Reflections on Skywriting

From: Duncan Williamson <>
Date: Sat, 5 Feb 2000 13:43:07 +0000

Dear Prof Harnad,

Someone writing to a discussion list on the Web pointed me in the
direction of your work and if you don't mind I would like to share a
few reflections with you. I should stress that what follows is a
mixture of the relatively trivial and the more substantive.

In general, I have been an advocate of what you seem to call skywriting
for a while now and laud the efforts of those who see the opening up of
the learned word as both good and as something of an end in itself. I
note in your paper The Invisible Hand of Peer Review that there are
many concerns to such an open stance as you recommend: the fields of
science and medicine being areas in which approximations and falsehoods
that follow on from the premature publication of ideas may be
disastrous. Such preprints may not be so problematic in other areas of
work, of course.

I was interested in your assertion (?) in your Scholarly Skywriting and
the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Enquiry paper that "... many
[scholars] still don't even use it [the computer] for word-processing
...". On what do you base this assertion since I find it incredible. I
don't say you are wrong, I simply say it seems incredible to me!

Now to Post-Gutenburg Galaxy: the Fourth Revolution in the Means of
Production of Knowledge. This is an interesting paper but I initially
wonder about one point. I concede that language and writing would
probably be accepted by everyone as momentous events in the evolution
of a knowledge based society. I then start to wonder that you wait
until moveable type for the third revolution. I just jotted down a few
ideas that again I think most of us would accept as revolutionary in
their time and wondered on what basis you rejected these in the
arguments put forward in the debate on the means of production of
knowledge. I thought, for example, of the plough, machinery in general,
developments in chemistry and developments in sanitation, health and
medicine. This list is practically unending, were we to write it all
down. I think, therefore, that you have been too selective and too
direct on your selection of what might influence the production of
knowledge. My own list clearly leaves a huge gap between the first
language and the first written symbols and the development of the

Nevertheless, moveable type came along well after Arkwright's spinning
Jenny, Compton's Mule, Townsend's Turnip improvements ... and so on.
Even the developments in Steam Engine technology and Charles Babbage
and his work preceded moveable type by a considerable margin. Each of
the inventions I mention came along when, by your definition, perhaps
they should not have. That is, aren't you saying that the agrarian and
industrial revolutions were out of time yet they were at the very least
knowledge based? Isn't your interpretation of cause and effect in the
production of knowledge rather too literal? Otherwise, how do you
explain some of mankind's most significant steps forward being ante
rather than post revolutionary, as it were?

Back to Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of
Scientific Enquiry. A few ideas caught my attention here.

When talking of plagiarism and so on that might follow in from self
archiving, aren't we at, or getting to, the point where the electronic
tagging of papers is feasible? I realise that one needs only to retype,
or even scan, a paper into a new file for at least some tagging to
become lost, but how many people will spend their time on such things?;
and with a truly available archive as you suggest, they are more likely
to be caught anyway. We now have openly available routines for
teachers to be able to test for plagiarism in student projects and
assignments, don't we? Is plagiarism the problem we think it is?

Of course, I am sure all academics feel even if they cannot prove, the
conspiracy theory relating to those in the know and those who aren't:
those whose papers always succeed and those whose papers have to go
through the mill. I would comment that a truly open archive could act
positively on the conspiracy notion in that we will all be aware of
what everyone has done and is doing and will have a much more level
playing field to play on. For example, I know of learned Professors in
my own area who have never published alone, they always publish
jointly: I worry about this yet an open archive would allow me to
compare the work of their collaborators with the work of the Prof and
this would help me to evaluate the brains behind the plot!

I am not convinced that your suggestion for a vertical and horizontal
dimension of quality control is anything other than the
electronification of the existing paper bound system. That is, you seem
merely to be transferring to a computer based system, a manual
operation. My worry here is that any stifling that occurs today would
continue into the future. If we have the hierarchy that you suggest,
then I don't see the difference between then and now. In terms of truly
scholarly papers, I cannot help but concede that a thorough review
process is called for. For an open archive, however, in which the free
flow of ideas might be the main raison d'etre, papers either will
become buried in the vanity press or will still not be added to the
database because of a lack of trust, perhaps: back to conspiracies. My
conclusion here is that you seem to be mixing two systems: the existing
closed system of truly scholarly research (for want of a better phrase)
and the open self publicising free for all. After all, the Los Alamos
Physics example is proof, perhaps, that people will publish given the
opportunity, come what may.

