Peter Krautzberger on the web

The recent publishing debate -- the IMU's blog continues

My last post has seen quite a lot of visitors (my stats look miserable now that there was such a spike…). But hardly anybody left a comment (thanks to those who did – much appreciated!). Did people find it irrelevant, not worth commenting on? Or did everybody just nod and pass on? I’m confused… (and yes, it’s either or).

Anyway, in case you didn’t see it: the IMU’s “Blog On Journals” is continuing with its third post, by Peter Olver “Beyond Journals”. The post is a bit odd, no links, not even to his piece in the Notices, which is odd since this post is more like a teaser for that piece (or else I didn’t get the point – perfectly possible).

In any case, I did get all excited – they are serious about this “BLOG” thing! Not that I was too surprised. I actually received an email from a moderator for my own comment and I also had a nice exchange with another moderator, Nalini Joshi!, on google+ (unfortunately John Baez didn’t post this publicly – thanks to David Roberts for re-sharing it), describing some of the organisational and technical difficulties of the IMU blog. In other words, I have the impression that at least some of the people involved are taking this very seriously and are aware that there is a community on the web that could be built upon.

And then I started to write another long comment on Olver’s post, titled “Not Beyond Journals, Beyond Papers!” (guess where it led me), and then I refrained from posting the comment on their blog and then I thought I should post it here and then I went back to leave a short comment but didn’t because it felt like off-topic trolling. And then I realized that I’m doing the same thing I did last time. So what’s the point??

There is so much to say! I think there are so many issues surrounding this debate that will change our community forever. We could come out of it fixing the causes (not just the symptoms) of some serious issues, we could also end up making decisions that will lead to the rapid decline of our community.

I’d love to discuss this more here, but it is a lot of work. My thoughts are still unrefined, in need of discussion. It would make it much easier with a bit of feedback. You know… what’s it called again? … ah yes, now I remember, peer review.


  • Ben Webster, 2011/12/17 It’s hard to comment (at least for me) because the subject is so overwhelming. Breaking the power of publishers over mathematics journals is a project I can wrap my head around: progress is slow, but we’re moving in the right direction, and I can think of concrete steps to take. But ending the tyranny of the paper…I sympathize with the arguments, but it’s very difficult to imagine the transition. It’s going to involve a lot of unpleasant fighting with deans.
    • Peter, 2011/12/19 Ben — thank you very much for your comment. I understand your reservations. The “problem” is that, I think, there is no problem when it comes to journals if we stay with papers only. Journals work fine for papers — there’s little reason to change, I think, certainly not enough reason to bring about significant change as is discussed elsewhere; maybe open access will happen, but then again we already have massive open access through the arXiv. I do admit that I’m blissfully unaware of the problem of fighting with deans. Inexperienced that I am (especially in the American system), I think if the mathematical community accepts other activities as research (such as the case of Wikipedia-activity getting a humanities prof tenure), then the deans cannot really argue — if any reviewer will tell the dean that you have done superawesomesauce research activity then you have done superawesomesauce research activity. (I mean, what has a higher “impact factor” then wikipedia anyway). But I’m not idiotic (I hope), which is why I wrote that the professional societies, i.e., the organised part of our community, the political arm of our community, must invest in research on how to evaluate such activities, must define best practice, must join with the other sciences in developing data-analysis tools for messy content like mathoverflow-, wikipedia-, blog-activity. Incidentally, we are thinking about new features for mathblogging. I promise to write more on why I think “Beyond papers” is the way to go and how easy it is to justify such a change. Maybe I can convince you — I mean, if I can’t even convince you… gee… that’d be a bummer.

    • Ben Webster, 2011/12/19 Right, I don’t want to be too Eeyore about this; deans are for the most part reasonable people (ours was just telling us last week to do more innovative stuff online). I think maybe a bigger danger than actual deans is the “dean in our head” just as the most common kind of censorship is self-censorship; whether any particular dean will accept that we were writing on MathOverflow rather than writing papers or not, we all fear the worst case scenario where they will not. So I think those of us who don’t have tenure end up in the cycle where we say “Yeesh, I don’t have time to imagine going beyond papers…I have papers to write!” Speaking of which…

    • Ben Webster, 2011/12/20

      I think if the mathematical community accepts other activities as research, then the deans cannot really argue.

