- Published: Friday, 03 May 2013 08:11
The mathematical academic journal system should function in the way as this site, by accepting high quality work and de-emphasizing the rest. In practice, for a variety of reasons, this does not happen.
Major problem 1 is that large numbers of publications are required for people employed in research to advance their careers. The academic system accommodates this need, with the result that most academic articles provide no new knowledge.
Major problem 2 is that true mathematical research ability is a rare commodity, and there are more jobs involving mathematical research than there are capable researchers to fill them. Employees still fulfil their career need to publish papers, and many then become reviewers to decide on the merits of new articles. A harsh critic might say that the lunatics are running the asylum.
Major problem 3 is that many journal editors don't do their jobs properly. They reject articles for nonsensical reasons and fail to appreciate that referees either don't understand the work or have selfish interests in blocking it. That said, one must acknowledge that being a journal editor is a thankless task. Journal editors have to deal with large amounts of unoriginal, poorly written or plagiarized work, and then find qualified and willing reviewers for what remains. They also have to maintain a regular feed of articles, and maintain the journal's reputation, subscriptions and finances.
There are pleasant surprises. Editors accept articles despite negative referees' reports. And most referees are altruistic, genuinely reviewing work according to its perceived merits, even if it promotes research directions that are contrary to the referees' own work. Some submissions are even rejected due to lack of originality.
The major need is for quality rather than quantity of published articles. There is no substitute for taking the time to understand and appreciate good work. This extends to institutions rating their staff, job selection committees, funding agencies, and professional organizations, all of whom need to understand how rare it is to produce a research article of true, lasting quality. Unfortunately, the current trend is in the opposite direction: the academic world is obsessed with journals' "impact factors" and many funding agencies provide funds on a per-article basis. It must be acknowledged that employers understandably try to keep clear of researchers who produce something outstanding early in their careers but never do so again; a continued publication record offers a small degree of protection against that.