Trackback Censorship

Over the last month or so I’ve sent repeated requests to the arXiv to have trackbacks posted for several of my weblog postings. The first of these requests, back in early November, was answered positively by “mjf”, and the trackback (to a paper by Nekrasov) soon appeared. Since then I have sent repeated requests to the arXiv that they list trackbacks to my postings about papers by Weinberg, Baez, Freed-Hopkins-Teleman, and Tegmark et. al.. I’ve received no response whatsover to these requests, including to requests that they inform me of what the arXiv policy on trackbacks is and why my postings don’t seem to qualify.

Of the four postings involved, two of them (about the papers of Baez and Tegmark et. al.) led to discussions here involving some of the authors of the papers themselves, and I think seeing this discussion could be valuable to people interested in those two papers. I can think of no legitimate reason why trackbacks to those postings should not be allowed. The posting about Freed-Hopkins-Teleman was intended to point physicists to some very interesting new work in mathematics; I also believe some people might find that valuable. Finally, the posting about Weinberg’s article was perhaps more controversial, but I believe it raises legitimate issues that the particle theory community needs to allow public discussion of, and censorship of this is inappropriate.

I’ve looked a few times at the list of recent trackbacks to see if I can figure out from that what the arXiv policy about this is. Today’s list of trackbacks from the period December 20-23 has 6 listings, one from cs.unm.edu and five from golem.ph.utexas.edu. As far as I can tell, at least as far as particle theory is concerned, the arXiv trackback system is being run mainly for the benefit of the owner of golem.ph.utexas.edu, who sits on the arXiv advisory board, and may or may not have something to do with the censoring of trackbacks to my postings. Of course I have no way of actually knowing what is going on here or who is responsible. This situation seems to me to raise questions which the arXiv advisory board needs to address, and I am simultaneously contacting them about this.

Update: I still don’t know exactly what is going on at the arXiv, but from what I’ve heard so far, it is clear that the problem is not a technical or administrative one, so I’m removing the question mark that used to be there in the title of this posting.

Time now to ignore this for a while and start celebrating the holiday with family and friends. Happy holidays to all!

Update: Still no word from the arXiv. Commenter Jose notes that trackbacks to comments at physcomments.org do generally appear on the arXiv. There are instructions at physcomments.org that say:

If and only if a blog annotation starts with an identification paragraph “A Comment by …”, and its subject line starts with the preprint it is commenting about, then it is submited to the ArXiV for consideration. Note that currently the ArXiV reserves its right to reject the trackback ping.

Evidently Alejandro, who runs physcomments.org, has been successful in not only communicating with the arXiv, but getting them to post his trackbacks. He comments here that “It is only via Distler that it has been finally incorporated, and it is partial, experimental etc.” From this I take it that the key to getting arXiv trackbacks posted is, as commenter Chris Oakley suggests, to not have pissed off Jacques Distler, something I seem to have done long ago with my criticisms of string theory.

I’m more and more convinced that what is going on here is all due to the simple fact that Distler doesn’t like me. I was surprised and saddened to note that in his recent posting about Raoul Bott, he links to other postings about Bott by Sean Carroll (who credits my blog as where he learned of Bott’s death) and Lubos Motl, but not mine. I also didn’t realize that Distler was a couple years behind me at Dunster House, an experience that perhaps he has yet to get over.

Update: While I was writing the above, Alejandro submitted a comment noting that, after initial problems getting his trackbacks accepted “now it seems I am allowed to send trackbacks. Of course, one never knows when this permission can change again.”

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48 Responses to Trackback Censorship

  1. sunderpeeche says:

    “Do not ascribe to conspiracy that which can be explained by incompetence” — Napoleon Bonaparte

  2. woit says:

    Sunderpeeche,

    Good advice in general. And I should make clear I have absolutely no idea how these issues are handled at the arXiv. All I know is that repeated polite requests to arXiv administrators over the past month and a half have been met with no response of any kind whatsoever. I’m having trouble at this point ascribing this to incompetence.

