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

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2002 14:36:12 +0000

[Excerpts forwarded, with permission, from the BOAI list]

On Sat, 30 Nov 2002, Bob Parks wrote:

>bp> The fact that RePEc is not self archiving of postprints offers no
>bp> evidence about the inevitable world 10 or 100 years from now just
>bp> as the fact that one economist (Ray Fair) has self archived all
>bp> of his printed works offers no evidence of the inevitable world.

I agree with this. And add that waiting another 10 years for open
access would be a great and needless loss of research usage, impact and
productivity. But the only thing one should not try to do is second-guess
human nature. That open access to refereed research is optimal is, I
think, uncontestable. That it is attainable, and attainable immmediately
(via self-archiving) has also, I think, been demonstrated by those who
have self-archived; those who have not self-archived have demonstrated
only that one cannot second-guess human nature. That open access is
inevitable -- given that it is optimal and feasible -- is perhaps my
optimistic inference that optimality + attainability = inevitability,
sooner or later (modulo human nature).

I also continue to believe that what is holding back human nature in
this sphere is spectacular under-informedness, demonstrated daily, in
conferences, discussion lists (including opinion polls, such as the one
recently posted from Bath) and writings on the subject of open access,
its feasibility and its benefits. Optimism continues to suggest that the
best remedy for under-informedness is information, so we proceed apace.

>bp> I am not sure what the argument is. If it is about the optimality
>bp> of self archiving the postprint literature (without any charge,
>bp> either in tolls or time), that I think is an open question since
>bp> optimality has to be defined in terms of the complete structure
>bp> of refereed literature.

No, it is and always has been about the optimality of open access to all
refereed research output. Self-archiving is a means of attaining that
optimal end immediately, and has been shown to be viable by the increasing
number of researchers who have taken it. But it is not the only means. And
there is still human nature...

And since the optimal end-state is open-access, and self-archiving
is a means, and the initial state (toll-access) is still
very far from the optimum, what will eventually be needed is
an economic model for recovering the essential costs of the
end-state (open-access). Such models can be proposed -- e.g.,
 -- but they
are certainly not needed now, and it would be a mistake to refrain from
self-archiving one's own work now simply because one is not yet sure about
the economic model for the end-state. But there is no second-guessing
human nature...

>bp> One can construct an argument that the final result of open
>bp> archiving of all refereed literature will bring its demise.

The demise of what? Of refereeing? But we peers do the refereeing
(almost all of us for free). Open access is likely to bring about
the demise of toll-access, and will probably also force peer-reviewed
journal publishing to cut inessential costs and products/services and
downsize only to the essentials. My own prediction (only one among
many other possible outcomes) is that those essentials will prove to be
just the implementation of peer-review itself, which will cost no more
than $500 per paper (whether per submitted paper or per accepted paper
remians to be estimated) and will be paid for by the author-institutions
out of a small portion of their annual windfall toll-access savings. The
rest of what publishers used to do will be accomplished by distributed,
interoperable institutional self-archiving, where the costs per paper
are next to nothing.

>bp> I am happy to present the argument but its gist is the 'business'
>bp> model. In that, someone must PAY for the resources used to produce
>bp> refereed literature. Today, most of that cost is paid internally
>bp> (referees are either uncompensated or compensated at rates lower
>bp> than workers at minimum wage). The rest of the cost is obtained via
>bp> subscription/submission fees (subscription/submission fees pay for
>bp> more than the resource cost of producing the refereed literature, in
>bp> many cases at least). If the cost of producing refereed literature
>bp> is not obtained some way, then it will not be produced. Holding
>bp> the literature hostage to a fee is one way to recover its cost,
>bp> albeit non-optimally.

I believe I have described at least one alternative scenario for
funding the essential cost (refereeing) in the link above.

>bp> If there are no charges, so that all of the cost is born by the
>bp> producers (editors, referees, web site administrators, etc. who
>bp> do in fact get benefits), that will not be optimal either (because
>bp> producers are subsidizing consumers).

I think this is based on the wrong conception of who is doing the
producing here, of what product, for whom, and why. The producer is
the researcher (and his institution and research funder). The product
is the refereed research. The refereeing is a service referees perform
for free, but the costs of its implementation -- which must be done
by an independent 3rd party, neither the producer nor the consumer,
with editorial expertise to which the outcome is answerable --
must be recovered ($500 per paper). The service is performed for the
research-producer, because the research is produced by the producer not
in order to be sold, but in order to be accessed, read, used, cited --
in order to make a measurable research *impact*. And it is that research
impact that generates income and other rewards for the research-producer
(promotion, tenure, awards) and for the research-producer's institution
(grant-funding, attraction of other researchers, prestige).

It is a mistake, in other words, to assume that the product is a text,
to be sold for tolls, as with the rest of the written literature. Refereed
research is an anomalous literature, and always has been. It is an author
give-away, written by researchers, for fellow-researchers worldwide,
intended for uptake, rather like advertisements, so as to generate
something else, which is the real objective: research impact, and the
income and rewards that that in turn brings. There is no analogy for
this in other products and services (except perhaps advertising).

