I am an amateur mathematician, and I had an idea which I worked out a bit and sent to an expert. He urged me to write it up for publication. So I did, and put it on arXiv. There were a couple of rounds of constructive criticism, after which he tells me he thinks it ought to go a "top" journal (his phrase, and he went on to name two).

His opinion is that my outsider status will have no effect on the reviewing process and my paper will be taken seriously. I am pleased and quite flattered to hear this, and my inclination is to do as he suggests. But I have to say it sounds too good to be true. Does this match other people's experience? I understand it's rare enough for undergraduates to publish anywhere, and I am not even an undergraduate! Surely a "non-mathematician submitting to top mathematical journal" must instantly rank high on the crackpot scale. How often does this actually occur successfully these days? Any advice?

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe if you gave us an arxiv link? I think that there is nothing really constructive to say in general... $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ Although it is certainly not true that publication in mathematics is decided only by the quality of the paper, and not by the level of recognition of the author(s), mathematics still comes closer to this ideal than most (and probably all) other branches of human knowledge. So my advice would be to go ahead and submit! I agree with others you will get more concrete advice if you post a link to your article. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's a reasonable question here, and I strongly disagree that you should rush to advertise your arXiv paper (indeed, MO is not for announcing research results!). I do think the question should be community wiki, and I also think it's borderline for the forum. For a discussion about whether related questions are well-suited for what we want MO to be, please see tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/787 (where I'm on record as supporting this type of question). $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't happen often that a non-mathematician will submit an article to a top journal, but that is because most people who are both talented enough to do mathematics at that level and who have the inclination, training, and perseverance to follow through on their talent, in fact train to become mathematicians. But this doesn't mean that it is impossible, just unusual. As for whether your result will be judged more harshly, or preemptively consigned to the crack-pot bin, because of your non-professional status, my own view is that this won't happen, as long as your paper is written in a .. $\endgroup$
    – Emerton
    Nov 26, 2010 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ ... professional style. It is likely that the editor and referees will look for your professional affiliation to be indicated on your submission, and may be surprised if you have no affiliation, or if your affiliation is non-standard, just because that is a very unusual thing to encounter (someone with no professional mathematical affiliation submitting a research paper). But if the result of your paper is clearly stated and of interest, they will (I would hope and expect) quickly move beyond this, and evaluate the mathematics on its own merits. (Refereeing is not a perfect meritocracy, ... $\endgroup$
    – Emerton
    Nov 26, 2010 at 4:13

4 Answers 4


Think of it this way: any graduate student who submits his first result for publication faces a similar issue: his paper will land on a referee's desk, who has never heard the name of the author before, so according to your logic, the better the result the more it must smell of crackpottery to the referee. Yet, PhD students and young postdocs do get their results published and in fact, they sometimes receive more patience from the referee, when it comes to the writing style, say, than experienced mathematicians.

Fact is, that an expert in the respective discipline can recognise 99% of the crackpots within less than 10 seconds. If your write-up passes this 10 second test and looks like a serious attempt at a mathematical problem, then the referee will read it. Of course, he might be extra sceptical about actual mistakes and extra diligent, but that can only be good for you.

At any rate, the threshold to receiving a careful reading is not nearly as high as you think. Key to this is a well written abstract and introduction with clear and precise statements of the results and, ideally, a clear indication of where the main difficulties were and how you overcame them, i.e. where the actual novelty lies. That's "all" it takes (I am not claiming that it's easy, but obtaining the result in the first place was likely harder).

And one last word: receiving rejections is part of the business. A mathematician who cannot handle them will lead a miserable life. None of us likes rejections, but we all must contend with the possibility of getting one. If you think that you will not be able to digest a rejection, then send the paper to a less prestigious journal. After all, your mental well-being is more important than this kind of prestige, especially since you are not relying on getting things published.

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    $\begingroup$ Our OP's concern here is not with the false negatives but with the false positives - the OP does not want to be flagged as a crackpot if they're not. And it is a very legitimate concern: it is very easy to reject someone as a crackpot because the writing does not conform to our expectations (Ramanujan anyone?), it's a lot harder to see past the surface and realize that there is real mathematical content. And since there are way more crackpots than amateurs who do produce real and new results, it's way too easy to dismiss everyone out of hand. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ But that was exactly the issue I addressed. That's why I said that if he makes sure that his paper passes the first 10 second crackpot test by writing a good and clear introduction, then his paper will be read. That's my sincere belief. It doesn't mean that the paper will be accepted, but that's a different matter. $\endgroup$
    – Alex B.
    Nov 25, 2010 at 4:54

What do you have to lose by submitting an article for publication? You'll have an even better record/credentialing/verification of the work you've put into it by being published in a Journal of good reputation. In the worst case, you will get a rejection letter, perhaps with a good explanation of why they are rejecting the article. The in-between case is pretty good too: you'll receive a referee report which may criticize your approach, suggest particular points to be polished and corrected, perhaps suggest a different approach to take, perhaps suggest that some of this work has been done by others who you shoud read and study or perhaps refer to in your work.

