The Metaphysics of Thought (Comments on Casati:

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sun, 4 Nov 2001 22:48:29 +0000


        Stevan Harnad

Roberto Casati ("What the Internet tells us about the Real Nature of
the Book", in his section entitled the "Metaphysics of
the book" asks:

     << What is a book? >>

A book is the external encoding of thoughts, usually in digital
symbols, usually in a natural language, and formerly, in the Gutenberg
Era, largely on-paper, but now, PostGutenberg, increasingly on-line.

In speech we transmit thoughts orally. In writing we do so
graphically. Until audio recording, speech left no physical record
except in the brains of speakers and listeners (the Oral Tradition);
writing left an external physical record, and print multiplied it
indefinitely. There are other possibilities too.

Let us not confuse the message with the medium, the mental content with
the peripheral means of making it accessible to other minds.

     << When I say that I have read a book or remember it by heart, I
     am talking about the immaterial content. But if I say that I
     burned it, it is the physical support that I am referring to. If,
     on the other hand, I say that I have sold the book, I leave open
     the two possibilities. >>

Correct. The mental content is not the same as the physical vehicle
that happens to convey it. But just as important in this context is
another mental distinction, namely, whether or not the author of the
mental content wishes to give that content away (the
give-away/non-give-away distinction). Copyright law also reflects this
distinction, as it clearly makes provisions for protecting against
either theft-of-text (piracy) or theft-of-text-authorship (plagiarism),
or both, depending on what authors want.

Give-away authors want protection only from the theft-of authorship,
not from theft-of-text.

These two PostGutenberg distinctions are critical to many of the points
Casati makes (and misses):

     << take the case of a producer of cultural contents, a research
     scientist >>

I don't understand the category "cultural contents." I think it is too
general and heterogeneous to be useful in bringing PostGutenberg
reality into focus. But I do understand somewhat the work and
motivations of research scientists (and scholars). And when they
publish their research in refereed journal articles it is very
different from when they (or anyone else) publish anything in books,
for the simple reason that refereed research reports are and always
have been author give-aways, whereas scientists, like everyone else,
usually publish books with the possibility of royalty revenue in mind.
Indeed, if that possibility (of revenue from sale-of-text) were
eliminated, it is quite possible that some or many non-give-away texts
would never get written at all, human nature and its underlying selfish
genes (and the demands of survival) being what they are.

So no solution or synthesis that treats the two kinds of
author-motivation and text in the same way will be able to make sense
of PostGutenberg reality.

Note that scientists are not saints either. Their rewards are simply
more subtle and indirect. They do not profit from the sales revenue for
their refereed research reports, but from the uptake and impact of
their research findings. On the contrary, they lose a great deal from
the fact that tolls (subscriptions, site-license, pay-per-view) block
access to their give-away research, thereby blocking its potential
impact and the indirect rewards that impact would bring, in the form of
salary, tenure, research grants, prestige and prizes.

There is one thing, however, that is presupposed in all of this
auctorial largesse with refereed research, namely, the refereeing
itself: peer review. This is the critical factor separating this
anomalous form of publication from vanity press: The quality of
scientific research is controlled by qualified experts (who also donate
their expertise and time for free, by the way) and then certified as
such by the journal's imprimatur.

And this is the third conflation implicit in Casati's essay (along with
give-away/non-give-away and text-theft/authorship-theft), namely, the
conflation of refereed/unrefereed publication.

Some speculative alternatives to refereeing are mentioned in the essay
that have been proposed elsewhere too: Perhaps various measures such as
"hits," links, or comments could guide readers. That is all well and
good for the literature in general, but as an alternative to peer
review in the special (refereed) corpus which is my only concern here,
the possibility is entirely untested and, in my opinion, highly
unlikely, if it were indeed tested, either to produce or to signpost a
literature of the quality that peer review produces currently. So until
these speculative alternatives are actually tested and their effects
known, it would not be rational for researchers to abandon or modify
classical peer review pre-emptively. Nor are they doing it.

As regards opinion polls as barometers for the unrefereed literature,
nolo contendere.

