D-Lib Magazine
December 1999

Volume 5 Number 12

ISSN 1082-9873

Free at Last: The Future of Peer-Reviewed Journals

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Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton

(This Opinion piece presents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of D-Lib Magazine, the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, or DARPA.)

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I have a feeling that when Posterity looks back at the last decade of the 2nd A.D. millennium of scholarly and scientific research on our planet, it may chuckle at us. It is not the pace of our scholarly and scientific research that will look risible, nor the tempo of technological change. On the contrary, the astonishing speed and scale of both will make the real anomaly look all the more striking.

For staring us in the face in this last decade has been an obvious new way to augment that already impressive speed and scale by perhaps an order of magnitude, yet we simply haven't twigged on it.

Most of us, that is. For there is a small sub-population on the planet, one that is reputed in any case to be a bit brighter than the rest of us, that has definitely twigged <http://xxx.lanl.gov/cgi-bin/show_weekly_graph>. It is the fact that the rest of us are being so slow to follow their example that risks becoming the cosmic joke.

I am referring to the fact that it has always been a characteristic of our planet that, besides eating and sleeping and squabbling and reproducing, we are also producing knowledge, sometimes only as a means to these more primitive ends, but often also as an end in itself, or an open-ended investment in future ends. This is what we call "Learned Inquiry," and it transpires mostly in our universities, where scholars and scientists, apart from imparting existing knowledge to successor generations, create new knowledge through their research activities.

But creating new knowledge is not enough; even to serve as an open-ended investment, knowledge must be communicated, ultimately to the next generation, but in the first instance to one's fellow-researchers, to one's peers, so they can apply, test, and build upon it.

There was a time when researchers had few peers on the planet, and could share their findings amongst themselves informally, by word of mouth or through learned letters. But the speed and scale of scholarly and scientific research have long outgrown that cosy phase, and now the only way to disseminate new findings is to publish them (otherwise they perish, stillborn).

Yet the cosy phase still inheres in the new, grander scale of things, in that new research is still shown first, before it is published, to a handful of peers, who make suggestions for improvement and decide where in a huge hierarchy of "peer-reviewed journals" the (possibly revised) findings should appear (if they should appear at all), a hierarchy that consists of the best and most important journals for the best and most important research at the top, all the way down to a vanity press at the bottom.

Peer review is a quality-control and certification (QC/C) filter necessitated by the vast scale of learned research today. Without it, no one would know where to start reading in the welter of new work reported every day, nor what was worth reading, and believing, and trying to build one's own further research upon.

But so far I haven't mentioned anything laughable: When does Posterity begin snickering? You might think it was this (but it isn't): Posterity cannot but notice that throughout the transition from the cottage-industry-scale research of a couple of centuries ago, reported to peers informally, to its industrial scale today, reported formally in peer-reviewed journals, the researchers never got paid a penny for the reports of their research findings. (Note that I said for the reports, not for the research.) Nor were the peers (who were the same researchers, wearing another hat) ever paid for their reviews.

Yet, oddly enough, money was changing hands, in the exchange of those peer-reviewed research reports, but it was neither the researchers nor the peer-reviewers who were getting it. Who then? Who was profiting from these give-away goods and services, given that it was not their selfless providers?

The answer is: no one -- at least not until more recently. The money was merely paying the costs of paper printing and dissemination. Gutenberg, in other words, was both the villain and the hero. For unless those papyrotechnic costs were levied, and recovered, there could be no publication of the research findings at all, at the welcome new scale of Learned Inquiry. The publishers were Learned Societies, in other words, the peers themselves, and the quality-control and dissemination of research findings, in the form of live meetings as well as archival journals, was their raison d'etre.

Meanwhile, in the real world (as opposed to the Platonic Academy of Learned Research), Gutenberg's technology was being put to much less reluctant use in making money change hands. Let us call the learned research literature the "Give-Away" literature, because its authors were interested only in maximizing its impact (and thereby the impact of their work) by reaching as many interested reader/users as possible. For these Give-Away authors, the toll-gates where the nonzero costs of publication were recovered were always a lamentable filter (a financial filter), blocking access to their work, reserving it only for those who (or, rather, whose institutions) could/would pay. But the much bigger world of trade publishing was nothing like this, and it was by far the larger and more representative sector of the Gutenberg Galaxy. Let us call theirs the Non-Give-Away literature.

