Re: Serials Review Interview

From: Joseph M. Ransdell <> <harnad_at_COGSCI.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Fri, 16 Oct 1998 12:39:55 -0400

In response to Mark Doyle:

This is not so much an objection as it is some comments occasioned by
what you are saying, Mark, but I think it is germane here. I'm not sure
that what I am concerned with should be followed up in this forum, but
it is continuous with the aims of the forum, and relates to the
question of where to go from here.

You say, as regards the suitability of a centralized approach for all

> Most of the reasons that it may not be suitable seem to be to be
> political and that absent those, most would agree that a centralized,
> mirrored system has many advantages over a distributed system.

and that:

> preprint vs. non-preprint is really a non-issue I think. xxx is just as
> effective a model for circulating reprints as preprints. It is just a
> question of what rights an author retains when signing a copyright
> transfer (or not signing as the case may be).

You are right about there being politics involved, but I believe there
are issues of a more difficult sort than that which have not surfaced
yet in connection with the idea of using the xxx system as a
generalizable model for academic disciplines as a whole. But before
saying more, let me quote one more passage:

> Granted that the way the physics community uses xxx is not the only
> possible model, but it is clear to me that any community would benefit
> by promoting unencumbered, free circulation of authors work through
> centralized, globally mirrored archives.

I agree with this completely, but I suggest that once we move out of the
hard sciences we are going to find that the number of academics who
disagree with you and me on this will turn out to be much greater and
more influential than one might suspect. There will be many who will
find it unacceptable that ANY work in the field in question should be
made unrestrictedly available. Disciplinary authoritarianism in fields
outside of the hard sciences is more the rule than the exception, and
any realistic attempt at following the lead of the sciences in taking
the sort of free access that xxx exemplifies as paradigmatic has to take
that into account. Stevan's reassurances and concrete demonstration
that the hierarchical structures presently associated with peer review
can be ported to the net and perhaps even made more rigorous there will
not pacify these people: they will want ONLY refereed material
available and do what they can to insure it, as they are doing now by
letting it be known that it is risky to have a network presence of that

These people will, moreover, be disproportionately influential both
among faculty and administration -- and this for obvious reasons: the
present system of restricted access tends by and large to favor those in
the most powerful positions in the professorial hierarchy by protecting
them and their work from criticisms other than from those who are
similarly positioned in the hierarchy, whom they have long since learned
how to accommodate or effectively ignore. Old dogs of a certain
academic breed (some of them seemingly young) not only will not be
learning new tricks but are going to be -- as they already are --
discrediting new tricks as thoroughly as possible precisely because they
do not want to have to deal with young dogs that know these tricks.
They can see no place for themselves in a networked professional
environment -- their lives are already planned out in accordance with
other assumptions -- and some of them at least are justifiably worried
that they may have to answer to criticism posed by their professional
inferiors, since they regard themselves as officially certified as
superiors by their institutional rank. Their professional lives are
built around the kind of protection from the barking dogs of criticism
this hierarchical system provides.

Perhaps nobody is like that in the hard sciences. ;-) There is reason
to suppose that this kind of authoritarianism is not so prevalent in the
sciences, at least, because there is a traceable connection with
evidence and substantial results that is not there in these other
fields, where people can and sometimes do rely entirely upon personal
judgment and institutional privilege for intellectual control. This is
much more frequent than one might suspect, and not merely an occasional
personal aberration. But it is not primarily a question of how many
such people there are but of who they are and where located in the
system: power and position are at stake in publication practices, and
people do not normally cooperate in changes that seem to threaten their
power. I don't know that the Ginsparg movement will affect the people in
the sciences much at all in this respect. It seems to me that he simply
took institutionally based science one very important step forward by
clarifying its pre-existing publication practices by universalizing it
in the archive, and he did it beautifully -- as best I can make out --
by keeping his eye on exactly what had to be done at every step. But
the implications of that clarification for the rest of academia are much
more radical.

Others may disagree with me on the difficulties ahead, and perhaps
Stevan in particular will. But if he does I think it might be because
of his experience from the rather special position he stands in, about
midway between the hard sciences and the humanities, with some
substantial basis going in both directions. For the result of the
mediated contact with the sciences which he has promoted so well has
been to make the "softer" side of the several disciplines he is
mediating much more like the sciences than they would otherwise be: in
short, his own success in elevating the quality of thinking in some of
those fields may be misleading him. But I am confident myself that
there are going to be major and highly influential areas of academe
where the present institutionally reinforced authoritarianism of the
professorial system is going to stop the expansion of the Ginsparg model
in its tracks if the reactionary tendencies and maneuvers are not
understood and outflanked in some way.

