Harnad, S. (2001) AAAS's Response: Too Little, Too Late. Science
dEbate response to: The Editors (2001) Is a Government
Archive the Best Option? Science 291: 2318b-2319b
AAAS'S RESPONSE: TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton
SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM
"We admire the goal, and suspect that evolutionary forces
may be moving us toward it. We have decided to make our own back research
reports and articles freely available after 12 months--at our own Web site--later
this year." (AAAS)
The goal (so we are all clear on what we are talking anout here) is to
free all of the refereed scientific and scholarly literature online for
everyone, forever, from the obsolete and unnecessary access- and impact-blocking
tolls of the Gutenberg era. This anomalous literature has in any case always
been an author give-away, written for research impact, not for income from
the sale of the text. In the PostGutenberg Galaxy it has become possible
to liberate this literature at last.
The release of the contents of Science after a delay of 12-months
is too little, too late.
"To begin a conversation among scholars with a threat
of economic boycott is unfortunate." (AAAS)
True. But this is not the beginning of the conversation, which was already
well underway with the Bachrach et al. Science Policy Forum of 1998 http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/281/5382/1459
followed by the 1999 original NIH proposal by Harold Varmus, http://www.nih.gov/about/director/pubmedcentral/ebiomedarch.htm
on which the former Editor of Science had already written an editorial
an editorial rather similar to the one I am replying to here, in a reply
rather similar to the one I made to the prior editorial: http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad00.scinejm.htm
A conversation requires some give and take...
"[T]he archive [Roberts et al.] advocate... should include
all scientific papers... should be free... PubMed Central (PMC) is given
as the model... We believe other alternatives exist that can meet most
of these goals faster and more effectively without putting nonprofit scholarly
publishing at risk." (AAAS)
We will now proceed to a consideration of these faster and more effective
alternatives, while asking only how the question of "risk to nonprofit
scholarly publishing" got into this: First of all, we are only speaking
of refereed journals. Second, if the only way to free their contents online
were to restructure journal publishing in some way, would the benefits
to research and researchers from freeing the refereed journal literature
necessarily be outweighed by the (putative) difficulties the changes might
create for the journal publishers?
There are problems, however, with the Roberts et al. proposal: Although
a free online version of the entire refereed corpus would undoubtedly be
beneficial to the world scientific and scholarly community, this proposal
does ask both publishers and authors to give something up in exchange:
Publishers are asked to give up their contents online, and authors are
asked to give up those publishers who decline to do so. If these sacrifices
are necessary in order to gain the benefit of a free refereed literature,
then we can weigh them, along with the likelihood that the parties involved
will be willing or even able to make the sacrifices. But are the sacrifices
The answer is that they are not, for there is an alternative way to
free the entire refereed literature without asking anyone to give up anything,
and that is through author self-archiving. The strategy has already been
tested and demonstrated to work by physicists. They have already freed
30-40% of their literature in this way. All that is needed is for physicists
to accelerate their own rate of self-archiving (which, at its current linear
growth rate, would take another decade to free 100% of its refereed literature)
and to extend it to all the other disciplines.
Physics self-archiving began as centralized (in the Los Alamos Archive
and its 14 mirror sites worldwide). What can now accelerate and extend
the self-archiving initiative to all the other disciplines is the Open
Archives Initiative (OAI), which has designed a standard for metadata tagging
and harvesting that makes distributed interoperable Archives possible at
the individual University and Research Institution level; interoperability
means it can all be harvested into a global "virtual" archive, its full
contents seamlessly searchable and accessible for free from any researcher's
desktop. Institutions can now create OAI-compliant Eprint Archives using
free, open-source software: http://www.eprints.org.
