There’s a kerfuffle in the physics blogosphere these days over the somewhat arcane issue of TrackBacks to posts on the ArXiV, the commual preprint server where researchers can post drafts of the papers that they have submitted to research journals (or, if they’re working in high energy physics, post a paper and then call it a day, without bothering with print publication).
They’ve relatively recently begun accepting TrackBack links from certain blogs– but only certain blogs. Raise your hand if you think that this is likely to cause a problem at some point… Now, take that hand, and pat yourself on the back, because you’re smarter than a string theorist.
There’s a relatively impartial summary at Cosmic Variance. The central figure in the issue is noted anti-string contrarian Peter Woit, and what’s prompted my post is a recent explanation by Jacques Distler. As you might expect from the list of particpants, nobody involved has exactly covered themselves in glory. I’ll put the sordid details behind the cut.
When you get down to it, I’m with Sean Carroll on this: Peter Woit’s criticisms of string theory often border on the unhinged, but he’s not a complete crackpot. He has strong opinions, and expresses them strongly, but then, there are well-known and apparently respected string theorists who make Woit look like Miss Manners when it comes to interacting with those they don’t agree with. There’s no reasonable basis for banning Woit on the grounds of general jackassery.
The really remarkable thing, though, is Distler’s explanation of how the current standards were arrived at:
One’s first thought is: why not use the same endorsement mechanism used for paper submission? Unfortunately, the experience of the moderation system is that endorsement is not a terribly high barrier to entry. Some endorsers are rather loose in endorsing people to submit papers and one can only imagine that they would be even looser in endorsing people to submit trackbacks. In the case of papers, the second-stage filter of moderation is clearly necessary. But we had already decided that there would be no such second stage in the case of trackbacks.
It is also vital to have a reasonably objective standard. “This looks like an interesting weblog.” was not going to be a workable criterion. Nor would any number of other subjective criteria.
Things are already a little problematic here, as they’re clearly casting around for some criterion that will provide a “high barrier to entry.” But there are a lot of real crackpots out there, and TrackBack spammers and the like, so that’s not necessarily a problem. We hit the problem in the next paragraph:
The solution which was adopted, in the end, was that trackbacks would be accepted if they come from active researchers. It’s not particularly hard to figure out who’s an active researcher: just look at their publications. Exactly what level of activity counts as “active” is an issue. Wherever you draw the line, there will be borderline cases that require a judgement-call.
This is the point at which my jaw hits the keyboard– nmbhdgkncv. Are you people out of your minds? This is the “objective” system you came up with? You’re going to designate people “Active researchers” on the fairly arbitrary judgement of the ArXiv board, and only those who are “active” will be allowed to post TrackBacks? Are you trying to cause problems?
When you say “objective,” I’m thinking of things like, say, “holding a position at a college, university, or research lab.” That’s something easy to verify, and undeniably objective– either you’ve got the right kind of job, or you don’t. Maybe you get into trouble with people claiming faculty appointments at diploma mills, but you can rely on accreditation by some external body to sort those out. There’s no judgement call there.
Having the ArXiv board decide who is and isn’t an “active researcher” is just insane, if the goal is actually to avoid controversy. Not only is the closed-group nature of the decision ample fodder for conspiracy theorists, just the name is a disaster. If you’re going to be insulting, why not go all the way, and just call your approved posters “Really Smart People”?
Really, this policy is so stupid, it had to be the work of a committee. It takes a lot of smart people working together to miss something so bloody obvious.
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.