Re: ELSSS project (ELectronic Society for the Social Sciences)

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sat, 10 Mar 2001 12:24:13 +0000

On Fri, 9 Mar 2001, [Anonymous] wrote:

> What do you think of the Electronic Society for Social Scientists'
> efforts to challenge the dominance of commercial publishers? Do you
> think that the online venture will succeed in forcing leading
> publishers to lower subscription costs?

I of course favor anything that will help make refereed journal
articles accessible to more users, but I am skeptical about the ELSSS
project, which has been discussed in the American Scientist Forum:

as well as in the CHE:

Here is a summary of the problems with the ESSS efforts:

(1) They are aimed only at LOWERING journal prices, which is better
than nothing, but not nearly enough. There is no price that is low
enough so that all refereed research can be accessed by all researchers
worldwide, as it should be. Yet this refereed research is all GIVEN
AWAY by its authors, and always has been; they seek and receive no
royalty or fee for it: All they want is research impact, hence
readers. So there is no longer any justification for any
impact/access-blocking price-barrier whatsoever, no matter how low, in
the PostGutenberg era of online Eprint-archiving that makes it no
longer necessary.

(2) But even as an attempt to lower prices, I do not believe the
ELSSS efforts will succeed (although I hope they will). The reason is
that the efforts are predicated on authors giving up their current
established journals and submitting their work instead to new,
unestablished journals. New journals are always a risk for an author
(and reader): They have no track record, they have no citation impact
factor, the rigor of their peer review, hence the level of quality that
they certify, has not been established; their future is uncertain.

Hence submitting to a new journal instead of an established journal
risks that one's work will not be adequately quality-controlled and
will not be read (because readers are as uncertain of the quality of
new journals as are authors). This can all be remedied, journal by
journal, across years of establishing a track record. But it cannot be
done en masse, it takes time, and it is not guaranteed of success. New
journals tend to succeed only if there is a vacant subject-matter niche
that they manage to fill. Here, we have the established journals of
quality already filling all the niches. So at worst, the process of
successfully taking over the niche would be a long and hard one, and
at worst, it would never succeed.

I don't think it will succeed, for the simple reason that sacrificing
the practise of submitting to the highest quality/impact established
journals in favor of new untested ones simply for the sake of making
one's work available at a lower cost does not pose a strong enough
incentive -- but especially when there is ALREADY a prominent way to
achieve the same goal, and still more, namely, to make one's refereed
research available to everyone for free, and not just at a lower price,
without having to give up one's established journals at all! All that
is needed is to self-archive the refereed final drafts in OAI-compliant
Eprint Archives.

So just as ELSSS is unlikely to be able to entice authors away from
their established journals, it is unlikely to induce other publishers
to lower their prices in competition.

Nor do I believe that paying authors and paying referees will hasten
these new journals along the long, hard, and uncertain path toward
becoming successfully established journals of high quality. Author
payment will rather act as a deterrent, raising the spectre of
vanity-press publishing in authors and readers' minds, to add to the
uncertainty of the nonexistent track record. Referee payment, an
untested modification of peer review, might even bias the refereeing
system. (Nor is it at all clear how these extra expenses, over and above
those of established journals, can help LOWER their prices!)

> Do you think that ELSSS' efforts go far enough? Why or why not? Do you
> think that ELSSS subscription costs are still too high?

I think ANY subscription (or site-license, or pay-per-view S/L/P)
price is too high as long as it is the ONLY way to access the refereed
literature. Once this literature has been freed online, the S/L/P
version can continue to be sold as an option for as long as there is a
market for it, but to continue to hold this author-giveaway literature
hostage to these for-fee add-ons now that the day has come when it can
all be given away by its authors online for-free has no justification
(or future) whatsoever.

The only substantive question is how to accelerate the online
liberation of the entire refereed corpus. Lowering prices is merely a
partial holding pattern, to try to tide libraries over in the mounting
serials crisis. Much more fundamental steps have to be taken in order to
reach the optimal and inevitable, and these can be taken, easily and
immediately, through author/institution self-archiving.

> What do you think of ELSSS' decision to pay authors and referrees?

See above. Authors don't want pennies for their papers, they want
IMPACT. That means readers, citations, researchers building on their
work. That's what gets them the real rewards (promotion, tenure,
grants, prizes). Paying authors just adds to the cost of the journals.
Adding to the cost of the journals adds to the access-barriers, hence
to the income-barriers. So it would be a foolish author who was
tempted by receiving some pennies for his paper at the cost of access
and impact down the line. ELSSS is proposing this as a way of hastening
the build-up of their new journals' reputations; I think it will be
seen as having a vanity-press flavor and will actually act as a
deterrent to submission, especially to authors of quality and to
junior faculty anxious for certification by an established criterion.

