Re: A Note of Caution About "Reforming the System"

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 17 Feb 2001 20:01:14 +0000

On Sat, 17 Feb 2001, Peter Singer wrote:

> I understand Stevan's desire to focus on solutions that do not require
> fundamental change of the journal system, such as his innovative
> proposals for freeing the literature. However, I think it is important
> even for appraising Stevan's proposals to consider alternative,
> complementary, and perhaps more fundamental approaches.

I have posted Peter's pointer to his peer-review-reform site, but can I
point out a logical problem here?

Peter writes above as if we were speaking about different "solutions"
to one and the same "problem," but we are not!

This Forum is concerned with freeing the peer-reviewed literature, SUCH
AS IT IS, from access/impact barriers online, not with freeing it from
peer-review, such as it is (i.e., not with reforming peer review, not
with "fundamental change of the journal system"). Nor is it concerned
with reforming other forms of review: for grants, promotion, tenure,

Nor are are these literature-liberation proposals "innovative"! They
are by now, in 2001, decidedly old hat, alas!

What WOULD be innovative would be finding a way to get everyone (other
than a subset of physicists, growing only linearly) to IMPLEMENT
them, at last!

There is now the hope (not just mine, but many others' too) that
(1) OAI-interoperability (, (2) free
software so universities can immediately create OAI-compliant archives
(, and (3) a concerted push by universities
everywhere to install and fill those archives, just might get us to the
optimal and inevitable (and long overdue) at last:

And what is the optimal and inevitable? It is (until further notice):
the CURRENT annual peer-reviewed research literature (at least 20,000
refereed journals, according to Ulrichs [])
totalling at least 2,000,000 papers a year (on the most conservative
estimate of an average of 100 papers per journal) all 2,000,000
accessible online, for free, for all, forever.

As a bonus, in addition to the 2,000,000 annual peer-reviewed final
drafts, there would also be their earlier embryological stages, in the
form of pre-refereeing preprints too.

Getting-THAT is the solution. Not-having-THAT is the problem.

The problem is self-evident. (What researcher, whether author or reader,
would not want his own research papers and everyone else's to be freely
accessible to all?)

The solution too is already tried, tested and successful. (The
physics/mathematics/astro subset of the 20K refereed journals consists,
conservatively, of at least 1000 active journals, averaging at least
300 papers per journal per annum, for an annual total of 300K papers.
These are currently being freed at a rate of 30K papers per annum
(, so this subset of
the literature would reach the optimal and inevitable in about a
decade, at its current growth rate.)

So we have a clear problem, and a clear, tested, demonstrated
solution. (It is to the collective wisdom of that 30K vanguard of the
research community that we are all indebted for our empirical evidence
that self-archiving will indeed free the research literature. Proposals
are otherwise just proposals, archives are merely empty skies, and
archiving software merely skyhooks: The rest of the research community
must now take note, come to its senses, take things in hand, and
collectively liberate the literature by self-archiving their own
contributions to it.)

But the "fundamental changes to the journal system" that Peter is
contemplating go beyond merely freeing it online, as above, beyond what
is self-evident and already demonstrated. For some (perhaps not Peter),
they involve untested changes in peer review itself, the quality
control system that has vouchsafed us the current literature, such as
it is. And for some (including Peter this time) they extend to how
one evaluates research and researchers AFTER peer review (review
for grants, promotion, tenure, prizes):

    "We need changes in policy, culture, and measures of quality. Change
    in policy is perhaps the easiest to accomplish, because it requires
    only the stroke of a pen (and some lobbying). The policy of a
    university, granting agency, or prize committee could simply state
    that the work itself, rather than where it gets published, should
    be the focus of attention. Granting agencies could require
    researchers to retain copyright of articles describing funded
    research,[3] and to publish that research in an open-access forum.

    "Cultural change is also necessary, but more difficult. Even if the
    policy says, "judge the work," the people around the table will
    still spend a great deal of time counting articles and looking up
    impact factors of the journals in which they are published. One way
    to change the culture is for the leaders of these decision-making
    bodies -- the chairs of the university promotions committees,
    granting-agency review committees, or prize committees -- to
    demonstrate a different set of values by publishing their own work
    in open-access journals. If senior academics embrace open access,
    they will embolden their junior colleagues to follow."

This goes beyond peer review reform to further (worthy) issues, but
ones on which the (refereed) literature liberation movement surely
should not even take an a priori stand!

Not only are peer-review reform and grant/tenure-review reform not the
already tested and successful route to the optimal and inevitable that
we are proposing, but it is not at all clear what their destination
would be. No one knows what the literature would look like if its
quality control system were to change in some "innovative" way. (I
support the BioMedCentral project, but that is merely a new, free,
online set of peer-reviewed journals, with the usual uphill battle of
establishing its quality credentials and credibility: -- "open access forums" [like this one!]
are another matter...) Nor does anyone have any bright ideas about
better ways to review grant proposals or candidates for promotion and

But I do know one thing: That among the worries voiced by many
researchers as a rationale for NOT self-archiving, and among the
deterrents invoked by some publishers to encourage them to continue
not to do so, has been precisely the spectre of compromising the
quality of the research literature we are trying to free, and whatever
guidance it might provide for evaluating quality.

So while I and others are at pains to make everyone realize that there
is NO CAUSAL CONNECTION AT ALL between (1) freeing the refereed
literature through self-archiving and (2) any change whatsoever in its
quality control system (either peer review or grant review or career
review), we find ourselves with awkward allies who are giving exactly
the opposite impression, which is that freeing the refereed literature
is somehow coupled with "reforming the system" (in various speculative
and untested ways).

Is it uncharitable to want to bless the efforts of these well-meaning
reformers, but at the same time to want to distance them as much as
possible from our own?

Our efforts are not "complementary"! At best, they are orthogonal; at
worst, the peer-review reform-movement, if portrayed as yoked to it in
any way, could be an obstacle to the progress of the (peer-reviewed)
literature-liberation movement.

Different problems, different solutions.

(It is not out of the question that a freed online research
literature will spawn more diverse and more equitable performance
indicators -- hence more potential beans for grant/tenure/prize to
count. But can we please keep that under our hats for now, till the
literature is safely launched skyward?

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 the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01):

You may join the list at the site above.

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Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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