Would the death of the journal system be good for women in math?

I am not one of the most radical signatories to the “Cost of Knowledge” statement:  there are certainly some among us who look forward to a world without commercial journals, or even a world without journals at all.  I don’t yet see a clear path to that world.

Nonetheless, I want to add one possible item to the case against journals.

There is lots of inequity in the way mathematicians are assigned status — we all have researchers we think are underappreciated (and some people are quite willing to talk about who they think is overappreciated.)

One very simple source of inequity — but I’ll bet a pretty large one — is that authors decide what journal to submit to.  Some people “aim high” — their method is to ask “what’s the best journal where this paper would fit?”  Others “aim low,” asking something more like “what’s the median journal where papers like this appear?”  You can’t get in the Annals unless you submit to the Annals, and you won’t submit to the Annals very often if you aim low.

Women in the workplace are socialized not to ask for things.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are disproportionately many men in the “aim high, why shouldn’t my paper be in the Annals?” group.  (And of course, for those who get het up whenever I talk about women in math, this applies just as well to any group of mathematicians disinclined to push for their own work.)

Would things be different if papers in the Annals were selected from all papers, not just those whose authors decided to nominate themselves?  Then publication in a top journal would be a little more like being invited to speak at a prestigious conference.  Would that be an improvement?


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6 thoughts on “Would the death of the journal system be good for women in math?

  1. No, it would not be an improvement. If women had to wait for someone else to nominate their papers for the Annals, they’d be waiting forever.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You seem to be assuming that “aiming high” leads to better results. If you’re on the job market “accepted to Duke” (say) is probably better than just “submitted” (if your paper is still pending at the Annals or was rejected after a year and now is submitted to Duke).

  3. Frank says:

    How does publishing work in academic fields with greater gender parity?

  4. “Then publication in a top journal would be a little more like being invited to speak at a prestigious conference.”

    Unfortunately, I believe that invitations to speak at prestigious conferences are often a matter of politics (e.g. having a well-connected advocate – typically an advisor) and being part of a “clique”. Publication in a top journal suffers from the kinds of self-selection biases you highlight (and I think you’re probably right that it tends to effectively discriminate against women) but it has the one benefit that a key part of the decision to publish depends on the input from an a priori disinterested party (i.e the referee). There are typically no disinterested parties involved in invitations to speak at prestigious conferences; it would be nice if there were, but I can’t see how one could easily arrange it.

    (Is the referee really disinterested? Sometimes no, but ideally, yes, and good editors work hard to find referees who are at the same time knowledgeable of the subject matter of a paper, and don’t stand to gain/lose anything personally from its acceptance)

  5. […] system. Maybe it will be something like this idea of Yann LeCun, for example. Maybe it will be better for women. That would be […]

  6. […] This post suggests that a web-based evaluation system would be good for women, the idea being that “women don’t ask” and therefore they are less likely to, say, submit a paper to Annals. I see it exactly the other way around. I’ve talked about some aspects of it already, but not all, and in any case it never hurts to say something more than once, especially when you’re female. […]

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