Rough notes on Stevan Harnad’s “Subversive Proposal”

Stevan Harnad is one of the pioneers of the Open Access movement, and his Subversive Proposal is a seminal documents in the history of that movement. The following are my very rough notes on the main text of that document.

We have heard many sanguine predictions about the demise of paper publishing, but life is short and the inevitable day still seems a long way off. This is a subversive proposal that could radically hasten that day. It is applicable only to ESOTERIC (non-trade, no-market) scientific and scholarly publication (but that is the lion’s share of the academic corpus anyway), namely, that body of work for which the author does not and never has expected to SELL the words. The scholarly author wants only to PUBLISH them, that is, to reach the eyes and minds of peers, fellow esoteric scientists and scholars the world over, so that they can build on one another’s contributions in that cumulative collaborative enterprise called learned inquiry. For centuries, it was only out of reluctant necessity that authors of esoteric publications entered into the Faustian bargain of allowing a price-tag to be erected as a barrier between their work and its (tiny) intended readership, for that was the only way they could make their work public at all during the age when paper publication (and its substantial real expenses) was their only option.

This all ties into a fascinating set of issues about how human society has collectively chosen to innovate. We’ve essentially decided to split intellectual innovation into two types. One is innovation with a short-term payoff, which is largely done in the commercial realm. The presumption is that that payoff is sufficient incentive for companies to invest in innovation, with the protections of IP law guaranteeing a limited monopoly with which they can recover their investment. The second type is more basic research, which has a longer-term payoff, and is done without relying on the market. Instead, we have a meritocratic welfare system for academics which produces such innovations as output. These go immediately into the information commons.

This is an over-simplification, of course. The real situation is more complex, especially with the passing of the Bayh-Dole Act and similar legislation in other countries, legislation that muddies the distinction between Universities and the market. But it’s a pretty good first approximation.

There’s a lot wrong with this system, but overall it’s a pretty good system for creating a healthy information commons, while also making innovative products available to consumers.

What I think Harnad is pointing out is that journals are an example of a point of contact between the academic welfare system and the commercial world. Inevitably, the two have very different and perhaps sometimes mutually unsatisfactory goals.

But today there is another way, and that is PUBLIC FTP: If every esoteric author in the world this very day established a globally accessible local ftp archive for every piece of esoteric writing from this day forward, the long-heralded transition from paper publication to purely electronic publication (of esoteric research) would follow suit almost immediately. This is already beginning to happen in the physics community, thanks to Paul Ginsparg’s HEP preprint network, with 20,000 users worldwide and 35,000 “hits” per day, and Paul Southworth’s CICnet is ready to help follow suit in other disciplines. The only two factors standing in the way of this outcome at this moment are (1) quality control (i.e., peer review and editing), which today happens to be implemented almost exclusively by paper publishers, and (2) the patina of paper publishing, which results from this monopoly on quality control. If all scholars’ preprints were universally available to all scholars by anonymous ftp (and gopher, and World-Wide Web, and the search/retrieval wonders of the future), NO scholar would ever consent to WITHDRAW any preprint of his from the public eye after the refereed version was accepted for paper “PUBLICation.” Instead, everyone would, quite naturally, substitute the refereed, published reprint for the unrefereed preprint. Paper publishers will then either restructure themselves (with the cooperation of the scholarly community) so as to arrange for the much-reduced electronic-only page costs (which I estimate to be less than 25% of paper-page costs, contrary to the 75% figure that appears in most current publishers’ estimates) to be paid out of advance subsidies (from authors’ page charges, learned society dues, university publication budgets and/or governmental publication subsidies) or they will have to watch as the peer community spawns a brand new generation of electronic-only publishers who will.

There’s not much to add. This is all quite prescient of what’s taken place. There’s an excellent later paper by Andrew Odlyzko on the actual economics of journal publishing that’s well worth looking at.

The subversion will be complete, because the (esoteric — no-market) peer-reviewed literature will have taken to the airwaves, where it always belonged, and those airwaves will be free (to the benefit of us all) because their true minimal expenses will be covered the optimal way for the unimpeded flow of esoteric knowledge to all: In advance.

Stevan Harnad

Cognitive Science Laboratory

Princeton University

Princeton NJ 08542

June 27, 1994


  1. If you want to think about things Harnadian, I strongly recommend Richard Poynder’s interview with him.

    In fact, I strongly recommend all of Richard’s superb interviews. For instance, someone who read the Harnad, Suber and Tracz interviews (and their extensive footnotes and references) would learn as much about OA in a day as I’ve learned in several years.

    Given the book you have in the works, I cannot overemphasize how useful these interview series are likely to be for you.

  2. UQAM was also the first — and so far only — North American University to sign the Berlin Declaration.

    And if you want to see where the real OA action and growth region is today, see ROARMAP — — which is a registry we maintain at Southampton UK, of all the universities and research funders who have adopted (Green) OA self-archiving mandates. There are now 44 worldwide, most of them in UK, the rest of Europe, and Australia, and including only one North American University, but no mean one: Harvard. And among the North American funders that have mandated Green OA are NIH in the US and CIHR in Canada. Among the mandate recommendations is one from the European Universities Association, with 791 member universities in 46 European countries.

    I am just now creating a cluster of Canada Research Chairs (my own at UQAM is in Cognitive Sciences) who will be involved in promoting the adoption of OA mandates at Canadian Universities — as well as in developing Open Access research metrics, in order to measure, recognize and reward online research impact.

    I’ll be giving a keynote at ELPUB08 in a few weeks.

    Best wishes,

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