  3. Chris Oakley says:

    (Obviously the notion that you might have p***ed off Jacques Distler can be ruled out from the start)

  4. Dumb Biologist says:

    Seem’s a safe bet whoever’s responsible thinks you’re a crank, and your views on physics don’t merit inclusion in collegial discourse.

    If that’s the case, it’s kind of sad that there’s presently no way to prove them right or wrong, there probably never will be, and you’ll just have to accept their opinion on the matter.

    If this is the sorry state of affairs, it ought to give anyone pause before excluding degreed academics from the discussion, as it is itself a symptom of a major problem in a field that purports to be science, but maybe they don’t see it that way.

  5. andy says:

    I’ll point out at this juncture that you seem to censor your blog here. I posted a comment that I thought was germane and you deleted it. I point this out in as friendly a way possible. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing here.

  6. ksh95 says:

    Peter,

    Please let us know how things turn out. I sincerly hope there is a legitimate explaination for this.
    It is almost unthinkable to me that anyone on the arXiv advisory board would exibit such juvenile tantrum-like censorship.
    I really hope this is not the case.

  7. woit says:

    Hi Andy,

    Some form of censorship is necessary, both here and at the arXiv. I don’t remember what your comment was that I deleted, but I do delete a lot of comments that seem to me off-topic. Glad to hear you remain a fan despite it all! How stringent I am about this depends on lots of random factors, including how much time I have to look at comments and decide what to do with them, whether I’m in a good or bad mood, etc. The difference with the arXiv case is that I take full responsibility for what I’m doing and will respond with an explanation to anyone who politely asks why I have deleted a comment.

    Right now I don’t even know that I am being censored since I’ve been unable to get anyone at the arXiv to respond and tell me what they are doing with requests that I submit. For all I know, my requests are sitting in a queue of things to be dealt with by some overworked arXiv staff member. No way to tell as long as no one there is willing to contact me and let me know what is going on.

    ksh95,

    I have heard from one advisory board member who promises to look into what is going on and get back to me. Of course, with the holidays now starting it may be a while before relevant people are back at work and willing to deal with this. The bad timing is my fault.

  8. Dumb Biologist says:

    Glad you got in touch with someone.

    You might hear back it was an anti-spam snafu. That might even be the real reason.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m amused by the thought that “Dumb Biologist” is Paul Ginsparg in disguise.

  10. Dumb Biologist says:

    Ouch, poor Paul Ginsparg. No, absolutely not; I am quite what I say I am.

    I will say minds of his caliber, and the knowledge they bring to bear on the increasingly relevant physical and computational problems important to a richer understanding of life science are precisely what the field can always use more of. It’s interesting to see he’s teaching a physics course on biological applications (which I doubt I’d survive). That’s to be applauded.

  11. Quantum_Ranger says:

    Having a number of posts deleted is no big deal,(having encountered this myself) you have to maintain a selective balance of the subject being blogged. The “control” factor for reasons that are “total” and to a specific site namely Peter Woit’s?..can only be guessed as someone “up there” does not like what you do?

    Up there , being those whose, powers that be, far exceed their authority on the subject?.. they obviously have no knowledge about the subjects in question, or do they wish to promote any correspondance forthwith.

  12. secret milkshake says:

    Peter,

    Say, you were an editor of a rather important journal like arXiv and you got lots of trackback request from somebody with extreme view and polemic bend towards a major fashionable enterprize that monopolized high energy theoretical physics – how would you react?

    Being born in east-Eurepean contry (LUMO!) I know how ideological establishment works – but these things do not make much difference in the long run. In few years time, there will be new unexplained data from CERN and most of what is happening in the theoretical physics in the last few years will be mercifully forgotten.

    “The Nature will come out the way she is – it does not matter how famous you are, how beatiful the theory is – if it is wrong, it is wrong. It’s all there is to it.”

    Either way, I think you are wasting too much time and energy on things that are much like politics – in few years, somebody else will deploy troups and who cares? Stick close to people that do the actual experimental work.

