Questions from Italy about "Subversive Proposal"

Stevan Harnad harnad at
Sun Jul 2 08:35:54 EST 2000

> Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2000 20:13:45 +0200 (MET DST)
> From: Mauro Scanu <scanu at>
> (1) You have written that the self-archiving of papers by authors will
> allow S/L/P [Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View] costs to be saved
> and that those savings will cover QC/C [Quality-Control/Certification]
> costs. What do you mean? Is QC/C not done for free by scientists?
> Peer reviewing will still be done by editorial boards for journals or
> voluntarily by scientists for on-line archives?

The refereeing itself is and always has been done free. But the
IMPLEMENTATION of it (the processing and coordination of submissions
and referee reports and editorial dispositions, and eventually also
some copyediting) still has to be done and paid for. The cost is not
high, but it is nonzero just the same, and always will be (unless it is
subsidized). These essential QC/C functions do not perform themselves.

But QC/C costs are much lower than S/L/P costs, so they can easily be
paid out of the annual S/L/P savings (see the "70/30" thread in the
Archives of the American Scientist Forum:

> (2) The Los Alamos Physics Archive <> was born
> in 1991 but is still an isolated case with respect to the whole of
> scientific production. Don't you think that the success of
> self-archiving depends on the peculiarities of certain disciplines
> (physics, mathematics, cognitive sciences, computer science) that may
> be fitter for this kind of publishing than others?

No, I don't think optimality for some disciplines and not others is the
reason self-archiving has not yet proliferated significantly beyond
physics and mathematics; but I do think that some of the
characteristics peculiar to physics and mathematics explain why
self-archiving STARTED there:

To put it simplistically, physicists/mathematicians just seem to be
smarter and more serious than the rest of us. They consider their
research itself to be the most important thing. And it was simply
obvious to them at once that a freely accessible online research
literature was what was best for research and researchers.

NB: Not just for physicists and mathematicians: for ALL researchers.
What area of research would NOT benefit from having its research
literature (which is in ALL cases freely donated by the researchers
anyway) freely accessible to all researchers?

So the benefits of open online archiving are in no way peculiar to any
discipline; only the rapidity with which disciplines realize and act
upon its possibility varies. Let us hope that the availability and
promotion of interoperable Open Archive software (
that can be easily installed at every university, and then filled by
all its researchers, will help the rest of the disciplines come to
their senses at last.

    Harnad, S. (1999) Free at Last: The Future of Peer-Reviewed
    Journals.  D-Lib Magazine 5(12) December 1999

By the way, historically speaking, the cognitive sciences will NOT get
credit for having responded promptly to their wake-up call. At the
moment, the Physics Archive has nearly 130,000 papers since 1991,
whereas CogPrints has not yet hit 1,000 since 1998:

(Again, there is reason to hope that interoperability, which will make
the world's refereed literature in all disciplines searchable and
accessible, regardless of where it is archived -- as if it were in one
global journal collection, freely accessible to all -- will at last
fast-forward us all to the optimal and the inevitable.)

> (3) I have interviewed some Italian scientists. Some of them argued that
> self-archiving would benefit more those individuals who have a very low
> impact-factor (because of high specialisation in their field or an
> inability to publish in prestigious journals). 

I think the truth is closer to the reverse of this:

Free world-wide accessibility to everyone's research findings will
eventually increase the potential impact of every researcher in every
field, across all current impact levels. Initially, however, the
benefits of free access will be the greatest for authors and for work
that ALREADY has a high profile and impact: That will be the work that
is in the greatest demand as soon as it is freely available to everyone
everywhere. Then, as free online access becomes universal, and
researchers learn how to make use of it, how to search and navigate it
(e.g., through citation links:, the increased
impact made possible by this increased access should be felt at all
impact levels.

No doubt the producers of lower quality scholarship and science will
attempt to promote their work through self-archiving, but the
researchers actually using the research literature will quite naturally
continue to rely on the higher-quality work, certified by the
higher-quality journals, as they always did, with QC/C as their guide.
(NB: We are not talking about changing the quality hierarchy here, just
about freeing the access to it.)