     << [publishing] the text with a publisher... [depends on
     satisfying the] scrutiny of a reading committee... publish[ing] a
     specialized research article on [the] Web... [provides]
     non-restricted access >>

Apples and oranges. First of all, publisher-review for books is not
generally regarded as peer review (for one thing, it involves a
potential-sales reckoning that is irrelevant to refereed journal
articles); but even if we treat it as equivalent to journal refereeing,
this is orthogonal to the give-away/non-give-away dimension. Merely
giving away unrefereed papers on the Web is not a solution for either
author/researchers or reader/user/researchers in science and
scholarship because the quality of the papers needs to be constrained
and confirmed by peer review (which, by the way, is not just a
red-light/green-light, publish/reject matter, but a series of dynamic
interactions between the author and qualified expert referees, chosen
and mediated by a qualified expert editor, and potentially involving
several rounds of revision and re-refereeing).

So vanity-press "self-publishing" on the Web is not a viable
alternative for scientists (although self-archiving pre-refereeing
preprints can be a useful supplement to publishing in a refereed
journal), and it is not the solution to the problem of freeing the
give-away research from access/impact-blocking tolls (whereas the
self-archiving of refereed -- i.e., published -- research is).

     << Authors of scientific papers are tired of private and
     institutional filters to their work, and so they inevitably tend
     to publish straight on the Web. >>

Incorrect. They (or rather, the physicists among them, for most other
disciplines are still completely confused on the matter: self-archive their pre-refereeing
preprints in order to make their research findings available as soon as
possible, even before refereeing, but they also continue to submit all
those preprints for refereeing and publication; and then they
self-archive their post-refereeing (published, refereed) postprints.
And the research community knows that in the on-line era, just as it
was in the on-paper era, the rule with unrefereed preprints is caveat

What researchers are tired of is not quality-control filters for their
give-away research, but access/impact-blocking tolls.

     << Here, on the Web, it is possible to assess the work in a real
     sense; and indeed, a constant assessment is what takes place, not
     by private or institutional mediators but by consumers, who effect
     it in a similar, but also significantly different way from the
     price system. >>

Yes, there can be constant assessment and feedback along the unending
continuum of scientific research, before as well as after refereed

But the peer review is an essential component of this continuous
self-corrective process, and the refereed publication is a critical
landmark. The consumer/market model may be appropriate for the rest of
the literature, but not for this special subset, written by and for
fellow-experts. Without this answerability to quality control by
qualified experts, this literature would become become unreliable and
unuseable -- until peer review was re-invented.

Even for the refereed literature, however, citation-counts, hits and
comments do have their place -- just not as a substitute for the
all-important peer review itself.

     << The number of hits gives the measure of the extent to which the
     page is appreciated. >>

Appreciated by whom, and for what? Can I treat cancer, build a
space-station, perform a follow-up experiment, or even afford to devote
an hour of scarce research time to reading papers on the basis of such
market-guides alone?

     << on-line magazines (such as fired those journalists
     whose articles did not get enough hits. >>

But I will not fire the scientist whose expert contribution, understood
by only a few fellow-experts, did not manage to make the hit-parade. (I
only want to make sure that the low hits are not because of a needless
price-tag blocking the access to potential users, and hence the impact,
of the scientists's give-away research.)`

     << Is it desirable to entrust assessment directly to readers? >>

Certainly not for serious scientific and scholarly work. Assessment
there has to be done by qualified experts, selected by and answerable
to a qualified expert, the editor, who is in turn answerable for the
quality of the work appearing in his journal. Popularity contests,
ratings and opinion polls are for magazines and TV entertainment , not
for refereed research.

     << [hits] are the currency which allows demand to be measured in
     the realm of cultural products >>

But what do hits [downloads] mean or matter when it comes to esoteric
work written for qualified specialists?

It is not that there is no room for hits as one of [many] measures of
impact even for refereed research -- but the hit-rates can only be
supplements to, not substitutes for, the all-important refereeing

     << charging for on-line contents... Journalists would then be paid
     directly by the readers >>

This is a regression into another domain -- pay-per-view -- which is no
doubt pertinent to the non-give-away literature, whether books or
magazines, but utterly irrelevant (and no longer justified
PostGutenberg) for the refereed research literature. No sense will be
made unless the two kinds of literature are distinguished explicitly
and treated separately.

