Mathematics and the WWW

Section 5:
How is the Web being used by research mathematicians?


6 April 1997

Sam Browne belts have been wisely discarded by the officers in favour of web-equipment.
                                                              Ian Hay (1915)


How is the Web being used by research mathematicians?

For informal and collegial communications, for publication, for community.

Internet communications
High energy physicists developed the Web to help transmit and archive research information and announcements, and high energy physicists were also quick to develop a preprint server, which now includes some mathematics as well. The mathematics community has an E-print server at Duke/MSRI/SISSA. AMS maintains the Electronic Research Announcements.

What's wrong with mathematicians?
It's not that we're necessarily slower than physicists, but our cultures are quite different: they have large groups of people dependent on the results of the same experiments, which need to be made widely available, fast! Mathematicians, on the other hand, tend to have relatively small research communities that are already pretty well in touch via email, and individuals frequently post preprints on their own servers. Many mathematicians now use the Web to make their research papers available and to indicate their interests (browse through the last section).

Electronic journals
There are now many electronic mathematics journals, some of which aspire to be as respectable as print journals while offering much improved turnaround time, and which may even allow authors to retain ownership of their work. One of the premier examples is the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, co-founded by Herb Wilf. It has an impressive executive board, reviews as carefully as any print journal, and is well used (on the order of 2000 downloads/month). Check out the splendid Herb Wilf Festschrift.

AMS lists a number of electronic mathematics research journals, some of which exist only in electronic form. However, the dominant paradigm at this time is the dual electronic/paper version, the route taken for example by AMS and Academic Press. Herb thinks that this will change in the future since interactivity and hypertext links can be very useful and are not possible on paper. Moreover, with the advent of Adobe Acrobat it has become easy to construct very attractive Web pages, while color is becoming prohibitively expensive in paper.

It's charitable to believe that it's a good thing that electronic journals are coming along now, since libraries are being bankrupted by the soaring cost of paper journals. It's more cynical to believe that electronic journals are contributing to this cost. Andrew Odlyzko is a mathematician who writes insightfully and interestingly about this and a broad range of other matters in electronic publishing.

If you're interested in this area the Geometry Center is holding a conference on Electronic Communication in Mathematics from May 29 to June 1, 1997.

MathSciNet
MathSciNet gives bibliographic information for Math Reviews since 1940. It has text and extensive links between reviews, and also an author identification tool. It is available by subscription only, and costs one small EPADEL institution about $4000/year. It has well-thought-out searching and browsing capabilities.

MAA is in the process of developing a system for searching its journals and telegraph reviews.

Community
What started out as a small Web page for general topology has evolved into the Topology Atlas, a central clearinghouse for information on all areas of topology. Authors can post abstracts, open problems, or entire papers; Web pages of topologists are listed; conferences are there. Friends think that it's this availablity of preprints, more than electronic journals, which will really change the way research is done.

A problem with the Web and math research: Math notation
We currently lack a smooth transition between the Web and TeX. Various stopgap measures must be taken to obtain halfway decent mathematical notation. At this time there's a slow race between Java programs and new HTML standards to solve the problem.

Rob Miner of the Geometry Center and Patrick Ion of Math Reviews have just been appointed co-chairs of the HTML-Math Working Group. They expect to have a first proposal out to the public by May 15, 1997, and they have set a year after that for delivery of a fuller final product of the group.

The proposal seems to fit well with the new push for XML, a sort of SGML Lite that publishers are eager for, and which browser manufacturers might even support. It will certainly be a couple of years at best before a universal standard math for the Web is possible, but we can reasonably hope that interim solutions will consciously move in that direction. For instance, IBM hopes to support an eventual standard with "techexplorer" and is active in the group, as are Maple, Mathematica, and people from OpenMath. The AMS seems clearer about its involvement too, and has a charter and liaison with other W3C technical committees. For more information see the Web site at W3C.

So how will the Web change mathematics publications?
Even though there was flak about electronic publication in the Notices last year, it's clear that electronic journals are on the rise and here to stay. Moreover, all library services are going to be much more tied to the World Wide Web. I know this not only from reading and listening to mathematicians like Herb Wilf and Andrew Odlyzko (see above), but also from talking to and reading a number of librarians (I was on my college's committee to choose a new librarian and while we were at it, we decided to reconsider the library's mission). Librarians are often quite knowledgeable about the World Wide Web and at some institutions they teach people to make Web pages; they have a lively discussion group on librarian matters relating to the Web, Web4Lib.

How will the Web change mathematics research?
The advent of the computer certainly opened up new areas of mathematics, and we can expect no less from the Web. I expect examples to appear soon in Communications in Visual Mathematics and in the Experimental Mathematics journal.

Mathematical research that might make use of Web technology suffered a serious blow with the decision to dismantle the Geometry Center, which was an excellent place for mathematicians to go when they needed assistance -- it was mathematics' one big shining light when it came to the Web, as well as the only research institution that made a major impact on the public perception of mathematics. Just browse through their site. Among other contributions,

The closing of the Geometry Center can't help but have a negative impact on the mathematics community's role on the World Wide Web.

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Gene Klotz