Learned Society Publisher's Comment on PLoS/Sabo

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_ecs.soton.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 19 Jul 2003 16:07:07 +0100

Here are some replies to a critique of the PLoS Model and Sabo Bill by
a member of a Learned Society's publication board (non-public posting):

First the (anonymized) quotes and comments, and then a summary at the
end of my own view of the relation between the two open-access strategies.

> >Date: Thu, 17 Jul 2003 02:31:40 +0200
> >From: [Board Member, identity deleted]
> >To: [Learned Society Publication Board, identity deleted]
> >
> >I find the model promoted by PLoS extremely worrying.
> >Behind the fantasy of free (as in free beer) access, it hides
> >a dangerous business model that goes against scientific
> >ethics.

There is nothing dangerous about the business model at all. At worst it
might be premature. (And if the essential costs are paid, then we are
not talking about free beer, so that is a red herring.)

> >First, charging authors rather than readers is wrong. Charging
> >those who create the (intellectual) wealth rather than those who
> >use it, runs counter to any sound economic argument.

Nothing of the sort (and there is very little economic theory about
peer-reviewed research publication!). The essential point is this:
This is not an author-royalty-based literature, and never was. *That* is
the economic anomaly, and open-access publishing will in fact be the way
to resolve it at last: Unlike all other authors, the authors of refereed
research do not write for royalties or fees, but for research uptake and
impact, i.e., so that their research should be read, used and cited as
fully as possible. That is their measure of success. That is what they
are rewarded for. Not, like all other authors, from a share of the

So we should mistrust those who say that charging authors rather than
readers is "wrong" and goes against sound economic argument. It is
non-royalty-(or fee)-based publication that is economically anomalous;
and toll-based access-blockage, hence impact-blockage, that is downright
counterproductive for these anomalous authors. It always has been, but in
paper days there was no choice. The sizeable costs all had to be covered
by the toll-fees, so access -- and hence impact -- had to be blocked. What
has changed (and those who give these "against nature" arguments have
simply failed to notice it) is that access- and impact-blockage is no
longer *necessary* in the online era (for this give-away writing, written
only for research impact, not for toll-revenues). The much-lower costs
of peer-review alone can be covered from author-institution charges
and the rest of traditional access, distribution and archiving can be
offloaded onto the network of institutional archives.

Now let's look at the alleged "corruption" that the unthinkable
author-charges would induce:

> >Although authors are also readers, this should in no way
> >justify charging the wrong end of the chain. Of course, it is
> >much easier for publishers to charge authors than to charge
> >readers: authors have an incentive to publish everything they
> >can whereas readers only want to read what is "good".
> >
> >The net result is a reversal of the logic of supply and demand,
> >which will turn publishing into advertising at the expense of
> >scientific quality and relevance.

What this commentator completely overlooks is the *second* huge anomaly
in peer-reviewed publication: Not only do the authors seek no royalties
or fees in exchange for their writings, but the referees seek no fees
for *their* services either! They do it for the sake of the research
itself (and the Golden Rule, and intrinsic interest in the subject
matter). The quality of a journal depends, basically, on the rigor of
its peer-review standards, hence also on its rejection rate. This
stands to reason: If a journal wishes to publish only the top 5% of the
research in its field, it must reject the bottom 95% (either outright,
or through its established reputation, deterring work of lesser quality
from even being submitted there). The journals in a field form a quality
hierarchy. Below the top 5% journals are the top 5-20% journals, and so
on, each defending its quality turf through rigorous refereeing (by its
unpaid referees).

So, yes, publishing refereed research *is* more like publishing
advertisments than like any other kind of publishing. Neither refereed
articles nor adverts are sold for a fee; both are written with another
end in mind, an end toward which any access-charge would be inimical. But
there the analogy stops. For adverts are written to sell a product,
whereas refereed articles are written to be read, used and cited (i.e.,
for research impact). And the second big difference is that adverts,
unlike refereed articles, do not need to meet the peer-review standards
of a journal! *That* is why authors' institutions *will* be willing to
pay for the peer-review service costs (once the institutional windfall
savings are available), but it certainly does not follow that in doing
so they have transformed their research articles into paid adverts! It
is the peer-review service they are paying for, and with it, revising to
meet -- and to be certified as having met -- that journal's established
quality standards.

If those quality standards are to be maintained, the unpaid referees
will have to continue to be chosen, as now, for their expertise, and
quality levels and rejection rates will have to continue to be defended,
as now. It is certainly not in the unpaid referee's interests to lower
standards; nor is it in the journal's interests, for where standards drop,
not only do authors lose interest in publishing in that declining journal,
but other, higher-standard journals are always ready to take up the slack!

Moreover, the reader/user is also waiting in the wings to express his
"vote" on standards, by increasing or decreasing the journal's impact
factor in accordance with its increasing or decreasing quality
standards. (In other words, there are built-in safeguards in refereed
research publication, though they are not the usual revenue-based ones,
because of the anomalous nature of this special form of publication.)


