Archive

Archive for October, 2020

Take an interview!

October 29, 2020 3 comments

We all agree that Math is a human endeavor, yet we know so preciously little about mathematicians as humans working in mathematics. Our papers tend to have preciously few quotable sentences outside of the dry mathematical context. In fact, most introductions are filled with passages of the form “X introduced the celebrated tool pqr, which over the next 20 years was refined by A, B and C, and most recently was used by D to prove Z’s conjecture“. It is such a weak tea to convey contributions of six people in one short sentence, yet we all do this nonetheless.

In my “How to write a clear math paper” article accompanying this blog post, I argue that at least the first paragraph or the first subsection of a long paper can be human and aimed at humans. That is the place where one has freedom to be eloquent, inspiring, congratulatory, prescient, revelatory and quotable. I still believe that, but now I have a new suggestion, see the title of this blog post.

The art of autobiographies

These days many great scientists remain active into very old age, and rarely want or have time to write an autobiography. Good for them, bad for us. Psychologically this is understandable — it feels a little epitaphish, so they would much rather have someone else do that. But then their real voice and honest thoughts on life and math are lost, and can never be recorded. There is blogging, of course, but that’s clearly not for everyone.

There are some notable exceptions to this, of course. When I was in High School, reading autobiographies of Richard Feynman, Stan Ulam and Norbert Wiener was a pure joy, a window into a new world. The autobiоgraphy by Sofya Kovalevskaya was short on mathematical stories, but was so well written I think I finished the whole thing in one sitting. G.H. Hardy’s “Apology” is written in different style, but clearly self-revealing; while I personally disagree with much of his general point, I can see why the book continues to be read and inspire passionate debates.

More recently, I read William Tutte, “Graph Theory As I Have Known It“, which is mostly mathematical, but with a lot of personal stories delivered in an authoritative voice. It’s a remarkable book, I can’t praise it enough. Another one of my favorites is Steven Krantz, “Mathematical Apocrypha” and its followup, which are written in the first person, in a pleasant light rumor mill style. Many stories in these near-autobiographies were a common knowledge decades ago (even if some were urban legends), but are often the only way for us to learn now how it was back then.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there is L.S. Pontryagin’s autobiography (in Russian), which is full of wild rumors, vile accusations, and banal antisemitism. The book is a giant self-own, yet I couldn’t stop myself from hate-reading the whole thing just so I could hear all these interesting old stories from horse’s mouth.

Lately, the autobiographies I’ve been reading are getting less and less personal, with little more than background blurbs about each paper. Here are those by George Lusztig and Richard Stanley. It’s an unusual genre, and I applaud the authors for taking time to write these. But these condensed CV-like auto-bios clearly leave a lot of room for stories and details.

Why an interview?

Because a skillful interviewer can help a mathematician reveal personal stories, mathematical and metamathematical beliefs, and even general views (including controversial ones). Basically, reveal the humanity of a person that otherwise remains guarded behind endless Definition-Lemma-Theorem constructions.

Another reason to interview a person is to honor her or his contributions to mathematics. In the aftermath of my previous blog post, I got a lot of contradictory push-back. Some would say “I am shocked, shocked, to find that there is corruption going on. I have submitted to many invited issues, served as a guest editor for others and saw none of that! So you must be wrong, wrong, wrong.” Obviously, I am combining several POVs, satirizing and paraphrasing for the effect.

Others would say “Yes, you are right, some journals are not great so my junior coauthors do suffer, the refereeing is not always rigorous, the invited authors are often not selected very broadly, but what can I do? The only way I can imagine to honor a person is by a math article in an invited issue of a peer review journal, so we must continue this practice” (same disclaimer as above). Yeah, ok the imaginary dude, that’s just self-serving with a pretense of being generous and self-sacrificing. (Yes, my straw man fighting skill are unparalleled).

In fact, there are many ways to honor a person. You can give a talk about that person’s contributions, write a survey or a biographical article, organize a celebratory conference, or if you don’t want to be bothered simply add a dedication in the beginning of the next article you publish. Or, better yet, interview the honoree. Obviously, do this some time soon, while this person is alive, and make sure to put the interview online for everyone to read or hear.

How to do an interview?

Oh, you know, via Zoom, for example. The technical aspects are really trivial these days. With permission, you can record the audio/video by pushing one button. The very same Zoom (or Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) have good speech-to-text programs which will typeset the whole interview for you, modulo some light editing (especially of math terminology). Again, with a couple of clicks, you can publish the video or the audio on YouTube, the text on your own website or any social media. Done. Really, it’s that easy!

