11 dreams for the publishing debate — #9 propagating the Shelah Model18 Jun 2012
3, 2, 1…
Each new post will start from the top, so scroll down a little if you’ve read the previous one – but also check out the first post for some motivation.
These are dreams. Some are realistic—perhaps just around the corner; others are way out there—basically crazy. Some will apply to everyone, others only to some. But all have diversity in mind, diversity in our expectations of who researchers are and what they do.
1. write fewer original-research papers
I know what you’re going to say. But hear me out. This is at the core: to enable researchers to publish fewer “new result”-papers.
I believe all major problems brought up in the debate are, at the heart, caused by the immense increase in publications – but not the global increase, the personal one. You have to publish far too much/big these days to get a half-decent position/grant. Increasing publication numbers did not increase the quality of research or, for that matter, the “quality of life” in our communities.
Instead, the massive inflation is killing us, devaluating everything we do as researchers. More papers mean that our papers are worth less. Having to publish more papers means we produce more research of questionable quality (unintentionally and otherwise). Especially young researchers have to publish for metrics instead of quality. Worst of all, evaluating researchers only by this steam-punkesque output means that the jobs go to people with this one singular skill – writing the right kind of papers to please the editorial boards of the right kind of journals – leading to an intellectual monoculture instead of diverse, stable, rich communities. In particular, the pressure works against women and minorities as they often start with and continue to face disadvantages in their careers that make it harder to produce the desired “output” in the desired time frame.
(If you’re wondering why I’m not bashing “evil publishers”. I don’t think they are the problem – we are. If you are happy with the inflation of papers-in-journals, then big publishers are what you need.)
2. get real credit for surveys, reviews and exposition
Surveys, reviews and expositions are research – nothing more, nothing less. We live in a time where it is actually more important to write expository work. Why? Because we’ve optimized our production pipeline so well that there is no shortage of new (looking) results. Yes, you can argue about “relevance” (I won’t, but I can’t stop you). But if you’re serious about all that “research for research’s-sake”-talk, then you might notice that we’ve figured out how to educate people in the tens of thousands every year that do nothing else but churn out result after result.
As Felix aptly wrote: we need to move beyond “new” results. And this means to step back from them and, well, review. Surveys are the glue that holds our fields together, holds our communities together. We do it all the time – if you read a paper thoroughly, you’ll most likely write a review anyway. As we aggregate, work on larger projects or grant proposals these aggregate and easily become surveys and expositions. We need to make all of these public so that the community and the original author(!) can benefit from this enormous creative output that otherwise might only show up in a reading seminar or a journal club.
Mathematicians usually do even more. If we read a paper, we create our own version of the results. Mathematics need these just like music needs different interpretations. We need to give people who are “just” re-writing proofs the credit they deserve, the credit for keeping results alive, accessible and understandable to a wider audience than the original author and referee.
And with credit, I don’t mean vouchers for some bookstore. Surveys must be first-class citizens! Surveying and reviewing other peoples work belongs on your CV, it is no less original than your “original research” and every department should have people that are exceptional at it, that are better at surveys, reviews or exposition than “new” research and add to the diversity of a department.
3. get real credit for refereeing
Refereeing is research, just like surveys and “new results”. It might seem redundant after dream #2 (and in many ways I would say that’s the goal), but given the importance of refereeing right now and the way we do it, it’s separate.
Currently, good refereeing seems nearly impossible. With the increase of publications we can’t even catch up with what’s happening in our own narrowly focused interests – how, then, can we expect to referee properly? Sam tells his own funny but sad story of refereeing honestly but the problem runs deep. Good referees are hard to find and when you find them, they could be writing a paper instead of refereeing – and why should they not?
There are many ways we could improve refereeing. We can (and should) split up the different stages of refereeing (reference checking, correctness checking on different levels, opinion gathering etc), we should open pre- and post-publication peer review (and in-between peer review), we should use alternative methods to collect these reviews (instead of review journals that have at most one opinion per paper).
One key of refereeing is forming an opinion – and voicing it. That’s very hard, in particular for young and disadvantaged researchers who fear significant repercussions. But we don’t need less people sharing their opinions on other researchers’ output, we need more (whether they agree or not); it’s a responsibility both to our own research communities and to a larger society.
But all of these are very unlikely to work, if we don’t find a way to give referees the credit (and criticism) they deserve. Before we can praise referees we need tools to evaluate refereeing, both in current and future form. Above all, we need to be able to put refereeing on the CV, it’s part of the research qualities every strong department should strive for.
