Re: Commentary on Eco: "Authors and Authority"

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 13 Mar 2002 23:29:39 +0000

On Wed, 13 Mar 2002, David Goodman wrote:

> > S. Harnad: "And once the full peer-reviewed astrophysical corpus is online,
> > freely accessible, and reliably tagged as such, the user will be in at least
> > as good a position as when consulting the collection of the best
> > terrestrial library on the subject -- except that even then merely the
> > keyword "astrophysics" would not have served him too well. (An
> > encyclopedia might, after all, be the better choice for that.)"
> I just now actually typed "astrophysics" into Google, and the top item
> on the list was a link to the home page for the Astrophysics Data
> System. This is the fastest way of getting there of any method known to
> me. It does remain, as you say, to make all the contents of that system
> freely accessible.

But that's the point! Google will/would be fine if it were not just in
astrophysics that the peer-reviewed research corpus were openly
accessible, but in all disciplines.

(But getting to the astrophysics database still does not serve the needs
of someone who needs ordinary-encyclopedia information about

> > S. Harnad: " Does it help to baptize as one generic
> > "problem" the problem of finding scholarly sources for "holoenzyme...
> > gracilis..." or educational sources for "holy grail" or gastronomic
> > sources for recipes for hominy grits?"
> As a reference librarian, I know from experience that people -- even
> academics -- do not in fact necessarily distinguish between these
> types of questions. They will indeed sometimes want a specific genre of
> information, such as a scholarly article or a recipe, but sometimes
> they want to first see what there is on a subject and then look for an
> appropriate genre.

Are they safe in a library then? If so, they should be equally safe if the
same data were openly accessible. (Alas, not all of it will be, as it is
not all give-away.)

David, perhaps you missed the antecedents of this discussion, but Umberto
Eco's contention was that the web needs new forms of filter and
authority, and my counter-suggestion had been that perhaps what it
needs is merely to have the old, terrestrial forms of filtered,
authoritative information (at least the give-away subset of it which
comprises the peer-reviewed research literature) openly accessible online
and suitably tagged as such. My prediction is that that would make a
large portion of the apparent search/filter/authority problem vanish.
It is merely an artifact of the poverty of the Web relative to the
terrestrial library so far (despite it's day-to-day growing richness
relative to anything that was even dreamt of online yesterday).

> Your 3 specific examples do not completely hold up: The question on, I assume,
> "holoenzymes" in "gracilis" is not meaningful. The 21 references I found
> in Biosis just now deal with at least 6 different unrelated enzymes and
> 3 different unrelated organisms in different kingdoms. They are all from
> peer-reviewed journals, of course, but from journals of very different
> levels of quality. I cannot imagine a situation where any one person
> would want all of them. Google, by the way, gave 3 references, including
> one conference abstract and 1 scholarly article that Biosis missed. If
> a patron came in with the information you presented, I'd guide him to an
> encyclopedia, not the scholarly literature.

Ah David, you were not as relentless as I was in searching for an
alliterative counterpart for "holy grail" -- but I found one it the
"holoenzyme reconstitution process in native and truncated Rhodotorula
gracilis D-amino acid oxidase" (q.v.).

I'm afraid your replies are a bit of context (as perhaps was my excerpt
from the discussion), as I agree with you that the encyclopedia is the
preferred resource in many cases! See the thread of "the Infinite Regress
Problem" in for a clearer idea of what
the point of disagreement was.

> You specify "educational sources" for "holy grail." Do you have in mind
> its literary aspects, and if so, medieval or modern, or the religious
> concept, or its role as a myth, or do you want information on Wagner's
> opera? And how do you distinguish, for any of these, "educational"
> sources from scholarly sources?

See Umberto Eco's original example for this in "Authors and Authority"

> The MLA Bibliography gives 242 items; they include Ph.D. theses,
> scholarly articles, and books, in at least 5 languages, and of varying
> degrees of physical and intellectual accessibility. ERIC, the standard
> education index, gives 24, of which all but 3 use it as a metaphor.
> Using Google, the first 4 listings were relevant web sites for the
> subject, including some very appropriate basic educational material and
> also links to scholarly material. That the web sites were of good
> quality could be told objectively by anyone accustomed to working with
> and evaluating such material.

That was not Umberto Eco's experience, but nolo contendere. The premise
was that there is a filtration problem with the web as it stands now.

> Google also worked nicely for "hominy grits"-- the first item, and many
> others, gave several recipes (I can't evaluate them, as I hate the
> stuff.) America: History and Life gave 2 scholarly articles and many
> book reviews of an interesting academic book. Agricola gave 5 scholarly
> articles. There are specialized indexes as well, but my university
> doesnt't have them.

All tribute to the growing riches of the Web. But Eco's premise was
that there is a filtration problem (and that google alone does not solve
it). I argued that if there is a problem, it will be largely solved by
getting the peer-reviewed corpus online, tagged and openly accessible.
That solves the problems for scientific and scholarly information.
Hominy grits are not my domain; they too were just for alliterative

> It may not hold in your subject, but in librarianship--and at least some
> areas of biology -- the lower level of so-called "refereed journals"
> contain material indistinguishable from [babble]. On the other hand, some
> of the material in this forum, and I specifically include much of
> yours', is equal or superior in quality to any formally published work
> on the subject.

It is remarkable how often my Mrs. Schwartz joke on conditional probability
turns out to be a propos (perhaps it deserves a FAQ?): Mrs. Schwartz is
displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of conditional probability when
she thinks the [alleged] fact that Einstein was a slow learner is good
news for her little Max!

(No apposition with Einstein intended here, apart from the conditional
probability, for alas this area, in which so many intelligent people are
dawdling so long before getting around to doing what it takes to bring on
the optimal and inevitable is in fact a profoundly trivial area! I will
not go down in history for the lamentable number of times I have had to
repeat, from every possible angle, the same banal and transparent

But, yes, there is occasionally a valuable bauble amidst the babble,
though that doesn't mean babble may be bauble after all. (And, yes, at
the bottom of every peer-reviewed journal hierarchy, in every subject,
is a virtual vanity-press, not much better than babble.)

> I do not think that you or I or Google or anyone has the answer to
> intellectual access, especially universal intellectual access. (I could
> easily have given questions that would totally defeat Google.) I do not
> think traditional methods or categories are necessarily still relevant.

That remains to be seen. First let's get the peer-reviewed (read:
qualified-specialist-certified) stuff up there and then see what problems
still remain.

> I do think that for the problem you are primarily addressing, which is
> of providing physical access to a very important group of material, you
> have an excellent solution.

What characterizes the corpus I'm preoccupied with is that it is:

(1) specialized (scholarly/scientific expertise is required to produce it
and to evaluate it)


(2) an author give-away, written for research-impact, not sales-income.

For problems whose solution is behind a financial firewall, nolo
contendere. Ditto for problems that do not depend on scholarly/scientific
expertise. But if the web engenders new genres of expertise, you can be
sure it will also re-invent peer-review to test, maximize and certify its
quality, and to do so a priori, as refereeing does, rather than a
posteriori, by Gallup/Google popularity metrics. (And this is stated by
a devoted, committed admirer and user of google!)

Stevan Harnad
Received on Wed Mar 13 2002 - 23:30:51 GMT

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