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

From: Manfredi M.A. La Manna <mlm_at_ELSSS.ORG.UK>
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2001 09:28:17 +0000

The following is my response to Stevan Harnad's "ELSSS proposal" posting of
the 10th of March.

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Subject: Re: ELSSS project (ELectronic Society for the Social Sciences)
Date: 10 March 2001 12:27

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 ELSSS 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.

***MLM's comment: I cannot generalize to other disciplines, but the
Harnad's proposal is fundamentally flawed as far as economics is
concerned. This is why. As far as I understand him, Harnad appears to have
no qualms with the refereed journal system, his main concern being that
after the article has been quality-certified by the refereeing and editing
system of refereed journals, it should be made available for free to all
researchers. What Harnad does not seem to appreciate fully is the
difference between free access to unrefereed and refereed material.
Whereas, of course, there is no reason why unrefereed material should not
be freely accessible (and this is largely already the case in economics -
see the large number of archives with working papers, etc.), refereed
articles are another kettle of fish altogether. It is not obvious to me
why, in the current state of affairs, authors ought to have the automatic
right to give away some else's work (the referees' and editors'). Of
course, there may be disciplines where reciprocal refereeing may be the
norm, but in the case of economics, the pool of (able and prompt) referees
is both small and overfished. If this is accepted as a true description of
the state of refereeing in economics, then it becomes obvious why, at least
in economics, the Harnad proposal has no prospect of ever succeeding (nor
it ought to). Why should journals, associations, editors, and referees
effectively allow researchers to free-ride on their efforts. Turning raw
research material into quality-controlled quality-graded output involves a
cost, and someone has to be bear it. There are no free lunches in academic
publishing. The real question, that the Harnad proposal not only does not
address but, worse, provides a serious obstacle to overcoming, is whether
commercial publishers should continue to earn stratospheric rents on the
reputation that journals written, refereed and edited by academics have
acquired over the years.
In the long run, i.e., when thanks to initiatives like ELSSS and SPARC,
journal subscriptions merely cover the cost of quality-control and
therefore are much more widely diffused than now, the issue of free access
to refereed material will become largely irrelevant.***

(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.

***MLM's comment: as far as economics is concerned, most, if not all, of
Harnad's assumptions are either incorrect or, at best, untested. Can Harnad
cite a case when a large proportion of leading researchers in any
discipline have committed themselves to submitting and refereeing papers in
a yet-to-be-launched journal? Can he not see that ELSSS provides a
mechanism for both creating "instant reputation" for new journals and for
diluting the (abused) reputation of high-price ones? Does he know of any
other case where a yet-to-be-launched journal, in addition to advertising a
world-class list of editorial board members, has produced a list of top
referees, in advance of publication?***

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.

***MLM's comment: Again, most of Harnad's statements are either untested or
contradicted by the evidence. Can he point to any previous attempt to
target a range of high-priced journals by providing credible alternatives?
Even one-journal attempt can be successful, as Theory and Practice of Logic
Programming and Evolutionary Ecology Research have proved conclusively.***

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.

***MLM's comment: in addition to the misunderstandings already explained
above, here Harnad makes another statement that, again for the case of
economics, is patently incorrect: economists do want to give up high-price
journals . They just need a credible alternative to enable them to do so. ***

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.

***MLM's comments: it may be that other researchers are not as familiar as
economists are with the concept of multiple equilibria in a coordination
game and with mechanisms that facilitate the transition from sub-optimal to
superior equilibria. ELSSS can already count on hundreds of highly
respected researchers committed to both submitting to and refereeing for
ELSSS journals. As to the effect of ELSSS journals on the pricing policies
of monopolistic publishers, this is going to be uncharted territory, as the
latter have never been exposed before to a sustained attack. Judging from
existing one-journal challenges, my prediction is that the inevitable
dilution in quality in high-priced journals will eventually lead to price
reductions. ***

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!)

***MLM's comments: again, Harnad's points may be valid for some
disciplines, but definitely not for economics. In economics, referee
payment is not a new development at all. To mention two examples (and I
could cite many more) on either side of the Atlantic: the American Economic
Review, the economics journal with the highest citation impact and
published on a not-for-profit basis by the American Economic Association
has paid referees a nominal fee for quite some time, as has the Economic
Journal, the highly respected publication of the Royal Economic Society. So
much for "untested modification of peer review" As to author payment, there
is an ongoing debate amongst ELSSS supporters and the consensus there is
that, given the level of support already achieved by ELSSS, rewarding
authors is probably unnecessary (even though, prizes for best articles can
play a role here). Not a single respondent mentioned vanity-publishing, for
the good reason that the whole emphasis of the ELSSS project is on
publishing highest-quality material, under the most stringent quality

> 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.

***MLM's comments: A clarification for the anonymous questioner. The
subscription cost estimates given on the ELSSS website are very
conservative, perhaps to the extent of being misleading. The key issue here
is the principle that the real cost of refereeing, editing, and
distributing high-quality research ought to be spread as widely as
possible. ELSSS will implement pricing policies (details of which are too
commercially sensitive to be revealed in advance) that will achieve
precisely this - as well as making all ELSSS journals available at no cost
to all developing and transition economies. Perhaps the scenarios where
thousands of libraries share the costs of quality control instead of
bleeding themselves dry by paying the sort of subscriptions charged by the
likes of Reed Elsevier may not please Harnad fully but I am pretty sure it
will make most librarians and researchers very happy indeed.***

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.

***MLM's comments: I am not sure that the Harnad's world would be optimal
and I am definitely certain that it is by no means inevitable. The simple
fact is that self/institution self-archiving of refereed material is either
inherently self-contradictory in so far as it would lead to the collapse of
the refereed journal system (without providing any viable alternative to
it) or doomed to failure in those disciplines that do not regard the
collapse of the refereed journal system as an optimal, or even desirable
state of affairs.

