problem of the Ginsparg Archive as self-archiving model

From: ransdell, joseph m. <ransdell_at_DOOR.NET>
Date: Fri, 1 Sep 2000 17:57:13 -0700

I support your initiative as regards its basic intent, Stevan, but I
want to explain why I think it will not work as it stands, focusing on
the incentive problem. I indicated in my message of a few days ago that
one reason for my doubts is because you are trying to motivate
individuals apart from research communities. But I will not be pursuing
that further here but rather focusing on another problem in connection
with motivation, namely, the misuse of the Ginsparg Archive as a model.
But let me first describe your plan as exactly as I can, so that you can
correct any misunderstanding I may have of it and we can then pin down
the problem as exactly as possible.

Your goal or aim is, as you describe it, to "free the refereed journal
literature on-line". You take it for granted that this literature is
all going on-line soon, one way or another, and your aim is not to get
it on-line, since that will happen of its own accord, but rather to
eliminate all access restrictions to it once it is there. As you
perceive it, the major difficulty is posed by the policies of the
commercially owned refereed journals, which are accustomed to charging
access fees to the literature and will continue to do so in one form or
another whether publication is on-line or not. Your plan for achieving
your goal in spite of this is to encourage self-archiving of
professional papers, including functional equivalents of papers already
published or being published in the refereed journals, thus initiating
an economically determined process which you believe will inevitably
result in the elimination of such fees in due time.

Since the idea is to eliminate costs to the reader this plan shifts the
costs back either to the author or to somebody -- a third party -- who
benefits sufficiently from this kind of publication to be willing to
bear the expense involved in mediating the author's work to the
prospective readership -- the costs of publication, in other words -- or
at least is willing to share the burden of expense with the author. You
think the best candidate for this third party is the university, who
will subsidize the mediation, perhaps supervise it, perhaps even be
fully in charge of it. This is on the assumption, though, that this
third party would not impose access restrictions of its own.

Difficulties in achieving your goal can be divided into (1) those that
might hinder self-archiving, especially of the sort that will discourage
the publishers' policies of recovering costs and making a profit at the
expense of the reader, and (2) those that might interfere with the
economic process tending toward the "inevitable and optimal" end-state
where the literature is free in the sense both of being available gratis
and of being available to all with the technical capacity to connect
with the on-line archives.

Most discussion here has related to the second part of the plan, but
mainly in respect to the economic factors, the effects of the laws of
the market, and so forth. These do not interest me. There are other
problems pertaining to the second part of the plan that I think
important but which you regard as not discussable here, though it is not
clear why, since they pertain to the realization of your goal and could
certainly affect its success or failure. Most notably, these are the
problems implicit in the assumption that whoever acts in behalf of the
author in mediating (or financing the mediation) of the research paper
from the author to the reader will not impose access restrictions of
their own. The common sense dictum that whoever pays the piper is
likely to want to dictate the tune suggests that anyone who assumes the
former role of the commercial publisher might find reasons of their own
for restricting access in some way, and your idea that there is no
problem in this worth discussing if the agency is the university or a
multi-national consortium of universities seems to me extraordinarily
naive, but perhaps explicable in terms of your own background as a
British academician which may mislead you in trying to understand the
rather more volatile and sometimes rapacious character of American
universities. But however that may be, I am not concerned to push into
that topic here.

My concern here is only with the first part of the plan, the part that
depends upon a correct understanding of those motivations of authors
that will lead them to take the decisive step of self-archiving and,
moreover, of doing so with enough enthusiasm to set in motion the
changes supposedly destined to lead to the "inevitable and optimal"
result you are hoping for. Your plan for encouraging self-archiving is
to build or provide the software for building archives modeled on the
"layered" version of the Ginsparg Archive, with extensive and
sophisticated encoding and interlinking of its contents that integrates
them all into a world database which can be both accessed and analyzed
with the latest instruments available for these purposes. In other
words, make self-archiving as easy and as attractive as possible for the
authors and count on tapping their universal motive of making their work
available to others at no cost to them.

The weakness in this is in the description of the motive, which
everybody agrees with but which says much less than it seems to say
because it does not take into account the realities of communication,
one of which is that in order to say something to somebody it is not
enough to utter the words and make them public: the person addressed
must be in position to hear them and be willing to listen to them
attentively, especially when the words are in the form of lengthy and
difficult scientific reports.

