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    • CommentRowNumber1.
    • CommentAuthorravivakil
    • CommentTimeJun 16th 2013
    • (edited Jun 16th 2013)
    I'm at a meeting of the Committee of Electronic Information and Communication (one of the [perhaps two] standing committees of the International Mathematical Union). The following topic has come up. Would it be useful to have a place where people could report on their experiences with journals? Perhaps here? There are some reasons why this might be useful; but it may also not be worth the trouble.
    • CommentRowNumber2.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeJun 16th 2013

    Hi Ravi (and welcome to the forum!),

    My instinctive reaction is to shout “Yes!”.

    My worry, on reflection, would be that it would turn into a grumble-fest. So it would need careful policing to ensure that the comments left were fair.

    But I do think that something is needed. I’ve found that I have effectively no come-back if I want to complain about a journal. There have been times when I’ve felt that I could legitimately say that something wrong happened, but so far as I know my only recourse was to email the editor and each time I’ve done that then I’ve just effectively received a shrug and a “That’s the way of the world” reply (if at all). But then I’m not sure what recording my experiences would achieve. Would it make the journal rethink my article? Or would it just get me marked as a troublemaker? Would it help anyone else? - I suspect that experiences are sufficiently random that what happens to me would give very little indication of what might happen to someone else.

    So … “yes”, but with reservations.

    • CommentRowNumber3.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeJun 17th 2013

    I think that any kind of transparent feedback mechanism would be good. Right now we have things like COPE which has members whose journals have not always lived up to the ethical standards that member journals are supposed to. It doesn’t seem that sanctions are applied to such members. Allowing authors to give public feedback on the refereeing process, even just numerical scores, would be a good improvement. Statistics on publication delays are sometimes published in the AMS Notices - they could be augmented by direct feedback from authors. Stories such as Igor Pak’s refereeing war stories should have a central home. Without clear consequences for poor behaviour, it flourishes. And it would be nice if we could give public commendations to good journals. If we are to keep the journal system, an important part of journal prestige should be attached to the actual performance of the journal, not just the papers that appear in it.

    I would not allow anonymous commenting. I am quite happy to stand by my comments on journals, and some will indeed be rather negative, but based on facts.

    So, very much yes.

    • CommentRowNumber4.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeJun 18th 2013
    • (edited Jun 18th 2013)

    I’d be a little wary of creating something like this. It would be better to do it informally, rather than as an official IMU activity, to avoid some of the messier aspects. (The only advantage of having the IMU do it is that the IMU’s reputation might help it reach critical mass more easily, but tying the site to the IMU’s reputation would have downsides as well.) For example:

    • I expect the moderation process would be incredibly contentious. On mathoverflow, even straightforward things that hardly matter at all in the big picture can get ugly, and this would be far worse because people would be coming for the primary purpose of complaining. Mathematicians often have the personality type of caring deeply about certain principles, but they don’t always agree on what those principles should be. Furthermore, online fora attract trolls and troublemakers. This can be a nasty combination.

    • Anonymous comments could be a disaster (as Mark points out), but requiring signed comments is also awkward. Junior mathematicians may be afraid of reprisals, positive comments may look like an attempt to curry favor (and therefore be discouraged, giving an unfairly negative picture overall), etc.

    • How much debate should be allowed? Presumably journals should at the very least be allowed to issue replies or rebuttals, since it feels unfair to criticize someone without giving them a chance to respond. On the other hand, it’s not clear where to draw the line. Should third parties be allowed to write replies or comments at all? Could one carry out endless arguments or debates in the comments? This comes back to the whole moderation issue.

    • There are ethical gray areas. For example, is it acceptable to quote extensively from referee reports in public? Is that better than quoting from someone’s private correspondence with you (because they are anonymous and thus have nothing personally at stake), or worse (for example, because some readers might be able to identify their writing style)?

    Allowing authors to give public feedback on the refereeing process, even just numerical scores, would be a good improvement.

    I’d be a little worried about the consequences for journal incentives. From my perspective, refereeing isn’t primarily for the authors and shouldn’t primarily be judged by them. I think a slow but thorough job is generally better than a quick, superficial one that makes the authors happy. (Of course quick and thorough is best.) Rating journals based on author satisfaction would probably amount primarily to rating based on speed, which I don’t think would be good the community as a whole.

    There have been times when I’ve felt that I could legitimately say that something wrong happened, but so far as I know my only recourse was to email the editor and each time I’ve done that then I’ve just effectively received a shrug and a “That’s the way of the world” reply (if at all).

    What sort of wrong things? Ethical issues, or unfortunate problems like long-delayed referee reports that can be destructive but generally don’t involve misbehavior?

    I think ethical issues should be investigated formally (for example, by the AMS Committee on Professional Ethics or similar bodies); the tricky part is the unfortunate problems.

  1. I think that there now exist ethical committees to whom complained about clear ethic violation in journals can be made (the EMS has installed one recently, if I am not mistaken); but there are a lot of small infringements that, alone, are not worth reporting in such a formal way but that, on the large, are meaningful. So, “a place where people could report on their experiences with journals” would be useful.

    But Henry Cohn makes very good points about the problem of carrying this task publicly, while anonymous comments would be difficult to interpret and subject to ugly gaming.

    Why not have a place where author as well as referees and editors can give feedback about what happens in journals1, where they would have to disclose their identity to fill in a complain (or to praise), but where neither the complain nor the identity is made public. Then, the overall data would be examined to see whether some cases should be investigated, the conclusion of investigations being released in a report. To achieve that with more efficiency, the complaints should include markup identifying the journals and actors (mostly editors?) of the problem, and a software would raise flags when some of them are cited a lot, triggering the investigation of complaints, questions to the journal, etc.


    1. E.g. respectively “my paper was refused with a cropped report and the editor proposed me to publish it in another journal he is trying to push forward”, “I made a thorough report that I happened to learned was cropped to refuse the paper without telling the report was good”, “my publisher asked me to accept more papers to justify subscription prices or get more APCs coming in”.