Non-Give-Away authors and Non-Give-Away publishers were natural allies, their interests coinciding exactly: Like Give-Away authors, they wanted to maximize readership, but only paying readership, and indeed because they were paying. That's normal capitalism. Nothing at all wrong with that. Without it, what's the point of writing a book at all? (And this trade literature consisted mainly of books -- fiction, nonfiction, textbooks -- but also popular magazines, with articles written for a fee.)

Now comes the (unjustified) first snicker of Posterity: While these Non-Give-Away authors and their publishers were both making money (or at least trying to), the Give-Away authors were having to do the same thing -- not make money, but restrict access to their work only to those who could/would pay for it. The snicker would not be justified, however, for unless Give-Away authors did agree to make this Faustian Bargain with Gutenberg, the only access to their work would be through word-of-mouth or pen-of-hand -- both too slow and limited for that all-important cumulative cycle of interactions among minds and findings through which researchers build upon one another's work.

So the devil's (Gutenberg's) dues had to be paid, for Non-Give-Away and Give-Away work alike. Tears of commiseration were more in order than jeers of derision -- until the PostGutenberg Galaxy of Scholarly Skywriting opened up in the latter part of our century. (See <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad90.skywriting.html> <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad91.postgutenberg.html>.)

Once it became possible to self-archive one's work publicly for one and all online, older forms of publication became obsolete -- for Give-Away authors, that is. Non-Give-Away authors had no more interest in having their products pirated in the new medium than they did in the old (and for the most part they rightly stuck with the old until a safe toll-gating system was devised).

So why did the Give-Away authors not flock to the new medium, and the free, open, global access to their work that it would provide? This is what next year's millennium is poised to chide us for. There are some excuses, but at bottom it will be seen to be the sluggishness of human nature and its superstitious cleavage to old habits. (There are financial interests vested in the papyrocentric status quo too, but I don't believe they are the real reason for the failure of researchers to take full advantage of the new medium sooner.)

It is not that they have not taken to the Net and the Web. Research and researchers alike have taken full advantage of email, online discussion groups, online storage and exchange of data and even online refereeing of papers for their journals. The one thing that they have not realized (or, those who did realize it, did not act upon) is that it is now within their reach to liberate overnight, and once and for all, this Give-Away literature that has been held hostage by Gutenberg since its inception.

I did mention that there was one prominent exception: That exception is the Los Alamos Physics Archive <http://xxx.lanl.gov> in which over 100,000 papers in physics have been self-archived by their authors since 1991. But 1991 is a long time ago, and 100,000 papers is still only a fraction of the papers that have appeared in Physics since 1991, let alone in all other scholarly and scientific disciplines. (And the growth rate is still only linear, so Posterity would have a long time to chide us before everything was appearing up there in the skies as fast as it was being written.) See <http://xxx.lanl.gov/cgi-bin/show_monthly_submissions>.

As fast as it was being written? Isn't that a bit too fast? What about second thoughts? What about peer review? Well, obviously few will want to disseminate their raw first drafts publicly, so that is not at issue (and never has been). But most researchers (after circulating earlier drafts informally to peers for preliminary feedback) are ready to make public the preprint that they have formally submitted to their chosen journal for peer review. And all researchers are ready to make public the final refereed draft that has been accepted for publication by the journal.

These are the two embryonic stages in the life-cycle of a research paper -- the submitted preprint and the accepted final draft -- that populate the Los Alamos Archive (with an interval of 9 months in between, which corresponds to the time it takes for the peer-review/revision/acceptance cycle to take place). Some fields may be more coy about making the preprint phase of their work public, but, by definition, no field is coy about making it public after it has passed peer review and been accepted for publication.

So why are at least the accepted final drafts of all papers written today not already being self-archived publicly on the Web by all authors in all disciplines? (I am posing this question on behalf of that Posterity that is peering quizzically over our shoulders.)