Examples

I have many favorites, in fact. One superb video collection is done by the Simons Institute. I already blogged here about terrific interviews with László Lovász and Endre Szemerédi. The interviewer for both is Avi Wigderson, who is obviously extremely knowledgeable of the subject. He asked many pointed and interesting questions, yet leaving the interviewees plenty of space to develop and expand on their their answers. The videos are then well edited and broken into short watchable pieces.

Another interesting collection of video interviews is made by CIRM (in both English and French). See also general video collections, some of which have rather extensive and professionally made interviews with a number of notable mathematicians and scientists. Let me single out the Web of Stories, which include lengthy fascinating interviews with Michael Atiyah, Freeman Dyson, Don Knuth, Marvin Minsky, and many others.

I already wrote about how to watch a math video talk (some advice may be dated). Here it’s even easier. At the time of the pandemic, when you are Zoom fatigued — put these on your big screen TV and watch them as documentaries with as much or as little attention as you like. I bet you will find them more enlightening than the news, Netflix or other alternatives.

Authorized biography books are less frequent, obviously, but they do exist. One notable recent example is “Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway” by Siobhan Roberts which is based on many direct conversations. Let me also single out perhaps lesser known “Creative Minds, Charmed Lives” by Yu Kiang Leong, which has a number of interesting interviews with excellent mathematicians, many of the them not on other lists. For example, on my “What is Combinatorics” page, I quote extensively from his interview with Béla Bollobás, but in fact the whole interview is worth reading.

Finally, there is a truly remarkable collection of audio interviews by Eugene Dynkin with leading mathematicians of his era, spanning from 1970s to 2010s (some in English, some in Russian). The collection was digitized using Flash which died about five years ago, rendering the collection unusable. When preparing this post I was going to use this example as a cautionary tale, but to my surprise someone made it possible to download them in .mp3. Enjoy! Listening to these conversations is just delightful.

Final thoughts

Remember, you don’t have to be a professional interviewer to do a good job. Consider two most recent interviews with Noga Alon and Richard Stanley by Toufik Mansour, both published at ECA. By employing a simple trick of asking the same well prepared questions, he allows the reader to compare and contrast the answers, and make their own judgement on which ones they like or agree with the most. Some answers are also quite revealing, e.g. Stanley saying he occasionally thinks about the RH (who knew?), or Alon’s strong belief that “mathematics should be considered as one unit” (i.e. without the area divisions). The problems they consider to be important are also rather telling.

Let me mention that in the digital era, even the amateur long forgotten interviews can later be found and proved useful. For example, I concluded my “History of Catalan numbers” with a quote from an obscure Richard Stanley’s interview to the MIT undergraduate newspaper. There, he was discussing the origins of his Catalan numbers exercise which is now a book. Richard later wrote to me in astonishment as he actually completely forgot he gave that interview.

So, happy watching, listening, and reading all the interviews! Hope you take some interviews yourself for all of us to enjoy!

P.S. (Added Dec 3, 2020) At my urging, Bruce Rothschild has typed up a brief “History of Combinatorics at UCLA“. I only added hyperlinks to it, to clarify the personalities Bruce is talking about (thus, all link mistakes are mine).

P.P.S. (Added Feb 6, 2021) At my request, the editors of ECA clarified their interview process (as of today, they have posted nine of them). Their interviews are conducted over email and are essentially replies to the nearly identical sets of questions. The responses are edited for clarity and undergo several rounds of approval by the interviewee. This practice is short of what one would traditionally describe as a journalistic interview (e.g., there are no uncomfortable questions), and is more akin to writing a puff piece. Still, we strongly support this initiative by the ECA as the first systematic effort to put combinatorialists on record. Hopefully, with passage of time others types of interviews will also emerge from various sources.

The guest publishing scam

October 26, 2020 1 comment

For years, I have been a staunch opponent of “special issues” which proliferate many good journals. As an editor, when asked by the publisher if we should have some particular guest issue I would always say no, only to be outvoted or overruled by the Editor in Chief. While I always believed there is some kind of scam going on, I never really thought about it. In fact, it’s really on the surface for everyone to see…

What is so special about special issues?

Well, let me explain how this works. Imagine you organized an annual conference and you feel it was a success. Or you organized a birthday/memorial conference in honor of a senior colleague in the area and want to do more. You submit a proposal to a journal: please, please, can we become “guest editors” and publish a “special issue” of the journal? Look, our conference had so many terrific people, and the person we are honoring is such a great mathematician, so famous and so kind to everyone, how can you say no?