      This is also a really dangerous way of looking at things. The people who hold the purse strings don’t have to listen to you, let alone accept what you say at face value, nor are they likely to suffer much in the way of negative consequences if they don’t. Look at what’s happening in Britain or Canada. Now, most people in funding agency and university administration really do mean well and want to see good research done; I don’t think their existence means we can’t move beyond papers. It just means we have to keep a careful eye on how to show that we really are doing good research as we move beyond them.

      • Ben Webster, 2011/12/20 Damn it. Screwed up the italics in the comment above, and apparently I can’t go back and edit it.
        • Peter, 2011/12/21 I took the liberty of fixing that.
      • Peter, 2011/12/21 I’ve been following that development (cf. [Wayback Machine]). You’re absolutely right that we need to convince the funding agencies — and the deans! All I’m saying is that first we need to convince the community. It is shocking what is happening — especially on the scale (country, not university — whatever happened to that Dutch pure mathematics department they were shutting down?). I’m a burned child in this respect — doing my PhD in Berlin where the strong logic community has been destroyed completely within 10 years because the tenured people were incapable to engage in the politics. I would argue (in a draft on this very server…) that the situation in the UK and Canada is a failure of the leadership of our community (or communities, then again, have you heard about the proposed name change at the NSF?). But this only strengthens my conviction. You might argue that someone engaging in academic politics is not doing research, but you shouldn’t be able to argue that they don’t help getting research done. Again we need to value other ‘research activities’ than we currently do — and we need to support the people that are good at those activities even if it means they are not quite as good as other people at producing the kind of papers we’re valuing right now.
  • François, 2011/12/19 I do think there is a problem: just like “publishing” no longer implies “print media,” the term “academic publishing” no longer implies “academic paper.” I think Ben is right on when he blames the “dean in our head.” The reason why there is basically only one accepted academic medium is some form of self-censorship. Progress is much slower in the Ivory Tower than anywhere else. Academic papers were already great progress over what was before, and they have already evolved to overcome problems of the (now distant) past. You are right, though, that the next step in academic publishing will probably need a new Gutenberg… As for journals, I think we have reached a critical point. The fundamental reason is probably the huge gap between progress in academia and progress in the publishing industry. The latter have been developing a lot of very successful models for publishing. Although we are a rather small target, they apply these models to us too. These models are usually blind to our particular needs since they weren’t designed to do that at all. Can you think of a non-academic reason why free access to information is that important? Maybe you can, but I can’t and neither can the publishing industry… PS: Your first and last paragraphs reminded me of this comic.
    • François, 2011/12/19 (Read “antepenultimate paragraph” instead of “last paragraph.” The horizontal line messed up my count.)
    • Peter, 2011/12/21 François, thanks for the comment! I think there is progress elsewhere. The life sciences have a few acceptable non-paper research activities, e.g., gene database curation. There is also a discussion regarding data curation in general, which is also present in applied mathematics (Igor Carron writes about it frequently at Nuit Blanche). So I think this discussion is beginning. I also think that when it comes to “other research activities”, we might not be as different from the sciences and the humanities as we might think (exposition comes to mind). Certainly, the scientists (at least the bloggers among them) are just as unhappy about the publishing system as mathematicians are so we could join forces. Regarding the publishing industry. Besides the commercial publishers there are the academic publishers. I remember hearing from Oxford University Press something along the lines of “we survived the invention of the printing press, we’ll survive the invention of the internet” — that’s what we should talk about (because, let’s be honest, we profit from this system — abusing publishing as cash cows for our professional societies). Will it mean that some publishers will make significantly less money? Maybe. But I’m certain that there will be other ways to make money (just like open source does not mean you can’t make money). PS: SMBC is always awesome. I should have added that I felt my beyond-papers comment was so far off-topic that it felt like trolling.