arXiv’s filtering: an alternative perspective

Ginsparg (ArXiv screens spot fake papers, Nature 508, 44; 2014) has extolled the benefits of automated assessment of papers uploaded to an archive, as opposed to ‘human diligence’.  As with telephone helplines, automated processing can be problematic.  An automated process focussed on the deviation of a paper from norms will have difficulty distinguishing between submissions that have unusual characteristics because they are bad, and ones that are unusual because they involve a novel approach.  Submissions of both types seem to be treated in a similar way, by arXiv’s robot and by volunteers giving the ‘cursory glance’ to new submissions previously described (ArXiv at 20, Nature 476, 145–147; 2011).

Through the use of such mechanical processes, using the wrong word in a paper can lead to its progress being seriously impeded rather than quickly becoming public.  There is a distinct similarity between arXiv's activities and the way security agencies go about their business processing the data they collect, in the latter case looking for patterns indicative of terrorists.  ArXiv's own ‘dangerous items’ (as has been revealed by someone familiar with the details) are much influenced by ‘reader complaints’; however, many important ideas were equally the subject of ‘reader complaints’ when first proposed.  Terrorists one has to try to stop, but few scientists have had fatal encounters with papers whose subject matter they have found disagreeable.

ArXiv is not some kind of journal conferring approval on accepted papers, and keeping fussy readers happy should not take priority over its primary purpose, facilitating communication among researchers.  It should accordingly cease using the aggressive review processes currently employed.

Brian Josephson
April 2014