Change academic publishing
My last number theory paper just came out. I received it last week, so that makes it about 5 years since I submitted it – I know this since I haven’t even done number theory for 5 years. Actually I had already submitted it to a journal, and they took more than a year to reject it, so it’s been at least 6 years since I finished writing it.
One of the reasons I left academics was the painfully slow pace of being published, plus the feeling I got that, even when my papers did come out, nobody read them. I felt that way because I never read any papers, or at least I rarely read the new papers out of the new journals. I did read some older papers, ones that were recommended to me.
In other words I’m a pretty impatient person and the pace was killing me.
And I went to plenty of talks, but that process is of course very selective, and I would mostly be at a conference, or inside my own department. It led me to feel like I was mathematically isolated in my field as well as being incredibly impatient.
Plus, when you find yourself building a reputation more through giving talks and face-to-face interactions, you realize that much of that reputation is based on how you look and how well you give talks, and it stops seeming like mathematics is a just society, where everyone is judged based on their theorems. In fact it doesn’t feel like that at all.
I was really happy to see this article in the New York Times yesterday about how scientists are starting to collaborate online. This has got to be the future as far as I’m concerned. For example, the article mentions mathoverflow.net, which is a super awesome site where mathematicians pose and answer questions, and get brownie points if their answers are consistently good.
It’s funny how nowadays, to get tenure, you need to have a long list of publications, but brownie points for answering lots of questions on a community website for mathematicians doesn’t buy you anything. It’s totally ass backwards in terms of what we should actually be encouraging for a young mathematician. We should be hoping that young person is engaged in doing and explaining mathematics clearly, for its own sake. I can’t think of a better way of judging such a thing than mathoverflow.net points.
Maybe we also need to see that they can do original work. Why does it have to go through a 5 year process and be printed on paper? Why can’t we do it online and have other people read and rate (and correct) current research?
I know that people would respond that this would make lots of crappy papers seem on equal par with good, well thought-out papers, but I disagree. I think, first of all, that crap would be identified and buried, and that people would be more willing to referee online, since on the one hand it wouldn’t be resented, free work for publishers, and on the other hand, people would get more immediate and direct feedback and that would be cool and it would inspire people to work at it.
In other words, we can’t compare it to an ideal world where everyone’s papers are perfectly judged (not happening now) and where the good and important papers are widely read. We need to compare it to what we have now, which is highly dysfunctional.
That begs another huge question, which is why papers at all? Why not just contributions to projects that can be done online? For example my husband has an online open source project called the stacks project, but he feels like he can’t really urge anyone, especially if they’re young, to help out on it, because any work they do wouldn’t be recognized by their department. This is in spite of the fact that there’s already a system in place to describe who did what and who contributed what, and there are logs for corrections etc.; in other words, there’s a perfectly good way of seeing how much a given mathematician contributed to the project.
I honestly don’t see why we can’t, as a culture, acclimate to the computer age and start awarding tenure, or jobs, to people who have made major contributions to mathematics, rather than narrowly fulfilled some publisher’s fantasy. I also wonder if, when it finally happens, it will be a more enticing job prospect for smart but impatient people like myself who thrive on feedback. Probably so.
See also the follow-up post to this one.