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An absence of referees

By Scott Bradner

For a couple of hundred years scientific truth has been filtered by the status quo. In almost all scientific arenas refereed journals and conferences have been the way that the results of research or new ideas were exchanged between people in the field and communicated to the general public. Submitted papers are reviewed by colleagues who are active and well known in a specific field. The reviews are designed to ensure that the papers are clearly written , present conclusions which are well supported by the evidence and do not repeat earlier work.

In most cases the contents of the papers are kept secret or at least distribution is heavily restricted until the journal is published. Some journals, the New England Journal of Medicine for example, refuse to publish papers whose contents have been disclosed, even if the disclosure was at a scientific conference.

This process has resulted in a careful, deliberate dissemination of information which has a high level of believability. It has also resulted in information dissemination whose pace is determined by the process of producing and distributing paper-based publications and whose contents tend to be filtered by a review process which resists new ideas which threaten the status quo unless extraordinarily well supported.

But, as with many long-established processes, the Internet is becoming a threat to this way of disseminating scientific discoveries. Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, established a web site ( to bypasses the normal scientific publication process. The site, supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, bills itself as a "e-print archive". It is an automated repository for papers. Individuals can submit papers for publication, where publication consists of making the papers publicly available, and update them when they wish to. The site is open to the public and currently 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 that the process slows down the dissemination of important information and is too resistant to new ideas. The controversy has been brewing in scientific circles since Dr. Ginsparg site opened his site in 1991 and is now getting wider attention, with an article in the New York Times on April 21.

It can be very hard for an individual to distinguish sloppy 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 with regulation, such as the new rules by which judges can limit scientific testimony to people that might actually have the scientific background to know what they are talking about, but this 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 observations are mine.