Publication: an author’s view

One of the few positives about this strange year is that I have done a lot more mathematics than usual. Sitting on the sofa with nothing to see but occasional people walking along the wynd outside has given me time to think, though I admit I felt a bit like the Lady of Shalott at times.

More papers written, more papers submitted, and a higher proportion of papers rejected. If everyone is writing more papers and the capacity of journals has not increased the result is to be expected.

I am beginning to think that I am not very good at judging the quality of my own papers. Some that I consider fairly routine are accepted by journals, while others that I consider quite groundbreaking are turned down so quickly that the editors can hardly have had time to think about them.

Now, at my age, it doesn’t matter a great deal if I publish papers or not; and I could save myself a lot of trouble by simply putting them on the arXiv and encouraging people to read them there.

There are a few arguments for not doing that.

  • The standard argument is that the refereeing process is a guarantee of quality; referees will catch the mistakes and you have a chance to put them right before the paper gets published. There are a couple of things wrong with this. First, often mistakes are not spotted by referees but are pointed out by readers after the paper has appeared. Second, referees do more than just point out mistakes. Once I had a fairly positive referee’s report on a paper which, at a certain point, said “page 13, line 5: This is wrong.” The referee gave no indication of why it was wrong; I read it carefully and wrote to the editor saying “I stand by what I wrote”, and the paper was published without any change to that point. Another more recent referee’s report, one of the most positive I have ever had, ended by saying “The open questions that the authors state: I think they could probably answer some of these.” The editor took this to mean that the paper could not be published without major revisions. We wrote back inviting the referee, if (s)he knew how to answer these questions, to be a co-author – we certainnly couldn’t do it – and heard nothing for two years, after which there was no alternative but to withdraw the paper.
  • An argument that does carry weight with me is that many of my papers have coauthors, many of whom are researchers at the start of their careers, and for their sake the paper should be published in the best journal that will accept it. Yes, that is true, and that is the main reason why I still submit papers to journals.
  • The final reason is that universities are judged by the quality of their research, and the rules of the game specify that this research must be published in journals; conference proceedings essentially don’t count. Why? Because the people who judge the quality are incompetent to do it themselves, and rely on the gold standard given by refereeing (but see the first point). So while I am in employment, I have no choice.

On the last point, when you put a paper in the St Andrews repository, the first question, before any details of the paper itself, is: Peer reviewed or not? This is clearly the most important piece of information for the bureaucrats. The difference in attitude is reflected by the fact that almost inevitably I forget to answer it and when I try to upload the form I am told to go back and answer that question.

Some of my papers which have been turned down by journals have stood the test of time and are now among my most cited papers. Back in the days when submitting a paper to a journal meant printing it out and putting it in an envelope with a covering letter, one paper came back from a journal appearing not even to have been taken out of the envelope and unfolded. This paper is now sometimes cited as a pioneering document in the theory of mutually unbiased bases in quantum computing (although we had no idea about this at the time).

Thinking about all this has led me to a theory. It is the interdisciplinary papers that are most likely to be rejected by journals without proper scrutiny. (The paper referred to above was so interdisciplinary that we felt it necessary to include a “road map” of the concepts discussed.) A paper which is simply an incremental improvement of already known results is more likely to be taken seriously. This despite the fact that journals claim that the opposite is the case. And of course I much prefer finding unexpected links between very different areas.

Sad. But maybe true, and maybe inevitable. And I must make clear that, as hinted above, I find no fault with journal editors, who have been facing huge difficulties with the every-increasing pressure to publish.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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29 Responses to Publication: an author’s view

  1. ENOCH SULEIMAN says:

    Thanks Prof Cameron, it really helped me. I wish I can talk to you personally. Thanks.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    Information Resistance • Ω

    🙞 “The hardest thing to understand about information is people’s resistance to it.”

    • That is really beautiful, thank you. I am a fan of Loreena McKennitt but didn’t know this.

      • Jon Awbrey says:

        In the Beforetimes, we always spent a couple of weeks every year at the Stratford Festival in Ontario taking in all the plays we could. Loreena McKennitt traditionally gave a concert as a thanks to the townsfolk and we got to see her live once at the Knox Church when we happened to be there at the right time. Absolutely amazing artistry.

