Shibananda Biswas and I recently uploaded to the arxiv a new version of our paper “Stable division and essential normality: the non-homogeneous and quasi-homogeneous cases“. This is the paper I announced in this previous post, but we had to make some significant changes (thanks to a very good referee) so I think I have to re announce the paper.
I’ve sometimes been part of conversations where we mathematicians share with each other stories of how some paper we wrote was wrongfully (and in some cases, ridiculously) rejected; and then I’ve also been in conversations where we share stories of how we, as referees, recently had to reject some wrong (or ridiculous) paper. But I never had the occasion to take part in a conversation in which authors discuss papers they wrote that have been rightfully rejected. Well, thanks to the fact that I sometimes work on problems related to Arveson’s essential normality conjecture (which is notorious for having caused some embarrassment to betters-than-I), and also because I have become a little too arrogant and not sufficiently careful with my papers, I have recently become the author of a rightfully rejected paper. It is a good paper on a hard problem, I am not saying it is not, and it is (now (hopefully!)) correct, but it was rejected for a good reason. I think it is a story worth telling. Before I tell the story I have to say that both the referee and my collaborator were professional and great, and this whole blunder is probably my fault.
So Shibananda Biswas and I submitted this paper Stable division and essential normality: the non-homogeneous and quasi-homogeneous cases for publication. The referee sent back a report with several good comments, two of which turned out to be serious. The two serious comments concerned what appeared as Theorem 2.4 in the first version of the paper (and it appears as the corrected Theorem 2.4 in the current version, too). The first serious issue was that in the proof of the main theorem we mixed up between and , and this, naturally, causes trouble (well, I am simplifying. Really we mixed between two Hilbert space norms, parametrised by and ). The second issue (which did not seem to be a serious one at first) was that at some point of the proof we claimed that a particular linear operator is bounded since it is known to be bounded on a finite co-dimensional subspace; the referee asked for clarifications regarding this step.
The first issue was serious, but we managed to fix the original proof, roughly by changing back to . There was a price to pay in that the result was slightly weaker, but not in a way that affected the rest of the paper. Happily, we also found a better proof of the result we wanted to prove in the first place, and this appears as Theorem 2.3 in the new and corrected version of the paper.
The second issue did not seem like a big deal. Actually, in the referee’s report this was just one comment among many, some of which were typos and minor things like that, so we did not really give it much attention. A linear operator is bounded on a finite co-dimensional subspace, so it is bounded on the whole space, I don’t have to explain that!
We sent the revision back, and after a while the referee replied that we took care of most things, but we still did not explain the part about the operator-being-bounded-because-it-is-bounded-on-a-finite-co-dimensional-space. The referee suggested that we either remove that part (since we already had the new proof), or we explain it. The referee added, that in either case he suggests to accept the paper.
Well, we could have just removed that part indeed and had the paper accepted, but we are not in the business of getting papers accepted for publication, we are in the business of proving theorems, and we believed that our original proof was interesting in itself since it used some interesting new techniques. We did not want to give up on that proof.
My collaborator wrote a revision with a very careful, detailed and rigorous explanation of how we get boundedness in our particular case, but I was getting angry and I made the big mistake of thinking that I am smarter than the referee. I thought to myself: this is general nonsense! It always holds. So I insisted on sending back a revision in which this step is explained by referring to a general principle that says that an operator which is bounded on a finite co-dimensional subspace is bounded.
That’s not quite exactly precisely true. Well, it depends what you mean by “bounded on a finite co-dimensional subspace”. If you mean that it is bounded on a closed subspace which has a finite dimensional algebraic complement then it is true, but one can think of interpretations of “finite co-dimensional” that make this is wrong: for example, consider an unbounded linear functional: it is bounded on its kernel, which is finite co-dimensional in some sense, but it is not bounded.
The referee, in their third letter, pointed this out, and at this point the editor decided that three strikes and we are out. I think that was a good call. A slap in the face and a lesson learned. I only feel bad for my collaborator, since the revision he prepared originally was OK.
Anyway, in the situation studied in our paper, the linear subspace on which the operator is bounded is a finite co-dimensional ideal in the ring of polynomials. It’s closure has zero intersection with the finite dimensional complement (the proof of this is not very hard, but is indeed non-trivial and makes use of the nature of the spaces in question), and everything is all right. Having learned our lessons, we explain everything in detail in the current version. I hope that carefully enough.
I think that what caused us most trouble was that I did not understand what the referee did not understand. I assumed (very incorrectly, and perhaps arrogantly) that they did not understand a basic principle of functional analysis; it turned out that the referee did not understand why we are in a situation where we can apply this principle, and with hindsight this was worth explaining in more detail.