Re: The forgotten importance of editors

From: Ransdell, Joseph M. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Wed, 18 Aug 1999 17:01:44 -0500

NOTE: The message below was sent to the list on August 5th but Stevan
reports that it did not reach him owing to the list being moved, and
that he agrees that it is relevant and he would have posted it had he
been aware of it. I am resubmitting it at his request and without
alteration and using the same subject line to avoid any possible
confusion. The message to which it refers is one by Stevan of the same
date. (JR)

I will continue to post what I believe to be pertinent to the purposes
of the forum, Stevan, and you will have to decide for yourself whether
to silence me on certain topics or not. The present message is
indisputably pertinent, in any case.

I do not recognize myself at any point in your most recent message. I
am not primarily interested in the unrefereed literature, for example,
and regard myself as a defender of peer review, which I am confident I
understand quite as much about as you do. But I think it would be
useless for me to try to correct what you say point by point. As far as
you and I are concerned, I will just state my views as clearly as I can
and leave it at that.

This message consists of (I) an explanation of the basis in experience
which I draw upon in coming to the conclusion that building archives is
not enough for the purpose of encouraging people to self-archive their
work either with the aim of changing current journal practices or the
broader aim of facilitating the general movement toward the integration
of the internet into the professional life of academicians. I follow
this by (II) an account of the three factors I have identified thus far
that inhibit people from self-archiving. For these and perhaps other
difficulties to be overcome grass roots development work is required
field by field, by people in the field, comparable to the work Paul
Ginsparg undertook in moving his research community to the use of the
LANL preprint server, though precisely what this will consist of will
vary, field by field, and cannot be identified in advance. Archive
building can be helpful but is far less important than field specific
development work, which is yet to be supported.

The reason for my interest in this topic is close enough to yours at
bottom that I would have expected a sympathetic understanding rather
than the wildly inaccurate misdescription you come up with whenever I
attempt to interject an alternative point of view on the problems being
addressed here. It would not be necessary for me to stress our
opposition as greatly as I do if you did not yourself take such an
exaggeratedly adversarial stance on the basis of any possible pretext,
as if any disagreement with you is a sign of foolishness or incompetence
and must be stamped out by any verbal means necessary. In any case, my
qualifications for having an opinion on this, in addition to being a
tenured philosophy professor in a American Research II university and
president of the professional society in my area of specialization,
which has an extensive international as well as national constituency
and is concerned chiefly with matters in logic, philosophy of science,
and theory of representation which pertain to many of the topics
discussed here, is that I have devoted some ten years to network
development for the purpose of accustoming faculty in particular to the
use of the internet in their professional lives, some five years of
which have been focused largely on self-archiving in particular. Since
my experience is importantly relevant I will provide this information
through a narration of my activities during this period. Those not
interested in the experiential basis for my conclusion can omit PART I
and proceed to PART II where I list the three major inhibiting factors I
have identified thus far. PART I should indicate, though, how remote
you are from understanding my concerns as regards network development.

PART I I caught a vision of the future of networked scholarship some ten
years ago (1989), pursuing it initially in connection with a project for
liberating a vast corpus of work of extraordinary quality in logic and
philosophy of science which was and still is entombed in paper and is
being parceled out to the learned world at such a glacially slow rate
that it will be decades before it is made fully available. (Thus
whereas your focus has been on liberating the journal literature mine
was originally on liberating the textual literature which the humanities
live by. Many of the same elements are paralleled in the two cases,
though there are some differences as well.) I had never been on line at
the time, but knowing the possibilities I could see that this material
should be digitized immediately and then distributed not through CD-ROM
but by being made unrestrictedly available on the internet at a resource
center which would provide facilities of connectedness and scholarly
interaction that would not only make that material universally available
but provide a paradigm of what hypertext principles combined with
networking technology can do for humanistic scholarship generally by
encouraging formal and informal collaborative activity of a kind that
scientists are accustomed to but which humanists have traditionally
shunned. Essentially, what I envisaged from the beginning was what we
now think of as a website that would provide access not only to the
document base mentioned but also to the secondary literature, including
as well links to all work relevant to it in other ways (as in citation
linking and the like, for example) and providing simultaneous seamless
access to communication with other researchers so that documents could
be worked with in common in real time.

I assembled a team of five people recruited from other universities
around the country who caught the vision from me. This team touched
every base required as regards expertise and professional connections,
and included a solution to the problem of copyright as well by including
as a sixth member pro forma a representative from the Harvard philosophy
department (an individual who holds the premier chair in philosophy in
this country), which owns copyright of the material. Since funding from
humanities sources is minuscule, we approached NSF and one of the
program directors there was sufficiently impressed to fund a two-day
symposium of 30 networking experts ranging across the whole spectrum of
"stakeholders" and technical expertise, who inspected our plan as a
pretext for establishing some common understanding among themselves
about what was happening.

