Sunday, February 23, 2014

When is a paper public? When is anything public?

A while back I had a paper in an intermediary stage. The version posted to my Ramsey Theory Course Website was not final. Is the paper public? I didn't think about it much but I didn't intend it to be since it was not done yet. But Adam Sheffer's Google Scholar (more on that later) didn't know that. So his Google Scholar program found the paper and he blogged about it here.

This was FINE- my co-author David Conlon posted a comment on the blog that a revised version was coming, and I asked Adam to modify the blog to say so as well. Plus, I am DELIGHTED and SURPRISED when someone noticed my work.
When the final version came out Adam DID report about it here.
But it raises the question- when is a paper public? Some related thoughts
  1. (Kudos to Adam for pointing me to this one). I had heard the ABC conjecture might be solved. What I didn't quite know is that the author posted the papers on HIS OWN website, not on arXiv. Did he intend for it to go public? I do not know- but it is NOW public. If its not correct he can always say well, I didn't tell you it was ready for
    prime time yet
  2. A while back a student pointed me to a website with a paper that claimed to show GI is in P. The author DID NOT post it to arXiv (this may have been before there was an arXiv) nor did he email GI experts across the planet to look at it. So is it public? Is it my job to debunk it? It would be a bit odd to tell someone who didn't ask my opinion that YOUR PROOF IS WRONG! The student was hoping it was TRUE so he wouldn't have to learn the proof that if GI is NPC then PH collapses. I ended up telling the student that its surely wrong else since if GI was in P then I would known it--- not a really rigorous proof, but it sufficed. See here for more on this non-rigorous proof technique.
  3. I have read stories of people who post personal things on FaceBook (a common one is that they are gay) and then are shocked, shocked, when their parents find out.
  4. There's a nice song about a related issue: My Mom's on Facebook.
  5. On the TV show West Wing there was a segment where someone thought a story was just regional and hence would not affect her confirmation hearing. She had to be told NO- there is no such thing as a story that is just regional. Journalists and others can FIND STUFF if it is out there.
  6. Similarly to the last item: I can't post a paper just for my class because Google Scholar will find it (I DO NOT EVER require a password for a course website, I don't want to hassle the students and I am happy if somone else wants to see what I am teaching. Note also that this blog is NOT complaining that Adam found my paper). I (cordially) emailed Adam Sheffer inquiring how Google Scholar found me. For my fellow Luddites I reprint his answer (hmmm, I don't know if he meant his email to be public.)
    Regarding how Google Scholar works: The system constantly scans the web for new papers. It knows the papers which I have coauthored (it finds them while searching the web and asks me to verify that they are indeed mine). Then, in future scans, if it stumbles upon a paper that might be relevant to me - it sends me and update about it. I am not sure what exactly are the criteria that it uses, but it seems to be papers by my coauthors and papers on similar topics (perhaps papers that have common references with my papers?).
    Sound like when TIVO tried to guess what shows you liked- it could be right but it could be far off. I know of liberals who watched FOX news a lot to gain insight into what people they disagree with thought, and then their TIVO thought were Tea Partiers. Then TIVO thought they liked Tea.
  7. I gave Adam kindly blogger-to-blogger advice: DO NOT let this be a cautionary tale. Do not ask permission to post about a PAPER --- just do it. I've done it here when blogging about Galois games and here when blogging about how much trig should a governor know. If you post on something a bit more personal (e.g., here) then maybe you should get permission (one of the people gave permission, the other never responded).

So what to make of all this? We are in a time of transition and some people
may end up revealing more than they intended. The next generation may learn;
however, we seem to always be in a time of transition.
"p.html" 31L, 4785C written


  1. I (and, I imagine, others) have put a preliminary version of a paper on my website with the aim of specific people being able to access it (e.g., conference PC members, grant or job-app reviewers, people attending a workshop, etc.). It is not exactly private at this stage, but publicity from a blog or from Google Scholar would not be a welcome development either.

    I tried to block Google Scholar for one paper; Google had instructions for doing so, but it failed. Has anyone done this with success?

  2. It's very easy to put a paper up on a website in a password-protected directory and then send the password to anyone who wants to look at it. This is what I do, for example, with my list of open problems.

  3. speaking of cyber review of papers a new stackexchange "stemreview" is proposed for electronic peer review/open science. dont seem to have the momentum at the moment but its an idea whose time has come & expect it to succeed in some form eventually.