Harnad, S. (2000) E-Knowledge: Freeing the Refereed Journal Corpus Online. Computer Law & Security Report 16(2) 78-87. http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad00.scinejm.htm

[Rebuttal to  F. Bloom Editorial in Science and A. Relman Editorial in New England Journal of Medicine]

Stevan Harnad
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

The author of this paper has been advocating for some time that online public self-archiving of the refereed journal literature  be introduced without delay. Indeed he sees it as inevitable in all disciplines within a very short time (and as optimal for research and researchers). He also argues that it can be achieved without compromising the peer reviewed journal literature in any way.

What follows here is a point-by-point critique of two prominent prior published critiques (appearing in Science and the New England Journal of Medicine) of a still earlier proposal  along the lines championed here, by the former Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Harold Varmus. The Varmus proposal was to establish a free archive for the biomedical literature called "E-Biomed" (since renamed "PubMed Central" and currently being implemented along somewhat different lines).  The two critiques of the Varmus proposal   were by Floyd Bloom, Editor of Science, and by Arnold Relman, Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. Both critiques are replied to and critiqued in turn in quote/commentary format below.


Floyd Bloom and Arnold Relman are the Editor and Past Editor, respectively, of Science and the New England Journal of Medicine, the refereed journals in science and biomedicine that have the largest circulation and impact in the world . The new era of global digital networks has now made it not only possible, but optimal and inevitable that the refereed contents of their journals, and indeed the entire refereed journal corpus in all disciplines, be made available for free for everyone, everywhere, online.

It is quite understandable that Bloom and Relman should be defending the status quo, but the following two critiques of their respective arguments are more concerned with quo vadis? and with what is best for learned research than with what will preserve the current modera operandi and attendant revenue streams of learned journals intact.

My critiques are self-explanatory, restating and quoting the lines of defense proposed by each Editor, and then showing how they are indefensible. As will be seen, there is a simple way for the research community to have its cake (a peer reviewed journal literature) and eat it too (free access to it online).

The occasion for these two defenses of the status quo was a recent proposal by the Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the enormous biomedical research and research-funding agency, Harold Varmus, to found "E-Biomed" (since renamed "PubMed Central") as a free public archive of the world's refereed biomedical research online <http://www.nih.gov/about/director/pubmedcentral/pubmedcentral.htm>.

The NIH proposal drew a great deal of attention <http://www.nih.gov/about/director/ebiomed/comment.htm>, even though it was modelled on what is already historically the first free, public, open archive of the refereed literature, the Los Alamos Physics Archive, founded by Paul Ginsparg in 1991,  and now already containing over 120,000 papers. Physics journals have had to accept and adapt to the Los Alamos Archive, because the physics author community simply went ahead and did it. They first archived their pre-refereeing preprints, and then, after the refereeing, also their refereed final drafts.

The American Physical Society, publishers of the most prestigious and highest impact journals in Physics, have since formulated the most progressive and enlightened copyright policy in the face of the optimal and the inevitable, formally acknowledging the right of all their authors to publicly self-archive their papers online, free for all <ftp://aps.org/pub/jrnls/copy_trnsfr.asc>.

The optimal and the inevitable should since have become the actual in all the other disciplines as well, but it has not, yet, and it is a matter of some historical interest why not. There are many hypotheses, but the most likely one is that authors think that they should not do it, for some reason or other. The journals, clearly, encourage this line of thinking.

This exchange is dedicated to rebutting all the reasons so far adduced for not freeing the refereed journal literature through public self-archiving. The exchange is representative of the medium: It takes place in the "quote/comment" format that has evolved from the online discussion forum. The entire ongoing online archive of which these two critiques are only a part, the American Scientist Forum, may shortly appear as a book, but is already freely accessible by one and all at: <http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/september98-forum.html>

Note that this exchange will be peppered with online addresses like this. They are all publicly accessible for free on the Web, and provide an apt link from the Gutenberg Era of print on paper to the PostGutenberg Era of Scholarly Skywriting (Harnad 1990, 1991)

1.0  Critique of Bloom's (1999) Critique of NIH/E-Biomed Proposal

The Editor of Science, Dr. Floyd Bloom, has written an editorial about NIH's E-biomed initiative (since renamed PubMed Central). <http://www.nih.gov/welcome/director/ebiomed/ebiomed.htm>

Floyd E. Bloom [Editorial] "Just a Minute, Please" Science 285 (5425) p. 197, 9 Jul 1999.
This is a reply to his editorial. <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/285/5425/197#EL12>

To summarize, Dr. Bloom is writing ex officio as the Editor of Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science is a hybrid journal. It contains articles by salaried staff writers and commissioned articles written for a fee. It is important to note that these two kinds of articles are in no way at issue here.

But Science also contains refereed research reports, submitted by their authors for free, with the sole objective of making the research findings available as broadly as possible once they have met Science's rigorous standards of peer review. It is these refereed articles only that are at issue here, and the issue is a simple one: Should NIH/E-biomed provide a free public Archive, modeled on the NSF/DOE-supported Los Alamos Eprint Archive in Physics (LANL) <http://xxx.lanl.gov/>, in which the authors of these refereed research reports can self-archive them online publicly, free for everyone, everywhere, forever?

