Nature/Butler on "Is your journal really necessary?"

Stevan Harnad harnad at cogito.ecs.soton.ac.uk
Tue Sep 26 09:54:35 EST 2000


On Thu, 21 Sep 2000, Declan Butler wrote:

> 21 September 2000
> Nature 407, 291 (2000) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
> Is your journal really necessary?

> Science may best prosper if print journals are replaced by online
> communities.

This article seems to make two suggestions, (1) that journals should be
online and (2) that there should be a "linking" of "papers, people and
data." 

Suggestion (1) has been happening anyway, with just about all of the top
journals online now, and most of the rest rapidly joining them. The
"linking" is also going on, with journals preparing to offer
reference-linking, both within and across their respective proprietary
boundaries. So there is nothing new in any of this; nor does it have any
bearing on the question "Is your journal really necessary?" because it
is JOURNALS that are going on-line, not something else. 

(The answer to the question "Is the on-paper version of your journal
really necessary?" would also be "Yes" for the time being, so there's
nothing new there either.)

So what really is new? Unfortunately, Declan Butler has once again
missed this entirely, as he has in a long series of prior articles on
what is new in electronic publishing. The reason for this oversight is
that Declan has not yet come to the point of questioning some of the
assumptions he keeps making about this unique and anomalous literature
(the refereed journal literature). Without exception, he keeps seeing it
as being essentially the same as the literature which he himself writes,
namely, the journalistic literature, written to be sold for a fee.

That is why, although he mentions the "serials crisis," and that the
"toll-gates of high subscriptions of thousands of print journals are
thus a fundamental and unnecessary barrier to knowledge," he never
considers the natural solution for this author-give-away literature, so
unlike all the rest of the literature, which is to completely eliminate
those unnecessary barriers. The truth, in other words, is not that the
barriers are unnecessarily high, but that they are unnecessary
simpliciter: ANY unnecessary barrier is a barrier too high.

And consequently, Declan falls into the old and spurious trade-off game
among the three members of the Trade Troika: Subscription,
Site-License, Pay-Per-View, which I keep combining into S/L/P to remind
people that otherwise we are simply picking our (unnecessary) poison,
since all three are merely variants of the very same unnecessary barrier:

Researchers report their research to be read and used by their
fellow-researchers, not to be sold for royalty, fee or commission.
They write for research impact, not for income from the sale of their
reports. (The right analogy, as I've suggested repeatedly, is ads: what
advertiser wants a toll-gate, blocking access to his ads, whether it be
S, L or P?)

Now back to quote/comment mode, as I have done with Declan several
times before; although it feels like Charlie Brown with Lucy and the
annual football, I still have the hope that one day the token will drop:

> Many of the challenges faced by the staff of Nature are shared by the
> editors of the dozen or so fledging journals reviewed in the following
> pages.

Just as it's not about getting the established journals online (they
already are), it's not about getting new online-only journals. It's the
needlessness of the impact-barriers in the new medium that is the real
problem. The on-paper version should be an OPTION that one can pay for;
same for any deluxe on-line extras the publisher or anyone else may put
on the market. 

But the refereed paper itself must no longer be held hostage to any of
those options in this new medium, in which it is no longer necessary.
The only NECESSARY cost left is that of implementing the refereeing
itself (because the referees, as always, referee for free, just as the
researchers report for free). And author-institutions will have plenty
of money to pay those tiny refereeing implementation charges for their
researchers reports from their annual 100% S/L/P savings (10% - 30%,
depending on how much editing is included too).

> Not all print journals will disappear. Journals whose content can command a
> large readership will continue to exist, and indeed flourish, in print, as
> their economics are akin to those of the magazine market. 

Incorrect. Current appearances are deceiving: The size of the readership
is NOT the relevant factor (although it is usually correlated with it).
The relevant factor is that refereed research reports are author
give-aways and magazine articles are not.

> But the bulk of journals are consulted no more than 50 times a year in
> a typical library, and only 15% more than 250 times.

True, but relevant only inasmuch as this contributes to the serials
crisis. The fundamental fact is that, regardless of the number of
readers, these authors do not get or want fees or royalties; all they
want is as many readers/users/citers as possible. And it is a logical
fact that as long as ANYONE, ANYWHERE has to pay for access,
readers/users/citers -- hence research-impact -- are NOT being
maximized. In paper, with its real costs, that constraint was a
necessary evil; on-line, it is an unnecessary one, hence eviller still.

> The costs of print are difficult to justify for most journals (see
> Nature 397, 195(200); 1999). In a free market,
> high-cost/low-circulation journals would be forced to go electronic, or
> disappear.

Going electronic is not enough. Indeed, wrapping in anything beyond
peer review itself is too much -- except if it is left as an OPTION.

The refereed report itself has to be freed; it must no longer be held
hostage to any needless add-ons. And this can be done, now, by the
simple expedient of author self-archiving, in any one of the
distributed, interoperable eprint archives that I hope universities
worldwide will be mounting and filling as soon as the open archiving
software is released (for free, of course) within the next week or
two:

        http://www.eprints.org

It's not about high vs. low S/L/P cost, nor about high vs. low
circulation. The vanilla refereed draft must be freed, and the
deluxe add-ons must become optional.

> The current proliferation of low-circulation journals means that even the
> richest libraries cannot subscribe to them all. 

