Re: E-biomed

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Fri May 07 1999 - 15:01:28 BST

Comments on

     Butler, D. NIH plan brings global electronic journal a step
     nearer reality. NATURE, 1999 APR 29, V398 N6730:735.


Here is some feedback. You are doing fine if you wish to be a passive
conduit of the opinions that are being voiced willy-nilly. But if you
want to exercise some reflective judgment over the spectrum of
reactions, you might consider some of the following:

> Axel Kahn, editor of Médecine et Sciences, the leading French-language
> biomedical journal, says the proposal challenges the 'naked emperor' of
> scientific publishing -- that "80 to 90 per cent of what is published is of
> little real interest". Publish or perish "rather than intrinsic merit" has
> become "the principal justification for much of the output," he says.
> Kahn claims that most journals are infrequently consulted, and that E-Biomed
> would "allow you to have access to the articles you want, without having to
> browse hundreds of journals". A shake-out of the journals system is long
> overdue, he says, adding that there is only a real need for the cream of
> journals, and in particular the best multidisciplinary journals.

Kahn's point about most of the literature being neither read nor cited
is correct. It has been made by many others, including, prominently,
Stephen Lock.
    Harnad, S. (1986) Policing the Paper Chase. (Review of S. Lock, A
    difficult balance: Peer review in biomedical publication.)
    Nature 322: 24 - 5.

But that point has absolutely nothing to do with online archiving or
free archiving! An online archive accessible to all would be just as
welcome if its contents were 80% chaff or if they were 100% wheat.
Either way, the online access would make it more useful and navigable.
If you want to consult only the "cream," set your browser to search
only what is tagged "cream."

(Nor is the Ebiomed Proposal really claiming to solve the problem of the
chaff/wheat ratio, which is a problem WITHIN-journals as much as
it is between-, and there is no way for ANYONE to tag THAT for a browser.
Moreover, human performance being what it is, we must expect a bell
curve in every population.)

> One major concern is that the proposal could harm the best existing
> journals, without accelerating improvements that might gradually occur in
> any case as a result of market forces and more diffuse web efforts by
> not-for-profit science publishers. Several observers say it might create an
> unhealthy monopoly, erode the diversity of existing journals, and reduce
> competition between journals for the best papers.

Have you looked at the proposal? How is it to create a monopoly without
the collaboration of the journals? By competing with them? But that
would just be a big attempt to found new journals -- and it would fail.
(And if it had succeeded it would not have been a monopoly, but a
successful rival journal(s) bid!)

And in any case it has nothing to do with the heart of the proposal,
which is to provide the journal literature online for free.

> The Varmus proposal notes that the current journal structure has served the
> biomedical community well for 300 years. "So the first question I ask is, if
> it has served us well for 300 years, why change?" says Martin Frank,
> executive director of the American Physiological Society, which publishes 14
> journals and 36,000 pages of articles each year.

Because this structure, which has served us well for 300 years, and will
continue to serve us well for 300 more, would serve us all even better
if it were available (unchanged) online for free.

That is obvious to any reader of the proposal: What is the advantage of
repeating non sequiturs?

> "It [E-Biomed] is extremely cumbersome and is not going to be easily
> implemented," says Frank. "It is so unclear in terms of process that it's
> going fall under its own weight."

Based on its source, it is evident that this has a large dose of wishful
thinking. For if one simply drops from the Proposal the needless parts
I criticized in my comments, one is left with something as easily
implemented and as sure of success as LANL.

> Frank and other non-profit publishers are irritated at what they claim has
> been their omission from early discussions of the proposal, even though it
> intimately affects them. Thirty non-profit publishers wrote to Varmus on 29
> March, as word of the proposal began to spread, asking him for a meeting to
> discuss the plan.Varmus points out that a series of meetings is being
> scheduled with organizations worldwide such as the European Molecular
> Biology Laboratory (see box opposite), but that these will take some time to
> arrange and conduct. He also intends to post the proposal on his NIH web
> page for comment.

Open dialogue is always preferable to subterfuge, although based on the
depth of reflection in the feedback that you report here, a wider
dialogue is going to generate far more chaff than wheat.

