Re: The forgotten importance of editors

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 10 Aug 1999 19:36:33 +0100

On Mon, 9 Aug 1999, Michael Jacobson wrote:

> Dear Dr. Harnad,
> I have been following the discussion on E-biomed with much interest. I
> contributed a comment to the site, which was posted in June.
> You have replied in detail to many comments that address your views, but
> have not responded to mine. I would be most interested to have your
> thoughts on my posting, which is at:
> Michael Jacobson, MD, MPH, FACP

My apologies to Dr. Jacobson for failing to respond to his apt and
thoughtful commentary. There have been so many comments and responses
that I missed that one in the first round. I hope the following response
will make amends.

Before moving to quote/comment mode, let me only say that I largely
agree with Dr. Jacobson's analysis. But there are a few seemingly minor
points on which, once the binary flag is re-set, the overall picture
looks quite different.

Let me hasten to add, though, that the setting of these binary flags is
a matter of probability, not certainty, and it involves an element of
trying to second-guess human nature, which is always risky.

I accordingly stand by my own scenario insofar as what is optimal
and inevitable is concerned. (I don't think Dr. Jacobson contests the
optimality, but perhaps he thinks the inevitability is a longer way off
than others of us hope!) Also not contestable, I think, is what is
within authors' reach now, practically speaking; whether or not they
actually reach for it is of course another question. For my own part, I
shall continue to sing the virtues of self-archiving (and to help
provide the facilities for it). The rest is all about what, once
horses have been led to water, will lead them to drink...

> Dr. Harnad's basic premise is that although biomedical journals are
> well-suited to perform peer-review, they no longer have the legitimacy
> to usurp article authors' right to distribute their work.

I would not have put it quite that way (words like "legitimacy" and
"usurp" are fighting words), but Dr. Jacobson has the facts right:
I would have said it this:

    "Biomedical journals continue to perform an essential service to
    biomedical science in implementing peer review (quality-control and
    certification, QC/C), but they are no longer the optimal
    distributors of the refereed research reports; and if they were to
    attempt to prevent optimal distribution via public self-archiving,
    then they would in fact be acting contrary to the interests of
    biomedical science and scientists."

I would add only that this is a new and unprecedented state of affairs,
arising from the revolutionary possibilities opened up by global
digital networking, and that it must be looked at afresh, rather than
by simply trying to force it into the Procrustean paradigm of a bygone
Papyrocentric era.

> The reason authors ceded copyright protection for their work to journal
> publishers in the first place was because they had no other way to
> distribute their research results. According to Harnad, scientific
> authors were forced to strike a Faustian bargain.

This is correct, but it omits two essential points. One is that this
literature (the refereed journal literature) is and always has been a
GIVE-AWAY literature from the author's point of view; this makes it
profoundly unlike any other literature.

The second point is that there is still an essential service that the
publisher provides (apart from the now redundant distribution function)
and that is QC/C. So no matter how much the author may wish to give
away his refereed research reports via self-archiving, a way must be
found to continue to fund the QC/C, otherwise there will be no REFEREED
research reports to give away!

So the the Faustian (copyright) Bargain certainly has to be resolved in
science's favour -- scientists MUST be allowed to give away their
research reports -- but QC/C costs must be covered too. (Fortunately,
that is easily done, out of institutional
Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View [S/L/P] savings.)

> Now, with the widespread availability of the Internet and the ease with
> which one can distribute intellectual content online, authors can
> distribute their work worldwide, without needing to use the mechanism
> of paper-based journals, and should thus no longer be forced to give up
> their property rights.

Not quite correct, for the QC/C, which is still a "mechanism of
paper-based journals" must still be performed, and its costs must still
be covered. Those costs, however, can eventually be covered up-front,
out of a portion of the institutional S/L/P savings, once the
distribution mechanism of paper-based (and online) journals becomes
redundant in the face of the free, auto-archived (refereed) journal

What is immediately true is that the author no longer needs to cede his
give-away rights in exchange for QC/C-cum-distribution. The two are now
dissociable, the dissociation IS the resolution of the Faustian
Bargain, it is greatly to the benefit of science, and it saves everyone
money -- except, alas, publishers, who will have to downsize into the
new niche of being the QC/C provider only.

Having to downsize is always regrettable, but if one's former enlarged
service is no longer necessary, and it is to everyone else's benefit
that one scale down and phase it out, one must do so. I am sure that
journal publishers will not try to hold give-away research reports
hostage to S/L/P access barriers merely to protect their own revenue
streams, now that it is clear that this would be contrary to the
interests science and scientists.

