Re: Reflections on Skywriting

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 5 Feb 2000 13:56:03 +0000

On Sat, 5 Feb 2000, Duncan Williamson <> wrote:

> In general, I have been an advocate of what you seem to call "skywriting"
> for a while now and laud the efforts of those who see the opening up of
> the learned word as both good and as something of an end in itself. I
> note in your paper The Invisible Hand of Peer Review that there are
> many concerns to such an open stance as you recommend: the fields of
> science and medicine being areas in which approximations and falsehoods
> that follow on from the premature publication of ideas may be
> disastrous. Such preprints may not be so problematic in other areas of
> work, of course.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, to which I reply in Skywriting
quote/comment style below:

You are quite right, and PubMed Central
will be taking all the extra precautions that a non-biomedical Open
Archive such as the Physics Archive <> had no need to

    Harnad, S. (1998) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature
    [online] (5 Nov. 1998)
    Longer version:

> I was interested in your assertion (?) in your Scholarly Skywriting and
> the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Enquiry paper that "... many
> [scholars] still don't even use it [the computer] for word-processing
> ...". On what do you base this assertion since I find it incredible. I
> don't say you are wrong, I simply say it seems incredible to me!

Please note that that paper was published over a decade ago. Times have
fortunately changed since then.

    Harnad, S. (1990) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication
    Continuum of Scientific Inquiry. Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343
    (reprinted in Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991).

> Now to Post-Gutenburg Galaxy: the Fourth Revolution in the Means of
> Production of Knowledge. This is an interesting paper but I initially
> wonder about one point. I concede that language and writing would
> probably be accepted by everyone as momentous events in the evolution
> of a knowledge based society. I then start to wonder that you wait
> until moveable type for the third revolution...
> I thought, for example, of the plough, machinery in general,
> developments in chemistry and developments in sanitation, health and
> medicine. This list is practically unending, were we to write it all
> down. I think, therefore, that you have been too selective and too
> direct on your selection of what might influence the production of
> knowledge. My own list clearly leaves a huge gap between the first
> language and the first written symbols and the development of the
> plough.

This is just a terminological issue (or one about where we set out
thresholds for "revolution," and, specifically, "revolution in the
means of production of knowledge"). All the developments you mention are
extremely important, but I hold by my selection of language, writing,
and print as the three most relevant milestones in the means of
production (and propagation) of knowledge until the advent of skywriting.

    Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in
    the Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer
    Systems Review 2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review
    Volume 2 1992; and in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The
    Last Word. Beach Holme Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove &
    D. Kovacs: Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and
    Academic Discussion Lists (A. Okerson, ed), 2nd edition.
    Washington, DC, Association of Research Libraries, Office of
    Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992); and in Hungarian
    translation in REPLIKA 1994; and in Japanese in "Research and
    Development of Scholarly Information Dissemination Systems

> Back to Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of
> Scientific Enquiry...
> When talking of plagiarism and so on that might follow in from self
> archiving, aren't we at, or getting to, the point where the electronic
> tagging of papers is feasible? I realise that one needs only to retype,
> or even scan, a paper into a new file for at least some tagging to
> become lost, but how many people will spend their time on such things?;
> and with a truly available archive as you suggest, they are more likely
> to be caught anyway. We now have openly available routines for teachers
> to be able to test for plagiarism in student projects and assignments,
> don't we? Is plagiarism the problem we think it is?

I agree completely. Plagiarism is NOT going to be a big problem; with
every extended means that the online medium provides for plagiarizing,
it extends the means to detect it.

> Of course, I am sure all academics feel even if they cannot prove, the
> conspiracy theory relating to those in the know and those who aren't:
> those whose papers always succeed and those whose papers have to go
> through the mill. I would comment that a truly open archive could act
> positively on the conspiracy notion in that we will all be aware of
> what everyone has done and is doing and will have a much more level
> playing field to play on. For example, I know of learned Professors in
> my own area who have never published alone, they always publish
> jointly: I worry about this yet an open archive would allow me to
> compare the work of their collaborators with the work of the Prof and
> this would help me to evaluate the brains behind the plot!

I agree completely. If the refereed journal system has any systematic
biases that lead to worthwhile work not getting into print, Open
<> will be a corrective for that. And
Open Archives certainly offer scope for much deeper and more revealing
forms of bibliometric analysis. See:

> I am not convinced that your suggestion for a vertical and horizontal
> dimension of quality control is anything other than the
> electronification of the existing paper bound system. That is, you seem
> merely to be transferring to a computer based system, a manual
> operation. My worry here is that any stifling that occurs today would
> continue into the future. If we have the hierarchy that you suggest,
> then I don't see the difference between then and now. In terms of truly
> scholarly papers, I cannot help but concede that a thorough review
> process is called for. For an open archive, however, in which the free
> flow of ideas might be the main raison d'etre, papers either will
> become buried in the vanity press or will still not be added to the
> database because of a lack of trust, perhaps: back to conspiracies. My
> conclusion here is that you seem to be mixing two systems: the
> existing closed system of truly scholarly research (for want of a
> better phrase) and the open self publicising free for all. After all,
> the Los Alamos Physics example is proof, perhaps, that people will
> publish given the opportunity, come what may.

