New Frontiers in Scientific Communication

The last couple days have seen a new phenomenon, which may or may not be some sort of sign of the times. Two different papers appearing on the arXiv contain references to blog postings:

1. In last night’s Cosmological Constant Seesaw in Quantum Cosmology by Michael McGuigan, the first two references are to blog postings by Lubos Motl and Sean Carroll.

2. A revised version of a paper by Alicki et. al. appeared over the weekend. The comment section of the arXiv posting notes that the paper has been revised and expanded in response to comments about it made here and here at Dave Bacon’s blog The Quantum Pontiff (where he has a posting about this entitled Arxiv Links to Pontiff, Science at an End?).

Not clear to me what this means. Will it mean the end of science? Will SPIRES add blog entries that are referenced in papers to its database? Will they start counting blog references as well as standard citations, allowing you to search for not just “Topcite” papers, but “Topblog” ones too? Will authors of new papers start regularly getting testy e-mails from blog authors complaining that they haven’t referenced their blog postings?

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36 Responses to New Frontiers in Scientific Communication

  1. Aaron Bergman says:

    In last night’s Cosmological Constant Seesaw in Quantum Cosmology by Michael McGuigan, the first two references are to blog postings by Lubos Motl and Sean Carroll.

    Of course, the idea of a seesaw for the cosmological constant goes back well beyond Lubos’s post and that comment thread. I’m not sure exactly what the origin is, but I’m sure someone’s informed the author in e-mail by now.

  2. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Web references of any kind are a bad idea in any paper, simply because of the volitile nature of the web. How can libraries possibly index and record web references for future study? No web page is going to be around forever, and I’d rather not rely on the WaybackMachine while I’m reading papers.

    A web reference is dodgy at best. Think of those poor future generations.

  3. sunderpeeche says:

    The first thought that sprang to mind was essentially the same as that pointed out by ObsessiveMathFreak. There is (perhaps) some degree of permanence to the arXiv, and papers are now regularly published with citations to arXiv papers as well as refereed journal papers. But a citation to a blog posting? What if a post is deleted, either deliberately or accidentally? Both type of events have happened on this blog. Journals strongly dislike references to papers “to be published”. The paper in question may be rejected (or not submitted, or revised to say something entirely different, etc.).

  4. Jean-Paul says:

    What’s the big deal? Published papers always contained references to “private communications”. Instead of a link, the authors should simply refer to the name of the commenter, so if you want to get credit, use your real name when posting critical comments.

  5. Hmm yep probably they are closer to private communications (even if public) that to academic papers. Historians of Science can track private communications when perusing private archives, and here there are the additional possibility of caches and waybacks machines (archive.org). It is a sort of “private communication, scratched at Exotic Cafe pub” footnote.Now, if one is interested not in credit but in the argument, one can always email to the author and to the quoted author, as it happens in the case of private comm footnotes.

    I met with a similar problem when I found a citation to a wiki page done in Phys. Rev. D 73, 013009 (2006), and just the same week it appeared I was planning to erase such page!!. Of course it was my fault, because I first quoted it myself in an Arxiv preprint. Worse, what if the whole domain is discontinued when my two years lease expires?

  6. Mark Trodden says:

    An author who sees an idea discussed on a blog should do some research to find out the history of the idea and trace it back to a paper if possible. As Aaron points out, this is certainly possible in this case.

  7. Dumb Biologist says:

    I’m with Aaron, and I’d say further it’s just a damn lazy practice, in my opinion. I don’t cite “private conversations” or anything not already subjected to peer review (which I acknowledge to be flawed, but still…). I detest that sort of thing the same way I detest “data not shown”. If a private conversation is so critical it deserves mention, then subject the contents of that thought process to peer review itself, in the form of a rapid communication (or equivalent) so that it can itself be cited by other investigators.

  8. sunderpeeche says:

    Re: Jean-Paul. For private communications, the permission of the source of the communication is required. There has been personal contact between the author and source (possibly via email, not face-to-face). One cannot, for example, simply cite a hearsay conversation that one has overheard. With a blog entry one can cite any post without contacting the author of that post. There is no implicit assurance of quality control.

  9. Sean says:

    The idea had certainly been talked about long before those blog entries. Still, it’s possible that something said on a blog could start you thinking about some idea. Might be more appropriate for the acknowledgments than for the references.

  10. Quantoken says:

    A communication is a communication of ideas and information regardless of what form it takes: Is it by means of print on dead trees, or by exchange of electrons.

