Cite Unseen: Odlyzko’s scholastic vision still unfulfilled

Obviously, the word that Harvard’s FAS faculty has voted tonight on a measure to ensure open access to their published papers — and passed it — is fantastic news. All Harvard faculty will make their scholarly papers available online first, through the university library (unless they choose to opt out for each paper); and, as the Times adds, “authors would still retain their copyright and could publish anywhere they pleased — including at a high-priced journal, if the journal would have them.”

This development is not entirely unprecedented. As an amateur scholar not affiliated with a university, I’ve tremendously benefitted by the availability of academic papers through the Social Science Research Network. (Peter Suber, champion of the OA movement, provides this open access timeline.)

Let’s hope that a fraction of the bloggers who were up in arms over the Times 2-year “paywall” show the same amount of passion for this development. The $50/year that the NYT had charged for access to columnists and 100 archive articles a month would otherwise cover a mere two or three articles out of an academic journal archive. (Cheers to danah boyd, who posted this passionate post for open access last week, calling for a boycott of non-OA journals.)

But anybody who’s spent anytime thinking about the future of ideas (bloggers, and others) ought to realize that making information “open” is merely the first step. Here is an excerpt from Andrew Odlyzko’s 1995 essay “Tragic Loss or Good Riddance? The Impending Demise of Traditional Scholarly Journals” from Notices, the journal of the American Mathematical Society:

I will describe the system I envisage as if it were operating on a single centralized database machine. However, this is for convenience only, and any working system would almost certainly involve duplicated or different but coordinated systems. I will not deal with the software aspects of this system. There will surely be hypertext links, so that a click on a reference or comment would instantly bring up a window with that paper or comment in it, but the precise features are not important for this article. At the bottom level of future systems, anyone could submit a preprint to the system…

Once a preprint was accepted, it would be available to anyone. Depending on subject classification or keywords, notification of its arrival would be sent to those subscribing to alerting services in the appropriate areas. Comments would be solicited from anyone (subject again to some minor limitations), and would be appended to the original paper. There could be provisions for anonymous comments as well as signed ones. The author would have the opportunity to submit revised versions of the paper in response to the comments (or the author’s further work). All the versions of the papers, as well as all the comments, would remain part of the record. This process could continue indefinitely, even a hundred years after the initial submission.

A dozen years later, we’re still not yet there; SSRN is not even there. Last month they announced the availability of the CiteReader tool, which will allow readers to see citations from and to individual papers. (Penn State has done this with computer science papers through the CiteSeer service for many years now).

Still, consider the paper “Infringement Nation,” posted on SSRN. You won’t see any of the non-“published” responses to it. Yet here’s my critical response to it– which I probably wouldn’t have troubled to write if I had known that Matthew Sag and Mark Schultz (who are actual law professors) had written a critical response as well (putting aside, for a moment, the fact that I posted two days before they did, but perhaps we could have worked together…)

Indeed, the blogosphere appears more complete Odlyzko’s vision than SSRN is. Still Google’s top ten results (which are often more reliable than a blog-only search) don’t list either of these critical responses. The struggle continues for a more perfect system.

Short Update: Obviously, SSRN is moving in this direction. But any virtuous online publisher (whether the author or a journal) should create an HTML “meta” page for each paper and use it to link to multiple versions as well as responses, follow-ups, etc. (I’ll have a longer followup on this point.)

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