  13. Juan R. says:

    Welcomed to real life… and science,

    Perhaps you would contact with

    archivefreedom

    explaining your case.

    A public criticism to ArXiv censure by Nobel winner Brian Josephson was recently published on Nature journal and is openly available here.

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  14. FP says:

    Maybe it is a problem that arXiv has a quasi-monopoly as pre-print storage?
    Some competition is always healthy, but apparently nobody outside Cornell wants to do the job.

  15. Tony Smith says:

    secret milkshake said “… In few years time, there will be new unexplained data from CERN and most of what is happening in the theoretical physics in the last few years will be mercifully forgotten.
    … I think you are wasting too much time and energy on things that are much like politics …”.

    As to “new unexplained data from CERN” LHC, for all we know any new LHC data may NOT be “unexplained” by the Standard Model.
    Indeed, Fermilab has produced a lot of data over the past decades and ALL of it can be “explained” in terms of the Standard Model.
    So, maybe it is not only possible, but actually likely, that LHC might find a Higgs around 100 – 150 GeV, with everything else very similar to Fermilab data, extended to somewhat higher energies and luminosities.

    That being the case, theoretical physics should not sit on its thumbs for the next few years, but (in my opinion) should look closely at constructing models that include the Standard Model, without supersymmetry or other exotic extensions.

    The way to do that is to actively work NOW on theoretical physics, and one way (of the many ways that should be pursued) would be to look at the K-theory math that might lead to a deeper understanding of Quantum Field Theory as suggested by Peter in his blog at http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=292 about “Latest Freed-Hopkins-Teleman”. Unfortunately, as Peter indicates, arXiv seems to have censored Peter’s K-theory ideas.

    If arXiv (which grew during its Los Alamos days, beginning in the early 1990s, to have an effective world-wide monopoly on distribution of contemporary theoretical physics information among the physicists of the world) censors possibly useful ideas such as (but not limited to) Peter’s possibly very useful K-theory ideas, then the loss to physics is IMMEDIATE and SERIOUS, and should not be minimized as “things that are much like politics”.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

    PS – Peter, thanks for the Happy Holidays wishes. I am also celebrating Holidays through next week and the calendar New Year, and I join you in wishing everybody Happy Holidays of whatever kind they prefer.

  16. D R Lunsford says:

    Merry Christmas everyone!

    -drl

  17. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    Dr. Woit – thank you for your efforts in running this blog.

    Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Productive New Year.

  18. andy s. says:

    Why not approach the matter scientifically? You have a theory, namely that arxiv has a bug up its collective ass on the subject of Peter Woit.

    Test this hypothesis by having someone other blogger make the same comments you do and see if they get deep sixed as well.

  19. Juan R. says:

    FP Said,

    Maybe it is a problem that arXiv has a quasi-monopoly as pre-print storage?
    Some competition is always healthy, but apparently nobody outside Cornell wants to do the job.

    Perhaps you would click on the two links that i provided above. The quasi-monopoly of ArXiv administrators is explained in the letter recently published in Nature journal. Whereas that the Nobel laureate and some other people has launched an free alternative to ArXiv without censure (it is the reader who decides what is ‘good’ and what is not).

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  20. Juan R. says:

    andy s. Said:

    Why not approach the matter scientifically? You have a theory, namely that arxiv has a bug up its collective ass on the subject of Peter Woit.

    Test this hypothesis by having someone other blogger make the same comments you do and see if they get deep sixed as well.

    Interesting proposal. Do you believe that Peter Woit is exagerating?

    I doubt it, but if your own reply is affirmative, please read first the material contained on links that i provided before obtaining your conclusions. For example the Nobel Prize for physics Brian D. Josephson (University of Cambridge) says in Nature

    The exclusion of particular individuals
    and particular ideas from arXiv appears
    to me to be deliberate.

