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Change academic publishing

January 18, 2012

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.

  1. JSE
    January 18, 2012 at 9:23 am

    I’ve been on lots of hiring committees, panel discussions, prize juries, etc. and I can tell you that papers posted on the arXiv “count.” I think you’re right that contributions to the stacks project are harder to value. But that’s partly because of the nature of the work — the set of people in any given department or committee with the technical knowledge to assess contributions to the stacks project is pretty small. If someone applied to our department and listed that as a piece of their research portfolio, I would ask Johan what he thought of the person’s contribution, and Johan would tell me. I agree, though, that such work is inevitably going to be underrecognized by hiring committees.

    As for “online open source publishing” — there’s an interesting discussion of this over at Gowers’s blog, here:


    and here:


    What about MathOverflow points? I actually think these DO count, albeit indirectly. Name recognition is a big deal, and one way that young people get noticed is by answering a lot of MO questions. But if you don’t like the mechanism where reputation is based on “how you look and how well you give talks,” surely you’d like the MO points mechanism even less; MO privileges a certain kind of quickness and cleverness which is definitely part of mathematics, but not all of it. Here’s one example of a very good mathematician who doesn’t post on MO and never will:


    One more way we get credit for stuff like this: it matters (to hiring committees, to deans, and to everybody else) whether you have an NSF grant, and the NSF really does care about what it calls “broader impact.” I know running a blog counts, because I’ve seen it mentioned on my own panel reports. I’ll bet being an MO star would count for that too — as it should.


    • January 18, 2012 at 11:46 am

      I’d like to point out thought that part of why she doesn’t participate in mathoverflow is that it isn’t rewarded:

      “Everything is relative to context, of course. If I were isolated and sidelined otherwise at work, chances are I’d be looking to MO and other discussion boards for conversations about my research area as well as support and companionship. There may well be such women on MO, and godspeed to them. Others might be more likely to show up if casual participation were easier and more rewarding, if we didn’t expect it to take forever to convince people that we might actually know what we’re talking about, if we had no reason to believe that we’ll keep getting a lot more shrugs than up-votes for a long time.”

      Also, going back to the “it’s not perfect but it’s better than what we currently have” point, I’d argue that it’s not easy to get away from sexism (which is very very real), but at least when it’s online, the sexism can be documented and quantified. And dealt with, for that matter: why don’t we set it up to be gender blind (so, not show names or something) until after you’ve commented?


    • Dan L
      January 18, 2012 at 11:55 am

      Things other than publications may count for a lot of things, but they don’t count for tenure at most places, because unless the deans and the provost say they count, they do not count.

      Also, I’m a little surprised that mathbabe is such a fan of mathoverflow, for the reasons mentioned by JSE and in the link he gave.


  2. January 18, 2012 at 10:10 am

    Congrats on your publication (always take time to celebrate)! I agree with you that the academic publishing process is broken.

    Here’s Krugman’s version of the piece for economists: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/open-science-and-the-econoblogosphere/

    But my reaction is a bit different. So big deal, the advancement of disciplines won’t happen in the ivory tower…You have a job where you can do serious analysis AND engage people on the Internet. Maybe you don’t get paid directly for it, but it develops you intellectually (which you do get paid for). I am so happy not to be on a tenure track, beside who wants a job for life (how boring)?


    • January 18, 2012 at 11:48 am

      Yes I agree that leaving the tenure track was the right decision for me. But I know so many amazing people in academics who could be engaging each other and the public so much more if the system were set up better, it’s just a shame.


  3. January 18, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Have you read “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science” by Michael Nielsen? It is very in line with what you wrote.



  4. January 18, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Just to say the discussion initiated by Tim Gowers already had some fruits: The Polymath project and I think that you should check some of their results because the way that they were achieved were super-sweet-awsome.


  5. January 18, 2012 at 11:41 am

    I regularly run into similar promotion credit issues with contributions to Sage (http://sagemath.org). Since I run the project, I have written a lot of letters of recommendation trying to explain people’s contributions. Very often tenure committees do not understand or appreciate the value of contributions to Sage. This is ironic because often those contributions get used by thousands people, which is far more of an impact than many journal publications.


  6. January 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Hi everyone.

    JSE, if you know that I “never will” post on MO, you know more than I do 🙂 I’m pretty sure I won’t be doing it soon, but 10 years from now? I might be on MO (or equivalent) all the time. Or I might quit mathematics altogether. Who knows.

    Cathy’s larger point is exactly right, though. We’re forcing all research mathematicians into the same very narrow career model, and publishing is only one small part of that. Some creative community we are.

    I’m all for MO as an *alternative* to traditional publishing. We could all use more variety in what we choose to do, career-wise, and what we can opt out of. But because we’re so well trained to think that there is only one “right” model of an academic career, there’s a danger that if activities like MO become widespread enough, they will in effect be compulsory for everyone. There was a hint of that (and more) in Gowers’s first post on publishing: let’s move *all* publishing to MO-type website! I don’t think that’s right. We need more choices, not fewer.


