Monday, October 02, 2006

Perelmanian Probity

On Saturday September 30, 2006, there was an item on Peter Suber’s Open Access News blog about Perelman, the reclusive Russian mathematician who published his proof of the Poincaré Conjecture not in a formal peer-reviewed journal but just in arχiv. That’s very nice of him, because arχiv is open access so the entire world can see what his proof is. He clearly doesn’t need to have his work formally published, and he doesn’t seem to need money either, having refused the Fields Medal and the material rewards that come with it.

Why don’t more physicists and mathematicians do this – publishing just in arχiv and not in a formal peer-reviewed journal? Why don’t researchers in other disciplines do it – publishing just in an open repository and not in a formal journal?

Well, Perelman is a pretty unique individual. A giant on whose shoulders to stand. Licet Jovi non licet bovi. Few researchers can afford not to publish in formal journals. For most researchers the adage is ‘publish or perish’. And ‘publish’ here means publish formally in a peer-reviewed journal.

It used to be so that in order to avoid perishing, most ‘non-perelmanic’ authors had to strike what has been called a ‘Faustian Bargain’. As in any bargain, it involved receiving and paying. An author could get published, but had to ‘pay’ with giving up the right to distribute the article himself, and give the journal publisher that exclusive right. I use the past tense, because there is an increasing number of possibilities now to make the bargain less of a Faustian and more of a fair one: get published in a formal peer-reviewed journal and pay the publisher for the service of arranging it all.

And there is of course what might be called the Mercurian Method of having one’s cake and eating it: publish in a traditional formal journal and subsequently in an open repository without paying anybody in any way, and taking the gamble that someone else – anybody else – will keep alive the formal peer-reviewed journals that most researchers continue to need as long as ‘publish (in those formally peer-reviewed journals) or perish’ remains the rule. It's possible of course that someone will. It's also possible to win the national lottery. If one is not prepared to pay in any way, Perelmanian Probity is better than a bet.

Jan Velterop

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