• Duranceau, E. & Harnad, S. (1999) Electronic Journal Forum: Resetting Our Intuition Pumps for the Online-Only Era: A Conversation With Stevan Harnad. Serials Review 25(1): 109-115

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

    Ellen Finnie Duranceau
    Assistant Acquisitions Librarian for Digital Resources
    MIT Libraries
    phone: 617 253 7562
    fax: 617 253 2464

    A Conversation with Stevan Harnad

    SH: Very simple, though, based on experience, remarkably easily misunderstood:

    (1) The model applies only to the refereed journal literature, not to books, textbooks, magazine articles, best-sellers, films, etc. The simple test is: Does the author get paid (whether by fee or royalties) for the text? If the answer is yes, my model does NOT apply.

    (2) The authors of the refereed journal literature, not writing for fee, wish only to maximize the visibility and accessibility of their (refereed, quality-controlled) work.

    (3) Because of the genuine expenses of the paper era, the only way refereed journal authors could get published at all was by allowing publishers to recover their sizeable expenses and a fair profit through Subscription, Site-License or Pay-Per-View (S/SL/PPV). Copyright was assigned to the publisher to prevent theft of the product.

    (4) In the online-ONLY era (note the "only") the costs per page will shrink to at most 1/3 of what they were for paper publication; those remaining costs are for peer review and editing (i.e., quality control for content and form). Printing, Distribution, Fulfillment and Marketing costs vanish.

    (5) Rather than recovering that remaining 1/3 the old way, through S/SL/PPV, with the access blockage it entails, it should be recovered as page charges paid by the author (from publication funds provided by the author's institution, out of -- and for the sake of -- the 3/3 savings from S/SL/PPV).

    (6) The result is free online availability for everyone, which is the optimal outcome, and also inevitable. However, arriving at this will take too long, and research and researchers will be denied its benefits, if they wait for publishers to adopt it spontaneously. (Instead, publishers will try to continue selling both paper and online editions via S/SL/PPV, in the hope that the online-only era will continue to be financed in the same way.)

    (7) To hasten the optimal and inevitable, authors should -- as of today! -- publicly archive all their unrefereed preprints and their refereed reprints on their home servers as well as in a global archive such as the Los Alamos Physics Eprint Archive
    [ http://xxx.lanl.gov ].

    (8) Los Alamos already has more than 35,000 users daily and archives at least 25,000 papers annually. (See http://xxx.lanl.gov/cgi-bin/todays_stats for Los Alamos user statistics.) Once this is generalized to the other disciplines, library subscription cancellations will place pressure on finding an alternative funding model, publishers will switch to online-only and page charges, and the windfall savings from S/SL/PPV will become available to cover those charges.

    There will, however, be an unstable interim period during which some tide-over subsidy will be needed, because online-only and its attendant savings cannot be switched to overnight, and the user population needs preparation, both as readers, to become addicted to free online access, and as authors, to overcome the current stigma of page-charges (associated with paper publication, where there is no there is no justification for page charges, and with vanity-press publication, which is irrelevant, but linked to page charges in authors' minds at the moment). SH: Originally I had been an advocate of online-only because of the unique power of the new medium, for speed, access, and especially interactivity (via commentary; Harnad 1990, 1991, 1992). I disagreed at the time with those who thought it could be provided for free, because its advocates tended to be opposed to quality control, and in favor of either no peer review at all, or an absurd form of peer commentary which I knew (from 20 years of experience editing a commentary journal) could be no substitute for peer review, only a supplement to it. (See the British Medical Journal's current experiment with open review: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/shtml/misc/peer/index.shtml.)

    But then I realized that although quality control could not be cost-free in the online-only medium, its cost would be so much lower that it would make it possible to do away with the toll-gate and fire-wall barriers to access posed by S/SL/PPV, simply by redirecting only a small part of the savings from the cancellation of S/SL/PPV to author-end page-charges instead of reader-end access tolls.

    So I too became an advocate of free access. I think I formulated my Subversive Proposal (http://cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/subvert.html) at a time when the whole thing was not yet entirely clear in my head: I advocated authors archiving all their papers on their home servers mainly just to hasten the online-only era, but it soon became evident that the free access that that would provide, once available, would never again be given up, by either users or authors. Then all it took was arithmetic to realize that if online-only costs would be lower by 2/3, they could be covered by simply redirecting 1/3 of the 3/3 saved from canceling all S/SL/PPV expenditure by the authors' institutions (the ones benefiting from their imperishable refereed research publication and productivity) to author publication funds, leaving the institutions still with a 2/3 saving -- plus a free refereed journal literature for everyone, everywhere.