  3. Aparna Lakshmanan S says:

    I have similar or even worse experiences while communicating research papers to journals. But, I was under the impression that this happens only to budding researchers like me. It is quiet surprising (and baleful) that such responses come to established great researchers like you!!!

    • I wasn’t grumbling about the rejections, only about the fact that what I consider the better papers are often the ones rejected quicklly. But that may be because as I say I am losing the ability to judge my own work. I am getting old…

      One of these is the paper on the geometry of diagonal groups, which I have mentioned here, which I think is one of my all-time best papers, but the editor of the journal we sent it to clearly did not agree.

      • Jukka Kohonen says:

        Reminds me of the famous Howard Aiken quote. (“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”)

        But it could also be simply that the better papers are sent to better journals thus more likely rejected.

      • All my best ideas in recent years have been rejected not just by journals, but even by the arxiv, with the phrase “not of plausible interest”. This may of course be because I am no longer capable of judging my own work. But I prefer to side with Howard Aiken and take the view that because they are good ideas, not only will no-one steal them, but I can’t even give them away.

  4. I should pass on another rejection message from a journal editor. This paper links two different topics; I won’t be able to find a reviewer who knows about both topics, so I have to reject the paper. The final slap of the face: I suggest you submit it to a specialist journal (!)

  5. My all-time favourite sentence from a negative report: “My guess is that if this paper is not published, the world will not suffer”….

  6. Yemon Choi says:

    I read this with interest and sympathy, and am tempted to reply with grumblings about some (repeated) experiences I’ve had in recent years, but it’s currently more fun – and probably better for my blood pressure – to continue working on a new paper rather than to worry about the ones already submitted…

    • I very much agree, and mostly that is what I do. But I do take perverse pleasure in having a little grumble from time to time. I think many mathematicians do!

      • Yemon Choi says:

        Tangential to the points or stories raised in your post: there is a question on MathOverflow concerning the etiquette of getting a journal one is submitting to, to re-use the referee report solicited by a journal one was rejected from. I think I’ve managed this successfully once but it was quite a number of years ago (2007 or 2008 perhaps?)

      • I also had this experience once, or maybe twice, I don’t really remember. I think it was at the journal’s suggestion.
        Slighly dangerous, I guess, since if you go for a journal with a lower reputation the second time the report for the high-status journal might be a bit more negative than you’d like.

  7. Jon Awbrey says:

    It’s funny you should mention Tennyson’s poem in the context of an author’s view of publication as I once laid out a detailed interpretation of the poem as a metaphor on the poet’s quest to communicate.  I know I wrote a shorter, sweeter essay on that somewhere I can’t find right now but here’s one of my more turgid dilatations where I used the poem as an “epitext” — a connected series of epigraphs — for a discussion of what I called ostensibly recursive texts (ORTs).

    🙞 Inquiry Driven Systems • The Informal Context

    “Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott is akin to an ORT, but a bit more remote, since the name styled as ‘The Lady of Shalott’, that the author invokes over the course of the text, is not at first sight the title of a poem, but a title its character adopts and afterwards adapts as the name of a boat.  It is only on a deeper reading that this text can be related to or transformed into a proper ORT.  Operating on a general principle of interpretation, the reader is entitled to suspect the author is trying to say something about himself, his life, and his work, and that he is likely to be exploiting for this purpose the figure of his ostensible character and the vehicle of his manifest text.  If this is an aspect of the author’s intention, whether conscious or unconscious, then the reader has a right to expect several forms of analogy are key to understanding the full intention of the text.”