This was in the summer of 1992 and at that time there was still very
little communication about matters of common concern at that level since
the congressional funding in December of 1991 for what was then called
the "National Research and Education Network" (NREN) had caught many
people by surprise. Our plan was endorsed by the symposiasts, we were
apprised informally that we had but to ask for funding and it would be
given, and then . . . nothing happened. Defeat was snatched from the
jaws of victory when two of the five members of the team announced that
changes had to be made which would, in effect, have converted it from an
open access project as described above into a scaled down in-house
project that would benefit only the pre-existing paper-based editorial
project which one of them directed. Omitting motives and details, they
were intransigent and that was the end of it.

That left me with a choice of going back to work which I had put aside
two years earlier or trying by other means to realize the original
vision. Since there was no question but that the aim was technically
and practically feasible and appropriate to the needs of the time, I
initiated the second attempt and, among other things, started up a
discussion forum, which I still manage, for the purpose of establishing
an international user community that could be drawn upon for support in
various ways. The reason for taking this approach was the advice given
by the only one of the symposiasts who seemed to have an adequate
overview, who was a representative from Apple Computer: where others
were fixed on elephant parts, he was looking at the elephant as a
whole. In commenting on our project he remarked that although it had
interest both as a librarian database project and as a computer systems
project, what we should be focusing on was the question of whether there
really is a user community out there. People were simply assuming that
if you built an ideally conceived system of communication people would
of course use it, whereas there was actually no evidence to support
this. You can see the pertinence of that to the present situation,
where there is little evidence that people are actually going to be
willing to self-archive in spite of the seeming reasonableness of the
assumption a priori.

A second opportunity to establish something like the original project
arose some two years or so later when I was told by a program director
at LANL who had learned of the rationale of the project through
participation in the on-line forum I had established, and who
appreciated the intrinsic worth of the material, that the project was a
prime candidate for development work there especially because of the
interface challenge, and I was asked to come out to Los Alamos for a
week to meet with other parties who would be invited out at the same
time who might be willing to support it. I had to decline the
opportunity even to investigate that possibility further, though, when I
found that I could not count on cooperation from the person now in
editorial control of the pre-existing paper-based publication project,
who was adamantly opposed to the kind of reconceiving of publication
practices that electronic networking entails, and this cooperation was
essential for it to work at that time. Again, I had occasion to choose
between abandoning the idea and getting back to the work that I had put
on hold earlier or trying some other strategy.

I had just about decided to cut my losses -- some five years of work by
the time I had reached this point -- when it happened that I gained
access for the first time to the web in graphical form. I knew about
the web from its beginnings, but I was until then limited to accessing
it only in text form because there was no internet provider in town and
the university was not yet supplying the right connections, and the real
import of it had not dawned on me because it seemed at first to be
merely a supplement to the kind of access that the gopher and ftp system
was providing. I realized immediately, though, that something much
more important than that was going on there, and that the giveaway of
the do-it-yourself materials for constructing an on-line site was
actually providing -- or would in due time provide -- the basis for the
sort of on-line environment which we had earlier intended to construct
from the ground up using grant money. I realized at that point, though,
that the priority would have to be given to amassing an increasingly
valuable basis of secondary material through linking and self-archiving
rather than giving priority to the primary material, until some reason
would exist for having another try at freeing the latter from the paper
archives, where it is still entombed. From then until now -- some five
years -- I have been focally concerned with trying to understand why
faculty in particular will NOT take advantage of the opportunities
networking offers, including the opportunity to self-archive, regardless
of whether it is refereed material or not.

For purposes of self-archiving, I have provided a site which is ideal
for the people in my academic area of specialization because what is
archived there is publicizable directly to others in the same field via
the associated discussion forum, and there is little incentive for
people to self-archive unless there is reason to believe that someone
likely to be interested in one's work will be looking for it in the
place where it is archived. The discussion forum itself is one
subscribed to by all of the "establishment" figures in this specialized
field who are active on-line, including the editor of the paper journal
associated with the corresponding professional society. Since I am
myself the president of this society this year, which is an honorary
appointment carrying a corresponding prestige, there is also this
further assurance of legitimacy, and one of my aims during this year of
tenure in that position is to establish some formal legitimization which
will have the effect of integrating the on-line community with the
traditional community and thus with the "official" journal for this
field, including the aim of moving the journal itself into a dual
publication mode so that there is a "seamless" integration of the
traditional and the electronic publication practices. Thus there is an
ideal situation established for promoting self-archiving, and it is open
to both refereed (i.e. prepublished) material and unrefereed material.

(PART II) Getting people to use it is not easy. People can be
persuaded one by one to archive a paper provided one is willing to spend
one's time persuading people one by one to do that, though there are
always some who cannot be persuaded at all. I have identified three
major hindrances thus far.