> > Clearly, rather than trying to produce 'good' publications (in
> > particular through peer reviewing), publishers will be tempted to
> > either concentrate on 'good' authors (but who determines a good
> > author in this model?) or, more likely, publish as many authors
> > as possible regardless of quality.

This speculation completely misses what makes refereed research
publication the anomaly that it is: Authors choose the journal to
submit to based on that journal's established quality-standards; the
quality standards are maintained by the journals' ongoing track-records;
referees are unaffiliated, and referee for free, to maintain the journal's
established quality-standards. Drop your standards and you lose your
authors, your referees, and soon also your readers. (Or, rather, your
level declines to that of the authorship, refereeship, and readership of a
lower-quality journal, while a higher-quality journal captures your lost
authors, referees, and readers. This natural Darwinian evolution among
refereed journals is driven by research quality, not sales receipts,
[though it has knock-on effects for those too].)

This form of publication is anomalous. You can't have it anomalous and
yet still imagine you can reckon its behavior based on the usual,
revenue-based considerations!

> > Over time, this will reduce the quality of published works. The
> > peer review process will become an obstacle to the 'success' of the
> > publisher rather than a guarantee of quality. Why worry about quality
> > when your product is free? Publishers are likely to cut exclusive
> > deals with some authors and other dubious business practices.

They can do all that, but the consequence will be the usual one: A
decline in journal quality standards, followed by the usual consequences
of a decline in journal quality standards. Like the revenue-based
market, the peer-review-based quality control system is self-corrective.
Inter-journal competition for the highest quality work will trump any
inclination to cut deals, or corners or quality-standards. The
independence of the unpaid referees is an important factor in this. So
is the impact-determining vote of the readership (through download and
citation counts).

(This is the usual point at which a second speculative scenario,
involving referee-payment, is usually introduced, as a status-quo-saving
measure. I leave its refutation as an exercise for the reader. Hint: Even
with corrupt referees, the journal's quality level is a matter of public
record, hence the authorship and readership will continue to draw its own
conclusions, and vote with their submissions and citations accordingly;
not to mention that there isn't faintly enough money available or even
conceivable to make it worth a referee's precious time to steal from
his own research and research impact in order to referee for a fee --
and for a journal with lowered standards to boot!)


> >In addition, this new model, by proposing that the cost of publications
> >be factored into the funding of the research, cleverly moves publishers
> >higher in the scientific food chain. Rather than being at the very end,
> >funded by librarians, they will be almost at the source, funded
> >directly by research funding bodies. Publishers won't argue:
> >this will clearly minimize their risk and increase their profits.

I doubt that downsizing so as to become mere peer-review
service-providers will increase publishers' profits! If it were so,
publishers would be flocking to open-access publishing (instead of
finding tortured arguments against the very idea!).

> >Finally, the Sabo act ensures that authors won't interfer with this
> >process, since it gets rid of the only protection they posess,
> >i.e., copyright.

The Sabo act is indeed a bit flaky on copyright. Copyright protection
against plagiarism (theft-of-authorship) and text-corruption will of
course have to be maintained. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with
toll-access publishers' use of copyright as protection against piracy


In open-access publishing authors and their institutions *retain*
the copyright for this anomalous give-away writing, written for research
impact rather than toll-revenues, instead of transfering copyright to
their publishers, to be used to block access (hence impact) through
access-tolls, as they do now.

(But, as I will suggest in the summary at the end, the transition from
"here" to "there" is much more natural and probable if authors and their
institutions first take matters into their own hands, by supplementing
toll-access to the publisher's version with open-access to their own
self-archived version. This will provide immediate open access, it
will demonstrate authors' and their institutions' and funders' desire
for open access, and it will further demonstrate the benefits of open
access for research uptake, impact and progress. Meanwhile, if and when
demand for the toll-access version shrinks sufficiently, a transition
can be made to open-access publishing, funded out of a portion of the
annual institutional windfall savings.)

> > I think the situation is actually worse: While the editors of PLoS,
> > in their reply to Michael Held's editorial, speak of the "common
> > interests of the pbulic and the scientific research community", they
> > also advocate self-regulation. (See their argument for supporting
> > the Sabo act on copyright: they rely on the "rigorous standards of
> > behavior within the scientific community"). This is a tool that has
> > been used repeatedly over the past 30 years to move entire sectors
> > of the economy out of the realm of public control into the hands of
> > private investors. Is scientific research next on the list?

Nonsense. Nothing is being moved out of public control into the hands of
private investors. An effort is simply being made to remedy the anomaly --
of access/impact-blockage for author give-away writing -- by making the
writing open-access. A transition to immediate open-access publishing
is one way to remedy this (although, as I will sketch below, I am pretty
sure it is a premature way); supplementing toll-access publishing
with immediate self-archiving is another way to remedy this -- and
it is universal, within all researchers' immediate reach, has already
been demonstrated to work, and may eventually also lead to a universal
transition to open-access publishing.