I am indeed for combining (not mixing) two systems: (1) the unrefereed
preprint system and (2) the refereed reprint system. Both are to be
publicly available online and free in the Open Archive. The links
between the two sectors of the Archive will include the fact that most
unrefereed reprints continue to have been earlier embryonic stages of
refereed reprints (the scholarly skywriting continuum), and will often
continue on to become revised, updated "2nd editions" (probably best
assigned to a subsector of the unrefereed sector, as unrefereed
revisions of refereed papers, so as to reserve the refereed sector as
the locus of the certified canonical drafts). Open Peer Commentary,
both refereed <> and
unrefereed, will have its place in the Archive, as well as authors'
replies to it. And the hierarchy of refereed journal (in terms of
quality and impact) will continue to exist across all disciplines.

So the Scholarly Skywriting continuum will continue to have both the
horizontal (embryonic) and vertical (qualitative) dimensions described
in the 1990 paper you refer to.

Aside: Archiving a paper in the Los Alamos Archive is publicizing, not
publishing (in the relevant sense). Let us reserve the latter term for
items that can can go under "published papers" in a CV. Vanity
"publications" are black boxes of no known CV-value...

> On to Free at Last: The Future of Peer-Reviewed Journals

    Harnad, S. (1999) Free at Last: The Future of Peer-Reviewed
    Journals. D-Lib Magazine 5(12) December 1999

> Again, an interesting paper but here I am afraid I think you have
> opened a can of worms! My worry in this paper concerns the
> Subscriptions/Site-Licence ... payments that Libraries currently
> suffer. In your paper you state that we would see a "... reduction and
> eventual elimination of all Subscriptions/Site-licence ... expenditure
> [S/L/P]". I don't believe you have taken the thought process far
> enough. I don't believe for a minute that by keeping the paper out of
> the library, that the library itself ceases to be. In order for the
> papers and so on still to be available, albeit in a different medium to
> that of today, there still needs to be an infrastructure: at least a
> terminal and keyboard, mouse, wires, electricity supply, chair, light,
> heat, someone to look after these things... There will still be a
> library, there will still be costs. If you have evaluated the marginal
> costs of electronic provision and found that you believe libraries will
> save money, I would like to see you calculations!

My calculations have nothing whatever to do with OTHER library costs
(or functions, e.g., books). They concern only annual serials S/L/P
expenditures (the moneys usually referred to by librarians in speaking
of the "serials crisis"). These are the only moneys to be saved, and in
part redistributed (toward paying journal quality-control/certification
[QC/C] costs up-front, at the author-institution level).

And the trivially tiny marginal costs of archiving each article will be
borne by the Open Archives mounted by Institutions (Universities),
Learned Societies, and Governmental Research Funding Agencies (e.g.,
NIH's PubMed Central).

So the objective is not to eliminate the library, but to give them
something better to spend their money on than serials, through
access-blocking and no longer necessary or justified S/L/P tolls.

> Secondly, I simply cannot accept for a moment that any savings from
> S/L/P will go anywhere near satisfying the demands that you set out in
> your paper. I wish I could give you chapter and verse on this but I am
> not a tax/Government finance historian. However, if we were to return
> to the nineteenth century, and before, if I am not mistaken, we would
> find taxes and duties being levied for specific purposes: a war tax, a
> tunnel tax, a road toll ... simple ideas: we would have been able, at
> least to an extent, to say income from tax revenues in order to finance
> a war with Prussia = x, expenditure on the war with Prussia = x, or
> thereabouts. Let's go back to 1947, I think it was, and the birth of
> the National Health Service in the UK. Along with the NHS, as it now
> is, came National Insurance payments: to pay for the health service
> that was then made available as a free good for all: Income matched
> with Expenditure.

Alas, I can't follow any of this. Who is to tax what? Researchers are
funded by universities and funding agencies to do and report their
research. It is as unlikely that a government will get the bright idea
of taxing them for doing this as it is that they will tax researchers'
use of libraries (or, for that matter, toilets): These are all
essential functions if research is to go on, for the benefit of us

On the contrary, the Universities' S/L/P savings will be a boon to all;
most of the savings will be put to better (library) use, as books are
still needed, and a small portion of it will be used to cover the
scale-down costs of refereed journal publishers, once they have
downsized from what they are currently -- the providers of a no longer
necessary PRODUCT, the refereed journal, whether on-line or on-paper,
paid for via S/L/P -- to becoming instead the providers of what
continue to be an essential SERVICE (Quality Control/Certification,

And the biggest beneficiaries from this transition will NOT be the
libraries (this would have been the optimal and inevitable outcome
whether or not there had been a serials crisis), but research and
researchers, who along with all of society (and its governments) will
benefit from the increased productivity and progress that comes from
freeing the research literature of all access-tolls for the use of all
researchers everywhere.