Dr. Bloom is arguing that NIH should not do this, and we will shortly examine his reasons. But we can be confident that Dr. Bloom will revise his views when more fully informed of the objectives of E-biomed and the scientific potential of free public archiving of refereed research on the World Wide Web, for Dr. Bloom represents the American Association for the Advancement (not the secondary sale or suppression!) of Science.

At the moment, Dr. Bloom's reservations are motivated by two factors: Concern about the quality of the scientific research literature (and this concern is commendable, his journal being the representative of research standards of the highest quality) and concern about the revenue stream of his journal, which is the financial resource that is currently supporting those high standards of quality. It is here that I am afraid that Dr. Bloom is being somewhat short-sighted and perhaps even a little partisan too, unconsciously placing the interests of the maintenance of that revenue stream above the interests of the science that AAAS is dedicated to advancing.

It is undeniable that in the present PostGutenberg Era a conflict of interest has arisen between researchers and the current means of production of their published refereed research reports. There is a way to resolve this conflict, however, although it at first appears counterintuitive; and as the resolution is clearly to the benefit of science, and at the same time provides the revenue stream to sustain the essential service provided by the publishers of science -- quality control and certification in the form of peer review and editing -- there is every reason to believe that AAAS will find it fully compatible with its mission.

The resolution is a two-stage one.

First, it is necessary to identify and acknowledge the conflict of interest:

For scientific researchers, the reports of their (usually publicly funded) research findings are give-aways. They seek neither royalties nor fees; they seek only the eyes and minds of their fellow-researchers worldwide, present and future, so as to maximize the impact of their findings on the future course of research (and thereby also on the course of their careers and their livelihoods).

Researchers are accordingly interested in having their findings first quality-controlled and certified (QC/C) through peer review, and then made freely accessible to everyone. In the Gutenberg Era, the only way they could come anywhere near that goal was to treat their work exactly the same way trade authors (who wrote for fees or royalty) treated theirs, namely, to assign copyright to a publisher, who would then charge for access to the work in order to cover the substantial expenses of paper publication and distribution and to make a fair profit, where possible, for both himself and his author (in the form of royalties or fees).

But the scientists reporting their research findings in refereed journals were never interested in fees or royalties, for those would represent access barriers, restricting their findings to only those individuals and institutions that could afford to pay for them (via Subscription, Site License, or Pay Per View, S/L/P). Nevertheless, scientists had to live with these S/L/P barriers, for all the world as if they were trade authors seeking royalties or fees for their work, because in the Gutenberg Era there simply was no alternative way to reach even that privileged subset of the potential readership of their article (not a large populace even in the best of times).<http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/THES/thes.html>

In the PostGutenberg era of global digital networks, however, there is at last an alternative, and not only researchers, but research itself, and hence all of society, would be the losers if we failed to take full advantage of it. For now we no longer have to rely on the expensive, inefficient and access-limiting technology of print on paper to disseminate refereed research findings. They can be self-archived by their authors in public "open archives" like  (the forthcoming) E-biomed (and its spectacularly successful model, LANL), thereby making them accessible to one and all without any financial firewalls. <http://www.arl.org/scomm/subversive/toc.html> <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/nature.html>

Free public self-archiving, however, is only the first of the two stages of resolving the conflict of interest between research and its current means of publication. As long as there continues to be a demand for the paper version, it (and its proprietary online counterpart) can continue to be sold via S/L/P, which can continue to fund (among other things) QC/C (peer review). But meanwhile the worldwide research community will also have the self-archived online version on its desktops for free. And there is every reason to believe that they will grow increasingly reliant on it. <http://xxx.lanl.gov/cgi-bin/show_weekly_graph>

Eventually, this is likely to shrink S/L/P revenues, and here it may look as if we are approaching a catastrophe point, for part of that revenue is paying for the maintenance of the quality standards of that literature (QC/C). But a very simple solution is available, once we recognize that the S/L/P revenues are largely being paid for by their researchers' institutions. Let us call this "reader-institution end" funding. All that is needed to continue covering QC/C costs is to switch from reader-institution end funding to author-institution end funding, covered fully by the institutional S/L/P savings. The big difference is that reader-institution-end S/L/P is access-blocking, holding the literature hostage to access tolls, whereas author-institution end QC/C funding makes access completely free.

This is the second stage of the resolution of the conflict of interest, and it has the further advantage (although this is more controversial, because no one has the exact figures yet) that it will save institutions a great deal of money. For the cost of QC/C alone -- once publishers have scaled down to providing this essential service only, leaving the access-providing and preservation entirely to open public archives like LANL and E-biomed -- is likely to be much lower than current institutional S/L/P budgets. Indeed it is likely to be less than 1/3, by current estimates. See the American Scientist Discussion Forum threads on this: <http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/september-forum.html>

Odlyzko, A.M. (1998) The economics of electronic journals. In: Ekman R. and Quandt, R. (Eds) Technology and Scholarly Communication Univ. Calif. Press, 1998. <http://www.research.att.com/~amo/doc/economics.journals.txt>
This means that researchers benefit (access to their findings is expanded, potentially infinitely), their institutions benefit (both from their researchers' enhanced impact and from S/L/P savings), and research itself benefits (in both productivity and pace). Refereed journal publishers will unfortunately need to downsize, but in exchange they will have a stable, permanent niche that is compatible with what the new medium offers science, rather than at odds with it.

