On “provisional acceptance”

With regard to the Marcie Rathke affair, a number of readers have seized on the provisional nature of the acceptance letter from Advances in Pure Mathematics. Indeed, they did not accept it outright, for the referee says that certain revisions are needed: rewrite the abstract, explain the notation, include proofs of the main result and key lemmas. Some said that since these revisions would either be impossible or would result in a totally different (non-nonsensical) paper, that this lets APM off the hook. Others suggested that this sort of “acceptance” was actually a rejection intended to let the author down more gently.

If so, it would be completely at odds with the review practices that are usual in mathematics.
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Why Marcie Rathke is not Alan Sokal

I’ve been pretty startled by all of the publicity that Mathgen and the Marcie Rathke paper (accepted by Advances in Pure Mathematics) have recently attracted. Many people drew parallels between this incident and Alan Sokal’s 1996 hoax, in which Sokal, a physicist, got the cultural studies journal Social Text to accept a parody article which identified physics and physical reality as a social construct. I’m flattered by the comparison, but I wanted to take some space to respond and point out some essential differences between the two cases.

Basically, where Sokal attacked the intellectual standards of the entire field of cultural studies, the purpose of the Rathke paper was only to expose a particularly dismal sector of the academic publishing industry, in a field (mathematics) which I believe is essentially sound.

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