If you're lucky enough to be asked to rewrite and resubmit for consideration, you're possibly on your way to being published. If not, you'll at least have made some progress and educated yourself about the academic publication culture, and will be more prepared for the next article which you prepare for submission.

May I recommend that you find out what your activation energy level is, exceed it, and go ahead and clean up your paper and submit it for publication. Best wishes and good luck. Go for it!

Would you mind sharing the arxiv link to your work?

  • $\begingroup$ The notion of "top journal" must also be quite befuddling for a non-professional. I'm curious to see if our OP will share those suggested names too. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 3:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Thierry-Zell, I agree with you. That's why I called them "Journals of good reputation", making the others obviously "Journals of ill repute"! I'm hoping that the original poster will share the arxiv link and and the names of the journals which were recommended to him. I believe the OP would get a more useful answer by asking an on-point question about the mathematics in his arxiv article. I heartily recommend that she/he start another question on MAthoverflow about the mathematical content and context of their work and arxiv article. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ @sleepless: As I say above I may post a new question under my real name with a link. I am thinking about it. In the meantime, to your answer. If I knew rejection would be prompt, I would submit without hesitation. But I hear it is not, and I can't parallel submit, so there is a non-trivial decision here, right? And yes, "top journal" confuses me. As does the general reaction here. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 5:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Utterly-Unqualified, I think you're seeing things through a pessimistic lens. Why does it matter if the rejection is going to be promptly forthcoming or might take half-a-year to arrive? Why not take the chance that you may get asked to revise and resubmit with recommended changes? The general reaction which I am seeing on this site is that no-one can adequately answer this question. No one is telling you not to submit. I am telling you to go for it. This site is concerned with mathematics; go ahead and start another account and submit a question about what you've done in math. :>) .. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ Don't worry about the concept of a "top journal". Journal reputation can be based on many things: citations by other journals, caliber of contributions, who's on the editorial board, historical reputation. Why not ask the mathematical expert who suggested that you publish this question: which of the journals you recommended ought I submit to first? Yes, you shouldn't do parallel submissions. But instead of spending the time worrying, consider submitting. Perhaps the rejection may come with suggestions for which journals might be a better "fit" for your topic. Don't be insulted by that. TRY! $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2010 at 5:37

First of all, congratulations for making it as far as you have. I have a similar story, in 1986 I met with Stephen Wolfram and discussed with him my research. Wolfram was very supportive and even offered to edit and publish my research if I would just write it up. Then Wolfram left academia, forcing me to reach out to others to publish my work. Having only taken a few college level math classes and not knowing TeX, I was unprepared for how much work it would take to write a good paper. My first problem was that I was over-reaching in both the breath and depth of what I was trying to communicate. So my main advice is that small is beautiful. There are mathematicians of significance who's dissertations had a strong impact on mathematics, but if you engage in "empire building" as a novice, people are likely not to take you seriously.

In general no one is going to know who you are. As my knowledge of mathematics and my writing ability have grown I can now submit articles for publication and the publishers now refer to me as Doctor unless I correct them. So there is no barrier to a non-professional publishing except being unable to write at a professional level. But it took me fifteen years to get to this place by myself.

Know what you want and what you are willing to pay for it. I ended up going back to school in mathematics just so I could understand math better and I'm glad I did.

Enjoy the journey. It is now twenty five years later and I am still unpublished, but that is ok because I'm enjoying the journey.

Note: I recommend when publishing in research journals that not only does your research need to be solid, but it should discuss the relevance of other important research in the field of your publication. You are not just adding another block of knowledge, you cementing it into place in the edifice of mathematics. Educational journals might be more accepting of stand alone material.


It certainly does happen that amateur mathematicians publish articles in good journals. Unfortunately the good amateur mathematicians have the burden of distinguishing themselves from the crackpots.

Without more information it is hard to give advice. Everybody's ideas of a good paper and a top journal are different. But I can say two simple things for the general case.

First, it is definitely worth the effort to make sure your writing style is in line with that of good math papers. If your paper is written in a way that doesn't conform to writing standards/norms in the area, the referees will have a bad first impression. Second, make sure you acknowledge anyone who helped you with the writing. In my experience this is best done briefly in a final section at the very end of the paper.


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