Now I proceed to reply to Dr. Bloom's editorial on a quote/comment basis:

2.0 Quote/Commentary on Bloom (1999)

Proponents [of the E-biomed Archive] acknowledge that cooperating journals could lose subscription income and suggest that journals recover their costs through submission and acceptance fees charged to authors. E-biomed may be free to users, but it will not be free to taxpayers or authors submitting through peer review.
We can now understand that this passage is based on a misunderstanding. Taxpayers are already sustaining our educational and research institutions, including their S/L/P budgets, which will be reduced rather than increased by the switch to up-front payment in the online-only era.

And the costs of providing public research archive facilities such as LANL and E-biomed will be minuscule compared to the size of the literature and the benefits conferred; moreover, most of the infrastructure is in place already, in this increasingly networked world, and pooling resources with the rest of the disciplines (after Physics and the Biomedical Sciences) will make the marginal costs even more minimal.
<http://library.caltech.edu/publications/ScholarsForum/> <http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk/>

So there is nothing whatsoever in this passage to deter us from resolving this conflict of interest in the way just described.

[E-biomed has] much support from quarters long known to advocate a more open scientific literature that would banish the alleged cabals of editors, biased reviewers, and expensive commercial presses with generally irrelevant content.
There are as always extremists around who want to banish QC/C, but leveller heads are bent on preserving it, and indeed the entire scenario just described is predicated on just that.
<http://helix.nature.com/webmatters/invisible/invisible.html> So this objection too is invalid.
Lurking behind the public discussions are some potentially troubling elements: What if the major journals choose not to cooperate out of concern that their ability to survive and maintain quality control and timeliness are threatened by the diversion of authors and competent reviewers into the NIH system?
There was a little confusion in the initial draft of the E-biomed proposal. The eventual goal is cooperation with the refereed journals, in the form of official "overlays" on the archive, authenticated by them. But in the first stage, author self-archiving of their refereed drafts will suffice to free theliterature.

Nor is there any "diversion of authors and competent reviewers into the NIH system." There is no "NIH system," merely a public archive in which authors can deposit their papers (both refereed reprints and, if they wish, unrefereed preprints).

There is only one respect in which the major journals need to "cooperate," and one certainly hopes they will do so, otherwise this will escalate the conflict of interest instead of resolving it to the benefit of science: Publishers must not attempt to use copyright restrictions as a weapon to continue to hold the literature hostage to access tolls by forbidding public self-archiving.

This is the central issue, and at the heart of all of this. Science itself has published a collective call for the retention of such author rights
along with a dissenting editorial by Dr. Bloom.

Some prior comments on that exchange in Science are appended at the end of this reply. Let it only be noted here that progressive publishers are already resolving this conflict in a fair and rational way, in the interests of the scientific community they serve, rather than their own S/L/P revenue streams. A model in this regard (and they will be duly recognized by historians for this) is the American Physical Society (APS), publisher of the journals with the highest QC/C standards and impact factors in Physics. Dr. Bloom's homonymous APS counterpart, Dr. Blume, is one of the cosignators of the above copyright reform proposal in Science. For APS copyright policy, see:

Will societies whose members' future careers rely on NIH funding be willing to resist the cooptation of their journals' editorial and peer review systems?
Nothing is being co-opted. The NSF/DOE-funded LANL Physics Archive stands as a model for the kind of cooperative solution that will prevail. Journals, editorial boards and peer review will continue to exist, independent and intact. The only issue is whether they should be allowed to continue to try to hold this give-away literature hostage to S/L/P access tolls, against the interests of research and researchers.
What will the real costs be to authors, peer-reviewed journals, and scientific societies?
Yes, what will they be indeed, once the obsolete Gutenberg "add-ons" are phased out and only the essential QC/C costs remain?
Does a monopolistic archive under government control by the major research funder enhance scientific progress better than the existing journal hierarchy, which provides multiple alternatives to authors and readers?
Multiple journals -- indeed the entire hierarchy that currently exists -- will continue to exist for authors and readers. Nor will it be government controlled. (As always, quality will be controlled by peer reviewers, who, like the authors, do their work for free! QC/C costs are for implementing peer review, not for actually performing it.)

NIH will fund E-biomed, just as NSF/DOE fund LANL. The cost will be minuscule, and still smaller as more disciplines join in the self-archiving initiative. And once S/L/P expenditures shrink, savings will prevail, including savings on government-supported institutional serial budgets.

Pluralism will be, if anything, enhanced by a firewall-free global research literature. The objective is to free the literature from market restrictions that are no longer justified or necessary, not to take over a market!