The responsibility and the incentive and the initiative for self-archiving
can then be distributed worldwide at the University level, where its cost
per paper becomes negligible, whereas its benefits in terms of increased
accessibility, visibility and research impact are appreciable (not to mention
its eventual potential to relieve the institutional libraries' serials
"There already are multiple-journal sites--for example,
the nonprofit HighWire Press (HWP), which archives over 230 journals, including
biological, physical and interdisciplinary papers. More than 200,000 articles
are freely available at this site. By comparison, there are only about
a dozen journals at PMC, limited currently to biology." (AAAS)
Yes, and that is precisely the problem -- both with the status quo, and
with waiting for journal publishers to take charge of freeing the refereed
"Why not begin with the already populated venue and add
the integration, rather than the other way around? Why not use taxpayer
dollars to promote innovative search technologies that do not require taking
control of services provided by the private sector?" (AAAS)
Because the problem is not that it is not integrated but that it is not
free! And why should tax dollars be used to integrate a scattered set of
toll-gated sites when researchers can both free and integrate the entire
refereed literature (over 20K refereed journals) by self-archiving their
own portion of it in their own institution's registered, OAI-compliant
"The proposition of Roberts et al. raises problems for
Science, and for other journals. First, it will reroute an economically
important source of online traffic for journals that offer content and
other products on their sites. " (AAAS)
Correct. So there is not much incentive for journals to give away their
contents at this time. Author/Institution self-archiving, however, may
eventually have the secondary effect of forcing publishers to restructure
themselves, and scale down to providing only the essentials (quality control
and certification [QC/C] through refereeing), which only account for 10%
of journal costs. The rest (on-paper version, on-line PDF, other "added
values") can be sold as optional add-ons as long as there is a market for
Currently, both the essentials (QC/C) and the add-ons are "wrapped"
into the same product, with the result that the refereed papers are held
hostage to the add-ons, which are kept behind a financial fire-wall and
paid for by Subscription, Site-License, or Pay-Per-View (S/L/P) tolls.
It is from these S/L/P access-barriers that refereed research must be
freed, and the arithmetic is already clear: If and when the availability
of the free online version of refereed papers causes publisher S/L/P revenues
to shrink (and institutional S/L/P savings to grow) to the point where
there is no longer enough money to pay the essential 10% QC/C costs out
of the S/L/P revenues, then they can be covered by the institutions out
of 10% of their annual windfall S/L/P savings in the form of per-paper
fees paid to journals for the QC/C service for their own authors' papers.
In other words, there is no benefit whatsoever to research and researchers
in maintaining "an economically important source of online traffic for
journals" when there is clearly an alternative that can provide the QC/C
and free online access too. Journals that are not interested in downsizing
to this new PostGutenberg niche can elect to pull out, in which case their
editorial boards, referees, authors and titles can migrate to new journal
publishers that are happy with the new niche.
But this endstate is unlikely to be reached either by publisher voluntary
downsizing now, or by author migration to new journals (although it would
be splendid if it could). It will only be reached under pressure from the
natural force of author/institution self-archiving.
"Second, unlimited redistribution of content could lead
to misuse of content and loss of quality control. " (AAAS)
How? Why? Is there any evidence whatsoever for this among the 150,000 papers
already archived by the physicists? And how can free online access to already
refereed papers have a retroactive effect on the refereeing? Backwards
"Third, it may expose users to risks historically associated
with monopoly suppliers. For example, recently PubMed--on which PMC will
depend--unexpectedly failed to process new content for over a month, inconveniencing
authors and publishers." (AAAS)
Where did the notion of "monopoly supply" come into a free online literature?
If the worry is about the robustness of the archive, mirroring, distributedness,
backup and other means exist to make it as robust as one likes.
And have the editors of Science not noticed that journals occasionally
slip on deadlines too? In any case, whatever it is that makes the current
journal literature reliable and robust, we can be sure that it is not eo
ipso the fact that S/L/P meters are running.
"Subscription and advertising revenue will be at some
risk and transferring primary access to someone else's site may expose
us to further losses." (AAAS)
That is correct. And that is why the self-archiving initiative neither
demands nor depends on journal publishers doing anything like that.
