Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Acknowledging Priority

One of the principles of publishing in mathematical and scientific journals is that, generally speaking, you cannot publish results that are already known.

Of course, publishing known results happens all the time anyway, because authors and referees cannot know the entire literature, and different authors use different terminology and notation. I once rediscovered a simple way to provide a lower bound on the size of nondeterministic finite automata, and published it, but later found out the result had already appeared in the literature -- indeed, the author had even sent me a reprint which, to my chagrin, I found languishing in my files. The point is that

1. Authors should not knowingly attempt to republish known results;

2. Referees should make at least some attempt to verify that the claimed results are new;

3. Editors should not agree to publish papers containing known results presented as if new.

There are some exceptions to these rules, however. Often one needs to state other researchers' results because the statement is crucial to the exposition. In this case, authors must be careful to provide the attribution and correct citation to the literature. In a "survey paper", one often brings together a large number of known results and tries to tie them into an overarching theme. Again, authors must be careful to provide the correct citations.

It is a violation of scientific/mathematical ethics to knowingly publish as new, results that are already known.

Recently a paper was submitted to a journal I edit. I sent it out to a referee, who observed that he/she had already refereed the paper for another journal, and the referee sent me the old report. That report pointed out that several of the results claimed as new were actually already in the literature. The authors had resubmitted the paper to me without making the required changes, acknowledging priority to others. This is a violation of mathematical ethics.


Takis Konstantopoulos said...

This is horrible and dishonest. Instead of the authors abiding to the other journals' suggestions and acknowledge prior work (which, fair enough, the authors may not have known), they try to resubmit to your journal, trying to do without citations. Horror!

I find even milder things than this unacceptable: For instance, trying to maximize one's publications by splitting a paper into two (or three at times) and submitting to different journals. This kind of thing is unhelpful to the reader who does want to read the paper, unhelpful to the mathematical community at large.

People who follow the aforementioned practices (and there are many more) have a different utility function than yours. Namely, they try to keep the administrators happy who take into account trivialities such as number of different publications and number of pages. This is why, when we see criteria like these being introduced in universities, we should all be expressing our opinion about them. For they do provide encouragement (to some) for taking paths of least action, just as the example you gave.

andrew said...

Please tell us it was Marks or Dembski. Please.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...


How could it be Dembski? I'm sure the journal Jeffrey Shallit is talking about is a mathematical journal. Dembski could not have sent a paper in a mathematical journal. He is not a mathematician. He's a religious propagandist. He is not capable of even submitting a mathematical paper in a reputable mathematical journal. I have looked at the articles he writes and his use of mathematics is naive and laughable.

Anonymous said...

Have you checked whether the paper was plagiarized? That could be one explanation.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

No, not Marks or Dembski. If a paper from Dembski came in, I would probably have to recuse myself and find another editor, because I wouldn't trust myself to be impartial.

Takis: I think you're being too hard on Dembski. He has at least one reasonable paper in a mathematical journal, and judging from preprints I've seen, he is likely to have two more in a journal like IEEE Trans. Info. Theory soon.

Anonymous: There's no reason to believe the paper was plagiarized - it was not high quality enough to merit plagiarism.

Paul Smith said...

Ok. In one of your previous posts you did mention something like this happened ... so I am now curious to know, was the author from Asia ?

Anonymous said...

Paul Smith,

Your conclusion, even though is quite likely to be correct, smells to be arrived at by racist assumptions. The reason the author is more likely to be Asian is that part of the world is more inhabited than anywhere else, not because they have inferior academic ethics.

Paul Smith said...

Anon: Nice one! Jokes aside, it was a purely factual question to which Jeffrey could have replied to unless you are him....

Anyhow, last time on a different blog post by Jeffrey, I became aware of a professor from asia who plagiarized entire pieces of work; sending them out to Integers. so I was curious to know whether this time around the person was from asia too.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


No, not from Asia.

Rebeca said...

The hard intelligence ' scientific, mathematical, calibrated ' is not the same as the soft intelligence of human skills, communication and common sense. Einstein could not remember his phone number, Churchill could not fix a car engine, Bill Gates is celebrated as lacking in human skills; but are any of these people less intelligent in general than the other ?