Open Access in the Last Millennium

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2007 05:15:07 +0000

I thought that as the American Scientist Open Access Forum approaches
its 10th year, readers might find it amusing (and perhaps enlightening)
to see where the discourse stood 20 years ago. That was before the Web,
before online journals, and before Open Access -- yet many of the same
issues were already being debated.

Although I might have traced it back still further, to BBS Open Peer
Commentary, 30 years ago:
and although my first substantive posting was September 27 1986,
for me it feels as if it all began with a jolt on November 19 1986,
on sci.lang,
with "Saumya, have shit-for-brains" --
which led to "Skywriting" (c. 1987, unpublished, unposted):
which turned into "Scholarly Skywriting" (1990):
Psycoloquy (1991):
"PostGutenberg Galaxy" (1991):
the "Subversive Proposal" (1994):
CogPrints (1997):
the Self-Archiving FAQ (as of 1997):
the AmSci Forum (1998):
the critique of the e-biomed proposal (1999):
EPrints (2000):
mandates and metrics (2001):
and then the BOAI (2002):

See how much of it is already lurking in this 1990 posting on COMMED.


  From: har..._at_Princeton.EDU (Stevan Harnad)
  To: loeb_at_geocub
  Subject: Re: Journals
  Cc:, jour_..._at_nyuacf.BITNET (Jim Alexander)


                        Stevan Harnad
                        Princeton University

[From: COMMED]

Gerald M. Phillips, Professor, Speech Communication, Pennsylvania State
University (G..._at_PSUVM.BITNET) wrote on Commed against the idea of
"on-line journals." His critique contains enough of the oft-repeated
(and I think erroneous) criticisms of the new medium that I think it's
worth a point by point rebuttal. I write as the editor, for over a
decade now, of a refereed international journal published by Cambridge
University Press (in the conventional paper/print medium), but also as
an impassioned advocate of multiple-email networks and their (I think)
revolutionary potential. I am also the new moderator of PSYCOLOQUY,
an email list devoted to scholarly electronic discussion in psychology
and related disciplines. Professor Phillips wrote:

> There is [1] an explicit hostility to print media on computer networks.
> There is a crisis in the publishing industry because of [2] technological
> innovations, [3] TV, and second hand booksellers, and among book reviewers
> there is consternation because [4] the number of journals proliferates and
> the quality of the texts declines. I am responding to the proposal to
> establish an electronic journal, and I am responding negatively.

Not one of these points speaks against electronic journals; rather,
they are points in their favor: (1) The hostility to print is justified,
inasmuch as it wastes time and resources and confers no advantage (which
cannot be duplicated by resorting to hard copy when needed anyway).
(2) Technological innovations such as photo-copying are problems for
the print media -- unsolved and probably unsolvable -- but not for the
virtual media, whose economics will be established pre-emptively along
more realistic lines, given the new technology. The passive CRTs in (3)
TV may be competing with the written word, but the interactive CRTs in
the electronic media are in a position to fight back. (4) Word glut and
quality decline are problems with the message (and how we control its
quality -- a real problem, in which I am very interested), not with the
medium. This leaves nothing of this first list of objections. Let's go on:

> The book, magazine, or journal is still the most convenient learning
> center known to civilization. It is portable, requires no power supply, is
> easily stored, and one can write comments on the pages without resorting
> to
> hypertext.

These arguments would have been just as apt if applied to Gutenberg
on behalf of the illuminated manuscript, or against writing itself, in
favor of the oral tradition. Other than habit, they have no logical or
practical support at all. And the clincher is that the situation is not
"either/or." To the extent that people are addicted to their marginal
doodling (or to electricity-free yurts), hard copy will always be
available as a supplement.

> Furthermore, the contemplation that enters composition of the
> typical article is important. Hasty publication results in error and
> sometimes
> danger. I urge examination of the editorial policies of NEW ENGLAND
> OF MEDICINE or DAEDALUS as examples of the best editorial policies. It is
> crucial in publishing to have careful editing and responsible writing.

There is one logical error and one non sequitur here: (i) Making it
POSSIBLE for people to communicate faster and on a more global scale
does not imply that they are no longer allowed to wait and reflect as
long as they wish! (ii) Ceterum censeo: Quality control is a
medium-independent problem; I have plenty of ideas about how to
implement peer review in this medium even more effectively than in the
print media.

