3

This question is mainly focused on the field of mathematics, although it might make sense for other areas too.

would setting up a Mathematical Institute of Refereeing be a good idea ?

To explain the idea, I have noted several things that seem to go in the same direction :

  • referees today are not paid for their work (at least by good quality journals, I'm not talking about predatory ones), they do it by goodwill to be active members of their communities ;
  • discussing a result with a colleague always speeds up one's understanding ;
  • in many cases it is difficult to find a referee for a paper, and the process can easily take 9 months just to get a first report ;
  • many people experience a draught at some point in their career.

So what about an institute where members have a temporary affiliation (say a 5-year contract, which they can quit at any time) and are tasked to only do refereeing, any involvement in other time-consuming activities (teaching, grant application, but also one's own research) would be banned (and checked regularly by the administrative staff and citizens).

The members would be sworn to secrecy (like a medical one, with cash and jail sentences if found guilty of breach, say during their membership and the 2 years beyond it), which would allow them to discuss papers they are reviewing with other members on-site.

Funding would be provided by a variety of sources (Universities, Private sector...).

And to make sure that there is no change from traditional anonymous refereing, these referees would not mention in their report that there are members, so it would look like it had been done by a standard referee at a university (but much faster).

The idea would be both to speed up the process, and to lower the pressure to publish mediocre papers (i.e. it would be valued more highly by the community to know that someone is a hard-working member of that institute, rather than someone is painstainkingly publishing small papers every couple year which consume refereeing ressources while adding little value to the area).

[edit: thank you for the answers and comments, many good points there of course. Clearly not all sub-fields of maths would be covered this way, but I thought it might help in some where this is high traffic. Plus, I thought people towards the end of their career, who have taught for 25/30 years and, in some cases, have also lost a bit the will of finding new stuff all the time, might be interested. (If you don't find it lacking courtesy, I think I'd like perhaps not to accept an answer to let it open-ended.)]

  • 6
    That might work in mathematics, but in most field if you do not follow the state of the art and do literature reviews you end up disconnected from what is going on. This lowers your capacity to do a good review. – BlaB Aug 15 at 10:06
  • 39
    I would never take a job where my "involvement in other time-consuming activities" was banned and "checked regularly by the administrative staff and citizens". – academic Aug 15 at 13:28
  • 7
    A milder version of your idea sounds like it might be interesting, if anyone wanted to fund it. Say, a dozen 5-year "refereeing fellowships" which you could apply for, and which buy out one course a semester and give some summer salary. Each year, whoever gave out the money would evaluate the quality, quantity, and timeliness of your output -- on which renewal of funding would be contingent. – academic Aug 15 at 13:32
  • 13
    Mathematics, or at least the part of it I am in, seems to be too fractured into sub-sub-fields for this. The problem in finding a referee is less in finding anyone willing to do it, the problem is finding someone willing to do it out of the few dozen people specializing in that subtopic. Your proposed institute would have to employ several hundreds of people to possibly cover all of them. – mlk Aug 15 at 13:38
  • 4
    Two things immediately occurred to me, the first of which @mlk has already addressed, and the second concerns "and are tasked to only do refereeing". I can't imagine this attracting any (I was about to say "many", but actually I think "any" probably fits better if not taken literally) highly knowledgeable and capable people, as they'd have to put their research work on hold (also, are they not allowed to think about interesting problems, what can done with certain techniques, etc. when at home, while driving, visits to the library, etc.). Also, how does one (continued) – Dave L Renfro Aug 15 at 16:29
37

I'm an assistant professor of mathematics and while I regularly referee papers (in fact, I have a few papers I'm supposed to be refereeing right now), I have to say that joining a Mathematical Institute of Refereeing sounds awful. It's right down there with joining a Mathematical Institute of Departmental Meetings.

Perhaps it's just me, but the aspects of my job that I love the most are being able to teach mathematics to and mentor talented students, working alone or with collaborators on research projects, and writing up / publishing papers. Although I definitely get something out of refereeing papers (and seem to referee ten or so a year), this is mainly something I do in order to be a "good mathematical citizen". That is, I expect that when I submit a paper it will be competently refereed, so it's only fair that I referee the papers of others when I'm qualified and able to do so. There's no way I would give up all of the aspects of my job that I love in order to focus full time on refereeing. (If such a thing were even possible. I'm not sure how my college would react if I told them that I'm going to be refereeing papers full time for a while but will be back in time for the Fall 2024 semester.) At the end of the day I think what it boils down to is this. I also enjoy doing yard work. But I'd never consider quitting research and teaching in order to focus on it full time.

  • 2
    Refereeing, with increasing number of paper and decreasing quality thereof, is increasingly becoming the least enjoyable of all activities in academia (at least, in departmental meetings, you can take the occasional nap ;-). Perhaps the institute should be named institute of "pulling teeth to unwilling pigs"? Because that's how it sounds like. Now, if you were to found an institute for research without further obligations, that would be quite a different story... [yeah, I know that this exists, but it's still rare] – Captain Emacs Aug 15 at 14:28
  • 4
    "Mathematical Institute of Departmental Meetings" Isn't this how administration perceives every department on campus? I coulda sworn there was a memo ... – dmckee Aug 15 at 21:36
15

Two things:

  1. The funding isn't as easy as you make it seem. We have a system of publications right now, and you ask for more money to improve it. This money must come from somewhere, and no one will give up his funds willingly.
  2. You say that this would lower the pressure to publish, because instead working at this institute is seen as a good, important job. However, can't you say the same about teaching? Teaching is very important because it forms the future generations. So why is it then not that easy today to just focus on teaching for a few years without loosing academic reputation? Why do you think anything would be different here?
  • Thank you for the answer. As for your second point, these referees would be in the thick of current research (just not publishing themselves), so I can imagine that they wouldn't loose reputation compared to those who only teach (and who indeed may loose contact with their field). – Archie Aug 15 at 11:16
  • 18
    @Archie - you are only in the thick of current research if you are actually doing it yourself. Further, I can't imagine anybody who is actually interested in doing research wanting to spend any length of time just refereeing other people's papers. – Jon Custer Aug 15 at 12:42
  • 13
    @Archie, if the only academic activity you do for 5 years is anonymous, how can you not lose reputation? – Peter Taylor Aug 15 at 18:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.