The December Issue of the Notices of the AMS

The December issue of the Notices of the AMS is now available online, and it includes letters written by Oded Goldreich, Boaz Barak, Jonathan Katz, and Hugo Krawczyk in response to Neal Koblitz’s article which appeared in the September issue.

Despite this, the readers of the Notices remain the losers in this “controversy.” Koblitz’s petty personal attacks and straw man arguments appeared in the same space that is usually reserved, in the Notices, for expository articles and obituaries of mathematicians. It is from those pages that I learned about the Kakeya problem and about the life of Grothendieck (who, I should clarify, is not dead, except perhaps in Erdos’ use of the word).

I find it strange enough that Koblitz would submit his piece to such a venue, but I find it as mind-boggling that the editors would run his piece as if they had commissioned Grothendieck’s biographical article to a disgruntled ex-lover, who would focus most of the article on fabricated claims about his personal hygiene.

I can only hope that the editors will soon run on those pages one or more expository articles on modern cryptography, not as rebuttals to Koblitz’s piece (which has already been discussed more than enough), but as a service to the readers.

And while I am on the subject of Notices article, let me move on to this article on how to write papers.

All beginning graduate students find the process of doing research mystifying, and I do remember feeling that way. (Not that such feelings have changed much in the intervening years.) One begins with a sense of hopelessness, how am I going to solve a problem that people who know much more than I do and who are smarter than me have not been able to solve?; then a breakthrough comes, out of nowhere, and one wonders, how is this ever going to happen again? Finally it’s time to write up the results, and mathematical proofs definitely don’t write themselves, not to mention coherent and compelling introductory sections. I think it’s great when more experienced scholars take time to write advice pieces that can help students navigate these difficulties. And the number of atrociously badly written papers in circulation suggests that such pieces are good not just for students, but for many other scholars as well.

But I find that advice on “how to publish,” rather than “how to write well” (like advice on “how to get a job” rather than “how to do research”) misses the point (I am thinking of one of the few times I thought Lance Fortnow gave bad advice). For this reason, I found the first section of the Notices article jarring, and the following line (even if it was meant as a joke) made me cringe

I have written more than 150 articles myself. (…) I have never written an article and then been unable to publish it.

I think that this calls for an Umeshism in response.

6 thoughts on “The December Issue of the Notices of the AMS

  1. Forgive my slight cynicism, Luca, but I’d have to disagree with you. I’ll grant you that doing good research is of primary importance, and writing well an incredibly helpful skill, career-wise. But to think that there aren’t skills associated with “how to publish” or “how to get a job” that are disjoint from research and writing skills strikes me as fundamentally naive.

    Arguably, it is precisely a lack of these softer skills that has hampered theory as a whole for some time. I might suggest that our lack of political skills as a group is partly responsible for our historical low standing within the NSF. Only recently, when we have been paying attention to the NSF and exercising some of these other skills, have we been making some headway. Of course this is predicated on solid research, and great writing helps our cause. But that’s not always enough.

    The article you pointed to, by the way, seemed to cover both aspects of good writing and how to publish successfully; they do, after all, go hand in hand.

  2. Hi Michael, I don’t think you are being cynic, nor do I completely disagree with you. There are “soft skills,” as you put it, that students (and everybody else) should develop, and our failure as a community, until recently, to effectively communicate what we do to the NSF is an excellent example.

    So it’s very important, for students, to learn how to write clear papers and give good talks, to make sure the right people know about their work, that someone will write their recommendation letters when they graduate, and that they will interview effectively. But I don’t agree that such skills can be disassociated from research goals; we all benefit from clear talks, from dissemination of information, and from socially adept theory faculty candidates. What I don’t like is a certain self-help style of advice (“how to win friends and get tenure!”) that is ultimately dispiriting. And from this, it’s a short step for students to start thinking they should write as many, say, STOC/FOCS papers as possible because that will maximize their chance of getting a good job, an attitude that leads to the submission of results into least publishable units, the pursuit of short-term projects over more ambitious ones, and other generally deleterious habits. (I am not saying you support any of this, nor does the author of the Notices article, for that matter, I am explaining what I am against, and I feel that there is a slippery slope here.)

