Incentives and self-archiving

From: Peter Singer <peter.singer_at_UTORONTO.CA>
Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2001 10:09:08 -0500

Here is why it is inadvisable to place the issue of incentives beyond the scope of discussion about open archives / self-archiving.

The second step of the "Subversive proposal" is that "Authors self-archive their pre-refereeing preprints and post-refereeing postprints in their own university's Eprint Archives." ( , section 4.1.ii)

To make this happen, the "critical first step" in getting around restrictive copyright legally is to "self archive the pre-refereeing pre-print." ( , section 6.1)

At least in my field, medicine, authors will not do this (or will not do it to an optimal degree) in my view.

Why? Because of restrictive prepublication policies of key journals in the field.

Stevan addresses this problem ( , section 6.1) in the following way:
[Note that some journals have, apart from copyright policies, which are a legal matter,"embargo policies," which are merely policy matters (nonlegal). Invoking the "Ingelfinger (Embargo) Rule," some journals state that they will not referee (let alone publish) papers that have previously been "made public" in any way, whether through conferences, press releases, or on-line self-archiving. The Ingelfinger Rule, apart from being directly at odds with the interests of research and researchers and having no intrinsic justification whatsoever -- other than as a way of protecting journals' current revenue streams -- is not a legal matter, and unenforceable. So researchers are best advised to ignore it completely (Harnad 2000a, 2000b), exactly as the authors of the 130,000 papers in the Physics Archive have been doing for 10 years now. The "Ingelfinger Rule" is under review by journals in any case; Nature has already dropped it, and there are indications that Science may soon follow suit too.]

Stevan's analysis is correct but his remedy is simplistic. Researchers will not simply "ignore it completely."

Why? Because researchers-- like everyone else in life -- are driven by incentives. At the moment, they are incentivized to publish in well recognized brand name journals, several of which enforce restrictive prepublication policies. Researchers see that publishing in those journals optimize their opportunities for promotion, grants, prizes, and recognition by peers. Therefore, they will continue to do so, placing their research outside the scope of open archives, unless the incentives are realigned. (For some early thoughts on realignment, see )

A list of some of the many journals that will not accept submissions that have appeared on preprint servers is available at Note that these journals include some of the top brand names in medicine including the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and Science.

(Note that there is also an argument to be made about restrictive copyright policies but i will not explore that here because the Harnad / Oppenheim strategy does address restrictive copyright practices in a reasonable way; however, the enire strategy depends on selfarchiving the pre-refereeing preprint.)

My argument, therefore, is that the literature will never be completely freed until the incentives of science (or at least medicine) are changed to rely on the quality of the research itself rather than the brand name of the journal in which it is published. This is not a call for reforming peer review but rather a call to realign incentives. The reason for the call is not some independent worthy goal of improving science but rather that incentive realignment is an essential tactical element of freeing the literature. This argument also affects the self-archiving proposal, at least in medicine, as i have outlined above. The limiting factor will be the actions (or lack of action in relation to self-archiving) of the researchers themselves, based on the incentives they currently face. Think of this as the "incentives barrier" to freeing the literature.

We all have a common goal of freeing the literature. We have different reasons for pursuing this goal. Mine is that i am deeply concerned about the inequities in global health; i consider these to be one of the most important ethical challenges in the world today. I believe that inequities in health knowledge between developed and developing countries contribute to inequities in global health, and that the un-freed literature contributes to the inequities in health knowledge. (See and )

I raise the line of argument about incentives not to impede the self-archiving movement. Rather, i raise it again so the proponents of self-archiving can anticipate and more effectively address an important barrier to the success of the movement (at least in medical publishing) the "incentives barrier".


Peter A. Singer, MD, MPH, FRCPC
Sun Life Chair in Bioethics and Director,
University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics
Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto
Canadian Institutes of Health Research Investigator
Associate Editor, Canadian Medical Association Journal

fax: 416-978-1911
phone: 416-978-4756
mail: 88 College St., Toronto ON Canada M5G-1L4
Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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