Thursday, June 02, 2005

Academic Folklore

I'm a big fan of urban myths and especially the folklore that builds up particular areas such as a academia. Every university campus has its own associated set of myths and legends about its buildings (usually, tales about building errors or famous occupants). Research has its own small collection of tall tales, some of which turn out to be true. I was very surprised to discover that the old legend of the student who arrived late for class, and copied down two unsolved problems as homework was completely true and happened to George Dantzig, who passed away last month.

Some myths belong to a bygone era. There is the story of the academic who received some proofs of his document back from the publishers. All his equations had been typeset perfectly, except for one place where there should be an epsilon, and there was instead a blank space with a little smudge. Looking closely at this smudge, he realized that this was actually an epsilon, but printed in impossibly small type. Returning to his original drafts, he saw that he had originally written "epsilon, where epsilon is as small as possible" and the typesetters had taken this too literally...

These days, with advent of submissions in LaTeX, and perhaps more importantly, the increasing disinterest in journal publishers in doing any subediting, this looks very antiquated. Some legends can never die though, and new ones are being born on the time. This one actually happened to a friend of mine. No, really -- you can verify this by asking around, and you will probably find that it happened to a friend of yours as well.

My friend was reviewing a paper for a journal. Sadly, it was very badly written, and full of typos and errors. One proof in particular was a complete mess, and in his referee report he wrote "The derivation of this equation does not seem to make sense. Presumably, some additional assumptions are being made which should be stated explicitly."

Several months later, he was sent a revised version of the paper. It did not seem to be much improved. The problematic proof looked to be unchanged: it was still the same mess of algebra. However, there were now some extra lines added below the end of the proof which read as follows: "The derivation of this equation does not seem to make sense. Presumably, some additional assumptions are being made which should be stated explicitly."

I should ask my friend whether the revision acknowledged the helpful suggestions of the referees. Feel free to post your favourite academic folklore in the comments...
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