Re: NIH's Public Archive for the Refereed Literature: PUBMED CENTRAL

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 4 Sep 1999 10:36:54 +0100

[This message is from Paul Ginsparg, the source. In case of any
discrepancy between our views, particularly regarding anything to do
with LANL or its history, please always assume that Paul's
is the definitive one. S.H.]

Date: Fri, 3 Sep 1999 15:26:28 -0600 (MDT)
From: Paul Ginsparg 505-667-7353 <>

> Worst-case scenario: Only publishers can archive refereed papers.
> Best-case scenario: Any "institutionally affiliated" (for example)
> author can archive refereed papers.

another scenario is that the institutions themselves will start acting
on behalf of authors (this would also be in institutional interest), a
few such initiatives are currently being considered.
this happens to be one of those cases where the institutions themselves
have been too sluggish to act coherently in their own self-interest,
hence ironically need the funding agency to start tugging them along
into the future

many further comments repeat one theme, based on a single supposition,
collected here out of sequence to avoid compounding the repetition:

> But the serious question is about REFEREED papers. Let us assume that
> we have identified which journals count as peer-reviewed. I have just
> had an article accepted by one of them: Suppose that journal is NOT one
> of the "participating" publishers that will immediately archive it in
> the free public archive for me? What then?
> ...
> the only "participating" publishers being an arbitrary sample of tiny
> societies and unimportant journals.
> ...
> The contents of all the
> high-quality, high-impact journals -- the raison d'etre of the whole
> initiative -- will be missing from the archive, and it will stay that
> ...
> will be virtually barren of refereed material from the established
> journals (and will, I'm afraid) stay that way for years to come, if it
> is set it up like this.
> ...
> Of course not. So a policy like that would just ensure that the best
> authors and the best journals would not appear in the NIH/PubMed
> Central, because the better journals would be the last to agree to free
> archiving.
> ...
> up on free archiving, and my prediction is that the only ones who will
> choose the first option (apart perhaps from a few zealots like you and
> ...
> The result would be that FROM THE VERY OUTSET, the contents of
> NIH/PubMed Central would be associated with the low-end of the literature.
> ...
> It is PRECISELY for this reason that I gave up on the hope that
> ...
> best work in a new journal, let alone a new online journal, etc. (and
> going online free is currently against established journals' interests).

perhaps pressure from authors will indeed force greater participation
from the journals supposedly supporting them?
this should not be dismissed out of hand until the critical mass with which
they'll be starting is known.
why assert (or even assume) a worst case scenario of no significant
participation without knowing?
maybe they wouldn't be proceeding in this direction unless they already
had cooperation from a few of the "high-quality, high-impact
perhaps there is more than one way to free up the literature and achieve
the same end?
perhaps they are working carefully behind the scenes, and the results
of this careful work are not yet suitable for public broadcast?
it's valuable to wait and see at this point.

> But if NIH ITSELF were to capitulate on self-archiving a priori, how
> can one expect authors to do it? (NIH should be NEUTRAL on journal
> self-archiving policy and should make the Archive open to authors
> self-archiving refereed papers. Let the community fight the copyright
> battle; don't simply capitulate on their behalf a priori!)

it is indeed disappointing that NIH chose to sidestep the copyright
issue entirely rather than confront it.
i did point harold varmus and others there to the policy forum "Who
Should Own Scientific Papers?"
( , science,
sep '98, co-authored with an aaas study group), since it was after all
directed at the funding agencies, reminding them how their mandate to
pursue public policy interests is frequently impeded by the way
copyright control of the results of publicly supported research is
currently abused to restrict free flow of scientific information.
apparently they've decided it was premature to fight this particular
battle, so the path they've chosen avoids it for the time being.

> It would be unrealistic bordering on nonsensical to expect or wait for
> authors to submit to a journal other than the best one for their paper,
> selecting instead on the basis of the journal's self-archiving policy.

it should be neither unrealistic nor nonsensical to expect authors to
act in their own self-interest -- if it were, then there's no hope for
any broadscale reform of the current system.

> I think publisher reaction should not be a concern of NIH's, any more
> than it is a concern of LANL,'s NSF's or DOE's. That is between the
> publishers and the author/reader community, i.e., the scientific
> community itself. NIH should not take sides. Provide the self-archiving
> facility and let the biological community decide how to use it, exactly
> as the physics community did with LANL.

actually, as the funding agency they *do* have to be far more
the funding channelled instead to LANL distributes the accountability in
subtle ways (various news accounts of unrelated alleged activities here
in the past half year suggest the many ways in which responsibility and
accountability is diluted by such agencies so that no one is actually
responsible or accountable for anything...)

> > [self-archiving would be seen as a direct assault by NIH on the
> > publishers and would not receive the support of NIH leadership, though
> > it might evolve eventually]
> I hope it is true that self-archiving might evolve. It seems to me that
> if NSF had seen the LANL archive as a "direct assault" by NSF on
> publishers, and hence unworthy of support, LANL would never have
> evolved either.

indeed, that's probably true.

