Saturday, October 20, 2012

How much of science is a poker game where everyone is afraid to call?

Peer-reviewed mathematics journal accepts paper published by a computer-generated nonsense phrase generator.

When Alan Sokal tricked Social Text into publishing a nonsensical parody of postmodernist criticism, he thought the journal’s failure to spot that the article was a hoax revealed a shocking lack of intellectual rigour. John Sturrock, writing about it in the LRB, noted that Social Text exists in a different realm of discourse from Nature and that Sokal’s contribution, for all its faults, was a ‘jauntily expressed’ piece of ‘extreme provocation’, and as Sokal knew, the kind of thing that Social Text existed to promote. Well yes, but, as legions of letter writers responded, don’t things you publish sort of have to make sense?

Last month That’s Mathematics! reported another landmark event in the history of academic publishing. A paper by Marcie Rathke of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople had been provisionally accepted for publication in Advances in Pure Mathematics. ‘Independent, Negative, Canonically Turing Arrows of Equations and Problems in Applied Formal PDE’ concludes...

...Baffled? You should be. Each of these sentences contains mathematical nouns linked by the verbs mathematicians use, but the sentences scarcely connect with each other. The paper was created using Mathgen, an online random maths paper generator. Mathgen has a set of rules that define how papers are arranged in sections and what kinds of sentence make up a section and how those sentences are made up from different categories of technical and non-technical words. It creates beautifully formatted papers with the conventional structure, complete with equations and citations but, alas, totally devoid of meaning. Nate Eldredge – the blogger behind That’s Mathematics! – wrote Mathgen by adapting SCIgen, which does something similar for computer science. Papers generated by SCIgen have been accepted for publication at academic conferences and journals that claim to carry out peer review.

There is this hopeful note of sanity:

Neither Marcie Rathke nor the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople is willing to pay the ‘processing charges’ levied by Advances in Pure Mathematics, so we will never know if the work would actually have made it to publication. Academic journals depend on peer review to ensure the rigour and value of submissions. The less prestigious the journal, the harder it is to find competent reviewers and the lower they will have to set the threshold, until at some point we arrive at, essentially, accept-all-comers vanity publishing. The murkier the business model and the lower the standards outside the mainstream, the harder it is for academics to challenge the status of the prestige journals, locking academics into the situation Glen Newey describes.

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