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Math Science

Crackpot Scandal In Mathematics 219

Posted by kdawson
from the kooks-we-have-always-with-us dept.
ocean_soul writes "It is well known among scientists that the impact factor of a scientific journal is not always a good indicator of the quality of the papers in the journal. An extreme example of this was recently uncovered in mathematics. The scandal is about one El Naschie, editor in chief of the 'scientific' journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, published by Elsevier. This is one of the highest impact factor journals in mathematics, but the quality of the papers in it is extremely poor. The journal has also published 322 papers with El Naschie as (co-)author, five of them in the latest issue. Like many crackpots, El Nashie has a kind of cult around him, with another journal devoted to praising his greatness. There was also a discussion about the Wikipedia entry for El Naschie, which was supposedly written by one of his followers. When it was deleted by Wikipedia, they even threatened legal actions (which never materialized)."
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Crackpot Scandal In Mathematics

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  • Re:I don't get it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @04:37PM (#26216377) Homepage Journal

    The harm, I think, is that he's not a well-enough-known crackpot; a respectable publisher (Elsevier) has given him a journal as his own private playground. This makes it more difficult for non-crackpots trying to enter the field (e.g. grad students) to sort the wheat from the chaff. It also allows other crackpots to come off as more credible by citing crackpot articles which have a veneer of respectability. Imagine if a computer science "journal" based on Hollywood's portrayal of how computers work were being published by the ACM, and you have some idea of how big a problem this is.

  • Prejudice (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @04:46PM (#26216465)

    The funny thing about this article is that it completely fails to mention the discussion about this on backreaction.blogspot.com -- even the bloggers there weren't so ignorant as to claim every paper to be rubbish.

    This is the kind of blanket statement that completely self-defeats any argument. Any scientist or mathematician would know that, so what are you doing writing about science and math?

  • Impact Factor (Score:2, Interesting)

    by JimFive (1064958) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @04:52PM (#26216553)
    Wouldn't it be straightforward to adjust the impact factor to only include references to a different journal. That is, a reference to an article that you published doesn't count.
    --
    JimFive
  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot AT hackish DOT org> on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @04:53PM (#26216565)

    If you want to automatically determine what constitutes a good journal purely from data, the definition is something like: is frequently cited by other good journals. Obviously, there's a circularity there. Various techniques attempt to mitigate it, but none are perfect, and indeed most are rather simplistic and easy to game. It's basically hard to distinguish, purely from citation data, a vibrant community of legitimate research from a vibrant community of crackpots.

    In real life, most academics get around the circularity problem by starting with a set of "known good" journals that are determined by consensus in the field rather than algorithms (though this may sometimes be controversial). That lets them take into account more subjective things such as status of a research community (crackpots or not?). For example, as the linked article points out, the Annals of Mathematics is generally accepted as a top-quality venue for mathematics.

    If you wanted, you could then construct an Annals-centric view of mathematical impact automatically by seeing how frequently other journals are cited by papers in Annals. This is what happens informally as journals gain and lose reputation: a promising new venue often first comes to a community's attention because its articles begin to be cited in "known good" journals.

    But just taking all journals with no starting point, and attempting to extract from the citation graph which ones are "good" purely from the links, is doomed to failure, because there just isn't enough information in there to make the distinctions people want to make.

  • by Digana (1018720) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:01PM (#26216647)

    Slashdot is a bit late in reporting these news... I tried to submit them earlier [slashdot.org] when the news was fresher.

    The problem at heart is that one of the biggest and evillest academic publishers, Elsevier, has been supporting a crackpot.

    This shows that Elsevier isn't doing enough to promote the quality of research, and worse, libraries are paying huge fees with tax money for worthless journals. The problem here is bundling; university libraries have to buy in bundles journals, one of which may contain crackpot ideas as this one did.

    Boycott Elsevier! Let's have open access already.

  • EL Naschie Affair (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MarcusMoonus (652677) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:02PM (#26216681) Homepage
    This has been a fascinating case of Crackpottery. Read the blog and the subsequent replies. El Naschie seems to make it (Quantum Mechanical babble-speak) up as he goes along ,but unless you are an expert in this area, as Dr. John Baez is, it would be difficult for the casual reader to discern this. This is similar to the Bogdanov affair, another well know scientific scam. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogdanov_Affair [wikipedia.org] )I'm a little surprised it took this long for Slashdot to discover this one. One other thing: One of Baez's beefs among others is that this bogus El Naschie journal is bundled with more respectable journals and Elsevier profits from the bogus science.
  • Re:I don't get it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:04PM (#26216709) Homepage Journal

    Glad to be of service.

    You realize, of course, that the only reason I was able to use a computer analogy is that we're talking about pure math. If we had been talking about CS, I'd have had to go with a car analogy right off the bat.

  • Re:I don't get it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by timholman (71886) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:05PM (#26216717)

    The harm, I think, is that he's not a well-enough-known crackpot; a respectable publisher (Elsevier) has given him a journal as his own private playground. This makes it more difficult for non-crackpots trying to enter the field (e.g. grad students) to sort the wheat from the chaff. It also allows other crackpots to come off as more credible by citing crackpot articles which have a veneer of respectability. Imagine if a computer science "journal" based on Hollywood's portrayal of how computers work were being published by the ACM, and you have some idea of how big a problem this is.

