Isn't it Ironic?

Fifteen years ago, just about the same time that Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the World Wide Web, a young string theorist in Los Alamos, New Mexico came up with another really good idea - making string theory preprints available over the net. Physicists had long circulated their important papers to colleagues as typescript papers rather than force everybody to wait through the long months to publication. With Paul Ginsparg's innovation, they could submit their papers as electronic files which could be downloaded the next day by anyone in the world with access to a computer and an internet connection. Subsequent implementation on the World Wide Web made it even simpler.

It was both the fastest and most democratic medium of scientific interchange ever invented. Initially, anyone could submit a paper. An early paper from an obscure Eastern really old Central European university caught the attention of leading researchers, an attention that turned to awe when they learned that the unknown author was still an undergraduate. He was recruited to a US school for graduate study.

Meanwhile, the electronic preprint service had evolved into an electronic archival system, The ArXiv, which now includes almost all of physics, and has branched out into and influenced similar systems in Mathematics and other fields. As it grew, it required rules to regulate it and bureaucrats to administer it.

A recent innovation and the rules governing it have raised some controversy. It seems that a couple of string theorists thought that the ArXiv could be pimped out for the blogospheric age by implementing a trackback feature. One of these, I believe, was that formerly unknown Czech student (remember him) now grown up into, or at any rate become, a professor, the Hammer of the heretics, and the Savonarola of String Theory.

Unfortunately for this string theoretic utopia, the most sinister heretic of them all, the very incarnation of the anti-stringy Satan, had been waiting for just such an opportunity. He had the nerve to attempt to post a trackback to a paper on the Xiv. Fortunately, the forger of this ring of power, er, builder of the track-back mechanism, was not just a member of the ArXiv Politburo, but a full-fledged stringy warrior himself. If Lubos is the Hammer in the String God's (political) right hand, Jacques Distler is the flaming spear in his left. Peter Woit's trackbackery was in vain.

Peter is persistent. He complained to the ArXiv, he complained on his blog. The ArXiv ignored him, but a few other bloggers, mainly led by Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance, started wondering what was going on. Eventually, Jacques posted the explanation of the policy I linked to above. Read it, and make your own decision, but I find myself agreeing squarely with Chad Orzel of Scienceblogs/Uncertain Principles:
I don't really have a dog in this fight-- I find many string theorists downright insufferable, but if I had Peter Woit hounding me, I'd probably be looking for ways to get rid of him, too. If have to say, though, that the explanation Jacques gives is enough to put me firmly on Woit's side-- maybe it's just extremely badly worded, but as he presents it, this sounds like an incredibly obnoxious policy.

This is compounded by the fact that I can't quite see what the problem is that it's trying to solve (other than "keep Peter Woit from annoying us"). What do you gain from turning TrackBacks on if you're going to limit them to an extremely restricted group of people? Isn't the whole point of the enterprise to broaden the pool of people talking about physics?

If you're going to allow TrackBacks at all, it seems to run counter to the spirit of the whole thing to restrict their posting so tightly. If you're that concerned about granting the ArXiv imprimatur to lunatics with weblogs, then shut TrackBacks down completely, or come up with some better standard than this "active researcher" lunacy (if nothing else, a clearly defined threshold number of papers used to determine "active" status)-- and publish the standard, for God's sake. The whole stupid situation was made even worse by having the standards known only to people on the ArXiv board, and not clearly set forth where people trying to post TrackBacks could see it.
(My bold).

The silliest irony of the whole affair is that the purported purpose here is to avoid "trackback spam," a sensible goal with many proven solutions. If you actually go over to the ArXiv, you find that not only are actual trackbacks so inconspicuous as to be almost invisible, they are also as rare as Nobel Prizewinners at a George Bush Rally. I had to look through about twenty abstracts before I recalled that Lubos had dissed Lee Smolin, et. al. at some length on his blog, so there was a trackback on that paper. The paucity of trackbacks probably has something to do with the fact that only 12 blogs have trackbacking privileges. If Cornell's ambition is to make the ArXiv look infantile, obtuse, and silly, they are doing very well indeed.


  1. I think that the trackback issue is much less serious than the censorship against posting to arXiv which in practice means a professional death.

    For a decade it become impossible for me to post anything to Physics Archives. Mathematical Subject Classification Tables of American Mathematical Society has alink to my homepage about Topological Geometrodynamics in the section devoted to Mathematics of Quantum Theory. Recently I was invited in to Marguis Who's Who in Science and Engineering. One might think that on this basis I should not be regarded as a non-crackpot by any person possessing IQ above 100 but the wise men in the board seem to think differently.

    Certainly I am not the only one. There is large number of active researchers publishing in refereed journals who suffer censorship

    Matti Pitkanen


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