To get this blog rolling, I’d like to put forward a modest idea that I’ve been chewing on for a while. Ready? Here it is:
Scientific papers are a waste of time. Therefore, we should stop writing them, and find a better way to communicate our research.
Among the likely readers of Shtetl-Optimized, I can’t imagine that this idea would cause the slightest controversy. But just in case I’m mistaken, let me stress that the idea would have seemed crackbrained to me, too, back when I was young and green.
“Are you kidding?” I would have screamed at my decrepit 24-year-old future self. ”Research papers have been humankind’s great instrument of progress for 300 years! They’re the bulwark that separates Crick from creationists, Chandrasekhar from Chopra, and Wigderson from wackballs like this! Without peer-reviewed papers, how would we verify each others’ claims? How would we establish priority? What would we fill our c.v.’s with?”
So I came to my current view slowly and reluctantly, as a result of spending the past five years struggling (often unsuccessfully) to write up results that I’d proven long before, and that I could easily explain in half an hour to anyone who asked me, and that only a tiny group of experts would ever need to see the details of, and that…
God, those years. They went by so quickly. They should’ve been the best years of my life. I should’ve been saving all of my scarce brain cycles for solving big, meaty problems. And in the meantime, I should’ve been learning how to salsa dance, and exploring San Francisco, and giving talks for elementary school kids, and having dumb affairs that I’d later regret. Instead, what was I doing? Responding to referee reports for this and this and this and this and this.
In an infamous guest post on Lance Fortnow’s blog, I advocated a rather different philosophy. I realize now that I was wrong, and I apologize to any colleagues who were hurt by what I said there. For I now understand that the true time-sucker is neither sailing nor surfing nor clubbing. These things take up only a finite number of hours in any case; once they’re done, they’re done. No, the true enemy of scientific productivity is having to write everything up in such a goddamned painstaking way.
I’ll estimate that I spend at least two months on writing for every week on research. I write, and rewrite, and rewrite. Then I compress to 10 pages for the STOC/FOCS/CCC abstract. Then I revise again for the camera-ready version. Then I decompress the paper for the journal version. Then I improve the results, and end up rewriting the entire paper to incorporate the improvements (which takes much more time than it would to just write up the improved results from scratch). Then, after several years, I get back the referee reports, which (for sound and justifiable reasons, of course) tell me to change all my notation, and redo the proofs of Theorems 6 through 12, and identify exactly which result I’m invoking from [GGLZ94], and make everything more detailed and rigorous. But by this point I’ve forgotten the results and have to re-learn them. And all this for a paper that maybe five people will ever read.
Let’s try some thought experiments. Steve Cook never bothered to write up a journal version of this STOC abstract. Suppose he did; what of it? After he wrote On Computable Numbers in 1936, Turing wrote an erratum in 1937, correcting a few bugs. Did you even know that? Do you care? Would Turing’s place in history be any different had he left the bugs unfixed?
So what’s the solution? Personally, my hope is that the Internet will eventually make not only traditional print journals obsolete (as it already has in some fields), but traditional papers as well. Instead we’ll have permanently-archived “interactive proofs”: discussions that look, more than anything else, like the emails exchanged between coauthors before they start writing up the paper.
“I think I can prove X like so.”
“But how do you handle Y and Z?”
“Well, what about W?”
Assuming the participants are serious researchers, I believe that the ”limit” of such a discussion is every bit as reliable as the paper itself. After all, if absolute rigor is the goal, then you shouldn’t believe the paper either. You should insist that everything be formalized in ZF set theory — and even then, how would you know that what was proved corresponded to the informal statement?
(To be clear, I’m not advocating some sort of woo-woo philosophy of mathematics. I don’t have a philosophy of mathematics — or if I do, then it’s naïve Platonism. All I’m advocating is that we consistently adopt the same standards of convincingness that we already adopt when arguing in front of a blackboard. I leave as an open problem how all of this applies to the “softer” sciences, like biology or string theory.)
But until the post-paper world I’m championing becomes a reality, what should you do? Here’s my advice: write the most informal, sloppy, essayistic, stream-of-consciousness, conversational papers you can possibly get away with. Write as if you were firing off an email to a skeptical but impatient friend. I promise to do my part by reviewing such papers leniently (at least in terms of the presentation), and no longer demanding pointless revisions.