Written: July 31, 2009
Michael Wakin, Christopher Rozell, Mark Davenport and Jason Laska have finally launched the first issue of the long-awaited (E-)journal Rejecta Mathematica. In their letter from the editors they clearly state that this is not a joke.
It sure is! But not because of its name, or mission, or agenda. It is a great funny joke, because it is yet another math journal, and all of them, from the Annals of Math all the way "down" to the Fibonacci Quarterly, are fast becoming as funny, and utterly useless, as a neck tie.
The original goal of scientific and scholarly journals was the dissemination of knowledge. This is nowadays accomplished much more efficiently via preprint archives and personal websites. As for the formal-correctness, we all know that nowadays you can't trust human referees to go through all the details, and there are lots of inaccurate and even erroneous material published in "peer-reviewed" journals.
But mathematical official journals do serve a purpose! They make some people feel superior at the expense of other people by using inclusion-exclusion, and thereby help maintain the status-quo in the hierarchy of mathematics.
One may argue that this is a human (in fact, mammalian) necessity, and hence peer-reviewed journals do serve an evolutionary purpose. They also help the math departments' committees, and deans, decide whom to grant tenure to and whom to promote. The tenure committee would be much more impressed by a paper in the Annals of Mathematics than by a paper in the Fibonacci Quarterly.
By this argument, Rejecta Mathematica is really superfluous, since it is unlikely to impress any committee or any dean. Also, let me tell you a secret! Rejecta Mathematica is not the only journal that publishes previuosly-rejected papers. Many (perhaps most!) articles, in all journals, even the very snobbish ones, have been previosly rejected by other journals. The only difference is that the journals don't know it (or do not want to know). Acceptance/Rejection of paper X to journal Y is a random variable, with a given probability distribution. By the law of large numbers, any paper will be accepted a.s. in some journal. In this business it helps to be thick-skinned. If you submit 10 papers to a journal whose acceptance rate is %10, then you should expect to get one paper published. Of course, you should learn from your mistakes, and try to optimize your expected prestige by various stochastic strategies.
In the above-mentioned letter, the editors of Rejecta mention several reasons why worthy papers get rejected by journals, but they failed to mention the most common one: incompetence of both referees and editors. Neither editors nor referees are what they used to be, and many of them are plain incompetent. This is definitely the cause of the original rejection, by Journal of Combinatorial Theory (Ser. A) of my own paper featured in the first issue of Rejecta. The referee, in his (or her) report, asked such dumb questions, and raised such inane objections, that showed that they didn't understand at all what is going on. Also the editor, Helene Barcelo, showed great incompetence by agreeing with the referee, and refusing to reconsider my case, even though I felt so strongly about it.
Let me conclude with a revolutionary proposal to save paper, and disk-space, by making all math journals virtual. Only keep the arxiv, but for each paper, just mention what journal it got accepted to. Then in the search-form, they should add a new "field": journal, and by searching, say, for "South Dakota J. of Applied Bioinformatics" and "2008", one would immediately get the list of papers "published" by the former journal in the latter year. This would be the journal! No need to waste paper, or disk-space for a website for the journal. Journals will become abstract entities, just like money. The most efficient way would be to use the Gale-Shapely algorithm of stable marriage that can handle it painlessly and automatically. Every submission to the arxiv will contain a ranked list of journals by the submitters, and the editors of the journal can rank all the papers (this too can be automated, by using buzzwords, searching for names of Fields medalists etc.), and the algorithm will assign papers to journals, in a stable way, and no author will be tempted to dump the journal it got accepted to, even though it would have preferred to be published in the Annals, and the journal that "published" my paper, will not be tempted to dump it, even though it would have much rather published a paper by Andrew Wiles.
With this system, a journal will be just a subset of the set of all articles, the "global set" being the set of all articles posted in the arxiv. One can even cater further to the human predilection for ranking and linear-ordering, and each journal will be allowed to rank its own papers. Then again, this part is already superflous, since this task is very ably performed by google scholar, and anyone can see their article's "worth", and their own personal "worth" by google-scholaring themsevles (and comparing their score to the google-scholar score of their friends and colleagues). This makes even the "virtual" journals, suggested in the previous paragraph, unneccessary, and google-scholar suffices to satiate the human need for linear ranking, and feeling superior at the expense of your fellow persons.