    Have things moved more rapidly or less rapidly than I expected? Well, I haven't really tried to second guess the nature of the horse, just to lead it to water! The Los Alamos archive has certainly prevailed faster than anyone expected, and I am certain it will eventually prevail in all disciplines.

    Meanwhile, of course, the publishers have quite naturally turned instead to what I've called the "Trojan Horse" option: hybrid publication, both paper and online, offering the paper edition for the usual price, the online edition for a bit lower, and both editions for a bit higher, and then letting demand shift to online-only whenever its time comes, but always supported by S/SL/PPV (and its attendant toll-booths and fire-walls blocking free access).

    If that Trojan Horse were to succeed, it would suffice to delay the optimal and the inevitable for some time (I gave up predicting when it would all come to pass a long time ago: all I say is that we COULD do it very quickly if we wanted to), but meanwhile, I and others will continue along the evangelical path of subversion, by promoting author eprint archiving.

    The Trojan Horse can be very attractive to librarians-- particularly when large publishers offer 100% of the online versions of their titles to libraries that agree to keep subscribing for an extended period to whatever percentage of them they currently receive in print. Without the counterweight of public archiving by authors, this strategy would undoubtedly give S/SL/PPV a reprieve, possibly for some time to come, for both readers and authors would become accustomed to the added benefits of online access constrained by the familiar toll-booths of S/SL/PPV. But simultaneous free public archiving by authors, on the Los Alamos model, will subvert this, and the market will certainly prefer the toll-free access mode when faced with the choice.

    So even if the Trojan Horse is to some degree dominant in the marketplace today, this will not count for much once the rival goods are available to the consumer for comparison shopping. SH: The Los Alamos archive is funded by both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The funds are mostly for development of new features, because just the upkeep of the archive, along with its steady linear growth rate, is not expensive at all. It will generalize to all disciplines, indeed it is already doing so; it has just recently subsumed computer science, for example. My own cognitive science archive, CogPrints (http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk), is being groomed for eventual subsumption by Los Alamos. I am keeping it separate now just to develop a submission front-end that is more congenial to other disciplines, and especially users of text-processing software over and above TeX, such as MS Word.

    But as I have said many times before, I am just playing John the Baptist to Paul Ginsparg's Messiah. All the historical credit shall and should be given him. It was his vision, his software, his implementation that set the literature on its inexorable course to the optimal and the inevitable (though I doubt that even he saw all the implications explicitly at the beginning either). SH: I don't know the details about economics but I understand that there is one particular "central" economics archive that has 10% of the literature, and a network of "distributed" archives that has a lot more of it: Fine. The distributed ones will be drawn together into a central one and there's an end of it.

    In my own proposal, authors always deposit in both a "distributed" and a "central" archive: their Home servers plus the Los Alamos archive, which is mirrored in 15 countries. Central archives are obviously preferable for searching and access. The idea of "central" as meaning "sitting on one specific server" is simplistic; there are many ways of distributing a virtual "center." SH: I am not an advocate of the no-refereeing model at all, if that's what you mean. Yes, public archiving makes it possible to disseminate pre-refereeing preprints on a scale that was not possible in paper--but it does the same for post-refereeing reprints too. Peer review is still needed, and publishers to implement it. SH: Peer review is medium-independent. Refereed journals are simply implementers of peer review. They should continue to do that; there is no alternative I know of. And there should continue to be a hierarchical spectrum of peer-reviewed journals, varying in their subject matter as well as their quality and rigor. That should all be financed out of the page charges. The archive is just the means of access. Papers in the Archive should be explicitly tagged as UNREFEREED or REFEREED (and if the latter, tagged also with the brand-name of the journal).

    During the subversive phase, authors could simply tag their own papers in the archive as unrefereed or refereed, specifying the journal in the latter case. (I am not worried about whether they can be trusted.)

    Eventually, though, arrangements will be made between journal publishers, such as the American Physical Society (APS), and Los Alamos: APS have already agreed that authors can submit to APS journals via Los Alamos; later the refereed, accepted APS version's tag could be officially authenticated by the APS itself.

    But frankly, that's just technical detail. In broad strokes, the picture is clear.