And the editors/publishers do say yes. Not always. Sometimes. If one journal refuses, the request is made to another journal. Eventually, like with paper submissions, some journal says “sure”. The new guest editors quickly ask all/some conference speakers to submit papers. Some/many do. Most of these papers get accepted. Not a rule, just social contract. As in “how dare you reject this little paper by a favorite student of the honoree?”

The journal publishes them with an introductory article by guest editors lauding the conference. A biographical article with reminiscences is also included, with multiple pictures from earlier conferences or from the family archive, always showing light side of the great person. The paper version of the journal is then sent to all authors, or is presented with a pomp to the honoree at some retirement party as some kind of math version of a gold watch. None of them will ever open the volume. These issues will be recycled at best, as everyone will continue to use online versions.

Sounds like a harmless effort, don’t you see? Nobody is acting dishonorably, and mathematicians get to publish more papers, journals get to have submissions the wouldn’t otherwise, the conference or a person gets honored. So, win-win-win, right? Well, hear me out.

Why do the journal editors do it?

We leave the publishers for last. For a journal editor in chief this is straightforward. If they work for leading for-profit publishers they get paid. For a good reason in fact — it’s a hard work. Now, say some friends ask to do part of your job for free, and the proposal looks good, and the list of potential authors is pretty reasonable perhaps. You get to help yourself, your friends, and the area you favor, without anyone ever holding you responsible for the outcome. Low level corruption issues set aside and ignored, who wouldn’t take this deal?

Why do the guest editors do it?

Well, this is the easiest question. Some want to promote the area, some to honor the honoree, some just want to pad their CVs. It’s all good as far as I am concerned. They are not the problem.

Why do the authors do it?

Well, for multiple reasons. Here are some possible scenarios based on my observations. Some are honorable, some are dishonorable, and some in between.

Some authors care deeply for the subject or the honoree. They send their best work to the invited issue. This is their way to give back. Most likely they could’ve published that paper in a much better journal. Nobody will ever appreciate their “sacrifice”, but they often don’t care, it makes them feel better, and they have a really good excuse anyway. From the journal POV these are the best papers. Grade A.

Other authors think of these special issues completely differently and tailor make the paper to the issue. For example, they write personal memoir style reminiscences, as in “ideas from my conversations with X”, or “the influence of X on my work”. Other times they write nice surveys, as in “how X’s work changed field ABC”, or “recent progress on X’s conjectures”. The former are usually low on math content but mildly entertaining, even if not always appropriate for a traditional math journal (but why be constrained with old conventions?) The latter can be quite useful in a way surveys are often in demand, even if the timing for these particular surveys can be a little forced. Also, both are quite appropriate for these specific issues. Anyway, Grade B.

Some authors are famous, write many papers a year, have published in all good and even not-so-good journals multiple times already, so they don’t care which journal they submit next. Somebody asks them to honor somebody/something, and they want to be nice and send their next paper whether or not it’s good or bad, or even remotely related to the subject. And why not? Their name on the paper is what matters anyway, right? Or at least that’s what they think. Grade C.

Some authors have problematic papers which they desperately want to publish. Look, doing research, writing papers and publishing is hard, I get it. Sometimes you aim to prove a big deal and just almost nothing comes out, but you still want to report on your findings just as a tribute to the time you spent on the problem. Or a paper was rejected from a couple of journals and you are close to typing up a stronger result, so want to find a home for the paper asap before it becomes unpublishable at your own hand! Or you haven’t published for years, you’re worried your department may refuse you a promotion, so you want to publish anything, anywhere, just to get a new line on your CV. So given a chance you submit, with an understanding that whatever you submit will likely get published. The temptation is just too strong to look away. I don’t approve, if you can’t tell… Grade D/F.

Why do the publishers do it?

That’s where the scam is. Let me give you a short version before you quit reading, and expound on it below. Roughly — publisher’s contracts with libraries require them to deliver a certain number of pages each year. But the editorial boards are somewhat unruly, unpredictable and partly dysfunctional, like many math departments I suppose. Sometimes they over-accept papers by creating large backlogs and lowering standards. Other times, they are on a quest to raise standards and start to reject a lot of submissions. The journals are skittish about increasing and especially about decreasing the page numbers which would lead to their loss of income, creating a desperate need for more pages, any pages they can publish and mail to the libraries. This vacuum is then happily filled with all those special issues.

What made me so upset that I decided to blog on this?