Paying referees is even more problematic. Referees steal time from
their research to do refereeing for various reasons (civic duty, golden
rule, superstition). How much would they have to be paid to make it
worth their while? Who has that kind of money? And might it not bias
their reviewing? (Would this not have to be carefully tested in
advance?) And how could spending more money on that lower journal
access prices?

> Do you think ELSSS will present a viable alternative for non-tenured
> faculty who might publish their work in established commercial
> journals? Are there already too many competing journals for ELSSS to
> have a significant impact?

No I don't. It is critically important for the careers of junior
faculty to publish in journals of known high quality and impact. That
is how their work is weighed, not only by prospective readers, but by
promotion and tenure committees.

Now, if there were no alternative, a (weak, not very promising) case
could be made for trying to persuade junior faculty that as it is
IMPACT on which their careers, and their performance indicators,
depend, and since journal prices are access-barriers, and hence
impact-barriers, they should submit to lower-priced journals. But this
would be a hollow appeal to researchers whose career time is NOW
(whereas submitting to new lower-priced journals of unestablished or
lower quality would be a risky investment in some remote and uncertain

But there IS an alternative, one aclling for no sacrifice whatsoever
from junior faculty, and that is to continue to publish in the
established journals AND to self-archive the refereed final drafts
online in institutional Eprint Archives. That way, junior faculty can
have their cake and eat it too.

> Do you think that subscriptions could be abolished altogether if
> authors self-archive their research online under the Open Archives
> Initiative? Is this a more viable alternative?

Yes, but it is not quite as simple as you describe. There are some
successive stages to go through, and some branch points, depending on
which way the demand and the market will go:

I have spelled this out elsewhere. See
for the full story, but it is easy to summarize the relevant bits:

    (1) Authors continue submitting all research to refereed journals.

    (2) But, they also self-archive it online in their Institutional
    Eprint Archives, thereby removing all the access and impact
    barriers (online).

    (3) It is then an empirical question whether there will continue to
    be a market for the S/L/P (Subscription/License/Pay-Per-View)
    version of the journal, paid for by enough institutions and
    individuals, so that things can continue exactly as they do now
    (with S/L/P paying the piper, but all the refereed research freely
    accessible online) -- OR the S/L/P demand shrinks drastically.

    (4) If the institutional S/L/P demand, hence expenditure, shrinks
    drastically, this means the institutional S/L/P savings grow

    (5) The true cost of implementing peer review -- the essential
    service that refereed journals will always continue to provide,
    even if it turns out to be their ONLY remaining service -- has been
    variously estimated as accounting for about 10% of the total amount
    that the institutions of the world are currently paying through
    S/L/P, per paper. (Referees of course referee for free.) See
    the Odlyzko references in "For Whom the Gate Tolls?a.

    (6) The arithmetic then is very simple: The annual 10% peer-review
    costs PER PAPER (which are not really "publication charges," but
    quality-control/certification charges) will be paid for at the
    AUTHOR-INSTITUTION end out of the 100% annual institutional S/L/P
    savings (at the READER-INSTITUTION end).

In other words, if ever the day comes when other sources of revenue for
funding peer review shrink and vanish, journal peer review can always
continue to be paid for out of a fraction of the savings. The rest of
what journals used to provide (paper version, PDF, enhancements) will
merely be optional add-ons that individuals and institutions can also
continue to pay for, as long as they wish, if they do not find the
self-archived refereed drafts sufficient.

But meanwhile, the whole refereed corpus can be freed immediately,
through author/institution self-archiving in OAI-compliant Eprint

> Some leading publishers defend their practices by saying that they are
> already lowering prices and that electronic publishing is already driving
> down costs of academic journals. How would you respond to this?

There are 20K refereed journals on the planet. That means at least
2,000,000 refereed papers annually. Most of the papers, in most of
those journals cannot be accessed by most of the researchers on the
planet today, and that would continue to be true NO MATTER HOW LOW THE
PRICE WENT! ZERO is the only price most researchers and research
institutions can afford, if they are to be able to surf this give-away
literature with no access/impact barriers at all (to the eternal
benefit of research itself).

So there is something very disingenuous about publishers speaking of
lowering prices, and "opening" this literature when what they are
actually trying to do is to continue to hold these author give-aways
hostage to price-barriers, however low! The only fair playing field for
this very special, anomalous (because author give-away) literature is
one in which the publishers' essential service -- the implementation of
peer review -- is paid for, and the rest (the paper, the PDF, any
further "added values") are merely options, that those institutions and
individuals can purchase (if they can afford it) for whom the free
self-archived online version is not enough.

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.

Discussion can be posted to:
Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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