Scared of math?

One of the themes I’d like to discuss from time to time is scientific publishing and the many ways in which, I believe, the system by which we produce, exchange, discuss and evaluate our research is distorted and counterproductive. What is interesting here is that, in private conversations with most if not all peers I happen to entertain, there is always agreement on criticism, some cautious proposal, and no action (because we’re all into that, and we gotta play the game… right?).

Moreover, while every single person might build up some more or less learned feeling that things are going in some way rather than another, as scientists we should rely on data.

For example, it is my personal impression that higher impact-factor journals in physics are becoming more and more allergic to formulas, and that for a successful paper the story-telling of the key physical concepts should be deployed of mathematics as far as possible, which will eventually go into appendices and supplementary files. This, in itself, is not bad: it might just mean that the way papers are structured is changing, with a front-matter introducing the general ideas for all, and then more advanced material for those who are captured and do want to see the details. This might also mean that we are becoming a bit superficial in reading, or that there are too many papers, it might push authors to make up abstruse stories to sell ideas, or it might help get rid of useless mathematical complications where things are actually much simpler, and so on…

We will have plenty of time to discuss all this. But, as a first element, is it true that physicists do not want to read formulas in papers? Now there’s a tentative answer for that:

Jonathan E Kollmer, Thorsten Pöschel, and Jason A C Gallas,

Are physicists afraid of mathematics?

New J. Phys. 17 (2015) 013036

Building upon and criticizing a previous similar effort as regards biology, the authros have systematically looked for correlation between citations, density of formulas, and other factors that might determine the success of a paper (though it is not known if there is a tendency in decreasing the number of formulas in journals, that would also be interesting to know…). And the news is: apparently not. Lots of things correlate to the number of citations (e.g. the number of papers cited, the number of authors, the density of figures), but not thedensity of formulas.

But, most importantly, this paper has one of the best endings ever read:

“As for our paper, we surely hope to defy the odds, since we are only three authors, cite a small number of papers, and have a low figure density. However, just to be on the safe side, we made sure not to include any equations.”





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