Letter to ArXiv Advisory Board

After more than three months of effort to try and get an answer about this, I’ve finally heard officially from the arXiv that trackbacks to my weblog are currently not being allowed by the moderators. I’m sending the following message protesting this to members of the arXiv advisory board.

To the arXiv advisory board:

I was informed two days ago by Jean Poland of the Cornell library that the arXiv moderators will not allow posting of any of the trackbacks to entries in my weblog that I requested more than three months ago. I would like to protest this decision and ask that it be overturned by the arXiv advisory board.

For background on the history of my weblog, my dealings with the arXiv moderators and the arXiv in general over this issue, you can consult the following web-page:

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/arxiv-trackbacks.html

This is a complicated story, and involves a question not of the greatest importance, so you may quite reasonably not want to take the time to get involved in this, but I urge you to consider the two following issues:

1. It has taken me three months of effort to get a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether placement of these links on the arXiv will be allowed. This has wasted a great deal of my time, as well as that of those people who have been kind enough to try and help me get an answer. This is not a professional way of doing business and I urge you to ensure that it not continue to be the way that the arXiv operates.

2. The rejection of all trackback requests by me, requests that refer to postings of very different natures about both mathematics and physics make it clear that the moderators’ policy is to not allow any trackbacks to my weblog. I have not been given any reasons for this policy, and can only guess what these reasons are. Given the history outlined in the web-page mentioned above, it seems clear to me that this censorship is primarily driven by the moderators’ desire to paint as intellectually illegitimate and suppress commentary that is critical of string/M-theory research. This kind of suppression of dissent, accomplished using arguments that I have not been allowed to see or answer, is scientifically unethical and deserves to be condemned. The arXiv is an exceptionally important resource for the physics and mathematics community, and it is important that it operate according to high standards of scientific ethics.

Best wishes,

Peter Woit
Department of Mathematics
Columbia University
212-854-2642

Update: Sean Carroll’s posting about this has finally shaken loose some indication of what argument was used to disallow links to my blog at the arXiv. For details, see the comment section of his posting.

Update: Lubos Motl has really outdone himself with his latest lunatic ranting about this blog. Note that, besides the blogs run by arXiv moderator Jacques Distler, Lubos’s is one of only a couple particle theory related blogs that the arXiv moderators allow trackbacks to. That trackbacks to this blog are censored, but allowed to Lubos’s (and almost no others not belonging to an arXiv moderator) should be more evidence than anyone needs that there is a serious problem with the arXiv moderation system, and it is due to the string fanaticism of the moderators.

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112 Responses to Letter to ArXiv Advisory Board

  1. Power Ranger says:

    In the case of trackbacks, you say that it doesn’t matter who sent the trackback. Only “the scientific content, not the credentials of the person involved” matter.

    In the case of blog comments, you have a different standard, apparently. OK …

    The research track record is relevant to lots of decisions (hiring, funding). It’s also used by journal editors to choose referees. If blog posts about papers on the arXivs play a similar role to that played by refereeing in traditional journals, it’s pretty reasonable to apply a similar standard to decide whose trackbacks can appear alongside a paper on the arXivs.

  2. woit says:

    Power Ranger,

    Your latest comments here have no apparent scientific content, if they did and they made sense I’d happily take them seriously, no matter what your credentials or even if you desired to remain anonymous (by the way, you’re the only person I’ve noticed so far who takes the trouble to anonymize connections to the web-server here, impressive).

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of using research track record to make the decision at issue here, and I’ve already submitted my argument to the arXiv advisory board that my research track record justifies accepting trackbacks to this site. I am however pointing out that it is not clearly an approriate one in this case, and is quite different than that used in other cases by the arXiv, and the reason for the change in criterion seems pretty clear. By the arXiv’s normal criterion trackbacks to here would have to be accepted, thus the desire to find a different, more ambiguous one that could justify rejection.

    By the way, I don’t think the analogy to refereeing makes much sense. A referee is given some serious power, that to accept or reject a paper. A link to commentary about a paper which the arXiv in no way endorses is something pretty different. In any case, referees are often chosen by journal editors based on their expertise, not their research track record. It is quite common for very junior people with little track record to be asked to referee papers in their specialty, this happened to me more than once when I was just starting out in this business.

  3. nigel says:

    There is a trackback essay by Jacques Distler at http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/archives/000760.html

  4. Dumb Biologist says:

    These days in the bio-sphere one (me, for example) is often asked to referee papers because one has just had a paper published in the journal for which one is being asked to referee. Long ago my response was to be surprised and flattered, until I realised the journals was so overtaxed by the weight of submissions they were trolling for anyone with a pulse and two brain cells to rub together.

    Anyhow, there seems to be no easy way to draw direct analogies between the print world and the arXiv. To my untrained eye, though, as I’ve attempted to learn more about the issue, it seems like trackbacks might be, in some remote way, at least, part of an evolving form of peer review. Hopefully the concept of “peer” is also evolving.

  5. Justin says:

    Interestingly, the arXiv allows a trackback to Lubos’ latest appauling assasination of the “LQG & standard model” paper by Smolin et al.

    On the whole I tend to agree with Lubos’ opinion of the intellectual merits of LQG… but still, it seems ridiculous that such a rude and humiliating rant would be allowed, while all trackbacks to any of Peter’s comments (even helpful and polite ones) are a priori disallowed.

  6. Lead by Science says:

    DB,

    it seems like trackbacks might be, in some remote way, at least, part of an evolving form of peer review. Hopefully the concept of “peer” is also evolving.

    In the way Jacque had presented it, it is.

    Peter,

    Peter don’t worry about the trackbacks, you have linking capability and it still works.

    Imagine, if you were in China and the Government did not want you to see, other then, the way it had wanted you to see?

    Freedommmm……… is nice, is it not?

  7. One R says:

    Justin,

    we are not talking about merits of personality, but of science.

  8. Justin says:

    One R,

    It is questionable to what degree such rants are helpful to science.
    On the other hand, thoughtful and knowledgable critiques can be helpful. Good science and personality are not disconnected.

  9. Dumb Biologist says:

    LbS,

    Yeah, well, let’s just say I’m not terribly impressed with the direction the evolution has taken so far. That said, if the arXiv (and other things like it) are in an especially dynamic phase of development, perhaps things can and will evolve still further, and the “selective pressure” applied will weed out the suboptimal approaches. I have some hope the issue, being debated in public as it is, will serve the greater good in the end. Lots of things in science are self-correcting, because the whole is always greater (and often better) than any of the parts.

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