Second, I suggest that the progress of the implementation of the
Ginsparg model or any model basically compatible with it, be it
centralized or distributed, will begin to develop hitches even in the
sciences in the areas where the fields begin to "soften" through
connections with the human sciences, social and psychological. This can
even be predicted, I believe, if one is willing to get solid information
on the extent to which people on the leading edge in a given field
already rely extensively on pre-prints. I wonder if this might not even
be a good rule-of-thumb method of measuring the "hardness" of a science:
to what extent does if rely upon pre-prints? The "soft" areas in
academe hardly use preprints at all and people in them sometimes even
think of use of preprints as some sort of cheating!

But apart from the vested interests threatened in the way I mentioned
above, there ara also other reasons why such a system will not work
initially which are rooted in the lack of specialized focus in these
fields of the sort which you have in the hard sciences: there are
SIGs -- special interest groups -- galore, for example, and other ways
of marking out subfields, but these are not in general to be equated
with specialized subfields in a science, and it is an open question at
this point just how to take effective account of the clumping of
interests in these disciplines.

Whatever the answer is, it seems clear to me that it does not lie in the
attempt at instituting initially a central server system. In
philosophy -- which is my own field -- this has already been tried by
setting up a system which is now defunct, so far as I can tell. (The
International Philosophical Preprint Exchange.) I was involved in some
of the initial discussions among the people setting it up. Perhaps they
were aware of the Ginsparg archive, perhaps not. If so they didn't
understand what that is all about. It did not come up in that part of
the conversation that I participated in and monitored for a while,
anyway, and I dropped out of the planning discussion after it seemed
clear to me that they were not yet experienced enough in networking
activity to see that there is simply no incentive for people in
philosophy to make their work publicly available in an archive like that
because, until this is already a well-established practice, the
suspicion that putting it up there will be regarded as a "vanity press"
move is well enough founded to outweigh any belief that posting it might
have positive benefits. The "biggies" in the field would have to
demonstrate that this is the wrong way of looking at it by putting their
own work up, but, by and large, they don't give a fig for any of this to
begin with, and there are further problems with a single central
archive, anyway, as I indicated above. in any case, a year or so after
the central archive of the IPPE started up, when it was clear that the
attempt to fill it was not working, the mistaken belief that it was
failing because it was not critically filtered was acted upon by
instituting an editorial filtering procedure, which is probably what
finished it off. The partial amelioration of the vanity press image
didn't provide any positive basis for making use of it because it didn't
change the fact that the archive corresponded to no existing
configuration of interests. it changed management for a second time and
does not, I think, exist at all right now.

Now, I think I have at least a vague understanding of why the question
of centralized vs. distributed archives is much more than merely a
technical or even political problem, but rather than going into that
here let me just say that the major problem of the implementation of the
xxx ideal across academe generally will be to do so without
inadvertently betraying it by compromising the principle of unrestricted
deposit and access.

To be more exact, the problem is this. It will turn out that in order
to extend this ideal across the board the first step in many fields will
have to be the establishing of a number of specialized archives, none
of which implement the principles of the xxx archive in an unqualified
way, because certain human filtering procedures will have to be
introduced prior to the feeding of the document into the automated
archive. I am NOT talking about peer reviewing or refereeing but
filtering for topical relevance and overall form. These things cannot
be INITIALLY automated as they are at Los Alamos. (I won't attempt to
explain why in the present message.) IF these procedures are NOT
adopted to accommodate the refereeing or peer review system, though,
then the Ginsparg ideal is still functioning in the implementation, even
if in a qualified and slackened form, and one can think in terms of
some day implementing it in a more thoroughgoing or unqualified way.

 And just this much could be enormously helpful in elevating the level
of intellectual activity in these other areas of academe by providing,
in effect, a diagnostic-analytic tool for understanding what is and is
not happening in professional publication in the area in question: if
the Ginsparg model cannot be applied in its pure form, what is it about
that field and its publication practices that makes it impossible to
implement that model effectively? We should be able to find that out if
that is part of the implementation plan from the beginning, and we might
be surprised at the answer.

If, however, the filtering compromises are based on referee or peer
review considerations, the Ginsparg achievement will be nullified in
such an implementation since it now becomes nothing more than a
technical implementation of a system of restricted access, and since any
refereeing system that restricts access which is procedurally fair
enough to command professional respect is going to require some
substantial review time, the field in question will revert to exactly
where it was before, which will either be one of domination by
"invisible colleges" while those not privy to the thinking of the
in-group will have to wait for the results of the filtering or else one
in which preprints are hardly used at all and nothing whatever has been

All of this not to prolong the present discussion, if that is now at its
end, but to see if there is any interest in pursuing the problematics of
this extension to the rest of academe in some appropriate forum. I do
not assume that everyone will see the problem as I do, and don't mean to
be pushing a special agenda and will not do so; but there seems to me
much that has not yet been discussed.

 Joseph Ransdell <> or <>
 Department of Philosophy, Texas Tech University, Lubbock TX 79409
 Area Code 806: 742-3158 office 797-2592 home 742-0730 fax
 ARISBE: Peirce Telecommunity website -
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

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