4. get real credit for communicating
Communicating other people’s work through surveys, exposition and reviews is important. Then there’s communicating to students aka teaching. This is an especially sore point for mathematics where undergraduate teaching has become a blunt tool to weed out graduates for other disciplines – our self-respect seems greatly lacking. And then, of course, there’s spreading the word to the wider public.
Have you ever noticed that many of the great researchers are excellent communicators (and teachers and surveyors and referees)? I would go as far as to say that a truly great researcher will be great in at least one of these ways to communicate. Without this, you’re only a great something-else. We should cherish not just one ability of our truly great minds, but all of them. Right now we promote researchers according to how their “new result”-output compares to the “new result”-output of the truly great ones. Why are we so one dimensional?
Also, communication goes both ways, so we must listen. Can you imagine a graduate-student-run, “Law Review”-like journal for mathematics? Graduate students are perfect for forcing you to reflect on your research – we should encourage them to make their thoughts public (including anonymously and pseudonomously). But we mathematicians need to go further. When Bob Moses was speaking at Michigan earlier this year he argued that history will judge us as math literacy becomes a civil rights issue in the 21st century. Are we listening?
Without communication, we risk the longevity of our own research areas because we won’t be understood by the next generation, by other areas and by society as a whole. But this means something’s gotta give and we need to accept that by giving real credit.
5. sharing all our work every way we can
One battle that most scientists are still fighting – full self-archival rights – mathematics has long won. We need to make this happen for everyone. We must use the arXiv, our homepages or (if you must) walled gardens such as academia.edu and researchgate. But we should also embrace more recent alternatives like figshare and github to post all our research publicly – preprints, notes, lecture notes, expository notes, simply everything. Open notebook science is the key, but it’s in its infancy. We need to find ways (many different ones) that work for a larger part of our communities so it becomes easier for people to experiment with it and to make it something even better. It might not be for everyone, but it’s something everybody will benefit from.
However, the truth is that even among mathematicians a large group doesn’t use the arXiv, let alone keep professional homepages deserving the name. I know that especially older researchers often hesitate because technical issues “are more trouble than it’s worth”. This is a challenge and we must argue against this and more importantly help to sort out problems, within departments, within small research communities etc to overcome these obstacles. Approach people, ask them why their papers aren’t availabe and help them put them properly online. In all other cases: Don’t be a Grothendieck.
6. publishing in smaller increments
Have you ever read a paper that seemed to hide its true goal because the author wasn’t finished but had to publish something out of the pressure of not having a job otherwise? Have you ever read a paper that made a small but reasonable result look much more than it really was just so that it will make the least publishable unit? Have you ever read a paper that was so badly written that you couldn’t make sense of it?
Paradoxically, one way to publish fewer “new results” papers might be to publish more but differently. For scientists this might seem easier, publishing as the data comes in. But even for mathematics we have all those little results – the small gems, the one-line-proof, the clever counterexample, the good reformulation, the useful shortcut – all those could be published quickly and openly instead of waiting to find enough to “make it a paper”. Just like data, these could be reviewed publicly much more easily and we should get proper credit for doing so (both author and reviewer).
Longer results could (depending on their nature) be published incrementally, with multiple, public revisions. Take the preprint idea one step further and make your writing process public. Use a revision system like github to expose the process. Allow for outside input in your writing process, in your working process. The internet makes us an intricately connected community and we can work together in one big virtual seminar. There are already excellent examples in that area. In mathematics in particular, we have the Polymath project or Ryan O’Donnell’s Analysis of Boolean Functions, a text book he’s working out as a blog.
But as I’ve argued Polymath doesn’t work for very many people so, again, we need many, many more projects like these so that more people have the opportunity to find a way that works for them.
There’s of course a risk – this could create a lot of noise as incrementally published results implode when data turns out to be flawed, proofs disintegrate and general anarchy rears its head! But I think it’s worth the risk. Search technology is constantly improving and good scientific standards should ensure that failed research is marked accordingly. And we have so much to gain! We might be able to finally give credit for failing productively – the main thing researchers do anyway, we fail and fail and fail until we understand what’s going on. Sometimes we have to give up, but why shouldn’t somebody else continue for us?
Even if your research implodes, you should get credit and, much, much more importantly, you will help others not to repeat your mistake. Fred once worked on a nice old problem which, after a few months, clearly didn’t get anywhere. But he realized that all his attacks had probably been attempted before and so he wrote a pre-print on all the ways to fail, published his code along with it so that people in the future might benefit from his failure. Or as Doron Zeilberger wrote: if only John von Neumann’s maid had saved all the notes he’d thrown away each day!
