Math 2.0

Building on the Elsevier boycott, a lot of people are working on positive steps to make expensive journals obsolete. My email is flooded with discussions, different groups making different plans.

Email is great, but not for everything. So Andrew Stacey (the technical mastermind behind the nLab, Azimuth Wiki and Azimuth Forum):

and Scott Morrison (one of the brains behind MathOverflow, an important math question-and-answer website):

have started a forum to talk about the many issues involved:

Math 2.0.

That’s good, because these guys actually do stuff, not just talk! Andrew describes the idea here:

The purpose of Math 2.0 is to provide a forum for discussion of the future of mathematical publishing. It’s something that I’ve viewed as an important issue for years, and have had many, many interesting conversations about, but somehow nothing much seems to happen. I’m hoping that the momentum from Tim Gowers’ recent blog posts might lead to something and I’d like to capitalise on that.

However, most of the discussion currently is happening in the comments on blog posts. This is hard to follow, and hard to separate out the new suggestions from the discussions on old ones. I think that forums are much better for discussion, hence this one.

The name, Math2.0, is intended to signify two things: that it’s time for an upgrade of the mathematical environment and that I think we can learn a lot from looking at how software—particularly open source software—works. By “mathematical environment”, I don’t mean how we actually do the mathematics but what happens next, particularly communicating the ideas that we create. This is where the internet can really change things for the better (as it has started to do with the arXiv), but where I think that we have yet to figure out how to make best use of it.

This doesn’t just include journals, but I think that that’s an obvious place to start.

So: welcome to Math2.0. Please join in. It’s important.

Andrew Stacey has also emphasized a principle that’s good for reducing chat about starry-eyed visions and focusing on what we can do now:

In all these discussions, there is one point that I would like to make at the start and which I think is relevant to any proposal to set up something new for mathematicians (or more generally, for academics). That is that whatever system is set up it must be:

Useful at the point of use

This is something that I’ve learnt from administering the nLab over the past few years. It keeps going and there is no sign of it slowing down. The secret of its success, I maintain, is that it is useful at the point of use. When I write something on the nLab, I benefit immediately. I can link to previous things I’ve written, to definitions that others have written, and so link my ideas to many others. It means that if I want to talk to someone about something, the thing we are talking about is easily visible and accessible to both (or all) of us. If I want to remember what it was I was thinking about a year ago, I can easily find it. The fact that when I come back the next day, whatever I’ve added has been improved, polished, and added to, is a bonus—but it would still be useful if that didn’t happen.

For other things, then I need more of an incentive to participate. MathOverflow was a lot of fun in the beginning, but now I find that a question needs to be such that it’s fairly clear that I’m one of the few people in the world who can answer. It’s not that my enthusiasm for the site has gone down, just that everything else keeps pushing it out of the way. So a new system has to be useful to those who use it, and ideally the usefulness should be proportional to the amount of effort that one puts in.

A corollary of this is that it should be useful even if only a small number of people use it. The number of core users of the nLab is not large, but nevertheless the nLab is still extremely useful to us. I can imagine that when a proposal for something new is made, there will be a variety of reactions ranging from “That’ll never work” through to “Sounds interesting, but …” with only a few saying “Count me in!”. To have a chance of succeeding, it has to be the case that those few can get it off the ground and demonstrate that it works, without the input of the wider sceptical community.

So: if you’re a mathematician or programmer interested in revolutionizing the future of math publishing, go to Math 2.0, register, and join the conversation! You’ll see there are a number of concrete proposals on the table, including one by Chris Lee, and Marc Harper and myself.

I’ll say more about those later. But I want to add a principle of my own to Andrew’s ‘useful at the point of use’. The goal is not to get a universal consensus on the future of math publishing! Instead, we need a healthy dissensus in which different groups of people develop different systems—so we can see which ones work.

In biology, evolution happens when some change is useful at the point of use—and it doesn’t happen by consensus, either. When some fish gradually became amphibians, they didn’t wait for all fish to agree this was a good move. And indeed it’s good that we still have fish.

Jan Velterop has some interesting thoughts on the evolution of scholarly publishing, which you can read here:

• Richard Poynder, The open access interviews: Jan Velterop, February 2012.

Velterop writes:

As a geologist I go so far as to say that I see analogies with the Permian-Triassic boundary and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, when life on Earth changed dramatically due to fundamental and sudden changes in the environment.

Those boundary events, as they are known, resulted in mass extinctions, and that’s an unavoidable evolutionary consequence of sudden dramatic environmental changes.

But they also open up ecological niches for new, or hitherto less successful, forms of life. In this regard, it is interesting to see the recent announcement of F1000 Research, which intends to address the major issues afflicting scientific publishing.


The evolution of scientific communication will go on, without any doubt, and although that may not mean the total demise of the traditional models, these models will necessarily change. After all, some dinosaur lineages survived as well. We call them birds. And there are some very attractive ones. They are smaller than the dinosaurs they evolved from, though. Much smaller.

One Response to Math 2.0

  1. […] let’s keep at it! Soon I’ll talk about some new ideas from the Math 2.0 […]

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