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 (subscription, 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 likewise 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, n.b., 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 so.

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 their 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 on-line 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 on-line is indeed the solution).

<< 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 too. 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 emptor.

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 publication.

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 itself:

<< 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 or newspapers, but utterly irrelevant (and no longer justified PostGutenberg) for the refereed research literature. No sense will be made of any of these ongoing developments 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 to, 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 scholarly/scientific research literature already has, and is satisfied with, its "expert opinion-filter," thank you! It is called peer review, 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 possible!

<< [a] 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 for-fee.

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 Global Graffiti Board as an undifferentiated whole. Let us instead focus selectively on the less exoteric sectors of cyberspace -- such as refereed research, formally tagged as such...

<< [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 competitors.
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 brave new medium people can no longer be rewarded for their efforts, then they would simply cease to make those efforts (or redirect them 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 behave 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 writers'] 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 living.

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.

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