Now, in the scientific and scholarly world the channels (methods, media,
customary practices) of communication that make it possible for one
person to actually communicate something to another about a
subject-matter of common interest are quite various, ranging, at one
extreme, from the subtle patterns and mores of informal communication
between close professional friends which make it possible for a couple
of colleagues to have a brief and highly allusive but sometimes highly
effective informal conversation about a technical or theoretical matter
to the highly controlled and formally rigorous discourse of primary
research publication, at the other extreme, with its formal claims and
equally formal objections and ensuing argumentation, which at its best
can be as choreographically and elegantly structured as professional
dance. Between these extremes of formality are a number of other modes
of communication which differ significantly from one another and have
distinctive roles to play in scientific and scholarly discourse: the
structure of debate, say, which is very different from the structure of
argumentation in research reports and responses, but has its own role to
play under certain conditions; the various forms of regulated and
unregulated group discussion; the structure of state-of-the-art review,
and so forth.

Has anyone ever tried to catalog these and figure out in a systematic
way what they respectively contribute to the overall scientific
understanding and how they do it? I don't know. I doubt it, though,
because of the way even the most obtrusive and important of these forms
of scientific discourse -- the primary research publication -- has been
neglected as a topic of study, though I believe things will be changing
rapidly in that respect in the near future. (I've remarked before on
the importance of Joshua Lederberg's explicit identification of primary
research publication as a distinct communicational form, his recognition
of its unusual importance, and his isolation of some of the key
components in it, and I will take that for granted here.) This sort of
communication is distinguishable first of all by its function of making
formal research claims, and what makes it so important is not that what
is said in formal publication is more important than what is said
informally -- many informal conversations are more important in moving
the field along than some primary research publications -- but rather
that the saying of it, the actual act of making a research claim,
triggers the most rigorous mechanism of critical control available to
the scientist or scholar. What is that? It is nothing more or less
than unconstrained and sometimes obligatory peer criticism in response
to a research claim which a peer of the researcher deems questionable.

Now we come to the point: what the research author wants is not merely
to write his or her results in the sky but to press them upon a targeted
readership -- his or her research peers -- in the special form of
research claims, the communicational vehicle of which is the primary
research publication. Why? Because the researcher aims at making a
contribution to his or her field, and the way you make a contribution is
to make a research claim and have it accepted by your research peers.
Now acceptance of a research claim is something that occurs when and
only when what the researcher has concluded and presents in the form of
a claim is in fact taken up and actually used by others as something
taken for granted by them in their own work. This is not acceptance of
a paper for publication, which may or may not lead to acceptance of
claimed findings or discoveries. This is acceptance of the claim
itself, wherein one person's research conclusion, presented to others as
such, re-occurs as a premise or presupposition in the work of their
research peers and enters thereby into the ongoing course of cumulative
growth of the science, shaping it in some way, small or large, as the
accepted claim moves into the knowledge base and enables further
questions to be raised.

>From the point of view of the individual researcher, this is research
success in the most fundamental sense, and is what all researchers aim
at, provided they have not lost their way, as sometimes does indeed
happen when they conclude, cynically, that what counts is not
understanding your subjectmatter but understanding the prejudices of
editors, who may also have lost their way by coming to regard themselves
primarily as gatekeepers whose chief task is to keep barbarians out
instead of mediators whose primary task is to bring authors and readers

It seems to me, Stevan, that in your zeal for the protection of peer
review practices you have lost sight of why people want to publish.
According to you, in one of many statements to the same effect:

SH > Authors work hard for recognition and certification
SH > by their PEERS, and it is the service of peer-review
SH > (refereeing) that a refereed journal implements (the
SH > peers review for free too!).

The first half of the sentence is clearly intended to convey that it is
the approval of peer reviewers -- as distinct from acceptance by one's
research peers generally -- that motivates normal publication since the
fictitious office of certification could only be imputed to peer
reviewers or editors; and the second part of the sentence characterizes
the research function of refereed journals as being that of
"implementing" this bogus act of certification. Now, publication is not
certification of anything. There is no office of certification of
research claims, and nobody appointed editors -- much less peer
reviewers, who are merely called in to assist editors -- to any such
task. If certification is a convenient fiction for some purposes, it is
still a fiction and is not helpful for our purposes. But what I
especially want to focus on in the present context is not the
authoritarian conception of editors implicit in that fiction but rather
the way it diverts our attention from the actual dynamics of inquiry by
focusing us upon what is, from the point of view of the author, nothing
more than a means -- often a very questionable means -- of effective
access to research peers.

