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How NOT to reference papers

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

In this post, I am going to tell a story of one paper and its authors which misrepresented my paper and refused to acknowledge the fact. It’s also a story about the section editor of Journal of Algebra which published that paper and then ignored my complaints. In my usual wordy manner, I do not get to the point right away, and cover some basics first. If you want to read only the juicy parts, just scroll down…

What’s the deal with the references?

First, let’s talk about something obvious. Why do we do what we do? I mean, why do we study for many years how to do research in mathematics, read dozens or hundreds of papers, think long thoughts until we eventually figure out a good question. We then work hard, trial-and-error, to eventually figure out a solution. Sometimes we do this in a matter of hours and sometimes it takes years, but we persevere. Then write up a solution, submit to a journal, sometimes get rejected (who knew this was solved 20 years ago?), and sometimes sent for revision with various lemmas to fix. We then revise the paper, and if all goes well it gets accepted. And published. Eventually.

So, why do we do all of that? For the opportunity to teach at a good university and derive a reasonable salary? Yes, sure, a to some degree. But mostly because we like doing this. And we like having our work appreciated. We like going to conferences to present it. We like it when people read our paper and enjoy it or simply find it useful. We like it when our little papers form building stones towards bigger work, perhaps eventually helping to resolve an old open problem. All this gives us purpose, a sense of accomplishment, a “social capital” if you like fancy terms.

But all this hinges on a tiny little thing we call citations. They tend to come at the end, sometimes footnote size and is the primary vehicle for our goal. If we are uncited, ignored, all hope is lost. But even if we are cited, it matters how our work is cited. In what context was it referenced is critically important. Sometimes our results are substantially used in the proof, those are GOOD references.

Yet often our papers are mentioned in a sentence “See [..] for the related results.” Sometimes this happens out of politeness or collegiality between authors, sometimes for the benefit of the reader (it can be hard navigating a field), and sometimes the authors are being self-serving (as in “look, all these cool people wrote good papers on this subject, so my work must also be good/important/publishable”). There are NEUTRAL references – they might help others, but not the authors.

Finally, there are BAD references. Those which refer derogatively to your work, or simply as a low benchmark which the new paper easily improved. Those which say “our bound is terribly weak, but it’s certainly better than Pak’s.” But the WORST references are those which misstate what you did, which diminish and undermine your work.

So for anyone out there who thinks the references are in the back because they are not so important – think again. They are of utmost importance – they are what makes the system work.

The story of our paper

This was in June 1997. My High School friend Sergey Bratus and I had an idea of recognizing the symmetric group Sn using the Goldbach conjecture. The idea was nice and the algorithm was short and worked really fast in practice. We quickly typed it up and submitted to the Journal of Symbolic Computations in September 1997. The journal gave us a lot of grief. First, they refused to seriously consider it since the Goldbach conjecture in referee’s words is “not like the Riemann hypothesis“, so we could not use it. Never mind that it was checked for n<1014, covering all possible values where such algorithm could possibly be useful. So we rewrote the paper by adding a variation based on the ternary Goldbach conjecture which was known for large enough values (and now proved in full).

The paper had no errors, resolved an open problem, but the referees were unhappy. One of them requested we change the algorithm to also work for the alternating group. We did. In the next round the same or another requested we cover the case of unknown n. We did. In the next round one referee requested we make a new implementation of the algorithm, now in GAP and report the results. We did. Clearly, the referees did not want our paper to get published, but did not know how to say it. Yet we persevered. After 4 back and forth revisions the paper more than doubled in size (completely unnecessarily). This took two years, almost to the day, but the paper did get accepted and published. Within a year or two, it became a standard routine in both GAP and MAGMA libraries.

[0] Sergey Bratus and Igor Pak, Fast constructive recognition of a black box group isomorphic to Sn or An using Goldbach’s Conjecture, J. Symbolic Comput. 29 (2000), 33–57.

Until a few days ago I never knew what was the problem the referees had with our paper. Why did a short, correct and elegant paper need to become long to include cumbersome extensions of the original material for the journal to accept it? I was simply too inexperienced to know that this is not the difference in culture (CS vs. math). Read on to find out what I now realized.

