Re: The preprint is the postprint

From: Greg Kuperberg <greg_at_MATH.UCDAVIS.EDU>
Date: Wed, 6 Dec 2000 13:22:13 -0800

On Wed, Dec 06, 2000 at 08:42:55PM +0000, Stevan Harnad wrote:
> 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
> ("postprints").

You still don't rename them. It's not as if they are toadstools before
certification and mushrooms after. And I see a substantive point behind
this semantic one. A safety measure is not usually so inviolate that
it makes sense to rename the object of scrutiny. There are people who
divide society into "people" and "criminals". Surely you would agree
that that is belligerent terminology.

> > 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?

I already gave what I consider evidence, although I wouldn't it
expect it to sweep away deep skepticism.

> 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?

In my case, to get promoted. My own department is qualified to judge
letters of recommendation, which are an outgrowth of informal peer review
of my papers. But the higher administration is not. The administration
has taken ritualized peer review as a standard, even though the ritual
has sometimes degenerated.

> > 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?

This is more than an incidental anecdote; this is the daily diet in
my profession. If you don't believe me, you should take a survey of
mathematicians to see if they have ever worried that someone might find
a mistake, or a trivializing shortcut, when they give a talk. Maybe not
all mathematicians are afraid of that, but if your survey wouldn't find
many then I must be living on the wrong planet.

> > One interesting consequence of the [permanence] 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
> general?

In mathematics and hard science, absolutely. In other disciplines,
I don't know, but it could have merit.

There was a notorious affair in which a mathematician claimed a proof
of the Kepler sphere-packing conjecture, and even got it published in
an otherwise respectable journal, even though none of the real experts
thought that he had even come close. One of the problems in his case
was that he managed to hide certain blatant mistakes by discarding
early drafts of his preprints. And by throwing away the drafts he also
(falsely) undermined the criticisms of those drafts. More recently
a friend of mine named Tom Hales finished what could be a solid proof
of the same conjecture. I persuaded Tom to contribute his work to the
arXiv, and one of my arguments was that by doing so he would really put
his money where his mouth is. I have heard, by the way, that the journal
wants Tom to completely rewrite his proof, not because of mistakes but
for the sake of exposition. So the arXiv may become the only permanent
record of his *first* proof. See

> > 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).

There is some truth in that analogy, since many people say that police
only look effective when people want to obey the law anyway.
The invisible hand again. I think that the invisible hand principle
is at best a compromise between self-policing and formal

> 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...

In my opinion reform of peer review would indeed accelerate
the open archiving movement.
  /\  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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