(The word "monopoly," so clearly out of place here, will recur later in this reply in the context of certain collaborative firewall practises on the part of certain commercial S/L/P providers...)

What about research in disciplines outside what the National Library of Medicine considers biomedical?
There are plans for vetting the unrefereed clinical preprint sector to safeguard public health, but no planned restrictions of any sort on the refereed sector, any more than there are any such restrictions on the LANL Archive. (One wonders what Dr. Bloom has in mind here?)
What about research not sponsored by NIH or even US federal funds?
The answer to this question is so obvious, one can only wonder why it was raised: What about research not sponsored by NSF in LANL? What about LANL's 14 mirror sites around the world? Why on earth would an archive dedicated to freeing access to the refereed research literature for the world scientific community through public self-archiving have any interest in blocking access to any of it? (The sole interests vested in blocking access to this corpus at the moment are certainly not governmental interests...)
Without answers to these and other questions, it is hard to determine the feasibility of the proposal.
(The answers are in each case so trivially obvious that one can only wonder what the real source of the reservations about feasibility might be!)
Science and other journals are eager to identify the advantages of the E-biomed proposal and are actively looking for changes that could benefit scientific publishing.
The advantage of the E-biomed proposal is that it will free the refereed journal literature, to the benefit of science, scientists, and humankind. The only change required at the moment is a copyright policy that clearly recognizes the no-royalty/no-fee author's right to self-archive along the lines of the APS policy.
For example, the E-biomed server would provide a venue for online publication of negative results and thus allow others to avoid experimental repetition.
Among the much more profound benefits of public online self-archiving of refereed reprints and unrefereed preprints there is also the more modest one of being able to self-archive negative results, both those that have been accepted by refereed journals, and those that were not.
On the other hand, if NIH really wants to improve access to the literature, they could digitize the peer-reviewed literature published before 1995.
The retrospective peer-reviewed literature is most certainly welcome in the free public archives, and will most certainly be deposited there, both by individual authors and by digitization initiatives (neither LANL nor E-biomed is a digitization initiative: they are public self-archiving initiatives).

But exactly what is the benefit to science of restricting availability to the pre-1995 literature alone?

In addition, all would benefit if NIH developed software for online journal submittals and provided access to a common search engine that could survey all peer-reviewed sciences across all journal lines.
The first of these two benefits, though undeniable, is likewise not E-biomed's mandate. (Why should NIH develop submission software tools?) On the other hand, the practise of self-archiving will certainly help accelerate the development of such tools, and it will hasten and expand authors' use of them. Moreover, once the second stage is reached, official journal overlays on E-biomed will allow automatic online submission to the journals via the archive, as is already being implemented on LANL in collaboration with the APS.

As to providing the capacity to "survey all peer-reviewed sciences across all journal lines," this will be trivially provided by E-biomed and any number of generic search engines as soon as the self-archiving initiative is well under way, and E-biomed is well stocked with papers searchably tagged as "U"(unrefereed preprint) or "R" (refereed reprint, together with journal name "Jx"). <http://xxx.lanl.gov/cgi-bin/show_monthly_submissions>

But the principal advantage of this free public archive will be that it will indeed be "across all journal lines" without any of the financial firewalls that criss-cross the proprietary online corpus as it now stands - a state of affairs that some commercial providers would like to see perpetuated as a "click-through" monopoly governed by interpublisher S/P/L fee agreements! <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/citation.html>

It may be instructive to recall an earlier congressional reaction, as Albert Henderson, editor of Publishing Research Quarterly did in his response to E-biomed on 6 May. In the Sputnik aftermath, an E-biomed-like proposal was made that Congress accelerate U.S. scientific research by establishing a unified information system similar to what had been created in the Soviet Union. The Senate?s advisory panel responded: "The case for a Government-operated, highly centralized type of center can be no better defended for scientific information services than it could be for automobile agencies, delicatessens, or barber shops." Surely other creative solutions can be found to what NIH considers problems. Are they prepared to listen, or is this a done deal?
Both Dr. Henderson and Dr. Bloom might benefit from being reminded (if they are prepared to listen!) that unlike the producers of cars, bagels and haircuts, the producers of refereed journal articles wish to give them away for free. And there is no earthly reason why any government should not wish to help them do so, to the eternal benefit of science and society worldwide.

This would have been as welcome in the Sputnik era as it is today, but we had not yet reached the PostGutenberg Galaxy at that time.

The only costs that remain to be paid are accordingly those for the service of implementing QC/C, costs that it will make incomparably more sense for the author-institution to pay up-front - out of S/L/P savings, thereby freeing the literature for one and all, along with a considerable institutional saving - rather than at the access-denying reader-institution end, for the reasons adduced above.