The Physics Archive never became dominated by the lower end of the
quality spectrum; if anything, the truth was the reverse, because the
higher-impact researchers were the most motivated to make their
important findings available as soon and as widely as possible (see

By the way, there seems to be a latent misunderstanding in the reply
you cite, or perhaps in the options you presented to your interviewees:
There is no EITHER/OR relationship between archiving online and
publishing in prestigious journals: The relationship is BOTH/AND; that
is the gist of the subversive proposal: 

Researchers give up nothing. They continue to publish their papers in
the established peer-reviewed journals, with their known and proven
quality and impact factors; IN ADDITION, they self-archive both their
unrefereed preprints and their refereed final drafts online, free for

    Harnad, S. (1995) Universal FTP Archives for Esoteric Science and
    Scholarship: A Subversive Proposal. In: Ann Okerson & James
    O'Donnell (Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads; A Subversive
    Proposal for Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of
    Research Libraries, June 1995. 

Perhaps you are confusing the self-archiving strategy for freeing the
refereed literature that I am advocating <> with
another strategy for freeing the refereed literature
<>, one that DOES involve making an
EITHER/OR choice between submitting one's research to the established
journals and submitting them instead to new, free online journals. 

This second strategy is not the one I am myself advocating, although,
if it were to succeed, the outcome, a free refereed research
literature, would be equally welcome. There will be a meeting this
Thursday (July 6) in New York focused in part on this alternative
strategy. And questions regarding any sort of choice or change in
either submission policy or peer review need to be addressed to the
advocates of this alternative strategy rather than to me.

> I know that you are against a "hybrid" system. Don't you think,
> however, that for scientists who already have great visibility, the
> Faustian bargain is a bit less "Faustian"? On the one hand, they do
> give their articles to publishers, but at the same time they derive a
> great reward in terms of impact-factor and diffusion of their ideas:

It is every bit as Faustian in all cases, because, I must repeat, this
is not an EITHER/OR option: It is not a choice one must make between
self-archiving versus publishing in a high-impact journal. There is no
trade-off between publication-impact and archiving-impact: they add (or
maybe even multiply, on the high end) rather than dividing.
Self-archiving is for all research, at all impact levels. ALL
RESEARCHERS lose impact as a result of the needless access barriers of
paper-era S/L/P.

What you probably mean is not that the bargain is less Faustian for
high-impact researchers, but that they can afford the needless
impact-loss more. A priori, perhaps. But that does not appear to have
been the actual the experience of the Physics archive. It was not the
low-impact authors who flocked to self-archiving, but the motivated,
productive, high-impact authors.

(I am speculating without data now, but my colleague Les Carr is
currently doing analyses of the correlations between initial citation
impact factor, self-archiving, user-hit-rate, and subsequent impact
factor in the Physics Archive. My prediction is that he will find
it was the medium- and high-impact authors who came to self-archiving
first, not the low-impact authors, and that it increased their impact.)

    Carr, L., Hitchcock, S., Hall, W. & Harnad, S. (2000) A usage based
    analysis of CoRR [A commentary on "CoRR: a Computing Research
    Repository" by Joseph Y. Halpern] ACM SIGDOC Journal of Computer
    Documentation. May 2000.

On the other hand, there will no doubt have been a negative correlation
with age; so, a fortiori, the more senior high-impact authors were
probably not part of the vanguard in Physics. But they are there now.
And they will be in all disciplines. For as free online access becomes
the norm, the work of those who do not self-archive will in fact be at
a growing disadvantage, in terms of impact. (A generation of Web-reared
undergraduates is already coming of age who refuse to read anything
that is not available online...)

By the way, the "hybrid" solution I oppose -- as a "Trojan Horse"
designed to lock libraries into S/L/P access-barriers indefinitely --
is the one where journal publishers make their on-paper journals
available on-line too, for a fee, so institutions can subscribe to the
on-paper version, or the on-line version, or both: always via S/L/P.
But it is the S/L/P access barrier itself that must go!

And it is subversive competition from the free self-archived on-line
version that will probably ensure that it does: But note that there is
no need for that last economic step. Libraries are free to continue
spending their budgets on S/L/P if they wish -- as long as the
self-archived incarnation of that same literature is accessible online,
free for all. The objective of the subversive proposal is to free the
research literature from its needless access barriers for researchers;
liberating library budgets would merely be a side-effect.

(Once the literature is available online for free for all, my own
mission is over, and I can return to research to join in reaping the
benefits of free access along with everyone else. What libraries choose
to do is their own affair. It is also a foregone conclusion that,
whereas I will evangelize tirelessly for self-archiving, I will not,
once that is accomplished, evangelize for USING the free online
archive: there I am content to let nature take its course, leaving it
to researchers to reap what they have sown.)

