Guest editorial

I have a guest editorial in the SIAM Dynamical System online magazine DSWeb this month.  The full text of the editorial is below and the link is here.  I actually had several ideas circulating in my head and didn’t really know what would come out until I started to write.   This is how my weekly blog posts often go.  The process of writing itself helps to solidify inchoate ideas.  I think too often, young people want to wait until everything is under control before they write. I try to tell them to never just sit there and stare at a screen.  Just start writing and something will come.

Math in the Twenty First Century

I was a graduate student at MIT in the late eighties. When I started, I wrote Fortran code on an EMACS editor at a VT100 terminal to run simulations on a Digital Equipment Corporation VAX computer. When I didn’t understand something, I would try to find a book or paper on the topic. I spent hours in the library reading and photocopying. Somehow, I managed to find and read everything that was related to my thesis topic. Email had just become widespread at that time. I recall taking to it immediately and found it to be an indispensible tool for keeping in touch with my friends at other universities and even to make dinner plans. Then, I got a desktop workstation running X Windows. I loved it. I could read email and run my code simultaneously. I could also log onto the mainframe computer if necessary. As I was finishing up, my advisor got a fax machine for the office (hard to believe that they are that recent and now obsolete) and used it almost everyday.

I think that immediate integration of technology has been the theme of the past twenty-five years. Each new innovation – email, the desktop computer, the fax machine, the laser printer, the world wide web, mobile phones, digital cameras, power point slides, iPods, and so forth – becomes so quickly enmeshed into our lives that we can’t imagine what life would be like without them. Today, if I want to know what some mathematical term means I can just type it into Google and there will usually be a Wikipedia or Scholarpedia page on it. If I need a reference, I can download it immediately. If I have a question, I can post it on Math Overflow and someone, possibly a Field’s medalist, will answer it quickly (I actually haven’t done this yet myself but have watched it in action). Instead of walking over to the auditorium, I now can sit in my office and watch lectures online. My life was not like this fifteen years ago.

Yet, despite this rapid technological change, we still publish in the same old way. Sure, we can now submit our papers on the web and there are online journals but there has been surprisingly little innovation otherwise. In particular, many of the journals we publish in are not freely available to the public. The journal publishing industry is a monopoly that has surprising lasting power. If you are not behind the cozy firewall of an academic institution, much of the knowledge we produce is inaccessible to you. Math is much better than most other sciences since people post their papers to the arXiv. This is a great thing but it is not the same as a refereed journal. Perhaps, now is the time for us to come up with a new model to present our work – something that is refereed and public. Something new. I don’t know what it should look like, but I do know that when it comes around I’ll wonder how I ever got along without it.

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4 thoughts on “Guest editorial

  1. I’m disturbed by one solution offered by the publishing industry itself: authors funding public access. A publisher (IOPscience) recently informed me I could pay $2,700 to have my article made publicly available, but my coauthors and I can’t afford that. What disturbs me is the possibility that one’s visibility will depend on how much money one can spend as compared to one’s peers. It seems that academic publishing feels the pressure to change its business model, probably from the current economic environment as well as the research community. However, I wonder if the next real publishing revolution will be in the peer-review process.

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  2. I fully agree. The PLoS model is for authors to cover the publishing costs but it is probably out of reach for many people. We need some combination of public access, low cost for authors, and quality control.

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