Our competition

After we wrote our paper, submitted and publicized on our websites and various conferences, I started noticing strange things. In papers after papers in Computational Group Theory, roughly a half would not reference our paper, but would cite another paper by 5 people in the field which apparently was doing the same or similar things. I recall I wrote to the authors of this competitive paper, but they wrote back that the paper is not written yet. To say I was annoyed was to understate the feeling.

In one notable instance, I confronted Bill Kantor (by email) who helped us with good advice earlier. He gave an ICM talk on the subject and cited a competition paper but not ours, even though I personally showed him the submitted preprint of [0] back in 1997, and explained our algorithm. He replied that he did not recall whether we sent him the paper. I found and forwarded him my email to him with that paper. He replied that he probably never read the email. I forwarded him back his reply on my original email. Out of excuses, Kantor simply did not reply. You see, the calf can never beat the oak tree.

Eventually, the competition paper was published 3 years after our paper:

[1] Robert Beals, Charles Leedham-Green, Alice Niemeyer, Cheryl Praeger, Ákos Seress, A black-box group algorithm for recognizing finite symmetric and alternating groups. I, Trans. AMS 355 (2003), 2097–2113.

The paper claims that the sequel II by the same authors is forthcoming, but have yet to appear. It was supposed to cover the case of unknown n, which [0] was required to cover, but I guess the same rules do not apply to [1]. Or maybe JSC is more selective than TAMS, one never knows… The never-coming sequel II will later play a crucial part in our story.

Anyhow, it turns out, the final result in [1] is roughly the same as in [0]. Although the details are quite different, it wasn’t really worth the long wait. I quote from [1]:

The running time of constructive recognition in [0] is about the same.

The authors then show an incredible dexterity in an effort to claim that their result is better somehow, by finding minor points of differences between the algorithms and claiming their importance. For example, take look at this passage:

The paper [0] describes the case G = Sn, and sketches the necessary modifications for the case G = An. In this paper, we present a complete argument which works for both cases. The case G = An is more complicated, and it is the more important one in applications.

Let me untangle this. First, what’s more “important” in applications is never justified and no sources were cited. Second, this says that BLNPS either haven’t read [0] or are intentionally misleading, as the case of An there is essentially the same as Sn, and the timing is off by a constant. On the other hand, this suggests that [1] treats An in a substantively more complicated way than Sn. Shouldn’t that be an argument in favor of [0] over [1], not the other way around? I could go on with other similarly dubious claims.

The aftermath

From this point on, multiple papers either ignored [0] in favor of [1] or cited [0] pro forma, emphasizing [1] as the best result somehow. For example, the following paper with 3 out of 5 coauthors of [1] goes at length touting [1] and never even mentioned [0].

[2] Alice Niemeyer, Cheryl Praeger, Ákos Seress, Estimation Problems and Randomised Group Algorithms, Lecture Notes in Math. 2070 (2013), 35–82.

When I asked Niemeyer as to how this could have happened, she apologized and explained: “The chapter was written under great time pressure.”

For an example of a more egregious kind, consider this paper:

[3] Robert Beals, Charles Leedham-Green, Alice Niemeyer, Cheryl Praeger, Ákos Seress, Constructive recognition of finite alternating and symmetric groups acting as matrix groups on their natural permutation modules, J. Algebra 292 (2005), 4–46.

They unambiguously claim:

The asymptotically most efficient black-box recognition algorithm known for An and Sn is in [1].

Our paper [0] is not mentioned anywhere near, and cited pro forma for other reasons. But just two years earlier, the exact same 5 authors state in [1] that the timing is “about the same”. So, what has happened to our algorithm in the intervening two years? It slowed down? Or perhaps the one in [1] got faster? Or, more plausibly, BLNPS simply realized that they can get away with more misleading referencing at JOA, than TAMS would ever allow?

Again, I could go on with a dozen other examples of this phenomenon. But you get the idea…

My boiling point: the 2013 JOA paper

For years, I held my tongue, thinking that in the age of Google Scholar these self-serving passages are not fooling anybody, that anyone interested in the facts is just a couple of clicks away from our paper. But I was naive. This strategy of ignoring and undermining [0] eventually paid off in this paper:

[4] Sebastian Jambor, Martin Leuner, Alice Niemeyer, Wilhelm Plesken, Fast recognition of alternating groups of unknown degree, J. Algebra 392 (2013), 315–335.

