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 thecostofknowledge.com 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.

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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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3 Comments | Choosing a Research Topic, Doing Research, Mathematics, Physics, Science | Permalink

Posted by Researcher

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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4 Comments | Choosing a Research Topic, Doing Research, Mathematics, Physics, Science | Tagged: Dijkstra | Permalink

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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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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).

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5 Comments | Citations, Doing Research, For Graduate Students, Journals, Mathematics, Physics, Writing Papers | Tagged: Feynman, google, old papers, open access | Permalink

Posted by Researcher

June 1, 2009
This great lecture by a prominent physicist can be found here (hat tip: Biocurious)

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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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2 Comments | For Graduate Students, Physics, Science, Uncategorized | Tagged: academe, academia, academic, alternative science career, industrial research, industry, leaving ivory tower | Permalink

Posted by Researcher

May 9, 2009
Choosing a research problem to work on is a tough decision to make, and the relevant advice is rather scarce.

So far I have found only a handful of reasonably looking tips:

- work on important problems (R. Hamming, You and Your Research)
- go for the messes, i.e., for the areas far from being crystal clear

(S. Weinberg, Scientist: Four golden lessons)
- look for an unoccupied niche that has potential (this and some other good tips can be found in the paper Picking a research problem — the critical decision which is primarily addressed to the researchers in biology and medicine but can be of interest to the other scientists too)
- keep several (if possible, not too closely related) problems of varying difficulty to work on, so that you can switch to another problem when you get stuck (for more on this see e.g. here)
- try to move beyond the subject of your Ph.D. thesis (if you have already defended one, indeed) or your postdoc (or your postdoctoral mentor, for that matter); more broadly, beyond your current area of research (see e.g. this post of Terence Tao). This has an extra benefit of reducing the risk of being scooped as discussed here.
- regularly attend the conferences and join (or run) a seminar and/or a journal club: the talks can be an important source of inspiration
- do something you will enjoy doing and what you feel you
*can* do
- your work should rather open the way to new breakthroughs than close the whole subject down

The last three tips are somewhat of a common wisdom and can be found in a number of places; see e.g. the article Choosing a research topic by Richard Reis, which contains some further interesting thoughts on the subject.

See also:

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Posted by Researcher

April 29, 2009
Here are the slides and the video of a nice talk by Simon Peyton Jones with some general advice on the subject.

Some excellent advice on writing (primarily for mathematicians) can be found at the blog of Terence Tao; see also this post at the blog of Daniel Lemire for some important (especially for beginners) technicalities, and Six Rules for Rewriting by Michael Nielsen. More writing tips can be found here.

Some tips on avoiding the writer’s block can be found here at the Tomorrow’s Professor blog. Another possibly helpful trick is the writing microschedule by Gina Hiatt.

Having right coauthors can greatly improve the quality of your paper; for interesting discussions on scientific collaboration go here, here and here (these three posts deal with collaboration in mathematics but can be of interest for other scientists too) at the Secret Blogging Seminar, here and here at the blog of Michael Nielsen; see also this post at the Backreaction blog, and this article by Richard Reis.

Mathematicians can also make use of the classical text How to write mathematics by Paul R. Halmos. Another potentially very promising tool for mathematicians is Tricki (the wiki of math tricks and techniques) whose aims and scope are discussed at the blogs of the Fields medalists Tim Gowers and Terence Tao, see e.g. here and here.

*Update:* some advice on dealing with the paper rejection can be found here.

*Update 2:* A very interesting story on turning potential competitors into collaborators is discussed here, here, here and here. See also these two posts and these two discussions on the caveats of peer review and possible danger of scooping (with focus on the life sciences and physics), and this post on the catch 22 of publishing in the top journals.

*Update 3:* Google has recently produced a demo for a new online collaboration tool, Google Wave; see the post of Terence Tao for more details and a broader discussion of various collaboration tools at the Secret Blogging Seminar.

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4 Comments | Collaboration, Journals, Mathematics, Physics, Science, Writing Papers | Tagged: academe, academia, academic, academic career, academic writing, authorship, coauthor, coauthorship, competitors, Google Wave, ivory tower, peer review, plagiarism, publish or perish, research integrity, research paper, scientific collaboration, scientific journals, scientific publishing, scooping, top journals | Permalink

Posted by Researcher

April 21, 2009
Some good advice on the subject is here, here and here (the last two are primarily intended for the mathematicians), here (this one is primarily on giving short talks) and here (this one also contains some helpful links to writing tips). As for the *job* talks, see e.g. this article by Richard Reis. On a related note, see also his article on getting the most of your conference trips.

Update 1: Presentation Guide for Scientists by Ad Lagendijk

Update 2: How to Give a Good Talk (see also the video) by Uri Alon and

How to Conquer Public Speaking Fear by M. Orman

Update 3: How to Give a Great Presentation at the To Done blog

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