This post is to report briefly on a new and to my mind very exciting venture in academic publishing. It’s called the Selected Papers Network, and it has been designed and created by Christopher Lee. If you want to know what it is and what you can do to help it become a success, then you may wish to stop reading this post and turn straight away to a post by John Baez, who has been closely involved with the venture and understands it better than I do. But let me just briefly mention the main point that has struck me so far.
A problem with the current situation is that it is easy to come up with ideas for websites where people can review papers, complete with clever protocols for how the reviewing should take place, whether it is open, reward systems, etc. etc. It’s much less easy to persuade people to use the sites that are created as a result: what is going to persuade them to make the effort, when there’s only rather a small chance that the site will become in any sense “official”?
The Selected Papers Network potentially solves this problem in a very interesting way: it is not a website with a system for reviewing, evaluating, rewarding etc.. Rather, it is an environment that makes it easy to build your own systems.
The rough idea is this. If you ever feel moved to write an appreciation or evaluation of any kind you like about any paper, and if you tag what you have written with #spnetwork, then the Selected Papers Network automatically sees what you have written and adds it to the network. So what, you might ask. Well, so quite a lot actually, since if you add other tags, then the Selected Papers Network will make all these reviews searchable in a multitude of ways. For example, it will be searchable by subject matter, or by reviewer, or by some group of reviewers who have decided to club together, etc. etc. I’m slightly hazy about the precise mechanisms for this — and there I would definitely recommend reading John Baez’s post — but the point is that the mechanisms are there.
At the moment, the site works only with Google Plus posts. They were chosen because (i) a number of mathematicians have taken to Google Plus, and (ii) Google Plus posts are easily visible even to people who are not signed up to Google Plus. To give you an idea of what the site does, here is a suitably tagged post by Terence Tao on Google Plus, and here is what the Selected Papers Network did to it. And here is the front page of the Selected Papers Network. You’ll notice that the design is strikingly similar to that of the arXiv. That is of course not a coincidence.
It seems to me that a very good thing to do at this point would be to get a lot of content on the site and not worry too much about how that content is organized. To that end, I have a plan to create a personal list of recommendations. Each recommendation would take the form of a Google Plus post that links to a paper that I feel has influenced my mathematical development and explains why. I can see that as this develops (if it does, but I would like to try to make the posts of a kind that I can write fairly quickly, to maximize the probability that it will), I might start to want to categorize the posts in a finer way. For example, perhaps some of the papers will be ones that have interested me greatly but not actually affected my research all that much, perhaps I’ll want to distinguish between very recently arXived papers and older ones, etc. etc. But I still think that it would be good to get the process started.
Another advantage of getting content up on the site quickly is that one can always reorganize it later. For example, suppose that a number of people with similar interests to mine started recommending papers. Then perhaps it would make sense to combine into a “subnetwork”. It’s easy to imagine that being a very useful resource — a kind of instant annotated reading list in one area of mathematics.
My personal policy for my “reviews”, or whatever one wants to call them, is this. I won’t write about papers that don’t interest me, because I see my job as being positive and encouraging. For a similar reason, I won’t make comparisons, either explicitly or implicitly (by the latter I mean via some kind of ranking, which would allow my attitudes to different papers to be compared). I will explain my reasons for being enthusiastic about the papers I write about, which may allow some kind of reading between the lines if you want to gauge my level of enthusiasm — but that will be an imprecise measurement and therefore I hope that I won’t come across as implicitly negative about any papers I write about, which would be ridiculous because I’ll be writing about them because I find them interesting.
If I don’t write about a paper, it won’t be a sign that I don’t find it interesting. I think I’ll ration myself to at most one a week, so for a long time I won’t have written enough reviews for it to be possible to interpret my not having written about a paper as meaning anything at all. Nor will the order in which I write about papers carry any information: I’ll just sit down and think, “Oh yes, that’s a nice paper. Let me write a few paragraphs about that one.”
One thing I’d like to see is a day when if somebody applies for a job in mathematics, there will typically be several appreciations of their work instantly available online, conveying information that is currently conveyed by reference letters (but not all that information — in particular, not comparisons or negative opinions). Or if you want to know about a particular area and want a feel for what the key papers are and why they are important, you can find all the information you could possibly want by keying in subject tags into spnetwork, or reading the recommendations of your favourite reviewers or groups of reviewers.
While writing this, I’ve thought of another way of explaining what will govern my selections. I have a private concept that I call “the story of mathematics”, though it might be more accurate to say “the stories of mathematics”. A paper belongs to the story of some part of mathematics if it would be very natural to mention that paper when describing that part of mathematics, since for one reason or another that paper changed people’s view of the area — by introducing a key definition, solving an important problem, introducing a technique that is now widely used, etc. etc. This is a matter of degree of course. But it’s papers like that — papers that have contributed to the stories of mathematics that have had an impact on me — that I want to write about.
Let me end with a disclaimer: my saying all this is not a guarantee that I’ll actually get round to doing it. However, it increases the probability that I will, since it will be slightly embarrassing to have written this post and followed it by not writing any reviews.
But the other reason for writing the post is that I hope it will encourage others to do similar things: even if 1000 mathematicians each wrote just one review, that would already create a site worth exploring, and in principle it could happen very quickly. I’m also quite pleased to have a chance to advertise Google Plus. If you’re a Facebook kind of person who thinks Google Plus is a rather lame imitation of Facebook that was introduced too late to be worth taking seriously, then you may, if you’re a mathematician, like to think again. I’m not on Facebook myself, but my impression is that Google Plus, or at least the corner of Google Plus that is inhabited by mathematicians and others with similar interests, is doing something interestingly different. I personally see it as a good place for short posts that aren’t serious enough for this blog, but are nevertheless things I feel like saying, or drawing attention to. And several other people are using it in a similar way. So if you’re a mathematician without a Google Plus account, you may be missing out on something you’d like. And that may become even more true if the Selected Papers Network takes off, though — and this is important to stress — whether or not you sign on to Google Plus or the Selected Papers Network itself, you’ll be able to read all the reviews.