Re: The significance of the LANL preprint server

From: Ransdell, Joseph M. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 15:27:10 -0500

A passage from Charles Phelps' recent message bearing on the NEJM
position indicates why it is important that the preprint server function
of LANL not be compromised or downplayed in significance.

> Yet a widespread and widely used NIH system would
> make it impossible for the NEJM to boycott manuscripts placed on the
> e-server (just as the physics journals could not boycott articles
> posted on Los Alamos). This is the major source of Dr. Relman's
> concern.

The development of other preprint servers is clearly a powerful lever
for change of the sort wanted, but in what other fields can it be
implemented in a way similar enough to the LANL implementation to have
the corresponding sort of effect that Phelps notes? The mere existence
of a preprint archive is not in itself enough to put any pressure on an
existing paper journal. For that to work, it has to be a preprint
server functioning as a means of primary publication, doing exactly what
refereed journal articles do or aim at doing in the course of inquiry in
the field, for otherwise there will never be enough pertinent material
available on the server to provide the motive. Without that it is just
a paper tiger.

thuis the successful extensibility of the principles of LANL is not
simply a matter of building e-print archives and inviting people to use
them. It depends on being able to identify preprint servers proper as
distinct from servers used as the basis for discussion forums and
perhaps other kinds of professional communication as well, which in turn
depends on understanding them as functioning as instruments of primary
publication. I introduced the term "primary publication" earlier as an
especially defined term of art, using Lederberg's conception of the
primary scientific literature as its basis, because it will prove to be
of the first importance in practice to be able to distinguish routinely
between server-based systems of professional communication that are
devoted to publication in the strong professional sense from those that
are not. If we can do that then it will be possible to focus efforts
effectively on (1) developing other such preprint servers proper and (2)
developing further media of professional communication, such as forums,
without confusion as to what we are accomplishing thereby.

What is special about primary publication, which occurs for the purpose
of affecting further research in a field directly, is that it is treated
in a special way by other inquirers in the same field and the person
putting it forth understands that it will be regarded that way and
proceeds accordingly. This is the source of the constraint on the
author, regardless of regardless of whether what is put forth has or has
not passed through a previous peer review filter. As regards the
content of those constraints, I refer the reader to the earlier
quotations from Lederberg, who captures very well what is at issue in
all primary publication as far as the researcher is concerned, namely,
the anticipated response of respected peers to one's work, which could
perhaps be summed up by saying that in primary publication one wants the
publication to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY. Ideally, the response of others to
what one makes available as author would be in the form of simple
acceptance by them so that one immediately changes thereby the course of
inquiry in that way. But even an explicit rejection, with reasons
given, is better than simply being ignored; for one has actually
affected the course of inquiry in a subtle way even when one's intended
contribution has not been found persuasive by anyone else: a road not
taken by others has at least become a part of the tradition of inquiry
by being marked off within it as an unused path.

Is there a problem in practice about distinguishing authentic preprint
servers -- ones that really are means of primary publication -- from
ones that are not? In practice, there could be marginal cases difficult
to decide, but by and large I doubt that there will be much confusion if
people understand the difference between a preprint server system and a
discussion forum to begin with: it is an empirical difference for which
empirical criteria can be supplied, and the marks of the authentic
vehicle of primary publication will be reasonably salient in practice, I
believe. But if no such distinction is drawn, then there will indeed
be confusion (as there is confusion now) and the attempt to extend the
principles of the LANL server system, as developed by Ginsparg, will
fail because the attempt to construct them will not be realistically

If Paul Ginsparg's paper are carefully studied with this in mind, I
believe it will be clear that Ginsparg understood from the very
beginning what had to be done to insure that what he constructed there
at LANL is what I am calling a place or vehicle of primary publication,
and it will be obvious that it was not his skills as a computer
programmer that created it but his understanding of the nature of the
professional practice he was porting to this new medium. He didn't
create this practice of primary publication in his field ex nihilo.
Primary publication was already going on in the invisible college of
high energy theoretical physics (hep-th) before Ginsparg ported the
practice to the LANL server, just as primary publication is happening
now wherever invisible colleges still exist: if there are any such
fields in biomed, say -- fields where people exploit privileged access
to preprints to establish or maintain their position at the leading edge
-- then the conduct of the field(s) is already based on unrefereed
material, and the people in such fields are merely being hypocrites if
they express outrage at Ginsparg's preprint server system, which is the
invisible college made visible and scientifically responsible through
its universality. They should be ashamed at not having already taken
steps to legitimize their present practices, as Ginsparg did for his
field. But maybe there are no invisible colleges in biomed. I don't
know anything about that.

In any case, we can take what Ginsparg has done together with what
Joshua Lederberg has already contributed to the understanding of the
very special character of professional publication and develop from that
a perspicuous conception as a guideline for identifying places or
instruments of primary publication. And with this clearly understood,
we can not only encourage the development of those wherever feasible but
also explore other and in some ways equally important forms of
professional communication that do not serve the same purpose but do
serve important collateral and supportive functions: the sciences and
scholarly disciplines, considered as communicational communities, are
not devoted solely to performing acts of professional publication.
Lederberg is right in isolating that as the most fundamental and
essential of all such communication because it is communication of the
sort that changes the course of inquiry directly -- and is therefore
subject to the most rigorous of constraints. But the conversion of
faculty to on-line publication will require a much more thoroughgoing
conversion of professional life than can be accomplished by focusing on
primary publication only.

In sum: what the success of the LANL system shows as regards some
fields, at least, is that the system of critical constraints -- the
critical dimension of inquiry -- cannot be adequately understood solely
in terms of peer review conceptions as currently understood. It does
not imply that peer review should be reformed but does suggest that the
concept needs to be re-examined to get clear on precisely what it has
been and is doing. That peer review should be abandoned as a practice
is not so much as a possibility; for it is not something tacked onto a
science or a scholarly discipline but a part of what makes it such.

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

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:45:35 GMT