Re: The forgotten importance of editors

From: Ransdell, Joseph M. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Wed, 4 Aug 1999 11:37:03 -0500

Apology accepted, Stevan, and I appreciate your willingness to re-read
my message even though the yield was meagre. You ask:

SH> Now just what proposition of substance have I missed?

The main point of substance is a claim on my part that your analysis of
the publication process is faulty in not taking due account of the role
of the editor in the process, owing to your mistaken understanding of
the role of peer review. The result of this is that your self-archiving
initiative is based on an inadequate understanding of the problems that
must be addressed if self-archiving is to be successful.

You might ask "Well, why not wait and see?" The answer is that I would
do that if it weren't that you have set others in motion, such as those
at NIH and at Caltech, whom I am concerned about because your advice to
build archives is not going to be sufficient for them, and I am
concerned that in the absence of a realistic understanding of the
situation they will establish administrative structures which should not
be established. But I will address only the basic analytic error here.

The error in your analysis is apparent in the message to which I am
responding, where you say "Editors are a part of classical peer review.
. .", whereas in fact peer review is normally a part of the editorial
process, possibly performed by the editor him/herself acting as peer,
possibly by one or more other persons specially commissioned for the
task. The same mistake is implicit in the following passage from your
response to the immunologists:

sh> Journals will continue to be the publishers -- but their
sh> role may well shrink to that of providing and then
sh> certifying the quality control. The rest of publishing
sh> will vanish (for refereed journals).

What has also vanished here is the editor, who is reduced to providing
for and then certifying the quality control exercised by the peer

Well, not completely vanished perhaps: there is still the puff of smoke
left by the mysterious operation of certification, here assigned to the
editor rather than to the peer reviewer. However, this leaves it
unclear whether you mean that the editor certifies the peer reviewer,
who certifies the paper, or whether the editor certifies it directly,
drawing upon the information about the paper provided by the peer
reviewer. There is more than a quibble here since you are referring to
a supposed office of certification that occurs somewhere in the
publication process, and since the power of such an office and the
conduct of its officer has serious consequences for authors -- their
very jobs may be at stake -- one wants to be able to locate it

Also, one wants to know how editors acquire such an office to begin
with. Are there tests that editors must pass that qualifies them for
wielding such power? Who composes the tests and certifies that the
editors have passed them, and why are those persons given such power
over the selection of editors? What are their qualifications? Surely
power like this is not distributed on the basis of "old boy" preferences
and the like. But then who prepares the tests for THESE people and thus
validates them? You understand the logic of the argument here.

The answer is not "Oh, well, the old problem of who guards the guardians
has been around for millennia and we can't be expected to solve that
here." The answer is that there is no solution to that problem and the
idea of certification is nonsense in this context for precisely that
reason. There is no function of certification that occurs as part of
the peer review or editorial process. There are no guardians of the
type you think must exist because there can't be.

Modern science might fairly be said to have begun at the moment it was
intuitively recognized -- recognized in practice -- that there are no
guardians of the type you are trying to accommodate, and they aren't
necessary after all. (The high energy theoretical physicists realized
that anew, intuitively, and in practice, when the developments in
communications technology laid bare the basic realities of scientific
inquiry again, and the movement which you are presently leading was
born.) Unfortunately, the end of medieval science occurred after the
university traditions of authoritarian learning were already firmly in
place, and those traditions haunt us yet in many forms because the
institutional structure of the universities has never been reformed but
only mechanized. Among those ghosts that still haunt us is the
certifier above the inquiry process, the authority at the top looking
down on the process from without with the power to intervene in it to
separate sheep from goats by providing keys to the gates guarding
publication to the sheep in the form of "certifications". Your image
of the "invisible hand" is quite appropriate for characterizing this
ghostly presence.

Your conception of peer review is defective, involving an illicit
introduction of anachronistic university administration functions into
the inquiry process, where they have no business being. Research
science is not a creation of the universities, and is still only
partially integrated within them, where it sits uneasily because its
inveterately egalitarian ethic -- which is built into its
communicational practices -- is at odds with the rank hierarchical
structure of the universities. To see how much at odds they are you
might consider the fact that both the LANL archives and the world wide
web were created by science where it was not under control of the
universities and ask yourself whether either of them could have been
created in the universities.

It may be impossible for universities to be other than they are. The
staying power of the authoritarian structures of rank and privilege are
certainly impressive, and I have no recommendations for reform along
those lines myself because, after 30 years or more of trying to imagine
what such a reform would be like, studying the situation from the point
of view of an insider, I have been unable to come up with any viable
alternative. (No, I have no grievance against universities: I have
always been treated justly and respectfully and think it remarkable that
people would actually be willing to pay me to do what I do.) Thus it
may be that the tension between the implicit imperatives of science and
those of the university are irreconcilable, which means that
accommodation must continue to be sought rather than full agreement,
assuming science is to continue to be supported by the universities.
But then this has been the situation all along, as science has been
partially institutionalized within the universities in this country
beginning in the last century. But accommodation is one thing and
corruption is another, and the process of research science is corrupted
when authoritarian practices derived from the institution accommodating
it, whether it be the university or the government or industry, is
unwittingly allowed into it as part of its normal process. That is
what is happening when peer review is misconstrued as a certification
practice that occurs within the publication process.

Sometimes a shift in perspective can dispel a confusion. I ask myself
when a philosopher -- meaning a person in my discipline -- would have
occasion to say something like "This paper has been certified
(validated, legitimated) by peer review because it has been published by
a reputable peer review refereed journal"? I can't imagine such a
thing. One would snicker uneasily, wondering what could be meant.
Certified to be what? True? Validated as officially valid? Stamped as
authoritatively good? Nobody has given any editor of any journal, much
less any peer reviewer, the authority to make such pronouncements in
word or deed, implicitly or explicitly. And my field is almost
completely controlled organizationally by the organizing focus of the
refereed journals, to which nobody, including myself, makes any
objection because that is the sea in which we swim. We all have
opinions, quite various because our interests are quite various, about
the worth of this journal and that, some are mainsteam and some more
marginal, and so forth. But no one translates that into talk about
certification or validation. All of the talk here in the September
Forum about validation and certification as the function of peer review,
and of refereed journals as functioning chiefly to provide the peer
review validation function, is completely unreal, as regards philosophy
at least, and in view of the fact that philosophy itself includes people
with interests and connections in every discipline in the universities,
I do not think this can be regarded as an idiosyncrasy of the field.

I stop at this point without having explained a number of things, one of
which I think you should understand in order to put what I say into
proper context, the lack of which causes you to look for explanations of
what I am saying and even the meaning of what I am saying in the wrong
place. I should have made clear to you before where I am coming from as
regards what qualifications I have to be talking about these matters
here. I am not speaking from a basis in a priori speculation but on
the basis of experience comparable to your own in some respects, in
connection with matters clearly relevant here, especially to
self-archiving. But I don't want to overburden the present message.

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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