Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The Paper House of Cards (And Why It's Taking So Long to Collapse)

In our previous issue, Fytton Rowland defended the continuation of print research journals into the networked age. Here, Stevan Harnad presents a different case.

One cannot disagree with most of what Fytton Rowland wrote in his Ariadne article: The four chief functions of the scholarly literature are indeed the ones he listed: quality control, information dissemination, archiving and academic credit. He is quite right about the indispensability of peer review [1], [2], [3], and about how the safety of our bridges and of our very bodies depends on it. Nor can one take issue with his distinction between fact and opinion (in principle, though their disentanglement in practice is not always that straightforward [4], [5]). Both prepublication peer review and continuing postpublication peer scrutiny in the form of critical commentary and attempts to replicate and build on published work are vital to the self-corrective enterprise of scientific inquiry, and perhaps to all of learned inquiry [6], [7].

Incontestable also is the existence and the utility of a hierarchy of learned journals, from the most rigorous and prestigious ones at the top all the way down to a vanity press at the bottom. If the distinctions that these journals mark were levelled, scholars and scientists could not calibrate their reading and research universities could not calibrate their hiring and promotion practices. Rowland correctly recognises that both peer review and the prestige hierarchy are medium-independent, but that the inertial mass is currently tilted toward the old medium, and that many aspects of the status quo conspire to keep it there for as long as possible.

The disagreement begins when we get down to specifics:

Harnad, Odlyzko and others have suggested a new mode for esoteric publishing that avoids commercial motivations completely, and uses the Internet for direct transmission of information from scholar to scholar without middlemen. In those research communities which are small, this may be appropriate. But in many fields there is a large potential audience, and there are readers of scholarly papers who are not researchers - medical practitioners are an obvious example.

Unfortunately this misses the crucial feature of my distinction between the trade and nontrade periodical literature [8]: In the nontrade literature not only are authors not paid royalties for their texts, but it is so much in their interest that their publication be untrammeled that they have shown themselves willing to pay for the printing of prepublication preprints and postpublication reprints and the postage and labour to mail them to those who request them; they also invest in the preparation of a digitised text (via their word-processors) and some even pay journal page charges to expedite the dissemination of their work to its would-be readership. It is this anomalous reward structure, more even than the size of the readership, that distinguishes the esoteric corpus from the exoteric one.

Harnad has conceded that commercial publishers will probably continue to be involved with those journals which have larger, non-research markets.

I concede only those cases where the authors of the articles in the journals are writing for a royalty for their words rather than to report their work. I don’t think any scholar or scientist would willingly collaborate in restricting access to his work. There is no longer any need to make that Faustian Bargain in the Postgutenberg galaxy where learned inquiry can at last be skywritten, free for one and all [9].

But electronic-only journals, whether paid for or free, must have quality-controlled content which, once published, cannot thereafter be altered by the author or anyone else, other than by a corrigendum which also passes through the editor.

One cannot quarrel with the refereeing and the unalterable publication; but the net, unlike the paper corpus, also allows errors or advances to be linked to the unalterable first edition in ways that safeguard our bridges and our bodies far more effectively than the scattered corrigenda and letter-to-the-editor resources of the papyrocentric corpus.

This in no way underestimates the value of the Internet for scholarly debate, but it recognises that there is more than one kind of communication that is necessary if good scholarship and good practice in the professions are to be encouraged.

Indeed, and all these kinds of communication are medium-independent, though far more effectively and economically realizable in the aerial medium than earthbound one. This is as true of primary research as of critical commentary (and I ought to know, having umpired both in paper for nearly two decades now [10], and electronically lo these half dozen years [11]).

It is true in theory that all the top researchers in a field could stop submitting their articles to commercial journals, refuse to referee for them, and transfer their energies to new electronic journals, thereby raising their prestige. In practice it is unlikely that this will happen by voluntary action.

It is optimal, and it is inevitable, but there’s no second-guessing human nature. We can, however, try to nudge it along, with subversive projects like electronic preprint archives [12]. Although I’ve given up trying to predict the day of the Apocalypse [13], I would suggest that for large parts of the Physics corpus it may not be long in coming, thanks to Paul Ginsparg’s [14] revolutionary eprint project, conceived in fitting proximity to the conceptual epicentre of another earth-shaking project in Los Alamos. The only thing that still keeps the paper house of cards propped up in physics despite the fact that xxx.lanl.gov has become the locus classicus for access to the literature is the failure (and it is a failure) to identifying a means of paying the much-reduced but still nonzero cost of implementing peer review and the prestige hierarchy in the new medium [15], [16], [17], [18], [19].

The reason that publishers cannot make an instant transition is not that the learned community is unready for the change. The change has already happened in physics and in some respects happened so rapidly and so globally that it has hardly been noticed. But there is a safety net under xxx, and it is held in place by the “Invisible Hand” of peer review, which is still being financed by the publishers whose paper journals are still the final resting place for virtually every eprint in xxx.

No one can imagine what would become of the physics literature if all means of support for publication quality control in physics were withdrawn. Possibly universities might pick up the tab in some cases, but it’s hard to see how the load would be distributed: with the worldwide physics community the beneficiary, who’s to be the benefactor? One hears learned societies, university consortia (funded by savings from library serial cancellations) and governments mentioned in this context, but no one has written a credible transition scenario. I don’t claim to know the right one either, but I can recognise the wrong one when I see it:

The large publishers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, argue that ceasing to print their journals will save only a small proportion of their total budget, and that in the intermediate period when publication is in dual form, their costs are actually raised by the need to provide both forms… The HEFCE Pilot Site License Initiative (PLSI) offers one possible way forward, providing as it does electronic access free at the point of use to all members of a subscribing university. It also demonstrates that the UK government is likely to support the survival of a profitable private-enterprise export industry. But the smaller journals, genuinely esoteric, seem likely to be replaced by free Internet publications on the Harnad model, to the detriment of publishers who have specialised in low-circulation, high-priced scholarly journals.