This is the end of my reply to Bloom. I close with some unanswered prior comments on Dr. Bloom's earlier editorial on copyright. See:

3.0  Critique on Bloom's (1998)  Earlier Editorial on Copyright

        3.1 Quotes from Bachrach et al. (1998)

Bachrach, S., Berry, S.R., Blume, M., von Foerster, T., Fowler, A., Ginsparg, P., Heller, S., Kestner, N., Odlyzko, A., Okerson, A., Wigington, R., & Moffat, A. (1998) Intellectual Property: Who Should Own Scientific Papers? Science 281 (5382): 1459-1460. September 4 1998. <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/281/5382/1459</A>

"The goals and motivations of scientists writing up their research are very different from those of professional authors, although they may be the same people in different settings. The scientist is concerned with sharing new findings, advancing research inquiry, and influencing the thinking of others. The benefits the scientist receives from publication are indirect; rarely is there direct remuneration for scientific articles. Indeed, scientists frequently pay page charges to publish their articles in journals. The world of the directly paid author is very different. There, the need for close protection of intellectual property follows directly from the need to protect income, making natural allies of the publisher and the professional author, whether a novelist or the author of a chemistry text."

"The suggested policy is this: Federal agencies that fund research should recommend (or even require) as a condition of funding that the copyrights of articles or other works describing research that has been supported by those agencies remain with the author. The author, in turn, can give prospective publishers a wide-ranging nonexclusive license to use the work in a value-added publication, either in traditional or electronic form. The author thus retains the right to distribute informally, such as through a Web server for direct interaction with peers."

"Some publishers, such as] Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society, have adamantly opposed authors? posting of their own articles on Web pages or e-print servers, whereas others, such as the American Journal of Mathematics, the Journal of Neuroscience, Nature Medicine, and Physical Review, have considered such distribution consistent with, and even advertising for, their own journals."

3.2 Quotes from Bloom (1998),  With Questions for Reflection

Bloom, F. (1998) EDITORIAL: The Rightness of Copyright. Science
281 (5382): 1451. September 4 1998. <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/281/5382/1451</A>

"[C]opyright transfer is critical to the process of communicating scientific information accurately. Neither the public nor the scientific community benefits from the potentially no-holds-barred electronic dissemination capability provided by today?s Internet tools. Much information on the Internet may be free, but quality information worthy of appreciation requires more effort than most scientists could muster, even if able"

(1) Is F. Bloom's a logical or even a practical argument for full copyright transfer to publishers by refereed-journal paper authors, ceding their right to self-archive those papers for free public access?

(2) Is it really true that the only options are either (a) free papers, with no quality control, or (b) quality-controlled papers, but only in exchange for copyright transfer and the ensuing blockage of free access by S/L/P (Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View) fee barriers?

"...A paper submitted to Science will undergo extensive review and, upon acceptance, extensive revision for clarity, accuracy, and solidity. A paper published in Science will be seen throughout the world by our 160,000 paid subscribers and perhaps two or three times more readers as issues are shared. More than 30,000 readers will be alerted to the new reports within hours of the appearance each week of Science Online...."

(3) How many other journals reach 160K subscribers (or even 1/100% of that)?

(4) Free posting on the Web can reach all 160K (and 100 times that).

(5) Science magazine is a hybrid trade/refereed journal. It publishes refereed articles, contributed for free, plus commissioned and paid articles by staff writers and others, for fee. Hence it is in most relevant respects not representative of the vast refereed literature of which it (and a few other journals like it, such as Nature) constitutes a minuscule portion.

"...This degree of investment in the scientific publication process requires the assignment of copyright. This allows the society publisher to provide a stewardship over the paper, to protect it from misuse by those who would otherwise be free to plagiarize or alter it, and to expand the distribution of information products for the benefit of the society."
(6) Do we need this degree of investment? Is it worth the consequences (S/L/P, fire-walls)?

(7) What is "stewardship"?

(8) What do copyright assignment (to the publisher) and S/L/P tolls have to do with protection from plagiarism or alteration? (Doesn't copyright simpliciter already provide that, without transfer to the publisher?)

"...Permissions are granted freely to the originating authors for their own uses. Science holds the copyright of its authors because of our belief that we materially improve and protect the product we create together...."
(9) What if the "own use" is the provision of one's work to others, through free public archiving on the Web?

(10) Would payment for the true cost of the necessary "improvements" (QC/C) not be sufficient, without the need for copyright assignment, S/L/P and firewalls?

[Again, this should all be considered in conjunction with the fact that Science magazine is far from representative of refereed journals, for the reasons noted above.]

4.0 Quote/Commentary on Relman's (1999) Critique of NIH/E-Biomed Proposal

This is a reply to Arnold Relman's much-cited NEJM critique of the NIH/E-biomed proposal.

Relman, A. (1999) The NIH "E-biomed" Proposal -- A Potential Threat to the Evaluation and Orderly Dissemination of New Clinical Studies [Editorial]. The New England Journal of Medicine 340(23) June 10, 1999.
2.1 Preamble by Charles Phelps, Provost of University of Rochester:

The following might help those not familiar with Dr. Relman and the standing of the NEJM to understand their position. They have a market stature so great that it dominates all other medical journals, and probably all other journals in the world (possibly only excluding Science and Nature). Their citation index is about 20 per article; the next best (in a not too recent look) was JAMA at 12. Most other journals are in the realm of 2 - 4 or lower in the field. Thus the NEJM has an extraordinary stature and power that they are obviously loathe to give up. The new medium threatens them more than any other publisher/journal.

