Re: problem of the Ginsparg Archive as self-archiving model

From: Andrew Odlyzko <amo_at_RESEARCH.ATT.COM>
Date: Sun, 3 Sep 2000 21:57:24 -0400

Just a few hurried remarks on the recent messages from Stevan Harnad
and Joseph Ransdell. (The latest message from Joseph was a response
to something sent by David Goodman that somehow did not make it to my
mailbox, so I am missing part of this discussion.)

1. I think Joseph is right that Stevan overemphasizes the role
of conventional peer review. This is one of the areas where Stevan
and I do not see eye-to-eye. Starting with my original paper
on this subject, "Tragic loss or good riddance ..." (available,
along with all my other papers referenced later, at
<>), I have been
predicting that as we move to a continuum of publication, we will
also evolve towards a continuum of peer review. Scholars will be
increasingly relying on a variety of cues to judge the validity of
communications from fellow scholars, not just the formal editorial
and peer review system. However, that system is slow to evolve,
since the inertia of the scholarly community is enormous, as
I discussed in "The slow evolution of electronic publishing."
The incentives for scholars, especially established scholars
with tenure, who already have well-developed methods for reaching
their closest colleagues, to change their ways are not all that
great. Hence we still have a thriving traditional journal system,
(although an increasing fraction of those journals are available
electronically, but as "shovelware," just electronic versions
of the paper editions).

In spite of the slow pace of evolution of basic scholarly articles,
I wholeheartedly endorse Stevan's (and Paul Ginsparg's) efforts
to stimulate usage of eprint archives. I think Joseph is wrong
about the need for some special kind of maturity on the part of
a scholarly area to adopt such archives. I have seen many fields
successfully switch to the use of such archives, and I am not
aware of a single instance of any area that has then abandoned
it, nor even of any area where a substantial number of people
regret the move. Much more common are comments of the form
"I don't know how we ever lived without this."

My guess as to why Paul's archive was adopted by his area as
rapidly as it was by is as follows (quoting from "The slow evolution ..."):

  We can see the confluence of many of the factors mentioned above in
  recent technological changes. The rapid acceptance of Ginsparg's
  preprint server was a case of simple substitution. His research
  community in high energy theoretical physics had, during the 1980s,
  developed a culture of massive preprint distribution. Each department
  would send copies of all preprints (typeset in TeX) in this area to
  several hundred other institutions. Costs per department ran into
  tens of thousands of dollars per year. Under these circumstances,
  shifting to electronic distribution was easy. The main loser was the
  postal service. However, the Post Office has no voice in departmental
  decisions. One could also claim that secretaries lost, since there
  was less work for them to do. However, secretaries do not have much
  power in decisions of this type either, and in any case, who likes
  stuffing envelopes?

2. In the general evolution of electronic communication, there will
be considerable pain for publishers and librarians. That will be
outweighed by the gains for scholars and the general public, but
those large gains will be spread much more thinly. As a result
there are few people with a large interest in pushing for a rapid
change. The one exception is university administrators. Starting
with "The tragic loss ..." I have been predicting that dramatic shifts
might come when these decision makers see that traditional journals
are nowhere as important as they used to be, and start imposing
serious cuts on libraries. Given recent developments (described in
"Competition and cooperation: Libraries and publishers in the
transition to electronic scholarly journals") I think the first
phase will involve elimination of paper versions of traditional
journals, to cut down on internal library costs. It is hard to
predict when this might occur, since this depends not only on
the natural evolution of scholarly communication, but also on
the general economic conditions. It is hard to impose drastic
cuts on anything at universities today, in the days of plenty,
but when the next recession hits, it will be a different story.
In "Tragic loss ...," written in 1993-4, I ventured a guess
that there would be little visible change in scholarly publishing
in the first 5 years, but that there would be drastic changes
within 15 years. The first part of that prediction has proved
pretty accurate, now we just have to wait to see about the

3. Although change in traditional publications is slow, I am
convinced it is inevitable. In particular, the paper "The rapid
evolution of scholarly communication," which was mentioned on
this list recently by Tom Walker, discusses the vigorous growth
of electronic scholarly communication aside from the traditional
journal system. Although the incentives for scholars to have
their work freely accessible are weak, they do exist, and, as
with all network effects, get stronger the more people participate.
Archiving of preprints does substantiate priority claims, as
Joseph mentions in his most recent message. That is a substantial
factor to quite a few people I know, although less for the reason
Joseph mentions (that a referee might steal the results), and more
to protect themselves against a slow and/or capricious refereeing
process (such as when a paper is submitted to an ultra-selective
journal A, gets rejected after a year [yes, such delays are
not uncommon in some areas], and gets sent to journal B, while
in the meantime somebody else publishes similar results in
journal C).

The main incentive for scholars to insist on free access
to their papers, though, is this is the way to get them read.
Easy availability is essential on the Internet. Some criticize
this trend, claiming it produces superficial impressions, an
overload of material, etc., but instant gratification (even
if it "saps the moral fiber of society," in the words of
critics of some earlier technological innovations) is the
way we are going. "The rapid evolution ..." is largely
about this phenomenon. Interestingly enough, the paper by
Karen Hunter from Elsevier at the PEAK conference (which is
where "The rapid evolution ..." was presented, both available
at <>) has a nice
quote on what Elsevier has learned from the PEAK experiment
(which involved various types of payment schemes for access
to scholarly journals):

  [Elsevier's] goal is to give people access to as much
  information as possible on a flat fee, unlimited use
  basis. [Elsevier's] experience has been that as soon
  as the usage is metered on a per-article basis, there
  is an inhibition on use or a concern about exceeding
  some budget allocation.

Now Elsevier is interested in perpetuating its model, so
Karen talks of flat fee pricing, but the general principle
is clear. Flat fees encourage use, and zero fees do that
even better.

Andrew Odlyzko

Andrew Odlyzko
AT&T Labs - Research voice: 973-360-8410 fax: 973-360-8178
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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