Posted by: Administrator | 16/01/2016

Professor Derek Holt, Editor of the JCM: The Quality of the JCM

I have been  Editor In Chief of the JCM since 2008, and so I am in a good position to assess its overall quality, and whether that has changed over the period. Of course, I am not a disinterested assessor, and I hope very much that the decision to close the JCM will be reversed.

On balance, I think that the quality has remained at at about the same level since 2008. All papers are refereed, and the three journal editors come to a decision taking into account the referees’ reports and the assessments of the Editorial Adviser who handled the paper. (So it is only the three editors who can accept a paper.) We generally impose high standards, and only accept papers that have positive reports. I am also on the editorial board of the computational section of the Journal of Algebra (which has an impact factor of 0.599) and, in my opinion, the typical standard of JCM papers is roughly the same as that of typical computational Journal of Algebra papers.

It could be certainly be argued that the mathematical quality of papers published by the main LMS journals (Proceedings, Journal, Bulletin of LMS) is generally higher than that of JCM papers, and I would not dispute that. But the JCM is catering for a different type of paper. For example, it publishes details of new and innovative software packages, and it provides a permanent record of the details of lengthy computations, which enables them to be repeated and and verified independently if necessary. Such results frequently form essential components of significant large-scale research projects in fundamental areas of mathematics, such as determining the properties of the finite simple groups, and establishing results on elliptic curves.

In 2012, when the question of the possible demise of the JCM was first raised, the editors were assigned a number of targets. Specifically we were asked to increase the total number of papers published without a decrease in quality, and to publish at least two conference proceedings during the following three years. In the event, we only published one conference proceedings (ANTS 14), but the JCM will publish the ANTS proceedings again in 2016.

I would argue strongly that we achieved the first of these aims (the total page count went up from 423 in 2013 to 773 in 2015).  Since I have been involved in the acceptance of all papers published during this period, I can testify that we have maintained the same rigorous standards throughout.

I have recently looked again at the 33 papers published by the JCM in 2015, and at the referee reports and ensuing discussions. I was immediately impressed (and to some extent surprised) by the broad range of topics covered by these papers. This broadening of subject area has been the result of a number of new Editorial Adviser appointments over the past few years. As well as many papers in the traditional areas covered by the JCM – (i.e. Discrete Mathematics, such as Group Theory, Representation Theory, Lie Algebras, Number Theory, Geometry) – there are at least five papers concerned with numerical computation, and solving differential equations. It seems particularly unfortunate that the journal has been closed at a time when the recent expansion of the editorial board is starting to bear fruit.

Of these 33 papers, I would rate about 25 of them as strong and acceptable for publication in any good quality journal in this area (such as the computational section of the Journal of Algebra). Of the others, about four were borderline, and could have been rejected. If the JCM is allowed to continue then I would be in favour of being slightly more selective in future and being less inclined to give borderline papers the benefit of the doubt.

I have to be cautious about quoting from referees’ reports, but comments on some of the stronger papers included: “a new and important result”, “a critical step in the [research project concerned]”, “a major paper with new ideas about an important computational problem”, “a result that will have a strong impact in the field”.

Added later: In the information circulated to LMS members in advance of the Special General Meeting, Paper D, “A paper by the LMS Publications Secretary”, Paragraph 3, it states:

 The minimum targets set centred around the quality and quantity of papers   published, and the commissioning of two good quality conference   proceedings, where the editors believed there was scope to develop the   journal. Publications committee met in early 2015 to consider progress; it   was clear that the targets had not been met, and it was a moot point as to   how much progress had been made towards them.

I believe that this statement is highly misleading. On the contrary, it was not at all clear that the targets had not been met, and it was completely clear how much progress had been made towards them. We were asked to increase the number of published papers and pages by a specified amount without decreasing quality – we were not asked to improve the quality. In the event,
we exceeded the the requested increases in quantity while maintaining quality. It is true that we only published one set of conference proceedings in the period 2012 – 2015, but we will be publishing another in 2016. So I would say rather that we were failed on a technicality.

Derek Holt, 16/1/16.

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