The reader will find it instructive to weigh the rationales that Dr.
Jacobson mentions below (not on his own account, but as rationales
likely to be invoked by journal publishers in defense of holding the
literature hostage to S/L/P tolls) in terms of their SUBSTANCE: Is
there any SUBSTANTIVE advantage to SCIENCE inherent in these
rationales? Or are they merely rationalizations for preserving the
status quo at any cost, irrespective of what is optimal for biomedical
science and scientists, and even when it is no longer either necessary
or justifiable.

> Of course, according to Harnad, journal imprimatur will still be needed
> and useful for vetting the quality of work. But authors should be free
> to publish online copies of their work before it is accepted by
> journals ("preprints") and after it has been accepted ("reprints").
> This online publishing by authors is what Harnad calls
> "auto-archiving", and already is the standard in the world of physics.
> Why should biomedical journals allow this to happen? Because they have
> lost their power over authors, since researchers are no longer
> dependent on journals to distribute their work.

Almost exactly correct, as stated (and although I think I coined both
terms, and although I use "self-archiving" more often than
"auto-archiving" because it is more self-explanatory, "auto-archiving"
is the better descriptor, because it captures the "self" as well as the
"automated" and "autonomous" aspects of the initiative).

But journal "vetting" (QC/C) is still essential, otherwise the only
thing authors have to auto-archive is unrefereed preprints (and
although technically the latter counts as "publishing" too, I think we
do better to call it "vanity press," reserving the term "publishing"
for the auto-archiving of the refereed reprints that have been accepted
and certified by a journal).

Nor have biomedical journals lost their "power" over authors: on the
contrary; it is no doubt this perceived/presumed power that is holding
biomedical authors back from drinking from the waters of auto-archiving
for the moment!

My argument is that there would be no ethical justification for journal
publishers' trying to use journal submission policy or restrictive
copyright agreements to prevent auto-archiving in the PostGutenberg
era; this would simply be contrary to the interests of biomedical
research and researchers in every respect. No benefit whatsoever to
science would come from it.

Nor would it be practically enforceable (because there is an arbitrary,
continuous, and slippery slope from a raw draft, mailed or emailed to a
few fellow researchers through a bigger and bigger email list and
eventually a web URL given to more and more researchers; and the same
is true for successive revisions of the draft [in response to informal
peer feedback as well as to formal peer review] all the way done to the
auto-archived final refereed draft -- this is, by the way, virtually a
recapitulation of the actual ontogeny of the LANL archive, the mother
and model of all archives!).

So the only "power" here is a psychological one. But psychological
powers have the disadvantage that they can be openly challenged. Let us
now do so, examining what SUBSTANTIVE justification there might be to
any efforts to deter research authors from doing the optimal and
inevitable (and obvious) with their give-away research reports.

> The problem with this analysis is that it attributes the strangle-hold
> of publishers over authors solely to the ability of publishers to
> distribute scientific work. In fact, the reason scientific authors
> desire publication in the most prestigious journals is the same
> motivation that drives authors in other fields of endeavor: recognition
> and career advancement, or just plain fame and fortune. Obtaining the
> widest possible audience for their work is part of this, is both a
> prerequisite for and a consequence of recognition, but is not the
> entire goal in itself; the goal is also recognition and career. Much
> as I would like to believe that researchers want only "to reach the
> eyes and minds of their fellow-researchers with the reports of their
> research findings", I fear that the motivations of most of them are
> somewhat more complex.

They are indeed. But those further fame/fortune goals are perfectly
compatible with auto-archiving; indeed, auto-archiving can only ENHANCE
the impact of their work (on eyes, minds, and thereby citations, further
research, fame, and fortune).

What is REALLY at issue here (attention reader!) is the role of the
journal BRAND-NAME in all this. But of course the brand-name is the
second "C" in QC/C! Research quality is first evaluated and then
raised to the journal's acceptance threshold (if that is possible) via
peer review, revision, and if necessary re-refereeing, etc., and then
the accepted final draft is certified with the journal's brand name,
attesting to the quality level it has attained.

The value of this QC/C service is uncontested. But what is there about
it -- logically, practically, ethically -- that implies that it can
only be had at the cost of denying the author's right to auto-archive?

A journal's patina, after all, its quality, its impact factor, etc.,
are all a consequence of its QC/C. And that QC/C must continue to be
implemented and paid for, if all the fame/fortune benefits are to
continue to be had. But in what respect does the quality, QC/C and
fame/fortune vouchsafed by a journal depend on blocking access to what
would otherwise be a give-away literature? This is the question to
which authors should be seeking an answer from journal publishers. (And
no substantive answer will be forthcoming, because there isn't one.)

The only reply possible is that that is how we have done it so far, it
works, it brings revenue, and everyone is happy. But one might have
said the same of horse-drawn carriages and steam engines: We can now
have a lot more (in fact, infinitely more, in terms of the Net's
potential spatial and temporal reach), for a lot less.

