No good deed goes unpunished in a world where the rules have been set by academic publishers

One of the heroes of my new book Walled Culture is Paul Ginsparg. In 1991, Ginsparg set up an automated email server while he was a staff member of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. As preprints – early versions of academic papers – were uploaded, the server would send out alerts to subscribers, who could then request the full texts. Ginsparg later recalled:

It was originally intended for about 100 submissions per year from a small subfield of high-energy particle physics, but rapidly grew in users and scope, receiving 400 submissions in its first half year. The submissions were initially planned to be deleted after three months, by which time the pre-existing paper distribution system [of preprints] would catch up, but by popular demand nothing was ever deleted.

Initially known as ‘xxx.lanl.gov’, but renamed in 1998 to ‘arXiv.org’ (pronounced ‘archive’), it currently holds more than 2 million papers, in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics, with an average of 15,000 more added every month.

Ginsparg’s project has clearly been a huge success. It has demonstrated that preprints, which can be downloaded and shared freely, are for most purposes just as valid as the “official” version of a paper published in a traditional journal, whose annual subscription may cost thousands of euros. However, a long and fascinating post called “A Vision of Metascience – An Engine of Improvement for the Social Processes of Science”, by Michael Nielsen and Kanjun Qiu, reveals an aspect of Ginsparg’s career that I had somehow missed:

as he developed the arXiv it consumed more and more of his time, and he gradually became what we would call a full-time metascience entrepreneur. He ultimately resigned his position at the lab after receiving an unfavorable performance evaluation, describing him as having “no particular computer skills contributing to lab programs; easily replaced, and moreover overpaid, according to an external market survey”. He went to Cornell University, and more and more of his professional identity became invested in the arXiv.

The same post quotes one of his new colleagues at Cornell as saying of this staggeringly obtuse judgement:

Evidently their [assessment] form didn’t have a box for: ‘completely transformed the nature and reach of scientific information in physics and other fields’.

I’m not going to claim that Ginsparg’s unfair treatment was because of copyright, but I do think he was a victim of the academic publishing culture, albeit indirectly. As Chapter 3 of my Walled Culture book explores in detail, publishers in this sector have done an incredible job of colonising the entire academic and research system – and the minds of those in it. For too long, academic publishers have been regarded as an indispensable part of research work; the idea that knowledge could be shared more easily and beneficially without them was inconceivable for many.

Ginsparg not only showed there was another way, he made arXiv work so well that it was manifestly a better way than the traditional approach of disseminating knowledge through publishing gatekeepers. Sadly, the worldview of the management at Los Alamos National Laboratory was so deformed by years of working with academic publishers that they were incapable of understanding or even seeing what Ginsparg had created. Nielsen and Qiu go on to say:

It remains unfortunate that the arXiv’s revenues are far lower than The Physical Review, perhaps the premier publisher in physics; the arXiv has become far more important for the progress of physics (never mind other sciences) than The Physical Review.

That’s an indication that far too many academics still cling to the old, inefficient ways of sharing their knowledge, and that Ginsparg’s great project of moving to a system based on preprints is not yet complete. It’s time for more to join him in his work – even if they are unlikely to receive much in the way of thanks for doing so.

Featured image from arXiv.org.

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