The 1994 "Subversive Proposal" at 15

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Wed, 2 Dec 2009 13:27:55 -0500

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** Apologies for Cross-Posting **

The year that is about to end (2009) is a decade and a half after the
"subversive proposal" of 1994:
I did a (somewhat impatient, but light-hearted) 5-year millenarian
retrospective in 1999 --
-- and then a somewhat more testy but whimsical critique at the 10-year
(See also Richard Poynder's "Ten Years After: )

Here's a more aggressive critique, to mark the fifteenth frustrating
year. I will try to reply (as SH3) in the next posting, but please feel
free to pour more oil on the roast! -- SH2

On June 27, 1994, Stevan Harnad wrote:

> SH1:
> esoteric 213 aj .es-o-'ter-ik
> LL [italic esotericus], fr. Gk [italic es{o-}terikos], fr. [italic
> es{o-}ter{o-}], compar. of [italic eis{o-}], [italic es{o-}] within,
> fr. [italic eis] into, fr. [italic en] in -- more at [mini IN] - 1 a aj
> designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone ?1 b aj of
> or relating to knowledge that is restricted to a small group - 2 a aj
> limited to a small circle <~ pursuits> - 2 b aj [mini PRIVATE], [mini
> CONFIDENTIAL] - esoterically 21313 av -i-k(*-)l{e-}
> (From the networked Merriam Webster Dictionary at Princeton University)

What on earth do you mean by "esoteric"? Are we supposed to have
different criteria for a publication depending on how big a readership
it is likely to have? In that case we need a sliding scale whose value
we cannot possibly know in advance for every candidate piece of writing.

> SH1:
> We have heard many sanguine predictions about the demise of paper
> publishing, but life is short and the inevitable day still seems a
> long way off.

Paper publishing? Is this, then, merely about getting published articles
online? That's not likely to be a very radical proposal, since (today,
in 1994) it is surely a foregone conclusion that publishers will all
have online editions within a few years.

> SH1:
> This is a subversive proposal that could radically hasten that day.

Which day? When all paper publishing is also online, online only, or
free online?

> SH1:
> It is applicable only to ESOTERIC (non-trade, no-market) scientific
> and scholarly publication (but that is the lion's share of the
> academic corpus anyway), namely, that body of work for which the
> author does not and never has expected to SELL the words.

Give-away writing might be a natural kind, but what distinguishes
give-away writing from non-give-away writing? How does one recognize it
in advance? And surely the distinction is not just based on probable
market but on some other aspect of academic motivation. After all,
textbooks are as "academic" as one can get, yet textbook authors are
certainly motivated to sell their words, otherwise many would not do the
work of writing them.

> SH1:
> The scholarly author wants only to PUBLISH them, that is, to reach
> the eyes and minds of peers, fellow esoteric scientists and scholars
> the world over, so that they can build on one another's contributions
> in that cumulative, collaborative enterprise called learned inquiry.

Who are "peers"? And what is the reason for this obsession with reaching
their "eyes and minds"? The fact that they are all in some sort of
"esoteric" club surely is not the explanation.

And this "building on one another's contributions" sounds cosy enough,
but what is really going on here. It's certainly not about verbal Lego

> SH1:
> For centuries, it was only out of reluctant necessity that authors of
> esoteric publications entered into the Faustian bargain of allowing
> a price-tag to be erected as a barrier between their work and its
> (tiny) intended readership, for that was the only way they could
> make their work public at all during the age when paper publication
> (and its substantial real expenses) was their only option.

Fine. These authors are saints, or monks. But why? For what?

> SH1:
> But today there is another way, and that is PUBLIC FTP: If every
> esoteric author in the world this very day established a globally
> accessible local ftp archive for every piece of esoteric writing
> from this day forward, the long-heralded transition from paper
> publication to purely electronic publication (of esoteric research)
> would follow suit almost immediately.

There you go again: The criterion sounds like it's esotericity itself,
but why? Besides, that's circular: Is give-away writing esoteric because
its target readership is tiny? Or is its target readership tiny because
the writing's esoteric?

And FTP archiving sounds fine, but isn't it already obsolete? This is
June 27 1994, but Tim Berners-Lee created the Web 5 years ago!

And there you go again with "electronic publication"? Is this just about
moving to electronic publication? But that's surely going to happen

And is "esoteric" publication, then, merely "vanity press" publication?
If so, then it's no wonder its likely readership is so tiny...

> SH1:
> This is already beginning to happen in the physics community, thanks
> to Paul Ginsparg's HEP preprint network, with 20,000 users worldwide
> and 35,000 "hits" per day, and Paul Southworth's CICnet is ready to
> help follow suit in other disciplines.