One answer might be that there is no place to put them: Physics has Los Alamos, but the other disciplines have no such online archives to which to turn. Well, first of all, there are other disciplinary archives (e.g., CoRR <http://www.acm.org/repository/> in computer science, CogPrints <http://cogsci.soton.ac.uk> in the cognitive sciences, and soon PubMed Central <http://www.nih.gov/welcome/director/pubmedcentral/pubmedcentral.htm> in the biomedical sciences), but these still only contain a minuscule portion of the annual corpus of published papers. Moreover, even Los Alamos is far from complete. So perhaps global archives are too slow and remote a solution. The subversive proposal to self-archive locally, at the university level, was made in 1994. (See <http://www.arl.org/scomm/subversive/toc.html>.) But perhaps authors worry that if they simply self-archive on their own personal web-pages, their paper will never be found; searching for it with a conventional search engine would be like searching for a microscopic needle in a cosmic haystack -- even if the paper were prominently tagged as "Peer-Reviewed"!

That could conceivably be what is holding us back, but if so, a remedy is on its way. The Open Archives Initiative, which met recently in Santa Fe (see <http://vole.lanl.gov/ups/>), is dedicated specifically to establishing metadata tagging conventions that will allow all open archives -- whether centralized, like Los Alamos, or local institution-based -- to be "interoperable." This means that they can interconnect with one another and can be accessed and searched in many ways as if they were all just one big, seamless, virtual archive. For example, the CogPrints central archive software, modeled on Los Alamos, is currently being rewritten by Robert Tansley of Southampton University to make it Santa-Fe-compliant and generic, so it can be installed (free, of course) by any university to create an open archive of its own for all of its disciplines, interoperable with other compliant clones all over the planet (see < http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk/ >.

Will that be enough to free the Give-Away literature at last? One hopes, but there are still some obstacles -- all easily surmountable, but will we surmount them? If universities establish interoperable open archives for all their researchers, will their researchers go ahead and self-archive their papers in them? (See <http://library.caltech.edu/publications/ScholarsForum/>.)

Some may plead willingness but inability: "Look, here's my CV with all my journal papers listed; here's a disc with the latest ones on it; that's all I have the time/capacity/will to do! You take it from there!"

If that's the start-up challenge, the universities would be well-advised to rise to meet it: Apart from installing the open archives, they should be prepared to help in the self-archiving of the first wave. All that's needed is enough of a budget so that web-savvy students or document specialists from the Library can do the self-archiving for the first generation of authors/papers (dead-easy, as anyone who has tried it can confirm). Once that's done, the rest will take care of itself, for the literature will be up there in the sky, and not having a paper up there will become more and more of a liability (and necessity will be the mother of invention then).

The Universities have plenty of motivation for taking these two small and relatively inexpensive steps (installing open archives and providing their authors with the technical proxies to self-archive their papers for them where needed), for it is Universities' annual serials costs that are weighing down their library budgets. (See <http://www.arl.org/sparc/>.) This would be a small investment with an eventually huge return (reduction and eventual elimination of all annual Subscription/Site- License/Pay-Per-View [S/L/P] expenditure).

Nearly as important as that, the portion of the journal literature any given university's Library could never afford to buy (no university can afford every possible journal) would also become available to all its potential users for free. And, most important of all, the work of that university's authors would now be available to everyone, everywhere, free of other institutions' inability to afford access to it (especially in poorer parts of the world). The effect of that order of magnitude of increase in accessibility on the impact factors of researchers and research everywhere can only be guessed at, but if the commercial dividends of web advertising and sale are any predictor, the cognitive dividends here should be huge.

All this, if we all simply took all our give-away papers and self-archived them in open archives now. Now, if our universities took the two steps above, is there anything that might still hold us back from self-archiving? Indeed, is there anything, given the serials budget crunch, that might hold our universities back from taking those two simple steps?

