Subtraction by addition: A journal expresses concern again — but this time, with feeling

A journal published by the Royal Society in the United Kingdom has issued an updated expression of concern for a 2018 paper by a mathematician whose work has been the subject of intense scrutiny on this website and elsewhere. But the notice is less of a statement of problems than a rationalization.

The paper, “Quantum correlations are weaved by the spinors of the Euclidean primitives,” was written by Joy Christian, of the “Einstein Centre for Local-Realistic Physics in Oxford.” In May 2018, the journal issued an initial EoC about the article, stating:

A number of readers have written privately via email and also in extensive public correspondence, which is available via the ‘Comments’ section of the original article, raising a number of concerns regarding fundamental aspects of the work.

An investigation into these aspects is under way, and the journal is therefore issuing an expression of concern and will notify readers as to the results of our investigation as soon as possible.

Last month, as we reported, Christian lost to retraction a 2020 paper in Communications in Algebra, after readers raised questions about the “integrity of the mathematics in the article.” 

That wasn’t his first retraction. In 2016, Christian threatened to sue Elsevier after one of its journals retracted a paper of his without alerting him to the decision. 

A cynic might say that the Royal Society had been paying attention. The new expression of concern reads

Following peer review and publication of https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.180526, Royal Society Open Science received correspondence expressing concern about the technical accuracy of this paper. Consequently, the journal conducted an independent post hoc assessment of the paper, resulting in this Expression of Concern.

A short explanation for the decision-making process to help readers understand why the editors opted to accept the paper is as follows:

1. As can be seen in the open review history of the paper, there was a divergence of opinion from the initial reviewers and the author mounted a response in a scholarly and comprehensive manner. This presents a challenge to editors: do the concerns outweigh potential positives? Does publishing a controversial approach add value to the literature through stimulating open debate? As for most academic journals, while reviewers make recommendations, editors make the final decision on what is acceptable for publication. Editors possess the ultimate veto. On balance, in this case, the decision was made to publish to encourage debate, which is central to scientific research.

2.While recognizing that a controversial paper may eventually be shown to contain flaws, it may be argued that all science is a work in progress. We move forward not in a linear process, but often in fractures of existing paradigms—the history of science is littered with examples of this. The editors felt that research presented in this paper may stimulate further debate and experimentation in this space. If a journal only ever published papers that reinforced existing mainstream knowledge, then science would be the poorer.

3.Royal Society Open Science has a remit to publish research that is appropriate for publication and which may be difficult to publish in more traditional journals. At the time of assessment and publication, the paper passed that test in the view of the editors. Furthermore, the journal’s open peer review model allows readers to explore the review history for themselves.

4.Independent assessors that subsequently performed post-publication peer review on this manuscript have agreed to make their commentary available publicly and these are now online together with the author’s responses. These comments can be read alongside this Expression of Concern. As the reader may note, there is no consensus on this work, which is why the journal has opted not to retract.

5.As with any human endeavour, the decision to publish a paper is not an exact science and editors balance a number of factors to decide what is appropriate. We remind readers that the journal permits and actively encourages replication studies. If readers with an interest in this field would like to submit either a replication or rebuttal of the author’s work, we would welcome it.

6.It should be noted that correspondents critiquing the decision to publish this paper have been offered the opportunity to publish a rebuttal but, to date, have thus far declined to do so. We would once again encourage them and any others who may be interested to make open contributions in order to openly articulate and formalize the technical issues.

The Royal Society, in other words, seems to be saying: We reserve the right to publish crappy articles — which is fair enough, if that’s the hill you want to defend. But in that case, why issue an expression of concern instead of an editor’s note saying: Our journal, our rules! 

More frustrating (or at least, equally so) is the message implied in Bullet 5, which we’ll translate into English: Publishing is hard [we agree] and sometimes editors make mistakes [again, agreed]. When that happens, readers should step in to do our job or shut up [we definitely DO NOT agree.] 

Also, expressions of concern are, by definition, not intended to be the final word on a paper. So an updated EoC is, well, odd.