Dr. Relman (and his predecessor, Franz Ingelfinger, MD) carved in stone what was once known as the Ingelfinger Rule, which is now commonplace: "We won't consider a manuscript for publication in the NEJM if it's been published elsewhere." They have a very strict definition of "elsewhere" to include all sorts of things that many people would not consider publication. Their current stature and the tight control of pre-release of content are self reinforcing under current rules. They highlight "top" articles with a concurrent editorial ("commentary") and often a press release. This keeps NEJM articles in high visibility and they are (because of the very high and hence attractive stature of the journal and very stringent refereeing standards) of very high quality generally.

Obviously the NIH proposal threatens a part of this because the immediate newsworthiness of documents already available on an e - server diminishes. Yet a widespread and widely used NIH system would make it impossible for the NEJM to boycott manuscripts placed on the e-server (just as the physics journals could not boycott articles posted on Los Alamos). This is the major source of Dr. Relman's concern.

In summary, Dr. Relman has two objections to public archiving in E-biomed, one of them justified, but easily accommodated (as has already been pointed out repeatedly elsewhere), and the other neither justified nor even, on the face of it, coherent.

The first objection is that public archiving of some unrefereed biomedical papers (chiefly clinical ones, or those with clinical implications) might pose a public health risk.

This is true, but there is no reason whatsoever why a safe and reliable system cannot be designed and agreed upon that would (1) vet all unrefereed E-biomed submissions to exclude what needs to be excluded to protect public health and to maintain whatever special standards are agreed upon for the unrefereed clinical literature in E-biomed, (2) clearly tag all E-biomed contents as refereed (with journal citation) vs. unrefereed, and even (3), if need be, prominently pre-pend a "health warning" to all the unrefereed papers in E-biomed.

These rather obvious cautionary measures for the unrefereed clinical literature, already partly sketched in the original E-biomed draft proposal, should also be weighed in light of the fact that public self-archiving on the Web is an option that is already open to authors in a variety of ways, entirely apart from E-biomed. So unrefereed clinical preprints can and do already appear on the Web, and are retrieved for one and all by search engines. The unrefereed sector of the E-biomed archive will have the virtue of filtering out substandard preprints, tagging all preprints clearly as such, in contrast to refereed reprints, and, if necessary, even flagging them with a warning as potentially hazardous to health.

But the most important reply to this first objection is that it presents no reason at all to delay the immediate implementation of E-biomed as a means of freeing the biomedical literature for one and all. For the self-archiving of refereed papers could begin at once, with no attendant health risks, even as the safeguard systems for the unrefereed clinical papers were being designed and tested. (Moreover, the unrefereed non-clinical preprint sector of the E-biomed could likewise start at once, along the lines of the unrefereed preprint sector of the Los Alamos Physics Archive.)

Dr. Relman's second objection is that the public archiving of even refereed papers is unsafe too, in much the same way; they can only be safely published by the journals, in the traditional way (through print publication). Premature self-archiving, without the "benefit of simultaneous expert commentary and interpretation" would cause "confusion and misunderstanding."

Here I am afraid Dr. Relman is himself misunderstanding the new medium, and perhaps confusing the public archiving of refereed findings with premature press releases of unrefereed findings. The latter are indeed dangers to public health, for the same reasons discussed above, but there is no corresponding risk for refereed findings -- otherwise even the traditional publication of refereed papers would have to be held back until it had had the "benefit of simultaneous expert commentary and interpretation"!

So the second objection has no basis whatsoever and can and should be discounted completely. Refereed findings can and do elicit peer commentary. They will certainly do this at least as effectively in the online medium as in paper. But peer commentary never has been a reason for holding up the publication of refereed findings: Peer review (i.e., refereeing) is supposed to have seen to it that they were ready to appear once they met the quality standards for acceptance.

So there is nothing at all in Dr. Relman's critique that should hold back the immediate implementation of E-biomed for either the refereed sector or the nonclinical unrefereed sector; his concerns about the vetting of the unrefereed clinical sector are legitimate, but were already explicit in the first draft of the E-biomed proposal, and can and will be satisfactorily accommodated.

