Adventures in Peer Review

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article by Carl Zimmer about increasing numbers of retracted papers in the biological sciences. Physics and Mathematics weren’t part of the story and I don’t know of any evidence of retractions increasing in these fields (although maybe they should, given the Bogdanov and other scandals).

There’s a blog called Retraction Watch where they follow these things, and they have come upon a mathematics example. A couple years ago the Elsevier publication Computers and Mathematics with Applications published the article “A computer application in mathematics”. It’s less than a page long, one author has a e-mail address, the other a address. Last week Elsevier finally got around to acknowledging that something was up, publishing a retraction notice that explained:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Publisher, as the article contains no scientific content and was accepted because of an administrative error. Apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

I gather that this is behind a paywall, so you need to be at a place like Columbia that pays Elsevier a lot of money, otherwise you can’t read the retraction. That’s also true of the original paper, but if you want to violate all sorts of intellectual property laws, you could click here.

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6 Responses to Adventures in Peer Review

  1. Mean and Anomalous says:

    Thanks. Sean Carrol at Cosmic Variance is exploring this same topic, but he did not mention the Bogdanov affair (last I checked).

  2. Pingback: Palpatine exposed with a broom | chorasimilarity

  3. Rhys says:

    My favourite bit have to be this:

    “In brief an impossible proposition was proved as possible. This is a problematic problem.”

    Yes, it is!
    Obviously something went badly wrong here, but the whole peer-review system is a bit shaky, as it depends on referees being conscientious, with no tangible rewards if they are so, or serious repercussions if they are not.

  4. DaniH says:

    Dear Peter,

    In relation to the Elsevier paper, the “bad habits” of Elsevier are well known in part of the physics community and most of the mathematical community. It is well-known, for example, the case of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals where the editor-in-chief, El Naschie, published tens of papers without any peer review.
    Some more cases in mathematics can be found at Math2.0
    The peer review model has serious problems and some are discussing alternatives there.

    Offtopic: I am still astonished to see that most of the physics blogs have not said a word about the ongoing Elsevier boycott. I invite everybody interested to visit
    The Cost of Knowledge

  5. Cesar Laia says:

    That paper is a funny (and extreme) example of how things go wrong, but I think it is impossible to avoid these sort of things. I wonder how many papers are being overlooked or hyped, and how to many papers are being ignored or refused because they don’t meet certain obscure criteria of editors, readers or reviewers… it’s a sociological pain.

  6. Aidyan says:

    A quite natural consequence of the “publish or die” and “impact factor” philosophy of our actual academic system. Goedel published only a handful of papers. De Broglie did not much other significant work beyond his particle wave relation paper. A giant like Feynman published about 120 papers but half of it were reviews, reflections, philosophical commentaries. While I find those who boast about their “more than 200 papers in peer reviewed journals” (and are perhaps only 40 years old…) as laughable little midgets on stilts. Most of these are at best good science managers, politicians, academic barons who have under their feet several little soldiers who work for them and sign their papers. A system where a Sadi Carnot or a Gregor Mendel would have no chance, as they in fact didn’t have, or a new semi-autistic Dirac would be discarded from the outset because of his scarce PR qualities (or because being a former engineer…). A system so obsessed by presenting to the audience its “renowned physicist” being ‘brilliant’ in talking and joking during their PPT presentation, instead of looking for new ideas. A system obsessed by deadlines and of “over secrecy, and rushing out their papers to beat their competitors” that it obviously had to produce ‘faster than light neutrinos’. Papers retracted? Maybe, to understand what really stands behind it, it would be worth to take a look also at some of the papers rejected.

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