Re: What if it's peer-review versus free-access?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 17 Dec 2001 13:16:31 +0000

On Sun, 16 Dec 2001, David Goodman wrote:

> Stevan, which do you regard as more important:
> 1/ achieving free access to scientific research even if it means relaxing
> the standards or changing the methods of peer review
> or
> 2/ Maintaining the system of peer review even if it means postponing the
> freeing of the journal literature?

I think this is a hypothetical (and probably a counterfactual) trade-off,
rather like asking "If you had to choose between (1) truth at the expense
of justice or (2) justice at the expense of truth, which would you choose?"

So let me first deny the premise: I don't think there is in reality any
trade-off between peer-review and free-access. I think we can have both,
through self-archiving (although there are certainly ways in which classical
peer review can be implemented much more cheaply and efficiently on-line: )

And even if there were a trade-off, it would not be an all-or-none one, but
a matter of degree. I can see no reason why peers, who review for free,
should be influenced in the standards or methods they apply, by whether
or not there is free access! But I could see the standards of some
peripheral services, such as copy-editing and mark-up, being relaxed
somewhat in the service of reducing costs so as to free access. (This
is why Andrew Odlyzko was emphasizing the importance of the emerging
authoring tools and services in his recent posting.)

But whereas there may be room for some degree of compromise in
"standards" at the periphery of quality-control (i.e., in
quality-control for form rather than content), "free" is intrinsically
an all-or-none matter. So I think it would be a mistake (indeed a
Trojan Horse) to settle for lower-cost online access rather than free
online access to the full-text refereed literature. Lower costs
are fine as short-term, stop-gap remedies for library budget problems,
but they are not the solution to the researchers' problem of (not
reducing but) eliminating all financial access barriers to the impact
and uptake of their give-away research. Nor must should the delay
till researchers at last have free access be allowed to stretch on

> We all know you are certain that there is no conflict, and that both can
> be done simultaneously. We all also know, if only from the responses on
> this forum, that many who are working towards the same goals disagree with
> you--and that most of those are people whose motives and opinions I believe
> you otherwise respect.

Misunderstandings and disagreements are rife, but I would not have said that
many or most are based on the notion that free access can only be had
at the expense of peer review. The peer review "reformers" are a rather
small and unrepresentative minority in our ranks (see the threads of
discussion along these lines in this Forum at the end of this message).
(Indeed, more of the dissenters worry (needlessly) about reforming
copyright than about reforming peer review, I would say.)

But the real problem is not these theoretical disagreements among the
"many who are working towards the same goals"! Indeed, the problem is
not theoretical at all; it is practical. And it concerns a far, far
bigger and more pertinent population than the "[not so] many who are
working towards the same goals": Most researchers have not thought
enough about these access/impact matters to even know what their
motives and opinions are! Yet it is on their (in)action that the
failure, success, and timetable of freeing access depends! They
certainly are not clamoring for lowered peer-review standards, but they
are not self-archiving either! (And that's certainly not because they
have informed themselves, reflected, and concluded that free access
could only be had at the expense of peer review, and hence, because
they do not wish to give up peer review, they have elected not to
self-archive! It is because most have so far given the matter very
little systematic thought at all, one way or the other!)

> You surely cannot accomplish your goals without the assistance of
> others. Let's imagine that your friends and
> supporters outvote you, and we are all faced with the choice.
> Would you go with 1/ or with 2/ ?

I am not sure what alternatives my friends and supporters have in
mind, but let but let us not forget that we are still just a small
circle of activists, and our preferences matter very little; it is
the research community whose vote would matter -- and for the time
being they are still slumbering complacently in the arms of the
status quo!

> (I myself think--or at least hope-- that we could
> do both. But if necessary, I would go with 1/ , on the pragmatic
> grounds that it will be easier to accomplish both if we start there.)

I don't believe there is a trade-off between peer-review standards and
free access in the first place, hence I don't believe we need to choose
between (1) changing peer review standards/methods or (2) postponing
free access. (I can't see why you would want to do BOTH, by the way:
reform peer review AND postpone free access! I assume you mis-spoke and
meant reform peer review and have free access...)

Peer-review reform is an untested, empirical proposition, entirely
independent of and prior to the question of whether reform would free
access! We are just a small circle of free-access activists. If you think
persuading the research community to self-archive their peer-reviewed
research has been a slow and uphill battle so far, lots of luck with
trying to persuade them to reform their system of peer review (for
which, being researchers, they will rightly want to test and
demonstrate the alternatives before "reforming", if they can be
persuaded to consider it at all!). It almost sounds easier to keep on
trying instead to persuade the much smaller population of publishers to
free access to their contents online....

"A Note of Caution About 'Reforming the System'"

"Alternative Forum for Discussing Peer Review Reform"

"Peer Review Reform Hypothesis-Testing"

"ePrint Repositories [+ Peer Review]"

"Publication at LANL as involving peer review"

Stevan Harnad
Received on Mon Dec 17 2001 - 13:16:42 GMT

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