Re: A Note of Caution About "Reforming the System"

From: Greg Kuperberg <greg_at_MATH.UCDAVIS.EDU>
Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2001 14:12:36 -0800

On Sun, Feb 25, 2001 at 11:39:14PM -0000, John MacColl wrote:
> On 18 Feb, Greg Kuperberg wrote:
> > Yes, journal cancellations and on-line passwords are a nuisance, but
> > they have never been as bad for me as the enormous delay ...
> But those cancelled journals, and the online passwords - or, more
> pertinently, the subscription ejournals to which one's library cannot afford
> passwords - represent a slice of the literature which either remains
> unobtainable, or obtainable only with difficulty. And the research of
> researchers deprived of that slice may suffer as a consequence.

I agree that that is a serious problem. It's one of the reasons that I
support an open e-print archive in my own discipline and I also agree
that librarians can help. But as Andrew Odlyzko has pointed out in
different words, the research literature has a lot of recapitulation and
it is often possible to fill in what exactly lies in missing references.
I could understand that in a more contentious discipline than mathematics,
the exact words or the exact data in the original might be crucial.
But in mathematics it isn't crucial. Indeed you can often understand a
result better from its exposition by a third party than from the original.
Many mathematicians use the ideas of Gauss, Poincare, and Hilbert, but
few of us have read those ideas in the original - even though Hilbert
lived into the 1930's.

On the other hand, if the entire literature is systematically delayed for
peer review and distribution for an entire year or more, there is no way
to guess what is missing from the older literature. Another way to say
it is that the arXiv accelerates the citation cycle from its traditional
time scale measured in years to a more useful time scale (conjecturally)
measured in months. It would be interesting to study the mean difference
in age between a paper and its citations in a heavily arXiv-ed area such
as high-energy theory versus a little-arXiv-ed one like plasma physics.
I suppose I could be putting the cart before the horse - it may also be
that a field moves to the arXiv because it wants a short citation cycle
and not the other way around.
  /\  Greg Kuperberg (UC Davis)
 /  \
 \  / Visit the Math ArXiv Front at
  \/  * All the math that's fit to e-print *
Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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