As Fermat once said (and was since famously proved to be right), I have the answer, but I haven't the space to spell it all out here: Yes, both the authors' and the universities' hands might be stayed awhile by concerns about copyright, but none of those concerns will prove to be valid, and all the apparent obstacles will prove to be circumnavigable (and to have been that way all along: hence Posterity's smirk, in hindsight). Unlike Fermat, though, I will sketch out the essentials here, albeit breathlessly.

Hands may be stayed awhile for the following reasons. The publishers of the Non-Give-Away literature, which is the vast majority of the literature -- and has been the model for all of it until now -- require copyright transfer in order to recover their costs, pay their authors' royalty fees, and make a fair profit. That is as it should be. Without the copyright transfer, and the resultant right to charge for their joint product, there would be no point in their publishing books at all. Books are written to be sold, not to be given away.

But this is not true of the Give-Away literature of which we are speaking now. There is still a joint product, because although authors do the research, the writing, and the peer-reviewing, it is the publishers who implement the QC/C. But it is time for this QC/C service to be paid for separately, freeing the product (the accepted, final draft) from the no longer necessary or justified access barriers of S/L/P. How to pay for the QC/C? Entirely out of the S/L/P savings, as QC/C costs are less than one third of S/L/P expenditures (see <http://www.research.att.com/~amo/doc/complete.html>).

Copyright transfer agreements today are hence merely a Faustian means of holding the literature hostage to S/L/P. Authors sign them, because they need to have their papers peer-reviewed and certified as such (and at the highest possible level of the QC/C hierarchy of journals), for the sake of their research impact, and hence their careers. But it is not the S/L/P costs and the access barriers that fulfill that need, in the era of open self-archiving, it is the QC/C alone. That's all Give-Away authors need. That's all they ever wanted. The open archiving can do the rest, and far better than the Gutenberg system ever could.

So authors should transfer to their publishers all the rights to sell their papers, in paper or online, but they should retain the right to self-archive them online for free for all. Many publishers will agree (the American Physical Society <ftp://aps.org/pub/jrnls/copy_trnsfr.asc> being a model in this respect) because their scholarly/scientific goals are in harmony with those of their authors and readers. But with those publishers whose copyright agreement explicitly forbids the public self-archiving of the peer-reviewed final draft, the solution is to self-archive the preprint at the time it is first submitted for publication, and then once it is accepted, simply to archive a list of the changes that went into the revised final draft; alternatively, a further revised, enhanced draft, going substantively beyond the accepted, final draft, with a fuller reference list, Hyperlinks, more data and figures added, etc., can be self-archived, together with a list of what in this new edition was not in the final accepted draft. Either way, the handwriting (or rather the skywriting) is on the wall.

This gets around copyright restrictions (note that analogies with online piracy of text, music and software are irrelevant because we are speaking of "self-piracy" here). A further potential obstacle is an embargo policy like the one the New England Journal of Medicine (see < http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/
>) practises under the name of the "Ingelfinger Rule" (see <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Hypermail/Author.Eprint.Archives/0020.html>) and that journals like Science, <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/285/5425/197#EL12>, likewise practise. I don't think I need to spell out for Web-savvy authors how easily arbitrary and self-serving policies like this can be gotten around by suitable cosmetic measures on one's self-archived preprint. In any case, I doubt that journal editors and referees (who, after all, are us), will long collaborate with policies that are no longer either justified or necessary, being now so clearly designed solely in the interest of protecting current S/L/P revenue streams rather than in the interest of disseminating research. Besides, journal embargo policies, unlike copyright agreements, are not even legal matters.

I don't think there is any doubt in anyone's mind as to what the optimal and inevitable outcome of all this will be: The Give-Away literature will be free at last online, in one global, interlinked virtual library (see <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/citation.html>), and its QC/C expenses will be paid for up-front, out of the S/L/P savings. The only question is: When? This piece is written in the hope of wiping the potential smirk off Posterity's face by persuading the academic cavalry, now that they have been led to the waters of self-archiving, that they should just go ahead and drink!


A complete archive of an ongoing discussion of "Freeing the Refereed Journal Literature Through Online Self-Archiving" is available at the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99): <http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/september98-forum.html>.


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Copyright © 1999 Stevan Harnad

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DOI: 10.1045/december99-harnad