A recent post (on spotting bugs in papers) at Claire Mathieu's blog reminded me of something a colleague told me recently: he noted that conferences are requiring more mathematical rigour from submitted papers, than they used to (say, about 10 years ago). Where previously we could get away with “proof (sketch)” there is now a stronger expectation that the whole thing will be written down, either in an appendix or on Arxiv. If we make a mistake we now face rejection; no longer do we just try to convey the general idea, but it’s required that the details be done correctly. My own limited experience agrees with the theory that this is a trend, but I am mainly just passing on hearsay. (Let me know if you think this is indeed a trend.)
This all seems fine, and yet... I have concerns. The main one is the risk that conferences threaten to usurp the traditional role of journals, in purporting to showcase papers that are guaranteed to be correct. The traditional life cycle of a paper envisages a conference version that publicizes the idea, which results in the author(s) receiving feedback on the paper, that may inform or contribute to a subsequent journal version, whose main purpose is to be correct, in some cases setting the record straight if there are bugs in the conference version. If we’re going to insist on correct conference papers, it raises the question of whether the guarantee is as strong as it is for journal versions. If so, there is no point in the journal paper.
Should we mind if a few conference papers are buggy? I’m not sure that’s such a big problem. If the paper attracts interest it will receive sufficient scrutiny to detect errors, and furthermore will be submitted for journal publication (as warranted by the interest it attracts). Thus, a buggy paper will either get exposed, or else no-one will read it. Moreover, is it even desirable that our literature should be entirely pure — is there not room for the human factor to obtrude? There is mild entertainment to be obtained from the occasional reminder that a paper may have been driven by over-enthusiasm on the part of its authors, and it can be reassuring to see that even our more esteemed colleagues sometimes get things wrong.
International Women's Day for historians
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