The Minority makes, the world takes

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 7 Mar 2002 12:53:13 +0000

The Minority makes, the world takes

Stevan Harnad

In "Minority Satisfied, the world awaits"
D. Klemke wrote:

D. Klemke: "To suggest that to solve this whole problem of
"unsolicited" information by just using such a thing as "Peer Review"
is quite ludicrous. Although, yes it will filter some sites and render
a small part of the web "reliable" , it will still leave the vast
majority of this etherial library left unfiltered. "

D. Klemke has misunderstood the problem and the point. There is an
authoritative terrestrial library, the peer-reviewed journal
literature, on which scholars, scientists, students and the general
public could and did and and can and do rely.

Then there is the web, the etherial "library" (note that it is
"library" and not "etherial" that I have put in scare-quotes). This
etheriary FAILS to contain most of the peer-reviewed
terrestrial collection (YET: we are working on it; see the Budapest
Open Access Initiative, ) and in its
place it contains a lot of idle chatter (which normally would have
vanished as hot air, if left unrecorded or unspoken, as it is on earth.

Before the web, the contents of the terrestrial library were tagged
"written" and the homologs of the future contents of the etheriary were
tagged "spoken." To a first approximation, we need merely emulate
this sensible arrangement.

Within the newly immortalized chatter there are a few gems, to be sure;
and some brand new scholarly genres have also been bred by the web
(mostly in the form of individual instructors' generous and sometimes
ingenious instructional materials -- which may, I fear, though I hope
not, be destined to evolve into proprietary "distance education"
material, with toll-based access providing revenue to the author's
institution, perhaps sweetened with some royalties to the author, just
like today's written textbooks). This new genre will evolve its own
quality-certification tags.

But Umberto Eco's problem of "authority" (for scientific and scholarly
material -- I specifically pleaded nolo contendere for art) is clearly
not the above one, but the fact that most of the (peer-reviewed sector
of the) terrestrial collection is not yet airborne and freely accessible,
and what little there is of it is freely intermixed with hot air.

For if and when that authoritative literature IS all freely accessible
in the ether too, it need merely be tagged "peer-reviewed" (plus
journal name), exactly as it was on earth, and the authority problem
has dissolved.

S. Harnad: "But it is not; it is none of these things: the problem is old,
predates the web, and solved."

D. Klemke: "How can a problem that arose from the net itself predate
it? Although the theory of peer review has been around for some time,
and yes predating the web, it is not the solution to this problem, as
it will still only help those who have access to it. All we will have
is the most privileged having access to this so call quality

Alas there are a number of compounded misunderstandings here:

(1) Peer review is not proposed to filter the condensed chatter; the
peer-reviewed (and journal-name) tag is the means of filtering the
chatter OUT.

(2) To do that, we must first get the authoritative [peer-reviewed]
terrestrial collection airborn and free (for if it is financially
fire-walled as it was in the Gutenberg era, the chatter will prevail by
default, whether tagged or not). ("Free," by the way, means access to
it is not restricted to the privileged.)

(3) All that is required for a solution to predate a problem in a new
medium is that the solution should exist in the old medium but not yet
in the new medium.

(4) There is no "theory of peer review." It is merely the (common-sense)
practise of having qualified experts adjudge and certify the work of
their fellow-experts, and tagging it accordingly (by journal name) for
all users, rather than declaring that "anything goes" (as on the web)
and letting a Gallup/Google Poll of general opinion and popularity
substitute for the qualified expert judgment.

D. Klemke: "In my view I believe what Eco is trying to say is that
there is no real solution to filter the web and there will probably
never be on just because of the sheer size of the internet. "

And in my view, there is no solution because there is no such problem
to solve, any more than there was a problem of filtering all earthborn
chatter before the web: The way to filter that was to ignore it. And on
the web, that will continue to be the way, as soon as the authoritative
tradition takes to the air and becomes freely accessible to all --
while continuing to sport, prominently, its tag of authority.

PS: Before anyone gives in to the urge to cry "elitist," may I suggest
that you recalibrate your intuitions by first running through your
righteous indignation with medical expertise as your test-case (think of
an afflicted relative, and what sort of information you want your
physicians to reply upon). And then ask yourself whether the rest of
science and scholarship is really all that much less important, hence
ready for adjudication by google numbers instead of specialized
neurons, in a way that medical expertise patently is not.

Stevan Harnad

Harnad, S. (1990) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum
of Scientific Inquiry. Psychological Science 1: 342 -
343 (reprinted in Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991).
Received on Thu Mar 07 2002 - 12:54:27 GMT

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