    And credibility of a piece does NOT attribute to the physical communication channel, but rather attribute to its source: the person from which the piece was originated. When you catch an idea from a person, whether from a paper you read, or from a private conversation in the hallway, you pay the same amount of attention and the idea is equally credible if you think the person is credible.

    The only trouble is private conversations and blog posts are not consistently and systematically archieved for easy retrival. But so troubled are many academic publications. They are archived fine, but retrival is not easy: You need to spend a considerable amount of time making a trip to the school or city library search for it, and then spend money to make photocopies. And then after a while the photocopies got lost. If you are in an institution they do provide “free” instant online access to all the publications. But it’s not actually free at all: you institution pays a pretty hefty sum of money for the priviledge. And for outsider, you have to pay $30 each time just for a one week online access to one article of no more than 4 pages.

    That’s exactly why ARXIV is becoming so popular because it serves both proper archiving and free and easy retrival. But blogs are becoming even more popular because it provides more freedom with less censorship. I am sure proper web tools are being developed so web postings are properly archived for easy retrival when they are being referenced. The only short coming is that academies do not get proper credit for their web postings when it comes time for tenureship consideration. But that can change, too. I am just not sure whether that will actually help or hurt Lubos.

    Quantoken

  11. ksh95 says:

    Dumb Biologist says:
    …it’s just a damn lazy practice, in my opinion. I don’t cite “private conversations” or anything not already subjected to peer review…

    In physics, private communications are a critical part of research. Many an hour is spent at the tail end of a talk or in a collegue’s office discussing fine points of a certain idea.

    When some one provides a critical insight to some problem it’s only fair to somehow acknowledge that person. It’s also rude to demand that the insight-providing person spend their valuable time writting a rapic communication.

    Now, the appropriate place for an acknowledgement is an exercise left to the reader.

  12. sunderpeeche says:

    “That’s exactly why ARXIV is becoming so popular because it serves both proper archiving and free and easy retrival.” Indeed yes.

    “But blogs are becoming even more popular because it provides more freedom with less censorship.” This gets into the murky area of what constitutes quality control and censorship. I submit a paper to a peer-review journal, and it is rejected. Am I being censored? I can (a) rebut the referee arguments (b) submit to another journal (c) post it online (arxiv, blog) or even (d) start my own blog (if other managers delete my posts). I am no longer censored. Is my work of any scientific value? Who can say?

    Do not be upset then if string theorists post zillions of papers many (all?) of which may lack scientific value.

  13. Dumb Biologist says:

    Well, benchmonkey biology is certainly a lot different than theoretical physics, I’m sure, but it’s not like we don’t talk. Sort of along the lines of what Sean said above, I might choose to acknowledge a person whose guidance I felt merited special mention. I might just make the person an author if the contribution was big enough. In either case, everything important about that communication would be contained within the body of the manuscript, where it is readily accessible to the referees and the readers, and attains a level of acceptable review and permance for future citation. I would not refer to that content in a citation to, as those above have pointed out, a personal exchange in a highly volatile medium (unrecorded sound waves, blogosphere, I don’t care). Nor would I, again, as Aaron points out, let the contents of a conversation stand alone without first making some critical citation of the referencible origins of those thoughts, which, again, can be perused by the reader and referees. It’s certainly rude to add, as a citiation, something essentially along the lines of “Joe Blow, PhD sez X, Y, and Z in an email” when J.B. might have cribbed the idea (even inadvertantly) from someone else who took the trouble to submit it to a journal.

  14. anon says:

    “someone else who took the trouble to submit it to a journal.”

    That person may have cribbed it from an outsider who was suppressed by the journal

  15. Hal says:

    Everyone who publishes on the web should be familiar with Tim Berners-Lee’s (the “father of the web”) article, “Cool URIs Don’t Change”, http://www.w3.org/Provider/Style/URI .

    Berners-Lee argues forcefully that authors and publishers should leave URIs alone, because the public may be referring to them. Rearranging your web site is not like rearranging your furniture. It’s more like changing the road layout in a city. People are dependent on those old addresses still working. There are serious negative externalities to changing URLs. It’s as bad in its own way as dumping pollutants in a river – easy and convenient for you, but harmful to the general public.

    As for domain names, with costs of ten bucks per year, everyone who publishes should be able to afford one. Let’s suppose Peter Woit moves to another institution than Columbia. Suddenly http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/ won’t even be wrong, it’ll be dead. This could be avoided if he spent the cost of two Starbucks lattes on http://www.notevenwrong.com and redirected it to his academic URL. Then when he moves, he could change the redirection and everything will still work, all the old links will still be OK.

