Open Reflections for 2004

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 2 Jan 2004 10:06:49 +0000 (GMT)

On Fri, 2 Jan 2004, Subbiah Arunachalam wrote:

> Please visit <
> <> > and look up the presentations
> and recommendations made at the INDEST meeting held in October. INDEST is a
> consortium of libraries of select higher education institutions in India.
> Their emphasis on theses is surprising. The substance of every thesis
> appears in research papers published in journals. Besides, many theses from
> Indian universities are of dubious value, although IISc and IITs are a lot
> different from the run-of-the-mill Indian university.

Dear Arun,

As time goes by, the OA initiative begins to look like a microcosm of
all human history and human folly. I don't know that I have learned as
much about life from anything else.

The answer to your question of why it is that this INDEST meeting
seems to grasp so little is that it is very much like other such
meetings worldwide, for at least a decade now. Although there is nothing
conceptually deep or even practically revolutionary about any of this,
it has become obvious that it is prone to a seemingly endless series of
systematic misunderstandings and digressions, never quite able to get to
(or grasp, or stick to, or act upon) the point.

The reasons are both local and global. At this particular INDEST meeting,
one obvious reason is that it is again primarily a meeting of the library
community, which is well-meaning and (because of the pressure of the
serials budget crisis) was the first messenger to alert us all that
something was amiss and needed to be done.

But having drawn our attention to the access problem, the library
community has proved unable either to see the solution or (in the
minority of cases where it did see the solution) unable to get the
research community to do anything about it.

The preoccupation with dissertations is typical, and has happened
repeatedly worldwide. Dissertations are paradigmatic examples of the
"grayish" literature that it is the easiest to (mis)focus upon and take to
be the paradigm for a solution: It does not consist exactly of published
books, it is university output, and it has a visibility/accessibility
problem. In that way it is reminiscent of the refereed-journal literature.

The idea that providing open access to institutional dissertation
output would be one good start toward providing open access to all
institutional research output seemed a promising one, but in practise
it has gotten bogged down -- partly in one of the library's community's
main red herrings: preservation.

The agenda keeps getting mixed -- budget crisis, digitization,
preservation, access, visibility/impact -- and a coherent focus never
quite seems to emerge (or when it does, it turns out to be a focus on
the wrong thing -- or at least the wrong thing from the point of view
of those of us who have not forgotten that this was originally about
the problem of access to refereed journal articles!).

So the self-archiving of dissertations -- even if it began,
clear-headedly, with the intention of spearheading an overall
institutional drive to self-archive its research output, extending
to preprints and postprints of refereed journal articles -- ends
up getting bogged down in (1) archival-preservation issues (irrelevant
to refereed journal articles, because the self-archived versions are
merely duplicates, and not the originals that need to be preserved) as
well as in (2) the unbiquitous problem that the library community itself
is not in a position to provide content (other than bought-in content):
It is the research community that needs to provide the (outgoing) content.
The latter is true both in the case of dissertations and of refereed journal

So dissertations have both side-tracked us from the primary target
(journal articles) and made little headway in their own right (for lack
of a systematic institutional policy of content-provision). Some progress
is being made, but it is still frustratingly slow, considering that
providing open-access to dissertation output does not even have to contend
with the (real and perceived) complications of toll-based publishers
and copyright!

The library community's handicap of not being the content-providers
(the research community) is compounded by its tendency to see the
access problem as exclusively, or primarily, a publishing problem,
calling for exclusively, or primarily, a new way of publishing. They
are not alone in this simplistic and misleading view.

The access problem is primarily an access problem, calling, essentially,
for an access solution. It may be that a new way of publishing will
contribute to or result from the solution (I believe it will), but that
is merely a speculation at this point. What is certain is that the problem
is access-denial, and that its solution will have to be access-provision.

Hence it is a mistake -- not just a possibly-erroneous speculation but
an outright mistake -- to speak of or think of access-provision through
institutional self-archiving as a new form of publication! Yet that
is how it keeps being described and conceptualized -- not only at this
INDEST meeting, or by the library community as a whole, but even by the
research, research-institution and research-funding communities.

And the "model" case of dissertation self-archiving encourages this
error, because of course its dissertations *are* self-publications of
the research institution, whereas its refereed-journal articles certainly
are not. And dissertations are the primary versions, hence they do have a
preservation problem, whereas the preservation problem for university
refereed-article output and the primary versions of all the articles
themselves both rest with the journal publishers and the institutions
subscribing to the journals (the libraries again, but wearing another
hat), not the self-archiving institution that is providing the secondary
access (open access) to its own output through self-archiving!

I have gone on at some length about these three red herrings --
dissertations, preservation, and publishing -- to illustrate how it is not
just India and INDEST that keep getting things confused. The confusion
is endemic, and epidemic, worldwide. The head-shaker in it all is that,
in reality, and upon a little reflection (not much), none of this is
very deep or complicated -- nor even controversial!

That is why I say I have learned so much about life from all this:
Because if it is taking humanity so long -- with so many false-starts,
recurrent misunderstandings, red herrings, canards and digressions --
to figure things out and do something about it in the conceptually
trivial case of providing open access to refereed journal articles
(where the solution is simple, obvious and inevitable), how long must it
take where there are genuine conceptual complexities and profundities --
and urgencies?

Best wishes for 2004!

Stevan Harnad
Received on Fri Jan 02 2004 - 10:06:49 GMT

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