Worse, we are asked to take as a norm what is in fact a professional
dysfunction; for something has gone wrong when a researcher is writing
for recognition by peer reviewers and editors rather than for his or her
research peers. I don't doubt that it happens. Everybody knows of
people, nominally successful and even professionally influential, whose
vita is as barren as it is long because they devoted themselves to
studying the prejudices of editors and other influential persons rather
than their research subject matter. This is one way to get ahead in the
world, but it is not a way to do science. There is something amiss here
and it bears importantly on your understanding of author motivation in

My guess is that had you not come up with the "invisible hand" argument
to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between your devotion to the
refereed journal, construed as a policing system based on peer review,
and your devotion to the Ginsparg Archive, which dispenses with
editorial and peer review policing altogether, you would long since have
recognized that there is no need to resort to such a questionable
hypothesis since the explanation of how critical control is maintained
in the research fields served by the Ginsparg Archive is readily
apparent when you look closely at how Ginsparg constructed the Archive
and ask yourself what would keep YOU in line if you were publishing
there. Fear of a possible future peer review by a person unknown whose
opinion will count only so far as some editor decides to take account of
it? I don't think so.

The fact that quality control is maintained in the fields served by the
LANL system can be accounted for easily enough if we bear in mind what
the critical control of research is based on: uninhibited peer criticism
by the generality of one's peers, which is at its most rigorous, intense
and influential when occasioned by the making of research claims. In
view of this, what motive does the individual researcher using the LANL
system have to maintain quality in his or her work? The strongest
motive available: fear of the development of a reputation for poor or
slipshod work -- irresponsible or incompetent research claims -- among
those peers whose opinion is of the most importance to the author using
that method of publication. The development of a bad reputation there
is a far more certain cause of one's research career being blighted than
is the negative view of a merely imagined and anonymous peer reviewer
whose opinion is never more than advisory, anyway. A rejected paper on
the basis of negative peer review can perhaps be published elsewhere,
but a damaged reputation arising from such direct communication is all
but impossible to rehabilitate because people often will not even bother
reading later work that might redeem an author's reputation because they
already have too much to read, anyway.

As regards The Hand, it cannot add anything to this owing to the fact
that the version of the paper submitted to the refereed journal later
need not be the same as the paper originally submitted in the form of a
preprint. Since the author certainly knows this, then -- if there were
no other factor compelling attention to quality -- the author would be
well advised to postpone the hard work of writing up a high quality
paper until later, initially submitting instead a preprint version
little better than a first draft, provided it presents the claim
interestingly enough to be likely to generate a critical response which
can then be used in strengthening the paper to be written later. Since
a critical response is all the more likely the more questionable the
claim made, provided it is provocatively stated, then -- if there were
no other source of control -- there should be a general tendency for
research papers in their first incarnation as preprints to be highly
rhetorical, exaggerated in their claims, sloppily stated and reasoned,
poorly documented, and composed with little attention to the niceties of
the polished professional paper. But although this sort of tendency was
predicted, this seems not to be the case as regards the preprint
literature in the Ginsparg Archive. The Invisible Hand hypothesis
cannot account for this -- the data you have compiled about how
preprints are slated to be replaced by refereed versions is just
impertinent -- and only serves to obscure the research realities that
should be recognized, which is what I believe to be the centrally
important thing about the Ginsparg Archive, namely, its success
constitutes an existence proof that editorial filtering is not required
for maintaining quality control in primary publication for at least some
research communities. (I omit here a discussion of the evidence for
believing that the Ginsparg Archive actually does work as a system of
direct primary publication for those fields for which it was created.)

The question then arises as to what the characteristics of those
research fields are which do not require special policing techniques in
order to maintain quality control and to what extent research fields not
so mature as those can make effective use of such a system. The
doctrine of the Hand has obscured the need to take that question
seriously since the answer is supposedly already given by reference to
the supposed virtues of the peer review system. Your assumption has
been that getting people to self-archive is just a matter of providing
software that enables people to upload, download, and so forth, given
their interest in making their work public. But individual researchers
have no interest in using a communicational medium that doesn't connect
them effectively with people in their research field, and merely
self-archiving their papers doesn't do that. Paul Ginsparg ported a
research community, or at least its nucleus, from one medium of
communication (the email distributed preprint) to another (the preprint
archive and server system), and any authentic emulation of his
accomplishment has to do something analogous to that. This can perhaps
be done, though nothing has been said here to indicate what that might
be other than what I suggested myself a few days ago. But the research
field he ported is exceptional in terms of its critical control
practices, and how many many such research fields are capable of making
effective use of a system like that devised by Ginsparg?

