Harnad, S. (2000) Ingelfinger Over-Ruled: The Role of the Web in the Future of Refereed Medical Journal Publishing. The Lancet Perspectives 256 (December Supplement): s16.


Ingelfinger Over-Ruled:

The Role of the Web in the Future of Refereed Medical Journal Publishing

Stevan Harnad
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
Southampton University
Highfield, Southampton
SO17 1BJ
United Kingdom


Under the editorship of Franz Ingelfinger, the New England Journal of Medicine adopted a policy of declining to referee or publish research that had been previously published or publicised elsewhere. Other biomedical journals, as well as broad-spectrum journals such as Science, have since adopted this "Ingelfinger rule".

The four rationales underlying this rule, formulated in the Gutenberg era, will be examined here to see which of them are still valid post-Gutenberg. But first, consider this bibliographic resource, which will sound Utopian, but is in reality, optimal for biomedical researchers, attainable, and inevitable: the entire refereed biomedical journal literature available on-line, on every researcher's desktop; all the papers citation-linked to all papers cited; all papers searchable and retrievable by citation, subject, and keyword; and all for free.

This resource is attainable because the literature in question (unlike royalty-based books, or fee-based magazine articles) is written by researchers who are not in the business of selling their words, but of reporting their findings. In other words, this is a give-away literature. For these authors, their reward comes from the research impact of their work. Indeed, the subscription, site-licence, and pay-per-view (S/L/P) access barriers to their work are impact barriers, depriving these researchers of potential readers who might have cited and built upon their research.

These give-away authors would always have preferred their research reports to be free of all financial access barriers. They also benefit from having it freed from the constraints of paper itself, which cannot be on every researcher's desk-top, let alone be interlinked and navigable, even if everyone could afford it all.

Note that this give-away story is being told from the author's perspective. There are benefits to users, including users who are practitioners rather than researchers, but I leave those to my readers to fill in. This account will be only from the research author's standpoint, because research impact is what it is all about, and that is the way to make sense of it. Just one more point, before we can rule on Ingelfinger: the give-away literature in question is not a vanity press. All these papers are reviewed by peers, who referee for free; but the implementation of this quality control and certification (QC/C) process does cost something per paper-although nothing near what is collectively being spent per paper by reader-institutions in S/L/P access tolls today.

So the obvious solution is to pay the much lower annual QC/C costs per paper up-front at the author-institution end. This can be done out of a portion of the annual reader-institution S/L/P cancellation savings, thereby freeing this give-away corpus at last.

Now let us see how the four rationales for the Ingelfinger rule stand up in the on-line age:

(1) Public health must be protected: only refereed research, reviewed and certified by the qualified specialists, should be made public.

This point is still valid for the subset of biomedical research findings that could pose potential hazards to health, but the internet has now made the matter moot as far as journals are concerned. Journals cannot be expected to police the web; that must be left to researchers' institutions and governments.

(2) The refereeing and certification system must be protected. Referees are a scarce resource, donating their valuable time for free. There is no justification for squandering their time on a paper that has already been publicised without certification, or one that has already been certified and published by another journal.

This point is still valid for papers that have already been accorded QC/C by another journal, but it does not apply to the pre-QC/C literature at all. Prior "publicising" on the web is irrelevant (except for the moot health-hazardous subset).

(3) The journal's (and author's) priority and prestige must be protected: readers will not read or cite a journal whose contents have already appeared elsewhere.

The author's priority and prestige are not at risk from posting pre-QC/C preprints on the web; or if they are, the risk is the author's, not the journal's, which publishes it only if and when it passes QC/C. And it is the QC/C version that will be cited, if and when there is one. As to what will be read, and why, read on.

(4) The journal's revenue streams must be protected: subscribers will not subscribe to a journal whose contents have already appeared elsewhere. Without that revenue, the research cannot be refereed or published at all.
This fourth is the real rationale behind the Ingelfinger rule, and always has been. The author's give-away research and its potential impact are being held hostage to journals' S/L/P revenue streams. This was unavoidable, and hence justified, in the Gutenberg era, with its real costs. It is unnecessary, hence unjustified, and in direct conflict with researchers' interests, in the post-Gutenberg era of "scholarly writing" when researchers can publicly self-archive (http://www.eprints.org) all their research, both pre-QC/C and post-QC/C, in on-line archives (http://www.openarchives.org) on the web. These interoperable, distributed, eprint archives can then all be automatically harvested (http://arc.cs.odu.edu) and interlinked into the optimal and inevitable resource described above (http://opcit.eprints.org). Journals will have to downsize to providing their only remaining essential service: QC/C, paid for on a per-paper basis by author-institutions out of their annual S/L/P savings.

Ingelfinger over-ruled.


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