Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Open Access: Profile of Eberhard Hilf

Eberhard (Ebs) Hilf is a true veteran of the Open Access (OA) movement. A theoretical physicist based in Oldenburg, Hilf began his advocacy at least eight years before the term Open Access was coined. Yet in contrast to prominent OA advocates like Stevan Harnad and Peter Suber, Hilf was until relatively recently little known in the movement outside his native Germany. Richard Poynder explains why.

Eberhard Hilf

Although a dedicated OA advocate, Hilf's main focus from the very beginning has always been on the broader issue of how the Web can improve scholarly communication. OA, he says, is just the first step to enabling a bigger revolution.

Thus while he has approached OA from this broader perspective, Hilf's assumption has nevertheless always been that OA needs to be viewed as a given. As he put it to a group of physicists and mathematicians in Halle (East Germany) in June 1994, in an online world all scholarly papers "should be free for all to read".

(By a strange accident of timing Hilf gave his presentation on the very same day that — on the other side of the Atlantic — Stevan Harnad posted his "Subversive Proposal" calling on all researchers to start making their papers freely available on the Web).

The seeds of Hilf's advocacy were sown in an incident that occurred a year earlier (in 1993), when a student came into his office and remarked: "You professors sit in here while outside a revolution is going on — the World Wide Web."

The student in question was Heinrich Stamerjohanns, at that time an assistant to Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who — with Robert Calliau — is credited with having invented the World Wide Web in 1991.

When Stamerjohanns explained what he meant Hilf immediately saw the potential it offered to revolutionise scholarly communication and asked Stamerjohanns to create Germany's first web server, in his department at the University of Oldenburg.

Hilf then embarked on a fact-finding tour of America. There he visited scholarly publishers, US universities and a bunch of technology companies — including Microsoft, where he was reliably informed that the Web had no future, and so there was no point in engaging with HTML!

Fortunately, Hilf took this advice with a pinch of salt, not least because one of his other stop-off points in the US was the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL), where he called in on fellow theoretical physicist Paul Ginsparg.

In 1991 Ginsparg had created a centralised electronic service to allow physicists to share their preprints with one another. Subsequently renamed arXiv, it began life as an email-based service, but was subsequently ported to the Web. There it went on to become an essential component in the process of scholarly communication for physicists — and today many physicists, as a matter of course, post their preprints in arXiv prior to sending them to a publisher.

Currently arXiv hosts over half a million papers, and around 5,000 new ones are added each month. Moreover, it is no longer restricted to physics alone: arXiv now accepts papers in mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics as well.

Recalling his visit to Ginsparg, Hilf says, "At that time the entire content of arXiv was still on a single PC under Paul's desk in his office, a small room at LANL."

Arriving back from his trip in a jetlagged and somewhat febrile state, Hilf rushed to the lecture hall at Oldenburg University, ripped up the physics lecture he was scheduled to give, and enthused excitably for an hour about arXiv.

"As a result we all started reading papers on arXiv," says Thomas Severiens, then one of Hilf's students." He adds: "They weren't much use to sixth term students, but we read them with interest nevertheless." ...


If you wish to read the interview with Eberhard Hilf please click on the link below. The PDF file that will download includes both the interview and this introduction.

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Stevan Harnad said...


Hail to my comrade-at-arms, Ebs Hilf.There's no disagreement with him on any point of substance, strategy or priority. And I'm certainly just as happy with calling OA free online access!

I'd just like to remind everybody that although free access to peer-reviewed research is desirable and beneficial in all scholarly scientific disciplines, there was good reason that that was declared OA's primary target content, rather than unrefereed preprints.

The posting of unrefereed preprints is a practice that does indeed predate not only OA and the subversive proposal and Arxiv, but it even predates the Web and the Net. Physicists were sharing preprints since much earlier, as Ebs points out (and that was probably the main reason physicists -- along with computer scientists -- were the first to begin providing what eventually became called OA).

However, unlike the universal, pandisciplinary desirability of providing OA to refereed research, the inclination, desirability and practice of posting unrefereed research is definitely not universal. For example, in branches of biomedicine where the posting of unrefereed results could be dangerous to public health, it is, thankfully, shunned. There are also fields (and within fields, individuals) who prefer not to make their raw drafts public, only sharing them among a few colleagues, and waiting till they have successfully passed peer review before posting them. Preprint sharing was especially desirable in physics because it speeded up the research cycle. But many fields don't have that fast a turnaround time, and in such fields the cost (and risks) of having to sift through raw unrefereed content might slow progress more than making it public even before it is refereed would accelerate it.

So whereas there will no doubt still be many dramatic changes in research reporting and publishing practices in the online era, I don't think they will all be clones of what (some branches of) physics have long found congenial.

In any case, Ebs and I agree fully that OA itself (to refereed research -- plus whatever pre-refereeing findings researchers feel they wish to publicize) is a foregone conclusion and certainly need not and should not wait for any of the other actual and possible changes the online era will also eventually usher in. Agreed to is the fact that universal OA is already reachable indeed already shamefully overdue...

Eberhard R Hilf said...

Stevan Harnad is right. Given the great variety of learned fields with their different traditions and requirements, a variety of online publishing culture may develop.
Since I believe that OA-first, publish then is the way to a competing market, in some fields, as you mentioned, it would mean 'first a copy to the local OAI-IR, but with a classified-tag' until it is accepted by the publisher. This (then delayed) OA-first would relieve the authors from their fears and intimidations of some publishers, that is, decouple the OA process from the publishing process.

Stevan Harnad said...


The way to "relieve the authors from their fears and intimidations of some publishers" [and] "decouple the OA process from the publishing process" is (1) for authors' funders and institutions to reinforce and legitimize OA self-archiving with an official mandate to deposit all final refereed drafts in the author's own institutional repository (IR) immediately upon acceptance for publication and (2) for the IRs to implement the "Almost OA" Button that enables automated individual eprint requests in the minority of cases where the publisher does not yet endorse immediate OA (and the author elects to honor the publisher embargo by making the deposit "Closed Access" during the embargo instead of OA).

The details matter, however. The mandate has to be carefully chosen to be the right one:

Not only do (a) authors have to be given the "Almost-OA" option so they can comply fully with the mandate without any constraint on their choice of which journal to publish in (otherwise one invites author resistance to mandates and hence to OA) but (b) authors have to be allowed to make their own choice as to whether or not they wish to make their pre-refereeing preprints OA too.

(Otherwise one would be attempting to impose the Procrustean physics preprint OA model on many unwilling disciplines and individuals, rather than allowing best practice to evolve naturally. This is also the reason why the "Almost OA Button" option at last made immediate OA and OA mandates universally possible, whereas the earlier Oppenheim/Harnad "preprints + corrigenda" option did not. This is also what makes the immediate-deposit/optional-access [ID/OA] mandate the optimal compromise, far preferable to a copyright-retention mandate like Harvard's, which many authors may resist, again because it needlessly constrains their journal choice.)

That said, I am (for what it's worth) all for preprint self-archiving too, personally speaking, and copyright-retention too...

David Prosser said...

An excellent article, as ever. One small point caught my attention. On page 20 we have:

"There is, says Sietmann, some irony in this. "Unlike the UK, where the government has taken a stand against OA,...'"

I think it is rather strong to suggest that the UK government has taken an anti-OA stand. It has been pretty-much neutral, but allowed agencies (the research councils, JISC, etc) the freedom to pursue OA agendas - with mandates from the research councils, repositories programmes from JISC and such like.

Richard Poynder said...

Thanks for your comment David. In the light of what you say I wonder if it might help to refer readers to the details of the
FoI Request you made in December 2005?