Very useful as an archive, but peer review needs consideration

June 25, 1999

Stevan Harnad

The E-biomed and Scholar's Forum initiatives are "extremely timely, important and welcome" and will speed up the development of on-line resources for scholars, according to Stevan Harnad, a leading electronic communications researcher and professor of cognitive science at the University of Southampton.

However, Professor Harnad believes, both initiatives suffer from "a few minor but easily correctable weaknesses". Both, he says, are a little confused about the relationship between archives and journals.

"They are vague about whether the archives are meant to be journals, competing with journals or collaborating with journals. The reality is they are none of theseI archives are simply a reliable, permanent place where all authors can self-archive their journal articles on-line free of charge and that are accessible by any researcher worldwide for free."

Professor Harnad says journals will continue as long as there is demand for paper or fee-based digital editions of them, but he believes demand for them will eventually cease because readers will prefer to use free versions of articles that have already been deposited with on-line archives. Journal costs will plummet and eventually their sole function will be to carry out peer review and certification. Such a development will be of considerable benefit to institutions and individual scholars. "The process of peer review will still need to be paid for but it will cost much less than with classical publishing and can be paid for by institutions out of the massive savings they will make from cancelling subscriptions."

But Professor Harnad is concerned that both the E-biomed and Scholar's Forum proposals are coupled to some "vague" plans to modify peer review which could end up undermining their objectives. The NIH proposal, for instance, is unclear whether editorial boards carrying out the peer reviews will be identical to those of current print journals or new rival ones: "If they are identical then that is fine, but creating rival boards is confusing the launch and encouragement of free public on-line archives with the creation of new on-line journals." There is no reason for authors to submit their papers to a new untested quality control board when existing journals are already carrying it out, he says.

"Everyone knows the peer review system is not perfect but it is the fundamental basis of quality standards for journals. The primary objective of these proposals must be to free journal literature so that it just becomes an issue of archiving. Linking this all-important goal to untested reforms of peer review that could well fail is not a good idea."

Toby Bainton

If E-biomed succeeds it will result in a collection of innovations that will have dramatic long-term effects on scholars, libraries and journal publishers, according to Toby Bainton, chairman of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries.

"The key aim of E-biomed must be to liberate communication between researchers," says Mr Bainton. E-biomed's plans to retain peer review in some form are wise and will be widely welcomed in the academic community, he adds. "We all know receiving more information is not necessarily an advantage. More good quality information is infinitely better than more information."

The long-term effects on libraries are more difficult to predict, but SCONUL is optimistic that widespread job losses will be avoided. "There is likely to be plenty of print around for the foreseeable future to keep libraries busy, even if research communication never leaves the wires and screens." More importantly, however, the librarian's principal expertise is not concerned with organising books and journals but organising information. Mr Bainton says: "Printed formats have been the vehicle for so long that librarians have been almost inextricably associated with print. Yet it is information they store and help people find. The gatekeeper with library skills is what researchers need to save their own valuable time."

The potential threat of a successful E-biomed is more difficult to assess. A rival distribution system like the NIH scheme should, in theory, drive down journal prices and commercial publishers' profits. Mr Bainton, however, points out that printed journals have features like high-quality illustrations that can be clumsy and slow in their electronic competitors.

Despite such shortcomings, which could be overcome in time with more sophisticated IT systems and infrastructure, on-line archiving cannot come soon enough. Mr Bainton says that during the past 50 years the monopoly position of scientific journals has resulted in hefty annual price hikes that have "significantly distorted" university library budgets.

While journals in certain disciplines have done well out of their command of the market, the losers have been the multidisciplinary institutions - the universities - as their library budgets have been soaked by the "must have" titles, he says. "The humanities now fight a constant rearguard action against encroachment on information budgets by their scientific, technical and medical rivals. When journals are said to have served the scholarly community well, it has to be remembered that some journals are more equal than others."

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