But physicists (who are doing it on the Web, by the way, not via
FTP) have already been doing much the same thing (sharing their
pre-refereeing drafts) on paper for years now, even before the web,
or FTP, email, or the online medium itself. Is *that* all you mean by
"esoteric"? And if so, the online medium's there now: those who want to
share drafts are free to share them that way. That isn't even
"publication," it's just public sharing of work-in-progress.

> SH1:
> The only two factors standing in the way of this outcome at this
> moment are (1) quality control (i.e., peer review and editing), which
> today happens to be implemented almost exclusively by paper publishers

Now that sounds more concrete. Why didn't you say that in the first
place? "peer-reviewed" rather than "esoteric."

But, again, nothing stands in the way authors of sharing unrefereed
drafts online with their tiny intended public prior to submitting them
for peer-review and then publication, does it? What's your point?

> SH1:
> and (2) the patina of paper publishing, which results from this
> monopoly on quality control.

But is that really the "patina" of paper publishing, or the patina of
peer-review, and a given publication's prior track record for
peer-review quality standards?

And what, exactly, is the scope of "peer-reviewed publication"? Apart
from journal articles (and refereed conference proceedings), aren't
monographs, edited books and even textbooks "peer-reviewed"? And aren't
some of them "non-esoteric," because revenue-seeking?

> SH1:
> If all scholars' preprints were universally available to all
> scholars by anonymous ftp (and gopher, and World-Wide Web, and
> the search/retrieval wonders of the future), NO scholar would ever
> consent to WITHDRAW any preprint of his from the public eye after
> the refereed version was accepted for paper "PUBLICation."

It's about time you mentioned the Web. (Forget about the rest of the
technology, obsolescent, apart from FTP, already today, in 1994.)

The (obvious) flaw with the hope of making all refereed publications
free online by first making their unrefereed drafts free online is that,
unlike physicists (and, before them, computer scientists, and
economists), most authors in most disciplines do not wish to make their
unrefereed drafts public (either because they consider it unscholarly,
or because they fear professional embarrassment, or because they don't
want to immortalize their errors, or because they thing unrefereed
results could be dangerous, e.g. to public health).

Hence if the road to free online access is reserved for papers that
their authors are willing to make publicly accessible as unrefereed
drafts first, it will not cover much of refereed research in most

> SH1:
> Instead, everyone would, quite naturally, substitute the refereed,
> published reprint for the unrefereed preprint.

And what about all the published reprints that authors would prefer not
to have shared with the world when they were just unrefereed drafts?

> SH1:
> Paper publishers will then either restructure themselves (with the
> cooperation of the scholarly community)

How and why did this "subversive proposal" (to the author community)
turn into speculations about publishing and publishers?

> SH1:
> so as to arrange for the much-reduced electronic-only page costs
> (which I estimate to be less than 25% of paper-page costs, contrary
> to the 75% figure that appears in most current publishers' estimates)

In this speculation about publishing media and costs, what have "pages"
to do with it? And what, exactly, does the 25% figure pay for (and what
is the 75% that is no longer needed)?

> SH1:
> to be paid out of advance subsidies (from authors' page charges,
> learned society dues, university publication budgets and/or
> governmental publication subsidies) or they will have to watch as
> the peer community spawns a brand new generation of electronic-only
> publishers who will.

You seem to be pretty generous with other people's money. And you seem
to have forgotten the money already being paid for subscriptions.

But what, exactly, is this money supposed to be paying for? (Again,
there seems to be conflation of online-only publication, and its costs,
with free online access-provision: surely they are not the same thing.)

> SH1:
> The subversion will be complete, because the (esoteric -- no-market)
> peer-reviewed literature will have taken to the airwaves, where it
> always belonged, and those airwaves will be free (to the benefit of us
> all) because their true minimal expenses will be covered the optimal
> way for the unimpeded flow of esoteric knowledge to all: In advance.

This still sounds quite muddled and vague:

We've heard about "esoteric," give-away writings, but it has not yet
been made clear what they are, and why they are give-ways. We have heard
about online publication, and online-only publication. We have heard
about (some) authors making their unrefereed drafts free online. But how
(and why) do we get from that to free online refereed publication? And
from there to paying to publish instead of paying to subscribe?
(What needs to be paid for, how and why? And how do we get there from
here, given that most authors do not wish to make their unrefereed
drafts public?)

Sounds like a rather inchoate proposal to me... (And you reputedly
expect this to happen overnight? Might we have some more details about
what we might expect to happen on that fabled night?)

Stevan Harnad
Received on Wed Dec 02 2009 - 18:29:47 GMT

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