The Fate of the Academic Bookshelf, A Plan for Eradicating Dull Journal Articles . . .

July 15, 2011

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:
Where to publish? Is quality more important than quantity? High impact factor and good reputation---are these terms synonymous?

A lot of similar questions may trouble younger researchers in developing countries, especially in Eastern Europe. It is my impression that the recent expansion of the number of journals indexed in the Web of Science has had the effect of degrading scientific quality in the region.

Is it normal, if a journal is published by a university, for professors at that university to serve as members of the editorial board and publish papers, together with their doctoral students, in the journal? In our countries, this is common. Many of these journals are now indexed in the Web of Science. Moreover, some of them are the top journals in their fields, according to their impact factors (an example is the journal Transport, published in Vilnius and famous for its self-citation).

The loss of integrity in scientific research has been discussed in SIAM News (Doug Arnold, "Integrity Under Attack: The State of Scholarly Publishing," December 2009). But the manipulation of journal standards may not only affect the careers of individual scientists; it can skew general impressions of the whole region. What is even worse is that local experts and peers lose valid criteria for assessing papers and proposals. This problem becomes especially painful in a small country.

What can SIAM do to help resolve such painful questions? First of all, my opinion is that SIAM must continue to maintain stringent standards for its journals. But perhaps SIAM could also become more active (and visible) in Eastern Europe. It must be clear that there is one and only one standard of quality in scientific research.

Minvydas Ragulskis
Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania

To the Editor:
If you happen to take a stroll on the second floor of the mathematics department at MIT, there is one office you will want to politely peek inside. The stunning amount of scholarship amassed over the years by the resident professor (who has a well-known inequality bearing his name) could very well pass as a movie set.

People will always be people, but such sights may very well be examples of "last-chance tourism," akin to visiting the Kilimanjaro snow cap or the Great Barrier Reef. On average, our children will likely have a very different relationship with paper than this professor has.
Should we rethink the way we write science and math books? I care about this personally, because I have notes from teaching that I want to grow, polish, and one day publish.

So let me ask four questions:
1. Why a linear presentation? The natural way for humans to organize knowledge is closer to an acyclic directed graph than a list of chapters. For instance, "matrix" is a parent topic of "determinant," "rank," and a thousand others, but why have to decide who the favorite child is?

2. What about multimedia content? Richard Baraniuk of the ECE department at Rice University does not just think XML will replace LaTeX as a typesetting tool, he knows it will. Baraniuk co-founded Connexions (, an initiative that gathers academic knowledge in the form of web-viewable, user-vetted modules with multimedia capabilities like interactive Matlab plots.

3. Why give away copyright? It is worthwhile to ask whether inertia is one answer. Eric Weisstein's long legal fight with CRC Press over the rights to his MathWorld Encyclopedia is a stunning example we should all be familiar with. While marketing and editing are important services publishers like SIAM offer, book binding and shipping can be done cheaply by print-on-demand services.

4. Why a closed list of authors? This question is perhaps the most delicate, but a reasonable one in view of the open-source software movement. Creative Commons licenses offer many options for scholarly repositories, including that of letting others add content or even create new branches. The meaning of authorship of a popular piece of work may return to its etymological root, i.e., being responsible for the authoritative version.

Please don't get me wrong: I truly enjoy building my academic bookshelf. I take pride in it precisely because we may be among the last few generations to have bookshelves.

Laurent Demanet

To the Editor:
Over the years, some of my colleagues and I have tossed around an idea for a journal that one might call SIAM Letters.

Although many existing journals arguably ought to die a silent death and new publishing venues seem to pop up with alarming frequency, one major gap for applied mathematicians stubbornly persists: We lack a high-quality journal for fast dissemination of short articles with particularly important results.

In many ways, SIAM Letters would be analogous to Physical Review Letters, but there is a crucial distinction: Applied mathematics is not physics! PRL is unsuitable for many developments in applied mathematics, and many young mathematicians need to publish in math rather than physics journals to get respect from the people who matter for both job interviews and tenure. I am still a young scientist, and I have already seen many good applied mathematicians affected adversely by this.

After several years of private conversation, I am writing this letter as a call to arms. I am not senior enough to be a founding editor-in-chief for SIAM Letters, but many of you are. I hope that some of you agree with me and will help this journal see the light of day.

Mason Porter
Oxford University

To the Editor:
Why are mathematics journal articles so dull?

I recently emptied out academic paper-files dating back to 1971, when I started my D.Phil. I kept only those few things that had some real personal value and were not available electronically. I saved the graphics for a 1978 geometry paper in Math Magazine, carefully produced by the university audiovisual centre. I also found an eight-page Selectric typewriter manuscript as it went to the publisher, with more correcting fluid than paper.

In those pre-TEX days, it was a pleasure to open a crisp new journal and see the final published version of one's article. Before the mid-90s, the journals often did a better job of TEX (or, God forbid, Word) composition than the average mathematician.

Such is no longer the case. A journal article often looks worse than the arXiv version---cramped, un-enhanced, and un-loved. And the arXiv paper is often less fun and less informative than a good Beamer or PowerPoint presentation on the subject, which has a human element---side comments, reflections, jokes---even when it is lacking animations, simulations, movie clips, or the like. All of which has been possible for at least twenty years. Indeed, one can find colour graphics in some 19th-century graph theory papers. The average math journal is a pretty dull place even by comparison with journals in the other sciences.

Now, it takes effort to add such enhancements, and while many of us already do so, it is unreasonable to expect this as a basic requirement for a mathematics paper. While the job of typesetting has been added to the rest of the academic remit, the journals (even nice guys like SIAM and the AMS) have responded by offering us even less for more.

So here is what I suggest: SIAM, the AMS, and other society publishers should build us a modern publishing template---a "Beamer without tears," if you will---and promise to expedite publication of well-enhanced articles.

The necessary components such as MathJax are all here. Yes, there are many annoying details, but all that is needed to overcome them is for the academic publishers to step up to the plate.

Jonathan Borwein
University of Newcastle, Australia

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