Over fifty years later, it makes you smile to read this introduction, which includes gripes about the limitations introduced by switching from Monotype printing to the photocopying of typewritten pages. (“Alphabets other than Latin and Greek should be avoided,” the editors plead.) Physical Review Letters was a journal spin-off of the “letters” section of the already venerable, half-century-old Physical Review. Outdated as their efforts may seem, the editors were accelerating the dissemination of scientific knowledge, both by taking advantage of this newfangled photocopying thing and by shepherding important papers through the review process and into the hands of scientists.
But there are downsides to the firehose method of spreading around information. While Kentucky acts as an intelligent filter, the arXiv itself gives no indication of a paper’s coherence or integrity, much less importance. In fact, one of the founders, Paul Ginsparg, has written several papers (appropriately enough, they’re on the arXiv, if you want to read them) about how the arXiv has affected scientific citation, a trackable measure of how ideas are circulate and influence. He made the frightening observation that the arXiv papers cited most aren’t necessarily the most important or interesting; rather, they’re the ones that happen to make it to the top of a given day’s list. This makes intuitive sense to me. As scientists scroll down the page, information overload kicks in, but the first paper they see, when they’re looking with fresh eyes, sticks.
In fact, I think we already share way too much too premature information. The reason is that scientists too are only human. If we hear some colleagues talk who are genuinely excited about a topic, chances are we’ll get interested. If we have an idea in an early stage and bounce it off a lot of people, it will lose its edges because we’ll try to make it fit. If we hear something repeatedly, we are likely to think it’s of some relevance. If we know the opinions of other people, in particular people with a higher social status or more experience, we’ll try to fit in. That’s what humans do. That’s why crowds make dumb decisions.