    Curiously some scientists have done experimental studies on ArXiv administration policies proving the premise. One of most interesting i know is the submiting of identical preprints to ArXiv from two different e-mails. Curiously the works submitted from black listed e-mails are automatically erased from the ArXiv at few minutes, whereas their copies were stored during days (until manually detected and erased). How can a preprint service reject works on function of e-mail. Would not works be rejected just in basis to scientific issues? For example if a preprint is flagrantly wrong (e.g. Lynds preprint) then would be erased.

    Some empirical studies show a correlation coefficient of near 1 for the thesis of deliberate exclusion.

    In this intersting blog i know at least three (if i count now to Woit) authors suffering ‘censure’ from ArXiv.

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  21. D R Lunsford says:

    Why not just sue them? Something should be done to rein in those petit-Napoleons. Suing is the best option.

    -drl

  22. anon says:

    Lunsford, a turkey breeding (or string theory) community can’t afford a diversity that would make the most popular theory (strings/turkeys) look silly. I suggest you give up on trying to reform dictators; they just try to suppress all criticism and shoot the messengers. Instead of telling them what they don’t like to hear and having them doing the shooting, you need to adopt more sturdy methods and go on a turkey cull. So I suggest you try building on alternatives to strings until one succeeds in doing more than string theory, then shoot, stuff and slowly roast the turkey.

    Merry Christmas

  23. andy s. says:

    Juan R. I have no idea if it’s going on or not, which is why I suggested the experiment.

    Looks like somebody already thought of my idea. Story of my life.

  24. woit says:

    Danny and others,

    I’m not the litigious sort, and this trackback issue is not one of great importance anyway, so I’m not about to sue anyone.

    I don’t think I should need to try to run experiments on their system to try and figure out what decisions it is making. The arXiv administrators and their advisory board have every right to decide that the kind of commentary that I’ve requested they post trackbacks to isn’t part of legitimate professional discussion and that links to it should not be allowed on the arXiv. All I’m asking is to be informed about whether that’s the decision they have made and if so to be assured that they take responsibility for and stand behind such a decision.

    If that is their decision, I have a perfectly good venue here for saying what I think about it, and the rest of the community that is familiar with these matters can draw their own conclusions about what this means for the current state of one of the most important institutions in particle theory these days, and by implication, for the health of the field in general.

  25. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter,

    I basically don’t care what they do – as far as I’m concerned, they have about as much credibility as tachyons. I’m happy to be dissociated from them and have no plans to submit future work there.

    But the stories are too similar to be discounted – e.g. what happened to Paul LaViolette happened to me as well (and my paper was already published), just as he stated – no answers, no explanations. Being unable to answer any questions, physics or administrative, must be habit-forming.

    -drl

  26. Adrian Heathcote says:

    I think it’s obvious that the reason they provide no explanation of their reasons for rejection is precisely that they fear being sued. If they don’t explain then they provide no ammunition for a skilled attorney. I think it’s unlikely that you will ever get anything out of them other than pro forma comments to the effect that ‘the decision of what to accept is entirely in the hands of the administrators, blah blah blah’.

    Merry Christmas to all

  27. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    When you were young, you assummed that scientists were a magnamous, logical and rational bunch. You had great faith in their ability to be imparital and to discern the truth through the application of scientific rigour. You also thought they had great integrity and were above petty actions as they aspired to the greater goal that was The Truth.

    Then you grow up and hear about things like this and see that scientists are just as human as everyone else, pettiness included. It’s still very disappointing though.

  28. Jose says:

    I’ve visited sciprint.org, a pretenended competence to arxiv.org, and there are very few papers. I’ve seen those of the mathematical physics section and none of them can be called a scientific paper, the authors expalin his theories in words, not with mathematics as should be for a physical theory.

  29. Please note that we are not speaking in this thread about ArXiv articles, but about an ArXiV comment feature. As far as I understand, the comment feature has been suggested if not since the origins, at least since the web doorway of the ArXiV. It is only via Distler that it has been finally incorporated, and it is partial, experimental &c. We do not know how favourable to comments the rest of the ArXiV management are.