On to Free at Last: The Future of Peer-Reviewed Journals

Again, an interesting paper but here I am afraid I think you have
opened a can of worms! My worry in this paper concerns the
Subscriptions/Site-Licence ... payments that Libraries currently
suffer. In your paper you state that we would see a "... reduction and
eventual elimination of all Subscriptions/Site-licence ... expenditure
[S/L/P]". I don't believe you have taken the thought process far
enough. I don't believe for a minute that by keeping the paper out of
the library, that the library itself ceases to be. In order for the
papers and so on still to be available, albeit in a different medium to
that of today, there still needs to be an infrastructure: at least a
terminal and keyboard, mouse, wires, electricity supply, chair, light,
heat, someone to look after these things ... There will still be a
library, there will still be costs. If you have evaluated the marginal
costs of electronic provision and found that you believe libraries will
save money, I would like to see you calculations!

Secondly, I simply cannot accept for a moment that any savings from
S/L/P will go anywhere near satisfying the demands that you set out in
your paper. I wish I could give you chapter and verse on this but I am
not a tax/Government finance historian. However, if we were to return
to the nineteenth century, and before, if I am not mistaken, we would
find taxes and duties being levied for specific purposes: a war tax, a
tunnel tax, a road toll ... simple ideas: we would have been able, at
least to an extent, to say income from tax revenues in order to finance
a war with Prussia = x, expenditure on the war with Prussia = x, or
thereabouts. Let's go back to 1947, I think it was, and the birth of
the National Health Service in the UK. Along with the NHS, as it now
is, came National Insurance payments: to pay for the health service
that was then made available as a free good for all: Income matched
with Expenditure.

Look at Government finances now and try to find distinct relationships
between Income and Expenditure. The Road Fund Tax does not go directly
into a pot that finances road building, road repairs and road
maintenance ... The so called health tax on tobacco and alcohol are
similarly absorbed by the tax system; and our State Pension Fund
contributions have yet to meet a State Pension Fund: it simply does not
exist, hence the hue and cry about there being too many pensioners on
the horizon.

I believe the same applies to University/Library financing. There are
too many sharp eyed and avaricious Wolves and Hyenas out there to allow
a Library or Academic Department to retain the savings in the way you
suggest. I understand that your own University, Southampton, operates
a devolved budgetary scheme that enables faculties and departments to
self-manage their income and expenditure: my experience at other seats
of learning tells me that when the chips are down, systems become
malleable and disposable! Sorry to appear to so cynical; but reality
must set in.

Moreover, you would need your financial system to be able to track the
savings you refer to across the vast expanse of future time. As time
goes by, it will be less and less practical for you to maintain your
stance anyway: the bookkeepers simply wouldn't or couldn't do what you
would like them to.

I think your paper The Invisible Hand of Peer Review has some eminently
sensible concerns spelled out in it: I think you should link this paper
to your other papers since it will be too easy for some of your
readers, I hope this doesn't sound to pompous, to be carried away with
the main ideas you have which are excellent; but The Invisible Hand is
a slap in the face that some zealots might need!

To cut these reflections short, however, let me just add one final
thought. I know there is good and bad in everything and I know that a
lot of what you say has me as an ally since I am already converted to
the philosophy you outline. However, I wonder how someone like Gregor
Mendel would fare inside the new electronic publishing order? I am
neither a scientist nor a geneticist; but I think I know that Mendel's
work has been under suspicion ever since he published it. Mendel's work
on genetics has always been tagged with the label of "fixed". Yet, few
would arguer that genetics and the attendant science seems to be valid:
look at the furore over genetically modified food and say that there is
nothing to genetics. Again, maybe somewhat cynical but a sufficient
note on which to end.

In conclusion, I will say that I will be watching out for developments
in this area and thank my internet discussion list colleague for
introducing your work to me.

As a matter of interest, as I was mulling over your work, I came across
the following; and I give not as a religious warning of doom and as an
admonishment, rather it stuck me as just a good thing to say in

    "But God forbids us to blazon our good deeds on walls and windows,
    lest they become mere monuments of pride and worldly pomp."
    (Langland, William (14th Century England) Piers the Ploughman)

Yours sincerely
Duncan Williamson
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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