Harnad versus Fuller, round 2

June 9, 1995

Our debate between Stevan Harnad and Steve Fuller on electronic publishing (Multimedia, May 12) was taken up vigorously and soon branched out into at least half a dozen separate threads.

Edward Vielmetti (bottom) uncontroversially points out that there is a lot of rubbish on the Internet; but he is sceptical of peer review as a solution.

Paul Seedhouse (below right) is surprised that Harnad and Fuller both see a continuing role for academic publishers; in his own field (teaching English as a second language) there is a free refereed electronic journal backed by no commercial sponsor or publisher.

However Steve Halliday (bottom right) thinks Harnad underestimates the opportunity for publishers as guardians of quality on the unruly Net. Another thread of discussion (far right) focussed on the economics of electronic publishing, with contributions from Andrew Odlyzko and Paul Ginsparg (right), who operates an electronic preprint archive in high-energy physics.

Participants in the Hyperjournal-forum, an Internet discussion list on electronic journals, were naturally interested in the debate. Damien Keown (bottom centre) summarises their sometimes quizzical responses.

Last but not least, the two protagonists have continued their discussion online. The full text of Harnad and Fuller's contributions can be found on our World-Wide Web site. A convenient entry point is The THES Multimedia page at http://www.timeshigher.newsint. co.uk/mm.html.

In the space of the printed page, however, we have had to give priority to other voices and can only summarise Harnad and Fuller's further comments here.

At the start of the debate, Harnad stressed that his arguments applied only to "esoteric" publication, where readers are few and the author has motives other than profit. Fuller refused to treat esoteric publication as an entirely separate arena from trade publication, and warned that the "commodification of knowledge" could spread into academic electronic publication. Later, Fuller accepted Harnad's repeated assertion that there is a distinction between trade and non-trade publishing, but added: "I doubt that the distinction is deep." Little ground yielded by either party here.

It was Harnad who first referred to a Faustian bargain, entered into by "non-trade authors . . . trading the copyright for their words in exchange for having them published". Fuller, unwilling to cast publishers as the devil, said the real Faustian bargain was between academics and their sponsors. Harnad then clarified or possibly shifted his position a little, saying: "In the Faustian bargain I was referring to, the publisher is as much the victim as the author." Later he says: "The devil is the technology of paper - its cost and cumbersomeness."

So no one now says publishers are demons, though Fuller sugests they have motives beyond simply making money. "Recent years have witnessed the rise of all-purpose media moguls," he says, " . . . who can finance academic publishing houses out of the profits made from mass circulation tabloid newspapers and cable television channels . . . The goal is to shape and monitor learned opinion, which is often a potent, albeit indirect, means of influencing policy."

Fuller cited the Internet, used by academics and originally funded by the United States Department of Defense, as a prime example of the Faustian bargain. "That's history," Harnad replied. "And the irony is that right now it is the universities and the National Science Foundation that are subsidising use for all of us: in other words, the Net's current commercial uses are getting a free ride from academe!" Pedants pointed out that NSF funding for the Internet is now, as of April 30, itself history; though in fairness to Harnad, the NSF is still funding research on the next generation of networking technology. The point is that Internet economics are entering a new phase. Harnad writes that once the Net is privatised, "all of society will be better off if the Net's remaining academic uses (especially esoteric publication) - by then merely the flea on the tail of the dog - continue to get a free ride."

Fuller, who generally depicts a messier, more fuzzy-edged world than Harnad, replies that "there is actually considerable controversy over who owns the Internet now, mainly because there is no generally accepted legal-economic model for assessing its costs and benefits."

But one thing, he says, is clear: academics do not own it. "Consequently, unless we academics are prepared to enter into negotiations with those having a clear financial stake in the medium, our cyberplatonist utopias are little more than castles in the sky."

Peer review, Fuller claimed in his original article, was designed "to dictate the terms on which academics accounted for their use of their sponsors' resources". In other words, it constrained academic freedom rather than enhancing it. Harnad once again dismissed this as an interesting but irrelevant piece of history, pointing out that taxpayers have replaced the aristocratic sponsors of 17th century research. "No one has yet proposed an equivalent or superior substitute for the (imperfect, human) peer-review system for validating and triaging this huge, no-market corpus," he says. "Peer review is a medium-independent means of quality control serving authors, readers, and sponsors alike."

Fuller counters with an altogether more cynical view: "It is one of those phrases, like democracy and freedom, that is very hard to be against, though one is never quite sure what one is being for. It should come as no surprise to learn that the best way to ensure that articles of a certain kind continue being published is to have them selected by people who have themselves been successful at getting their articles published in that journal."

What of Harnad's point that peer-review is "medium-independent"? On the Net, publication is faster, comment is easy, and there are electronic tools for searching and filtering through masses of information.

Harnad is very clear: "If there is anyone on this planet who is in a position to say so, surely I, having had a chance to compare peer review with open peer commentary for almost two decades in a paper journal, and over half a decade in an electronic one, can state unequivocally: peer commerntary is a supplement to, not a substitute for, peer review."

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