Mathematics has an Occupy moment
The Occupy Wall Street movement means a lot of things to a lot of people, but one of the things it pretty much universally represents is the concept of agency.
Instead of sitting passively by and allowing a dysfunctional system to detract from a culture, the participants in Occupy want to object, to reform the system, and if that doesn’t work, to build a new system. And the crucial point is that they feel that they have the right (if not obligation) to do so. Moreover, they wish to construct a new paradigm built on democratic understanding of the shared goals of the system itself, rather than letting whomever is in power decide how things work and who benefits.
I feel like there’s an analogy to be drawn between this process and what’s happening now in the fight between mathematicians and Elsevier, and for that matter the publishing world (as has been pointed out, Springer has the same issues as Elsevier, even though people like Springer a lot more).
It may seem like the fight against Elsevier is only a small part of the mathematics system, in that it’s really only one publisher of many, and some people (like the journal of Topology) have already gone ahead and started new journals that don’t share the more toxic properties that the Elsevier journals have. I don’t think that narrow view is justified.
In fact, part of tearing down Elsevier has to include a broader understanding of how antiquated the entire academic publishing world is, which immediately begs the question of what we need to build to replace it. This is not unlike the Occupy movement’s goal to replace the current financial system with another which would primarily serve the needs of the citizens and only secondarily the desires of bankers. A tall order to be sure, but luckily for mathematicians their system is less complicated, and moreover the community is much more empowered.
Why am I waxing so poetic over this struggle? Because, at the heart of the question of “what is the new system” is the even more fundamental question, “what do we, as a community, wish to treasure and what do we wish to discard?”. After all, we already have arXiv, or in other words a repository of everything, and the question then becomes, how do we sort out the good stuff from the crap?
I want to stop right there and examine that question, because it’s already quite loaded. Let’s face it, people don’t always agree on what it means for something to be good versus crap, and if there was ever a time to examine that question it’s now.
Here’s a thought experiment I’d like you to do with me. Since leaving academic mathematics, I’ve realized the enormous value of being able to explain mathematical concepts to broader audiences, and I’ve been left with the distinct impression that such a skill is underappreciated inside academic mathematics. In the past 8 months, since writing this blog, I’ve become sort of a hybrid mathematician and journalist, and it’s kind of cool, if unfocused. But what if I decided to really focus on the journalism side of mathematics inside mathematics, would that be appreciated?
So the thought experiment is this. Imagine if, every 6 months, I moved to a new field of mathematics and acted as a mathematical journalist, interviewing the people in math about their work, their field, where it’s going, what the important questions are, etc., and at the end of the 6 month gig I wrote an expository article that explained that field to the rest of the mathematicians. I’d do that every 6 months for 20 years, and I’ve covered 40 fields. Assuming I’m as good at explaining things as I say I am, I’ve really opened up these fields to a larger audience (albeit still math folks), which may allow for better communication between fields, or may avoid redundant work between fields, or may simply enrich the understanding of what’s going on. From my perspective, the work I’d be doing would really be mathematics, and would further the overall creation of mathematics.
However, think about those expository articles I’d be writing. They wouldn’t be original, nor would they be particularly hard- if anything the goal would be for people to understand them. Would they ever get published in a top journal (as of now)? I don’t think so. And please don’t suggest that papers like this, written by famous people in their fields, have been well-received. This is true but I claim more a result of the reputation of the writers than because of the content.
Let’s go back to the question of how we sort papers on arXiv. For some people, this question is really confusing and even scary. They fear that any system besides the one now in place would devalue contributions that are more technical, harder, and less accessible over results that are easy, flashy, and amenable to pop culture sound bytes. I exaggerate for effect, but this is the gist of worries I’ve been hearing. For these people, which I will call “the traditionalists”, the most they want to do is to circumvent the publishers’ fees but otherwise keep intact the referee system, whereby there are gatekeepers who choose experts to anonymously review papers. The publishers are the organizers of this system, and by inviting people to be editors for their journals essentially anoint the gatekeepers.
I actually think those traditionalists should be afraid, but not exactly for the reasons that they think. Instead of worrying that their hard, technical papers won’t be appreciated, they should worry that other, totally different kinds of skills will be appreciated. Of course in the end it’s the same result, namely that the top universities may not forever be populated exclusively by people who prove wonderfully difficult, original and ground-breaking results. They could also include people who are the great story-tellers of mathematics and are appreciated for their gifts of understanding and disseminating mathematics, as well as their broad understanding of the field.
In other words, a democratic system actually looks different from a oligarchy, and that’s not necessarily bad, although the oligarchs may think it is.
I’m going to make a prediction, namely that there will be two different systems in place in 15 years. Neither will involve traditional publishers, but one of them will keep that refereeing system intact whereas the other will be more of a crowd-sourced referee system. Maybe it will be something like this idea of Yann LeCun, for example. Maybe it will be better for women. That would be cool.
By the way, I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting all papers are written equally. There really are people who make huge contributions to their fields through proving hard, creative theorems. I just think there are also people who contribute to mathematics in other ways, that also require hard work and excellent skills. And there aren’t just two skills, of course; I just simplified matters for this discussion.
The discussion of the future of academic publishing is raging, as I posted about here. And that discussion is really important in itself, and the fact that so many people are participating in it, and figuring out the shared values of the mathematics community, is democracy in action. I fully believe we are witnessing a historic moment, and it’s weirdly, and happily, happening without police intervention, pepper spray, or drum circles.