  30. woit says:

    Adrian,

    The peculiar part of this story is the fact that I’ve been unable to get out of the arXiv even the sort of pro forma rejection that you describe.

    ObsessiveMathsFreak,

    I never had any great illusions that scientists were above human pettiness. But I must say that the lengths certain people are willing to go to avoid acknowledging the failures of string theory continues to surprise me, even now.

  31. anon says:

    Once they define string theory as being such a beautiful piece of genuine science, they are actually defending science by censoring out criticism. You have to see this from their warped perspective!

  32. D R Lunsford says:

    It all sounds like groupthink (make up your own examples):

    1) Having an illusion of invulnerability
    2) Rationalizing poor decisions
    3) Believing in the group’s morality
    4) Sharing stereotypes which guide the decision
    5) Exercising direct pressure on others
    6) Not expressing your true feelings
    7) Maintaining an illusion of unanimity
    8) Using mindguards to protect the group from negative information

    8) is particularly relevant.

    Groupthink seems to be at the bottom of much of our (USA) current dysfunction. Countless examples could be adduced. The Shuttle Columbia and World Trade Center disasters come to mind immediately. (Iraq? New Orleans? the list is endless…)

    -drl

  33. Dumb Biologist says:

    Sorry to see this blog has been excluded, though not surprised.

    A totally shameful event in the field of biology has been the revelation of fraud in the human embryonic stem cell field, which everyone has heard about already. Amid all the legitimate beating of breasts and rending of garments shall come, I hope, a grateful recognition of the fact that the fraud was revealed, and corrective measures could be taken. Nature being the final arbiter, and all, the truth will aways out. I’m not sure if the fact the outing took place essentially outside of the conventional system of peer review (which appears to have completely broken down, and in Science, of all journals) is something to be happy or unhappy about. Again, I guess it’s nice to know smacking into the “real world” will eventually correct for the failings of human investigators, if and when no human mechanism is up to the task.

    Unfortunately, at least in some branches of theoretical physics, it seems investigators have forged ahead so far away from attainable real-world checks and benchmarks that the system of peer review is all they’ve got, or perhaps will have, for a very, very long time. How could the tyranny of groupthink not prevail in such an environment? It’s functionally equivalent to a church. Very sad.

  34. Jose says:

    A question:

    does http://www.physcomments.org/ pertain to arxiv.org?

    I ask this question because there appears a link to this blog, so perhaps censorship is not an appropriate word.

  35. Jose,

    No, it does not pertain to the ArXiV. I pay from my pocket money both the domain and the hosting, as it is explained in the About…

    The status of PhysComments about trackbacks has been evolving. It started bad, because of my so-called “spam” to people in the references of each preprint, and because this system included the possibility of anonymous commenters. I have agreed to identify the people commenting in the blog (this is the goal of the line “A comment by…” and now it seems I am allowed to send trackbacks. Of course, one never knows when this permission can change again.

  36. MathPhys says:

    Peter,

    While I agree with you that Jacque Distler’s behaviour is petty (he’s normally a nice man, actually), the current status of string theory is serious business to certain academics: It makes it very hard to apply for promotions, get grants, students, etc, things that materially affects people’s lives. I can understand the bitterness (but not condone it).

  37. Peter Wilson says:

    Peter,

    After privately censoring me three times (before the cock’s call, I might add), you lambast the powers-that-be for censorship.

    Nice work!

  38. woit says:

    Peter Wilson,

    As I wrote in another comment, I’m not opposed to censorship per se, and some sort of moderation (or censorship if you will….) is necessary in many contexts to maintain a useful forum for information and discussion. The difference here is that I take full responsibility for what I am doing, and will respond to any polite request asking to know why I’ve deleted a certain comment. I don’t remember yours in particular. I do delete a sizable number of comments submitted here, virtually all on the grounds that they are off the topic of the posting. If I don’t do this, experience shows that such off-topic posting overwhelm other discussion.

