The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.
An absence of referees
By Scott Bradner
Network World, 5/4/98
F or a couple of hundred years, scientific truth has been filtered by
the status quo.
In almost all scientific arenas, research results and new ideas have
been exchanged by people in like fields and communicated to the
general public through what are known as referred journals and
conferences. Submitted papers typically are reviewed by colleagues
who are active and well-known in a specific field. The reviews are
designed to ensure the papers are clearly written, present conclusions
that are well-supported by evidence and do not repeat earlier work.
In most cases, the content of the papers is kept secret or at least
distribution is heavily restricted until the journal is published. Some
journals, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, refuse to
publish papers that include content that has been disclosed - even if it
has been disclosed at a scientific conference.
This process has resulted in a deliberate dissemination of highly
believable information. This has also resulted in an information
dissemination pace thats de-termined by the process of producing and
distributing paper-based publications. Also, the information tends to
be filtered by a review process that resists new ideas that threaten the
status quo, unless the ideas are extraordinarily well-supported.
But as with many long-established processes, the Internet is
becoming a threat to the traditional method of disseminating
information about scientific discoveries. Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at
the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, has established
a Web site (xxx.lanl.gov/) to bypass the usual scientific publication
The site, supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, bills
itself as an "e-print archive'' - an automated repository for papers.
Individuals can submit papers for publication, where publication
consists of making the papers publicly available, and update them
when the individuals wish to do so. The site is open to the public and
covers the areas of physics, mathematics, nonlinear sciences,
computational linguistics and neuroscience.
This site has ignited quite a controversy. The peer-review publication
process is felt by many researchers to be a critical tool in the fight
against quack science and, in some cases, outright fraud. But many
other researchers think the peer-review process slows down the
dissemination of important information and is too resistant to new
The controversy has been brewing in scientific circles since Dr.
Ginsparg opened his site in 1991 and is now getting wider attention,
thanks to a New York Times article appearing April 21.
It can be very hard for an individual to distinguish sloppy science
from careful science or fraud from reality. But that is what modern
communications are forcing more people to do.
Some parts of society are trying to deal with the problem via
regulation, but such rules can be of limited help.
Increasingly, we all will be confronted with the need to evaluate the
truth of assertions where we have no way to do so. Sometimes the
future is not fun.
Disclaimer: Harvard's motto asserts truth, but the above
observations are mine.