The period of the “String Wars” has now receded far enough into the past that it has become a topic of interest to historians of science. I learned today from Sabine Hossenfelder’s round-up of various articles addressing the history and sociology of string theory that Sophie Ritson has published an article on the 2006 “trackback” controversy. It’s a fairly straight-forward account of that story, based on publicly available sources, emphasizing the interesting issues raised about science blogging.
While the article deals with the 2006 history, what has happened since then sheds some light on the topic, for example making clear that the “active researcher” business was always a red herring. Within a couple years after 2006 I noticed that arXiv trackbacks were appearing to all sorts of sources obviously not “active researchers” (for example, Slashdot articles). I tried to find out what the new arXiv policy was, but got nowhere. At one point I decided to do some experimental work, setting up a fanboy string theory site, trashing string theory critics and enthusing over the multiverse. An arXiv moderator took a quick look, and decided the anonymous author qualified (see discussion here). I realize this was obnoxious behavior, but thought it at least had a chance of goading the arXiv moderators into revealing their current policy. No dice. Every so often I’ve tried again to contact someone associated with the arXiv to ask what their policy is, but this has never led anywhere. Sabine describes the current arXiv trackback policy as “one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets”. If you look at recent arXiv trackbacks you’ll see that the list is dominated by links from the excellent MathOverflow site, but also includes links from a wide variety of other sources that clearly are not “active researchers” (for instance: New York Times stories, press releases on Phys.org, MIT Technology Review weekly lists of arXiv papers, and Quanta magazine stories).
Besides the secret nature of the current policy, the odd way in which the “active researcher” policy came to light is rather remarkable. This all started back in August 2005 (see here) and at that point trackbacks pointing to this blog were appearing. A few months later that stopped and, wondering why, I wasted a lot of time trying to contact people associated with the arXiv to find out what was going on. I finally heard from a Cornell administrator that links to my blog were not being allowed for an undisclosed reason, and I wrote about that here. Sean Carroll picked up the story here, and a former member of the arXiv editorial board revealed the “active researcher” policy in a comment at that blog entry. This I gather forced Jacques Distler into a public discussion of the policy here, which I commented on here. The Ritson article covers this part of the story in some detail.
So, bringing 2006 history up to date, I have no idea what the current arXiv trackback policy is, other than that they’ve found some new criterion other than the “active researcher” one to justify blocking trackbacks from Not Even Wrong. I guess this will remain “one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets”, at least until someone accidentally reveals all in a blog comment somewhere…