  3. Sounds like we meet in the middle.

    I would certainly agree that all career advice should begin with “Do good research — the best you can do.” It’s a bit hard to give advice on how exactly to do that. (The one thing I’ve come up with for graduate students is you have to eventually — and better sooner that later — find problems that interest you. If you only work on problems that interest me, you’re probably not going to do your best work. If you can find problems that get you so excited you can’t sleep at night, you’re probably on your way.)

    But I think we do a good job as a community with that message. My impression is that, often, we give less attention to the other skills. I think we do a reasonable job on writing/speaking skills — better than many, worse than others. But we do a pretty bad job of explaining why, for instance, theorists should strive to connect their work to the rest of computer science (or other sciences) — part of what we might both place in the “how to win friends and get tenure” frame of mind. (Though I think we’re getting better. With exemplars like Karp, Papadimitriou, Kleinberg, Muthu, and many others I could name, I think the message is clearly starting to get across!)

  4. Is it really a more worse mistake for young TCS folks to crank out publons, than it is for them to burn up a narrow window of graduate/postdoc years working on problems that are too hard and lead to too few publishable results?

    Certainly we can all think of promising young people that fell into one or the other trap.

    But it seems to me that the people who fall into the first trap fare much better than those who fall into the second trap. After all, such people have established their productivity- they simply need to refine their taste and discipline themselves. People of the second stripe, however, do not get the benefit of the doubt from many hiring committees.

  5. “I have published more than 150 articles myself. So I guess that I know how to do it. I have never written an article and then been unable to publish it.”

    This may sound somewhat self-conceited and may indeed give the (I believe wrong) impression that Steve Krantz is going to give readers a silver bullet for getting their papers published and to play the system.

    In reality, I think that Steve Krantz’s piece gives beginning researchers some eminently reasonable and pragmatic advice. I believe that some young researchers suffer from lack of knowledge of the rituals that are involved in publishing their work and, more in general, are not given sufficiently clear career advice. We are doing them a disservice by not making them realize that, to quote from Krantz’s piece,

    “You cannot succeed at anything in life unless you understand what it is that you are trying to achieve. Once you understand what mathematical research is about, and how the publication process works, then you should be able to get your work into print.”

    It goes without saying that this is predicated on the assumption that one’s work offers a reasonable contribution to the research community.

    In today’s academia researchers must publish. There is no denying it. I totally agree with you when you say that we should not support “the submission of results into least publishable units, the pursuit of short-term projects over more ambitious ones” etc. However, we also have to be realistic and tell young researchers that while they should always strive to do the best research they can and aim high, they should also keep their careers “ticking” in order to be employable.

    Steve Krantz has done much more than most to offer sound career advice to mathematicians over the years. For what it’s worth, I have found his “how-to books” well worth reading, and I still do. See, e.g.,

    A Mathematician’s Survival Guide: Graduate School and Early Career Development, AMS, 2003

    How to Teach Mathematics, Second Edition, AMS, 1999

    and especially

    A Primer of Mathematical Writing, AMS, 1997.

    All of these books emphasize some of points Krantz makes in his Notices essay. Our job is a social one. Being able to write good, intelligible papers and to give good talks is a vital skill. And yes, there are some pragmatic, down-to-earth tricks of the trade that can help most ordinary mortals in their careers.

    I think that John Baez’s advice is also definitely worth reading and straddles rather well the delicate line between the idealism that every researcher should possess and the pragmatism without which most of us are not going to succeed at their job in today’s academic climate.

    Where I draw the line is when I hear people say that to get one’s papers accepted and in order to impress with one’s dazzling skills, one should try to eschew the simple arguments and presentations in favour of those that look hard and difficult to follow. There I fully agree with John Baez when he writes:

    “Don’t be scared of experts and their jargon. Become one yourself, but then give the game away by explaining things in simple language whenever possible. Talk to lots of people! Teach them; learn from them; don’t worry too much about impressing them. Don’t be scared to ask basic questions – and don’t be surprised when nobody knows the answers. The simplest questions are the last to be answered.”

  6. i think the editors of the notices completely missed the point. the letter writers had nothing to say to this koblitz character, they were chastising the editors themselves for their lack of judgement and misuse of editorial discretion. having koblitz respond to the letters was ridiculous. they would do well to invite an article from some crypto bigshot (perhaps not involved with this controversy).

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