Hence I think it is getting the reward structure very wrong to describe
this as "producers subsidizing consumers" as it would be with the rest
of the (non-give-away) literature. It is more like advertising, where
the give-away ads are being "subsidized" by their producer because they are
not really the product! They are a means of increasing (shall we call it)
"sales impact" for *another* product/service. In the case of research, the
"other product/service" is the researcher's and research institution's
research activities themselves, which are funded for their impact by
the funders of research and of institutions of research. (I could
supplement this with supplementary funding connections with education
too, but I think they are secondary and would needlessly complicate the

>bp> I will not belabor the point, but I can not see an OPTIMAL solution
>bp> to this particular market.

It's an understandable inference on the part of an economist, but in
fact I was not speaking about a market optimum, in particular, when I
said open access was optimal. (I'm not even sure what a market optimum
is!). What I said (and here repeat, with undiminished confidence!) is that
open access to the entire refereed research literature is optimal for
researchers, their institutions, their research-funders, the tax-payers
who fund the funders and the institutions and benefit from the research,
and for the progress of research itself. Right now, that optimum is tied
(needlessly) to a Gutenberg-era economic model for the sale of a product:
a text. In the Gutenberg era there was no other option for this anomalous
commodity (refereed research). In the PostGutenberg (online) era there
is. And it is part of the much-needed information campaign to dispel
under-informedness about the cause/effect connection from access to
impact, in order to make these new options clear and explicit to the
research community.

In sum: It is an error, simply an error, to assume that, for economic
reasons, bypassing the toll-system through self-archiving or
peer-reviewed research will destroy the means of funding peer review. On
the contrary, it will may elease the funds to do so at far lower cost --
but first having done something far, far more important, namely maximized
(hence optimized) research access/impact.

>bp> The cup is half full or half empty, but it is not full in either
>bp> case. If the argument is about the inevitability of self archiving
>bp> of all refereed literature, [no one] can
>bp> factually point to what the resultant equilibrium will be in 10
>bp> or 100 years.

See above about predicting human nature. But this I can predict: With
toll-access the potential-impact cup is (needlessly) emptier than need
be; with open access it will be full. (Quantitative estimates of how
empty it is now, and how full it could be with open access, are
beginning to appear and will increase, and will certainly be fully used
in the information campaign to demonstrate to the research community the
causal connection between research access and research impact.)

>bp> My own thought has been that there will be preprint archiving but
>bp> little change in the journals (as argued in The Faustian Grip of
>bp> Academic Publishing

You may be better at second-guessing human nature than I am, Bob. I
will continue to be an optimist about optimality, and about doing what
one can to hasten it!

[What follows below is the reply to a comment by another discussant,
the comment omitted here because the discussant did not give permission
to reproduce it.]
If most or all authors self-archived it would have one certain
direct effect -- open access to the research they archived -- and a
secondary effect (whose probability and time-course no one can predict
with certainty), namely, the downsizing of peer-reviewed journal
publication to the essentials, funded some other way (I have described
one such way above). But if the research community has been slow to
realize and take advantage of the benefits of open access, it is likely
that they and their library and administrative communities will also
be slow in cancelling toll-access. So whereas the cause-effect
connection between access and impact will be rapid with the transition
to open acess, the cause-effect connection between open access and the
termination of toll-access is unlikely to be very sudden.
I have always said that my own transition scenario from funding of
peer-reviewed journals as a toll-access product for user-institutions
to the funding of a peer-review service for researcher-institutions is
merely a hypothetical one (among many other possibilities). I don't know
whether there is any economic precedent for any of this -- but there
was never any economic precedent for the indirect rewards of research
impact either; they just had to piggy-back (non-optimally, but with
no other option) on the standard Gutenberg-era text-as-product model
which works fine for all the rest of the (non-give-away) literature,
both Gutenberg and PostGutenberg, but not for research impact.
But the benefits (to *all* researchers) of open access are both certain
and immediately attainable in the online-era. It would make no sense
for researchers not to take advantage of them, immediately. If the
co-existence of the toll-access product-based cost-recovery system is
then put into an unstable equilibrium with open-access usage, there will
be a shift. Maybe the shift I predict, maybe another. But uncertainty
about what the new equilibrium will be is certainly no reason for
researchers not to do what is optimal for their research impact right
now. After all, it is not law-breaking that is being recommended, but
simply the exercise of good sense, along exactly the same lines that
the authors of 200,000 papers have done it since 1991 in Physics
and the authors of perhaps 500,000 papers have done it in computer
science. Economists have already gotten their feet wet wading in the
seas of self-archiving (preprints); they will eventually find they can
get where they want to go faster by swimming.
Please let us separate the second-guessing human-nature question (which
is, in a sense, moot for all disciplines!) -- i.e., whether/when people
will go ahead and do something, whether or not it would be good for
them -- from the question of whether or not it would be good for them
What we are discussing here is (1) whether or not the fact that
economists self-archive preprints counts today as evidence that they are
further ahead along the road to open access to the refereed research
literature than disciplines that do not self-archive yet at all and
about (2) whether or not it is true that economics differs from other
disciplines in that open access to refereed economics research in *not*
optimal for economist-researchers (and if not, why not?).
On economic models and transition scenarios for the putative eventual
effects of open access on toll access, I have no strong views, just one
hypothesis among many other possible ones.
Stevan Harnad
Received on Mon Dec 02 2002 - 14:36:12 GMT

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