Or to put it differently: the most exciting result in 2011 was having no result about Con(PA).
7. an affordable open access model
Research publications should be free, for both authors and readers. When it comes to traditional journals, there are already some in mathematics (e.g. NYJM) that offer open access without any fees. I believe we can move to a journal system that is entirely open access and without publishing fees but we’re not there yet. Mathematical journals are said to have profit margins of 90% so we should be the first to get there. Gold open access is already realistic and, more importantly, can be made affordable right now. With peerj, this is already around the corner on a much larger scale.
On the other hand, it seems natural to me to return academic publications to universities and academic societies. For journals, this could simply be done PLoS-ONE style (checking correctness, not “importance”) and our institutions could certainly make such journals open access, non-profit and actually free (just have each department produce one journal). But new ways of doing and sharing research will hardly fit into the journal model. These methods will be much more user centric, will be about people, not publishers. And the natural place to store information about people is their professional homepage as a repository of their work. It seems natural that universities or academic societies could play a much better role in this then proprietary social networks.
However, one problem we’d be facing is that journal publishing is the cash cow of many societies and this money is often used to cross-finance important services. This is not helpful in a time where publishing is a button [Wayback machine]. We’ll have to find another way to finance things that need financing and we’ll have to talk about that, too. Additionally, if we move scientific “publishing” to the next level, there will be new costs: costs for research into doing it, costs for experiments, costs for failures. We need to talk about those, too.
8. a cultural change of doing research (and metrics for it)
If we publish less “new results”, some structural problems might just disappear. Fewer papers means fewer journals means fewer subscriptions means fewer refereeing. Smaller workload and smaller costs. But this can only work if we have tools to nevertheless show what happens in between writing-down-a-decent-result-which-takes-years-dammit. Thanks to the internet, we can actually hope to do this. But the internet will also change everything (again and again) and it will change our communities (again and again). We need to invest resources right now to be able to benefit from this change, find a way to evolve into a work mode that is more appropriate for what is yet to come than what was in the past. We need to get into a constant-change mentality and we need to make this worth everybody’s while.
Our funding bodies, academic societies, universities and other institutions must fund more experiments for doing research differently and the metrics needed for this. At the very least, we need more incubators like Macmillan’s Digital-Science, but also in a non-profit fashion along the lines of MathJax’s business model. Reversely, our communities must value anybody’s effort of joining new experimental platforms such as MO/math.SE, blogs, citizen science projects, polymath-esque projects, wikipedia and all those platforms that are still only dreams. The altmetrics people are already setting many good examples and platforms such as Stackexchange and Wikipedia are working hard to develop reputation technology that will allow us to measure people’s activity in these new scientific environments.
This, of course, means breaking out of the mono-culture of “papers in journals” – a rough cultural change. Nobody talks about this drastic change which, I believe, makes it is the biggest problem in this entire debate. If we change the way we do (and evaluate) research, then we ask incredibly much of the people who are working well in the current model, who are good at (only?) writing the right kind of papers for the right kind of journals. It would be a revolution if people were hired because their non-traditional research activities outweigh the traditional paper count of other applicants – in other words, if hiring would happen strategically, with that kind of diversity in mind. Case in point: even Michael Nielsen overlooks this problem completely in his wonderful book.
This change is even more important for smaller research areas (and must be made to work for them) who can’t play the impact factor game. Failing to adapt, might even mean extinction in this case. But the potential is equally great as more diverse ways of doing research can also mean a better chance to work across fields and improve collaboration and visibility of small fields.
9. propagating the Shelah Model – encouraging bad writers to seek out good writers
This may seem a very math-specific dream, possibly extending to the humanities, but it does apply to the sciences in more than one way.
Not only do we have too many “new result” papers, we also have too many horribly written papers. Although there’s certainly a talent to being a great writer of research publications, we’re facing the problem that our communities just down care enough to enforce even mediocre standards of writing. This is particularly hard with leading researchers who will find their manuscripts barely scrutinized.
Much worse, however, young researchers have an incentive not to care for the quality of their writing and the work necessary for it. Instead the motto is: “Just get it by the referee and be done with it! You could produce a new result while you waste your time revising this one!”. Referees and editors in turn have little incentive to spend their unpaid time improving a paper, so it’s easier to simply dismiss a paper or ignore the communicative shortcomings (after all, the referee understood the damn thing…).
As Dor-Bar Natan said
Papers are written so that their author(s) can forget their content and move on to other things.
The lack of quality control in academic writing endangers long term accessibility of our research as much as data supplements in proprietary formats. In the long run, it makes papers less trustworthy and compromises the greatest strength of research, to build on earlier work. Simply put, archival is rather pointless if nobody can comprehend the content.