> Fortunately, the creation of LANL was in the hands of Paul Ginsparg,
> and he was not deterred by that consideration.

again missing the point, had i been employed directly by a funding
agency, say for the sake of argument the DOE, and moreover presuming
(this part really requires a leap of faith) such employment does not
instantly cause brain-death so that i would still understand the need
for such resources, then the constraints would hae been far different,
and conditions of my employment could easily have precluded such
activities from taking place directly under the funding agency
(there's no point arguing the logic of this, or lack thereof,
it's simple political reality.)

the NIH is further constrained in a variety of obvious ways by public
health considerations, as i wrote recently for HMSBeagle:

  (Ironically, the NIH's prominence gives it less latitude to
  disseminate unscreened materials since no matter the disclaimer,
  appearance on an NIH server could be construed as some form of
  effective imprimatur.)

[see PubMed Central and Beyond: Page 5, In HMS Beagle: The BioMedNet
Magazine (, Issue
61 (3 Sep 1999), requires free registration, and there's other material

> > [only a small fraction of journals have the impact that will attract the
> > best papers. For most papers of most life scientists, journals that
> > participate in PubMed Central would be very attractive because of
> > their stability and visibility (over 100,000 different scientists use
> > it every day)]
> Again, I can only wish this hope well.

it's important to consult the resources already available there, to
understand better what they're building from (have you ever looked at
pub-med, med-line, genbank, any of the rest?), there's much additional
subcontext here.
genbank for example is already a strong analog to the physics databases,
where the crucial research information and resources were made freely available
to all researchers,and never subject to any artificial barriers or tariffs
(by coincidence genbank was originally started at Los Alamos somewhat
before i arrived here, and was later transferred to ncbi under nih).
the other indexes and resources they already maintain freely to the research
community are a large part of the model of where we'd like to end up.
again there may be more than one path that converges to same idealistic
goal, we'll have to wait and see.
nothing they're doing precludes author self-archiving in the long-run,
nor will it retard its current (non-existent) progress in those areas.
due to the dismal state of authoring technology at the moment, there remain
many difficult self-archiving problems to solve..., the intermediaries
can still perform some necessary and useful functions.

> > [some of the journals that will be starting already seem likely
> > to attract the best articles in their field]
> Yes, well have another look at AAAS's On-Line Journal of Clinical
> Trials, which also looked as if it was going to "attract the best

no one should waste any time whatsoever looking at a failed startup
from preweb days (it was originally based on direct telephone
it had any number of technical misconceptions right from the start, and
never looked to any educated observer like it was going to attract the
best of anything (and now whatever technology to which it's evolved is
indistinguishable from the rest of the field). scraping the bottom of
the barrel for counterexamples undermines any argument.

> > [it was not just interactions with publishers that led to this
> > strategy - many scientists favored this approach as well]
> If Paul Ginsparg had conducted consultations with scientists before
> setting up his self-archiving software, physics would still be where
> biomedical research is now.

of course i conducted consultations with the affected scientists before
doing anything. as described extensively elsewhere, the catalyst for
what has become the physics archives was a chance remark by an indian
physicist during a physics workshop in aspen in june '91 (though the
basic idea for doing something like this was thrown around starting in
the mid '80s, once we standardized on TeX as wordprocessor -- just
waited for someone to bite the bullet and implement). i discussed with
the physicists present there, even issues of how frequently to issue
mailings, etc. (and even the original choice of name, hep-th, was
suggested by someone else), then in late june e-mailed a proposal for
comment to the 200 physicists in the target field of interest (matrix
models of 2d quantum gravity, for which there was already a mailing
list assembled by someone else for distributing in bulk the full tex
source of papers). there were no objections, the feedback was all
positive, so after returning from summer travels a the beginning of
august, i threw together the original beta csh software in roughly an
afternoon as an expedient hack, put it on-line, reannounced to same
mailing list, then made a significant number of improvements based on
suggestions in the first few months. then started adding new archives
to cover expanded subject matter in early '92, again at the *direct
request* of scientists from the affected target communities who were in
consultation with their own consituencies.
it was gradual, with active consultation with the target community, and
the idealized version of the physics archives as "athena sprung
full-grown for the head of zeus" is slightly out of line with how it
the entire electronic landscape is wholly different from the comparatively
empty desert in which we operated back in '91, but given the changes since,
the way they're proceeding is inconsistent in its practical spirit.

we don't know the outcome of the experiment they're about to undertake,
but it will produce an unexpected wealth of new data, subject to the
very different boundary conditions under which they operate.
there's a variety of ways in which what they're doing, and technology
they're creating, could expedite the movement towards
author/institutional self-archiving in fields where it's adoption would
have remained glacial for another decade. or it's possible that despite
their past positive track record they've completely misread their
constituent community and the whole thing will go belly up..., even so
we'll learn from the miscues.

but at this point it's probably prudent avoid the temptation to compose
an instant response before further information is publicly available.

as i concluded in my above-mentioned contribution to the hmsbeagle,

 Regardless of how different research areas move into the future
 (perhaps by some parallel and ultimately convergent evolutionary
 paths), I strongly suspect that, on the one- to two-decade time scale,
 serious research biologists will also have moved to some form of
 global unified archive system, without the current partitioning and
 access restrictions familiar from the paper medium, for the simple
 reason that it is the best way to communicate knowledge and hence to
 create new knowledge.

Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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