Re: Serials Review Interview

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Fri, 16 Oct 1998 18:13:48 +0100

Joseph Ransdell <> wrote:

> once we move out of the hard sciences... [t]here will be many who will
> find it unacceptable that ANY work in the field in question should be
> made unrestrictedly available...

Who are these people? And what can they do about it? Can they stop me
or you from publicly archiving our unrefereed preprints? our refereed
reprints? (See the copyright thread in this discussion for developments

I'm afraid I cannot share Professor Randsell's rather conspiratorial
view about the present and future of learned communication.

> 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

Who are these people? And once it becomes clear that peer-review is
medium independent, and can be implemented online as readily as in
paper, what is the issue here? You want to restrict your reading to
the refereed sector of XXX? Just set your searcher to +REFEREED; the
rest is just a matter of the tagging of the papers deposited in XXX.

(And for the first years, I for one, have no problem at all with
trusting authors to tag their papers with the Journal they allegedly
appeared in; waiting until a system of official tagging by the journals
is in place would delay our course to the optimal/inevitable entirely

> 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!

I doubt that there is not considerable circulation of prepublication
drafts in all fields; I also doubt that authors would not wish to
take advantage of a means of extending their scope considerably, if it
were available and known to them.

Cheating? Cheating whom? about what?

> other reasons why such a system will not work initially which are
> rooted in the lack of specialized focus in these fields...
> it is an open question at this point just how to take effective account
> of the clumping of interests in these disciplines.

A free, public, author-based preprint/reprint archive will not work in
some fields because they are not specialised and it is not clear how to
"clump" their interests?

Are the authors as capable as any of providing keywords and subject
classifications for their work? or is there some special form of
taxonomic agnosia or aphasia in some fields? (If so, let smart
full-text search engines worry about the classification.)

I hope I can be forgiven if I find all this rather difficult to take
seriously! "Obstacles" like these put one more in mind of Zeno's
Paradox (or perhaps Buridan's Donkey or even the Wizard Oz) than of
anything that should give a reflective mind pause, particularly after
the prima facie responses to such prima facie worries have once been

But one does learn a good deal about human nature from transitional
periods like this, and apparently those prima facie responses must be
repeated many times before they are sufficient to persuade the
thirsty cavalry to drink...

Well, that's what we're here for...

> 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.)

What is a matter of historical fact so far is that (except in Physics,
Mathematics and some associated fields) it has not proven sufficient
simply to open a public author archive and invite submissions. It is
not that the cavalry are not thirsty; it is that they are so
unaccustomed to unrestricted access to water that they need constant

That is why CogPrints [] will be actively
soliciting submissions, with Calls and periodic indices of the
Archive's growing contents as incentives, rather than passively waiting
and hoping for the best.

The appeal is quite simple, and also quite irresistible once anyone
reflects on it: One already has one's papers in one's word-processor;
depositing them once in the Archive takes a moment and the effect is
equivalent to mailing limitless numbers of preprints and reprints to
all possible interested parties. The only rationales against that are
those against publishing at all.

(Very little of the work in CogPrints is of the proprietary kind
that might make an author worry about being "scooped" before the
paper was accepted by a refereed journal. That minority would represent
exceptions at the preprint stage, but certainly not at the reprint
stage, where the only remaining bugaboo to rout is worry about
copyright; but that clearly has not constrained XXX, nor need it
constrain any other field; see the copyright threads in this Forum
and the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In sum, IPPE failed owing to neglect; it now has another lease
on life, because CogPrints (with no frets about classification)
explicitly covers all of Philosophy. So keep an eye on its growth
in the next few years...

> there is simply no incentive for people in philosophy to make their
> work publicly available in an archive like that

Which work? Their unrefereed preprints? Are philosophers really that
worried about being scooped? Or about undetected errors? (but that's
what peer feedback on preprints is for).

Never mind. Forget about the unrefereed preprints for now. What
about the refereed reprints? Is it really true that there is "simply no
incentive for people in philosophy to make their work publicly
available" for that phase either?

Isn't that what publication is?

(The rest of your concern seems to be based on incorrect assumptions
about what an "archive like that" is...)

> suspicion that putting it up there will be regarded as a "vanity press"

Putting what up there? Refereed reprints?

> 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...

Have a look at the authors already in CogPrints in Philosophy. You'll
be surprised which "biggies" you already find there:

Public archiving -- if you see where this is all heading -- encompasses
all of publication. (It is simply misleading to imagine the Archive as
consisting only of unrefereed preprints.) Are you suggesting that the
"biggies" don't give a fig about publication? Or about widening its scope?

> the mistaken belief that [the IPPE] was... failing because it was not
> critically filtered was acted upon by instituting an editorial
> filtering procedure, which is probably what finished it off

Yes, it was a mistake to try to make IPPE into a cross between an
archive and a refereed journal. But the correct solution is much
simpler: The public Archive is for both the unrefereed preprint
literature AND the refereed reprint literature. Authors can and should
deposit both, suitably tagged. The reader can then calibrate his use
with the help of the tags.

> 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.

No betrayal: The archive is an AUTHOR archive; that is its strength.
Authors deposit their own work. And they can deposit both their
unrefereed preprints and their refereed reprints. No access denial
whatsoever (as long as the archive's function is not confused with
the function of the journals that are actually doing the peer review
in the interval between the preprint and reprint phase).

> establishing of a number of specialized archives

Fine. But in unity there is strength (and a greater possibility of
collective standardisation, joint upgrading, and sustained support).
It's the many-eggs-in-one-collective (but safely mirrored and
distributed) -basket strategy, and the economies of scale, and the
continuity and convergence of shared interest that comes with it.

I still think the optimal strategy now is for all authors to archive
all their papers on two sites: Their home-servers, plus the central
archive (CogPrints in our fields, to be subsumed, once airworthy after
a period of activism, by NSF/DOE-supported XXX).

Lone eggs in baskets run the risk of sharing the fate of IPPE:

[Yes, the URL no longer works, for the site is no longer maintained.]

> human... filtering for topical relevance and overall form...
> will have to be introduced

Not for an Archive. All that is needed there is a good
classification and tagging system. Don't confuse taxonomy for
the sake of search and retrieval with peer review!

> 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?

This is a "when did you stop beating your wife" query: Who says it
can't be applied (and what is its "pure form)? CogPrints is one of
the paths to XXX.

> If, however, the filtering compromises are based on referee or peer
> review considerations, the Ginsparg achievement will be nullified...

Ginsparg's monumental achievement is to have designed and demonstrated
the feasibility of public archiving by authors of all their learned
papers -- unrefereed and refereed. The only "filtering" has been for
format. (I had expected that XXX would be assailed by kooks or even
spammers, but so far this has been negligible.)

The filtering is done by refereed journals, not by the Archive,
and that's another matter.

> 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
> accomplished.

This passage so hopelessly conflates apples, oranges and all manner
of unsupported enthymemes that it is almost impossible to give
it a coherent reply:

Peer review is not flawless, but let us not confuse that -- and
worthy efforts to improve it -- with the task at hand, which is to
make both the pre- and post-peer-review literature available for
free in a public author archive such as XXX.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Tue Aug 25 1998 - 19:17:43 BST

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