Re: Science Article (Roberts et al.) and Science Editorial

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 27 Mar 2001 18:06:56 +0000

All quotes below are from the following editorial:

"Science's Response: Is a Government Archive the Best Option?"

That editorial is a response to Roberts et al.'s

"Information Access: Building A "GenBank" of the Published Literature"



            Stevan Harnad
            Intelligence/Agents/Multimedia Group
            Department of Electronics and Computer Science
            University of Southampton
            Highfield, Southampton
            SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM

    "We admire the goal, and suspect that evolutionary forces may be
    moving us toward it. We have decided to make our own back research
    reports and articles freely available after 12 months--at our own
    Web site--later this year."

The goal is to free all of the refereed scientific and scholarly
literature online for everyone, forever, from the obsolete and
unnecessary access- and impact-blocking tolls of the Gutenberg era.
This anomalous literature has in any case always been an author
give-away, written for research impact, not for income from the sale of
the text. In the PostGutenberg Galaxy it has at last come into its

The release of the contents of Science after a delay of 12-months is
too little, too late.

    "To begin a conversation among scholars with a threat of economic
    boycott is unfortunate."

True. But this is not the beginning of the conversation, which was
already well underway with the Bachrach et al. Science Policy Forum of
1998 followed
by the 1999 original NIH proposal by Harold Varmus, on
which the former Editor of Science had already written an editorial an editorial
rather similar to the one I am replying to here, in a reply rather
similar to the one I made to the prior editorial

    "[T]he archive [Roberts et al.] advocate... should include all
    scientific papers... should be free... PubMed Central (PMC) is
    given as the model... We believe other alternatives exist that can
    meet most of these goals faster and more effectively without
    putting nonprofit scholarly publishing at risk."

We will now proceed to a consideration of these faster and more
effective alternatives, while asking only how the question of "risk to
nonprofit scholarly publishing" got into this: First of all, we are
only speaking of refereed journals. Second, if the only way to free
their contents online were to restructure journal publishing in some
way, would the benefits to research and researchers from freeing the
refereed journal literature necessarily be outweighed by the (putative)
difficulties the changes might create for the journal publishers?

There are problems, however, with the Roberts et al. proposal: Although
a free online version of the entire refereed corpus would undoubtedly
be beneficial to the world scientific and scholarly community, this
proposal does ask both publishers and authors to give something up in
exchange: Publishers are asked to give up their contents online, and
authors are asked to give up those publishers who decline to do so. If
these sacrifices are necessary in order to gain the benefit of a free
refereed literature, then we can weigh them, along with the likelihood
that the parties involved will be willing or even able to make the
sacrifices. But are the sacrifices really necessary?

The answer is that they are not, for there is an alternative way to
free the entire refereed literature without asking anyone to give up
anything, and that is through author self-archiving. The strategy has
already been tested and demonstrated to work by physicists. They have
already freed 30-40% of their literature in this way. All that is
needed is for physicists to accelerate their own rate of self-archiving
(which, at its current linear growth rate, would take another decade to
free 100% of its refereed literature) and to extend it to all the other

Physics self-archiving began as centralized (in the Los Alamos Archive
and its 14 mirror sites worldwide). What can now accelerate and extend
the self-archiving initiative to all the other disciplines is the Open
Archives Initiative (OAI), which has designed a standard for metadata
tagging and harvesting that makes distributed interoperable Archives
possible at the individual University and Research Institution level;
interoperability means it can all be harvested into a global "virtual"
archive, its full contents seamlessly searchable and accessible for
free from any researcher's desktop. Institutions can now create
OAI-compliant Eprint Archives using free, open-source software
<>. The responsibility and the incentive and the
initiative for self-archiving can then be distributed worldwide at the
University level, where its cost per paper becomes negligible, whereas
its benefits in terms of increased accessibility, visibility and
research impact are appreciable (not to mention its eventual potential
to relieve the institutional libraries' serials crisis).

    "There already are multiple-journal sites--for example, the
    nonprofit HighWire Press (HWP), which archives over 230 journals,
    including biological, physical and interdisciplinary papers. More
    than 200,000 articles are freely available at this site. By
    comparison, there are only about a dozen journals at PMC, limited
    currently to biology."

Yes, and that is precisely the problem -- both with the status quo, and
with waiting for journal publishers to take charge of freeing the
refereed literature online.

    "Why not begin with the already populated venue and add the
    integration, rather than the other way around? Why not use taxpayer
    dollars to promote innovative search technologies that do not
    require taking control of services provided by the private sector?"

Because the problem is not that it is not integrated but that it is not
free! And why should tax dollars be used to integrate a scattered set
of toll-gated sites when researchers can both free and integrate the
entire refereed literature (over 20K refereed journals) by
self-archiving their own portion of it in their own institution's
registered, OAI-compliant Eprint Archives?

    "The proposition of Roberts et al. raises problems for Science, and
    for other journals. First, it will reroute an economically
    important source of online traffic for journals that offer content
    and other products on their sites. "

Correct. So there is not much incentive for journals to give away their
contents at this time. Author/Institution self-archiving, however, may
eventually have the secondary effect of forcing publishers to
restructure themselves, and scale down to providing only the essentials
(quality control and certification [QC/C] through refereeing), which
only account for 10% of journal costs. The rest (on-paper version,
on-line PDF, other "added values") can be sold as optional add-ons as
long as there is a market for them.

Currently, both the essentials (QC/C) and the add-ons are "wrapped"
into the same product, with the result that the refereed papers are held
hostage to the add-ons, which are kept behind a financial fire-wall and
paid for by Subscription, Site-License, or Pay-Per-View (S/L/P) tolls.