    The arxiv has every right to not include trackbacks to my postings. But I believe that they should respond in some way to my polite requests asking what is going on. I have been having a hard time finding out even whether they have decided not to include my trackbacks. The only evidence I have at the moment that they have made such a decision is based on private communications from people who have partial knowledge of what is going on, and insist that I not use their names, since this is evidently a highly contentious issue there.

  39. Matthew says:

    “what happened to Paul LaViolette”

    Right. What happened to him is that he got ignored, as he deserved to be, after bugging a ninety-three year old to try to get his paper published.

  40. Arun says:

    I would understand a arxiv policy that disallowed trackbacks to any forum that allowed anonymous posting. But whatever the policy is, it should be made explicit.

  41. Pingback: Something Similar » Last One Before the Change?

  42. JC says:

    MathPhys, and others,

    (slightly offtopic)

    I wonder how much of the “defense” for the legitimacy of string theory these days has to do with maintaining the gravy train of things like funding grants, promotions, etc … I’m sure it would look pretty bad if all the untenured faculty hired to do string theory over the last few years, all suddenly had most or all of their grant funding yanked before tenure decisions are made. Most people don’t want to have to “save face” for their bad decisions. For the case of a physics department who hired string folks for assistant professor jobs, I can imagine things would not look too good for them if their “star” string theorists were denied tenure.

    For an untenured string person from a more down to earth and/or selfish perspective, I can imagine that maintaining the string gravy train until a “day of reckoning” or falling into obscurity, as more of a “stalling” tactic until most or all of the present untenured string folks are awarded tenure. Then afterwards if the entire string enterprise collapses under it’s own anthropic weight, it wouldn’t matter anyways since they already got tenure.

  43. Eli Rabett says:

    ArXiv is partially funded by NSF. A call to NSF, or even an Email to ArXiv asking whether their policy conforms to their NSF funding requirements might be a lot more successful. It seems to me that they would be allowed to reject postings and trackbacks but would have to have a stated policy that was applied uniformly.

    The most interesting thing to me about ArXiv is that it represents a fundamental change in policy for the US. When I was going to university in the 1960s, several people who were in a position to know told me that after WWII the question arose as to how the government should, could or would encourage scientific publication. Two models were proposed, direct funding of publications sponsored by organizations such as APS or ACS, or providing page charges as part of grants. The latter was adopted because it would encourage for profit publishing organizations as well. ArXiv and PubMed are direct challenges to the previous policy.

  44. Chris W. says:

    Eli,

    Speaking of the for-profit publishers, how do they feel these days about arXiv.org? How often (if at all) do preprints get taken offline because a publisher insists upon it? Given the current contention between the big publishers and the library community, and the litigiousness of the AAP, I would think that preprint servers would be as sensitive a topic as ever right now.

    (NOTE: I’m not a professional academic, so I’m a bit out of touch with the on-the-ground realities in this area.)

  45. Tony Smith says:

    Since censorship and Cornell both seem to be involved in this thread, here is a quote from the book Cosmos (first edition, Random House, 1980, at page 91) by Carl Sagan, then “Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University”:

    “… The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that his hypotheses were wrong or in contradiction to fimly established facts, but that some who called themselves scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s work.

    Science is generated by and devoted to free inquiry: the idea that any hypothesis, no matter how strange, deserves to be considered on its merits.

    The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge; it has no place in the endeavor of science.

    We do not know in advance who will discover fundamental new insights. …”.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  46. Rien says:

    Chris W,
    Preprints don’t get taken offline, all the relevant publishers allow arxiving. If they didn’t, nobody would publish in their journals. Some of them actually say you’re not allowed to update the eprint to reflect the published version but I don’t think anyone cares about that. At least I don’t.

    In fact, preprints can’t be removed once they’re submitted, even if they are withdrawn the older versions are still available.

  47. Wonder what former Cornell and current Columbia string theory guru Brian Greene would think about this thread?

  48. FS says:

    There is an International Mafia in Science which controls ideas, awards
    felowships and prizes,
    and ignores or even boycotts people who have different opinions than theirs.

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