Thursday, October 30, 2014

The mess we are in with scientific publishing II - not in the club

previous post in this series; next post in this series

I mentioned various problems with scientific publishing in the previous post.

I neglected to mention the most discussed problems like the ownership of results by private companies, the lack of free access, the uncontrolled costs, the publicly funded work by referees and editors, et cetera.

Today I want to talk about another change in scientific publishing which has occurred in my lifetime. When I was young (1970) there were many fewer journals, mostly of scientific societies, and mostly journals of mathematics with a content intended to be of interest to all mathematicians.

During the last 40 years there has been a proliferation of subject journals owned by small groups of mathematicians, what might be called Clubs (I hesitate to use an Italian word). I am actually a member of the board of such a club, namely the editorial board of Theory and Applications of Categories (TAC). The journal TAC was actually formed partially because of the lack of journals which would accept category theory papers, so it was a defensive move.

In any case, belonging to a club one can expect that one's work will be given a reasonable chance of publication in the club's journal. The work need only be of professional standard.

The most serious problem arises when one would like to work between two different areas, which is exactly what I have been trying to do for the last 25 years, between Category Theory and Theoretical Computer Science (and in computer science we do not belong to any club).

We have just for the nth time had a paper rejected by a computer science journal, this time edited by Rob van Glabbeek and Ernst-Ruediger Olderog.

The strange thing is that neither of the two referees reports recommended rejection. One referee wrote in summary: "The paper may be useful to articulate this approach, which has clear connections with deep classical mathematics, but requires a major revision, both with respect to its contents and its presentation, before publication". The second referee recommends publication saying "the novelty is interesting (and substantial)" and further "their ideas are very deep, but often are not appreciated by computer scientists!". This second referee also recommended improving the presentation: "a better presentation would make their ideas more accessible and, hopefully, more appreciated".

Of course the editors have the final say. In the covering letter the editors explain their rejection, and refer to other communications they have had, but which are hidden from us.

One of the editors' criticisms is that "out of 30 citations, 10 are self citations" which fact is exactly explained by the referees comments to the effect that the work is original and rather outside the existing club. Originality does not seem a reason for rejection.

As a result of repeated rejections our work is spread spottily between category theory journals and the occasional slip into computer science journals. This makes it very difficult to give a coherent account comprehensible to computer scientists, and hence their requests to rewrite.

Going back to the general remarks about the splitting up of research into specialist journals, it is surprising that this has occurred when publishing outside journals has become extremely open (arXiv). It further supports my feeling that we should be moving towards the PLOS ONE model of general journals.

In the next post in this series I would like to examine further our problem with research between category theory and computer science (including more details about our recent rejection).



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