The abstract says it all:

We present a constructive recognition algorithm to decide whether a given black-box group is isomorphic to an alternating or a symmetric group without prior knowledge of the degree. This eliminates the major gap in known algorithms, as they require the degree as additional input.

And just to drive the point home, here is the passage from the first paragraph in the introduction.

For the important infinite family of alternating groups, the present black-box algorithms [0], [1] can only test whether a given black-box group is isomorphic to an alternating or a symmetric group of a particular degree, provided as additional input to the algorithm.

Ugh… But wait, our paper [0] they are citing already HAS such a test! And it’s not like it is hidden in the paper somehow – Section 9 is titled “What to do if n is not known?” Are the authors JLNP blind, intentionally misleading or simply never read [0]? Or is it the “great time pressure” argument again? What could possible justify such outrageous error?

Well, I wrote to the JLNP but neither of them answered. Nor acknowledged our priority. Nor updated the arXiv posting to reflect the error. I don’t blame them – people without academic integrity simply don’t see the need for that.

My disastrous battle with JOA

Once I realized that JLNP are not interested in acknowledging our priority, I wrote to the Journal of Algebra asking “what can be done?” Here is a copy of my email. I did not request a correction, and was unbelievably surprised to hear the following from Gerhard Hiss, the Editor of the Section on Computational Algebra of the Journal of Algebra:

[..] the authors were indeed careless in this attribution.

In my opinion, the inaccuracies in the paper “Fast recognition of alternating groups of unknown degree” are not sufficiently serious to make it appropriate for the journal to publish a correction.

Although there is some reason for you to be mildly aggrieved, the correction you ask for appears to be inappropriate. This is also the judgment of the other editors of the Computational Algebra Section, who have been involved in this discussion.

I have talked to the authors of the paper Niemeyer et al. and they confirmed that the [sic.] did not intend to disregard your contributions to the matter.

Thus I very much regret this unpleasent [sic.] situation and I ask you, in particular with regard to the two young authors of the paper, to leave it at that.

This email left me floored. So, I was graciously permitted by the JOA to be “mildly aggrieved“, but not more? Basically, Hiss is saying that the answer to my question “What can be done?” is NOTHING. Really?? And I should stop asking for just treatment by the JOA out of “regard to the two young authors”? Are you serious??? It’s hard to know where to begin…

As often happened in such cases, an unpleasant email exchange ensued. In my complaint to Michel Broué, he responded that Gerhard Hiss is a “respectable man” and that I should search for justice elsewhere.

In all fairness to JOA, one editor did behave honorably. Derek Holt wrote to me directly. He admitted that he was the handling editor for [1]. He writes:

Although I did not referee the paper myself, I did read through it, and I really should have spotted the completely false statement in the paper that you had not described any algorithm for determining the degree n of An or Sn in your paper with Bratus. So I would like to apologise now to you and Bratus for not spotting that. I almost wrote to you back in January when this discussion first started, but I was dissuaded from doing so by the other editors involved in the discussion.

Let me parse this, just in case. Holt is the person who implemented the Bratus-Pak algorithm in Magma. Clearly, he read the paper. He admits the error and our priority, and says he wanted to admit it publicly but other unnamed editors stopped him. Now, what about this alleged unanimity of the editorial board? What am I missing? Ugh…

What really happened? My speculation, part I. The community.

As I understand it, the Computational Group Theory is small close-knit community which as a result has a pervasive groupthink. Here is a passage from Niemeyer email to me:

We would also like to take this opportunity to mention how we came about our algorithm. Charles Leedham-Green was visiting UWA in 1996 and he worked with us on a first version of the algorithm. I talked about that in Oberwolfach in mid 1997 (abstract on OW Web site).

The last part is true indeed. The workshop abstracts are here. Niemeyer’s abstract did not mention Leedham-Green nor anyone else she meant by “us” (from the context – Niemeyer and Praeger), but let’s not quibble. The 1996 date is somewhat more dubious. It is contradicted by Niemeyer and Prager, who themselves clarified the timeline in the talk they gave in Oberwolfach in mid 2001 (see the abstract here):

This work was initiated by intense discussions of the speakers and their colleagues at the Computational Groups Week at Oberwolfach in 1997.