  8. Pingback: Inquiry Driven Systems • Comment 6 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

  9. Richard Pinch says:

    Peter,

    I’ld like to register my disagreement with the comment “Because the people who judge the quality are incompetent to do it themselves, and rely on the gold standard given by refereeing (but see the first point).” I assume you’re referring here to the REF, and having been a REF panellist myself, I don’t think that’s quite fair. The REF panel is about the same size as the editorial board of a journal, and I don’t think one would say that members of an editorial board were “incompetent” to judge submissions because they pass some or all papers out to external peer reviewers. The papers submitted to REF have been assessed by editors and peer-reviewers: they have then, as you quite rightly say, been read and reviewed by other experts in the mathematical community around the world competent in the subject. That gives a reasonable degree of confidence that they are correct and significant. They have then been further. selected by university mathematics departments as representing the works by which they most want to be assessed. The REF panel have to grade those submissions which pass all those filters by quality, which is a different task, and it was not my experience that my colleagues were “incompetent” at doing so.

    It may be that you don’t think the REF assessment process is possible in principle, or desirable in practice, and I know that many people share that view. But I don’t think that, if there are problems with REF, they can fairly be attributed to incompetence on the part of your fellow mathematicians.

    Richard

    • RIchard, I take your point: I too have been a REF panellist (strictly speaking, RAE as it was in those days), and I agree that the REF panel do a good job which is appreciated by the community. I should have made it clear that I was referring more to assessments within universities for promotion, appraisal, etc. which are much less conscientiously done (I have been involved with those as well).
      While on the subject of REF, RAE stood for “Research Assessment Exercise”, which is exactly what it was. REF stands for “Reseach Excellence Framework”, which I think is far more questionable. The REF panel do a good job, but the pressures that universities apply to their staff to get them REF-ready are not the same ones that would lead to research excellence.

      • Richard Pinch says:

        Peter

        Thanks for that prompt reply and for clarifying your view about RAE/REF panellists. I quite agree with your point about the way universities respond to the REF process: an example of Goodhart’s Law, I suspect.

        Richard

      • Not long after moving to Canada, I had to explain to my then-postdoctoral adviser what the RAE was (he was editing a special issue of a journal, and a UK-based author was hoping it would appear in time to be part of an RAE submission). He later mis-remembered the abbreviation as being short for “Resource Allocation Exercise”.

  10. While I have this open, reading Rob Wilson’s nice comment, I should add one more thing about publishers. Several publishers recently have started posting uncorrected proofs while they wait for the authors to correct them. The AMS has been doing this for a while, but Elsevier now also take this line. It could be said that you should take full responsibility for your paper even before it goes public; but proof corrections give a final chance to avoid embarrassing mistakes. (This of course in addition to the many errors that some publishers introduce by re-typing your paper.)
    Another comment, or addendum to one thing I said in the original post. Since I admitted that I didn’t trust my own judgement even about my own papers, I have had a spate of refereeing requests. It should be said that mostly they are asking for quick opinions rather than full reports, but I feel even more awkward about this. If I think the paper is worth getting a full report on, no damage is done, but what if I give the opposite advice? It is a big burden of responsibility…

    • In a similar vein, if I decline to referee a paper, journals often ask for a reason. I usually decline to give a reason, because I suspect some unscrupulous editors of using such reasons as a de facto referee’s report, and misinterpreting the statement “I don’t want to referee this paper” as “This paper should not be refereed”.

  11. I have had two instances of papers accepted immediately, with no report, after being rejected from the first journal where I had submitted htem.

    In the first case, I suspect we correctly deduced the identity of one of the original referees (both of whom recommended acceptance but were overruled by the editors) and submitted to a journal on which they were on the editorial board.

    In the second case (which was a short 5 page paper), I submitted to a journal whose editor-in-chief was an expert on the topic, but I did not realize until several years later that the paper suggested a possible reason why their ideas in some earlier papers worked much better in one case than in another.

  12. James East says:

    Thanks Peter, I appreciate your perspective on this. I didn’t think you’d have any papers rejected – I certainly have my share of rejections (and it never gets any easier). Like you, I sometimes find it hard to judge the “quality” of my own papers. I also find that it’s often the papers I rate the highest can be rejected multiple times – when a paper is accepted on the first attempt, my response is often… What??

    My “favourite” rejection: “This is a very specialized paper in hardcore semigroup theory and is much more suitable for a specialized journal.” (The paper ended up in J Algebra, which I was quite happy about.)

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