Re: Commentary on Eco: "Authors and Authority"

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 12:03:21 +0000

On Wed, 13 Mar 2002, David Goodman wrote:

> 1. I do not think you give sufficient recognition to the difficulties of
> intellectual access as compared to physical

I am sure you are right, and that is probably because I am a merely a
user rather than a reference librarian! My sample is much smaller and
narrower, as are my responsibilities with it.

> 2. I think you give too great value to "peer-review" as a marker of
> quality.

That is another matter: Compared to what? For its narrow ambit (2
million articles a year in 20,000 journals), peer review is serving us
well both as quality-controller and quality-marker, and the sole
problem is that of freeing access to its full text contents on line,
not that of finding new authorities or filters or new forms of review.

Inasmuch as there was a reference-librarian problem for the
peer-reviewed literature on-paper, there will still be one on-line, of

Here might be a new question: There is a problem finding and identifying
the authoritative scientific and scholarly research on the web today
(mainly because there is too little of it up there, and what there is
is not clearly tagged as such). Will adding the full 20,000, reliably
tagged as such, solve this problem, or will there still be a residual
problem because of the web's overall signal/noise ratio? I'm inclined
to think the former, but perhaps David thinks otherwise (and perhaps he
is right).

> I think neither the traditional library and indexing tools adequate to the
> first; ditto for the current Web programs, though I think they come
> nearer. And I think the markers of what
> is worth reading, by whom and at what time, are more subtle than you
> realize. I and other librarians (and teachers know them), and can teach
> them by example, but can't really formalize rules.

This is something that should be clarified immediately: Inasmuch as the
"filtration/authority" problem of Umberto Eco and others is in reality
the reference-librarian problem -- i.e., the same problem that would be
and was faced in navigating the terrestrial library literature on paper
-- of course it is a problem (the same problem as before, scaled up to
an entire planet of users, and based on a good deal more noise and -- so
far -- a lot less signal). But it is not the problem of authority, and
only the problem of filtering inasmuch as we are ready to call the
traditional contribution of the reference librarian "filtering."

> Fortunately, the first step of providing physical access is a relatively
> straight-forward one once we can get it separated from the inapplicable
> concepts of commercial value and tradition. I have spent most of my career
> facilitating physical access for a small group, and am glad that the
> methodology now exists to solve this, not just for those at research
> universities, but for everyone. So I am as impatient as you to get the job
> done, and move on to the things we don't yet know how to do.
> The great virtue of your scheme compared to those proposed in the past few
> years by Varmus et al., and still being proposed by various
> semi-commercial organizations, is that it is quality-neutral. It works
> equally well for conventionally reviewed material as for those
> non-conventionally evaluated.

It is true that it is applicable to any give-away text. (But I do hope
that Institutional Eprint Archives will be reserved for academic
preprints and postprints rather than self-archived McDonalds ads or even
self-archived end-of-the-world treatises!)

> Just for the record, the Astrophysical Data System provides
> free intellectual
> access to most of astronomy, but physical access to documents is sometimes
> still price-limited. It is a model of organization and access, but not
> (yet) of the removal of commercial barriers.

True, but stay tuned!

Stevan Harnad
Received on Thu Mar 14 2002 - 12:05:04 GMT

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