My impression is that because of your conviction that the refereed
journal system of communication is the be-all and end-all of scientific
communication you have thought of what Ginsparg did as being primarily a
feat of computer applications, whereas the real feat was in creating an
on-line system of primary research publication, which was a very
different sort of accomplishment. Let me quote a couple of passages
from an address of his of 1996:

PG > It is ordinarily claimed that journals play two
PG > intellectual roles: a) to communicate research
PG > information, and b) to validate this information
PG > for the purpose of job and grant allocation.
PG > As I've explained, the role of journals as
PG > communicators of information has long since been
PG > supplanted in certain fields of physics, so let's
PG > consider their other role. Having queried a number
PG > of colleagues concerning the criteria they use in
PG > evaluating job applicants and grant proposals, it
PG > turns out that the otherwise unqualified number of
PG > published papers is too coarse a criterion and plays
PG > essentially no role. Researchers are typically familiar
PG > with the research in their own field, and must in any
PG > event independently evaluate it together with letters
PG > of recommendation from trusted sources. Recent
PG > activity levels of candidates were mentioned as a
PG > criterion, but that too is independent of publication
PG > per se: "hot preprints" on a CV can be as important as
PG > any publication.

That seems straightforward enough as a statement of research autonomy,
in contrast with your view of the dependence of the LANL Archive on the
"invisible hand" of the refereed journal system, and he indicates
clearly in a later passage in the same paper that his intention was
specifically to create at Los Alamos a system for primary research

PG > It is important to distinguish the form of communication
PG > facilitated by these systems from that of usenet newsgroups
PG > or garden variety "bulletin board" systems. In "e-print
PG > archives," researchers communicate exclusively via research
PG > abstracts that describe material otherwise suitable for
PG > conventional publication. This is a very formal mode of
PG > communication in which each entry is archived and indexed
PG > for retrieval at arbitrarily later times; Usenet newsgroups and
PG > bulletin boards, on the other hand, represent an informal mode
PG > of communication, more akin to ordinary conversation, with
PG > unindexed entries that typically disappear after a short time.

How did he go about establishing the Archive as a place of primary
publication? First, he did this by so constructing it that the basic
necessary conditions of primary publication were met and its users were
made aware of this so that they would understand what they were doing in
depositing their papers in the archive. This included such things as
providing the software to be used in putting the contributions into a
form suitable for primary publication, requiring an abstract, setting up
a system of notification of availability to interested parties, dating
the submission, insuring against tampering, keeping successive versions,
and so forth. (Paul could perhaps be prevailed upon to fill in more
detail on this, but much can be derived merely from studying his
informal papers on the topic, which make it clear that he takes account
of all of the factors which Lederberg identified as necessary for
literature of this very special function.) His diligence and good
judgment in attending to these seemingly trivial details was the basis
of his accomplishment. His achievement in constructing that system was
not the achievement of a computer programmer but of a professional

Second, he also accomplished it by defending it against
misrepresentations of its functions, as he is doing in the passage just
quoted. Attempts to trivialize its significance -- which are attempts
to show that it is not a place of primary publication -- typically take
the form of mischaracterizing it by describing it in such a way that one
ignorant of how it actually works gets the impression that it is like a
chatroom or a usenet news bulletin board or a listserver based forum or
general discussion group or a MUD, etc., which are on-line
communicational forms rarely capable of functioning as places of primary
publication, whatever their value may be otherwise, because some one or
more of the necessary conditions for that are normally absent.

The bad news, from the point of view of your use of it as a model for
self-archiving, is that it is such a formally austere environment as to
be suitable only for a highly developed research community, accustomed
to independence from editors and peer reviewers because their regular
practices as scientists embodies a higher level of critical control than
the refereed journal system can offer. For all your admiration for
Ginsparg's accomplishment you have not been able to perceive the basis
for it in the exceptional character of the research communities
themselves, whose members have not required the kind of policing you
take for granted as the paradigm of critical control because their
normal practices already exemplify the paradigm of scientific
self-control in a more pure and developed form. Thus it apparently
hasn't occurred to you that it cannot function as the universal model
for stimulating self-archiving for that very reason.

I have no idea how many research communities like the ones that make
good use of the Ginsparg Archives there may be, but in reflecting on the
many reasons why a given research community might not be matured enough
to handle a system as austere and demanding as the Ginsparg Archive is
-- sometimes because of factors beyond anyone's control, sometimes from
situations in which privilege and power has corrupted leadership and
demoralized the research community, sometimes from continuing inability
to find agreement on basic research aims -- it quickly became clear to
me that it is not likely that we will find nearly enough fields mature
enough to set in motion the economic process you envision as leading to
the "inevitable and the optimal", even supposing the problem which I
touched upon in my previous message of recruiting research communities
rather than individuals has been solved. You may want to think in terms
of making common cause with the Digital Journal people and others who
take a more realistic view of what can be done.

Joseph Ransdell
Dept of Philosophy  806 742-3275  Home: 806 797-2592
Texas Tech University - Lubbock, Texas 79409   USA (Peirce Gateway website)
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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