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

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 19 Nov 1999 11:36:31 +0000

> I am writing a piece [...] on the NIH plan
> for PubMed Central. You have been advocating electronic publishing
> since well before Varmus's proposal and I am curious to know if the
> idea for PubMed Central, when it came, felt like a vindication of your
> views, almost as an experimental result can confirm an hypothesis.

Alas it's a bit more complicated than that sound-bite, because in fact
PubMed Central could have been the confirmation of the hypothesis, but
it has instead been (I hope only temporarily) rerouted.

The "hypothesis" was, I assume you mean, the "subversive proposal" I
made in the early 1990's:

    Harnad, S. (1995) A Subversive Proposal. In:
    Ann Okerson & James O'Donnell (Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the
    Crossroads; A Subversive Proposal for
    Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of Research
    Libraries, June 1995.

That proposal was simple: All authors should publicly self-archive all
their papers (both pre-refereeing preprints and post-refereeing
reprints) on the Net on their Home Servers today, and tomorrow the
entire research journal literature will be free for everyone,
everywhere, forever.

The original Varmus/NIH/Ebiomed Proposal was heading in precisely that
direction (except via the Central route, along the lines of the
remarkably successful Los Alamos Archive -- --
rather than the the Distributed route advocated in the subversive
proposal: both Distributed and Central self-archiving lead to the same
result: the freeing of the journal literature through author

There were problems with that original NIH proposal, having to do with
peer review, and its relation to journals: Was the NIH Archive to be a
SUPPLEMENT, as it should be, freeing the established journal
literature, or a SUBSTITUTE, competing with the established journal
literature to produce a free alternative literature? I argued strongly
against the latter:

After much discussion, some of it open:

some of it behind closed doors (with journal publishers, who strongly
lobbied NIH not to do anything to jeopardize their revenue streams)
a compromise was arrived at, PubMed Central: It too was intended to free
the journal literature, but it would do it via direct participation of
publishers, rather than via self-archiving by authors.

So far, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have agreed
to participate in PubMed Central, and one hopes other publishers will
do so as well. But note that the success of PubMed Central is
predicated entirely on the hope for a very unlikely event: that
publishers will simply decide to free the journal literature of their
own accord, by giving away the contents of their journals online for
free for all! Some may do so, but for most, this would be at odds with
their quite natural desire to protect their current revenue streams.
This is no doubt why publishers lobbied so strongly against the
original, Los-Alamos-style, author self-archiving. It seems to me that
if the journals were disposed to give themselves away online for free,
they would have no worries about public self-archiving by authors.

PubMed Central may still succeed, despite this quite natural resistance
from journal publishers, because the precedent created by the few more
progressive publishers who do participate initially will accelerate the
user community (both authors and readers) along the road to the optimal
and inevitable solution of free online accesss to the entire journal
literature, and the rest of the publishers will then come to see the
handwriting on the wall and adapt to it rather than trying to resist it.

But I would like to hedge my bets. It may still be a very long time
before publishers come around to it along this participatory route, and
necessity is the mother of invention: So I continue to support the
subversive route of public self-archiving by authors, and the most
important development there is not PubMed Central, but the Open
Archives Initiative, which is dedicated to drawing together all the
Open Archives -- both the central ones like Los Alamos, and the Home
Servers -- all seamlessly interlinked and navigable as if it were in
one Global Virtual Archive, Open and Free for all. The key to this is
Santa Fe Convention on interoperability, recently agreed upon by all
this existing Open Archives.

My own CogPrints Archive, modeled on Los Alamos, for the cognitive
sciences, is currently being redesigned by Rob Tansley to make it into
generic Open Software, ready by February 2000 to be installed (for free,
of course) by any and every university and research institution as an
interoperable Open Archive in which all institutional authors can
effortlessly self-archive all their papers, thereby instantaneously
depositing it also into the Global Virtual Archive.

If institutions mount the Open Archives, and their authors fill them,
the literature could be free before the end of 2000.

Then my "hypothesis" would indeed be confirmed. (The PubMed Central route
may take a lot longer -- if it is destined to get there at all!)

For now, it's still a matter of leading the learned horses to water and
trying to get them to drink...

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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