Joins the Blogosphere!

By Sean Carroll | August 24, 2005 6:14 pm

Over the last fifteen years, the way that physicists communicate research results has been revolutionized by, the preprint server devised by Paul Ginsparg (formerly Any time you write a paper, you send it to the arxiv, where its existence is beamed to the world the next day, and it is stored there in perpetuity. Along with the SPIRES service at SLAC, which keeps track of which papers have cited which other papers, physicists have a free, flexible, and easy-to-use web of literature that is instantly accessible to anyone. Most people these days post to the arxiv before they even send their paper to a journal, and some have stopped submitting to journals altogether. (I wish they all would, it would cut down on that annoying refereeing we all have to do.) And nobody actually reads the journals — they serve exclusively as ways to verify that your work has passed peer review.

So it’s exciting to see the introduction of trackbacks to the abstracts at As blog readers know, an individual blog post can inform other blog posts that it is talking about them by leaving a “trackback” or “pingback” — basically, a way of saying “Hey, I’m talking about that stuff you said.” This helps people negotiate their way through the tangles of the blogosphere along threads of common interest. Now your blog post can send trackbacks to the abstracts of papers at the arxiv! Here’s a test: I will link to my most recent paper. If it works as advertised, the trackback will appear automatically, due to the magic of WordPress.

Now, if you write a paper and people comment on it on their blogs, that fact will be recorded right there at the abstract on Drawing us one step closer to the use of blogs as research tools.

Update: In the comments, Jacques points to an explanation of some of the history; he was (probably) the first to suggest the idea, years ago (which is millenia in blogo-time).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science
  • Risa

    Wow. This is very interesting, but I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about this. There are clearly lots of positive things, but I worry that the standard is so low for blog postings that it’s possible that this may add more signal than noise. ie, I don’t think enough physicists yet have blogs that there will actually be an amazing amount of helpful commentary on papers, but it’s easy to imagine lots of flame wars and crackpots commenting frequently. What’s to stop me from setting up an anonymous blog that bashes all the papers of my competitors? Obviously, people can use their own judgment about whether or not to ignore these things, but I guess it’s the fact that it will all be right there in the place that most people get their main science results that worries me. But perhaps I underestimate the potential and overestimate the concern.

  • &y

    So I click the link to your abstract, and it says this:

    0 trackbacks (What’s this?)
    (send trackbacks to

    I’ve never understood trackbacks. Hope you get it sorted out.

  • Sean

    There is a “semi-automated editorial process” at, so the trackbacks won’t show up immediately.

    Perhaps that is also the answer to Risa’s worry — maybe real human beings working at will try to limit anonymous attacks. But that does sound like a pain. I think we will have to see how it goes; they did, quite properly, reserve the right to cancel the service at any time.

  • &y

    Ah. I jumped the gun. Patience, patience, patience.

    Pseudo-random aside: As a non-physicist, this post is the first I’ve ever heard of arxiv. So perhaps what I’m about to say is common knowledge among arxiv veterans.

    But the word “arxiv” is partially Cyrillic. In Russian, the “X” sounds like a gutteral “kh”: like the sound at the end of the disgusted exclamation “bleech!” the last sound of “kreplach,” the last sound of the troubled region “Nagorno-Karabakh,” etc. It’s also the first letter of Khrushchev’s name, though this is a poor example because most Americans pronounce his name wrong (it’s khroos-SHOV). Anyway, the Russian word for “archive” is “архив” which sounds like “ar-KHEEV” and is exactly how I assume every educated English speaker who looks at the url reads the word. See? Russian is easy.

    One more thing, since I’m on a roll. I was once in Ulan-Bator, Mongolia and got particularly sick on a form of vodkalike liquor called Архи (you should all be able to pronounce this by now). Very nasty stuff. Definitely not worth whatever you think you’re saving by not buying actual vodka. I cannot stress this strongly enough: lay off the Архи if you’re ever in Mongolia.

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  • Eugene

    Interesting. Should I start my own blog and spam my own research papers now?

    ideally blogs should become research tools, but like Risa, I worry about noise. It takes at least some modicum of determination to put a crackpot paper on the arxiv (at the least, you need to think of a reasonably sounding title…), but what happen if I have all my friends who blog ping my papers?

    Also, before they become research tools, blogs are already a kind of a media tool. And we all know how important it is to advertise your own work. Will the blog-savvy now gain a leg up on those who are blog-stupid?

    Ok, back to reading about how to bl….err… Back to work.

  • Jacques Distler

    Hmmm. Well, since the cat is out of the bag …

    You can read my post on a bit of the history of this development.

  • Eugene

    Ah, thanks Jacques for the info.

    I am now actually going to put aside my How to Blog for Dummies book and get back to work.

  • Walt Pohl

    &y: Close. The “x” is the Greek chi, not Russian. So you’re supposed to read it like the English word “archive”.

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  • Alejandro Rivero

    Well, I did not suggested anything to Ginsparg, except that I raised a conflict due to the use of email pestering in Physics Comments. I will see if I get a bit of time to update my service up to the new standards… or perhaps I could even come to discontinue it, if blogging starts to be habitual.

    By the way, ten years ago I invented trackbacks. Well, sort of. It was an script to catch backlinks on fly from referrer pages, with CERN httpd.

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  • http://http WL

    Well, I did suggest something to Paul a good while ago, here’s his answer 😉

    Date: Fri, 13 Nov 92 14:10:20 -0700
    From: Paul Ginsparg 505-667-7353
    To: (Wolfgang Lerche)
    Subject: Re: mail to cern

    i know nothing of www (what is it? , every other week someone tells me
    about some new wonderful network that i’ve never heard of but that will
    be the solution to everything: wais, gophernet, …)


  • Jack

    I can see a future in which this thing replaces conferences. You have a blog at which certain invited people put up a presentation, in the form of an arxiv submission. Other people apply to the conference blog for the right to make comments via trackback. Everyone can read, but only the people invited can present, and only those whose applications to comment are accepted can do so. Now *that* would be cool! No more tiresome time-wasting travel, no more “I only want to talk to my friends”; eventually, in a really Utopian future, people might end up being judged by the quality of their work and not by their networking skills or by those of their thesis advisor. Let it happen, and soon!

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  • Alejandro Rivero

    Is it working? I send POSTs to the given address and the status is 200 OK, but nothing happens.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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