(1) A major deterrent for many is fear of being regarded by others as
desperate for recognition or as being "pushy" in seeming to be trying to
push their work off on others: in other words, fear of being sneered at
for using the archive as a "vanity press". It isn't a matter of whether
the paper is or is not peer reviewed either. Many people are averse to
being thought of as "beating their own drum", and will go much out of
their way to avoid giving that appearance, and this has nothing to do
with whether the paper has been refereed or not. Sorry to keep pushing
that, Stevan, but that is how people are regardless of how irrational it
may be, and it is a much more potent deterrent to self-archiving than
you might think. Both pride and sensitivity to prestige are involved in
this, and your insensitivity to this factor alone indicates to me that
you have not done much of the grass roots work required.

When people put something up on my website, I have to do it for them for
technical reasons. Now, in doing so I don't formally approve their
work, though I would just refuse to post stuff I thought was junk, but
then I've never received anything like that so far. But I frequently
find that it is important to say something to indicate that I think the
paper should be put up because it is of some value, not just because I
believe in the principle of self-archiving. My saying this justifies
them in doing so, and, again, this has nothing to do with whether or not
it is a refereed paper or not. In other words, they put me into the
role of an approving editor even though I am not actually functioning as
one except in a highly attenuated sense. Now to suppose they think of
me as a "peer reviewer" misses the point by introducing a conception
that is just spinning its wheels in this context: people look to other
people whom they know and respect for recognition of their worth, and it
is the decision-making editor that does that by performing the act of
publishing or making public, not the peer reviewer as such.

(2) A second deterrent is peculiar, I think, to people outside of the
hard sciences, particularly in the humanities, namely, the unreflective
belief that it is not their job as faculty to familiarize themselves
with and use the underlying mechanical instruments of communicational
composition, such as the HTML formatting programs. This conviction that
the merely instrumental is beneath them has settled deeply into the
humanities in particular because the instruments of communication -- the
paper, ink, and binding technologies -- have remained basically
unchanged for so long that they have long since become the specialized
expertise of the librarian and publisher, whom the faculty regards by
tradition as laborers in their service. Thus there is a disdain for
concern with tools -- a definite attitude that one should NOT be
concerned with tools -- which often sets the humanist apart from the
hard scientists, who realize that tool construction is a part of the
inquiry process and cannot simply be handed over to servants as a chore
to be done for them. This shows in two ways. First in the
unwillingness of people to master the craft required themselves and a
hesitation about imposing on me to do that for them, since they regard
that as using me inappropriately, perhaps suggesting some subtle
disrespect. And second, on my end of it, as a developer, the problem is
that nothing I do along this line counts as proper academic work, since
there are no categories under which tool construction falls, and I
cannot put the time into it which is required at this point because I
have long since run out of what I used to think of as spare time.

(3) To self-archive, authors require personal motives, not just general
principles about the need for a free literature. Those who are most
likely to be in favor of the general principles that self-archiving
supports are also those who are most vulnerable professionally, and this
for obvious reasons: people who are well-positioned are typically
suspicious of radical change because it means that the effects of it are
not known -- it wouldn't be radical change otherwise -- and therefore
they would be putting at risk their present comfortable position, power,
and privilege for something highly uncertain. So of course they will
often be suspicious and sometimes reactionary in the extreme.
Visionaries are not all that common among those who can afford to take
some chances, and the last thing that profs without tenure are going to
do is to make enemies among editors -- of all people! -- and among
influential tenured profs in general who can wipe their careers out in
many different ways without ever explaining why, unless their idealism
over-rides their desire for academic survival or they think they have
some extraordinary protection. Challenge copyright by seeing if
publishers will enforce it? Forget it. A few heroes are not enough to
make any difference. In short, self-archiving is fraught with danger
for anyone without tenure, and those with tenure are likely to be
unwilling to go to the trouble involved in doing it because their
professional life is already going satisfactorily enough without doing

These things can be overcome, but it will be in virtue of individual
persons here and there who are willing and able to put their time in on
development work that focuses on changing academic practices in
particular fields in which they have firsthand understanding of the
problematics, not by establishing ingenious facilities of use in
abstraction from the realities of those that might use them. The LANL
archives that you take as your model were developed step by step by Paul
Ginsparg through experimental modification of pre-existing practices, as
is readily evident both from his papers at the website
and from the message he posted a week or so ago in clarification of a
good many points about how development occurred there. That is why it
worked. Self-archiving will not occur in the way you hope for where
there are no people like Paul who are willing and able to take time away
from their primary interest in their field to do the kind of careful
work required, and Paul cannot do it for other fields. Archives with
sophisticated facilities of access, reference, and manipulation are
wanted, but in themselves they are very weak attractors. The
construction of such archives does not in itself address the human
realities -- the practices and traditions -- that must be understood and
worked with patiently.

Those who want to convert academics in general to the really effective
use of the internet will want to focus on finding out how to support
grassroots development -- field or area specific development of on-line
practices -- to make the archives work. My experience suggests that if
nothing is done along this line, as has been the case so far, things
will continue to change at their present glacial pace, apart from
occasional special developments here and there, as at LANL. Neither
computer science nor information science holds the solution to this

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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