> Some observers note that the page charges collected by some publishers
> provide them with a cash cow -- and that in the United States the NIH is one
> of the largest that is milked. Under the existing system, page charges can
> be passed on to the biomedical agency by investigators that it supports. The
> potential loss of this lucrative system is alarming publishers -- especially
> non-profit organizations --which rely heavily on it.

This is based on such a convoluted misunderstanding that it takes one's
breath away:

There are three current senses of "page charges," and this passage
completely conflates them: One of these is (1) page charges charged to
authors in paper journals today. There are few of these, and they are
dying out. The other is (2) the charges for paper reprints of one's journal
articles. These exist, but are not a cash cow either. The only real
cash cow is the (3) charge for the pages of the journals themselves,
paid through Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View (S/L/P).

Then there are my own proposals for (4) page charges for quality control,
once all papers are available online for free.

Now how do these map onto the message of the above paragraph? It is not
the Reprint cash cow that is at risk, but the S/L/P cash cow!

> Proposals that E-Biomed should coordinate peer review of its contents are
> controversial. Noorman argues that centralization of peer review would
> threaten the diversity of schools of thought provided for by journals.

The peer review component of the E-biomed Proposal was inchoate and
incoherent in that draft; but it was also inessential, and the Proposal
will look just fine once it's dropped.

> This concern is shared by many scientists and learned societies, who feel
> that a centralized structure may obscure the well-defined hierarchy of best
> science provided by journals, and that scientists may be more reluctant to
> give their time and energy free to a central structure.

Correct, but it's not at all clear from the Proposal that that was what
was intended. In the next draft that will no doubt be remedied. But
the core idea of a free online journal literature as a centralized
resource will remain, and that is what it is all about.

> Andrew Odlysko, a mathematician at the AT&T telecoms corporation and an
> expert on scholarly publishing, argues that it would be simpler to separate
> the distribution and peer-review functions of the repository, as is done at
> the Los Alamos physics e-print servers, where peer review is provided by
> journal 'overlays' to unrefereed papers.

Correct, and the first sensible remark adduced in this article so far.

(It was also the gist of my own critique of the Proposal, as you well
know, and Andrew wrote what he wrote in response to my critique. I am
not carping about being left out, by the way; just about the needlessly
low wheat to chaff ratio.)

> Lynn Dobrunz, a postdoctoral neurobiologist at the Salk Institute in San
> Diego, asks: "Would E-biomed be in addition to the current system of
> journals, or instead of it?

Reasonable question, so far.

> If there was a consolidated site that published
> online versions of all the articles that are currently published... that
> would be fantastic.

Indeed, especially if it was not just consolidated online, but free.

Online (and consolidated, by a click-through monopoly) is already on
the way from journal publishers anyway.

> If it's instead of, and especially if it has this
> non-peer-reviewed track to it, I think that is a much less good idea."

This is now a postdoc's uninformed opinion to the effect that:

(1) "I think preprints should not be archived." (Fine, don't archive
yours; but 100,000 in LANL, for example, have a different opinion),

(2) "I think Online-Only will not be enough. Keep the paper corpus (and
keep paying for it)." 5000 hard-pressed libraries may have another
opinion; so might the 100,000 physicists who no longer use the paper

> The Varmus proposal suggests that scientific societies could be one source
> of peer review. But the societies are worried that E-Biomed may undermine
> the journal revenues on which many of their other activities, such as
> fellowships and meetings, depend.

True. But then the thoughtful question is: Are those other activities
worth holding the journal literature hostage to? For how much longer?

> The head of one society says he is open to change, but would need guarantees
> that revenues would be preserved. Given such guarantees, societies might
> consider joining the initiative, he says. "E-Biomed will only fly if learned
> societies and their journals can be brought to the table," predicts Tony
> Delamothe, web editor of the British Medical Journal, and a supporter of
> E-Biomed's goals.

Or, if all Biomedical authors self-archive all their refereed reprints
(and their unrefereed preprints, if they wish) in it.

> Another broader threat, expressed by many scientists, is that NIH might come
> to dominate much of the biomedical literature, leading to homogenization or
> to discrimination against scientists from smaller countries. "Who would
> select the governing body?" asks an official at one European scientific
> society. "Who would select the editors and decide what is allowed to be
> published? Who will determine costs and access rights?"