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

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.

***MLM's comments: see above.***

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?

***MLM's comments: in addition to my previous comments, perhaps I can share
with the list the debate amongst ELSSS supporters on the issue of paying
referees. Again, I do not wish to fall into the trap of generalising about
all academic disciplines, so please remember that I am talking about
ECONOMICS (where, for example, lags between submission and first referees'
reports can be anything between 4 to 12 months - a lag that researchers in
other disciplines would regard as totally unacceptable). The consensus
among ELSSS supporters is that, whereas most economists will referee out of
academic duty, a payment contingent on prompt return of a full report will
be beneficial to the profession. Is it not strange that the Harnad proposal
has nothing to say about the current practice of referees working for free
(or for derisory fees) for commercial publishers who charge extortionate
subscription prices? Again not a single ELSSS respondent has mentioned the
possibility that paying referees may bias the reviewing, for the simple
reason that double-blind refereeing and the payment being contingent on
speed of response (and not on the outcome of the refereeing) provide
sufficient safeguard against any bias. Moreover, and this is another
crucial point not grasped by Harnad, paying referees for prompt and full
reports is also an indirect means for weakening the stranglehold of
high-priced journals on the market. As he may (or may not) be aware, in
economics some leading economists have attempted to organize a "refereeing
boycott" of high-priced journals, which has not been terribly successful
because so far there has been no credible alternative to the high-priced
specialist journals. ELSSS provides such an alternative: on receiving two
papers to review, most economists would referee first the paper submitted
to ELSSS and only later, if at all, the one submitted to a high-price

> 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.

***MLM's comment: Then, how would Harnad explain the fact that a large
proportion of ELSSS supporters are junior faculty?***

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 future).

***MLM's comment: The key feature of ELSSS journals is not so much that
they will be significantly cheaper than the commercially-produced journals
they will be competing with (which only shows how extortionately priced the
latter are), but that the revenues generated will be shared by the academic
community. Or to put it differently, that the real cost of refereeing and
editing will be shared more equitably. So referring to ELSSS journals as
"lower-priced" is irrelevant in this context. Referring to them as
"journals of unestablished or lower quality" is downright inaccurate.
Perhaps Harnad can ask the opinion of his colleagues in the Economics
department at Southampton (some of whom are ELSSS supporters, btw) on the
quality of the ELSSS supporters as publicised on the ELSSS website
( They include current or past
editors of the most prestigious journals, presidents and eminent members of
leading learned societies, etc. So much for "lower quality". The questioner
is absolutely right in pointing out that there may be too many journals
already. The aim of the ELSSS initiative is to weaken and eventually
dislodge the high-priced journals.***

But there IS an alternative, one calling 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 drastically.
     (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?
     (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
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 Archives

***MLM's comments: (I am sure that other people will have expressed
comments similar to what follows. I apologise for duplicating them here
unacknowledged, but, because of time constraints, I have decided not to
invest too much time into investigating a route to better scholarly
communication that seems to me to be so obviously flawed - at least as far
as economics is concerned.)
The reason why the route described by Harnad will never be followed by
economists in any significant number is that the suggested alternative is
totally self-defeating. Who would ever be willing to subscribe to material
that is freely available? Answer: nobody, certainly not budget-constrained
libraries. Therefore, contrary to Harnad's belief, "refereed journals will"
not (negation and emphasis added) "continue to provide the essential
service [of] implementing peer review"".
Economists, and perhaps others as well, can solve games by backward
induction: if a strategy leads to an undesirable outcome (the collapse of
the refereed journal system), then it will not be adopted. Harnad is
absolutely correct when he states that "If the institutional S/L/P demand,
hence expenditure, shrinks drastically, this means the institutional S/L/P
savings grow drastically." Indeed. They can "save" 100% of the subscription
price of refereed journals. The minor snag is that, as a result of this
"saving", there will be no refereed journals.***

> 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).

***MLM's comment. I believe that Harnad is seriously damaging his
credibility with statements like the above or when he states that "There is
no need to single out any particular publishers, because even if the higher
ones lowered their prices to the level of the lower ones, all refereed
research would still not be accessible to all researchers, everywhere. Only
some to some. As long as this entire give-away literature is not free to
everyone everywhere, online, research-impact is being lost". His proposal,
by refusing to face the fact that the cost of quality control (and
enhancement) has to be borne by someone, not only is not helping the fight
for fairer academic publishing but is contributing indirectly to the
perpetuation of a system where a handful of commercial publishers exploit
the entire academic community.***

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.

***MLM's final comment. At long last something that Harnad and I agree on:
the long-term aim of any initiative for the improvement of scholarly
communication is to drive its cost to the barest minimum - the cost of
quality control and enhancement. The substantial difference between his
approach and ELSSS' is that whereas the former, if "successful" would lead
to the collapse of the refereed journal system without offering any
alternative and therefore unwittingly bolsters the totally unsatisfactory
status quo, the latter, by challenging directly the practices of
monopolistic publishers and offering a credible alternative, makes the
long-term objective of minimum-cost scholarly communication achievable and
realistic. One final observation: Elsevier has felt sufficiently threatened
by the ELSSS initiative to be moved into the unusual move of sending an
unsolicited email to ELSSS supporters trying (not very successfully) to
defend its practices. Is this not a sign that ELSSS is attacking
monopolistic publishers where it hurts?***

Concluding remark: I believe that much faster progress will be made towards
fairer academic publishing when contributors to the debate realise that
there is no one model that fits all disciplines. The quest for a grand
solution may at best be illusory and at worst hamper the efforts of people
trying to change things for the better in a gradual and decentralised fashion.

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

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