there is a parallel case to this, in the world of
economics and products/services: What journals will be selling is
QUALITY ASSURANCE. Quality assurance is quite simply TRADED OFF if it
is QUANTITY of papers or authors that one is trying to maximize (for
their quantity of dollars) instead of quality.

[Fortunately, unpaid referees are the quality gate-keepers, rather than
sales/marketing personnel! (Readers, please don't reply about buying
off paid Editors! There is not enough money in the world to pay
academics for either their editorial or their refereeing time, which
they donate in the service of science/scholarship, and not because they
could not use it more profitably in other ways.)]

I don't have a ready example of this sort of "product"
(quality-assurance) from the market (perhaps others will), but I am
certain that the rigour of the peer review (and its concomitant, the
rejection rate) will continue to be the parameter that journals
maximize, never the number of submissions or acceptances.

(In a way, universities themselves come to mind: They must tread a
balance between meeting their expenses from admissions, yet maintaining
their quality standards by selectivity. -- I am sure this analogy will
be used against me!)

> In summary, your proposal that authors retain the copyright to their
> articles is the wedge that should convince all parties that Web access to
> research literature will become barrier free. By allowing NIH authors to
> delay a year before posting their refereed versions on E-biomed, you will
> give publishers more time to adjust to the fact that E-biomed will
> revolutionize the biomedical journal literature and the roles of publishers
> and libraries in providing access to it.

And that built-in year-long delay may well extend the reprieve for S/L/P
considerably longer than if free self-archiving were unconditionally
facilitated today.

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

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