Anyhow, we accept that both algorithms were obtained independently, in mid-1997. It’s just that we finished our paper [0] in 3 months, while it took BLNPS about 4 years until it was submitted in 2001.

Next quote from Niemeyer’s email:

So our work was independent of yours. We are more than happy to acknowledge that you and Sergey [Bratus] were the first to come up with a polynomial time algorithm to solve the problem [..].

The second statement is just not true in many ways, nor is this our grievance as we only claim that [0] has a practically superior and theoretically comparable algorithm to that in [1], so there is no reason at all to single out [1] over [0] as is commonly done in the field. In fact, here is a quote from [1] fully contradicting Niemeyer’s claim:

The first polynomial-time constructive recognition algorithm for symmetric and alternating groups was described by Beals and Babai.

Now, note that both Hiss, Holt, Kantor and all 5 authors BLNPS were at both the 1997 and the 2001 Oberwolfach workshops (neither Bratus nor I were invited). We believe that the whole community operates by “they made a stake on this problem” and “what hasn’t happened at Oberwolfach, hasn’t happened.” Such principles make it easier for members of the community to treat BLNPS as pioneers of this problem, and only reference them even though our paper was published before [1] was submitted. Of course, such attitudes also remove a competitive pressure to quickly write the paper – where else in Math and especially CS people take 4-5 years(!) to write a technically elementary paper? (this last part was true also for [0], which is why we could write it in under 3 months).

In 2012, Niemeyer decided to finally finish the long announced part II of [1]. She did not bother to check what’s in our paper [0]. Indeed, why should she – everyone in the community already “knows” that she is the original (co-)author of the idea, so [4] can also be written as if [0] never happened. Fortunately for her, she was correct on this point as neither the referees nor the handling editor, nor the section editor contradicted false statements right in the abstract and the introduction.

My speculation, part II. Why the JOA rebuke?

Let’s look at the timing. In the Fall 2012, Niemeyer visited Aachen. She started collaborating with Professor Plesken from RWTH Aachen and his two graduate students: Jambor and Leuner. The paper was submitted to JOA on December 21, 2012, and the published version lists affiliation of all but Jambor to be in Aachen (Jambor moved to Auckland, NZ before the publication).

Now, Gerhard Hiss is a Professor at RWTH Aachen, working in the field. To repeat, he is the Section Editor of JOA on Computational Algebra. Let me note that [4] was submitted to JOA three days before Christmas 2012, on the same day (according to a comment I received from Eamonn O’Brien from JOA editorial board), on which apparently Hiss and Niemeyer attended a department Christmas party.

My questions: is it fair for a section editor to be making a decision contesting results by a colleague (Plesken), two graduate students (Jambor and Leuner), and a friend (Niemeyer), all currently or recently from his department? Wouldn’t the immediate recusal by Editor Hiss and investigation by an independent editor be a more appropriate course of action under the circumstances? In fact, this is a general Elsevier guideline if I understand it correctly.

What now?

Well, I am at the end of the line on this issue. Public shaming is the only thing that can really work against groupthink. To spread the word, please LIKE this post, REPOST it, here on WP, on FB, on G+, forward it by email, or do wherever you think appropriate. Let’s make sure that whenever somebody googles these names, this post comes up on top of the search results.

P.S. Full disclosure: I have one paper in the Journal of Algebra, on an unrelated subject. Also, I am an editor of Discrete Mathematics, which together with JOA is owned by the same parent company Elsevier.

UPDATE (September 17, 2014): I am disallowing all comments on this post as some submitted comments were crude and/or offensive. I am however agreeing with some helpful criticism. Some claimed that I crossed the line with some personal speculations, so I removed a paragraph. Also, Eamonn O’Brien clarified for me the inner working of the JOA editorial board, so removed my incorrect speculations on that point. Neither are germane to my two main complaints: that [0] is repeatedly mistreated in the area, most notably in [4], and that Editor Hiss should have recused himself from handling my formal complaint on [4].

UPDATE (October 14, 2014): In the past month, over 11K people viewed this post (according to the WP stat tools). This is a simply astonishing number for an inactive blog. Thank you all for spreading the word, whether supportive or otherwise! Special thanks to those of you in the field, who wrote heartfelt emails, also some apologetic and some critical – this was all very helpful.

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