    And it gets worse when money becomes involved. Pseudoscientists and crackpots often try to find "investors" for their schemes, and even a layman who performs due diligence can be fooled when publishers like Elsevier become enablers for pseudoscience. When the paper shows up in an INSPEC or Web of Science search, how is the person being scammed supposed to know that the paper isn't really legitimate?

    Many "free energy" scam artists already have patents for their nonsensical inventions, thanks to the laxity of the USPTO. It'll get worse unless these "pseudo-journals" are exposed and publicized to the greater science and engineering community, as well as the public at large. I had never heard of El Naschie before today, because I'm not a mathematician; thanks to this article, more people like me will now keep an eye out for his future "work".

  • by swschrad (312009) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:17PM (#26216843) Homepage Journal

    they were heavily taken by "cold fusion researchers," a canard in three dimensions if ever I heard one, 20 years back. perhaps they occupy the same place in scientific literature as S&P and Moody's does in careful review of bonding and finance? down Illinois' way, they call it "pay to play."

  • by TheNarrator (200498) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:30PM (#26216975)

    So I guess the string theorists are all crackpots? I might even agree with you :).

  • It's Elsevier... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:33PM (#26217009)

    Half their journals are top-of-their-class, the other half are low-quality or almost useless garbage (like the example in the article) that still get cited more than they should because they show up automatically in searches in any of Elsevier's other journals or search databases. Oh, and of course this part:

    "The fact that this journal costs $4520 per year would be hilarious, except that libraries are actually buying it - at a reduced rate, bundled in with other Elsevier journals, but still!"

    Ah, bundling. It looks like a good deal, until you realize much of what you get in the bundle amounts to the journal equivalent of crapware and simply clutters up the library. Some of those journals I wouldn't pay $100 for, but the library has them wasting space on the shelves.

  • by grandpa-geek (981017) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:34PM (#26217017)

    People used to say about a mathematician or physicist that "what he is doing is so important that only a few people in the world can understand what he is talking about."

    In a few cases it was actually true.

    Also, there were mathematicians who believed that the highest form of mathematics was work that had no practical application. There was a story that the inventor of matrix theory expressed pride that he had invented a form of mathematics with absolutely no practical use. Little did he know how extensively his work could be used. He would have been appalled.

    There still seems to be a feeling that the less people are able to understand a paper in a math journal, the more important the paper is likely to be.

    At one time I was a subscriber to the Annals of Mathematical Statistics. Papers in math journals usually assume that you know every paper previously written by the author and the others in the field. There is often very little introductory material and no tutorial material in these papers. Even if you have a general understanding of the topic, you can't follow the papers because they are written very concisely, and assume that nothing needs to be explained if it was ever published anywhere else. You may have to backtrack for years of someone's papers and still not be able to understand the paper you are trying to read.

    This is probably a combined consequence of "publish or perish" in academia and page limits in journals. It is often hard to tell if a given paper makes any sense or is useful.

    I guess you could call it job security through obscurity.

  • Re:Impact Factor (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ambitwistor (1041236) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @05:35PM (#26217035)

    Excluding references to the same journal is too harsh a criterion, since a lot of high quality papers get published in high quality journals. What should be perhaps excluded, though, is self-citation (whether to your own articles in the same or a different journal). Also, papers published in a journal by a journal editor shouldn't count.

  • Re:Err... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nodrogluap (165820) * on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @06:32PM (#26217611) Homepage

    On a related note, in some fields there is a greater tendency to cite. I would consider an IF of 3 relatively low in biology for example, but it's decent in bioinformatics. The IF is for granting agencies who'd rather judge your work by the journal it's in, rather than actually reading the article or looking up its citation count in Google Scholar (if it's been around a while).

    Incidentally, I've noticed that good open access journals in biology/bioinformatics are getting better IFs these days, so that model seems to be working. Our university in fact has started paying for OA processing charges, so we're sticking with OA journals with good IFs. Gotta keep those agencies happy :-)

  • Re:Impact Factor (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bh_doc (930270) <blhiggins@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @07:51PM (#26218321) Homepage
    It's not that simple, though, when you are talking about papers with multiple authors. It doesn't take into consideration to what level of involvement any particular author was. It's not uncommon for authors to be listed due to small contributions, or insight, or internal politics. At what point do you say their contribution was significant enough to warrant exclusion from impact factor calculations because of self-citation? And how do you even quantify that level of contribution?

    A principal supervisor of a group may not have much involvement on a particular paper, and yet expect and receive an authorship of it. Do you reject self-citation in that case, when the authors who actually did the work are not directly affiliated with the other papers their supervisor was previously a part of?
  • Re:I don't get it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jman11 (248563) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 @07:57PM (#26218373)

    Formal proof languages cannot proof anything like what is proven in modern mathematics.

    Formal proofs are a bit of fun for the CS people to play with but nowhere near able to handle genuine problems in mathematics.

    It's like trying to describe to someone a book by describing which pixels are black and white on the page. Sure it can be done, but it's going to look like gibberish and give no useful picture until someone puts the pixels together to make the page.

  • by kurthr (30155) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 @12:53AM (#26220165)

    As a published scientific author-
    Elsevier sucks!

    They have bought important 'name' journals and charge for everything (including your pre-prints) that they possibly can. Many reputable departments are boycotting their publications now.

    They even bought me a nice dinner once in Tokyo. I guess that was a sign they were making too much money and had no idea how to spend it.

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