Re: A Note of Caution About "Reforming the System"

From: Greg Kuperberg <greg_at_MATH.UCDAVIS.EDU>
Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2001 09:27:51 -0800

On Sun, Feb 18, 2001 at 12:08:03PM +0000, Stevan Harnad wrote:
> But that is all part of the normal evolution of peer review
> (implementation) anyway. It has always taken advantage of new media
> (xerox, fax) to try to do things faster and more efficiently. That is
> not at all the kind of fundamental and speculative change that is being
> advocated without supporting evidence by the would-be "reformers"
> (including the outright eradicators) of peer review..

It isn't that I want to eradicate peer review. But the journal refereeing
system is quite rigid. For a long time people will argue that "if it
ain't broken, don't fix it". In my opinion the arXiv puts at least two
big dents in the image of math journals. First, since you like to talk
about "access barriers", refereeing itself is the single biggest access
barrier to journal papers in math, simply because it takes so long.
Yes, journal cancellations and on-line passwords are a nuisance, but
they have never been as bad for me as the enormous delay. (Admittedly
typesetting is also a big delay. Suspiciously it is comparable in
length to refereeing in most disciplines even though the time to referee
varies widely.)

Second, to the surprise of many new users, arXiv articles in the
aggregate are about as good as published papers. Yes, there is the
"invisible hand theory". You might be firmly convinced by this theory,
but most of us are firmly undecided.

> Please ask your colleagues [to] participate in the survey:

I filled it out. It has some interesting questions but it is twice
too long.

> > Even if you don't like me giving myself as an example, it is certainly
> > not true that "everyone keeps submitting everything for refereeing".
> > I gave an example before: The arXiv article q-alg/9709040, by Maxim
> > Kontsevich, isn't published. This is hardly a forgotten, rejected draft
> > either. Kontsevich is famous, and the result in that article is one of
> > his crowning achievements. Indeed, q-alg/9709040 has earned a far more
> > prestigious form of peer review than journal publication, since it was
> > read and recognized by the Fields Medal committee. Prestigious though
> > it may be, it is also "post hoc" from any viewpoint.
> Alas, it is hard to draw empirical conclusions from an N of 1...

There are very few people who are hip enough to use the arXiv but who
don't have to worry about employment or promotion. Many such superstars
who don't use the arXiv have been generating important unpublished
material for decades. For example some math papers cite "letters of
Pierre Deligne".

In the arXiv world, Kontsevich is not the only example; there is also
Bill Thurston. Other people in a similar position have told me that
they think that journals are superficial, and that the only reason that
they still publish is to please other people, either journal editors
or administrators.

In addition many people who still do worry about promotion
have some unpublished drafts. Occasionally these papers are important
to a reader. For example I have cited a paper of John Stembridge which
is "exclusively on his home page". But these are not necessarily good
counterexamples to your these, since the authors are generally unsatisfied
with their papers.
  /\  Greg Kuperberg (UC Davis)
 /  \
 \  / Visit the Math ArXiv Front at
  \/  * All the math that's fit to e-print *
Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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