> I do not wish to indict users of electronic media, but I have encountered
> a fair share of irresponsible people who write out of passion or worse --
> cuteness.

The problem here is a demographic one, having to do with the anarchic
initial conditions in which the new medium was developed. "Flaming"
was what the first electronic discussion was called, and it began as
spontaneous combustion among the creators of the medium (computer hackers,
for the most part) and students (who have a lot of idle time on their
hands). The form of trivial pursuit that ensued is no more representative
of the intrinsic possibilities of this medium than it would have been
if we had left it up to Gutenberg and a legion of linotype operators
to decide for us all what should appear on the printed page. Again, the
problem is with implementation and quality control, not the medium itself.

> I realize how important some exchanges are and I will argue
> with data and without passion for the efficacy of applying CMC to
> some aspects of classroom operation. Computerized cardfiles and
> other databases are essential to good scholarship. Networks like
> AMANET and similar medical operations provide important information
> conveniently. What characterizes a totally responsible network,
> however, is the willingness to spend money to make it work.
> Accumulating a database and monitoring its contents is crucial
> for uses of a network must have confidence in what they read.

These applications are all commendable, but supremely unimaginative.
The real revolutionary potential of electronic network communication is
in scholarship rather than education. I am convinced that the medium
is better matched to the pace and scope and interactiveness of human
mentation than any of its predecessors. In fact, it is as much of a
milestone as the advent of writing, and finally returns the potential pace
of the interaction -- which writing and print slowed down radically --
to the tempo of the natural speech from which so much of our cognitive
capacity arose.

> A great many scholars (mostly untenured) rail at the policies of contempo-
> rary scholarly journals, and often they are "on target." Journals
> sometimes
> use an "old boy" network to exclude new and vital ideas. Journals are
> often
> ponderously slow and it is difficult for many people to take editorial
> criticism. On the other hand, journals protect us from egregious error and
> and libel and the copyright laws protect us from plagiarism.

But the egregious error here is to fail to realize that electronic
networks can exercise peer review just as rigorously (or unrigorously)
as any other medium. And just as there are hierarchies of print
journals (ranked with respect to how rigorously they are refereed),
this can be done here too, including levels at which manuscripts or
ideas are circulated to one's peers for pre-referee scrutiny, as in
symposia and conferences, or even informal discussion. The possibilities
are enormous; objections like the above ones (and they are not unique
to Professor Phillips) serve only to demonstrate how the entrenched old
medium and its habits can blind us to promising alternatives.

> Plagiarism is a major concern in using an electronic network. I am
> hesitant to share material that might be useful because my copyrights are
> not protected on this network. I enjoy the chitchat effect, but I have
> told several people who have contacted me about my "on-line" course, that
> I would be happy to share articles or have them come out an observe. I
> would
> not attempt to offer advice using this medium. It would be guaranteed to
> be half-baked and inapposite.

I have two replies here; one objective and quite decisive, the other
a somewhat subjective observation: There are ways to implement peer
discussion that will preserve priority as safely as the ordinary
mail, telephone and word-processor media (none completely immune to
techno-vandalism these days, by the way) to which we already entrust
our prepublication ideas and findings. I'll discuss these in the future.

As food for thought, consider that it would be simple to implement a
network with read/write access only for a group of peers in a given
specialty, where every posting is seen by everyone who matters in the
specialty (and is archived for the record, to boot). These are the people
who ASSIGN the priorities. A wider circle might have read-only access,
and perhaps one of them might try (and even succeed) to purloin an
idea and publish it as his own -- either in a low-level print journal
or a low-level electronic group. So what? The peers saw it first, and
know whence it came, and where and when, with the archive to confirm it
(printed out in hard copy, if you insist!). That's the INTRINSIC purpose
of scholarly priority. If some enterprising vita-stuffer up for promotion
at New Age College pries the covers off my book and substitutes his own,
that's not a strike against the printed medium, is it?

Now the subjective point: It seems paradoxical, to say the least, to be
worried about word glut and quality decline at the same time as being
preoccupied with priority and plagiarism. Here is some more food for
thought: The few big ideas that there are will not fail to be attributed
to their true source as a result of the net. As to the many little ones
(the "minimal publishable units," or what have you), well, I suppose
that a scholar can spend his time trying to protect those too -- or he
can be less niggardly with them in the hope that something bigger might
be spawned by the interaction.