     << voted for...By the creation of a link... We are all
     mini-experts. Google envisions the Web as one great system of
     votes. >>

The mother of all links was discovered by and in use among scholars and
scientists long before the Web. It is called bibliographic citation;
and it has long been used as a form of "voting" too (in the form of the
Institution for Scientific Information's "impact factor").

But there's a lot more to assessing scientific or scholarly quality
than citation analysis; and again, the new digitometric measures are
merely supplements, certainly not substitutes, for peer review (for the
give-away refereed-research literature).

     << If publishers do not take on the risk of making the texts of
     their authors available on the Web, free of cost and unabridged,
     they will end up in a marginal economic niche. >>

I profoundly doubt this, insofar as the non-give-away
literature-at-large is concerned. If it were to become a forced
give-away, much of it could end up still-born, as unexpressed or even
unformulated thoughts in the mind of the no longer motivated author.

And even with the give-away refereed-research literature, it is not for
the publisher to give away his contents if he does not wish to; it is
for the author to do so, if he wishes:

     << [re: "expert opinion-filters"] Various experts, including
     Umberto Eco, have been defending the expert's role as a guide
     through the mass of information on the Web. >>

I don't know about the Web as a whole, or the literature as a whole. I
merely wish to suggest that the scientific literature already has, and
is satisfied with, its "expert opinion-filter," thank you, and it
hardly needs defenders...

And I think it is again mixing apples and oranges to try to provide
solutions for the literature as a whole. What fits the nonrefereed
sector won't fit the refereed sector, and vice versa.

     << How does one get to a credible site?... officially certified
     sites[?] ... think of what the governmental approval of officially
     certified publishers would mean in the context of the book trade. >>

Again, when it comes to the non-give-away literature and the unrefereed
literature, nolo contendere. But it occurs to me that the very same
questions (about how to know what's worth reading) could just as well
have been asked about the on-paper literature. I expect many of the
same answers (the journal's established peer-reviewing standards and
the publisher's imprimatur, the author's name and reputation, reviews
and critiques, together with the critic's/reviewer's reputation) will
continue to be the answers to this question on-line too, supplemented
by the on-line equivalent of market success (as in best-seller lists)
and citation impact.

So what is so new, and why the ominous talk of government censorship
(always possible, in any medium)?

     << Google... comes close to the perfect librarian described by
     Musil... should know next to nothing. >>

I am a devoted admirer and user of Google; but remember that a Google
search depends as much on the boolean terms in the search as on the
power of link-counting to sort the results, and that part rather
pre-dates Google. The rest of the magic comes from the growing size of
the online corpus of inverted full-text itself (and it really is
magical!). May it keep growing and growing!

But for the refereed research subset of the corpus, Google will have to
be supplemented with metadata tagging standards that will allow the
kind of searching we expect from today's indexing services.
Fortunately, the tagging standards are being provided by the Open
Archives Initiative and the advanced search
engines (e.g., ) are being designed, including
features such as citation-based linking and navigation
( ) and Google-style citation- and
hit-based ranking ( ).

But the key to it all is getting the full-text refereed journal
literature -- all 20,000 journals' worth worldwide -- on-line and free, as soon as

     << link-vote system can be distorted just like the price system >>

Indeed it can, but for every potential abuse that the on-line-medium
breeds, it usually also breeds an antidote. Besides, whereas hits are
anonymous, links are not. So both linking and citation patterns can be
readily analyzed in a fully interconnected online literature, to
develop indices of solipsism (of which I am myself guilty below, in
this unrefereed paper!), narcissism, mutual back-scratching,
parochialism, etc.

     << boring objections to the possibility of transferring print
     production to eBooks >>

The medium-based objections are indeed boring (and their ultimate
reductio ad absurdum is the "virtual book," which mimics every feature
of a real book that we desire -- look, feel, smell, taste -- so that we
can discover from experience which features were truly functional,
which merely decorative, and which only habitual).

The nontrivial transformation, however, is not merely from on-paper to
on-line, but from passive to active to interactive:

Hence the real question about Ebooks is not whether they are on-paper
or on-line, but what essential use they make of the on-line medium, qua
book -- and of course which of them will be for-free and which

I personally think that the basic human reward system (hard cash) will
not change significantly from medium to medium for books, so that's
boring too. The exciting developments will be in what is and always
has been the small, anomalous, but important literature of give-away
refereed research.