Look, there is always something that’s a last drop. In this case it was a reference to my paper, and not a good kind. At some point Google Scholar informed me about a paper with a curious title citing a rather technical paper of mine. So I clicked. Here is the citation, in its full glory:

“Therefore, people need to think about the principles and methods of knowledge storage, management and application from a new perspective, and transform human knowledge into a form that can be understood and applied by machines at a higher level—the knowledge map, which is realized on the basis of information interconnection to change knowledge interconnection possible [27].”  

Visualization Analysis of Knowledge Network Research Based on Mapping Knowledge, by Hong Liu, Ying Jiang, Hua Fan, Xin Wang & Kang Zhao, Journal of Signal Processing Systems (2020)

And here is [27]: Pak, I., & Panova, G. (2017). On the complexity of computing Kronecker coefficients, Computational Complexity, 26, 1–36.

Now, I reread the above quote three times and understood nothing. Naturally, I know my paper [27] rather well. It is a technical result on computational complexity of computing certain numbers which naturally arise in Algebraic Combinatorics, and our approach uses symmetric functions, Young tableau combinatorics and Barvinok’s algorithm. We definitely say nothing about the “knowledge storage” or “interconnection” or “management” of any of that.

Confused, I let it go, but an unrelated Google search brought up the paper again. So I reread the quote three more times. Finally convinced this is pure nonsense, I googled the journal to see if it’s one of the numerous spam journals I hear about.

Turns out, the Journal of Signal Processing Systems (JSPS) is a serious journal in the area, with impact factor around 1, and H-index of 49. For comparison, the European Journal of Combinatorics has impact factor around 0.9 and H-index of 45.

Now, JSPS has three main editors — Sun-Yuan Kung from Princeton, Shuvra S. Bhattacharyya from University of Maryland College Park, and Jarmo Takala from Tampere University in Helsinki. All reputable people. For example, Kung has over 30K citations on Google Scholar, while Takala has over 400 published papers.

So, in my usual shy and unassuming way, I wrote to them a short email on Sep 25, 2020, inquiring about the fateful citation:

Dear Editors,
I want to bring to your attention the following article recently published in the Journal of Signal Processing Systems.  I personally have neither knowledge nor expertise in your field, so I can’t tell you whether this is indeed a spam article.  However, I can tell when I see a bogus citation to my own work, which is used to justify some empty verbosity.  Please do keep me posted as to what actions you intend to take on the matter (if any). 
Best,  —  Igor Pak

Here is the reply that I got:

Dear Prof. Pak,
thank you for providing feedback about the citation in this article. The article is published in a special issue, where the papers have been selected by guest editors. We will have a discussion with the guest editors on this matter. Sincerely,
Jarmo Takala
Co-Editor-inChief J. Signal Processing Systems

Now you see what I mean? It’s been over a month since my email. The paper is still there. Clearly going nowhere. The editors basically take no responsibility as they did not oversee the guest issue. They have every incentive to blame someone else and drop the discussion, because this whole thing can only lead to embarrassment and bad rep. This trick is called “blame shifting”.

Meanwhile, the guest editors have no incentives to actually do anything because they are not affiliated with the journal. In fact, you can’t even tell from the Editors’ email or from the paper who they are. So I still don’t know who they are and have no way to reach out to them. The three Editors above never replied to my later email, so I guess we are stuck. All right then, maybe the time will tell….

Explaining the trick in basic terms

I am not sure what the business term for this type of predatory behavior, but let me give you some familiar examples so you get the idea.

(1) Say, you are a large very old liberal arts university located in Cambridge, MA. Yes, like Harvard. Almost exactly like Harvard. You have a fancy very expensive college with very low admission rate of less than 1 in 20. But you know you are a good brand, and every time you make some rich kid go away, your treasurer’s heart is bleeding. So how do you make more money off the brand?

Well, you start an Extension School which even gives Bachelor and Master’s degrees. And it’s a moneymaker! It brings over $500 million each year, about the same as the undergraduate and graduate tuitions combined! But wait, careful! You do give them “Harvard degrees“, just not “Harvard College degrees“. And, naturally, they would never include the Extension School students in the “average SAT score” or “income one year after graduation” stats they report to US News, because it’s not Harvard College, don’t you understand?

Occasionally this leads to confusion and even minor scandals, but who cares, right? We are talking a lot of money! A lot of people have afterhours adjunct jobs, rooms have higher occupancy rate aiming to recoup building repairs (well, pre-pandemic), and a lot of people get educated and feel good about getting an education at Harvard, win-win-win…

But you see where I am going — same brand is split into two under one roof, selling two different, highly unequal, almost unrelated products, all for the benefit of a very rich private corporation.