I now proceed to quote/comment mode:

The great majority of readers and users of the clinical literature are practicing clinicians, not working scientists. They often know little or nothing about the methods of published studies, and they depend on the accompanying editorials in clinical journals to help them interpret the data and place the studies in the context of their own practices.
If clinicians do not use published studies without consulting concurrent editorials then there is no reason they should not continue this practise when all studies are archived in E-biomed. They can continue to first consult editorials, whether they appear only in the print journals or are likewise archived in E-biomed. E-biomed provides the added option of enhanced access to some or all of the literature when and where it was lacking: So what?
New clinical findings often attract wide public attention, and patients need advice from their physicians on the relevance of such findings to their own medical problems. The release of important new clinical findings can have an immediate social and economic impact and can affect public policy.
This is a non sequitur.
The best way to protect the public interest is through the existing system of carefully monitored peer review, revision
Correct, and irrelevant, as peer review will proceed apace for the refereed sector of E-biomed. <http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/nature2.html>
and editorial commentary in journals
Editorials too will continue to be written, presumably, by whoever wrote them in the past, and will continue to be available to clinicians requiring them in order to interpret refereed clinical studies. There is no contingency here. (Perhaps refereed clinical articles too require a warning label: "Do not use without consulting editorial"...)
and by timing public disclosure to coincide with the date of journal publication.
This last point, unfortunately, has to be called the nonsense that it is! If it is not merely a reflexive bid to safeguard journal primacy and revenue (which would be deplorable, and one hopes that that is not what motivates it), then it is merely an expression of a superstitious adherence to completely irrelevant and obsolete features of the print-on-paper era for journal publication.

There is no need whatsoever for an author to hold back his refereed report once the final draft is done and accepted. The rest is just the unfortunate retardation of a bygone papyrocentric era.

Mistakes, inaccuracies, and misinterpretations in clinical research pose a far greater risk to health and the public welfare than do errors in basic-science research. A system that allowed immediate electronic publication of new clinical studies without the usual careful process of peer review and revision would be risky at best and might well fill the clinical data bases with misleading and inadequately evaluated information.
This is a false opposition (conflating the two objections into one): We are talking about the refereed literature here.
Even if E-biomed were to eliminate the second pathway and accept only work that had passed full peer review and revision by journal editorial boards, immediate posting on the Web site before publication would still be problematic, because the information would be made public without the benefit of simultaneous expert commentary and interpretation.
Repetition unfortunately does not strengthen this argument. Besides, for those papers that would benefit from simultaneous editorial commentary, there is no reason that synchronization cannot be arranged in the Archive too. (In other words, this entire issue is trivial, and a red herring.)
The few weeks saved between acceptance and print publication would not justify the confusion and misunderstanding that would often attend the immediate electronic posting and subsequent publicizing of clinical studies.
Again conflates the two objections, and sounds rather hyperbolic and alarmist as well.

(What proportion of the refereed clinical literature is accompanied by a concurrent editorial? Why can't similar arrangements be made for this subset in the new medium too? There could even be two different formal acceptance criteria for referees if need be: R = "accept unconditionally." RE = "accept only on condition of being accompanied by editorial." Is this a failure of imagination or animus against the new medium for some unstated reason?)

And in any case, policies adopted by the Journal, and many other leading clinical journals, already allow any studies with urgent major implications for public health and safety to be released immediately after final editorial review and acceptance.
And so...?
most clinical journals already have their own Web sites, which do much of what is proposed by E-biomed.
No doubt. But here I think we come to the heart of the matter (and perhaps to those "unstated reasons"), for those Web sites happen to be accessible only via Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View (S/P/L), the very access barriers from which self-archiving is meant to free the literature.

In fact, the one thing "proposed by E-biomed" that no proprietary journal Web site can or will do is to free the literature for one and all, everywhere, forever.

In addition, online databases such as Medline are regularly used to search the published clinical literature. Electronic databases should, and will, continue to grow in clinical medicine

Except that alas many of these secondary providers do this for a fee, and none retrieve the full texts for free (because most are not yet self-archived, hence not yet available free).

But it is a foregone conclusion that once the entire biomedical corpus is self-archived in E-biomed for free, there will be (free) search and navigational capabilities that will threaten the niche of commercial secondary providers even more profoundly than they do the niche of primary journal publishers.

(The latter will be able to downsize and restructure so as to continue to provide the service of quality control -- peer review, editing, certification -- paid for by the author-institution out of a small part of the institutional S/L/P cancellation savings, but it is not at all clear what the secondaries and tertiaries will be providing in this new PostGutenberg world.)

but they cannot replace the essential functions of peer-reviewed clinical journals.
E-biomed cannot and will not replace the journals' essential function of peer review. But that is the ONLY function that journals will continue to provide.
I imagine that the proponents of E-biomed would reply that there is no intention to replace peer-reviewed journals. As long as accepted manuscripts were posted promptly on the E-biomed Web site, the NIH plan would not prevent the peer-reviewed clinical journals from continuing to review and publish original research articles as usual, together with whatever additional editorial and educational material they chose. Journals could also continue to maintain their own Web sites if they wished.
That would indeed be the quite obvious and correct response (indeed, it has essentially been made above). Journals are free to continue to sell an S/L/P version -- as long as dubious objections like the above ones are not used as an excuse for delaying the optimal and inevitable solution of public self-archiving the free online versions of their (refereed) papers by their authors -- the same authors who have given those same papers to the journals for free.

Only the improvement and certification added by peer review needs to be paid for, and once S/L/P is no longer viable, institutional S/L/P savings can amply cover those quality-control/certification (QC/C) costs up-front on the author-institution end, instead of at the access-blocking reader-institution end. But meanwhile E-biomed will also allow authors to give away their refereed eprints to one and all for free.