    The Archive can also include peer commentary (both unrefereed and refereed) and authors' responses. But this peer commentary should not be confused with peer review, for which it is a supplement, not a substitute. SH: I have just today come back from the CEDARS Digital Preservation Town Meeting in London [held 10/7/98], and, as usual, librarians' hearts are in the right place, but their heads are full of needless and misplaced worries, motivated, I now believe, by a very simple, paper-based "intuition pump": They think of the "preservation" problem as requiring some analogue of paper, some undying object, multiplied many times all over the world, to fend off a Library of Alexandria calamity.

    The truth is that once text is digitized, bits are bits, and all that's needed is a means of turning the bits into a form (be it paper or screen) that is accessible to the human senses. THAT hybrid bytes- to-eyes interfacing capability is what needs to be preserved, not specific objects scattered over the planet (and of course virtual libraries will be critically important in implementing that).

    What needs to be distributed and redundant is the bits (that's the content, digitized) plus the wherewithal (both hardware and software) for making them accessible to the human senses. The book is not a good intuitive model for this. Think instead of digitized texts and images, stored on various media (redundant and distributed around the world) along with the hardware and software to convert them to screen- or paper-viewable form. Those MEANS are what must be upgraded and preserved in perpetuo-- not any particular object. Today they might be on tape, or in Word code; tomorrow they may be in some other medium and code. No object will have endured, just the bits, plus the means to visualize them. As long as we preserve that bits+means uninterruptedly, we are preserving the corpus.

    Of course the bits have to be mirrored in many places; the codes too can be distributed, so everything can be reconstructed from parts. But it is not a matter of enduring, redundant OBJECTS like books. Think of books as also being a way of preserving bits and the means of viewing them -- but in a particularly crude, fixed-hardware form. It's no longer the fixed hardware itself that we need to worry about preserving.

    And, yes, multiple mirror and backup sites are part of preserving that; so is centralization, because the more authors' and disciplines' intellectual goods you have in one collective (but distributed and redundant) basket, the more collective interest is vested in continually keeping the bits accessible to the eyes; that is the continuous upgrading that is these days called "migration." Thirty-five thousand vigilant pairs of eyes daily see to it that Los Alamos sustains this capability without interruption from day to day. (For a hint of the transgalactic squawking that would immediately be raised by the egg-owners and users the minute their mutual basket showed any signs of failing them, see Taubes (1993)* about the week Los Alamos went off-line!)

    There are details and technicalities, but the essence of it is that technology will keep evolving to keep making those bits viewable and navigable by the senses, and the more eggs are in the same basket, the more eggs will benefit from the shared fate. There was no such collective dimension to paper, nor was there the part about the bytes-to-eye link to be continually upgraded, but those are all soluble problems.

    But if you keep thinking of it in terms of the dreaded "orphaned CD-Rom" that either gets blown off the face of the earth or that no one can make head or tail of any more some day, you are just pumping the wrong intuition pump!

    The motivation comes from the community that vested its interests in the continuity and upgrading. Moreover, the expenses go down, per item, with scale. Imagining any government ready to pull the plug on a virtual basket containing scholarship's intellectual goods is as plausible as imagining them pulling the plug on the national electrical grid, or slaughtering, Moses-like, every last volume on the planet.

    Books, like people, could always be destroyed, so let's not look for a fail-safe preservation means when there never was one! Let's just settle for one that's at least as safe as the distributed paper one had been. Internationally mirrored and distributed bits, along with the proper means, perhaps even with distributed coding schemes, can be made as safe as distributed paper and more so. (And for any doubting Thomas, let him spend his time and resources creating a paper backup of it all too!)

    Try this intuition pump instead: The Doomsday scenario in which an ill wind comes and blows out all the processing devices and storage peripherals is as plausible as the one that vaporizes all books. SH: Page charges are to cover online-only journal publication expenses (at most 1/3 of what they are now), to be paid by authors instead of libraries (not out of their pockets, of course, but out of the library saving, redirected) so that the learned serial literature can be free for all.

    As I said, more of the current Los Alamos subsidy is for development than for maintenance, and a lot of the developmental cost is one-time only. With economies of scale (I am improvising now), Los Alamos could probably scale up to include all the annual papers in all fields in the 14,000 refereed journals listed by Ulrich's for only a few times what it costs to covering just Physics now. And that expense is tiny and sustainable. Take it out of part of the remaining 2/3 savings from going from paper to online-only, in your reckoning, but it'll be a lot less than another third.