What about other give-away literature? I think the oral tradition (and
impulsion) launched by language in our species -- and including much
more of idle chatter, Hyde-park posturing and outright crack-pottery
than art or science -- always yearned for digital immortality in some
form, especially in our exhibitionistic/voyeuristic age. Hence most of
what there is to give away on-line will not be worth getting. So let us
not worry too much about how to sort and navigate the entire Global
Graffiti Board all at once. Let us instead focus selectively on the
less exoteric sectors of cyberspace -- such as refereed research...

     << [if an] author [must] defend himself with software... he
     thinks of me as a potential pirate. >>

Indeed, and chances are that we are not dealing with give-away
literature in such cases.

     << thought experiment[:] Millions of people simply want to
     publish, or to make public their own cultural products... Payable
     contents should be protected. Free contents cannot be pirated. >>

This is tautological, and medium-independent: Let give-ways be
give-aways, and let non-give-aways be paid for, amen. (But what it
misses is that most of the give-aways on the Net will not be worth
getting. And that, so far, the refereed give-ways are alas not yet
there to be gotten!)

     << in the electronic world, free contents do not have

     Which means that contents must be free if they are not to
     disappear. Which means that paying contents disappear, and with
     them, publishers, agents and authors who live off royalties.
     Moreover, the figure of the author living off his royalties is a
     recent phenomenon and there is no reason to believe that it is an
     everlasting institution. >>

I doubt all this very much; but if it were true that in this medium
people can no longer be rewarded for their efforts, then they would
simply cease to make efforts (or redirect their efforts toward a medium
where they can be rewarded). Except, of course, the exhibitionists, for
whom visibility is its own reward.

     << Copyright? It will continue to exist, in a "lighter" version,
     because an author may well be glad that people are reading his or
     her book for free, but not that someone else is profiting from it
     on the author's back. >>

I think this is incorrect too. Apart from the pure exhibitionists,
there will no doubt be some writers and thinkers for whom thinking it
and writing it will be enough, an intrinsic end in itself. But surely
there will also be those for whom the incentive was more extrinsic. Not
to mention that even in the PostGutenberg Galaxy, writers and thinkers
will have to make a living. And no one yet knows the proportions, or
the options. (I rather hope it will not all be parasitic on the garish
and invasive cyber-adverts that are beginning to become more and more
like viruses.)

But I doubt that the special case where a give-away author gives away
his text on-line and then some non-give-away publisher tries to sell it
on-line is a major worry. If something is available on-line both
for-free and for-fee, people have the sense to make the right choice
(and frankly, if they don't, who cares?). As to a publisher trying to
sell it on-paper -- that is covered by standard theft-of-text copyright
law and can be treated accordingly (if the give-away author cares: I
myself don't care if my give-away papers are reprinted and sold in
on-paper collections; the extra accessibility gained is more than worth
the pathetic pennies lost).

Again, people are, I think, conflating would-be blockbuster book
fantasies here with the more realistic give-away scenarios.

     << [re: the French writer's] petition... for the State to find a
     way of making sure a fee was paid to authors and their publishers
     every time a book found its way off the library shelf. >>

This tendency, though rather extreme and probably minoritarian, does
suggest that the wish to be rewarded for one's efforts is not likely to
vanish with paper.

I think the metaphysics (and metempsychosis) of human thought is such
that it wants to materialize and transmit itself, regardless of medium;
and that transmitting thoughts can be both an end in itself and a means
to an end. For most members of our species, transmitting thoughts,
whether on-air, on-paper, or on-line, is an end in itself. For some it
is also a way to make a living, and will continue to be so in the
PostGutenberg Galaxy. Those who want to give away their thoughts will
continue to do so on-line; and those who want to sell them will
likewise continue on-line, or they will find another way to make a

But the real revolution will be for those who had wanted to give them
away all along, but had instead had to make the Faustian Bargain of
allowing access to be blocked by a price-tag, because of the economics
of the Gutenberg medium. For these anomalous authors especially, the
on-line age will prove to be a golden one.

[ This commentary is also accessible at: ]


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NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01):

You may join the list at the amsci site.

Discussion can be posted to:
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