Confusion caused by the current draft. This will no doubt be sorted out
soon. Classical, pluralistic peer review will continue as before, and
the Archive will simply be the free repository of its products (along
with the pre-peer-reviewed drafts).

> Many are also uncomfortable with the prospect of public funding for
> scientific publishing, an activity currently dominated by for-profit and
> non-profit publishers in the private sector. At the same time, however,
> there is growing resentment among scientists and librarians at the
> spiralling inflation in journal subscriptions.

Journal publishing is currently subsidized completely by S/L/P funds
from public and private institutional libraries. Networks and Archives
(including LANL) are also subsidized by public and private institutions.
The latter will simply be taking over the load from the former, saving
a great deal of money, and providing the product for everyone for free.

> Competition between scientific publishers is less than in other industries
> because of distortions in the market, and profit margins as high as 40 per
> cent are not uncommon (see Nature 397, 195-200; 1999).

And inelastic demand from the libraries that have to keep subsidizing
them for lack of an alternative. Ebiomed would provide the alternative.

> Graham Cameron, head of services at the European Bioinformatics Institute
> (EBI) in Cambridge, England -- an outstation of the European Molecular
> Biology Laboratory -- points out that public domain databases such as PubMed
> and GenBank and the EBI are widely considered to provide high levels of
> cost-effective service to the community.

True, but until further notice, publishers' journals are not public
databases. (Authors' self-archives, in contrast, CAN be.)

> Many believe, however, that the wider and cheaper access promised by
> E-Biomed may happen anyway as a result of market forces. "Most scientific
> society publishers are already doing what Varmus is proposing," says Frank.
> "We are putting our journals on the web. We are linking our journals through
> PubMed to our sister journals on the web. We are developing interfaces for
> the submission and review of manuscripts on the web."

Indeed, and the objective is a click-through monopoly, with the online
journal literature continuing to be held hostage to S/L/P till

> Similarly, consortia of library and other users are increasingly negotiating
> electronic licences for journals for entire institutions and even countries.
> Scientists at such institutions can already access much of the literature
> online.

That's the "L" in S/L/P, in case you didn't notice, whereas the
fundamental underlying issue here is FREE access.

> "My initial reaction to E-Biomed is, 'so what?'. Virtually every library has
> almost all major journals," says Heinz Steiner, a neuroscientist at the
> University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis.

What is the point of propagating this nonsense? He might as well have
said "Let them eat cake!"

And show me an active, busy researcher -- even at the most prosperous
university in the world, Harvard, which subscribes to them all -- who,
every time he needs a paper, prefers to walk to the library or send a
student to photo copy, and shuffle through piles of photocopied
offprints rather than having the entire journal literature on his desk
and at his fingertips at all times.

> Market forces are also driving a flurry of deals among publishers that may
> enable researchers to move rapidly and seamlessly from a citation to full
> text across journal boundaries.

Via a click-through monopoly involving L and P deals (out of the S/L/P
troika), done by those institutions with enough money to make them;
everyone else is out of luck, as before.

> Frank asserts, for example, that the web site of HighWire Press already
> accounts for a large proportion of the biomedical literature. This
> not-for-profit outfit was set up in 1995 by Stanford University Libraries
> and Academic Information Resources to help universities and societies to
> publish on the web at low cost. "So I don't know why we need to create
> E-Biomed," says Frank.

Ah me! Substitute for the 35,000 daily users of LANL (augmented all
their potential biomedical counterparts worldwide) what the access
levels would be if regulated by HighWire's "low" S/L/P costs.

> Indeed, the head of one scientific society argues that resentment over the
> huge costs of the current journals system is confusing the many complex
> issues involved in scholarly publishing. "If publishers are charging too
> much then we should attack this problem directly, but not attack the entire
> system. E-Biomed is a not very selective nuclear bomb."

Ebiomed would attack the system by providing an alternative, free route
to exactly the same literature. You can't get more selective than that.

> Noorman, while admitting that Elsevier's profit margins "are higher than the
> average," says that the arrival of web publishing is putting pressure on
> commercial publishers. "Scholarly publishing will become a proper [not
> distorted] market," he predicts. "Elsevier is not in the world to keep that
> profit margin high. We are in the world to stay in the market. If the web
> causes us to have to agree to lower profit margins, then so be it."

But don't hold your breath.

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 1703 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 1703 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

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