Re: Publication at LANL as involving peer review

From: Ransdell, Joseph M. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Wed, 14 Jul 1999 20:39:33 -0500

Thanks for the clarification of your position as regards the support of
the LANL model, INCLUDING the preprint server, Stevan. I find this
reassuring and I suspect I am not the only one. (Others may be
disquieted, of course, but . . .)

I think it is reasonable of you to prefer to assess the long-range
import of LANL in terms of its total development as a model exemplifying
a number of facilities that go well beyond what it was like originally.
What you are doing, in effect, is making it a showcase site by adding
all of the further features to it, and showcases are what are needed
more than anything else at this point. One can talk to people about the
wonders of networking as eloquently as you like and it will make hardly
any difference at all because if they are not already aware of what the
potentialities are they will not really understand what you are saying.
You have to be able to say: "Look here, I will show you what I mean."

However, I can't agree with you when you say:

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

Maybe that is the message of the future, but it is not self-archiving
that is the message of LANL as a model NOW, Stevan, but rather its
function as a medium of publication, and it will be quite some time
before the message it is now emitting fades away or is reduced to the
level of inconsequentiality. Things speak for themselves, and what is
of special interest about LANL to people (other than yourself) has been
and will continue for some time to be the fact that it hosts a community
-- perhaps several distinct communities -- of research scientists who
use its storage and access facilities as a means of primary publication,
with unfiltered preprints as the basic publication items.

Some people view this as a liberation, some view it with alarm as a
corruption. Both interpretations are doubtless questionable, but it
will continue to be problematic in just that way until clarity is
achieved on what is actually happening, and the concept of the invisible
hand just can't get hold of what is truly problematic there, which is
that the ongoing course of inquiry in the fields for which it serves as
a means of primary publication is being driven with the use of
unfiltered preprint material. Our disagreement is on why this is not
corrupting the science.

What you are arguing is that the fear of filters future takes the place
of filters present. But there is no reason why the physicists
depositing in the archives should fear future filters when the
publication of their work in an unfiltered form can provide the basis
for corrective improvements by eliciting critical feedback. What they
fear, if they fear anything, is not the future peer reviewers but the
disapproval of their peers who will be downloading and critically
inspecting what they make available there. Fear is not really the right
name for it, of course: the desire to be respected by those whom one
respects comes much closer to it, and it implies no abasement because
this is peer respect, which is the respect equals have for equals.

I don't think there is anything especially odd or preposterous in saying
that there is a real sense in which peer review does occur at this
point, subsequent to the act of publication rather than preceding it.
The people who download the preprints are peers and they do critically
review it -- or rather that is the norm that is taken for granted by
everybody concerned, namely, that making something public there is
making a claim, with reasons provided for accepting it, and making
oneself liable to receiving critical response. We need not call this
"peer review" because there are differences that are relevant and
perhaps it is best if we don't. So to avoid merely verbal dispute let
us call it something else: "critical peer response". My thesis, then,
is that it is not the invisible hand of peer review that accounts for
the maintaining of quality in the LANL preprint server system but rather
the prospect of encountering the manifest reality of critical peer

The purpose of making a claim by publishing something is to achieve
acceptance by one's peers of what one claims, and this is in the
full-blooded sense of "acceptance" where what is claimed becomes
incorporated logically and substantially in the work of others as a
premise or presupposition of their own further inquiry. This sort of
acceptance alters the content and course of the science as a process,
and is importantly different from having one's work accepted by an
editor on advisement from a peer reviewer, which makes a difference in
the science and in the convictions of one's peers only indirectly, via
the subsequent journal publication. That the desire for acceptance in
the full-blooded sense is the motivating factor underlying quality
control at LANL, strong enough to overcome the temptation to get sloppy
in preprint publication, is a testable hypothesis, I would think, though
some may think it too obvious to require testing.

In any case, I think it is equally important to see that the reason why
it works for those fields is that the people who are there to respond to
a preprint publication via the server are peers who are working at the
leading edge of the field and who recognize that what is made available
there via the server is to be treated as primary publication and
responded to accordingly. (See the earlier message where I used
Lederberg's conception of the primary literature of a science to define
"primary publication". He is not, of course, responsible for my further
use of the defined conception.) Achieving such a condition or status is
not something that is accomplished by setting up a computer system, no
matter how ingenious. Paul Ginsparg did not create the community of
preprint users that is the underlying reality of the science the server
system at LANL serves: it is not within the power of individuals as
such to create real practices like this. Sciences are traditions of
inquiry, processes extended across both time and space, with a life of
their own, and no individual is responsible for them. But he had the
visionary insight which enabled him to perceive what might happen if
that tradition he lives within was enabled to continue its practices on
the basis of a server system of the sort he instituted.

Thus neither NIH nor the BMJ nor the Caltech people have it within their
power to duplicate the Ginsparg achievement: it can't be duplicated by
building archives and inviting people to use them, but only by finding
existing practices, if there are any, that can benefit from the use of a
system like this and enabling them to do so. If such are to be found,
who are the immunologists or anybody else to condemn a scientific
community for taking advantage of that? Occasionally, perhaps, a field
will be found which is close enough to meeting the conditions required
that merely trying to use the server system will be enough to bring the
field up to the level of coherent practice that is necessary. But if a
field is not coherent and mature enough in its pre-existing practices to
use a preprint server effectively as a means of primary publication, it
just will not work and there will never be enough deposits in its
archives to achieve the momentum required. So what is there to fear in
all of this?

Much of your response assumes that you have to defend peer review. But
I haven't questioned its importance or validity at all so there is no
reason for me to respond to that part of it.

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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