> I believe the same applies to University/Library financing. There are
> too many sharp eyed and avaricious Wolves and Hyenas out there to allow
> a Library or Academic Department to retain the savings in the way you
> suggest. I understand that your own University, Southampton, operates a
> devolved budgetary scheme that enables faculties and departments to
> self-manage their income and expenditure: my experience at other seats
> of learning tells me that when the chips are down, systems become
> malleable and disposable! Sorry to appear to so cynical; but reality
> must set in.

You will like the postings of Professor Ransdell in this Forum. I am
more optimistic, for there is a very explicit quid-pro-quo here: If the
current refereed literature is indeed to be freed from S/L/P tolls, then
the QC/C costs must be covered in some other way; otherwise the
literature collapses (and then it has not been freed but lost!) It
continues to be essential for University Promotion/Tenure Committees,
for Research Funding, etc. that the research literature should be
of high quality, quality-controlled, and quality-tagged (for ranking and
evaluation). "Publish-or-Perish" is predicated on keeping peer review

So there are plenty of incentives for redirecting the small portion of
the annual windfall S/L/P savings toward covering QC/C costs at the
individual institution level (not the least being that unless the costs
are covered, the literature has been destroyed rather than freed).

> Moreover, you would need your financial system to be able to track the
> savings you refer to across the vast expanse of future time. As time
> goes by, it will be less and less practical for you to maintain your
> stance anyway: the bookkeepers simply wouldn't or couldn't do what you
> would like them to.

I cannot see that at all. If there is currently a university budget
line-item called "annual S/L/P budget," then it seems quite
straightforward, both now and in the future, to note that in order to
save ANY of that annual outlay from now on, a portion of it has to be
redirected toward annual author-institution QC/C costs -- a new
university budget line item. I do not see what it so complicated about

> I think your paper The Invisible Hand of Peer Review has some eminently
> sensible concerns spelled out in it: I think you should link this paper
> to your other papers since it will be too easy for some of your
> readers, I hope this doesn't sound to pompous, to be carried away with
> the main ideas you have which are excellent; but The Invisible Hand is
> a slap in the face that some zealots might need!

You are quite right that there have been cowboys out there all along
who, agreeing that the literature is currently held hostage, have wished
to free it not only from (1) paper, and from (2) S/L/P-access costs, but
also from (3) peer review. I hope my unwavering opposition to (3)
(although I do believe peer review could use more empirical study with a
view to improving it) has helped keep such well-meaning but usually
under-informed zealots at bay.

I will consider inserting forward-going links to the peer review papers
into some of my earlier papers, as you suggest.

> To cut these reflections short, however, let me just add one final
> thought. I know there is good and bad in everything and I know that a
> lot of what you say has me as an ally since I am already converted to
> the philosophy you outline. However, I wonder how someone like Gregor
> Mendel would fare inside the new electronic publishing order? I am
> neither a scientist nor a geneticist; but I think I know that Mendel's
> work has been under suspicion ever since he published it. Mendel's work
> on genetics has always been tagged with the label of "fixed". Yet, few
> would argue that genetics and the attendant science seems to be valid:
> look at the furore over genetically modified food and say that there is
> nothing to genetics. Again, maybe somewhat cynical but a sufficient
> note on which to end.

I'm not entirely sure what your point is here, but just as Skywriting,
while making plagiarism easier to do, makes it still easier to detect,
so while making erroneous or even fraudulent results easier to
publicize, it also makes them easier to detect and expose. And peer
review is still the primary line of defense in this.

I don't know the details about Mendel directly; it is said that he
fudged; the same was said of Cyril Burt (IQ and heritability). But the
best quality-control system science has -- what makes it self-corrective
and convergent -- is that it is impossible to build upon an erroneous
foundation. So although both Mendel and Burt may have done some fudging,
their basic findings have proven correct, for they have borne the weight
of subsequent work replicating and building upon them.

Cold fusion, on the other hand, managed to get debunked much faster than
it would have taken the old, papyrocentric way, thanks to Skywriting.

> In conclusion, I will say that I will be watching out for developments
> in this area and thank my internet discussion list colleague for
> introducing your work to me.
> As a matter of interest, as I was mulling over your work, I came across
> the following; and I give not as a religious warning of doom and as an
> admonishment, rather it stuck me as just a good thing to say in
> context!:
> "But God forbids us to blazon our good deeds on walls and windows, lest
> they become mere monuments of pride and worldly pomp." (Langland,
> William (14th Century England) Piers the Ploughman)
> Duncan Williamson

The trouble with such metaphors is that they are open to many different
construals -- in this case from that poem (whose name escapes me at the
moment) about the inscription found an a lone stone in the desert
enjoining the viewer to look upon the works of the author with wonder
(and there's nothing left but desert sand), to the entire literary
corpus, written, after all, on papyrotechnic "walls and windows" and not
ALL a discredit to our species. (I doubt, by the way, that Langland
had unrefereed publication in mind in the 1300s...)

With Scholarly Skywriting in the PostGutenberg Galaxy, only the medium
will change, not the message. But as to the fact that the outcome I
describe is both optimal and inevitable, I think the handwriting is
already on the wall.

Thank you for your comments.

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

NOTE: A complete archive of this ongoing discussion of "Freeing the
Refereed Journal Literature Through Online Self-Archiving" is available
at the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99):
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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