Editors-in-chief of math journal resign over controversial paper

Both editors of a math journal have resigned over the decision to publish a controversial paper, which was apparently made without consulting the editorial board.

Last week, the editorial board of EMS Surveys in Mathematical Sciences issued a statement about the paper, saying its acceptance was “a serious mistake.” According to the statement, the two editors-in-chief of the journalNicola Bellomo, a professor at Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy, and Simon Salamon, a professor at King’s College Londonhave “assumed responsibility for these mistakes” and resigned from their position.

However, a spokesperson for the journal told us the paper is not likely to be retracted.

In the 102-page paper, author Yaroslav Sergeyev provides a survey of his theory on infinite numbers. Sergeyev, a distinguished professor of mathematics at the University of Calabria in Rende, Italy, has proposed that the concept of infinity can be represented by a number he calls “grossone.” Sergeyev also says his theory provides a solution to two famous problems about infinite numbers from renowned mathematician David Hilbert.

But some mathematicians argue that Sergeyev’s theory has no scientific value, and have been highly critical of the paper, published online on November 13 — even expressing their views on several Facebook threads, which discuss the paper and notice.

One critic, Alexander Shen, director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Montpellier, France wrote to the editors on Nov. 29, expressing his concern:

Assuming that this is not a fake or April Fool Day’s joke and the paper was indeed published, I would say that the reputation damage to the Journal, to EMS and to mathematical community as a whole cannot be fully undone, but a clear apology/retraction seems to be needed.

The editor-in-chief Bellomo responded the same day, stating:

I formally confirm that the paper has been correctly processed by referees whose scientific reputation is definitely outstanding.

However, on Dec. 14, the editorial board issued a statement about the paper, “Numerical infinities and infinitesimals: Methodology, applications, and repercussions on two Hilbert problems:”

We deeply regret that this article appears in this issue of the EMS Surveys in Mathematical Sciences.

It was a serious mistake to accept it for publication. Owing to an unfortunate error, the entire processing of the paper, including the decision to accept it, took place without the editorial board being aware of what was happening. The editorial board unanimously dissociates itself from this decision. It is not representative of the very high level that we expect to see in our journal, which can be assessed from all other papers that we have published.

Both editors-in-chief have assumed responsibility for these mistakes and resigned from their position. Having said that, we add that this journal would not exist without their dedication and years of hard work, and we wish to register our thanks to them.

Sergeyev told us he is perplexed by the editorial board’s statement, which he believes violates “ethical norms of processing scientific papers” and creates “a dangerous precedent for the entire scientific community.”

Sergeyev said that he received a “very unusual letter” from Pavel Exner, president of the European Mathematical Society (EMS) who is not member of the journal’s editorial board, asking him to retract the paper. In the letter, Sergeyev says that Exner also accused Sergeyev of duplicating his own work.

We reached out to the editors-in-chief to ask about their resignation and the decision to accept the paper, but have not heard back.

A spokesperson for EMS Publishing House told us that it is unlikely that the paper will be retracted. We asked why, given that the editors-in-chief resigned over the decision to publish the paper. The spokesperson explained:

While the editorial board and the publisher are all very unhappy that [the paper] was published, it seems that there is not enough grounds for a formal retraction.

Inside the controversy

Sergeyev told us that, for the past decade, his work has been under “violent attack” by a group of mathematicians and calls the most recent actions of the journal’s editorial board a “witch-hunt campaign:”

I regret to see that the EMS is involved in this campaign that persecutes a person just because he thinks differently and works using new tools.

Sergeyev also defends his work, citing reviews from several international journals of his book as well as a report on his approach in MIT Technology Review.

However, Shen and two mathematicians from Novosibirsk State University in RussiaS. Kutateladze and Alexander Gutman—have published critiques of Sergeyev’s work. Gutman told us that he thinks the current paper, along with other articles by Sergeyev, are disrespectful to modern mathematics:

[Sergeyev] simply does not call things by their proper names. In his games with “grossone”, the fundamental concepts are redefined, and famous complex or unresolved problems are replaced by their primitive counterparts. Of course, it is very unpleasant to observe such substitutions, especially with respect to real mathematical problems, which are complex and beautiful.

Kutateladze added:

The recent publication of the paper by Sergeyev in European Mathematical Society Surveys was a scandalous blunder.

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7 thoughts on “Editors-in-chief of math journal resign over controversial paper”

  1. Sergeyev’s introductory section describe his several goals, among them “the third goal [which] consists of describing a computational methodology using the introduced numeral system and a computational device called the Infinity Computer (patented in USA and EU, see [92])” (reference 92 being the US patent). In this connection, it should be noted that “an applicant to practice before USPTO must demonstrate, in accordance with the USPTO’s requirements, that he or she possesses scientific and technical proficiency sufficient to address issues that arise in patent law. Notably, however, mathematics is explicitly excluded as a subject for this purpose” (quoted from https://www.math.utah.edu/~palais/usptovsmath.html, where references in support of the assertion are given); in other words, USPTO review of (para)mathematical patent applications is guaranteed to be by people who can be fairly well assumed to be at least untrained in, and at worst incompetent in, evaluating the relationship between the material in the application and the “prior art” in mathematics.

    1. More to the point, patent examination is almost never concerned with whether an invention works. It’s a debate between a lawyer and an undergraduate bio major about whether something was anticipated by prior art. Source: an patent lawyer.

    2. A degree in mathematics combined with additional scientific training or appropriate experience is sufficient qualification to become a patent agent and thus to “practice before the USPTO”. Have you or the author of the link you provide (Palais) actually applied to become a patent agent and been rejected? I took a look at Palais’ CV, I would be surprised if he applied and was rejected for that reason.

  2. The article states “Received 14 July, 2017; revised 25 August, 2017”. This is so extremely short for a mathematics paper (especially, like this one, over 100 pages long) that it suggests the paper has not undergone peer review at all.

  3. It has become difficult to separate the signal from the noise in scientific publishing without acting as *both* interested non-expert reader *and* expert scientific reviewer for every article one might have to read for one’s research.

    This case also seems to highlight one of the reasons for this trend: the “decision to publish a controversial paper…was apparently made without consulting the editorial board.” Is this to suggest a secretary at the EMS office received the paper, then sent it to the same reviewers the author himself suggested, then accepted the paper on the basis of these rigged reviews without a single editor seeing it? It happens a lot in many low-tier (not even predatory, just plain bad) journals.

  4. It seems there is an internal conflict in EMS Surveys editorial team. Whether the Sergeyev’s contribution is of a high level or not the journal should not react in that way. The author is not in charge of miscoordination in the editorial board. He submitted a paper in a standard way, received positive reviews and then submitted it for a final publication. Since there is no sufficient grounds for the retraction the ‘statement’ should be removed.

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