Nor is the right reply that the journals will soon all be available
online too. For "available" does not mean free for all, hence it does
not mean available to all. Proprietary online journal archives will
still be behind the financial firewalls of S/L/P, and THOSE are
precisely the access barriers that are at issue and at stake here, for
this peculiar literature, which, one must never tire to repeat, is and
always has been a GIVE-AWAY literature from the author's point of

We are talking about access (and access-denial) to the research reports
of scientists who have no interest in fees or royalties or their
accompanying access-barriers; their interest is (to repeat) solely in
maximizing the impact of their ideas and findings on the eyes and minds
of their fellow researchers, present and future (and of course the
RESULTANT effects of that on their own fames and fortunes) -- once they
have successfully passed through the dynamic filter of QC/C (peer

Dissociating QC/C from distribution does not mean LOSING the magical
effects of the brand name; it just means calling a spade a spade!

Let us not accept, as an excuse for preserving the status quo, a
mystification of the fame/fortune effects of a journal's imprimatur.
Holding the journal literature hostage to S/L/P tolls plays NO
essential causal role in these fame/fortune effects. [It plays only one
incidental causal role in fortunes (and whose fortunes those are is
left as an exercise to the reader), but that role is no longer
essential, indeed it now stands squarely contrary to the best interests
of science and scientists.

The virtue of auto-archiving is precisely that it is "subversive": It
allows the author to have his cake and eat it too: He can continue to
submit his give-away paper for QC/C to the refereed journal of his
choice, but concurrently he can also give it away publicly through
auto-archiving -- right up to and including the refereed final draft.

As long as S/L/P revenues cover the costs, this is a stable situation,
but once user preference for the free, auto-archive literature erodes
S/L/P revenue streams, dissociation from distribution and downsizing to
QC/C alone will have to take place, and up-front revenues to cover QC/C
costs will be fully recoverable from institutional S/L/P savings.

The system will accordingly have been subverted precisely in the
direction of what is optimal and inevitable for science (and not just
for physics, but for all of science, which does not differ one bit from
discipline to discipline in this respect, apart from what happen to be
the sizes of the current revenue streams of their respective

> As long as the leading medical publishers can dole out career
> advancement by rewarding authors with publication, they will be able to
> do so on their own terms and can continue to demand ownership of
> intellectual property rights.

They are doling out career advancement by implementing QC/C, and those
papers that succeed in meeting their quality standards are the ones that
are rewarded. This service is essential, and it is essential that the
true costs of implementing it continue to be paid. It is NOT, however,
essential that they continue to be paid by restricting auto-archiving
rights; nor is it essential that they continue to be held hostage to
further inessential costs (distribution) recoverable only by sustaining
S/L/P barriers.

Here is an interesting question: Will the scientific community continue
to comply with demands to transfer all intellectual property rights for
this special give-away literature even as it becomes transparent that
there is no real basis for demanding compliance other than the
preservation of the status quo against what is optimal for science? And
all that, with nothing more to prop it up than a known and trusted
BRAND-NAME (and one whose quality standards are guaranteed by OURSELVES
-- for we, the research community, are not only the authors and the
readers, but also the referees [who contribute our services for free]
and the editors [although we may sometimes forget that])?

Once it becomes clear that QC/C is a dissociable module, could it be
that, as the increasingly tenuous copyright glue strains against the
optimal and the inevitable, the QC/C module might actually dissociate,
and break free, in the interests of at last freeing this give-away
research literature for once and for all, for one and all?

> Just as the author of a detective novel
> will sell her copyright to a publishing house in return for
> distribution and financial reward, the author of a scientific paper
> will sell her copyright to the journal, in return for distribution and
> career advancement.

I think this misses the profound difference between the for-fee and the
for-free literature.

Let us see what happens in the auto-archiving era; for even in the
PostGutenberg era the detective novelist neither has nor WANTS any
further options, whereas the give-away scientist always wanted and now
at last has an option that allows him to give his research reports
away; and the true causal underpinnings of this new option can only
become clearer with time and open discussions like this, not murkier
than they are now.

For the record, though, detective authors do indeed SELL their texts,
whereas scientists have always GIVEN THEM away. The "Faustian" analogy
is to the soul, not the sale: Faust signs away his soul in exchange for
immediate earthly rewards. In the age of auto-archiving, it will
become increasingly apparent that there is no longer any need for
scientists to pay this price...

> The ability to self-publish and self-distribute, or auto-archive, on
> the Internet in no way lessens the ability of biomedical publishers to
> influence the careers of researchers, and thus does very little to
> lessen their overall power over scientists.

Indeed it does not; and my concern is only to ensure that biomedical
publishers make no attempt to CURTAIL that ability with respect to
researchers work!

