Thoughts on publishing and refereeing
December 7, 2007

Liberté, égalité, fraternité


Did you know that in parts of Africa and Asia, some paper is made from elephant dung?

The slogan of the French Revolution was Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort, but ou la mort (or death) got dropped by later generations of activists and freedom fighters. It seems a bit harsh to suggest death as a penalty for the freeloading authors I will describe. If you read this, you know who you are---no need to hide behind the back of your boss or under the chair of your secretary.


Liberty, who does not like liberty, defined by several sources as being able to do anything that does not harm others? As researchers, we have the freedom to write up our results, interpret them, spread the word, convince others, hawk our methods and generally make an international nuisance of ourselves. And writing we do, because our promotions and salary raises depend on it. In fact, we write so much that our journals have become spam magazines. But it's our right, and our families need to be fed.

It is clear that we need to be able to tell good spam from bad spam. I wish we could automate the process---does the title contain the word enlarge? Are there second-rate images of simulations? But it is not so simple. The need to control ourselves and our peers led to the development of a globally accepted process called refereeing. It simulates control. It is the system.


Some of our friends have nice careers. Their reputations have risen to beancounting heaven, lifted by a magic carpet of awards. Awards are another way of telling the world that we are good, and that we collectively deserve a salary raise. Welcome to the new era of award overload.

From atop their booster seats of wisdom, many look at the vast plains of mediocrity below, and really believe that they should no longer participate in degrading and annoying activities such as refereeing papers written by youngsters. Associate editors are frustrated that these research acrobats and scientific dandies, virtually without exception, refuse to referee. Their white lies and slimy apologies are falling over each other on the way to the award overload syndrom shrink.

I am amazed that some still have the time to go to the bathroom---they went twice last week, why should they go again right now? And besides, there is a deadline coming up, but, promise, they will contribute a big dump next time. Interestingly, our constipated friends demand immediate first-rate service for their own papers, but decline any help to struggling muzhiks.

That is not Égalité.

Manny Parzen once put it to me succinctly in a diner in College Station: Always be friendly to the young ones, because you will meet them again on your way down.


Fraternity is defined in the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Citizen as Do not do unto others what you would not have done to you.

Fraternité: a plea to all authors to minimize the amount of manure, to all associate editors to distribute the excrement evenly, to all referees to accept their composting duties with excitement, and to all publishers to print the work on elephant dung paper.


Copyright © 2007 Luc Devroye
School of Computer Science
McGill University
Montreal, Canada H3A 2K6