"The value we add--through peer review, perspective and
context-setting analysis of research, and good news coverage--requires
revenue support from advertising." (AAAS)
The only essential value is the peer review, discussed above. The rest
are options, and can and should be sold wherever and whenever there is
a market for them.
"Moreover, Science supports other activities of
AAAS--including science and public policy, kindergarten through 12th- grade
education, a career-mentoring Web site for young scientists, and innovative
"knowledge environments." These benefit scientists from all fields. Posting
our back content on a site that primarily serves biomedical scientists
would confer a benefit on one group by taking benefits away from another--creating,
in effect, a transfer payment from the sciences in general to biology in
particular. That bothers us." (AAAS)
Indeed it would. And for that reason it is unreasonable to ask or expect
AAAS to do so at this time. All AAAS need do is to refrain from any attempt
to prevent their own authors from self-archiving their Science papers.
The rest of the cards can fall where they may.
But if Science authors were asked forthrightly whether they wish
to continue subisdizing AAS's "other activities" at the cost of their own
lost research impact (because of the S/L/P toll-barriers), is there any
doubt at all what their reply would be?
If, however, researchers were ever asked, clearly and directly, whether
they would like to see the accessibility and impact of their research continue
to be held hostage to all these other "good works," is there any doubt
whatsoever as to what their reply would be?
"We worry, too, about another group of journals that
will be entering a riskier environment. Our association is an umbrella
organization, including many specialized scientific societies as affiliates.
Their more focused journals must remain viable to ensure continued publishing
options in highly specialized fields and for younger scientists. In most
cases, academic library subscriptions provide the economic "floor" that
guarantees financial sustainability. If papers from specialized journals
were to become available on the PMC site, budget-conscious library directors
would be tempted to cancel subscriptions. Some of the signers of the petition
are scientists who belong to those very societies. Have they considered
that their initiative will put PMC in competition with their own journals?
Note that the above rationale, and all the other ones offered here, good
and bad, are understandable ones for journals' declining to comply with
the PubMed Central proposal. But they are strained and ineffectual when
it comes to self-archiving, and its possible consequences.
The earlier formula -- that the 10% QC/C costs can always be paid out
of the 100 S/L/P savings -- covers all refereed journals, great and small.
"When tax-exempt organizations go into competition with
commercial entities they must pay unrelated-business income tax. When tax-supported
organizations compete with commercial entities and nonprofits, the public
has usually raised strong objections." (AAAS)
This is so strained and far-fetched that it does not warrant a reply.
"There are also questions about whether the proposed
location for PMC--the National Library of Medicine, part of the National
Institutes of Health--is the right one. NIH already sponsors, through its
extramural programs, much of the biomedical research PMC will archive.
It regulates the conduct of that research, controls much of the training
of the next generation of researchers, and archives primary data. It now
proposes that the results of the research it funds be given over by publishers
and authors to a server subject to its exclusive control. The Congress
or the President can eliminate support for certain kinds of science and
have done so in the past. Would PMC then be able to archive papers on those
subjects? Concentrating this kind of womb-to-tomb control in a single federal
agency has risks, and we should ask whether we are entirely comfortable
with a state-run, centrally managed economy in biomedicine." (AAAS)
Ditto. This sort of convoluted scare-mongering is unworthy of AAAS.
"Proponents of this plan include scientists of high reputation:
Nobel laureates, leaders of institutions, and others whom we all admire.
Nonetheless, we think its potential consequences require careful analysis
and policy debate. We at Science are determined to participate in
a constructive spirit." (AAAS)
Voluntarily freeing their contents online after a 12-month delay is certainly
a welcome step from AAAS, but it is too little, too late. It is quite understandable
that neither Science nor any other publisher should find any reason
for pre-emptively freeing its contents online at this time. All they need
to do for now is to let their authors take matters into their own hands,
by self-archiving their refereed papers. The rest will take care of itself.
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