That response, while technically true, ignores the probably disastrous effects of E-biomed on journals. A flourishing E-biomed system that included clinical studies would very likely reduce the submissions, paid circulation, and income of most clinical journals enough to threaten their survival. Were this the price to be paid for a much better and less expensive clinical publishing system that would serve physicians and the public at least as well as the present arrangement and that would clearly facilitate the work of the clinical research community, I would take a more favorable view of the proposal. But I do not believe that most of the important functions of peer-reviewed clinical journals can be adequately replaced by E-biomed. And cost savings, noted by Varmus as one reason to adopt E-biomed, are not an issue with the leading clinical journals. In general, they are far less expensive than most basic-science journals.
Now it is becoming clear that concern about S/L/P revenue may indeed be what is behind these objections.

As noted, of Dr. Relman's two sole substantive objections here, the first only concerns unrefereed clinical preprints, and is a valid objection, but it is also readily accommodated by E-biomed. The second objection is invalid.

Is the revenue objection a third one? And is the fact that clinical journals are "less expensive" a justification for continuing to hold this literature hostage to S/L/P access tolls? Perhaps the simplest answer comes from putting the question in principle to the authors of all those clinical papers:

Now that it is possible to make your refereed paper available online to everyone and everyone everywhere for free by self-archiving it in NIH's E-biomed, do you nevertheless prefer to continue instead to restrict access to it to those individual and institutional subscribers who can afford it -- even though you don't get a penny of the revenue and have always given away the reprints to all requesters for free, just as you gave the paper itself for free to the journal (to sell), presumably because your sole objective was to report your findings to one and all, once they had been approved and accepted by peer review?

No, I do not think that the goal of sustaining journals' current revenue streams and modera operandi can or should persuade authors to keep their research findings behind a financial firewall that is no longer necessary -- particularly as there are obvious alternative ways for journals to recover the surviving costs of their sole remaining essential service -- QC/C -- out of S/L/P savings, once they have downsized and restructured to provide that one essential service alone.

This "disastrous effect" sounds like a highly beneficial one for the research community (both basic and clinical), and it sounds like something the journals could successfully adapt to if they try, in the interests of the research community they serve.

A final worrisome aspect of E-biomed is that its proposed organization and management are so complicated as to raise doubts about its ability to function. It would be a huge conglomerate of different scientific fields, journals, editorial boards, and other "interested parties," overseen by a necessarily very large and disparate governing board.
This was indeed a weakness of the original E-biomed proposal, but it is all quite easily and trivially remediable once it is recognized that E-biomed, like Los Alamos, is merely a reliable, permanent infrastructure for the self-archiving of all refereed and unrefereed papers by their authors in the first instance, and eventually a facility for official journal overlays, authenticated by the journals themselves.

No new "complications" over and above the tried, tested and spectacularly successful features of the 8-year-old Los Alamos Archive are involved -- other than the special measures for the unrefereed clinical sector called for by (among other things) Dr. Relman's own sole valid objection!

It takes a lot of work by editors to supervise a high-quality peer-review system.
Indeed; and this is precisely the work that the QC/C charges will cover out of the S/L/P savings.
Even the simplified, two-reader system of approval envisioned as the alternative to editorial review by a journal would prove to be much more complicated than expected. How would differences between reviewers or between reviewers and authors be adjudicated? Suppose a reviewer's approval was conditional on suitable revision or correction of the manuscript. Who would oversee such negotiations? And who would be responsible for vetting the contentious issues that might arise later concerning corrections and commentary? All such functions are now carried out by the editors of peer-reviewed journals. I do not see how any system concerned about the quality of clinical data and their impact on the public health and medical practice could afford to ignore these questions.
This is conflating peer review (which will proceed exactly as before) with the vetting of the unrefereed clinical preprint sector, a special case that will be handled as the peers at NIH see fit, but should not be confused with peer review, which will proceed apace.
In clinical research, the best way to handle new data is to require rigorous peer review before their dissemination and, with few exceptions, to post the results in electronic data bases only after they have been published in carefully edited, peer-reviewed journals. That is because prepublication evaluation of the reliability of clinical studies and impartial assessment of their implications for health care are usually more important than the speed with which the data are made available.
I hope this has all been put in context and answered by now. Let me close by saying that "speed" is only one of the virtues of E-biomed, and by no means the foremost, which is the freeing of the literature for one and all, everywhere, forever, to the eternal benefit of research and researchers the world over, especially those whose access to the research corpus was blocked or limited by its current system of financial firewalls.

I hope these remarks will be accepted in the spirit of cautionary editorial quote/commentary that sometimes needs to accompany even the nonclinical papers that appear in refereed journals...


The Learned Cavalry have been led to the waters of public self-archiving. It is now only a historical (perhaps a psycho-historical) question how long it will take them to stoop to drink. To the extent that they are detained by arguments that have been voiced in the two Editorials above, I hope my replies will help to dispel doubts about what is indeed the optimal and inevitable outcome for science and scholarship.


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