Covert censorship by the physics preprint
A personal perspective from Brian Josephson
It is just an ordinary day at the headquarters of the physics preprint
archive. The operators are going through their daily routine and are
discussing what to do about recent emails:
complaints" have come in regarding preprints posted to the archive by Drs.
Einstein and Yang. Dr. Einstein, who is not even an academic, claims
to have shown in his preprint that mass and energy are equivalent, while Professor
Yang is suggesting, on the basis of an argument I find completely unconvincing,
that parity is not conserved in weak interactions. What action shall
Abject nonsense! Just call up their records and set their 'barred'
flags to TRUE.
And here's a letter from one 'Hans Bethe'
supporting an author whose paper we deleted from the archive as being 'inappropriate'.
Please don't bother me with all these day to day matters! Prof. Bethe
is not in the relevant 'field of expertise', so by rule 23(ii) we simply ignore
anything he says. Just delete his email and send him rejection letter
The first portion of the above exchange is fictional of course, but might
well have happened had Einstein and Yang had dealings with with the physics
preprint archive arXiv.org,
administered by Cornell University, today. The second part is not
fictional. The web site archivefreedom.org has been set up to document experiences
that innovative physicists have had in dealing with the archive's secretive
operators, and here is my own story.
I have been fortunate in that, unlike the other physicists involved, I
may well be permitted to post preprints to the archive at this time, though
this proposition has not been put to the test. I was however, very
briefly, on the archive's blacklist myself for doing things that displeased
the operators, who permit contact with them only anonymously via the alias
'moderation@arXiv.org'. (I must immediately apologise for using the word
'blacklist': the organisation finds the term distasteful, saying 'that is
your term -- we have no blacklist'.
Let me therefore say instead that, for a brief period, a flag was set in my
archive record to ensure that in the future when I logged on to deposit a
preprint, I would find myself barred from carrying out the required procedure.
Technically, they are right of course: a blacklist would be represented on
the server as a one-dimensional array listing the members of the list, and
setting a flag in one of the fields of an array is not the same at all, if
one is being pedantic. So I was not, strictly speaking, on a blacklist,
but the fact was, nevertheless, that I could not upload my preprint to the
server at that time).
What I did in response was to write to the administration saying there
seemed to be a 'system error', and would they mind correcting it? Back
came a message saying it had been corrected and I could then upload my preprint.
Was there really a system error? I think not: Paul Ginsparg, the inventor
of the archive, does not make programming errors. I assume the archive
operators got together and decided that barring a Nobel Laureate from depositing
papers in the archive would create a bad impression, and they decided it would
be best to reinstate me.
A paper is deleted as being 'inappropriate for
My first deposition on the archive was a straightforward affair: I went
through the registration process, logged on as a registered user, uploaded
my paper, and at the designated time it was transferred by the operators
to the public area of the archive. What happened next, some time later,
was that someone emailed me a copy of Edmund Storms' "Cold Fusion, an Objective Evaluation". It seemed
to me that this threw new light on cold fusion, suggesting it might after
all be a genuine phenomenon. I corresponded with Storms on a few points
I thought needed clarification, and was satisfied by his replies. I
felt that his review deserved a wider audience, and suggested that he post
it on the preprint archive. Some time later I asked him what had happened,
and he said that he had been refused registration as he did not have an academic
address. He had recently retired from LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory)
and no longer had his lanl.gov email address, and it seems that the archive's
rules at that time barred posting privileges people in such a position,
which one might well think rather curious, since many scientists continue
to do good work after they retire.
Be that as it may, I looked though the archive's pages and found that it
was possible to recommend a person for registration. I did this but
got no response (afterwards I was told that had my email not gone astray,
it would have made no difference 'since my expertise was not in the right
area'. This is a typical ploy used by the archive people to fob people
off: understanding Storms' review requires only elementary physics in which
most physics graduates would be competent).
Since I got no reply to my recommendation of Edmund Storms I asked him
if he was willing for me to try posting his paper on the archive myself,
and he agreed to this. Strictly speaking, this process was not allowed
but I thought I'd try it anyway. It appeared to work: a message came
back from the server saying that the paper had been deposited successfully.