And most libraries can't subscribe to most of the rest either. The
problem is not that SOME libraries cannot subscribe to ALL journals.
The problem is that ALL libraries cannot access ALL journals, since the
access barriers are no longer necessary and these give-away authors
never wanted them in the first place. They are not only unjustified
access-barriers (because unnecessary) for readers, but, even worse,
they are unjustified/unnecessary impact-barriers for authors, and for
research, and hence for all of us.

> The toll-gates of high subscriptions of thousands of print journals are
> thus a fundamental and unnecessary barrier to knowledge.

This is the epicenter of Declan's blind-spot. It is not the high cost
or low circulation that is the real problem in the online era: It is
S/L/P itself (except for optional add-ons).

> What will drive change is Internet functionality. I do not refer to small
> improvements, such as better and faster searching, but to an imminent
> paradigm shift in scientific publishing and data handling. The core
> functions of a journal are the intelligent commissioning, editing and
> grouping of material to meet the needs of communities.
> 
> But in the future an electronic paper's content will be linked and matched
> automatically to related material across the entire literature, using
> increasingly sophisticated algorithms, rejuvenating serendipity and
> interdisciplinarity. The web is ideal for aiding the core journal function
> of regrouping work scattered across many disciplines.

Fine. Let such functions be offered as optional add-ons for a fee. But
let them not be used as an excuse for continuing to hold this special
literature hostage to S/L/P. 

But caveat vendor: competing services, such as citation-linking, may
also be offered for-free: see the Citation-Linking Project, OpCit:
http://opcit.eprints.org

    Harnad, S. & Carr, L. (2000) Integrating, Navigating and Analyzing
    Eprint Archives Through Open Citation Linking (the OpCit Project).
    Current Science 79(5) 629-638 (special issue honour of Eugene
    Garfield)
    http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad00.citation.htm

> But in this inevitable electronic world, the invisible hand of professional
> publishers and editors will be as important as it is now, and there will be
> costs attached. 

But if we restrict ourselves to the NECESSITIES, the only one is peer
review:

    Harnad, S. (1998/2000) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature
    [online] (5 Nov. 1998)
    http://helix.nature.com/webmatters/invisible/invisible.html 
    Longer version in Exploit Interactive 5 (2000): 
    http://www.exploit-lib.org/issue5/peer-review/ 

The rest is optional, and should be sold as such, not used as a
continued pretext for holding the refereed reports themselves hostage
to their add-on costs.

> Indeed, as the flood of information grows, more and not less
> human editorial skill will be needed to make sense of it. At the same time,
> market demand for access across the entire literature will drive imaginative
> deals between publishers and libraries to make such access affordable.
> Transferring these costs from libraries to the users themselves, for example
> on the basis of metered use, would also allow market forces to turn the
> distorted scholarly publishing market into a competitive one.

Declan's idea of an "imaginative deal" already has a name, "P" (as in
S/L/P) and it is neither new nor imaginative -- nor necessary.

Let add-ons be add-ons, and sold as-such. But let the give-away refereed
reports themselves be free, as they were always meant to be:

    Harnad, S. (1998) On-Line Journals and Financial Fire-Walls. Nature
    395(6698): 127-128
    http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/nature.html

> The possibilities of sophisticated matching of personalized editorial
> selections across large swathes of the literature, and the need to lower
> barriers to access, should in themselves be sufficient to convince
> scientists tempted to create low-circulation print journals to consider
> web-only options. 

This is all scrambled: The possibility of self-archiving refereed
research on the web does not just lower (online) access barriers, it
eliminates them completely; and "circulation" has nothing to do with it
-- except that with the removal of access barriers, the only way it (and
impact) can go is up!

> Arguments that electronic-only will hinder access of
> developing countries to science is nonsense. The reality is that a library
> in Kinshasa would be lucky if it could afford to subscribe to a handful of
> print journals; the web promises developing countries access to scientific
> information they could previously only have dreamed of.

Here Declan is spot-on. But why can't he extrapolate the very same
point to its natural conclusion: NO ONE (except the vendor) benefits
from continuing to hold the literature hostage to ANY needless access
barriers, whether in the 1st world, the 2nd or the 3rd, whether at the
have- institutions or the have-nots, whether for high-circulation
research or low-.

> But the essential function of a journal is to serve a particular community.
> The next web revolution will be a plethora of next-generation communities
> linking papers, people and data. So next time you think about launching a
> print journal, unless you have sufficient readership to survive in a free
> competitive market, do your colleagues and science a favour by considering
> instead what your community needs, and launch the answer online. I predict
> that this change will occur in under five years; if I am wrong, I will eat
> my journal.

The truth is, on-paper versions can and should be sold for as long as
there is still a market for them. All journals will in any case have
on-line versions too. The links are a matter of course, in a digital
world. But the only real revolution will be the freeing of this
anomalous literature of all needless impact barriers, at last.

--------------------------------------------------------------------
Stevan Harnad                     harnad at cogsci.soton.ac.uk
Professor of Cognitive Science    harnad at princeton.edu
Department of Electronics and     phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science     fax:   +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton         http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/
Highfield, Southampton            http://www.princeton.edu/~harnad/
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):

    http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/september98-forum.html

You may join the list at the site above.

Discussion can be posted to:

    september98-forum at amsci-forum.amsci.org 







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