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

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2001 12:34:20 +0000

On Sun, 18 Feb 2001, Greg Kuperberg wrote:

> On Sun, Feb 18, 2001 at 06:11:52PM +0000, Stevan Harnad wrote:
> >
> > Could this be (and I am not asking this ironically), an elite
> > minoritarian opinion?
> ...all of their work is taken as interesting just because
> of their names. But except for degree, this is true of most people
> who contribute to the arXiv. Most of us have solid reputations.

(1) Can this really be true of even (most of) the annual ~30K authors
in arXiv?

(2) And even if (mirabile dictu) it were, would it scale to (most of)
the annual ~300K authors in physics/maths/astro journals worldwide?

(3) And then scale from there to (most of) the annual 2 million authors
across all disciplines and around the world?

Has the growing and time-consuming exercise of peer review for over a
century been a waste of time, where NAME-RECOGNITION and SELF-POLICING
would have vouchsafed the same quality without all that waste of time and

These are rather strong conclusions to draw from the actual data, which
indicate only that of the 10% of phys/math/astro authors who
self-archive so far, SOME of them say they can make do with unrefereed
preprints alone, from which they in turn infer that peer review is
therefore unnecessary and name-recognition and self-policing is
therefore sufficient -- even though peer review proceeds apace, and
virtually every one of these authors continues to submit to and be
answerable to it.

> In mathematics (and presumably in most of science) you can't protect
> your reputation from error just by saying, "sorry, that was just a rough
> draft!" As I mentioned before, all drafts in the arXiv are permanent.
> In my opinion that does encourage meticulousness and honesty.

But does it scale to the rest of the Gaussian distribution of human
endeavour and quality? (In research? Then why not not in egg-production
too? And why shouldn't we pick our doctors (and medicines) on the basis
of name-recognition and self-policing too, dispensing with the delay
delay and expense of degrees and accreditation?)

> Another point is that the entire math arXiv is still "minoritarian".
> It is generally used by more active and more talented people who want to
> disseminate their work quickly.

These initial conditions: could they not lead to unrepresentative
population generalizations about the sufficiency of name-recognition
and self-policing?

(The only sure generalization from this is that everyone, not just the
most active and talented, stands to benefit from enhancing the
potential accessibility and impact of their work through

> It is an embarrassing topic, but there
> are sick fields in mathematics in which dissemination is a low priority.
> In these fields the math arXiv is a non-starter. To be fair, there are
> other fields that are lively but have not caught onto the math arXiv
> for other reasons, such as lack of leadership.

Maybe the leadership is needed at the institutional level, rather than
at the disciplinary level. After all, it is from the institution that the
"publish or perish" constraint is felt most directly. Since the
publishing imperative is for the sake of research impact (in the broad,
not just the ISI/citation sense), and since self-archiving is for the
sake of maximizing impact (by maximizing access), let us hope that
Universities will be able to find the right carrots and sticks to get
all their researchers' refereed research not just published but also
publicly self-archived in their universities' Eprint Archives, freely
accessible to all the rest of the world's researchers, to the benefit
of one and all.

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
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Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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