24 August 2007

Some thoughts on the current journal system

From Ars Technica: The challenges of scientific integrity. (via Ars Mathematica). Apparently plagiarism has been breaking out on the arXiv -- for those of you who don't know, this is a central online repository for preprints in mathematics, physics, etc. What's amazing to me is that someone would be foolish enough to do this -- the plagiarizing papers which are showing up on the arXiv plagiarize other papers from the arXiv. That is, they plagiarize papers which are easily available online -- and, from the sound of it, by taking fairly long, verbatim excerpts. If you're going to plagiarize, don't take things from the first place where people will look! Take your results from some obscure journal that nobody reads anyway. This raises an interesting question, though -- what's the line between "plagiarism" and "research"? (One old joke has it that if you copy from one source, it's plagiarism, and if you copy from many sources, it's research, but these people copied from many sources.) Obviously, if you do a computation that somebody has done before (because you want your readers to see it), you'll use the standard notation and so on. A lot of the difference is just about citation -- the honest author says "I'm showing you how Erdos did this", whereas the dishonest author tries to pass off someone else's computation as their own. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. The shoulders of the giants hurt, and they want to be acknowledged. Can you blame them?

Peter, commenting at the Ars Mathematica post, says that plagiarism of admissions essays occurs fairly often, mainly from people from non-Western backgrounds. Is it possible that these people simply don't realize that what they're doing is wrong by our standards? However, since the admissions essay in question is a statement of what sort of research a person wants to do, and is written in the first person, this seems doubtful -- two people's research interests are very unlikely to line up exactly.

The comments at Not Even Wrong about this are also of interest. The general consensus seems to be that the current journal system needs some work, especially with regard to lax standards of peer review. That sounds plausible to me, but I don't have enough experience with the system to say for sure.

From Marginal Revolution, I learned about An Auction Market for Journal Articles, suggested by Jens Prufer and David Zetland; they suggest that papers would be posted to some central repository, and editors of journals would then bid for papers (in some sort of fake money they call "academic dollars"). The academic dollars they bid are then split among the authors, editors, and referees of the papers which this paper cites, thus giving editors incentive to pick papers that will be cited often. The authors claim that this system (which I have massively oversimplified) will encourage referees to do more work in improving papers, speed up publication times, and encourage authors to write better papers.

Of course, if you're going to do this, why have journals at all? Is there some logical reason why papers can't stand alone, independent of the journal system, other than "that's how it's always been?" The same Marginal Revolution post points to a note by Carl Bergstrom on "fantasy journals"; why couldn't these become the real journals? In fact, why can't a person just be their own journal? (Instead of trying to get published in prominent journals, one would try to get cited by prominent people. Who's prominent? The people who get cited a lot. It sounds circular, but that's how Google works and they seem to do a good job.) The reason that the journals exist is to solve the problem of distributing work to widely spread people; the Internet eliminates that problem.


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