Re: The preprint is the postprint

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 5 Dec 2000 16:38:02 +0000

On Fri, 1 Dec 2000, David Goodman wrote:

> Steve, I am sure you know perfectly well that there are
> more choices than:
> >
> sh> (i) that preprint quality and usability would stay at its
> sh> current level if there were no peer review OR
> >
> sh> (ii) that a hypothetical post-hoc "open 'peer' feedback" (by the
> sh> readers and users of the Archive) could substitute for the
> sh> quality-control function currently exerted by peer review.
> For example, there are peer-reviewed virtual journals, commercial or
> non-commercial, or any one of a number of arrangements that have been and
> will be devised.

I don't know what point you are making, David. The proposition was that
the non-peer-reviewed preprint is the same as the peer-reviewed
postprint, i.e., that peer-review is either non-existent or

I was contesting that, with contrary evidence.

What does the existence of "virtual" (i.e., online-only, I presume)
peer-reviewed journals, have to do with any of this? Peer-reviewed
means peer-reviewed. The medium is irrelevant.

And what are those "other arrangements" you have in mind? At issue is
the causal role of peer review in (hitherto) refereed research
publication, not whether the peer-review happens to be implemented
on-line or on-paper, by a commercial publisher or non-.

Please be specific.

> I also see no reason to doubt that those
> (including of course yourself) who
> have devised the current archives sturucture,
> and the current A&I systems,
> will be well up to the challenge of finding ways for
> sh> navigating, ... systematically evaluating and sign-posting
> sh> an unfiltered and unconstrained literature

Well I definitely do have profound doubts about that, and always have
had, and have always voiced them explicitly, including in refereed
publications that I have repeatedly cited here. I am not at all sure
that an unfiltered (i.e., non-peer-reviewed) research literature could
be navigated and sign-posted at all.

In fact, I suspect that if things ever did sink that low, the
literature would no longer be WORTH navigating and sign-posting. But I
don't for a minute believe things would be allowed to sink that low:
Peer review would simply be reinvented as soon as the consequences of
the removal of the "invisible hand" began to be felt by the research
community: The research literature would never be allowed to devolve to
the level of the Usenet chat group for which it would be destined if
there were no answerability at all (or only post-hoc "answerability" to
ad-hoc, self-appointed commentators).

Classical peer review may not be fully optimized, but it is a rather
sensible and time-tested way to sign-post and navigate an expert
literature: Let experts provide their expert feedback for achieving a
known quality level in advance, and then sign-post the outcome for
users accordingly. That's all there is to peer review. If anyone thinks
they have a better way, they better first show it works at least as

> I further suggest that what is holding back the wider adoption of these
> systems is not just
> sh> uncertain speculations
> but the refusal of proponents of the various schemes
> to accept the possiblity that others may have equally
> good ideas, and that judging by what

Who's refusing what? I myself am concerned only with one thing here:
freeing the current peer-reviewed research literature through
self-archiving, now.

There are those whose specialty is not freeing the peer-reviewed
literature, but with optimizing peer review. Those people are
researchers, and their research is on peer review, and on scientific
and scholarly quality-control in general. I am sure they would be
receptive to "good ideas," and to ways of testing them.

But if the "refusal" you refer to is the refusal of, say, refereed
journal editors (of which, wearing another hat, I happen to be one, in
fact two!) to jettison their peer review system and to implement one of
these "good ideas" in its stead, before it has been tested and shown to
work, then I think their intransigence is a very fortunate one for as
all -- just as the intransigence (in my shrill analogy from a previous
posting) of community officials about tossing out their law-enforcement
system and implementing an untested "new idea" would be an
intransigence we might all be grateful for.

> sh> sounds quite speculative, not to mention subjective, to me...
> is not a sufficient criterion.

Better than "untested, but let's just go ahead and do it anyway"?

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00):

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Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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