    People think of blogs as just personal hobbies, for their own entertainment. But blogs like this benefit from public feedback and public interest. In exchange for those benefits, blog authors and other web publishers should understand and accept the obligation to become good citizens of the web. A major part of that is insuring that their links will still work in the future.

  16. woit says:

    I’ve thought a bit about the question of how to keep the content of this blog readily available for as long as possible in the future, including whether I should move to a commercial hosting service and/or get my own domain name (I do own and operate a private webserver and domain name for use by my mother, who is an artist). One problem with a private domain name is that it would soon disappear if I get run over by a bus or am otherwise no longer around. On the other hand, Columbia has been around for about 250 years, should definitely outlast me, and has as part of its mission the preservation and transmission of knowledge. Not clear how long http://www.math.columbia.edu will continue to point somewhere useful, but as long as it does, if I haven’t been run over by the bus I believe that I should be able to get someone to configure http://www.math.columbia.edu so that ~woit/wordpress points to wherever the blog material is. If I’m not around, and people think this material is worth preserving, this address is as likely as any to be one that is up and could be configured to point to the right place.

    But in general it is certainly a good idea to keep in mind that blog content may be ephemeral. Things of lasting importance should be written up and archived in a form more likely to survive.

  17. anon says:

    ‘As for domain names, with costs of ten bucks per year, everyone who publishes should be able to afford one.’

    Then it gets deleted when the person dies. Some ideas have to stick around longer than 75 years for anybody to pay attention. Aristarchus’ solar system of 250 BC was ignored until 1500 AD. What if the internet had been around in 250 BC and Aristarchus bought a domain name instead of writing on parchment?

  18. Quantoken says:

    Hal:

    Funny you meantioned that Peter should put his stuff on http://www.notevenwrong.com. It says “this domain is for sale” and I guess it probably cost Peter more than two Starbucks lattes to buy it

    There is URL re-direct and I just don’t know how it works. Preferably it should be the responsibility of the author of a paper to always maintain a valid URL link or an archived copy of all the references he/she made. If your paper references something, the readers of your paper expect to be about to find the material that you referenced to, and verify by themselves that you have not mis-represented the original material. What’s the point of referencing something that no one else can see? (e.g., references like this kind: “For details please look for an un-published and none-exist paper by such and such.”) References are much more than mere acknowledgement of credits of other people’s work.

    Doing so is actually much easier than you thought! Technology already exist and in wide use for things like that. For example various file swapping networks that account for more than 90% of all internet traffic today. How do people get what they want from the web, without even knowing a URL where it is available? Easy, everying is referenced by a MD5 checksum. You just tell the computer the MD5 checksum of the thing you are looking for, and the internet takes care of the rest.

    Same thing can be done with online publishing of academic papers. You reference a paper and attach a hidden MD5 checksum of that paper, and make sure a copy of that paper is already available online. And people can instantly gain access and obtain a copy of the exact paper, without you even need to provide a URL. I envision a tool to do all these automatically so adding a paper reference for the author or access a reference for the reader is as easy as one mouse click. That would be real nice. The only problem would be copyright. But then if all authors are willing to copyleft their papers so more users can access them (who doesn’t want that), then that’s not a problem.

    Quantoken

  19. woit says:

    Quantoken,

    Your capability of spreading misinformation and nonsense on a wide variety of topics is truly impressive, please stop. And please, other people, don’t encourage him.

  20. Dumb Biologist says:

    I agree unjust suppression and other forms of blacklisting can be a problem, but “anything goes” sounds a lot worse to me. Peer review can fail in a number of troubling ways, no question (the whole fictional-cloned-human-ESC catastrophe being exhibit A, in my mind), but the alternatives are probably too chaotic to be workable. Better to make minor corrective adjustments than abandon a largely working system, IMHO.

  21. Quantoken says:

    Peter:

    Please enlighten me (and others) exactly which part of what I said is mis-information and nonsense. I am all ears to enjoy. Otherwise you are making un-founded and un-supported accusations. Especially it now looks like whatever you can’t agree with or whatever you simply don’t know about, you automatically call it nonsense. I happen to be an industry expert on online content delivery, mind you.

    Quantoken

  22. woit says:

    Quantoken,

    I’m extremely busy these days, and the last thing I in the world I have time to do is to discuss with you why your proposals are unrealistic, especially since these are about a topic different than the one I was posting about. I have had a lot of complaints from readers of this blog that allowing comments by you and several other people that shed no light at all on the topics under discussion causes people who do have something relevant to say not to want to participate here. I’ll delete any further comments from you or from anyone else about distributing web content. Take them elsewhere.