Of course, some people are more skilled, some are less skilled as writers. So why not join them up? Saharon Shelah has published over 1,000 papers with 220 co-authors. Not only does the number of co-authors allow Shelah to produce more papers, it also allows the community to understand them better. Yet some of his co-authors are mocked as “Shelah’s secretaries”, supposedly not publishing enough “alone”. Besides being pathetic ad-hominem attacks, this completely overlooks the fact that in many cases only these co-authors make Shelah’s incredible output accessible to the research community.
Let’s have editors and referees tell bad writers to find a capable co-author instead. It should be a win-win situation – good writers will get to be on more papers and researchers lacking in writing skills get their thoughts polished so that other people can actually build on their work. As a bonus, the papers get some pre-publication peer-review and editors and referees shoulder a smaller workload. All we have to do is give up the notion that only “new results” are acceptable research currency. It seems a small price to pay.
And don’t call them secretaries, when they really are smiths. They might not mine the ore, but without them it’s all a pretty useless lump of rock.
- Andreas Blass, 2012/06/19
As one of Shelah’s co-authors/secretaries/smiths, let me point out a limitation of your suggestion. I find it a very good use of my time to work through a draft by Shelah, ask him about whatever difficulties I encounter, fill in missing material, perhaps modify some parts when I see a clearer approach, and write up the result for public consumption. But this depends on the fact that I gain by learning Shelah’s ideas. Substitute a randomly chosen bad writer for Shelah, and you’ll probably find me very unwilling to be a co-author. So, if an editor were to follow your suggestion, telling authors of badly written papers to find a capable co-author, and even if the authors were to honestly try to do this, the usual result will be that no suitable co-author is found and the badly written paper simply goes to another journal. In other words, the Shelah “system” depends strongly on Shelah’s reputation for outstanding research, and there are very few people with such reputations. (By the way, the Shelah “system” also depends on Shelah’s willingness to patiently explain things to people like me, who sometimes need two pages of notes to support Shelah’s “clearly”.)
- Peter, 2012/06/19 Thank you for all your comments, Andreas! I agree that Saharon Shelah is a unique case given, but he is a wonderful role model, so I chose him for explaining this idea. You’re right, of course, and I don’t actually expect it to be as easy as editors making a suggestion and then it just works (not in the current situation or on a large scale anyway). I do think something could be done, at least in part (also, this idea falls under “works for some”, not “must work for everyone). For example, I could imagine a system where a bad writer advertises an interesting result on a specialized platform to find a match with a good writer (or at least better or maybe just willing to work on that aspect). Granted, it’s less appealing than the admiration I would feel towards working with Shelah; maybe it’s more something for young researchers, eager to learn about new topics, get some experience, hone their skills. If I was trying to be funny, I’d call it a dating site (who knows, the algorithms might just work 😉 ). In general, I wanted to make the point that the mockery “Shelah’s secretaries” is silly and damaging to our communities. These collaborations are a wonderful example for how some research activities do not fall into established categories, yet are very important to our fields. Instead of ridiculing it, we should value the service and research level good writers provide. If we gave proper credit, the number of volunteers might also increase. (Of course, there’s no linear scale here anyway and it’s really a question of matching co-authors that complete each other). To highlight how silly the insult is, one might argue in the other extreme: it’s much better for the mathematical community to grab as many Shelah results as possible instead of allowing “mediocre” researchers to “waste” their time doing their own research. PS: this dream was also influenced by Izabella Laba’s comment (even though that one is aimed at expository skills). Perhaps, there are more good researchers out there that could successfully follow Shelah’s model.
- Thilo, 2012/06/25
I totally agree with your critique of attacks against people spending much of their time coauthoring papers with Shelah. It seems to be seen as easy and unimportant while it very probably is neither.
Personally I doubt whether every researcher would like to change the way she or he works to the extent you are suggesting. But humans are different and a research community is likely to profit from encouraging diversity in topics of and approach towards research, I think.
Another point: It seems to me that the quality of a paper is likely to increase even if a bad writer joins up with just another bad writer. People can get carried away by their idiosyncrasies(I know what I am speaking of.), so unless the colleague tends to write bad in exactly the same way the paper might just get better by consulting a colleague.
- Peter, 2012/08/04 Thanks for your comment Thilo. I also agree with you that teaming up is always a good idea, no matter how bad our own writing is. In particular, seeing how departments are shrinking almost everywhere, it will be much harder to find people locally, no matter what. But the net can help, I think. You just need to put yourself out there a little.