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No Free Lunches: We Should Resist the Push to Rush Research Online

Of possible interest.  Read the entire opinion piece in the Chronicle of
Higher Education. Ann Okerson

---------- Forwarded message ----------
  From the issue dated October 12, 2001

  No Free Lunches: We Should Resist the Push to Rush Research

   In a commentary earlier this year in the Proceedings of the
  National Academy of Sciences, Richard J. Roberts, who shared
  the 1993 Nobel Prize in medicine, called on journals in the
  life sciences to post their contents online at no charge after
  a suitable delay -- one month, or perhaps six months, after
  publication. Specifically, he urged them to deposit the
  articles they publish in PubMed Central, an online service run
  by the National Institutes of Health. Parallel to PubMed
  Central, online services exist in other scientific
  disciplines, including physics, mathematics, and computer
  science, and scholars in those fields have made similar
  In his commentary, Roberts, a member of the PubMed Central
  Advisory Board, asked why any journal would not do something
  so obviously good for science. In most areas of science,
  journals are far more important than books; they serve as the
  primary way to communicate research that is rapidly advancing.
  While Roberts gently encouraged large commercial publishers to
  join the effort, he condemned scientific societies that have
  been "seduced by the cash that their journals produce" and
  urged them "to take a hard look at their priorities and ask
  whether they support science or Mammon." He ended with a plea
  to "young scientists to think hard and carefully about this
  I am from a scientific society, and I have thought hard and
  carefully about the future of scholarly publishing. I worry
  that Roberts and the many others who issue similar calls have
  not -- or at least, that they have not thought about all
  aspects of publishing. They equate with avarice a publisher's
  desire to have its journals make a small profit, to ensure
  that the journals are self-sustaining. They are contemptuous
  of publishers who fear losing revenue by making their
  journals' contents free soon after publication. And they
  generally scoff at the experience of publishers who have
  produced journals for many years, instead urging reliance on
  projects that have operated online for only a few years -- or
  Experienced publishers understand two important truths:
  Scholarly communication costs money, and both technology and
  finances will determine its future. Roberts seems to believe
  that understanding the finances of publication is unimportant.
  It's not.
  Thus, while I admire Roberts's goal of free access to
  scientific literature, I worry that his clarion call to
  journals may ultimately lead to exactly the opposite effect.
  How could making articles freely available go wrong? Here is
  one possibility.
  What is likely to happen over time if free-access projects
  expand? Some subscribers will stop paying -- if not

  With fewer independents, only two main players would be left
  to compete -- the commercial publishers and the free-access
  projects. Which would survive? I don't know; there is simply
  not enough information to make a prediction. But I do know
  that the free-access projects are not based on any sound
  business model. Government funds? Surely we cannot rely on the
  whims of changing government priorities to support long-term
  scholarly publishing. (People in the life sciences have been
  lulled into a false sense of security in recent years by
  increasing largess; they should take a look at government
  funds over many decades.) Universities? Scientific societies?
  Individuals? Perhaps. But any business that has only expenses
  and no visible revenue is not one that many people would
  invest in for long.

  Should we, therefore, support only the status quo? Surely not.
  But our actions need to be guided by three principles: to
  promote pluralism, avoid dogmatism, and cultivate discourse.
  Many good new ideas exist for expanding scholarly
  communication, but prematurely tossing away the good old ideas
  is foolhardy. We need to encourage experimentation and protect
  journals at the same time. No one knows the future, and those
  most certain about their predictions often have the least
  experience -- at least with large-scale publication.
  The real world is far more complicated than any dogmatic call
  to action. As scientists, we surely must realize that the best
  way to understand a complex problem is to examine it from many
  perspectives. Some people bring fresh ideas to the discussion,
  while others bring experience; we need to listen to them all.
  Calling people names and questioning their motives are not
  good ways to listen.
  Two thousand years ago, Augustus offered some good advice:
  Festina lente (make haste slowly). No one doubts that in the
  coming years, technology will change the basic mechanisms by
  which we communicate as scholars. We ought to heed Augustus's
  advice as we revise those mechanisms.
  John H. Ewing is the executive director of the American
  Mathematical Society. The society publishes nine journals, all
  of which are online.


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