(2) Now, here is a sweet completely made up example. You are a large corporation selling luxury dark chocolate candies made of very expensive cocoa beans. A new CEO comes up with a request. Cut candy weight to save on the beans without lowering candy box prices, and make it a PR campaign so that everyone feels great and rushes to buy these. You say impossible? Not at all!

Here is what you do. Say, your luxury box of dark chocolate candies weights 200 grams, so each is 20 grams. You make each candy a little bit smaller, so the total weight is now 175 gram — for each candy the difference of 2.5 grams is barely noticeable. You make the candy box bigger and put two more rather large 25 gram candies made out of cheap white chocolate, wrapped into a visually different wrap. You sell them in one box. The new weight is 225 grams, i.e. larger than before. You advertise “now with two bonus candies at the same price!”, and customers feel happy to get some “free stuff”. At the end, they might not like the cheap candies, but who cares – they get to have the same old 10 expensive candies, right?

Again, you see where I am going. They created an artificial confusion by selling a superior and an inferior product in the same box without an honest breakdown, so the customers are completely duped.

Back to publishers

They are playing just as unfair as the second example above. The librarians can’t tell the difference between quality of “special issues”, they only negotiate on the number of pages. The journal’s reputation doesn’t suffer from those. Indeed, it is understood that they are not always but often enough of lower quality, but you can’t really submit there unless you are in the loop. I don’t know how the impact factor and H index are calculated, but I bet the publishers work with Web Of Science to exclude these special issues and report only the usual issues akin to the Harvard example. Or not. Nobody cares for these indices anymore, right?

Some examples

Let me just show how chaotic is the publishing of special issues. Take Discrete Mathematics, an Elsevier journal where I was an editor for 8 years (and whose Wikipedia page I made myself). Here is a page with Special Issues. There is no order to any of these conferences. There are 8th French Combinatorial Conference, Seventh Czech-Slovak International Symposium, 23rd British Combinatorics Conference, huh? What happened to the previous 7, 6 and 22 proceedings, respectively? You notice a lot of special issues from before the journal was overhauled and very few in recent years. Clearly the journal is on the right track. Good for them!

Here are three special issues in JCTA, and here are two in JCTB (both Elsevier). Why these? Are the editors sure these have the same quality as the rest of these top rated journals? Well, hopefully no longer top rated for JCTA. The Annals of Combinatorics (Springer) has literally “Ten Years of BAD Math” special issue (yes, I know what BAD Math means, but the name is awful even if the papers are great). The European Journal of Combinatorics (Elsevier again), publishes usually 1-2 special issue per year. Why?? Not enough submissions? Same for Advances Applied Math (also Elsevier), although very few special issues in recent years (good!). I think one of my papers (of grade B) is in one of the older special issues. Ooops!

Now compare these with the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics which stopped publishing special issues back in 2012. This journal is free online, has no page limitation, so it cares more about its reputation than filling the pages. Or take the extreme case of the Annals of Mathematics which would laugh at the idea of a “special issue”. Now you get it!

What gives?

It’s simple, really. STOP publishing special issues! If you are an Editor in Chief, just refuse! Who really knows what kind of scam the guest editors or the publishers are running? But you know your journal, all papers go through you, and you are responsible for all accepted papers. Really, the journal editors are the only ones responsible for journal reputation and for the peer review!

Expensive for profit publishers enjoying side special issue scam — I’ve been looking forward to your demise for a long while. Even more recently I felt optimistic since a lot of papers are now freely accessible. Now that we are all cut off from the libraries during pandemic — can we all agree that these publishers bring virtually no added value??

If you are a potential guest editor who really wants to organize a special issue based on your conference, or to honor somebody, ask publishers to make a special book deal. They might. They do it all the time, even if this is a bit less lucrative business than journal publishing. Individual mathematicians don’t, but the libraries do buy these volumes. And they should.

If you are a potential contributor to a special issue — do what is listed above in Grade B (write a special topic survey or personal reminiscences), which will be published in a book as a chapter. No serious peer review research. These go to journals.

And if you are one of those scam journal publishers who keep emailing me every week to become a special issue editor because you are so enthralled with my latest arXiv preprint — you go die in a ditch!

Final Disclaimer: All these bad opinions are not at all about any particular journal or special issue. There are numerous good papers published in special issues, and these issues are often dedicated to just wonderful mathematicians. I myself admit of publishing papers in a several such special issues. Here I am making a general point which is hopefully clear.