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E-biomed and Scholar's Forum

Stevan Harnad harnad at cogito.ecs.soton.ac.uk
Thu Jun 10 08:26:33 EST 1999

It is easy to say what would be the ideal online resource for
scholars and scientists: all papers in all fields, systematically
interconnected, effortlessly accessible and rationally navigable
from any researcher's desk worldwide, for free.

Both the E-biomed and the Scholar's Forum initiatives


are extremely timely, important and welcome, and will speed us along
the way toward this revolutionary new research resource. They do have a
few minor, though easily correctable weaknesses, however. Both are
vague about whether the Archives are meant to be (1) journals, (2)
competing with journals, or (3) collaborating with journals. The answer
is that they are and should be none of these (although eventually
collaboration will be possible): Archives are archives, a reliable,
permanent place where all authors can self-archive their journal
articles on-line for free for all.

Journals will continue to be journals, and for as long as there
continues to be a demand for a paper edition, or a fee-based digital
edition, they can continue to supply that demand. If and when that
demand vanishes -- as it is likely to do, because readers prefer to use
the free versions in the Archive -- then the associated costs will also
vanish, and the only function left for the journals to perform will be
quality control and certification.

This quality control process is called "peer review": Editors send
submitted papers to specialists for refereeing, forward the referee
reports (if they are positive) to the authors to guide revision, and,
if the final drafts pass the journal's quality standards, they are
accepted and certified as published, with that journal's "brand name."
This service will still need to be paid for, but it will cost much less
than classical publishing, and can be paid for by authors' institutions
out of only a small part of what they will be saving from cancelling
journal subscriptions.

And here is the second weakness to be corrected in the two Archiving
initiatives: They are vague about peer review. Peer review is (like
democracy) not perfect, and research is being done on ways to improve
it. But peer review is what has provided the quality standards of the
journal literature, and the primary purpose of the Archives is to free
that journal literature, such as it is. The Archive proposals are
coupled with some vague plans to modify peer review. But freeing the
current journal literature is far too important a goal to be linked in
any way to untested reform schemes that could well fail.

Again, the remedy is to make it crystal clear that the Archives are for
self-archiving by authors. They can self-archive their accepted,
published journal papers; that frees the literature and guarantees the
current standards of peer review. They can also self-archive unrefereed
papers, if they like, making their ideas and findings available more
quickly and widely than would otherwise have been possible; but these
unpublished papers will not have the journal certification, so those
who wish to restrict their reading to the reliable refereed literature can
continue to do so. No new, untested levels of quality control should be
introduced to confuse either authors or readers; nor is open commentary
in the archive a substitute for peer review (though it can be a valuable
supplement to it).

There is nothing hypothetical about the fact that self-archiving is the
optimal and inevitable solution for research and researchers.
Physics is already well on the way to having the ideal resource: With over
35,000 daily users in the US alone, the Los Alamos Physics Archive,
mirrored in 15 countries worldwide, already has over 100,000 papers and
is growing daily. <http://xxx.lanl.gov/cgi-bin/show_monthly_submissions>
This Archive, founded by Paul Ginsparg, is the model for it
all; it has been tested, and it is a collossal success. E-biomed and
Scholar's Forum will help see to it that all other fields share in this

One last thing: Los Alamos triumphed because Physicists just went ahead
and DID it: They self-archived their unrefereed papers, and, after
refereeing and acceptance, they self-archived the final drafts too. The
American Physical Society, publisher of the world's most prestigious
phsyics journals, now confirms in its copyright agreements that all their
authors retain full self-archiving rights, both for the unrefereed
preprint and for the refereed final draft. Other publishers have tried
to use copyright to prevent authors from self-archiving. There is a
monumental conflict of interest in this. Let us hope that the interests
of research and researchers -- and hence of the public that funds their
work -- will prevail, along the constructive lines that have already
been drawn in Physics.


Stevan Harnad                     harnad at cogsci.soton.ac.uk
Professor of Cognitive Science    harnad at princeton.edu
Department of Electronics and     phone: +44 2380 592-582
Computer Science                  fax:   +44 2380 592-865
University of Southampton         http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/
Highfield, Southampton            http://www.princeton.edu/~harnad/
SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM           ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/

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