Memos to papers to books

In recent years I’ve settled into the habit of writing numbered research memos. A typical one might be four pages long and include half a dozen computational experiments and plots along with theorems and references. The time scale of a memo is a matter of days, so they are excellent for day-to-day motivation, unlike papers (months) and books (years). These mathematical memos are the main way I communicate during an ongoing project with my coauthors and my increasingly forgetful self.

The current series, on rational functions, is up to Rat124, and 8 journal articles have come out of these. That’s 15 memos per paper. One level up in this verbal food chain, I note that all together in my career, I have published around 140 papers and 7 books. That’s 20 papers per book.

So my career to date has the heft of around 2100 memos. Actually, I wasn’t always so memo-happy; the true number is more like 400 — plus a few hundred Chebfun Examples, which are psychologically similar.

[27 July 2020]

Playing the academic game

Academic papers keep getting longer, to the point where these days, we rarely read a paper as opposed to leafing through it for highlights. Here’s an extreme example that has caught my eye today. There’s a trio of numerical analysts who have published 39 papers together since 2003, with these statistics at Google Scholar:

Average number of pages: 40.9,   Total pages: 1594.
Average number of citations: 27.8,   Total citations: 1084.

These are good people employed at good universities, and the papers are in the top journals. Yet I regard these numbers with horror. In my career, I’ve published five papers longer than 30 pages. These guys have 29 of them! When I look at the latest, with its 278 lines of displayed equations, my eyes glaze over.

I am certain that the mountain of long technical papers out there is bad for communication. The disturbing question is, is it good for careers? I hope no, but I fear yes. I have tried to push back against the trend in conversations with colleagues, as a referee and journal editor, in a letter printed in SIAM News, and indeed as SIAM President, but I don’t recall encountering anybody who agrees with me that this is something we should be exercised about.

[27 July 2020]