It's all a matter of scale. I'm inclined to think that for the really
creative thinker, ideas are not in short supply. It's the tree that
bears the fruit that matters: "He who steals my apples, steals trash,"
or something like that. The rival anecdote is that Einstein was asked
in the fifties by some tiresome journalist -- a harbinger of our
self-help/new-age era -- what activity he was usually engaged in when
he got his creative ideas (shaving? showering? walking? sleeping?), and
he replied that he really couldn't say, because he had only had one or
two creative ideas in his entire lifetime... (Nor was he particularly
secretive about them, I might add, engaging in intense scholarly
correspondence about them with his peers, most of whom could not even
grasp, much less pass them off as their own.)

> While serving on a promotion and tenure committee, I opposed consideration
> of materials "published" on-line in examining the credentials of
> candidates.
> That is an antediluvian view, I know, but in the sciences especially,
> accuracy and responsibility is critical and to date, only the referee
> process
> give us any assurance at all.

Too bad. Promotion/tenure review is a form of peer review too, and is
not such an oracular machine as to afford to ignore potentially
informative data. I, for one, might even consider looking at
unpublished (hence, a fortiori, unrefereed) manuscripts if there
appeared to be grounds for doing so, in order to make a more informed
decision. But never mind; if the direction I am advocating prevails,
peer review, such as it is, will soon be alive and well on the
electronic networks, and contributions will be certifiably CV-worthy.

> Interchanges like this are useful. We get a chance to exchange views with
> people we do not know and often we find some intriguing possibilities in
> these notes and messages. But I still do not know who I am communicating
> with and I have no confirmation of their data. I can use caveat emptor on
> their ideas, but I cannot give them professional credit for them, nor can
> I claim any for my own.In short, here is your extreme argument AGAINST
> electronic journals.

There is, I am told, a complexity-theoretic bottom-line in networking
called the "authentication problem." I can in principle post a libelous,
plagiaristic message in your name without being detected; hence it will be
difficult to formulate enforceable laws to regulate the net. In practice,
this need not be a problem, however, so look on the bright side. I
really am the one indicated on my login. And even if I weren't, it hardly
matters for THIS discussion (as opposed to the future peer-reviewed ones
mentioned earlier). All that matters is my message, which can stand on
its own merits as a counterargument FOR electronic journals.

Stevan Harnad

Gerald M. Phillips <G..._at_PSUVM.PSU.EDU> wrote:

> Two points you did not attack were (1) the problem of protection of
> copyrights and (2) the convenience of books. Note, please that read
> only does not protect anyone so long as personal computers have print
> screen keys.

Currently, copyright is protected if you copyright a hard copy of what
you have written. Anyone is free to do this prior to every screenful,
but it sure would slow "skywriting" down to the old terrestrial pace.
In practice, however, we don't bother to copyright until we're much
further downstream: Our scholarly correspondence, our conference papers
and our preliminary drafts circulated for "comment without quotation"
do not enjoy copyright, so why be more protective of electronic
drafts? Because they're easier to abscond with? But, as I wrote earlier,
if the primary read/write network to which it is posted consists of
all the peers of the realm, and they see it first, and it's archived
when they see it, what is there to fear? What better way to establish
priority? Isn't it their eyes that matter?

Books are much more a habit than a convenience. I'm sure that if you
gave me an itemized list of their virtues I could match them (and then
some) with the merits of electronic text. (E.g., books are portable,
but they have to be physically duplicated and lugged; in principle,
everything written could be available everywhere there's a plug or
antenna, to anyone, anytime... etc.)

> Furthermore, the overwhelming number of faculties do not
> participate in networks. It is somewhat like the problem people are
> having with VCRs. Most people can learn how to play movies. Few bother
> to learn how to record from broadcasts. Most PC users really have
> expensive typewriters. I know -- it is their own fault. And it is
> probably different in the sciences, but it seems to me that designing
> access to knowledge for a minority will only widen the ignorance gap.

Computers and networks have become so friendly that everyone is just a
2-minute demo away from sufficient facility for full access. The barrier
is so tiny that it's absurd to think that it can hold people back,
particularly once the revolutionary potential of scholarly skywriting is
demonstrated and a quorum of the peers of each realm become addicted. The
"virtual" environment can mimic what we're used to as closely as necessary
to mediate a total transition. In fact, nothing has a better chance
to NARROW the ignorance gap than the global, interactive and virtually
instantaneous airwaves of the friendly skies.