> This is the starting point of a continuing cycle of credit (as
> suggested by Bruno Latour in "Laboratory Life"). I think that even if
> scientists admit the illegitimacy of publishers' excessive gains, they
> prefer to turn a blind eye on them and to carry on with this system.

Unfortunately, anyone who reflects on the logic of this must
immediately see it for the nonsense it is: The only factors militating
in favour of the status quo are habit, inertia, and perhaps a bit of
superstition (about the causality underlying the correlations).
Fortunately, the young and the active are less in the grip of such
things, in all disciplines.

Universal self-archiving is a trivial step that will have instant
enormous benefits. We must stop passively contemplating (Zeno-like)
whether or not to take that step, and just go ahead and take it
(as the Physicists have already done)!

> (4) Don't you reckon that the scientific community would be too
> conservative, especially in some disciplines, to create this revolution
> spontaneously? (I'm referring to scientific communities like the Italian
> one.)

The scholarly and scientific community (like all big established
populations) is sluggish, superstitious, and loath to change its
ways, even for the better. As I said, it is a foregone conclusion that the
next generation will have no patience for any of that; but I'm still
optimistic that our own generation will soon wake up, in all

The conjecture was made by a participant in the recent 2nd meeting of
the Open Archives initiative in San Antonio on June 3
<> that open-archiving will only really get
off the ground when any institution can retrieve a piece of open source
software from the web, type "MAKE ARCHIVE," and instantly create an
institutional Santa-Fe compliant, interoperable Open Archive, ready for instant
self-archiving by its researchers in all disciplines. 

Well, that software begins beta testing this week <>;
while the wrinkles in it are being ironed out during the next few weeks
of beta testing, institutions would be well-advised to set in place the
next critical element for getting us all to the optimal and inevitable:

Institutions should some (very modest) start-up funds available to pay
a team of library assistants or even students to DO THE SELF-ARCHIVING FOR
THE FIRST WAVE OF RESEARCHERS. Many researchers will be willing and
able to do their self-archiving for themselves, but it is critical not to
lose those who are willing but feel they are not able: Their digital
texts are already in their word-processors, but they feel they can't get them
into the archive. Have everything in place to do it for them! It will
cost a pittance per paper, and it will only have to be done once, for
once self-archiving gathers momentum, everyone will realize how trivial
(but essential) it is to do it with all of their papers. (Web-savvy
students, greedy to have everything for free on the Web, could be
mobilized to do the uploads by the researchers themselves in the later
phases of self-archiving.)

(By the way, Italy has one of the first, and certainly the
highest impact-factor online-only journal free of S/L/P: The Journal
of High-Energy Physics, published by CERN and SISSA in Trieste:

> 5) You launched the subversive proposal in 1994. What are the reasons
> that have hindered this change in science? Do you think that these
> depend on economic interests or the mentality of scientists who don't
> consider electronic media as a proper vehicle for their credibility?

There are indeed economic interests that are opposed to freeing the
refereed research literature online, but they are not what is holding
us back, for those economic interests are not the interests of the
researchers! Indeed, they are contrary to the interests of the
researchers, who neither make nor seek either fees or royalties from
their refereed publications; researchers seek (to put it
simplistically) "impact" (on research and researchers), and the access
barriers are also barriers to that impact.

No, it is definitely what you have called the "mentality" of researchers
that is delaying us on the road to the optimal and inevitable, and that
mentality amounts mainly to a superstitious cleavage to unexamined

The subversive proposal was posted in 1994, and I certainly hoped that
it would be acted upon sooner. The means were already available then.
The original proposal was to self-archive via anonymous FTP, but that
was in fact already obsolescent at the time the proposal was made, as
the much more useable and transparent hyperworld of the Web and HTTP
were already taking over. But perhaps the crucial inducement that was
still missing from both FTP and HTTP archiving alone was
interoperability: the prospect that no matter where a paper was
archived, it could all be harvested together into a global archive
consisting EXCLUSIVELY of the world's refereed research, with universal
tags such as "author" and "journal" making it all seamlessly navigable.
With the Santa Fe Convention and the Open Archives initiative, this is
now available too:

Will it happen now? I will close with a quote from the D-Lib article
cited earlier:

    "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
    <>), 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!"

Stevan Harnad                     harnad at
Professor of Cognitive Science    harnad at
Department of Electronics and     phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science     fax:   +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton  
SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM           

NOTE: A complete archive of this ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature is available at the American
Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00):

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