The preprint is the postprint

From: Greg Kuperberg <greg_at_MATH.UCDAVIS.EDU>
Date: Mon, 27 Nov 2000 12:03:28 -0800

Subject: The preprint is the postprint

As I understand it, Stevan Harnad envisions the transition to open
archives as taking place in a specific order: First we shall free the
literature, preserving the dichotomy between unrefereed preprints and
refereed postprints, and then we will consider whether or not peer review
needs to be restructured. I think that the mathematical literature,
at least, should go and is going in a different direction.

TeX, the Internet, and the math arXiv have been steadily erasing the
difference between the preprint and the postprint. There was a time
when postprints were better edited, better typeset, better distributed,
and more permament than preprints. These days most published math
papers are only slightly better edited than preprints, and sometimes
not at all; only slightly better typeset, and sometimes not at all.
If a preprint is in the arXiv, it is at least as permanent and at least
as widely distributed as any published paper. So the main remaining
difference between preprints and postprints is that postprints are
"peer reviewed", meaning that they have been anonymously refereed.
Sometimes the referees suggest important changes, but such suggestions
are equivalent to those that from other colleagues. Peer review of
math papers, then, is little more than a state of mind. By analogy,
book reviews are certainly useful, but they do not change the books
themselves, only the readers' impression of them. The arXiv inevitably
relegates anonymous journal refereeing to the same role.

To be sure, many mathematicians still see a dichotomy between "preprints"
and "published papers". For example many authors omit the arXiv numbers
for papers that are also published. However even these people contradict
their habits as bibliographers with their habits as readers. Everyone
assumes that different versions of a paper are usually roughly the same.
And if there are important differences, a crucial correction is almost
as likely to show up in a post-published e-print, or in a future paper,
as in the original published version.

So in my view the dichotomy between preprints and postprints is
somewhere between fictitious and artificial. And I think that instead
of postponing the peer review question, the right approach is to try
to restructure peer review around the math arXiv. So far we have only
succeeded in taking it half way, and only on a small scale. There are
now three journals, Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics,
Geometry and Topology, and Algebraic and Geometric Topology, that are
arXiv "overlays"; they systematically contribute all of their papers to
the arXiv, and they systematically contribute the typeset copy as a new
version of papers already in the arXiv. See

A more radical approach is to review arXiv articles without distributing
them at all or claiming possession in any way, indeed without even
consulting the authors. This is what Quick Reviews does in the field
of quantum computation:

Admittedly Quick Reviews is a primitive effort, but it may well
represent the future.

Regardless, the steps towards integrating peer review with the arXiv
(both the conservative experiments and the more radical ones) are not by
any means a distraction from the ultimate goal. They add to the arXiv's
reputation and they help attract new submissions. We don't want to pull
the rug out from subscription journals and leave peer review suspended
in mid-air. Rather we would like to work with journals and reviewers
to build the new system.
  /\  Greg Kuperberg (UC Davis)
 /  \
 \  / Visit the Math ArXiv Front at
  \/  * All the math that's fit to e-print *
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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