Re: Publication at LANL as involving peer review

From: Ransdell, Joseph M. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1999 22:45:53 -0500

Thanks for the vigorous response, Stevan. I think perhaps my point got
missed, though. I am not trying to discredit the value of refereed
publication by palming off something else in its place and saying there
is no difference when there is. That is not my purpose at all. I meant
to make it clear that there might be good reasons for not calling the
peer response subsequent to publication "peer review" just as there
might be good reasons for doing so, and that I wasn't yet arguing for
the latter, though I am inclined to think that it might be best, on
balance. I wanted to explain first, though, why I think it important to
raise that as a question, notwithstanding the fact that I agree with you
about it being unwise to combine the reform of peer review practices
with the aims you are promoting.

The reason is that I don't see any way otherwise to take into account
and to repair a major gap in the rationale for using the LANL system as
a model -- a gap which is not effectively plugged by the invisible hand
argument. If that is all that is available then the basis of the
scepticism and suspicion about LANL as a model is left untouched and it
is probably best to recognize that it is an albatross and abandon it as
quickly as possible because, otherwise, you will waste a lot of time and
energy in responding to hostilities rooted in reaction to it. It is its
use as a model that is thought to be objectionable; for the sceptic
might be willing to grant that the high energy physics theorists (and
some of their friends perhaps) are an admirably disciplined bunch, and
LANL itself is okay because of that, but nevertheless be deeply opposed
to using it as a MODEL for practices that are supposed to extend across
the full range of the disciplines in the universities.

There is surely no question but that the significance of LANL is
commonly thought to lie in its success as a preprint server, not in the
many other facilities added or being added, and it is reasonable for
people to think that in adopting it as a model you are doing so because
of that for which it is famed, not for other features of it of no
special interest as innovations. So unless you are going to just forget
about using it as a model -- and I don't think you are -- you are going
to be plagued from now on with objections arising from its function as a
preprint publication system even if that is not what really interests
you in connection with it. Those objections will be to the effect that
it is a terrible model to use regardless of how it is dressed up because
it teaches by its example disrespect of the most holy of all academic
sacred cows: peer review.

You can't get around the fact that it presents an example of a
flourishing science in which the figures at the leading edge are not
working from peer reviewed literature but from material that has not
been filtered, and the more you insist on the extraordinary discipline
of the people in doing without filtering -- e.g. the way they deposit
something in the LANL archive only when they are simultaneously
submitting it to a journal, the alacrity with which they replace the
unrefereed version with the peer approved refereed one, and whatever
else might be cited in this connection -- the more you convince people
that such a system may be okay for super-researchers in recondite areas
of physics but for more ordinary sorts of mortals the temptation to be
an intellectual slob is just too great, which makes it just about the
worst model you could possibly have chosen. The appeal to the invisible
hand does not lessen the import of the fact that the LANL system uses
unfiltered material, and it is bound to occur to many people that there
is not, after all, any rule that requires people to simultaneously
submit the paper to a referee: that is just a custom at LANL at best.
Lesser mortals might find it more reasonable to relax that austere
stance, and indeed it seems a bit odd on the face of it that one would
want to present a version to be assessed by referees without taking
advantage of the opportunities that might be available for correcting it
first, following upon preprint distribution and criticism.

The reason I am pushing this to the fore is that I notice that you don't
any longer seem to regard the preprint server as an important part of
it. When the immunologists responded in tones of outrage to precisely
that feature of the E-biomed model you quickly advised the NIH people
not to worry about implementing the preprint server: that could be
figured out later; what is important is the refereed literature,
anyway. But if that response is appropriate for the pacification of the
immunologists now, there will surely be no later time at which it will
be prudent to implement the preprint server. In general, I note that it
is as if the less said about preprint servers the better these days.
But doesn't that strain credibility? The LANL archives minus the
feature that made the archives famous? People are bound to sense
something amiss in this.

