Re: A Role for SPARC in Freeing the Refereed Literature

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 19 Jun 2000 21:44:29 +0100

On Mon, 19 Jun 2000, Ken Frazier, chair, SPARC Steering Committee, wrote:

> Stevan Harnad has never agreed with the fundamental mission and
> strategy of SPARC.

SPARC was sparked by the serials crisis, and I agree fully with its
fundamental mission of trying to resolve that crisis.

> we consider non-profit and many for-profit publishers to be potential
> allies

So do I. The enemy is not publishers, but Gutenberg: the old
papyrocentric way of doing and thinking of things. That is what put the
give-away refereed journal corpus into the anomalous position it has
always been in (with journal-article authors, unlike all other authors,
wishing to give their papers away, not sell them). The PostGutenberg era
of public self-archiving of refereed research can now put an end to all
of that, and we will all be better off for it -- and publishers will
have a permanent, sustainable niche (Quality-Control/Certification,
QC/C), performing an indispensable function, for which they will be
fairly paid (out of the huge annual savings from freeing this give-away
literature at last).

> Stevan Harnad, on the other hand, favors the complete transformation of
> scholarly communication, one in which publishing, as we know it, would
> be "eliminated."

Publishing certainly will not be eliminated! (We are in any case only
speaking about the refereed research corpus here, a small subset of

And even refereed journal publishing will not be eliminated. It will
simply need to downsize to providing the one essential service it will
still provide in the PostGutenberg Era: QC/C.

It will certainly also be possible for publishers to offer additional,
value-added services -- if there continues to be a market for them
after the refereed research has itself been freed. What is unlikely to
be viable, however, will be to try to continue to hold the refereed
papers themselves hostage to those inessential added values: Those
optional add-ons will have to compete with the vanilla refereed papers,
freely available in Open Archives. (Note that I said REFEREED papers;
that's the essential QC/C service, which will be paid for.)

> He has often referred to such a system as "optimal and inevitable."

What I have called optimal and inevitable is that the refereed research
corpus will be (1) online, (2) interconnected, (3) and free for all.

    "I don't think there is any doubt in anyone's mind as to what the
    optimal and inevitable outcome of all this will be: The Give-Away
    literature will be free at last online, in one global, interlinked
    virtual library (see
    <>), and its
    QC/C expenses will be paid for up-front, out of the S/L/P savings.
    The only question is: When? This piece is written in the hope of
    wiping the potential smirk off Posterity's face by persuading the
    academic cavalry, now that they have been led to the waters of
    self-archiving, that they should just go ahead and drink!"
    (Harnad 1999)

I have never suggested that this will entail the demise of publishers;
on the contrary, I think there will be a permanent and sustainable
niche for publishers providing the essential service of QC/C.

> With equal frequency, he has described the current publishing system as
> a "house of cards" that is on the brink of collapse. He may be right
> about the outcome. He has certainly been wrong about the timing.

The house of cards was a PAPER one (Harnad 1997), and it is indeed
collapsing (with the extremely rapid growth of the online versions of
the established refereed journals). What is happening more slowly than
one would wish (but I have carefully refrained from predicting WHEN,
for who can second-guess human nature? I have said only that it is
indeed optimal and inevitable) is that the online corpus becomes FREE,
as its authors have always meant it to be.

> I think that any real solution to the crisis in scholarly communication
> will require the cooperation of publishers. In my opinion, there are
> more good guys than bad guys in publishing.

I agree fully -- and it is a cooperative transition scenario that I was
recommending that SPARC support:

     (1) Rather than using SPARC's consortial power to favor publishers
     who merely lower their S/L/P prices (and enhance their S/L/P
     services), use it to favor instead those publishers who commit
     themselves to an explicit, agreed schedule of scaling down and
     transforming themselves and their cost-recovery system from
     reader-institution-end S/L/P product-provision to
     author-institution-end QC/C service-provision.

     (2) At the same time, immediately put the full weight of SPARC
     behind the (i) immediate mounting of Open Archives
     <> at each participating
     institution, and their (ii) immediate filling by all of the
     institutions' authors, with their unrefereed preprints and
     refereed postprints, right now.

     The cancellation pressure on publishers (from reader preference
     for the free open-archived version) will combine with the
     incentive of SPARC's transition cushion above (1), to hasten and
     facilitate journal publishers' downsizing and transition to
     service-provision, which will be a stable and permanent niche for
     them from then onward.

> many learned societies and professional associations continue to
> provide academe with excellent information resources at bargain prices.
> Such publishers add substantial value to scholarly work and receive
> modest compensation in return for their contribution to the diffusion of
> knowledge. Some of them are even using their resources to create more
> efficient and timely distribution systems for research and scholarship.

What more efficient and timely distribution system for refereed
research than that it should be online and free for all? What value can
be added to compensate for the value lost by blocking access? What
justification is there even for "bargain" access-blocking prices when
the add-ons and the price-tags and the blockage are no longer needed at

> While it may turn out that all scholarly publishing will someday be
> displaced by radically different systems of scholarly communication,
> there isn't much evidence that it is happening yet.

No radically different systems are being proposed. The whole refereed
corpus is going on-line now anyway. The only proposal is that it be

(Note that, even in the domain of peer review (QC/C), I am no advocate
of radical change, but the contrary; Harnad 1998).

> On the contrary, the market value of authenticated knowledge is
> increasing. Information consumers seem to be ready and willing to pay
> for quality and convenience.

Those consumers whose institutions can afford it; but the researchers'
concern is for the many more that cannot. And will even those who can pay
want to keep doing so once the refereed literature is publicly archived
online and accessible for free for all? (Wouldn't non-give-away books be
a better use for that library money, than give-away refereed papers?)

> SPARC isn't opposed to the competitive action of the marketplace
> (ultimately that will work to our benefit), but to the consolidation and
> monopolization of the commercial publishing industry to the detriment of
> the academic community.

The only pertinent competition here is between the for-fee and for-free
drafts of refereed research. Right now, the refereed drafts are being
held hostage to the refereeing (QC/C) itself: Restrictive copyright
agreements are being used to try to prevent authors from publicly
self-archiving their refereed, accepted drafts.

If SPARC collectively brokered a leveraged transition, so cooperating
journals could sustain themselves during the downsizing from providing
an access-blocking reader-institution-end PRODUCT (the paper) to
providing instead an author-institution-end SERVICE (QC/C), then the
market could really decide whether there was still any demand for a
value-added version for-fee, in competition with the self-archived
refereed version for free.

> Finally, I would argue that SPARC is making progress. Commercial
> publishers have moderated their price increases (for the time being),
> producing great savings for libraries and universities.

Small solace for the mortal authors with finite life-spans who yearn
for their give-away research findings to be freed of needless access
restrictions today...

    Harnad, S. (1997/1999) The Paper House of Cards (And Why It Is
    Taking So Long To Collapse). Ariadne 8: 6-7. (Also appears in
    Delivering the Electronic Library: An Ariadne Reader Lyndon Pugh,
    John MacColl & Lorcan Dempsey, Eds. Burns, Harris & Findlay 1999)

    Harnad, S. (1998/2000) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature
    [online] (5 Nov. 1998) Longer
    version in Exploit Interactive 5 (2000):

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

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 providing free
access to the refereed journal literature is available at the American
Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00):

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Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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