Small Pieces Loosely Kludged: Peer Review and Publication in Math Scholarly Communication

I’m always interested to hear about how different scholarly communities are changing their communications practices. Things like PLOS One, and projects like PressForward are putting forward interesting and new models for when and where review happens and how we establish credibility and mark for quality. At the recent ScienceOnline conference I had the pleasure of chatting a bit with David Zureick-Brown, a mathematician and one of the founders of MathOverflow. Given how forward thinking much of the math community has been in this scholarly communication space I was thrilled to have a chance to pick his brain about similarities and differences between fields.

High Rates of Rejection in Math Journals: It works different there

I was initially taken back by something David said.  It was something like “In my field, if you aren’t getting at least a 50% rejection rate on papers you submit to journals you aren’t aiming high enough.” The idea being, that you should try to get your work into more prestigious journals, and many of these journals have two-year backlogs. In one situation, a paper was rejected that had largely positive reviews because it wasn’t important/exciting enough. This is exactly the thing that projects like PLOSone are set up to get around. To try and stop evaluating papers for quality and start doing a minimal evaluation of them as passing a minimum bar.

Publication happens before Publication

Initially I thought this sounds terrible! You submit your papers, wait for rejections, and then shift down a bit. Wouldn’t this hold up getting your work out there? But then I remembered that Math is different. At this point there is an expectation that you put all your work up on arXiv as soon as they are coherent enough to be called papers. So this review process wasn’t holding up the publication process. As soon as work is done it’s published. People start reading it on arXiv. When I realized this I suggested “Oh, so publication in a journal is actually really just like a mark of quality, it’s like a merit badge.”  Now, it’s a really important merit badge in the field, as the quality of the journals you are published in is a key factor for tenure and promotion. So getting a piece published in a particularly prestigious journal is effectively a seal of quality/approval that a given work matters and is significant for the field.

Small Pieces Loosely Kludged

This kluged together system seems like a great outcome. I can’t imagine anyone set out to make this system work this way. Anything can get published on arXiv, at which point anyone can see the work, cite the work, and reference it. The journals are now really just serving as amplifiers. The peer review of this work is actually post publication peer review. In this system it sort of doesn’t matter if journals want to become open access. If they let you put up pre-prints you’re good to go. The content of the journals is already published and open access. It only costs folks money to see the papers if they want to see the fancy PDFs.

It’s largely about when you call it a publication

So post publication peer review and pre-publication review are actually much more dependent on what we call the publication. Humanities and Social Science folks can just start to put all their stuff up in places like, or up on SSRN before submitting it. In many social sciences at this point this is a standard practice.  While I’m a big fan of institutional repositories, I find the situations where the field specific platforms have emerged a bit more exciting. In these cases, the expectations and behaviors of scholars have shifted. It’s the norm to expect that you can see your colleagues work as quickly as it’s come together online in these spaces.

So why doesn’t this happen in History and the Humanities?

The fact that arXiv, SSRN and sites like RePEc and a few other disciplinary networks emerged for sharing scholarship in draft form and that nothing like them has taken off in the humanities is an indictment of the humanities. How come Mathematicians, Astronomers, Economists and a range of other fields could just set up places to share their work and humanists haven’t? As you can see from the Math situation, if a scholarly community just shifts to sharing pre-prints and everybody does it then it basically doesn’t matter what publishers want to do in terms of open access. This is to say that scholars have no one but themselves and their peers to point to if they don’t like how scholarly communication works. As the math case shows, we can patch our scholarly communication system one kludge at a time and end up with a system that embraces broad open access and rapid dissemination and retains merit badges for quality.