Re: problem of the Ginsparg Archive as self-archiving model

From: Joseph Ransdell <ransdell4_at_HOME.COM>
Date: Tue, 5 Sep 2000 09:11:43 -0700

Andrew Odlyzko wrote:

> The main incentive for scholars to insist on free access
> to their papers, though, is this is the way to get them read.
> Easy availability is essential on the Internet. Some criticize
> this trend, claiming it produces superficial impressions, an
> overload of material, etc., but instant gratification (even
> if it "saps the moral fiber of society," in the words of
> critics of some earlier technological innovations) is the
> way we are going.

I think the case is much stronger than that, Andrew. Internet
means that critical response is timely and the quality of critical
response is bound to be much higher when response is timely because of
the simultaneous availability of relevant context, much of which tends
to get lost very rapidly as the leading edge moves on.

> In spite of the slow pace of evolution of basic scholarly articles,
> I wholeheartedly endorse Stevan's (and Paul Ginsparg's) efforts
> to stimulate usage of eprint archives. I think Joseph is wrong
> about the need for some special kind of maturity on the part of
> a scholarly area to adopt such archives. I have seen many fields
> successfully switch to the use of such archives, and I am not
> aware of a single instance of any area that has then abandoned
> it, nor even of any area where a substantial number of people
> regret the move. Much more common are comments of the form
> "I don't know how we ever lived without this."

If a research community can ever establish itself to begin with as users
of the medium there is no reason why they should be expected to abandon
it later, unless it would be for "catastrophic" reasons. Let me
explain, though, what I have in mind by a catastrophic reason since this
may help to clarify what I mean when I talk about the necessity for a
certain level of maturity of the field in order to use something like
the Ginsparg Archive effectively.

As sciences develop they become dependent on increasingly sophisticated
and expensive instruments of observation and experimentation. NASA -- I
mean the entire operation there and everything it supports -- is an
instrument of perception for astronomy, the Fermilab is an instrument of
perception for particle physics, and so forth. Imagine a world economic
crisis that made it out of the question for this or any other country to
continue to fund such instruments, with such operations shut down for
several decades. This would be a "catastrophic" reason. What would
happen to those specialized fields of research which can go nowhere
beyond where they are at the time of the shutdown because they can't
access the data they have to have? Let us suppose that there were some
scientists who managed to hang on in spite of this for a couple of
decades, trying to keep the field going in hopes of later funding,
perhaps. They would doubtless keep working with what they already had
to work with prior to the shutdown and could no doubt continue for some
time to fill out a lot more detail on the basis of that. But as time
went on the lack of hard data would start showing itself more and more
in the theoretical disagreements among them, which would be increasingly
impossible to settle through observation and experimentation. And after
a decade or two the theories would be what the post-modernists think all
scientific theories are now, namely, just good stories, with more and
more good stories about the same thing proliferating ever more rapidly.

Now, how would that show up in their professional communication? Their
publications would get more and more spongy in their implications since
they cannot be implemented experimentally or observationally, there
would be increasing tendencies for the formal requirements to dissolve
so that readers would be unable to tell what would actually count as a
replication if one were possible since in fact none would be possible in
practice. Literary rhetorical devices would become increasingly
prominent so that the logic of their argument could not be effectively
pinned down. What were once research models would become more and more
like literary metaphors, and in due time what had once been a genre of
professional physics, let us say, would become a genre of science
fiction. As this occurred they would write less and less for one
another and more for the general public. And as this happened, the
Ginsparg system, if it continued in use at all, would start changing in
detail, and would either be abandoned or become something else.

For example, instead of the present arrangement of making an abstract
available by sending them to people who have listed themselves as
interested in this and that topic, so that people can make then make a
special request for a copy of the paper, there would be a tendency to
make the abstract itself more and more substantive so that it came in
time to be a looser version of the paper, and so people would
increasingly see no need for both and work with what used to be the
abstract only, and at the same time the distribution list for the
abstract would tend to broaden its criteria of distribution so that the
abstracts would be distributed to more and more people and finally all
would be distributed to all. Thus it would transmute into a listserver
medium, which is a broadcast medium, very different from the medium of
communication which Ginsparg constructed, unless it was simply abandoned
for a separate listserver arrangement at a certain point. I could
explain the reasons for this but don't want to make this message unduly

Now, as a manager of a listserver-based forum myself for more than seven
years, which has been, in my opinion, a genuine professional success in
which I take some pride, I do not speak disparagingly in describing the
passage from a Ginsparg-type Archive to a listserver based forum. One
could regard it as a degeneration in function, but only on the
assumption that formal research publication is somehow a higher order of
communication than the sort which can occur in a good forum. I don't
think that is true. In intellectual life you cannot always be
hyper-rigorous and formalistic without becoming intellectually
petrified. There is a place for formality and a place for informality.
The give and take and spontaneity of an extended question-driven
dialogue -- not a debate but a Socratically structured dialogue -- is in
some ways more valuable intellectually than the literature in which
research claims are made, and I do not think it is even correct to
regard it as involving an inferior logical form. BUT they do serve
importantly different functions, and Lederberg is right in insisting
upon the unique importance of primary publication as an especially
serious and highly controlled form of communication. Thus it is
important to recognize it as such and not allow it to be confused with
other forms.

Now, my imaginary case of the research field which, while attempting to
be such, kept degenerating towards being a purely literary activity,
would do so by leaving behind the Ginsparg Archive, either by modifying
it into something else or by an outright abandonment in favor of
something else, in order to keep their communication going. The
inability of this imaginary field to ground its activity in
well-conceived and critiqued research claims would quickly make the
Ginsparg system unusable because of its rigidity of function. It is not
a flexible medium because it is purposefully designed not to be a
flexible medium.

The application of this to the question at issue, about whether many
research communities can effectively use the archives, is that there are
many research communities which are, for one reason or another, limited
in a way similar to that described for the imaginary community above.
For example, there may never have been enough funding to develop the
right sort of instruments for a given field, or there may never have
been people in the field who were good enough as scientists to
understand what kind of instrumentation is needed, and consequently they
never have been able to make it beyond a certain point and have never
adequately established themselves around a generally reliable empirical
connection with their subject matter. This being so, editorial control
of the field by a few truly special figures may be necessary to keep it
hanging together in the way that is NOT required by the people in
Ginsparg's specialties. That is why it would not do them any good to
try to work from the Archive in its pure form, at least initially.

There are other reasons, too, why a research community would not be
able to handle it at first. It could be that the journal system in
their field has been abused by influential people who have used it to
keep themselves in control, and consequently the whole field suffers
from a kind of methodic demoralization because it has been made reliant
on critical standards being maintained a priori by an elite of editors
and their entourage rather than having become accustomed to exercising
critical control as a routine procedure of the whole research community,
the latter being what you have in the case of the fields that have
actually used the Ginsparg system effectively. Or again, it may be
that a given research field has never found its way yet towards
sufficient agreement on subject matter or on method to be much more than
a "wannabe" as a research field, though the aspiration is there.

These are some of the various sorts of cases I have in mind in
expressing some doubts about just how far the Ginsparg Archive in its
pure form can be expected to provide a basis for self-archiving on the
scale wanted. I am suggesting that some accommodations should be made
in encouraging self-archiving for that reason. That is, it should be
conceived in such a way that on-line communication less rigorous than
that associated with primary publication is encouraged as well. This
need not be thought of as in opposition to Stevan's project

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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