  23. lurker says:

    don’t censor quantoken! his posts are the funniest on the web. I love it when he puts stuff in bold.

  24. D R Lunsford says:

    I wrote a paper showing that CC was zero, and why.

    No one is interested in results.

    -drl

  25. amanda says:

    “An author who sees an idea discussed on a blog should do some research to find out the history of the idea and trace it back to a paper if possible. As Aaron points out, this is certainly possible in this case. ”

    Really? How? I tried both hep-th and spires and only got this paper!

  26. Juan R. says:

    No, it will not mean the end of science.

    In general, Blog entries that are referenced in papers will be not added to scientific databases. I see difficult “they start counting blog references as well as standard citations”

    The blogger phenomenom is very related to usual referencial structure of communities as physics or even mathematics. There is not blooger similar phenomenon in chemistry, for example.

    It is more, whereas the fragility and open nature of ArXiV and similar repositories are very adequate for physics science, it is very inadequate for the requirements of chemical science, for example.

    This is reason that ACS has not launched a chemical ArXiV still. And it is the reason that project for a chemical “ArXiV” (the CPS) was abandoned some years ago.

    Howerver, we will see changes in current publication policies in most of disciplines in next few years.

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

    allowing you to search for not just “Topcite” papers, but “Topblog” ones too? Will authors of new papers start regularly getting testy e-mails from blog authors complaining that they haven’t referenced their blog postings?

  27. ksh95 says:

    Really? How? I tried both hep-th and spires and only got this paper!

    Wow, is this what we’ve come to??? You do realize that your local university library has 10^500 distinct ways to perform literature searches.

  28. anon says:

    “The comment section of the arXiv posting notes that the paper has been revised and expanded in responsed to comments about…”

    You need to delete the “d” from the end of the new word “responsed” in this post, Peter, it looks careless.

    But don’t worry, a technical journal I write for published an opinion piece spread over several pages, each headed “Personnel View”. When people wrote in to say it should be “Personal View”, the editor replied that word check didn’t find a fault, so that was to blame…

  29. Carl Brannen says:

    As an example of a website whose author died unexpectedly, but which remains as a source on the web, there is the expert on Clifford Algebra, Pertti Lounesto. His website is still maintained some 4 years later:

    http://users.tkk.fi/~ppuska/mirror/Lounesto/

  30. Eli Rabett says:

    I have thought about the issue a bit. It seems to me that the answer is to require authors to submit images of the pages they reference as suplemental materials. For paper journals this could be done on CD (or uploaded to a CD archive) which would be available to interested users although perhaps not on line (e.g. you would have to contact the journal and they would send you the files by Email)

  31. Bill Tozier says:

    I recently started a “transmissible questionnaire” that asked folks to look themselves up on Google Book Search.

    One of the things I note is Cosma Shalizi‘s references in books. Several of which are references to his blog, or to his ur-blog, the Bactra Review, or to his Notebooks. Including footnotes, and other references.

    In books.

  32. Thomas Larsson says:

    (e.g. you would have to contact the journal and they would send you the files by Email)

    What if the publisher has gone out of business?

  33. anon says:

    Bertrand Russell once had a nightmare about the future, where he saw librarians burning old books (including his own) to make shelf space for new ones. Civilisation may collapse, so it is pointless to go to too much trouble if it all ends up destroyed.

  34. Alejandro Rivero says:

    The ArXiV is mirrored in all the continents, about a dozen copies. Same of the printed copies of main journals. On the pessimistic side, the extant content of the Alexandrian Library can be compressed into one CD. Of course this is a motivation for “reason-in-march”, any physicst should be able to rebuilt the whole theory up to QFT from scratch 🙂

    As for webpages, well a suggestion is to quote the date when the page was consulted. Sort of telling the date of a letter when quoting a letter.

  35. anon says:

    ‘I wrote a paper showing that CC was zero, and why. No one is interested in results.’ – drl

    Have you seen Penrose’s new cosmological theory? See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/hardtalk/4631138.stm

    He argues for an endless sequence of big bangs, but without gravitational collapse. As far as I can make out, if he is right, as soon as the last proton decays the universe will lose all measure of time, and hence spacetime will end, so the universe will become a new singularity leading to a fresh big bang. He says it does have testable predictions, and he didn’t mention CC.

  36. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: Roger Penrose – The interview reminds me of the following, (from Douglas Adams):

    “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.”

    [and on the following page]

    “There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

    Penrose seems to be saying that this happens in a continuous cycle.

    I suppose that Susskind, Hawking, Weinberg, et al would regard him as a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist as he also proposes ways in which his idea can be tested.

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