    The point is that the learned serial literature is already being subsidized through S/SL/PPV anyway; switching to online and redirecting the remaining costs will not only make the subsidy much lower, but it will provide a much more powerful and efficient mode of access, and provide it for free for one and all -- to the benefit of research itself, which it makes as much sense to toll- gate as it would to charge professors by the hour for lecturing to their students! SH: Anyone prepared to scale down to this new niche -- providing quality control to authors -- can be a player.

    But commercial publishers have other products too, and those do not fit the refereed-journal model (wide-spectrum monographs, textbooks, popular magazines, etc.), and I'm not sure how such big enterprises will mix with cottage-scale ones like what online-only refereed journal publication will be once it has achieved the optimal and the inevitable.

    It's not just commercial publishers who will want to cling to the S/SL/PPV status quo for as long as possible; most big publishers will, including Learned Society and University presses. It's only natural. They will fail, of course, because they will be fighting against the optimal and the inevitable for scholars and scholarship, research and researchers, but it is, I suppose, natural in the Darwinian marketplace to try to prevail along the old lines as long as possible. The conflict of interest, however, is a great vulnerability: journal publishers' constituency, after all, is us, the authors and readers (and referees!). We acquiesced in the Faustian Bargain of bartering copyright for publication while there was no alternative, but now that there is an alternative, we will realize it sooner or later (with the help of some demonstrations, evangelism, polemics, and subversion).

    The critical thing isn't whether the publisher is commercial or noncommercial; it is the replacement of access-blocking S/SL/PPV by access-enhancing up-front page charges. I doubt that peer review is better implemented commercially than noncommercially, but let there be competition! Whoever can implement it the best and the most cheaply gets the contract.

    Learned Society publishers like the APS, whose Editor, Martin Blume, was a co-signator of the excellent manifesto in Science last month (for mandating that funded authors should retain the right to archive their papers publicly -- http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/science.html), are more likely allies than commercial publishers; so too are University Provosts, like Steve Koonin, whose kindred proposal was debated in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://www.chronicle.com/free/v45/i04/04a02901.htm). SH: For refereed journal articles they need only retain the right to archive their papers for free for all, in perpetuo. We are not talking about movie rights here! Publishers can have all the rights to sell the paper version (or their own online version, for that matter) for S/SL/PPV, as long as the author retains the right to archive it publicly for free, forever. SH: Utter nonsense. The innovation will all be in the expanded Los Alamos full-text archive itself, and the navigation resources that users will design on that rich, fire-wall-free, toll-gate-free corpus: If primary publishers, especially commercial ones, need to do some rethinking about their future course, I'd like even less to be a secondary or tertiary publisher right now: Here's the proof. Just imagine the subversion being successful and complete. Los Alamos now contains the 14K refereed journal corpus, suitably tagged. Now, do you want to pay to use ISI or Medline or some other service, or would you rather just send off a good old Alta Vista searcher armed with those all important tags (LOS ALAMOS, REFEREED, APS)?

    Who is there to track down? And what for? Authors give it away, as they always have; Los Alamos houses it; generic engines find and retrieve it.

    That goes for citation searches too. See what the Open Journal Project** showed could be done with a few journals plus the ISI database; now imagine doing that on the full-text Los Alamos corpus directly: all articles have their own reference lists! SH: I think they can be improvised from full-texts and keywords, but whatever cannot, providers can try to sell as add-ons. The add-ons will have to compete with the home-brews, but if they are really ingenious, they may sell as browser enhancement tools; but the literature itself certainly no longer needs to be held hostage to these add-ons!

    When publishers speak of the "added-value" strategy, they are thinking of it as a way to hold onto S/SL/PPV for the primary corpus itself, whereas I am speaking here of ADD-ONs, independent products for improving navigation of the full, free corpus. There's a world of difference there. SH: Opposing views were aired. I think readers will be able to draw their own conclusions. Numerically, people who knew less or had an interest in nay-saying prevailed, but rationally, I don't think they did. You'll need to get other people's verdict on that, however. (See http://amsci- forum.amsci.org/archives/september98-forum.html.)

    There was also a lot of naive nonsense, which ought to be filtered out. But I think the AmSci debate could be distilled down into a useful Quote/Comment Virtual Symposium, mainly involving the contributions of Arthur Smith, Mark Doyle, and myself, plus some individual interventions by a few others. SH: Human nature. (See above, about horses, water, and drinking.) SH: Stop worrying about preservation; support subversion; don't take in any Trojan Horses.


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