I think the hybrid scenarios – produce parallel print and paper editions, offering the electronic one for slightly less than paper and both for slightly more than paper, on the assumption that if and when the centre of gravity shifts to electronic-only, the cost recovery model will stay the same – is nonviable and doomed to fail, because it continues to be based on levying a reader-end toll (whether through subscription, site-license or pay-per-view) which has a fundamental conflict-of-interest, the Faustian Bargain, at its core. The profitability of journals is well and good, as long as it is not needlessly at odds with the best interests of the authors. The best interests of nontrade authors (and, when they wear their other hats, the readers of the nontrade serial literature) are best served by having their work available free for all, in perpetuum.

The remaining cost of serial publication, once expenses are scaled down to the electronic-only level, is low enough to render the interests of everyone – the author, the reader, the funder of the author’s research, the university supporting the author, and, yes, the electronic learned serial publishers – better served by recovering those costs and a fair profit at the author’s end, in the form of page charges (paid for by the funders of the author’s research and/or the university employing him to do the research, both co-beneficiaries, with the author, of the widest possible unimpeded distribution of the research reported), rather than by any version of reader-end payment, the latter depending as it does, on restricting access to what the author and his supporters would all prefer to see as free for all.


  1. Harnad, S. (ed.) (1982) Peer commentary on peer review: A case study in scientific quality control, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Harnad, S. (1986) Policing the Paper Chase. (Review of S. Lock, A difficult balance: Peer review in biomedical publication.) Nature 322: 24 - 5.
  3. Harnad, S. (1995) Implementing Peer Review on the Net: Scientific Quality Control in Scholarly Electronic Journals. In: Peek, R. & Newby, G. (Eds.) Electronic Publishing Confronts Academia: The Agenda for the Year 2000. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. Pp. 103-118.
  4. Harnad, S. (1984) Commentaries, opinions and the growth of scientific knowledge. American Psychologist 39: 1497 - 1498.
  5. Harnad, S. (1985) Rational disagreement in peer review. Science, Technology and Human Values 10: 55 - 62.
  6. Harnad, S. (1992) Interactive Publication: Extending the American Physical Society’s Discipline-Specific Model for Electronic Publishing. Serials Review, Special Issue on Economics Models for Electronic Publishing, pp. 58 - 61.
  7. Hayes, P., Harnad, S., Perlis, D. & Block, N. (1992) Virtual Symposium on Virtual Mind. Minds and Machines 2: 217-238.
  8. Harnad, S. & Hey, J. (1995) Esoteric Knowledge: The Scholar and Scholarly Publishing on the Net. In: Lorcan Dempsey, Derek Law & Ian Mowat (Eds.) Networking and the Future of Libraries. London: Library Association Publishing. Pp. 110-118.
  9. Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review Volume 2 1992; and in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The Last Word. Beach Holme Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove & D. Kovacs: Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (A. Okerson, ed), 2nd edition. Washington, DC, Association of Research Libraries, Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992); and in Hungarian translation in REPLIKA 1994; and in Japanese in “Research and Development of Scholarly Information Dissemination Systems 1994-1995.
  10. Harnad, S. (1979) Creative disagreement. The Sciences 19: 18 - 20.
  11. Harnad, S. (1990) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Inquiry. Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343 (reprinted in Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991).
  12. Harnad, S. (1995) Universal FTP Archives for Esoteric Science and Scholarship: A Subversive Proposal. In: Ann Okerson & James O’Donnell (Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads; A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of Research Libraries, June 1995.
  13. Odlyzko, A.M. (1995) Tragic loss or good riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (formerly International Journal of Man-Machine Studies), 42 (1995), 71-122. Condensed version in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 42 (Jan. 1995), 49-53. Available at URL
  14. Ginsparg, P. (1994) First Steps Towards Electronic Research Communication. Computers in Physics. (August, American Institute of Physics). 8(4): 390-396.
  15. Harnad, S. (1995) Electronic Scholarly Publication: Quo Vadis? Serials Review 21(1) 78-80 (Reprinted in Managing Information 2(3) 31-33 1995)
  16. Harnad, S. (1995) The Post Gutenberg Galaxy: How To Get There From Here. Information Society 11(4) 285-292. Also appeared in: Times Higher Education Supplement. Multimedia. P. vi. May 12 1995.
  17. Harnad, S. (1995) There’s Plenty of Room in Cyberspace: Response to Fuller. Information Society 11(4) 305-324. Also appeared in: Times Higher Education Supplement. Multimedia. P. vi. June 9 1995.
  18. Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.) Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp. 397-414.
  19. Harnad, S. (1996) How to Fast-Forward Serials to the Inevitable and the Optimal for Scholars and Scientists. Serials Review. (In Press)

Author Details

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Psychology,
University of Southampton /
Founder of CogPrints preprint archive in the cognitive sciences
Email: harnad@cogsci.soton.ac.uk
Web page: http://cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/
Tel: 01703 592582
Fax: 01703 594597
Address: Department of Psychology, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