Re: Publication at LANL as involving peer review

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 1999 15:01:59 +0100

On Tue, 13 Jul 1999, Ransdell, Joseph M. wrote:

> 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.

It is a historical fact that LANL begin as a preprint distribution
network among 100 high energy physicists. It is a further historic fact
that it rapidly grew to encompass more and more authors and users,
covered more and more of physics and beyond, and came to include the
refereed final drafts too. If we are going to take LANL as a model --
as we should -- let's make sure we use the full current model and not
just the barest initial conditions!

And the fact is that the "other feature" (entirely predictable if the
rapid growth of the scope and scale itself had been predictable) --
namely, that it ain't just about preprints any more, but is rapidly
growing into the WHOLE PHYSICS JOURNAL LITERATURE -- is turning out to
be (in my view) even more important than LANL's preprint function
(though that continues to be very important too), because it
demonstrates the revolutionary possibility of freeing the journal
literature for once and for all, across disciplines and around the
world, to the eternal benefit of Learned Inquiry through

So self-archiving is the "model" and the take-home message of LANL, and
not merely, or primarily, the self-archiving of unrefereed preprints.

> 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.

Well, isn't it odd that today, when LANL is up to 20,000 new papers
annually, that that alternative still does not seem to have caught on,
and Physics journal submissions continue to proceed apace?

Nor is it difficult to see why: For vanity publication (I am afraid I
must persist in the pejorative usage, particularly in this context, to
stress precisely what is at issue) does not count very much toward the
promotion of either one's findings or one's career. In general, the
academic reward system relies on reliable, credible quality control and
certification -- as do the users of the literature (which, as I keep
recalling, is still both constrained and sign-posted by the invisible
and visible hand of peer review); it is not only promotion committees,
but readers who would be overwhelmed and helpless without it.

The preprint dimension is a splendid, indeed revolutionary supplement to
the classical system: The scope and scale on which new findings and
ideas can be disseminated immediately, even before being vetted for their
quality and reliability by experts, is exhilarating and will no doubt
increase the scope and scale of Learned Inquiry -- although I don't think it
will do see nearly to the degree to which the even more revolutionary
feature, the freeing of the refereed corpus, will. And the interactive
possibilities -- commentary and peer commentary, on work both before
and after peer review -- will be revolutionary too.

But quality control must persist -- and along the classical lines
(until an alternative that does at least as good a job is first found
and tested): The invisible hand of peer review must continue to be made
visible, reliably sign-posting the literature for the otherwise hapless
Hitch-Hiker in the PostGutenberg Galaxy, be he a member of a promotion
committee or just a journeyman researcher trying to contend with the
swelling literature.

> 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.

I do consider the self-archiving of preprints to be extremely important
and desirable. I was responding there to the special case of CLINICAL
MEDICINE (in the context of the E-biomed initiative), where public
health might be at risk from wide distribution of unrefereed claims.

I actually believe that the clinical community will be able to set up
reliable safeguards without too much difficulty -- public-health
vetting that is short of peer review but filters out dangerous errors
and quackery from the unrefereed preprint sector of the clinical
portions of the biomedical literature in E-biomed. And the "R" (for
refereed; and "JX" for journal-name) sign-posts will also help to
distinguish what is safe to take seriously in the clinical literature.
(I even suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that a cigarette-like "potential
health hazard" tag could accompany all unrefereed clinical preprints too).

The option to "forget about preprints for now" was hence only directed
at clinical researchers, and only to dispel the red herring of public
health risk as a rationale for opposing E-biomed self-archiving
simpliciter: For the REFEREED clinical literature is certainly no
health hazard (one hopes!), and hence should be self-archived

I do not believe that the special case of this (soluble) health-risk
problem for the clinical literature generalizes to the literature as
a whole.

> > ... 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...

How much easier my job as Editor would be if all that authors had to do
was hold their hands to their hearts and state that what they have
written is sound, in conformity with the facts, competent -- in short,
worthy of the finite reading time of every busy researcher attracted by
the title who, in the old days, would have had that limited reading
time guided by the intrepid experts who had first done the hard
interactive work of getting the promising papers ship-shape and
certifying them as such!

> 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
> this?

You know what they say about good intentions! But to change the
metaphor: would you like to choose your daily food (or drugs) not
after prior FDA vetting, but... what? post-hoc opinion polls?

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 2380 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 2380 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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