Metadata analysis of 80,000 arxiv:physics/astro-ph articles reveals biased moderation

Have you ever thought of arXiv moderation in astro-ph being a problem? Did you experience a >5 months delay from submission of your pre-print to the arXiv  to being publicly visible? Did this happen without any explanation or reaction from the arXiv moderators despite the same article being published after peer review in the Astrophysical Journal Letters?

Chances are high that your answer is no, to be precise the odds are 81404/81440=99.9558 percent that this did not happen to you.  Lucky you! Now let me tell about the other 36/81440=0.0442043 percent. My computer based analysis of the last 80,000 deposited arxiv:astro-ph articles shows interesting results about the moderation patterns in astrophysics. To repeat the analysis

  • get the arXiv metadata, which is available (good!) from the arxiv itself. I used the excellent metha tools from Martin Czygan to download all metadata from the astro-ph and quant-ph sections since 5/2014.
  • parse the resulting 200 MB XML file, for instance with Mathematica. To get the delay from submission to arXiv publication, I  took the time difference between the submission date stamp (oldest XMLElement[{, date}) and the arXiv identifier, which encodes the year and month of public visibility.
  • Example: the article  arxiv:1604.00876 went public in April 2016, 5 months after submission to the arXiv (November 5, 2015) and publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters (there total processing time from submission to online publication, including peer review 1.5 months).

The analysis shows different patterns of moderation for the two sections I considered, quant-ph and astro-ph. It reveals problematic moderation effects in the arXiv astro-ph section:

  1. Completely suitable articles are blocked, mostly peer reviewed and published for instance in the Astrophysical Journal, Astrophysical Journal Letters, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
  2. This might indicate a biased moderation toward specific persons and subjects. In contrast to scientific journals with their named editors, the arXiv moderation is opaque and anonymous. The metadata analysis shows that the moderation of the physics:astro-ph and physics:quant-ph use very different guidelines, with astro-ph having a strong bias to block valid contributions.
  3. It makes the astro-ph arXiv less usable as a medium for rapid dissemination of cutting edge research via preprints.
  4. This hurts careers, citation histories, and encourages plagiarism. New scientific findings are more easily plagiarized by other groups, since no arXiv time-stamped preprint establishes the precedence.
  5. If we, the scientists, want a publicly funded arXiv we must ensure that it is operated according to scientific standards which serve the public. This excludes biased blocking of valid and publicly funded research.
  6. Finally, the arXiv was not put in place to be a backup server for all journals, but rather to provide a space to share upcoming scientific publications without months of delay.

I will be happy to share comments I receive about similar cases. I am not talking about dubious articles or non-scientific theories, but about standard peer-reviewed contributions published in established physics journals, which should be on the astrophysical preprint arXiv.

Here follows the list of all articles which were delayed by more than 3 months from arxiv:physics/astro-ph (out of a total of 81,440 deposited articles) and if known where the peer reviewed article got published. I cannot exclude other factors besides moderation for the delay, but can definitely confirm incorrect moderation being the cause for the 2 cases I have experienced. Interestingly the same analysis on arxiv:physics/quant-ph did not reveal such a moderation bias of peer reviewed articles. This gives hope that the astrophysical section could recover and return to 100 percent flawless operation. Then the arXiv fulfils its own pledge on accountability and on good scientific practices (principles of the arXiv’s operation). The Astrophysical Journal Publications of Astronomical Society of Japan Journal of Astrophysics and Astronomy EPJ Web of Conferences Astrophysics and Space Sciences The Astrophysical Journal Physical Review C Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society The Astrophysical Journal Letters Journal of Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Experiment The Astrophysical Journal Letters


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