Christian, who has battled critics of his work on our site and elsewhere, said he was satisfied with the journal’s latest move: 

I think the notice is reasonable, considering the pressure RSOS was under from Richard D. Gill and his friends. The complaint by Gill and his friends was investigated by RSOS for nearly two years, during which I participated in a post-publication peer-review process. The expression of concern is a commentary on that process and the conclusion of their investigation.

Christian also said he didn’t resort to legal threats in the affair: 

Unlike Annales of Physics and Communications in Algebra, RSOS acted most reasonably, politely, and respectfully throughout the investigation of the complaints about my paper. They began by seeking (confidentially) my response to the complaint letter itself (without revealing the names of the complainers to me). Then they published a provisional expression of concern when the post-publication peer-review began. Finally, they published the second expression of concern detailing their conclusion. I was kept informed throughout the process of what was happening. I was asked to respond to the post-publication peer-reviews. Because of this gentlemanly behavior by the editors of RSOS, the question of legal action never crossed my mind.

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12 thoughts on “Subtraction by addition: A journal expresses concern again — but this time, with feeling”

  1. Re: “2.While recognizing that a controversial paper may eventually be shown to contain flaws, it may be argued that all science is a work in progress. We move forward not in a linear process, but often in fractures of existing paradigms—the history of science is littered with examples of this. The editors felt that research presented in this paper may stimulate further debate and experimentation in this space. If a journal only ever published papers that reinforced existing mainstream knowledge, then science would be the poorer.” I totally agree.
    No one should believe or cite any paper as if it were the gospel truth.

  2. The problem with this paper is that the error — for that is what it is — is mathematical and inescapable. The author claims to construct an associative normed division algebra of dimension eight over the reals. In fact, there is no such thing, by a classical theorem of Hurwitz, and the eight-dimensional object he constructs is not a division algebra at all.

    This is analogous to the author basing a scientific theory on a construction that purports to yield an even prime number bigger than 2, and then finding that the construction yields the number 8.

    There is no object with all the properties claimed and the object exhibited visibly fails to have one of those properties. This claim is not a divergence of opinion — it is an error.

    1. Amen. There is no “teaching the controversy” (to borrow the term of anti-intellectuals in the USA) when it comes to mathematics.

  3. More of “Gyres”, this time by an author who is – encore – dedicated to you in his prime.
    I truly believe that budding scientists should receive multiple shots of the PRQM (i.e. Peirce, Russell, Quine, Medawar) vaccine. Then we wouldn’t need retractionwatch anymore …

  4. There is no error in either of my papers as anyone competent enough to go through my calculations can see for themselves:

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1908.06172.pdf

    I am not impressed with the judgments of any online pundits in this matter, whatever their claim of competence in mathematics.

    And just as my paper retracted by Annals of Physics is now republished by *IEEE Access* because there was nothing wrong with it, see

    https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8836453

    , my paper retracted by Communications in Algebra will also be republished in time in a journal of higher standing because there is nothing wrong with it.

    Science is not done by online pundits but by hardworking scientists who dare to take risks and produce original work to make progress in science.

    1. I’m not particularly expecting Dr Christian to acknowledge the error in his work: others have made more sustained efforts to explain it to him with little effect. My comments are intended to explain the situation to others who are unaware of the issues.

    2. Dr Christian is right about… science is not done by pundits but by hardworking scientists.

      The thing that I don’t understand here is:
      If there is an error in his paper, then why not let one of the pundits write a paper telling the readers the following.

      On pages x1,x2…., formulas y1,y2…., steps s1,s2…., the author made errors e1,e2,….

      Of course, real honest proof. No professor Troll proof.

      If they are able to do so, then end of story. If they are not able to do so then end of story .

      Why use retraction if one can use one’s brains?

      1. But that is exactly what has been done. Christian claims to construct, and then make use of, an eight-dimensional associative normed division algebra. But a classical theorem of Hurwitz says there is no such thing, and the object he constructs is not a division algebra. These are errors.

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