Re: Overlay Journals

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 23 Nov 2006 17:07:11 +0000

                WHAT ARE "OVERLAY JOURNALS"?

                Stevan Harnad

    Hyperlinked version of this essay:

    SUMMARY: The notion of an "Overlay Journal" often unwittingly
    confuses (1) access-provision with peer-review service-provision, (2)
    pre-peer-review preprints with peer-reviewed postprints (or posting
    with publishing), (3) archives (repositories) with journals, or (4)
    Central Archives/Repositories (CRs) in particular with distributed
    Institutional Repositories (IRs) in general. Throughout the evolution
    of research communication -- from On-Paper to On-Line to Open Access
    -- peer review remains peer review, a journal remains a journal
    (i.e., a peer-review service-provider and certifier), and texts
    tagged as "published" by journal X remain texts tagged as published
    by journal X. All that changes is the access-medium and the degree
    of accessibility. (And possibly, one day, the cost-recovery model.)

The notion of an "Overlay Journal" is and always has been somewhat
inchoate -- potentially even incoherent, if construed in a way that
conflates (1) access-provision with peer-review service-provision, (2)
pre-peer-review preprints with peer-reviewed postprints (or posting
with publishing), (3) archives (repositories) with journals, or (4)
Central Archives/Repositories (CRs) in particular with distributed
Institutional Repositories (IRs) in general.

    (1) Access-Provision vs. Peer-Review Service-Provision. A research
journal is and always has been both (i) an access-provider (producing,
printing and distributing the print edition; producing and licensing
the online edition) and (ii) a quality-control service-provider
(implementing and certifying the peer review process -- but with the
peers independent and refereeing for the journals for free). In the
Open Access (OA) era, the access-provider functions of the research
journal can and will be supplemented by author self-archiving of the
final, revised, peer-reviewed postprint (in the author's own IR and/or
a CR) in order to ensure that all would-be users have access, rather
than only those whose institutions can afford access to the journal's
subscription-based version.

It is also possible -- but this is hypothetical and it is not yet
known whether and when it will happen -- that the distributed network
of IRs and CRs containing authors' self-archived postprints may
eventually substitute for the traditional access-provision function of
journals (i), at least insofar as online access is concerned. This
does not mean that IRs and CRs become journals. It just means that the
online access-provision function (i) is unbundled from the former
double function of journals (i, ii), and offloaded onto the IR/CR
network. And this is merely hypothetical at this time. Only the
supplementary function is a reality today, not yet the substitute
function. (Is this hypothetical outcome what is meant by "Overlay
Journals"? If so, let's forget about them for now and work on reaching
100% OA self-archiving, crossing our "overlay" bridges only if/when we
ever get to them.)

    (2) Unrefereed Preprints vs. Refereed Postprints (Posting vs.
Publishing). Authors self-archive both their pre-peer-review preprints
and their peer-reviewed postprints in IRs and CRs, but the primary
target of the OA movement, and of OA self-archiving mandates, is the
peer-reviewed postprint (of all 2.5 million articles published
annually in the planet's 24,000 peer-reviewed research journals).
Self-archiving preprints (usually done in order to elicit informal
peer feedback and to assert priority) is neither publication nor a
substitute for publication. To post a preprint in an IR or CR is not
to publish it; it is merely to provide access to it. In providing
access to preprints, IRs and CRs are certainly not substituting for
journals. (Preprints are not listed in academic CVs as "Publications"
but as "Unpublished Manuscripts.")

    (3) Archives (Repositories) vs. Journals. IRs and CRs are not
themselves journals, nor even part-journals. They cannot and do not
provide peer review, or certify its outcome. If an author's own IR
were to try to do this, for its own research output, it would become
an in-house vanity press, not a peer-reviewed journal. If a CR tried
to do this, it would simply become a new journal start-up (competing
with existing journals). Right now, IRs and CRs are merely
access-providers -- providing access to both unpublished preprints and
journal-published, -peer-reviewed, and -certified postprints.

    (4) Central Archives/Repositories (CRs) vs. Distributed
Institutional Repositories (IRs). CRs and IRs also differ in that CRs
are few, and do not exist for all or most fields, whereas IRs are many
and cover all fields. CRs are independent 3rd parties, not affiliated
with, beholden to, or sharing common interests with the authors who
deposit in them, whereas IRs are authors' own institutional showcases,
sharing with their authors a joint interest in maximizing the
visibility, usage, impact and prestige of their research findings. IRs
are hence not eligible for undertaking the independent, neutral,
3rd-party quality-control function of journals. CRs, in contrast, are
in principle eligible to become journals (just as any online entity
today is), but if they do so, they do it in competition with the
24,000 existing journals, just as any new start-up journal does.
Moreover, although CRs may already host preprints, those preprints are
currently all destined for submission to established journals today;
and those same CRs also host the postprints that result from the
peer-review service provided by those journals. Hence CRs in no way
substitute for that peer-review service-provision (ii) today.