The journal brand names, certifying the quality standards that have
been met by a research report, will continue to exist and to bring
their rewards. But the give-away research report itself will be
publicly auto-archived, free at last to have its full impact on one and
all, without restraint from S/L/P.

> Why has the power of publishers apparently not succeeded in resisting
> the power of the Internet in the field of physics? Although I am not
> intimately familiar with the situation in physics, I would assume that
> the amount of money at stake for publishers of physics papers and their
> power over career advancement are not sufficient to win the battle.

I don't doubt the difference in the amount of S/L/P revenue at stake,
but I would strongly doubt that salaries, promotion, tenure, grants,
impact and awards are determined one bit less by the brand-name of the
journals in physics than they are in any other discipline.

So is the difference in S/L/P revenues alone going to be the decisive
factor in whether or not the rest of science is to be denied access to
the optimal?

> In medicine, vast sums of money are at stake: the health care sector
> comprises some 15% of our economy.

Please! What proportion of that 15% is journal S/L/P? Let's keep things
in proportion here and not mix apples and oranges...

> Pharmaceutical companies have fortunes to spend on advertising, which
> goes straight into the pockets of journal publishers.

Maybe they will succeed in obtruding those ads into some online
archives (as others have on the Web), although one rather hopes not.
But in any case, that is neither here nor there: Are lost ad revenues
then a substantive reason for continuing to hold give-away research
reports hostage?

> And the careers of researchers rise and fall on their publication in
> the most prestigious journals.

This point has already been answered. The journal quality/prestige
hierarchy can and will remain intact, irrespective of whether QC/C and
distribution costs are coupled or decoupled, and irrespective of
whether they are recovered through reader-institution end S/L/P or
through author-institution end publication costs paid out of institutional
S/L/P savings.

So, please, let us not conflate either the dissociability or the
cost-recovery model with the prestige value of the journal brand-name.

> Furthermore, many of the most prominent researchers are [a] on the
> editorial boards of journals and [b] have a vested interest in the
> continuation of this system.

It is certainly true that [a], but there are good reasons to doubt [b],
for, when fully informed about the causal contingencies and
noncontingencies, those board members are still OURSELVES, and it is
unlikely that they will forget that their primary allegiance is to
biomedical science and not to biomedical journal revenue streams.

> Thus, unless the "unpublished researchers of the world unite", and
> overthrow the industrial-editorial complex (a rather unlikely
> scenario)

The auto-archiving initiative is not analogous to a communist or
anarchist revolution by any stretch of the imagination. And I strongly
doubt that there is an "editorial complex" dedicated to opposing what is
so obviously best for science. In any case, apart from the question of
whether auto-archiving rights are contested or uncontested by journals,
auto-archiving can follow its own subversive agenda without any further
ado. Nothing needs to be overthrown; the public reports of scientific
research need merely be given away, as they were always meant to be.

> the current status will not change greatly, at least as far
> as intellectual property rights are concerned. The New England Journal
> of Medicine will be able to enforce its Ingelfinger rule, if it so
> chooses, and will be able to interpret and enforce its requirements on
> authors.

Let us see whether it will be as easy to do so when the true underlying
causal contingencies and options are relentlessly unmasked for one and
all. One cannot second-guess the biomedical cavalry when it comes to
water and drinking, but one can at least assure that they clearly SEE
the water.

As to whether Ingelfinger should continue to rule, see:

> Of course, journals are adapting to online publication and will
> continue to do so. They will surely collaborate with the NIH in order
> to allow more widespread distribution of their content, perhaps at
> reduced cost. But this will occur in a negotiated fashion, and is not
> likely to entail eliminating the toll-gate system that Harnad so
> deplores. The NIH would be well advised to consider the copyright
> system currently in place and its evolution (or lack thereof) in its
> laudable plans to make biomedical information more accessible to all.

NIH is not interested in merely becoming an online S/L/P provider for
journals with E-biomed, nor should it be. The journals' proprietary
online archives can do that perfectly well for themselves, and for NIH
to collaborate, even for the sake of reducing S/L/P costs, would be
self-defeating, for it would be to let the Trojan Horse of S/L/P itself
inside the gates of a public archive that is meant to be free for one
and all. In fact, at this point, there is no contingency whatsoever
between NIH's E-biomed and the journals (and implying that there was or
would be one was highly premature, as I indicated in my initial
critique of the first draft of the E-biomed proposal). E-biomed is to be
a free, public, auto-archive, just like LANL. Official journal overlays
would only come at a later stage, following rather than preceding the
success of E-biomed along the lines of the success of LANL.

In other words, E-biomed is not eliminating the S/L/P toll-gate system;
it is merely offering authors a reliable, credible means of bypassing
it, so they can give their unrefereed preprints and refereed reprints
away for free for all, just as they had always wished to do, to the
eternal benefit of biomedical science and hence all mankind.

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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