Re: The preprint is the postprint

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 7 Dec 2000 14:04:02 +0000

On Wed, 6 Dec 2000, Greg Kuperberg wrote:

> On Wed, Dec 06, 2000 at 08:42:55PM +0000, Stevan Harnad wrote:
> sh> The analogy with food quality control (let us say, mushrooms),
> sh> is that the inspectors decline to certify a grower's mushrooms
> sh> ("preprints") as "fit for human consumption" until the grower does
> sh> whatever is required to produce mushrooms to that standard
> sh> ("postprints").
> You still don't rename them. It's not as if they are toadstools before
> certification and mushrooms after.

You are missing the point: It is "unfit for human consumption" before
(preprints) and "fit for human consumption" after (postprints).

The paper's name (title) does not change any more than the mushroom's
does. But if the quality-control has been substantive, it is NOT THE
SAME PAPER ANY MORE, as it has been substantively revised. By the same
token, the mushroom-grower is not coming back with the SAME MUSHROOMS
that were certified "unfit for consumption" last week, and having them
certified as fit for consumption this week; something about the growing
practises underlying this week's batch had to change in response to the
feedback from the FDA, if they are now certifiably fit.

> 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.

And irrelevant to the issue at hand, which concerns certification as
"fit for peer consumption" -- or, in keeping with the agricultural
analogy, and the journal quality hierarchy, an egg analogy this time:
"fit for use as Grade A, for those who wish to restrict their baking
to Grade A eggs."

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

I am afraid all you gave was anecdote and opinion. What we need to see
is the objective data (as Les Carr pointed out) on the size of the
preprint/posprint DIFF and all of the other quantitative
generalizations you (and I) were making.

I, however, have the advantage of being in the default position: The
null hypothesis is that the current quality of the peer-reviewed
literature (and hence the size of the preprint/postprint DIFF) is
causally related to the fact that it is indeed peer reviewed. The
burden of evidence is on those who believe there is no
preprint/postprint DIFF, or that peer review is not the causal basis of
current quality levels.

> sh> why [if DIFF = 0, do] mathematicians keep
> sh> submitting the "vast majority" of their work to the journals for
> sh> refereeing and certification anyway, for all the world EXACTLY like all
> sh> 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.

Nolo contendere.

> gk> research in mathematics is...
> gk> rigorous enough that self-appointed critics
> gk> can quickly earn credibility.
> >
> sh> Will this sort of anecdotal phenomenon scale, even within
> sh> 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.

Survey in the works (for a preliminary peek, see below; please send
suggestions to Cathy Hunt <>) We were planning
to do it only with Physics arXiv and CogPrints users, but if you'd
mediate, Greg, we'd be happy to survey math arXiv authors too):

But do you think other disciplines worry much less, a priori, about
a mistake or slip-up? No one wants egg on their face. But that's not
enough to guarantee they will keep their noses clean. (Quality control
is a "Quis Custodiet?" problem.)

> > > 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.

Again, all I can reply is that this sounds very unlikely to me.
Comments from others would be welcome.

> There is some truth in [the police-in-the-neighborhood] 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
> authority.

But can we agree that, as in the real-police case, we'd better keep
the police in place by default, until someone shows that a "compromise
between self-policing and formal authority" would serve better (and
show also what, exactly, that better compromise would be)?

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

Not if it takes longer to reform peer review than it would take to
free the peer-reviewed literature by self-archiving right now. And
not if it turns out that the prerequisite tests of the reforms fail
to show that they work, or work as well, as current peer review.

It's hard to imagine how one can accelerate something by making it
conditional on something else that could take even longer, or not
be feasible at all.

Anyway, opinions are opinions, and I think peer-review is a red
herring, and holding authors back from self-archiving, by giving them
the wrong impression that they might be giving something up by
self-archiving (e.g., their preferred journal, peer review,

But I admit that my subversive proposal -- that researchers can have
their peer-reviewed cake, just as they always did, and eat it too, by
self-archiving their preprints and postprints: -- has so far failed to
get researchers to do the optimal and inevitable. I am hoping that
distributed, institution-based eprint archiving, interoperable through
OAI-compliancy, will prove to be just the missing complement to
centralized archiving, that will get us all over the top at last:

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

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Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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