Yihui Xie

Ideas on A Really Fast Statistics Journal

Yihui Xie / 2012-03-15

I was writing comments on the blog post A proposal for a really fast statistics journal, and I realized the comment box was too small to write down my ideas. I like the proposal a lot, and I feel really bad about the current model of submitting and reviewing papers: it is just too slow! We should not blame it on editors and reviewers; everybody is busy. The question is how to reduce unnecessary efforts in this process. My ideas are close to one possible actual implementation of Jeff’s proposal.

There are a few silly rules in some journals that I hate, and I believe they are wasting the time of everybody, e.g.,

I have to remind myself that this is the 21st century. These are actually not a big deal in terms of statistics papers. The more important problem is journals are operated by a very small group of people relative to the large number of authors. The even more important problem is reproducibility, which Roger Peng often mentions in their blog.

An open-access journal

This journal is electronic like JSS, and you can see everything on the website. For authors, LaTeX is too laborious, so we abandon LaTeX. For website maintainers, HTML is laborious as well, and we abandon HTML as the authoring language.

We turn to Markdown. Why? It is simple. I hate writing a paper with \documentclass{} as my first line – I want to start with the title directly in plain text, then write my first paragraph in a simple text editor. Who cares about \title{}? Similarly, when I write a webpage, I do not like starting with <html> as my first six characters.

My own website is built on Jekyll1, a blog engine based on Markdown files to build static HTML pages. The first few days of building this website might be hard, but once the design is done, the rest of the job becomes extremely easy. WordPress is good, but it is still too heavy compared to Jekyll. See my blog source code, and this blog site is hosted on GitHub, which automatically compiles my Markdown files to HTML pages using Jekyll when I submit new posts or changes to the source repository.

With a good web designer, this journal website can be set up probably in a week. In the future, neither maintainers nor paper authors need to deal with HTML any more. Paper source code looks like:

# Title

## Abstract

Here is the abstract.

## First section

Write write and write.

    plot(1:10)  # code to generate figures


I will explain how we maintain this journal and talk about plot(1:10) later.

Faster submission and review

I do not see much difference in submitting computer code and papers, so I’d like to use a version control model for papers as well. As I mentioned in my last blog post, GIT and GitHub can make this process fast and easy.

We put the journal website under version control, and all the source code is on GitHub. Authors fork the journal repository and put their papers in the repository. Paper submission is through pull requests, which means the author wants to merge his/her changes (paper) back to the main repository.

Now the chief editor sees the request, and he/she writes a comment under the request like: @jeff and @roger, please review the new paper. Then Jeff and Roger start looking at the paper. If they want to make comments, they comment right below the lines of the texts, because GitHub supports inline comments in your code. (So why should we continue writing double-spaced papers?)

After they are done, the editor asks the author to read the reviews, revise the paper, push more commits to the pull request, and the reviews can easily see what was changed in the revision, because GIT gives you full history of the revision. You see that the reviewers do not need to re-read the whole paper – they just look at the revision history. If the problems of the paper are too serious, reviews can write bug reports (GitHub issues) in the author’s repository and ask the author to fix these “bugs”.

This process can go back and forth, until the editor decides to accept the pull request. Once the new paper is pulled in, Jekyll will recompile the website automatically.

Besides the designated reviewers, all other people can see and comment on the pull request as well, so the paper can be essentially under public review like open source software! If the two reviewers are busy, there might be other good public reviewers helping the review.

You may doubt on the “quality” of public review, but just think about the quality Linux and open source software. If we only rely on Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman to write code, you can imagine how the open source world looks like today.

The journal can find plenty of good and active reviewers automatically after a while – they come as a result of natural selection; this is better than requesting someone to be a reviewer because it is the “internal force” that drives the public reviewers. In the current journal model, reviewers may feel it is a job to review papers, so incentive is a problem.

Reproducible papers

I’m quite interested in reproducible research, and I’m all for reproducible results in papers. Well, if you are a statistician, R and Sweave have probably come into your mind. Sweave is great, and the idea of literate programming is awesome. It is just a shame that great ideas were implemented with a narrow vision. I can understand Sweave was tied to LaTeX, but that is a narrow choice. I feel painful to introduce Sweave to other people because I have to teach them LaTeX first.

I do not need to repeat my motivations to write another R package knitr to replace Sweave. The relevant point is reproducible research should be easier for the general public, and LaTeX is not the way to go. Again, Markdown is better. You will never be trapped in all sorts of weird TeX errors. Open a notepad (can be literally Windows Notepad or other text editors), write the text you want, then the code; compile this text file, you get your paper/report. This should be the case if we want to popularize reproducible research. If you have spent many hours on writing a TeX document and carefully embedding R code in it, then compile it…

The knitr package supports Markdown naturally. You can see a hello-world example and a real example.

I’m not yet very confident about working with Markdown and knitr because I have not started using this combination. In the past few months, I have been focusing on the LaTeX support, but I’ll start eating my own Markdown dog food soon.

People keep on telling you LaTeX frees your mind, because you only focus on writing and do not worry about styles, and that is a beautiful lie. You worry about styles all day long, and the tricks about styles are usually gory. I would rather say CSS frees you.

OK, this journal only accepts simple Markdown files. No more argument. As I showed you, you can embed R code in Markdown files to compile your papers dynamically. In the future, the server of the journal may compile the papers periodically as well to check if they are still valid. It is easy for reviewers to validate the results too. All authors are required to provide datasets associated with the paper, or at least access to the datasets (e.g. URL’s).

We use web pages to present papers. No PDF. A careful design of CSS can beat LaTeX/PDF and give us beautiful web pages. If readers have strong objections to this, we use pandoc to convert Markdown papers to PDF. Math expressions? No problem! Use MathJax. There are no page limits, and all figures are inserted in appropriate places (they will not float and readers do not need to turn the pages desparately to find your “Figure 7”).

If we do everything in web pages, there are yet more possibilities.


We have been in the age of Web 2.0 for a few years, but journals rarely make good use of the “crowd”. We build the world on a small group of people. Our good papers are used to fill in the shelves of libraries and collect dust, when bad articles are occupying the web (like my blog posts) and being discussed actively. We make all sorts of rules to tie the hands of authors, and we wait, wait and wait for the anonymous reviewers, like waiting for Godot.

  1. Correction: I have switched to Hugo now, and it is still based on Markdown.