Mathematics is often treated as different from other disciplines, since arguments in the field rely on deductive proof rather than empirical evidence as in the natural sciences. A mathematical paper can therefore, at least in principle, be replicated simply by reading it. While this distinction is sometimes taken as the basis to claim that the results in mathematics are therefore certain, mathematicians themselves know that the published literature contains many mistakes. Reading a proof is not easy, and checking whether an argument constitutes a proof is surprisingly difficult. This article uses peer review of submissions to mathematics journals as a site where referees are explicitly concerned with checking whether a paper is correct and therefore could be published. Drawing on 95 qualitative interviews with mathematics journal editors, as well as a collection of more than 100 referee reports and other correspondence from peer review processes, this article establishes that while mathematicians acknowledge that peer review does not guarantee correctness, they still value it. For mathematicians, peer review ‘adds a bit of certainty’, especially in contrast to papers only submitted to preprint servers such as arXiv. Furthermore, during peer review there can be disagreements not just regarding the importance of a result, but also whether a particular argument constitutes a proof or not (in particular, whether there are substantial gaps in the proof). Finally, the mathematical community is seen as important when it comes to accepting arguments as proofs and assigning certainty to results. Publishing an argument in a peer-reviewed journal is often only the first step in having a result accepted. Results get accepted if they stand the test of time and are used by other mathematicians.

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