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Academic Journals Are Unreasonable

I wrote the below email to the Proceedings of the Royal Society (academic journal) as a followup to the issue of Deutsch misquoting Turing. They agreed that Deutsch's quote and citation were both inaccurate, but didn't want to do anything, even post an errata, on the basis that the errors didn't affect the paper's conclusion.

Thanks for getting back to me. I have a few remaining concerns.

The quote in question was related to a disagreement when the paper was first published. Deutsch said:


I also had referee problems. The referee of the paper in which I presented that proof insisted that Turing’s phrase “would naturally be regarded as computable” referred to mathematical naturalness – mathematical intuition – not nature. And so what I had proved wasn’t Turing’s conjecture.

I wonder what processes were in place – from both Deutsch and referees – that could still miss that it’s a misquote, with an incorrect cite, while actively debating what that exact phrase means. That specific part of the paper got particular attention and the error was somehow missed anyway. Or perhaps the debate over that quote caused edits which introduced the error (I wonder if there are still records of what changes were made during the review process?). I suspect there’s a systems, processes and policies problem somewhere that could be improved.

Turing’s actual words being significantly different (Deutsch changed “numbers” to “function” but those are different concepts) has a meaningful chance to matter to the debate they had over what Turing meant. And Deutsch seems to agree with the referee that that debate matters to what Deutsch had and hadn’t proved, to his conclusion.

I don’t think a wording change like that can easily be explained as a random error, like a typo. I think a root cause analysis would be worthwhile, including e.g. asking Deutsch how he thinks the error happened. There could have been quoting from memory, changing quotes during editing passes, intentionally changing it to better address the referee’s objections, a change made by the referee himself (I don’t know if they are able to change any words), or something else. It’s hard to speculate but could be investigated since there are no obvious answers that make what happened reasonable. I think the results of looking into this would be relevant to many other papers at your journal and others. I’ve found that misquotes are widespread throughout the academic (and non-academic) worlds.

Also, even if the conclusion of this paper is unchanged, I think an errata would be appropriate because people have been spreading the error and using the misquote for other purposes. It's been taught to students in university courses[1]. In general, people read trusted sources like your journal, remember some parts, and then reuse stuff for other purposes. An error that doesn’t matter in one context often does matter in another context. Posting an errata on your website would help with this ongoing problem.

I also think it’d be reasonable to, along with the errata, publicly share the reasoning that the error doesn’t matter to Deutsch’s conclusion so that other people can judge for themselves.

[1] Here is an example of a Stanford course spreading the error: https://cs269q.stanford.edu/lectures/lecture1.pdf

Elliot Temple on September 14, 2021


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