"Self-regulation" just refers to peer review, and to authors', referees'
and readers' choices as to which journals they submit to, referee
for, and read (and use and cite). (Where there already exists an
open-access journal of suitable quality there is no doubt whatsoever
about what the research community's optimal and actual choice will be;
but, with this choice existing so far only for at most 5% of the 2,000,000
annual articles, published in the planet's 20,000 refereed journals, the
other 95% are best made immediately openly-accessible through
self-archiving, rather than waiting around for the creation of more
suitable open-access journals!)

> > The argument is always based on the "public interest", but the reality
> > is less philanthropic. Publishers are worried that they may become
> > irrelevant (I disagree) so they have designed a system that gives
> > them more control than ever before over what is published and how
> > much is charged to authors.

It is not publishers who have designed the open-access system, it is
researchers and their funders (in a few areas, for about 500-1000
relatively new journals). Most publishers are not interested in making a
transition to open-access publishing at this time.

> >In short, this new business model for publishing is wrong, unethical and
> >dangerous for science and scientists. I think our publications board
> >should take a clear position on this.

Open-access publishing is certainly not wrong or unethical, though it
may be premature. Open-access itself, however, is not premature but
overdue. It is also optimal for science and scientists, and can be
attained immediately and universally through the author/institution
self-archiving of all refereed research output. It is an
exaggeration to say that open access is dangerous to refereed journal
publication, but it certainly does pose some eventual risk (to its present
operational scale and business model). Few publishers seem inclined to
take the risk of making the transition to open-access publishing now,
but that is no reason for the research community to keep losing impact
while waiting for open access. As long as the publications board of
your learned society supports self-archiving, it is on the side of the
angels (and of what is in the best interests of researchers, research,
research institutions, research funders, and the tax-paying society that
support them).

Let me now follow up with two relevant details based on my own

(1) In my opinion, the PLoS push for an author-charge based, open-access
publishing model is definitely in the right direction but equally
definitely premature (for reasons I will describe below), and hence
I believe it will have only limited success at this time: it will help
create a number of new open-access journals, but it will leave the status
quo in peer-reviewed journal publishing largely intact.

(2) Although I am certainly not a detractor of the open-access publishing
initiative, it will be noticed that I am not one of its official supporters
either. This is for a reason. I am completely committed to the *other*
path to open access (institutional self-archiving), which I believe is
a far faster, more direct, surer and more universal one.

Although it leads to exactly the same goal (open access), and is in
principle parallel and complementary to the open-access publishing path,
the self-archiving strategy is also (temporarily) in competition with the
the open-access publishing strategy for the research community's immediate
attention, understanding and action. At a time when the research community
still has only a very faint understanding of either strategy, and of open
access itself, efforts directed toward immediate open-access publishing,
which is so far an indirect, minority solution, are invariably diverted
from immediate self-archiving, which is a direct, universal solution.

At the moment, neither publisher willingness to convert to immediate
open-access publishing supported by author-fees nor the resources
out of which to pay those author-fees are in place yet, except in a
small minority of cases. We can either pour our efforts and our hopes into
that minority of cases, hoping that it will somehow grow and generalize,
or we can reach directly for the universal solution, which is certain
to provide open access immediately. (The very best advice one could give to
researchers at this time is: "If you have a suitable open-access journal
to publish your articles in, do so (5%); if not, then self-archive the
articles you publish in the toll-access journals (95%).")

So, although I am pretty sure that this push for immediate open-access
publishing is premature and will have only very limited success, I have
nevertheless defended and explained it above, to put it into the larger
context of what I do think will happen (on the road to the optimal and
inevitable outcome, which is universal open access to refereed research).

In summary, I think self-archiving will and must come first. It has been
demonstrated to be feasible, and to convey great benefits (in research
impact). It will demonstrate the benefits of open access ever more
widely, as it grows, to research authors, readers, institutions, funders
and evaluators. And, apart from providing immediate and universal open
access itself, it might (might!) also lead eventually to open-access
publishing -- but only after having generated the windfall institutional
savings on annual subscription-tolls that will be needed to pay
the author-fees. (This is hypothetical: it will happen only *if* the
self-archived open-access versions reduce the market for the toll-access
versions, generating institutional windfall savings. *That* is the
natural time for a leveraged transition to the author-fee [actually
author-institution-fee] model, and that fee will be only to cover
the peer review and certification; the dissemination burden will by
then have been offloaded on the institutional OAI eprint archives:
http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/Articles/harnad.html#B1 .)

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 & 03):


Discussion can be posted to: american-scientist-open-access-forum_at_amsci.org
Received on Sat Jul 19 2003 - 16:07:07 BST

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