> I'd be interested in your proposals about ensuring quality. I am not so
> sure
> of your proposals re: read only, but I'd be happy to look at them. I am
> not
> a Luddite. I believe I have the largest enrollment class learning entirely
> via computer-mediated communication. And it is a performance class (group
> problem solving). It is both popular and effective, but the computer has
> been adapted to the needs of the class not the reverse. I think that
> putting
> journals on-line (at least at the moment) is a case of "we have the
> machinery,
> why not use it?"

The idea is to have a vertical (peer expertise) and a horizontal
(temporal-archival) dimension of quality control. The vertical dimension
would be a hierarchy of expertise, with read/write access for an
accredited group of peers at a given level and read-only access at the
level immediately below it, but with the right to post to a peer at
the next higher level, who can in turn post your contribution for you,
if he judges that it to is good enough. (A record of valuable mediated
postings could result in being voted up a level.) A single editor, or an
editorial board, are simply a special case of this very same mechanism,
where one person or only a few mediate all writing privileges.

That's the vertical hierarchy, based on degrees of expertise,
specialization, and record of contributions in a given field. In
principle, this hierarchy can trickle down all the way to general access
for nonspecialists and students at the lowest read/write level (the
equivalent of "flaming," and, unfortunately, the only level that exists
among the "unmoderated" groups on the net currently, while in today's
so-called "moderated" groups all contributions are filtered through one
person, usually one with no special qualifications or answerability).

So far, even among the elite, this would still be just brainstorming,
at the pilot stage of inquiry. The horizontal dimension would then take
the surviving products of all this skywriting, referee them the usual
way (by having them read, criticized and revised under peer scrutiny)
and then archiving them (electronically) according to the level of rigor
of the refereeing system they have gone through (corresponding, more or
less, to the current "prestige hierarchy" and level of specialization
among print journals). Again, an unrefereed "vanity press" could be the
bottom of the horizontal hierarchy.

> And please address the issue of those of us who make our living out of the
> printed word and fear plagiarism above earthquakes and forest fires.
> Gerald M. Phillips, Pennsylvania State University

I imagine that a different system of values and expectations will be
engendered by the net. One may have to make one's reputation increasingly
by being a fertile collaborator rather than a prolific monad. I think
interactive productivity ("interproductivity") will turn out to be
just as viable, answerable and rewardable a way of establishing one's
intellectual territory as the old way; it's just that the territory will
be much less exclusive, more overlapping and interdependent. That's the
cumulative direction in which inquiry has been heading all along anyway.

As to words themselves: I think it will be possible to protect them
just as well as in the old media. The ones who are really able to use
the language (like the ones who have really new ideas or findings) will
still be a tiny minority, as they are now and always will be, and we'll
know even better who they are and what they have written. It'll be easier
to steal a few of their screenfuls for lowly use, but, as always, it will
be impossible to steal their source. As to the rest -- marginal ideas and
marginal prose -- I can't really work up a sense of urgency about them;
it seems to me, however, that it will be just as easy as before to make
sure they get their dubious due, in terms of their official standing in
the two-dimensional hierarchy.

Stevan Harnad


Harnad, S. (1990) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum
of Scientific Inquiry Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343 (reprinted in
Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991).

Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the
Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review
2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review Volume 2 1992; and
in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The Last Word. Beach Holme
Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove & D. Kovacs: Directory of
Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (A.
Okerson, ed), 2nd edition. Washington, DC, Association of Research
Libraries, Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992); and in
Hungarian translation in REPLIKA 1994; and in Japanese in "Research and
Development of Scholarly Information Dissemination Systems" 1994-1995.

Harnad, S. (1995) Universal FTP Archives for Esoteric Science and
Scholarship: A Subversive Proposal. In: Ann Okerson & James O'Donnell
(Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads; A Subversive Proposal for
Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of Research
Libraries, June 1995.

Stevan Harnad

If you have adopted or plan to adopt a policy of providing Open Access
to your own research article output, please describe your policy at:

    BOAI-1 ("Green"): Publish your article in a suitable toll-access journal
    BOAI-2 ("Gold"): Publish your article in an open-access journal if/when
    a suitable one exists.
    in BOTH cases self-archive a supplementary version of your article
    in your own institutional repository.
Received on Sun Nov 18 2007 - 05:53:24 GMT

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