A mission to free scientific ideas: An interview with Stevan Harnad
By RICHARD POYNDER
24th July 2001
Stevan Harnad glances up from the screen of his computer. "I'll be with you right away," he says and continues tapping at his keyboard.
Sitting in his orderly office, the professor of cognitive science at Southampton University is posting a message on one of the many electronic mailing lists he uses in his campaign to "free the refereed literature".
Message dispatched, he leans back and, with a polemical style more reminiscent of a revolutionary than a scientist, outlines why he has spent the past eight years trying to persuade fellow researchers that, rather than relying on scientific journals to disseminate their ideas, they should "self-archive" their papers directly on to the internet.
Unlike most writers, he explains, scientists do not sell their texts but hand them over to publishers for free. "The aim is to report their findings to their peers and contribute to the ongoing cycle of creating more knowledge. They don't want to make money from their texts but to reach as many minds as possible."
The problem is that publishers then sell those papers back to academic institutions in the form of journal subscriptions. Aside from discomfort with the principle that institutions should buy back something their researchers have given away, Prof Harnad worries that the "financial tolls" of journal subscriptions represent an unacceptable barrier to the free flow of scientific ideas.
Moreover, with subscriptions rising at about 10 per cent a year, research institutions are finding that the number of journals they can afford is continually falling. "In the Gutenberg era of print publishing," he says, "researchers had little choice but to engage in this Faustian pact if they wanted their ideas disseminated." In the age of the internet, however, they can put their papers on to the web for anyone to access.
And while publishers also provide electronic access to journals, admittance remains restricted, says Prof Harnad, by electronic subscriptions, institutional licences and pay-per-view. "The point is that researchers can now bypass these tolls. So the aim is to take the literature that has been behind a financial firewall in the paper era and remove that firewall."
Prof Harnad has become something of a bete noire for publishers, who dismiss his call for do-it-yourself scholarly publishing as a pipe dream. It could never, they argue, provide researchers with the reach and punch of powerful branded journals.
However, he is quick to point out that this is a misunderstanding of his manifesto. "I have never said that we don't still need good branded journals to manage the peer review process," he says. "Their role in this remains vital to maintaining quality."
He adds, however, that this should now be their only role and institutions should pay for the service directly, rather than indirectly through subscriptions. "Peer review costs only 10 per cent of what the planet is now paying for articles, so instead of paying the current 100 per cent towards the purchase of incoming papers by other researchers, institutions should pay just the 10 per cent represented by the peer review costs."
Publishers disagree. And they are unlikely to give up 90 per cent of their revenues without a struggle. One way they have sought to retain control, says Prof Harnad, is through copyright, insisting that authors sign over all rights if they want a paper accepted.
He exhorts researchers to resist this. Where it is not possible, he advises, they should archive the pre-print version of their article and then attach a list of the corrigenda (changes made during the peer review process) once the final version is published.
Is this not encouraging Napster-style copyright infringement? Emphatically not, he insists. "It is the exact opposite. Napster is consumer theft. What I am recommending is producer giveaway: I write a paper and would dearly like you to steal it."
While the corrigenda strategy has never been tested in the courts, Prof Harnad dismisses any suggestion that researchers could be sued. "What would a publisher hope to gain from taking to court a poor author who was never even paid a penny for their work in the first place?"
His conversion to self-archiving was inspired by the success of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Physics Archive (arXiv.org). Founded in 1991, arXiv.org was created to enable physicists to self-publish their pre-prints while waiting for the long-drawn-out peer review process to be completed, with the aim of speeding up the research cycle. Today the site hosts around 150,000 physics papers, with another 2,500 added each month.
For Prof Harnad, arXiv.org offered an exciting model. However, he argued that it should include published articles as well as pre-prints. He also felt it should be inter-disciplinary.
Consequently, he established his own archive, CogPrints, and in 1994 wrote an influential article, "A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing", which called on colleagues to archive all their papers.
He confesses that "A Subversive Proposal" was more idealistic than practical, since at the time there would have been no effective way of searching out specific articles among the thousands of isolated archives envisaged.
In 1999, however, a group of librarians and computer scientists founded the Open Archives Initiative (OAi). While OAi was focused on developing a standard metadata tagging convention to facilitate bibliographic work between centralised archives such as arXiv.org and CogPrints, Harnad immediately saw a greater potential.
By offering free OAi-conformant archival software, they could quickly empower researchers and institutes to create their own archives. "All the OAi-compliant distributed archives, wherever they are physically located, can be harvested every night into one big virtual archive," he says. To date 27 institutions have established open archives, including the University of California and the Max Planck Institute.
The son of a social democrat member of the Hungarian government, Prof Harnad was born in Budapest in 1945. When the Communists took control in 1948 his family left the country illegally, settling in Canada.
After spells at university in Montreal and Princeton, in 1994 he joined the psychology department of Southampton University. Subsequently he transferred to the department of electronics and computer science.
Does not Prof Harnad's activism keeps him away from the laboratory? "Yes, it takes some time from my research," he replies. "But I spend about 18 hours, seven days a week, at my desk, so I do plenty more than the average academic."
Critics accuse Prof Harnad of being overly dogmatic and of polarising the debate. Nevertheless, his eight-year stint on the soapbox has made him an influential voice in the debate. "I think people will come round to my view," he says. "After all, what I am advocating is optimal and inevitable."
His eyes drift back to his computer screen and he reaches for the keyboard. Clearly he wants to get back on to his electronic soapbox. With a vague wave of his hand he signals that the interview is over.