I notice that your final interpretation of the "invisible hand" seems to
be somewhat congenial with the Lingua Franca blurb, where it turns out
that the research activity based on the preprints is actually all for
the purpose of producing truly fine peer reviewed articles later. This
won't do. As I said earlier, the basic fact is that the LANL preprint
server provides the basis for primary publication in certain fields,
meaning publication that directly affects the course of inquiry in the
science, and this unfiltered and actually effective publication occurs
prior to publication based on peer review. You say

> ... it [the invisible hand] constrains preprints to be
> drafted on the presumption of answerability to classical
> peer review, through conventional journal submission,
> usually concurrent with archiving.

What constraint? What presumption? The constraint on the author is
that what he or she writes is to be in agreement with the facts, as
these are ascertained in the course of inquiry, not as they are
established through agreement with peer reviewers. The invisible hand
is just an awareness of a future contingency that can be handled in more
than one way or even ignored, if the researcher decides, perhaps
unwisely, and I am confident that the researchers using the LANL system
are not normally thinking about that contingency but rather about the
far more pressing reality that consists of the people who will be
downloading and reading the preprint; for they are the peers whose
acceptance counts first of all, and it would surely be a poor researcher
who lost sight of that priority.

> When the Physics community uses the unrefereed preprints
> in LANL, it is doing what it used to do in the paper medium
> too: Certain people's work you know can be trusted, and
> you want to know about and build on it as soon as it is
> available. That is not a new form of peer review. It is
> just the Physics preprint culture.

I realize that the LANL system is actually just an automated form of a
prior practice, but doesn't that just raise the same question again?
What IS the role of peer review if people at the leading edge do not
require its services as a filter? The invisible hand argument just
doesn't touch that. I think it can be answered and I already did answer
it, but not by appealing to the hand and not by invoking an Ersatz form
of peer review either. The advantage of my answer is that it is not
necessary to abandon the model you began with.

It does raise the question of whether it might be best to recognize that
there is in fact something happening in the inquiry process mediated by
the machine at LANL that involves a kind of internalization of the peer
review function, but that is, as I said, something that need not be
settled in order to see that the fears of the immunologists and others
are based on a misunderstanding of what is happening there and what it
signifies as something extensible.

> LANL (The Los Alamos Eprint Archive) does NOT just consist of unrefereed
> preprints. It started that way, but by now, in Year 8, authors are
> annually archiving both unrefereed preprints AND refereed final drafts,
> and, quite naturally, swapping the latter for the former once it is
> available.

I was aware of that. My point is that what is of special interest at
LANL has been and still is its function as a preprint server.

> This makes the question of whether what is going on in LANL is some new
> form of peer review incoherent: Classical peer review is exerting its
> FULL, usual quality control functions on the final drafts in LANL.

This skips over the fact that the scientific work is being done by the
preprints, not the final drafts.

> Second, Joseph has partly misunderstood my "invisible hand" argument:
> The point is that the unrefereed preprints deposited in LANL are mostly
> exactly the same ones that are being concurrently submitted for
> refereeing. Papers knowingly prepared to be answerable to classical
> peer review are ALREADY more constrained than those that are simply
> destined for the vanity press (as all papers would be, if peer review
> were abandoned -- or if mere vanity-posting were simply rebaptized as a
> "nouveau peer review")

This has been answered but I must say that the resort to the concept of
the "vanity press" seems to me just gratuitously contemptuous of people
and their motives and is very misleading as regards what is actually
happening when people try to communicate. How can we implement a
communications revolution with the use of simplistic denigrations like

> Physics may be the field in which the difference between the raw and
> final drafts is the smallest; the causal role of this in the fact that
> it all happened in Physics first will have to be analyzed by historians
> of science.)

Which still doesn't come to grips with the fact that the "raw drafts"
are the omnes that are actually introduced first into the inquiry
process and the finished versions the ones that appear after the work
has been done. That is what has to be accounted for, you see.

Joseph Ransdell  <> or <>
Dept of Philosophy   Texas Tech Univ.  Lubbock TX 79409
(806)  742-3158 office    797-2592 home    742-0730 fax
ARISBE:Peirce Telecommunity
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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