How to get dodgy math papers published: An algorithm

Last week, Retraction Watch readers will recall, we covered two retractions in Applied Mathematical Letters. They were both of papers that made many wonder just how they were published in the first place. One concluded that “Both science and spirituality came from space,” while the other claimed to have demonstrated violations of the second law of thermodynamics.

Given the attention to what we can reasonably conclude is a flawed peer review process at Applied Mathematical Letters, we hope that process will improve moving forward. That means one less outlet for questionable papers. So where might a researcher publish dodgy work?

We figured we’d start with Rejecta Mathematica, which describes itself as follows:

Rejecta Mathematica is a real open access online journal publishing only papers that have been rejected from peer-reviewed journals in the mathematical sciences.

But Rejecta Mathematica won’t publish just anything, mind you. According to their FAQ:

No, we select papers based on several loosely defined criteria. In short, we aim to publish a variety of interesting papers that allow some opportunity for learning. Specifically, we do not see much value to the community in papers that were rejected solely based on their incomprehensibility. While we do not anticipate accepting such papers, we would encourage any interested party in starting the Journal of Impenetrable Results to give them a home.

It felt as though we were getting closer. The science-spirituality paper came pretty close to impenetrable, though, and a retraction isn’t a rejection per se.

But wait! We remembered there’s a way to launder any paper, even one that’s been retracted, into a rejected paper: The Journal of Universal Rejection (JoUR), which featured in a January post. Strictly speaking, the JoUR isn’t a math journal, although it’s edited by a mathematician, Caleb Emmons. What would the JoUR do with a retracted paper? Emmons told us:

As to your question, isn’t the answer obvious?  We would treat it just like any other paper.  We probably wouldn’t even know it had been retracted from another journal.

So we figured we’d ask Rejecta Mathematica directly whether they’d publish a retracted paper. One of the editors, Mark Davenport, responded:

The short answer is that no one has submitted a paper that had been retracted yet, and so we really haven’t given it much thought.  I can’t speak for the other editors, but my feeling is that we might be open to such a paper, but the authors would definitely have to provide a clear and honest description of why it was retracted while simultaneously making the case that the paper still has some redeeming value.  I’m not sure how easy that would be to achieve (in a math paper).

Davenport sounded wary. We don’t blame him. We may have to leave this to the Annals of Improbable Research or the Journal of Are You Fucking Kidding?

Of course, you could always go back to Applied Mathematical Letters. By way of an update, we had some questions for E. Y. Rodin, the journal’s editor , about the two retractions: What were the falsified findings in the paper? What were the “unsubstantiated claims regarding Euclid’s parallel postulate?” How did these errors come to the journal’s attention?

He didn’t answer, sending only this:

Thank you for your message.  We receive many comments and much information, which are designated confidential for the Editor-In-Chief only.  Furthermore, we provide information only to the authors involved, or to the relevant reviewers.

We appreciate your understanding in this matter.

It must be an epidemic. On Friday, we were told by one of the editors of another journal that had published a toothless retraction notice that “the purpose of keeping these retraction notices slim is not to produce too much detail.” And we got nowhere when we asked about a Journal of Biological Chemistry retraction that said only “This article has been withdrawn by the authors.”

3 thoughts on “How to get dodgy math papers published: An algorithm”

  1. Ha!

    When I was an undergraduate, we use to “publish” the Journal of Cheap Theories. I guess many of the lately retracted papers would be suitable for that.

  2. Hmm, give the Journal of Impenetrable Results a slightly more obscure name, population the editorial board with reputable mathematicians, and a whole revenue stream could be generated for fleecing cranks.

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