Harnad, S. (2001) The Self-Archiving Alternative. Ariadne 28 June 2001.



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:

(i) 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/)

(ii) Authors should only submit their work to journals that agree to give their contents away online for free (boycotting those that do not).

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

The goal of freeing the refereed literature online is an entirely valid one, optimal for science and scholarship, attainable, inevitable, and indeed already somewhat overdue. 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, without asking or waiting for journals to do anything, and without asking or waiting for authors to give up anything:
(a) There is no reason journals should pre-emptively agree to give away their 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).

(b) 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, track-record, 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) (Harnad 2001c).

(c) Creating new alternative journals, without track-records, to try to draw away submissions from the noncompliant established journals, is another very long uphill path, and again it is not at all clear why authors should prefer to take this 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).
(The New England Journal of Medicine plans to follow suit, and undoubtedly other journals will soon do so too)

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 archives the full-text contents of journals who agree to release them 6-12 months after publication. PMC is now ready to archive just the metadata from those publishers, with links to their toll-gated websites, as long as they agree to give away their contents on their own websites within 6-12 months after publication.

This is another path that is likely to take a very long time to reach its objective. And even then, can research really be called "free" if it must 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 2000a, b).

Free access to refereed research a fixed period after publication is better than no access, but it's too little, too late. And there is no reason the research community should wait for it. Delayed release is an inadequate solution for this nonstandard, give-away literature -- which (unlike the standard, royalty/fee-based literature) was written by its researcher-authors solely for its research impact, not for a share in the access-blocking toll-gate-receipts -- just as inadequate a solution 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.

Currently there are six candidate strategies for freeing the refereed research literature:

(1) Authors paying journal publishers for publisher-supplied online-offprints, free for all readers) (http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/Articles/walker.html) is a good solution where it is available, and where the author can afford to pay for it, but (i) most journals don't offer it, (ii) there will always be authors who cannot afford to pay for it, and (iii) authors self-archiving their own eprints accomplishes the same outcome, immediately, for everyone, at no expense to authors. Electronic offprints for-fee require authors to pay for something that they can already do for-free, now (as the authors of 150,000 physics papers have already done: http://arxiv.org).

(2) Boycotting journals that do not agree to give away their contents online for free (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/291/5512/2318a) requires authors to give up their established journals of choice and to switch to unestablished journals (if they exist), not on the basis of their quality or impact, but on the basis of their give-away policy. But if authors simply self-archive their papers, they can keep publishing in their established journals of choice yet still ensure free online access for all readers.

(3) Library consortial support (e.g. SPARC http://www.arl.org/sparc/home/index.asp) for lower-priced journals may lower some of the access barriers, but it will not eliminate them (instead merely entrenching unnecessary fee-based access blockages still more deeply).

(4) Delayed journal give-aways -- 6-to-12+ months after publication (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/291/5512/2318b) -- amount to too little, too late, and further entrench the unjustifiable blockage of access to new research until it is not new (Harnad 2001a).

(5) Giving up established journals and peer review altogether, in favour of self-archived preprints and post-hoc, ad-lib commentary (e.g. http://citeseer.nj.nec.com/427333.html) would put both the quality standards and the navigability of research at risk (Harnad 1998/2000).

(6) Self-archiving all preprints and postprints can be done immediately and will free the refereed literature overnight. The only things holding authors back are (groundless and easily answered) worries about peer review and copyright (http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Tp/resolution.htm#8).

(1) - (5) all require waiting for policy changes and, even once these are available, all require a needless sacrifice on the part of authors. With (1) the sacrifice is the needless author offprint expense, with (2) it is the author's right to submit to their preferred journals, with (3) it is (as before) the author's potential impact on those potential users who cannot afford even the lowered access tolls, with (4) it is the impact of the all-important first 6-12 months after publication, and with (5) the sacrifice is the quality of the literature itself.

Only (6) asks researchers for no sacrifices at all, and no waiting for any change in journal policy or price. The only delay factor has been authors' own relative sluggishness in just going ahead and doing it! Nevertheless, (6) is well ahead of the other 5 candidates, in terms of the total number of papers thus freed already, thanks to the lead taken by the physicists.

It is high time for all the other disciplines to follow this lead, rather than to wait, contemplating needless sacrifices and nonexistent obstacles. Interoperable archive-creating software is available, free for all universities to install and their researchers to fill (http://www.eprints.org). Just go ahead and do it!

The details of the self-archiving initiative for freeing the entire refereed corpus now (including questions about copyright and embargo policies) are fully described in Harnad (in prep). 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. (1998/2000) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature [online] (5 Nov. 1998)
Longer version in Exploit Interactive 5 (2000):

Harnad, S. (2000a) E-Knowledge: Freeing the Refereed Journal Corpus Online. Computer Law & Security Report 16(2) 78-87. [Rebuttal to Bloom Editorial in Science and Relman Editorial in New England Journalof Medicine] http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/Papers/Harnad/harnad00.scinejm.htm

Harnad, S. (2000b) 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. (2001a) AAAS's Response: Too Little, Too Late. Science dEbates [online] 2 April 2001.
Fuller version:

Harnad, S. (2001b) The Self-Archiving Initiative. Nature 410: 1024-1025
Nature WebDebatesversion:
Fuller version:

Harnad, S. (in prep.) 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