Re: Publication at LANL as involving peer review

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 15 Jul 1999 12:28:39 +0100

On Wed, 14 Jul 1999, Ransdell, Joseph M. wrote:

>sh > [SELF-ARCHIVING] is the "model" and the take-home message
>sh> of LANL, and not merely, or primarily, the self-archiving of
>sh > unrefereed preprints.
> what is of special interest [is LANL] as a means of primary
> publication, with unfiltered preprints as the basic publication items.

As long as LANL co-exists, as it does, with a refereed journal
literature, and virtually all of its contents are concurrently submitted
to, and eventually destined for, that literature, it simply cannot be
described as a means of primary publication. It is merely (among many
other things, and I am here in no way belittling LANL but rather
insisting that there is much MORE to LANL than this) a faster means of

Yes, there are remarkable things being done with that added lead time,
and with the fact that it is all available online and for free
everywhere, but that's far from the whole story. And the take-home
message is certainly NOT that the rest (the submission of all those
papers for peer review, the reliable follow-up of the revised, refereed
drafts) is in anyway dispensable; on the contrary, the power and
success of LANL are completely parasitic on that invisible and
subsequently visible quality-maintaining constraint of classical peer

Here is my empirical prediction: Eliminate the classical peer review and
LANL will devolve into the anarchic, uncharted and un-navigable anarchy
of Usenet's NetNews (as would any domain of human endeavour if it
ceased to be held accountable to quality standards.)

(I hope it is clear that the current quality and usefulness of LANL
preprints is NOT evidence against this prediction; the prediction is
simply not being tested while the invisible hand of peer review remains
in place. It is pure speculation that LANL could continue to be what it
is, if instead of being just a SUPPLEMENT to peer review, as it is now,
it became a SUBSTITUTE for it.)

> you are arguing... that the fear of filters future takes the place
> of filters present. But there is no reason why the physicists
> depositing in the archives should fear future filters when the
> publication of their work in an unfiltered form can provide the basis
> for corrective improvements by eliciting critical feedback.

Let me count the ways:

(1) It is not "fear" but the knowledge and expectation of
accountability (to editors, referees, promotion committees, granting
agencies, etc.).

(2) Peer review is not and never has been just a go/no-go "filter": It
is an interactive, dynamic, corrective feedback process, sometimes
proceeding through several iterative revisions and re-refereeings,
leading (if successful) to a certification that is more a go/no-go
sign-post for the (otherwise besieged and bewildered) READER than the
author; for the author it has been a much more continuous and
multidimensional upgrading process.

(3) Let us lay to rest at once the fantasy that in a world in which all
there is is self-archived raw manuscripts, the (besieged, bewildered)
"peer community" can be counted on to somehow sift through all that
anarchic sludge (AT LEAST as conscientiously as classical referees did,
when specifically selected to do so by a competent and respected peer
editor, to whom they knew the author would be accountable in acting
upon their referee reports) and FIND what needs the feedback, PROVIDE
that feedback, and have it ACTED ON in such a way as to turn that
sludge into something more like the refereed literature of today: On
the contrary, without the invisible hand, one could not even rely on
the raw sludge turning into what the LANL PREPRINT literature looks
like today!

> ...there is a real sense in which peer review does occur at this
> point, subsequent to the act of publication rather than preceding it.

Yes, GIVEN that the invisible hand is in place. But what if it were not?
Vide supra.

> The people who download the preprints are peers and they do critically
> review it. avoid merely verbal dispute let us call it something
> else: "critical peer response". is not the invisible hand of peer
> review that accounts for the maintaining of quality in the LANL
> preprint server system but rather the prospect of encountering the
> manifest reality of critical peer response.

Well, we are clearly at a point of factual and inferential disagreement
here. "Peer response" to the unrefereed preprints is certainly an
important, new, and even revolutionary dimension to the overall
self-corrective process of science (which does not, by the way, stop AFTER
publication either), but I don't for a moment believe that that is the
PRIMARY force keeping LANL's preprint sector honest. That is
the invisible hand. (And LANL's at least as important REprint sector is
the visible hand!)

> That the desire for acceptance in the full-blooded sense is the
> motivating factor underlying quality in preprint publication, is a
> testable hypothesis, I would think, though some may think it too
> obvious to require testing.

On the contrary: As I said in a prior response, this "hand-on-heart"
substitute for classical quality control would decidedly need to be
tested to be taken seriously. The road to Usenet is paved with good

> ... the reason why
> it works for those fields is that the people who are there to respond
> to a preprint publication via the server are peers who are working at
> the leading edge of the field and who recognize that what is made
> available there via the server is to be treated as primary publication
> and responded to accordingly.

I will await more systematic and empirical analyses of the remarkable
historical developments in physics and preprint self-archiving in this
decade before drawing conclusions about why it happened in physics
first, what may or may not be unique to physics in it, and what
relation it may have to the refereed physics literature, or the need
for it.

ONE empirical hypothesis seems worth testing already: Will the value
of PREprint self-archiving generalize to the rest of the disciplines?

And one obvious LOGICAL implication of the fact of LANL does not even
require testing, but calls for immediate APPLICATION now: The value
of (refereed) REprint self-archiving -- freeing the refereed literature
online -- WILL generalize to the rest of the disciplines.

> Paul Ginsparg did not create the community of
> preprint users that is the underlying reality of the science the server
> system at LANL serves...
> Thus neither NIH nor the BMJ nor the Caltech people have it within their
> power to duplicate the Ginsparg achievement: it can't be duplicated by
> building archives and inviting people to use them, but only by finding
> existing practices, if there are any, that can benefit from the use of a
> system like this and enabling them to do so.
> ... if a field is not coherent and mature enough in its pre-existing
> practices to use a preprint server effectively as a means of primary
> publication, it just will not work...

Too many inferences and interpretations here. Here is what can be said
with confidence: LANL has shown that PREprint self-archiving would be a
promising thing to try in other disciplines too, and REprint
self-archiving would be a sure thing to succeed in other disciplines

> Much of your response assumes that you have to defend peer review. But
> I haven't questioned its importance or validity at all so there is no
> reason for me to respond to that part of it.

Implicit in your interpretations about what is going on in LANL, and
where it is going, are assumptions (in my view, incorrect ones) about
the causal role of peer review in all this. I have simply made those
assumptions explicit, along with the evidence and arguments against

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 2380 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 2380 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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