It is from these S/L/P access-barriers that refereed research must be
freed, and the arithmetic is already clear: If and when the
availability of the free online version of refereed papers causes
publisher S/L/P revenues to shrink (and institutional S/L/P savings to
grow) to the point where there is no longer enough money to pay the
essential 10% QC/C costs out of the S/L/P revenues, then they can be
covered by the institutions out of 10% of their annual windfall S/L/P
savings in the form of per-paper fees paid to journals for the QC/C
service for their own authors' papers.

In other words, there is no benefit whatsoever to research and
researchers in maintaining "an economically important source of online
traffic for journals" when there is clearly an alternative that can
provide the QC/C and free online access too. Journals that are not
interested in downsizing to this new PostGutenberg niche can elect to
pull out, in which case their editorial boards, referees, authors and
titles can migrate to new journal publishers that are happy with the
new niche.

But this endstate is unlikely to be reached either by publisher
voluntary downsizing now, or by author migration to new journals
(although it would be splendid if it could). It will only be reached
under pressure from the natural force of author/institution

     "Second, unlimited redistribution of content could lead to misuse
     of content and loss of quality control. "

How? Why? Is there any evidence whatsoever for this among the 150,000
papers already archived by the physicists? And how can free online
access to refereed papers have a retroactive effect on the refereeing?
Backwards causation?

     "Third, it may expose users to risks historically associated with
     monopoly suppliers. For example, recently PubMed--on which PMC
     will depend--unexpectedly failed to process new content for over a
     month, inconveniencing authors and publishers."

Where did the notion of "monopoly supply" come into a free online
literature? If the worry is about the robustness of the archive,
mirroring, distributedness, backup and other means exist to make it as
robust as one likes.

And have the editors of Science not noticed that journals occasionally
slip on deadlines too? In any case, whatever it is that makes the
current journal literature reliable and robust, we can be sure that it
is not eo ipso the fact that S/L/P meters are running.

    "Subscription and advertising revenue will be at some risk and
    transferring primary access to someone else's site may expose us to
    further losses."

That is correct. And that is why the self-archiving initiative neither
demands nor depends on journal publishers doing anything like that.

    "The value we add--through peer review, perspective and
    context-setting analysis of research, and good news
    coverage--requires revenue support from advertising."

The only essential value is the peer review, discussed above. The rest
are options, and can and should be sold wherever and whenever there is
a market for them.

    "Moreover, Science supports other activities of AAAS--including
    science and public policy, kindergarten through 12th- grade
    education, a career-mentoring Web site for young scientists, and
    innovative "knowledge environments." These benefit scientists from
    all fields. Posting our back content on a site that primarily
    serves biomedical scientists would confer a benefit on one group by
    taking benefits away from another--creating, in effect, a transfer
    payment from the sciences in general to biology in particular. That
    bothers us."

Indeed it would. And for that reason it is unreasonable to ask or
expect AAAS to do so at this time. All AAAS need do is to refrain from
attempting to prevent their own authors from self-archiving their
Science papers. The rest of the cards can fall where they may.

If, however, researchers were ever asked, clearly and directly, whether
they would like to see the accessibility and impact of their research
continue to be held hostage to all these other "good works," is there
any doubt whatsoever as to what their reply would be?

    "We worry, too, about another group of journals that will be
    entering a riskier environment. Our association is an umbrella
    organization, including many specialized scientific societies as
    affiliates. Their more focused journals must remain viable to
    ensure continued publishing options in highly specialized fields
    and for younger scientists. In most cases, academic library
    subscriptions provide the economic "floor" that guarantees
    financial sustainability. If papers from specialized journals were
    to become available on the PMC site, budget-conscious library
    directors would be tempted to cancel subscriptions. Some of the
    signers of the petition are scientists who belong to those very
    societies. Have they considered that their initiative will put PMC
    in competition with their own journals? "

Note that the above rationale, and all the other ones offered here,
good and bad, are understandable ones for journals' declining to
comply with the PubMed Central proposal. But they are strained and
ineffectual when it comes to self-archiving, and its possible

The earlier formula -- that the 10% QC/C costs can always be paid out
of the 100 S/L/P savings -- covers all refereed journals, great and

    "When tax-exempt organizations go into competition with commercial
    entities they must pay unrelated-business income tax. When
    tax-supported organizations compete with commercial entities and
    nonprofits, the public has usually raised strong objections."

This is so strained and far-fetched that it does not warrant a reply.

    "There are also questions about whether the proposed location for
    PMC--the National Library of Medicine, part of the National
    Institutes of Health--is the right one. NIH already sponsors,
    through its extramural programs, much of the biomedical research
    PMC will archive. It regulates the conduct of that research,
    controls much of the training of the next generation of
    researchers, and archives primary data. It now proposes that the
    results of the research it funds be given over by publishers and
    authors to a server subject to its exclusive control. The Congress
    or the President can eliminate support for certain kinds of science
    and have done so in the past. Would PMC then be able to archive
    papers on those subjects? Concentrating this kind of womb-to-tomb
    control in a single federal agency has risks, and we should ask
    whether we are entirely comfortable with a state-run, centrally
    managed economy in biomedicine."

Ditto. This sort of convoluted scare-mongering is unworthy of AAAS.

    "Proponents of this plan include scientists of high reputation:
    Nobel laureates, leaders of institutions, and others whom we all
    admire. Nonetheless, we think its potential consequences require
    careful analysis and policy debate. We at Science are determined to
    participate in a constructive spirit."

Voluntarily freeing their contents online after a 12-month delay is
certainly a welcome step from AAAS, but it is too little, too late. It
is quite understandable that neither Science nor any other publisher
should find any reason for pre-emptively freeing its contents online at
this time. All they need to do is allow their authors to take matters
into their own hands, by self-archiving their refereed papers. The rest
will take care of itself.


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

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