The recent publishing debate — a timeline

In the last 3 weeks I have written a couple of drafts about the debate that finally hit the mathematical blogosphere through Tim Gowers’s blog (I don’t know how much he is aware of similar, ongoing discussions in the scientific blogosphere beyond his Michael Nielsen link but in case my one two readers are not, here are two you should add to your feed reader).

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Unfortunately, the mathematical blogosphere is not visible enough to ensure that people actually see this debate — simply because there’s not enough visibility even if mathblogging.org tries to help with this a little.
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After getting stuck in one draft after another, I would like to try to writing something, rather than nothing: so let me start by giving an overview on all the posts that I have seen since Tim Gowers’s first post on the subject.

Establishing a time line

That’s a lot and one of the reasons why this post was stuck in the draft mode — there was always another post to read (Addendum on Nov 28: Igor Carron pointed out that he hadn’t read Tim Gowers’s posts). The great thing about wordpress is that all my drafts remain in the versioning system, including my rants — who knows if I ever find the time to revisit them…

Since I didn’t read them in chronological order, I won’t write about them in chronological order, but I’ll start with Tim Gowers’s posts.

Gowers’s posts

At first, I was disappointed at Tim Gower’s first post. He describes a Mathoverflow-for-papers idea. That didn’t quite blow me away, to tell the truth, but it’s ok — at least he suggests something and starts a discussion!

What annoyed me slightly more (but again, not greatly) was his list of potential objections. They are all non-points for me — and to Gowers himself if you read his arguments against them. But I felt they changed the discussion into a discussion of these points rather than a the original questions “what could a system look like?” and “how do we get there?”.

What you could take away from Gowers’s first post is the question “Why don’t we try a mathoverflow for papers?”.


The second post is a very different read. My problem with it is mostly the selection of comments he replies to — but I can hardly blame Tim Gowers for discussing only comments from people he takes seriously (well, I will, actually).

The new proposal isn’t really much different from the old one in practice, but it addresses said comments. The main change is to get rid of everything disruptive from the first proposal so that the service might be broadly accepted. The new concept is simply a service to check each others preprints.

For me, the most interesting part of that post is the list of people that Tim Gowers listens to.



Here’s what I found odd (and ultimately disappointing) about the posts.

One

The first post looked like a test balloon. Gowers seemed to say: “I’d love to discuss this topic, here’s an idea, I want to do this here rather than in print, and I want your input”.

But the second post indicates that he only wanted to get some feedback to tweak his specific idea — and he doesn’t want to listen to anyone he doesn’t already trust. If he had said that in the first place, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.

Imagine he would have said: “let’s do a polymath-like project — how many different ways can you think of to reinvent the publishing system?”, now that would have been something!

Two

I wrote that, at first, I was disappointed. The reason was the lack of inspiration — “yet another stackexchange site”, and that’s it.

What had given me hope was the afterthought. In the very last lines Gowers points to the single biggest problem I see in research: “real” research means “new” results in peer-reviewed journals which means that we continue to live in an intellectual mono-culture, valuing only one type of accomplishment.

As simple as his first proposal was, at least it had some disruptive potential! Just imagine if all these “not real research” papers — surveys, expositions etc — would wind up on top of the heap! That could actually question the leadership within our research community, a leadership that is solely decided upon the current publishing system and no other abilities.

But, alas, all the disruptive potential was eliminated in the second post. Instead, we’re left with a project that fixes what peer-review is supposed to accomplish. The community does for free what the publishers should organize and pay for: actual, in-depth peer-review.

Finally, however, I realized that it’s silly of me to expect Timothy Gowers or any other researcher of a similar position to suggest something truly disruptive. After all, the system worked and works for him — and similarly for anybody else he listens to.

Let me end by stressing that despite my criticism, I find it quite wonderful that Tim Gowers has yet again managed to have the mathematical blogosphere catch up with the scientific one on one more important debate.

Since the original post was getting longer and longer, I will post this now and continue later.

5 thoughts on “The recent publishing debate — a timeline

  1. Pingback: The recent publishing debate — Nisan’s posts | Peter Krautzberger

  2. Pingback: The recent publishing debate — The economic power of publishers | Peter Krautzberger

  3. Pingback: Why write papers? • François G. Dorais

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