Math 2.0 and Peer Review 2.0, or A revolution in math and science publishing just around the corner?

February 12, 2012


It all began with the blog post Elsevier — my part in its downfall by the Fields medalist Timothy Gowers which has caused quite a stir and culminated in the creation of the web site with an online petition to boycott the Elsevier publishing house (see also this recent post by the Fields medalist Terence Tao).

What is more, the ongoing discussions on the future of math journals, see e.g. [1 2 3 4 5], have now got quite a momentum. The physicists have also launched a similar incentive SCOAP3, and there is a proposal for pre-print peer review by Sabine Hossenfelder.

It is apparent that we need to improve many aspects of the existing publishing system, and the forthcoming change will hopefully also affect the peer review (see e.g. here), and I would like to stress here one aspect of this change which remains somewhat implicit at the background of the ongoing discussions. The suggested versions of Peer Review 2.0 appear to agree in one thing: we need the reduction of subjective bias of the worst sort (culminating in the referee reports essentially saying nothing but “I think this paper is not good enough for this journal”), and I do hope that we, the science community, can bring at least this particular change forth.

More on choosing problems to work on: advice from John H. Conway

March 6, 2010

1. Work at several problems at a time. If you only work on one problem and get stuck, you might get depressed. It is nice to have an easier back-up problem. The back-up problem will work as an anti-depressant and will allow you to go back to your difficult problem in a better mood. John told me that for him the best approach is to juggle six problems at a time.

2. Pick your problems with specific goals in mind. The problems you work on shouldn’t be picked at random. They should balance each other. Here is the list of projects he suggests you have:

  • Big problem. One problem should be both difficult and important. It should be your personal equivalent to the Riemann hypothesis. It is not wise to put all your time into such a problem. It most probably will make you depressed without making you successful. But it is nice to get back to your big problem from time to time. What if you do stumble on a productive idea? That may lead you to become famous without having sacrificed everything.
  • Workable problem. You should have one problem where it’s clear what to do. It’s best if this problem requires a lot of tedious work. As soon as you get stuck on other problems, you can go back to this problem and move forward on the next steps. This will revive your sense of accomplishment. It is great to have a problem around that can be advanced when you do not feel creative or when you are tired.
  • Book problem. Consider the book you are working on as one of your problems. If you’re always writing a book, you’ll write many of them. If you’re not in the mood to be writing prose, then work on math problems that will be in your book.
  • Fun problem. Life is hardly worth living if you are not having fun. You should always have at least one problem that you do for fun.

3. Enjoy your life. Important problems should never interfere with having fun.

This advice from J.H. Conway is excerpted from the blog post of Tanya Khovanova

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The Three Golden Rules for Successful Scientific Research by E.W. Dijkstra

January 6, 2010

1. Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.

2. We all like our work to be socially relevant and scientifically sound. If we can find a topic satisfying both desires, we are lucky; if the two targets are in conflict with each other, let the requirement of scientific soundness prevail.

3. Never tackle a problem of which you can be pretty sure that (now or in the near future) it will be tackled by others who are, in relation to that problem, at least as competent and well-equipped as you.

The original text of the rules together with the author’s comments can be found here (HTML) or here (PDF).

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The Top Ten Open Problems in Physics

November 12, 2009

A list by Dmitry Podolsky

Update: another such list (this time of 24 problems) by Sean Carroll, the three most important open problems in physics by the Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg, and a more extensive list (see also the updated book version of this list)  by the same author.

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Hunting Down the Old References

June 5, 2009

While writing the research papers one quite often needs to get back to the full texts of old (pre-Internet or at least pre-arXiv) references. Of course, having access to a good library and/or the interlibrary loan usually solves the problem but can be somewhat time- and cost-consuming.

It is not that well known, however, that there is a fair chance to find the old paper or preprint you need online for free. Of course, the first thing to try is Google or perhaps another search engine of your choosing. However, if this does not work, you still have a fighting chance, at least as far physics and mathematics are concerned. The places to try are:

  • the KISS preprint server (you can also try the umbrella interface at SPIRES)  allows you to search in (and get to the full text of) a huge database of scanned preprints  going back to the 1970s at least. The database covers mostly high-energy physics and related areas, including a fair share of mathematical physics and mathematics. For instance, you can find there a number of preprints by Richard Feynman, including the unpublished ones.
  • the Digital Mathematics Library
  • NUMDAM and CEDRAM (French mathematical journals)
  • The Project Euclid
  • MathNet.Ru (Russian mathematical journals)

All items but KISS are purely mathematical databases (to be precise, MathNet.Ru includes several physics, mechanics and mathematical physics journals as well).

If you know of other similar databases (be it in physics, mathematics, life sciences,…), please feel free to drop a comment with the relevant link(s).


N. David Mermin: Writing Physics

June 1, 2009

This great lecture by a prominent physicist can be found here (hat tip: Biocurious)

Academia or Industry?

May 23, 2009

See this article from the Science Careers (hat tip: ZapperZ)

Update: on the broader issue of leaving academia see also here, here, here, and here. There also is a fair number of blogs and web sites addressing this issue, for instance:

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