I was sent an id and password for the paper so I could check it would appear
correctly before going public.
Then a problem became apparent: I got back a message saying I was not the
owner of the paper concerned. I sent a message to enquire about this,
and got back this message:
The submission was removed as inappropriate
for the cond-mat subject area.
A Kafkaesque correspondence followed with 'smart-alec' responses by the
archive to legitimate points made by myself. For example, when I pointed
out that two very distinguished physicists were of the opinion that cold
fusion was probably a real phenomenon, the moderator's response was:
... we are always thrilled to hear when people find an avocation that
keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.
And in regard to a discussion of a paper by Peter Hagelstein of the Research
Laboratory in Electronics, in MIT's Electrical Engineering Department, the
archive pronounced this opinion:
A talk in an Electrical Engineering Dept,
by someone who does not have a Physics appointment, on work that is not publishable
in Physics journals does not suggest that the subject matter is appropriate
for this resource.
We regret that we do not currently have a section for Electrical Engineering.
This was a bizarre comment to make, since Hagelstein is leader of a project
on quantum electronics, and has had a number of papers published in journals
such as the Physical Review. But I had come to recognise by that time
that whoever was writing to me under the alias firstname.lastname@example.org had minimal
interest in genuine correspondence, and appeared to be motivated primarily
by the goal of frustrating anyone who dared to object to the archive's procedures.
And my 'punishment' for challenging the archive was, I assume, being blacklisted
(correction, having a flag set to bar me from posting to the archive in future).
As already noted, my posting privileges were restored after I had asked
for the archive's "system error" to be fixed. I successfully posted
my paper (arxiv:physics/0312012)
but then found it had been moved from hep-th, the section to which I had
posted it, to physics, a section with less stringent policies.
There is a procedure whereby people can arrange for their submissions to be
cross-posted to other sections so as to be listed in those sections as well.
I found that my paper was barred as 'inappropriate' for any section except
general physics. This I find objectionable: I believe I am at least
as capable as whoever considers himself responsible to decide which areas
my work impinges upon.
The power structure of the archive
The archive is run along the lines of a secret society/classic bureaucracy.
As noted, all communication (except with the librarian who is officially in
charge of the archive) is with people who write anonymously under an alias.
Letters to Paul Ginsparg, the person who set up the system, are met with the
response that he is not responsible for the day to day running of the system.
Cornell's President made a formal complaint to Ginsparg, and relayed back
the message that one should contact the librarian, whose role seems to be
to generate one of a set of bland responses such as thanking one for one's
interest in the archive, the information that the archive's procedures are
under revision (a process that seems to be even slower and drawn out than
the processes of Cambridge University administration), or being 'comfortable
with our policy that the contents of arXiv conform to Cornell University
academic standards'. As regards standards, many incorrect ideas appear
in the archive, while those individuals targeted by the archive's operators
have had papers barred from the archive even when they have already been
publication by refereed journals. Correspondence with the librarian
has revealed that 'reader complaints' can form the basis of permanent barring
from depositing papers in the archive, the person concerned not being told
anything about the complaint so as to be able to answer it. Bearing
in mind the fact that new ideas often seem strange, it is clear that the 'reader
complaint' mechanism is liable to act as a process for preventing the communication
of new ideas. A number of Cornell physicists have tried to break through
the archive's defences on behalf of barred individuals, but achieving a
fruitful outcome has eluded them.
The necessity for the archive to be open to new ideas
It is often stated by the archive's operators that there are 'alternative
fora' for making new ideas known. This ignores the practical fact that
arxiv.org is a far more effective way of doing this, and is in effect the
primary way by which new ideas get communicated within the physics community
since it is the place that the majority of physicists who do use preprint
archives turn to.
It is true, of course, that standards should be maintained. But the
problem with the uninspired persons who operate the archive is that they seem
unable to make the distinction between 'nutty' ideas (which either have no
scientific meaning or contain serious errors), which should be barred from
the archive, and unusual ideas which may or may not be right, and also may
turn out to be important, which should
be allowed on the archive.
14 Nov. 2004.