So what is an "Overlay Journal"? The idea arose (incoherently, almost
like an Escher drawing of an impossible staircase) from the idea that
journals could simply "overlay" their peer-review functions on the
self-archived preprint. The idea was first mooted in connection with a
CR (Arxiv), but it was never coherently spelled out.

(I will not be discussing here any of the speculations about "overlay"
and "disaggregated" and "deconstructed" journals that are based on
untested notions about scrapping peer review altogether, or replacing
it with open peer commentary; nor will I be discussing far-fetched
notions of "multiple-review/multiple-publication" (in which it is
imagined that peer review is just a static accept/reject matter, like
a connotea tag, and that papers can be multiply "published" by several
different journals, taking no account of the fact that referees are
already a scarce and over-used resource, nor of the fact that peer
review depends on answerability and revision): These conjectures are
all fine as possible supplements to peer review, but none has yet been
shown to be a viable substitute for it. The notion of an "Overlay
Journal" is accordingly only assessed here in the context of standard
peer review, as it is practised today by virtually all of the 24,000
journals whose peer-reviewed content is the target of the OA

One rather trivial construal of "Overlay Journal" (not the intended
interpretation) would be that instead of submitting preprints to
journals, authors could deposit them in CRs (or IRs) and simply send
the deposit's URL to the journal, to retrieve it from there, for
peer-review. This would not make the journal an "Overlay" on the CR or
IR; it would simply provide a more efficient means of submitting
papers to journals (and this has indeed been adopted as an optional
means of submission by several physics journals, just as the
submission of digital drafts instead of hard copy, and submission via
email instead of by mail has been quite naturally adopted, to speed
and streamline submission and processing by most journals, in the
digital era).

So submitting preprints to journals via IRs or CRs is not tantamount
to making the IR or CR into an underlay for "Overlay Journals," nor to
making journals into overlays for the IR or CR. (In the case of IRs,
because the authorship of most journals is distributed across many
institutions, depositing in IRs would have meant "Distributed-Overlay
Journals" in any case, but let us not puzzle about what sort of an
entity those might have been!)

What might be meant by an "Overlay Journal" in something other than
this trivial optional-means-of-submission sense, then? Could the users
of the term mean the hypothetical outcome contemplated earlier (1),
with journals offloading their former access-provision function (i)
onto the IR/CR network and downsizing to become just peer-review
service-providers (ii)? Possibly, but at the moment journals don't
seem to be inclined to do so, and if they did, it is likely that they
would prefer to continue to be thought of as what they have always
been: journals, with a name and an imprimatur. Paper journals were not
"overlays" on libraries. Journals that abandon their print edition are
still journals, not "overlays" on their electronic edition. If their
electronic edition is jettisoned too, they're still journals, not
"overlays" on IRs/CRs.

Once we recognise that access-provision (i) (whether on-paper or
online) was always just an incidental, media-dependent function of
peer-reviewed research journals, whereas peer-review service-provision
and certification (ii) was always their essential function, then it
becomes clear that -- medium-independently -- a journal was always
just a peer-review service-provider and certifier of a paper's having
successfully met its established quality standards: It has always
provided a quality-control tag, -- the journal name -- affixed to a
text, whether the text is on-paper on a bookshelf, in the journal's
proprietary on-line archive, or in an OA IR or CR. In this very
general sense, all journals already are (and always have been)
"overlay journals": overlays over all these various media for storing
and providing access to the papers resulting from having passed
successfully through the journal's peer review procedure (which is not
itself a static tagging exercise, but a dynamic, interactive,
feedback-correction-and-revision process, answerable to the referees
and editors).

In other words, throughout the evolution of research communication --
from On-Paper to On-Line to Open Access -- peer review remains peer
review, a journal remains a journal (i.e., a peer-review
service-provider and certifier), and texts tagged as "published" by
"journal X" remain texts tagged as published by "journal X." All that
changes is the access-medium and the degree of accessibility. (And
possibly, one day, the cost-recovery model.)

Stevan Harnad
Received on Thu Nov 23 2006 - 18:16:20 GMT

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