    • January 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm


      Fortunately, it is not *always* true that narrow and unimaginative criteria are used for hiring and promotion considerations. For example, my outreach and mentoring activities evidently critical role in Univ of Washington hiring me with tenure in 2006 — it would have been impossible for them to hire me without my contributions outside traditional publication, since there was some sort of special hiring opportunity that came up. However, for many hiring and promotion situations that I’ve seen, the “traditional publishing” evaluation criteria are indeed of central importance… which has really taken me off guard on several occasions, to my detriment (e.g., I once strongly pushed a job candidate who was fabulous based on the sort of criteria I care about, but who didn’t look good in terms of “traditional publishing”).

      The best thing (for me) about mathoverflow is that the discussions about subtleties related to current research questions are public, instead of being hidden in private email and backroom discussions. There are few good public mailing lists for discussing research mathematics, for some reason (NMBRTHY is good, but has little traffic).

      — William


  7. January 18, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Dear Cathy,

    I’ve read all of your papers, and they have had a big impact on my research throughout my career. It would certainly positively impact my life if you wrote more.

    I agree that the publication business is very hit-or-miss, and the “miss” can be very poor indeed. I do think that recent internet initiatives have made some difference — not really as an alternative to traditional publishing, but enough to make a five year publication delay more of an embarrassing curiosity than a professional tragedy. The people who want to read your work can and will do it when it appears on your webpage or on the arxiv just as well as when it appears in print.


    • January 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm


      Seriously one of the nicest thing I’ve ever heard, thank you.



  8. January 18, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    I think we should all support arXiv (and it’s not just because the guy who runs it is a professor in my PhD granting department). The other methods of review are too tied to politics, error, and should be killed off.


  9. Michelle
    January 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    I’m a little confused by this post, honestly. Was arXiv not around or used as much in your academic days? (Serious question… I started out about the time you left, so it may be that my experience is different from yours in that respect.)

    I know that people read my articles. Why? Because a few weeks after something appears on arXiv, I get an email about it with questions, ideas, congratulations, whatever. Likewise, I read new papers all the time. I have the number theory arXiv feed in google reader, so every day I quickly peruse new articles. Usually none will be of interest. Of ones that are, a quick skim will tell me if I should dig into it or not. I hardly read new articles in journals at all, though I may go look up the final version of an article I’m building on, to make sure I’ve got it all correct. (The following has happened three times in the past year alone: I’ve been asked to referee an article that I’ve already read pretty carefully when it appeared on arXiv.)

    There is this annoyance about needing to publish in a “real” journal and the time lag that entails, but it feels kind of beside the point to me in terms of getting my work out there and knowing what other people are doing. In order for my arXiv articles to “count,” I need to get them into journals eventually (I would say that 10 arXiv articles and nothing in any journal is a red flag that your work can’t pass muster… but if you have several articles that have appeared and a bunch more on arXiv, it counts for a lot more.)

    I expect that journal publishing as we know it will wither away (as it should) once a form of peer-review on arXiv or its successor(s) is figured out. Right now, journal publishing is a hoop to jump through, but it’s not the whole game. I don’t think that game has much to do with how my research makes it out into the world… though I’m not quite as wrapped up in the prestige of getting into all the top journals as some folks are, I suppose.

    I’m not a big fan of the MO model, though. It favors quickness, and has a bit of a popularity contest feel to it. (Some posters’ questions get tons of votes just because of who the poster is, not because of what the question is.) And if we were to anonymize it… well, how do you do that and still make it “count” for things like promotion and tenure?

    MO feels like one big web-based math contest, and I agree with your previous post on how math contests kind of suck.


  10. January 19, 2012 at 2:20 am

    May I comment on this piece: “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.”

    I agree that its quite stupid to use the mere paper count (or a more sophisticated number like (number of papers)*(impact factor of the journal)/(number of authors)) for a tenure decision. But I do not agree that using the mathoverflow-brownie-points is any better: The fun at mathoverflow is precisely that the reputation is for fun. They don’t mean anything in the real world. If they would, people (at least I) would think about “least askable questions” (similar to the LPU (least publishable unit)) and may be tempted try to raise my reputation by inviting buddies which are supposed the vote my answers up because I voted up theirs, and so on…

    Of course, the community needs some way to answer the question “Is he/she a good mathematician?”, “Is he/she suited to fill this position?”. But well: Usually you can answer the question for yourself and a committee can always ask highly respected people (and they usually do). I think this is a working system and we should support that instead of bringing more technology in to judge people (or their work).


  11. January 21, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Tim Gowers had another good post today, this time on trying to take down Elsevier: http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/


  1. January 19, 2012 at 7:39 am
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