Re: The preprint is the postprint

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 6 Dec 2000 20:42:55 +0000

On Wed, 6 Dec 2000, Greg Kuperberg wrote:

> Even if your analogy between the anonymous referee system and meat
> inspection were accurate, it would not necessarily justify the bias of
> giving separate names to "preprints" and "postprints". The authorities
> may inspect meat, but they do not dye it a different color and rename it.

Can I switch metaphors? (As a vegetarian, I regret the lurid one I
chose.) The analogy with food quality control (let us say, mushrooms),
is that the inspectors decline to certify a grower's mushrooms
("preprints") as "fit for human consumption" until the grower does
whatever is required to produce mushrooms to that standard

So it is not a matter of renaming the SAME mushroom that has been found
NOT fit for consumption ("preprint") as fit for consumption
("postprint"). The eventually certified one (if any) is not the same
mushroom, except in the special case (proportion unknown) where the
candidate meets the standard immediately, with no need for any changes
on the grower's part. (It is the proportion of such candidates that
immediately meet the standard, and, in the case of those that do not,
the degree of change required to produce those that do, that is under
discussion here.)

Greg is suggesting that, in the case of maths, either informal
self-solicited or ad hoc public feedback or both are sufficient to keep
things fit for consumption; no need (or less need) for formal peer
review. And I am merely asking for the evidence that shows that that is

> In mathematics informal review by self-appointed experts --- what you
> called vigilantism --- works pretty well. Most mathematicians are much
> more worried that any other mathematician might find a devastating
> error in one of their papers, published or not, than that the papers
> will be rejected by journals.

I am ready to believe you; but is it churlish of me to keep asking for
the evidence? and to wonder why, if this is so, mathematicians keep
submitting the "vast majority" of their work to the journals for
refereeing and certification anyway, for all the world EXACTLY like all
the other disciplines?

> When I write a paper, I have absolutely
> no control over who might read it and find a mistake, but I am free
> to choose the journal. And if I had bad judgement I might well use
> that freedom to my short-term advantage.

Fortunately, after you exercise the bad judgment of choosing a
low-standard journal, the community is as free to read and find fault
with your postprint as it was to do so with your preprint (but the
filtered postprint corpus just might be safer to invest their scarce
and precious reading time in than the unfiltered preprint corpus.)

> research in mathematics is...
> rigorous enough that self-appointed critics
> can quickly earn credibility.

Will this sort of anecdotal phenomenon scale, even within mathematics,
let alone the rest of the disciplines?

> policy that every version of every [arXiv] submission
> should be immortal. Part of the purpose of this is to sharpen the
> author's incentive to guard his reputation, i.e., to further strengthen
> the informal peer review system. Most mathematicians that I have
> spoken to greatly appreciate this effect.

First, it must be recalled that all this is happening as a supplement
to, not a substitute for, the formal peer review system, which, in
maths as elsewhere, is proceeding apace.

Second, though I too incline toward making archival deposits permanent,
I wonder whether it is a good idea (when authors are still leery of
self-archiving at all, and the whole initiative is still proceeding far
too slowly) to add on the deterrent that a paper, once archived, can
never be withdrawn, or withdrawn only with a permanent fanfare:

> One interesting consequence
> of the policy is that you can search for all of the "withdrawn" papers,
> meaning those in which the latest version begs the reader not to read
> previous versions:
> One proposed name for this list is "The Avenue of Broken Dreams".

Do you consider this to be an incentive toward self-archiving, in

> In my opinion the success of the math arXiv in general, and the Avenue of
> Broken Dreams in particular, is evidence that vigilantism in mathematics
> and physics really works.

But, if I may describe the cup as (in maths), 80% empty rather than 20%
full (~60/40 in Physics), and looking like it will take another decade
to fill at the present rate -- could it be that another approach might
help fill it faster? e.g., (1) promoting institution-based distributed
archiving as a supplement to discipline-based central archiving, (2)
clearly dissociating self-archiving from self-publication and
peer-review reform, and (3) perhaps being a bit less draconian about

> Most arXiv papers that are ever withdrawn are
> withdrawn before they are formally refereed, which in mathematics usually
> takes three months to a year.

The delay is appalling in all fields, but it is mainly a function of
the fact that refereeing is a scarce resource, performed generously by
peers on the golden-rule principle. For this very reason, it is hard to
imagine that referees have more time to referee ad lib and ad hoc for
arbitrary unfiltered preprints in an archive than they do when
formally invited by an editor (whose request they can always decline
if they lack the time or interest) to do so for a journal.

> In addition, most authors never do add the
> journal references for the arXiv listings, although I would prefer that
> they did.

The real basis for this bit of scholarly sloppiness is anyone's guess;
I doubt it is that formal peer review is not considered important by
these authors (the vast majority of whom, we have agreed, do seek it);
nor is it likely that authors disdain citations, which tend to be to the
canonical published version. (Preprint citation is rising too, but
only until the published version is available to cite.)

I'd be inclined to say it's because authors have not yet quite put two
and two together. (Otherwise they would all have conscientiously
self-archived all their preprints and postprints online long ago.)

> I know that your explanation of this evidence is the "invisible
> hand theory". I grant you that the journals do extend an invisible
> hand into the arXiv and that it does help some to uphold standards.
> But I believe that it is a relatively weak hand. I think that the onus
> is on the proponents of the invisible hand theory to prove its strength.

I'm afraid I disagree about where the onus is (as I suggested in the
analogy about where the onus is in the question of whether or not there
is any point in continuing to have police in the neighbourhood).

Peer review is in place now, doing whatever it does or doesn't do to
maintain the quality of the literature. You have agreed that the
presence of the arXiv has not changed anything on that front. So we
are just arguing about how to interpret what has happened, in parallel
with the existing system: You think archiving has somehow replaced it
(even though it's still in place exactly as before) whereas I think it
has only provided a way to free the literature -- but that's more than

Since we both think freeing the literature would be a good thing,
perhaps we should devote our efforts to doing whatever we can to
facilitate and accelerate that, rather than continuing to speculate
without data about hidden changes or causes.

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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