EDIT (Nov. 21, 2011) - follow up

For those who are interested by this question, let me mention that a similar one is discussed quite seriously on Timothy Gowers' blog (many thanks to r0b0t, who pointed this to my attention in a recent comment).

The context

There are many reasons for being unsatisfied with the current situation concerning scientific communication in mathematics. Let me summarize a few issues that I consider quite important:

  • math journal are expensive.
  • there is an increasing number of papers/preprints and the refereeing process starts to be a bit overtaken.
  • main preprint archives and review databases do not use the full potentiality of the web.
  • journals used to be a tool for communicating results... it is no longer the case and they became a kind of "label of quality" for papers (a more pessimistic way of saying this would be that journals became a tool for a blind management of sciences solely based on a quantitative index).

Some answers

With respect to the first issue John Baez suggested broadly to stop publishing in and collaborating with journals that are highly priced. The main drawback of this is that it is not really a collective answer from the math community; moreover, I guess that only established people can allow themselves to do so.

I remember that Greg Kuperberg had a suggestion about publicity of referee's reports, whenever papers are accepted. The idea is indeed quite nice but addresses only one issue. My concern here is about a global answer.

A proposal

My question is

How could we (the math community) answer globally, and collectively?

I actually have a naive proposal, which emerged after some discussions with Vincent Borrelli. My dreamed answer is a website on which we can find

  1. archived preprints and/or links to all versions of the same document that exists on the web.
  2. a discussion page associated to each preprint, so that interested people can ask/answer questions about the paper (and even suggest improvements).
  3. a review page on which one can find a review of the paper. It would be like on Mathscinet and Zentralblatt, except that the review is a collective work (nobody asks someone do to it). There should be rules (the most obvious one is that authors of the paper cannot edit the review page).
  4. an editorial board having the possibility to "publish" some of preprints. Here "publish" simply means there is a label on the document certifying that the editorial board consider the paper relevant and (i) either the discussion page converged to a consensus about the validity of the results, (ii) or the editorial board have asked experts to write reports on the paper, that happened to be positive, and that will be freely available together with the paper.

One can of course imagine having different types of labels (by fields, by standards of quality, by length, etc... like for usual journals), but starting with one would be already great.

Only point (4) cannot be developed with solely "the help of people who want to help". Here we would need to start with a board of well-established and famous mathematicians.

My second question is then

Do you have any suggestion or criticisms to improve this proposal? And would you be ready to help ?

Please just tell me if this is not the place for such a question, in which case I would simply delete it.

Let me add a more funny question:

How should we cite labeled papers? I.e., do you have a suggestion for the name of this virtual journal ?

EDIT : Thierry Zell pointed this MO question about a possibly free alternative to MathSciNet or ZB. It seems to me that all the objections to such a project could have been addressed to wikipedia. Nevertheless, I think it is not the heart of my question.

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    $\begingroup$ If you don't have some "standards filter" in place, the site will be overwhelmed with submissions that will not be properly read. Also, there should be some guard against "self-promoting cliques", where groups of papers are promoted through the system by a group of people whose agenda may not be for the common good. However, a commentary system which is an adjunct to (something existing like) arXiv.org could be set up and may be useful, especially if the community was conscientious in moderating it. Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.05.03 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman May 3 '11 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ There is a serious discussion to be had about publishing, but this is not it. I don't believe that your depiction of the current situation is accurate: some of what you suggest already exists, and what doesn't already exist sounds impractical. Publishing, both on- and off-line, is more accessible than it ever was. Many journals are expensive, true, but now they're under severe competition from the not-for-profit sector (just look at the editorial boards of the Mathematical Sciences Publishers journals). Arxiv and blogs have accelerated the transmission of ideas... $\endgroup$ – Thierry Zell May 3 '11 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ It seems like you're looking for a rather open-ended discussion and that's not the point of MO. There are several blogs out there that discuss ways of addressing your questions. I'm voting to close. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Budney May 3 '11 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ The difficulty with "dream websites" is not imagining them. Nor is it even creating them. Even if you had money and a talented programmer available, once you have the "dream website", how do you engineer the transition from everyone using the current system to everyone (or rather, just enough) using the new one? This is where all the thought and effort and planning needs to go. $\endgroup$ – Scott Morrison May 3 '11 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ I agree strongly with the sentiment of the question, but I, like Ryan B, think MO is not the venue for this discussion. Hence I vote to close. $\endgroup$ – David Roberts May 3 '11 at 23:40

These are just some idealistic thoughts about a new type of Website

Perhaps a combination of arXiv and a heavily modified version of Stackexchange might be worth a try:


  • Any User can submit papers, like asking questions here on MO
  • Papers containing Errors, previously published results, etc. can be voted to close/delete
  • A special System "Edit-Mode" to allow certain User Groups to edit a seperate copy of the paper (correcting mistakes) and allow the submitting User to undo his Mistakes and repost. Furthermore, this "Edit-Mode" will allow other Users to mark passages of a paper as correct.
  • Papers will be given Points based on:
    1. The number of times it has been cited
    2. "Upvotes" weighted by the number of "Points" the voting User has
  • Papers will be concidered "reviewed" if the entire paper has been marked as correct via "Edit-Mode" by at least X number of Users with >Y number of Points

  • As a rule, papers are only allowed to be cited when they have reached the "reviewed" rank


  • Various groups of Users (Profs, Postdocs, Students, etc..). Certain groups need to be verified via PostIdent or some other mean. Users in these groups start out with a higher amount of Points
  • Users gain Points by publishing high ranked papers, writing good reviews, resubmitting corrected Papers... (Basically like MO)
  • Users can loose Points by plagarism or other wrongful behaviour

Peer-Review would still be in place. The main questions would be:

Would people bother reviewing other papers?

If there are enough people in this system, and this system has become the main source of Mathematical Papers, the reviewing process should work. Merely the fact that only reviewed papers are allowed to be cited should be enough to "get the ball rolling". I also believe that the reviewing process will be honest, as it is public. Furthermore, like here on MO, humans love achievements. People love gathering "Points", "Exp", or any other sort of trophies. So yes, I think this alone will motivate alot of people.

How to avoid "double posting"

As on MO, someone is bound to notice that a certain subject has already been researched. I even believe that this system will be even better stopping plagarism than the current peer-review Process.

The biggest problem would be, to get enough people to join this sort of Website. And this last point is why I think, my proposed website will most likely fail.

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