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Los Alamos loses physics archive as preprint pioneer heads east

Low vantage point: the loss of the preprint server is a blow for the lab on the New Mexico mesa. Credit: 2000 UC

The Los Alamos preprint server, which has established itself as physicists' favourite place for early circulation of their research, is leaving the New Mexico laboratory to set up shop at Cornell University in New York state.

Paul Ginsparg, who founded the server — now known as arXiv — 10 years ago, is leaving the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to take up a faculty position at Cornell, and the server will move with him. Cornell plans to expand arXiv's reach into other disciplines, and to use it as a test bed for research into digital libraries.

Ginsparg says growing dissatisfaction with LANL is a major reason for his departure, citing a lack of enthusiasm for the archive among senior staff. Only his former group leader Geoffrey West and library director Rick Luce gave the archive strong support, he says. He adds that the nuclear-weapons laboratory has been shifting its support towards large groups at the expense of individual investigators, and is suffering from declining morale in the wake of recent security scandals.

Los Alamos experienced a painful security clamp-down after Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born engineer at the laboratory, was arrested two years ago on espionage charges and then released (see next article). The loss of the prestigious server delivers another blow to the laboratory's standing in the scientific community.

Paul Ginsparg: set to move to Cornell.

William Press, deputy director of the laboratory, says: “We're sorry to see Paul go, but Cornell has created a very unique opportunity for him. We are very proud to have been the incubator of this revolution in scientific publishing.” He adds that senior laboratory staff have strongly supported the archive activity, but admits that it was sometimes “a struggle to see where it would fit in” with the laboratory's other activities.

The archive currently receives around $300,000 in annual funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, which runs the lab, and LANL itself.

Ginsparg says that consultation with the archive's advisory board, funding agencies and the American Physical Society, produced a consensus that the operation would enjoy more secure funding and stronger intellectual support at a university than at LANL.

But for Ginsparg, the last straw was his recent salary review, which, he says, described him as “a strictly average performer by overall lab standards; with no particular computer skills contributing to lab programs; easily replaced, and moreover overpaid, according to an external market survey”.

LANL officials declined to comment on Ginsparg's case, but said that some recent salary increases at the laboratory have been available only to certain combinations of programmes and individual skills.

Peter Lepage, chair of Cornell's physics department, notes wryly of the LANL assessment: “Evidently their form didn't have a box for: 'completely transformed the nature and reach of scientific information in physics and other fields'.”

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Butler, D. Los Alamos loses physics archive as preprint pioneer heads east. Nature 412, 3–4 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35083708

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