Re: E-Biomed: Very important NIH Proposal

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 28 Jun 1999 13:03:45 +0100

On Sun, 27 Jun 1999, sterling stoudenmire wrote:

> Dear Mr. Harnad;
> I hope you do not find this reply to you out of line. I support your
> answers in general. I do not believe the NIH proposal goes far enough.
> Many, many more things need to be considered..but it is a start..
> Scientific Publishing is the blood of discovery and it should be treated as
> such.
> There is an argument which has yet to be made for the NIH proposal. In
> general the substance and content of the print, peer reviewed journals has
> traditionally reported in the contents of their journals, peer reviewed or
> not, the product of the work of a person(S) who was educated in a public
> institution, paid a stipends, given a government loan, and funded to become
> an educated asset of our scientific community.

Dear Mr. Stoudenmire,

That's correct, but note that it would apply equally to, say, BOOKS
written by these same people, if no other criterion were invoked -- and
obviously few of us would be willing to have our books given away

The relevant thing is less that the education and research was publicly
funded, but that the author wants to GIVE AWAY the report, not sell it.

> Furthermore, much of the work reported in the current journals, whether or
> not reported by a person educated on the public purse, are work products
> which has been in part or full paid for by a charitiable instititutions
> enjoying a tax advantage for their research efforts, or government funded
> institutions, or research grants paid in part by a government and as such
> is material that should not be subjected to the gatekeeper activities of a
> private journal which charges its patrons for access or subscription.

Again, be careful to stress that the author seeks no revenues. Having
said that, the only remaining problem is how to cover the costs of
quality control ("gate-keeping" is the wrong descriptor).

> Many scientist in smaller organization cannot afford the high subscription
> costs charged by many of these journals (and good research requires
> unrestricted access to many journals at one time) and as such the access of
> these currently denied persons could be achieved by the NIH proposals.


> Another point in favor of the NIH proposal is the current trend of the
> larger journals to play gatekeeper on the internet; denying access to those
> who do not qualify by virture of a lack of membership in a particular
> organization or with specific scientific credentials and by charging, in
> some cases, exorbitant sums.

This mixes up two things completely. Access charges are for access to
the journal as READER. This toll should indeed be done away with.
Access to the journal as AUTHOR currently has no charge, and depends
only on having the quality to pass peer review successfully (for THAT
journal's standards -- there are always other journals).

The argument that unaffiliated authors cannot get good work published
is complete nonsense. The truth is that MARGINAL work might have
marginally more trouble passing through peer review from an
unaffiliated than an affiliated author. In the scheme of things, however,
this problem is certainly not of a magnitude to be compared with that
of the need for free access to readers, which is the problem I am
concerned with.

Author publication charges WILL come, and they will be very low, and
paid by author-institutions, not authors. Unaffiliated authors (a tiny
minority) will be subsidized. There is no substantive issue here

> The biggest benefit of the NIH science publication proposal could be that
> finally, the libraries can get a handle on indexing and cataloging all
> jounals and e media in a standardized way.. they can make available the
> free access and already have the manpower and know how to achieve momentum
> in a very short period. The Dublin Core initiative to properly catalog and
> index all scientific articles which are both on line and off line is
> already addressing these needs in unversities around the world. IF the NIH
> were to take advantage of this,in place, project and its successors much
> would be gained.

Of course this relatively trivial capability will NOT be the biggest
benefit: The biggest benefit will be free access to the entire refereed
journal corpus for one and all, forever.

> Of course, the journals are going to squirm as are their funding partners.

The journals should not need to squirm: They need to see ahead, stake
out their niche (quality control/certification) and scale down in order
to fill it. There is no need for this adversarial language.

> In other words, no private journal should be permitted to capture and
> copyright and charge for access to the findings of scientific research
> which is the work product of a public activity or an activity funded
> directly or indirectly by a governmental unit.

Nonsense! Of course they should be allowed to charge. What they should
not be allowed to do is to prevent the author from GIVING the reports
away too, by self-archiving. All this requires is a simple change in
the wording of copyright agreements, as already implemented by the
American Physical Society.

> The net effect of such an
> activity is to enable the heavily funded private ventures to extract the
> gravy from the sum of the government's scientific research and thereby to
> gain a competitive advantage over the smaller less well funded entities and
> even prevent a finding from surfacing. Peer review may add to this
> advantage in that insiders many be in privity to the knowledge during the
> lengthy peer review process which is not well know to others. The NIH
> proposal would remedy this unfair condition if and where it might exist.
> sterling stoudenmire

This is all far too adversarial and conspiratorial a view.

Journals are NOT suppressing access to research intentionally, they are
only trying to protect their traditional economic model for cost
recovery and a reasonable profit: Reader-institution-end access tolls
(in the form of Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View, S/L/P). The
pressure from self-archiving will guide them in a more stable direction
in the PostGutenberg age of Scholarly Skywriting.

Even less is Peer Review an access-blocker: It is an active process of
quality control. Specialist papers are first subjected to the scrutiny
of fellow-specialists, revised according to their feedback, based on the
standards of the journal they represent (there are many, hence there are
many options), and then, if they succeed in meeting the journal's
quality standards, they are copy-edited, certified and published. The
literature would quickly devolve into a NetNews chat-group if it were
not for the Invisible Hand of Peer Review.

And although peer review, like all human activities, is sometimes
abused, the magnitude of this problem is again minimal, compared to the
need to make free the peer-reviewed literature for one an all. Moreover,
self-archiving includes the capability of publicly archiving
pre-refereeing PREprints in addition to refereed reprints. So there is
no need for paranoia about primacy being suppressed by venal or
concupiscent peers!

Now you say NIH has not gone far enough: In what way? For the further
steps you recommend would be neither relevant nor justified.

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 2380 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 2380 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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