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Peer Review and the Net Marcia Tuttle 12 Apr 1992 16:23 UTC

 ---------------------------- Text of forwarded message -----------------------
Date:         Sun, 12 Apr 1992 02:29:19 EDT
From:         Stevan Harnad <harnad@PRINCETON.EDU>
Subject:      Peer Review and the Net

Michael C. Berch ( wrote to the Usenet moderators

> Date: Sat, 11 Apr 92 15:50:53 -0800
> Subject: Re: Usenet and Archiving of Electronic Journals
> To:
> While the concept of formal peer review has its place in academic
> research and publication, it is hardly a litmus test for the current
> importance or lasting value of a publication.
> In some ways, Usenet and similar conferencing systems have made
> journals and traditional academic communication obsolete. Dr. Harnad
> seems to want to cling to the traditional forms which retain the
> power of academic elites (even if clothed as "electronic journals").

Peer review is far from infallible, but it's the best form of quality
control we can manage in scholarly and scientific publication. It also
provides a basis for calibrating one's reading in what would otherwise
be an overwhelming information glut.

As to Nets making journals obsolete: this is far from true.
Unfortunately, the transition to the Net is still far too slow; and the
current demography of Usenet is VASTLY different from the readership
and authorship of the tens of thousands of scholarly and scientific
journals that exist today.

There are indeed some academic elites, but I hardly represent them! I'm
considered a maverick in those circles. Nor is the kind of open peer
commentary I advocate the kind of thing that perpetuates entrenched
interests. There's room for reform in peer review, to be sure, but
let's not think of it as being all that sinister: Virtually everything
eventually gets published in some (paper) journal or other. Peer review
just channels it to a particular level in the qualitative hierarchy,
and the beleaguered readership is grateful for that. Grepping keywords
and citations is no substitute for prescreening by qualified
specialists in any given field.

> I would like to see libraries take, retain, and archive as much
> information as is possible (Usenet as well as other electronic
> sources), free of ivory-tower bias, and then make available to
> users/consumers powerful tools that permit them to search, sort,
> organize, annotate, and copy the desired information, and to obtain
> input on how other people, academics included, view that information.
> I consider it our mission as Usenet "librarians" to help build and
> distribute those tools, not to help perpetuate a backward system.

This seems to conflate the mission of Usenet and that of academic and
research libraries. The latter are currently specialized in the tens of
thousands of paper journals I mentioned. Their interest in Usenet, at
least initially, would be as a format for making the electronic
counterparts of those (mostly) peer reviewed journal available to their
readerships. Usenet's anarchic spirit is to be admired and encouraged
on its own turf, but it makes about as much sense to recommend this
unconstrained model on the scholarly community as it does to recommend
that all Usenet postings should first undergo peer review! The agendas
are different, even if they will converge and overlap in part.

For the record, though, I do think that new and powerful electronic
methods of bibliographic search, retrieval and evaluation will become
increasingly important to the scholar trying to make his way through
the information glut, but it will be no substitute for peer review.

Stevan Harnad

Harnad, S. (1979) Creative disagreement. The Sciences 19: 18 - 20.

Harnad, S. (ed.) (1982) Peer commentary on peer review: A case study in
scientific quality control, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Harnad, S. (1984) Commentary on Garfield:  Anthropology journals:  What
they cite and what cites them. Current Anthropology 25: 521 - 522.

Harnad, S. (1984) Commentaries, opinions and the growth of scientific
knowledge. American Psychologist 39: 1497 - 1498.

Harnad, S. (1985) Rational disagreement in peer review. Science,
Technology and Human Values 10: 55 - 62.

Harnad, S. (1986) Policing the Paper Chase. (Review of S. Lock, A
difficult balance: Peer review in biomedical publication.)
Nature 322: 24 - 5.