Re: Discipline Differences in Benefits/Feasibility of Open Access?

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sun, 24 Nov 2002 15:47:49 +0000

On Sun, 24 Nov Jim Till <till_at_UHNRES.UTORONTO.CA> wrote:

> In the biomedical sciences, the "Clinical Medicine NetPrints" preprint
> server, established in December 1999, has accumulated only 67 preprints so
> far. See:

    [There are some special features of this particular archive --
    namely, that it is *only* for unrefereed preprints, and not
    for peer-reviewed postprints, a constraint that sets it apart
    from most other Eprint Archives
    (see the ClinMed NetPrints thread beginning )
    -- to which I will return at the end of this message. But I
    will reply first as if this egregious constraint were not there,
    and the figure of 67 were indeed representative of this particular
    discipline's current success with a full, central discipline-based
    Eprint Archive, open to research both before and after peer

The current ClinMed figure of 67 is comparable to the (so far likewise
low) figures in other central disciplinary archives in other
disciplines, as well as the equally low figures in the growing
number of distributed institutional archives. This confirms that
there are indeed cultural differences that influence the rate at
which different disciplines become aware of the benefits of open
access, as well as the rate at which they act to take advantage of
them. Hence, from an all-seeing Martian anthropological perspective,
the tempo of the progression toward the optimal in *all* earthly
disciplines (including physics!) is uniformly and lamentably slow.
The discipline-differences are almost trivial relative to the
commonalities: No discipline is anywhere near 100% yet (though, to
its credit, the subfield of high energy physics is, so the significant
cultural differences in tempo are even finer-grained than disciplinary

The real question (again, from an all-seeing Martian perspective:
this time a Martian methodology-of-research and
sociology/economics-of-knowledge perspective), is, how can earthlings'
progress in research communication be fast-forwarded to the optimal
and inevitable outcome for research and researchers -- open access
-- as soon as possible?

That is, if the hypothesis is indeed correct (the Martian omniscients
certainly agree it's correct, but they are a fantasy) that although
there are cultural differences in the rate at which the token drops,
there exists no earthly discipline for which it is *false* that open
access to its peer-reviewed research output is both feasible and
optimal in the online age -- i.e., no discipline for which it is
true that toll-access to its peer-reviewed research output is either
preferable or ineluctable. (*That*, if it were true, would be an
interdisciplinary difference indeed.)

> The absence of a prior preprint culture in the biomedical sciences is
> probably relevant. See:

Yes, it's relevant to the slow rate at which the access/impact
token drops -- by which I mean the slow realization, by researchers
and their institutions and funders, of the direct causal connection
between maximizing research access and maximizing research impact,
and what can and should accordingly be done about it. But that does
not even speak to the question of whether it is somehow better for
the biomedical sciences in particular to retain toll access, or
whether it is for some reason not feasible in that discipline to
have open access instead. It is this far more fundamental disciplinary
difference that is the relevant one (and whose whose existence I
strongly doubt).

> Open access journals, such as those that have recently been established by
> BioMed Central (see:, might be more
> promising (at least, in the short term) than efforts designed to try to
> foster an "eprint culture" in biomedicine?

Both BOAI approaches to
open access -- BOAI-1, self-archiving and BOAI-2, open-access
journals -- are promising in the sense that they both offer the
true, fully warranteed promise of delivering open access: if
researchers just go ahead and do it!

But what is true about the uniformly slow rate of progress toward
open access via the self-archiving route (BOAI-1) is at least as
true of the rate along the open-access journal route (BOAI-2). The
reason is quite easy to see: All that researchers have to do in
order to achieve open access via BOAI-1 is to self-archive their
research (unrefereed preprints as well as peer-reviewed postprints)
in their institutional (or central) Eprint Archives -- yet few
researchers are doing it yet. For cultural reasons, let us call
them. What researchers have to do to achieve open access via BOAI-2
is to submit their research to open-access journals instead of to
toll-access journals. Where open-access journals exist (e.g., the
BioMed Central journals), few researchers are doing it yet. For
cultural reasons, let us call them. (A fortiori, where open-access
counterparts do not yet exist for the planet's 20,000 toll-access
journals, researchers do not yet even have an option.)

So what is to be done? The culture has to be changed. How? By clear
and relentless efforts on the part of those for whom the access/impact
token has dropped to inform the research community about how and
why open access to the peer-reviewed research literature is optimal
and how to attain it (through BOAI-1 and BOAI-2, with the help of
OAI-interoperability, open-source Eprints software, scientometric
measures of impact, and quantitative demonstrations of their

It is not enough simply to found Eprint Archives or Open-Access
Journals. Without an active and activist programme to effect
cultural change (in *all* disciplines), those Archives and Journals
will lie fallow for far too long, while we wait for human nature
and cultural change to take its slow course. Universities for whom
the access/impact token has already dropped, besides setting up
Eprint Archives, must also set up carrot/stick mechanisms to get
them filled, fast:
Sometimes the research community must be cajoled into doing what
is in its own best interests. Research funding agencies can help,
because they are linchpins in the causal connection between
access/impact and the research reward system

Now, to close with another look at the lowly 67-figure in Clinical
Netprints after nearly four years of
existence. Go to clinmed's first page, and you will already get an
idea. It is not merely for cultural reasons that I, as a potential
self-archiving biomedical researcher might balk at self-archiving
my own work there, or, as a potential user, might balk at using
what's in there:

    "Warning: Articles posted on this site have not yet been accepted
    for publication by a peer reviewed journal. They are presented
    here mainly for the benefit of fellow researchers. Casual
    readers should not act on their findings, and journalists should
    be wary of reporting them."

It is not the strident health warnings about the unrefereed findings
that are the problem: I myself have stridently argued on behalf
of the need for such health warnings on unrefereed and hence
potentially hazardous biomedical reports: --
but only as a "caveat emptor" to clearly differentiate the unrefereed
papers from the refereed, published ones, which are, after all,
the main targets of the open-access initiative, not their unrefereed
precursors! An archive restricted exclusively to the unrefereed
subset is hardly an asset, especially in potentially hazardous
biomedical research.

Which just brings us back to another of the perpetual merry-go-rounds
of the cultural maze that keep diverting us from the optimal and
inevitable exit point: Almost equally confusion-sowing are: (1)
the cultural spokesmen who restrain us from self-archiving and open
access by warning (incorrectly) that it would violate copyright or (equally incorrectly)
that it would compromise peer review and (2) the counter-cultural
spokesmen who opine (incorrectly) that we don't need copyright or
peer review or journals: that everything should just be posted
willy-nilly and the rest will take care of itself!

That is why I can only repeat:

    So what is to be done? The culture has to be changed. How? By
    clear and relentless efforts on the part of those for whom the
    access/impact token has dropped to inform the research community
    about how and why open access TO THE PEER-REVIEWED RESEARCH
    LITERATURE is optimal, and how to attain it (through BOAI-1
    and BOAI-2, with the help of OAI-interoperability, open-source
    Eprints software, scientometric measures of impact, and
    quantitative demonstrations of their benefits).

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online is available at
the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01 & 02):

Discussion can be posted to:

See also the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

the Free Online Scholarship Movement:

the OAI site:

and the free OAI institutional archiving software site:
Received on Sun Nov 24 2002 - 15:47:49 GMT

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