Harnad, S. (2001) The Self-Archiving Initiative. Nature Web Debates.


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

Roberts et al., in "Building A "GenBank" of the Published Literature" (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/291/5512/2318a) argue compellingly for the following three pleas to publishers and authors:

It is imperative to free the refereed literature online. To achieve this goal, the following should be done:

(1) Established journal publishers should give away their journal contents online for free. (In the biomedical sciences, they can do this by depositing them in PubMedCentral http://pubmedcentral.nih.gov/)

(2) Authors should submit preferentially to journals that give their contents away online for free (even boycotting those that do not).

(3) In place of established journals that do not give away their contents online for free, new journals (e.g., BioMed Central http://www.biomedcentral.com) should be established that do.

The goal of freeing the refereed literature online is entirely valid, optimal for science and scholarship, attainable, inevitable, and indeed already overdue (http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Tp/science.htm). But Roberts et al.'s proposed means alas do not look like the fastest or surest way of attaining that goal, particularly as there is a tested and proven alternative means that will attain the very same goal (http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Tp/naturenew.htm), without asking journals to do anything, and without asking authors to give up anything:

(i) There is no reason journals should pre-emptively agree to give away their own contents online at this time. If researchers wait until many or most journals find a reason for doing so, it will be a very, very long wait. (PubMedCentral has only twenty willing journals so far, out of many thousand refereed biomedical journals).

(ii) Asking authors to choose which journal to submit their research to on the basis of whether or not the journal agrees to give away its contents online for free rather than on the basis authors currently use -- journal quality, reputation, impact factor -- is again an unreasonable thing to ask, and will result in a long, long wait. More important, it is an unnecessary thing to ask, as there is already a means for authors to achieve precisely the same goal immediately without having to give up anything at all: by self-archiving their refereed articles themselves, in interoperable, University Eprint Archives (http://www.eprints.org).

(iii) Creating new journals, without track-records, to draw away submissions from the noncompliant established journals, is another long uphill path, and again it is not at all clear why authors should prefer to take that path, renouncing their preferred established journals, when they can have their cake and eat it too (through self-archiving).

In an editorial response to Roberts et al.'s article, entitled "Science's Response: Is a Government Archive the Best Option?" (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/291/5512/2318b), AAAS has announced itself willing to free its contents one year after publication (see my critique, "AAAS's Response: Too Little, Too Late" http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/291/5512/2318b).

In the service of the same objective as that of Roberts et al., Sequeira et al., in "PubMed Central decides to decentralize" (http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/index.html) announce a new policy from PubMedCentral (PMC). PMC already accepts contents from publishers who are only willing to free them 6-12 months after publication. Now PMC is ready to accept just the metadata from those publishers, linking to their toll-gated websites, if they agree to give away their contents on their own websites 6-12 months after publication.

This is another path likely to take a very long time before attaining the objective of freeing the entire refereed literature online. Nor is it free if it has to wait 6-12 months to be released in each instance. Scientists don't rush to make their findings public through PUBLICation in order to have free access to them embargoed for 6-12 months (Harnad 2000).

Free access to refereed research a year after publication is better then no access, but it's too little, too late. And there is no reason the research community should wait for it. Delayed release is just as inadequate a solution for this anomalous literature -- written by its authors solely for its research impact, not for a share in the access-blocking toll-gate-receipts (for which the majority, royalty/fee-based literature is written) -- as lowered subscription/license tolls are (http://www.arl.org/sparc/home/index.asp). Lowered tolls, like delayed release, are better than nothing, and welcome in the short-term. But they are neither the long-term solution, nor the optimal one, for research or researchers.

The details of the self-archiving alternative for freeing the entire refereed corpus now (including questions of copyright and embargo) are fully described in Harnad (2001). A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of freeing access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the American Scientist September Forum: http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/september98-forum.html

Harnad, S. (2000) Ingelfinger Over-Ruled: The Role of the Web in the Future of Refereed Medical Journal Publishing. Lancet Perspectives 256 (December Supplement): s16. http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad00.lancet.htm

Harnad, S. (2001) For Whom the Gate Tolls? How and Why to Free the Refereed Research Literature Online Through Author/Institution Self-Archiving, Now. http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Tp/resolution.htm