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Old 09-18-2006, 03:11 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Radical academic highlights changes in publishing

Sometimes it takes a radical move to bring awareness to the winds of change. In the world of academic publishing until recently, there has been nearly complete control by the established academic journals and the associated review process. But that has been challenged by a now-famous mathematician, Grigory Perelman, who has shunned the traditional method by publishing one of the most exciting proofs in modern mathematics on a web site, and with very little fanfare.

Here's how it normally works. A mathematician (or other academic researcher) produces some results that he feels are important. He then submits the results to a journal. Usually, the best research is submitted to the journals with the best reputation, and which only publish the top papers. Once submitted, the journal's editors find subject area experts, who anonymously review the papers and either accept/reject the paper, or maybe accept it with changes. For example, maybe a portion of a mathematical proof is not deemed clear enough to be accepted unless the steps are more clearly demonstrated.

The paper is then published in the journal which usually is available in both paper and searchable electronic form. In fact, it turns out that libraries are finding that people prefer the electronic form because of the search capabilities. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if the papers are printed when they are to be studied because there is something satisfying about being able to handle the paper for this sort of task. (On the other hand, with the new e-ink electronic readers, we might find that everything is completely turned on it's head, and people may very soon prefer the e-ink versions for study because they are easy on the eyes and easy to carry.)

So what is so astounding about Grigory Perelman? Well, he has proved one of the most famous conjectures in math, and he basically thumbed his nose at the traditional academic institutions by publishing it on the web. Basically, a conjecture like this is a mathematical statement that is expected to be a fact, but hasn't been proven to be true. Most often, there are special cases that have been proven, and there are lots of reasons why it "feels right" to mathematicians, but nobody can prove it completely. In Perelman's case, he is a Russian topologist who proved something called the Poincaré conjecture, which people have been trying to prove for many decades. It is easily one of the most familiar conjectures in all of mathematics, along with some of the others from the past like the Four Color Theorem (which had a groundbreaking proof because it was done by computer) and Fermat's Last Theorem (which was mentioned in a couple of Star Trek episodes, and was especially intriguing because Fermat claimed to have a proof, but wrote that it didn't fit in the margin of the book in which he made the note).

At any rate, this proof by Perelman was quite an achievement, and yet he posted the results on http://arxiv.org/, an e-print service, just like all of his previous significant work. But knowing that peer review by other experts is the only way to really validate a complicated proof, he sent a few emails out to guarantee that the work would be evaluated properly.

And yet, maybe he will be even more famous throughout history because of the next spectacular and radical decision he made. After being awarded the Fields Medal in mathematics for his work, he turned it down. In fact, someone representing the award even visited him in person before the award was announced, hoping that they could persuade him to accept it. There is some interesting discussion available on the web about that discussion, including this article. (By the way, the Fields medal is the equivalent of the famous Nobel prize in other subjects. But there is no Nobel prize in mathematics. I had always been told that it was "his wife had an affair with Mittag-Leffler [a mathematician]." However Wikipedia says that is not true.) At any rate, he did refuse the Fields award, completing his snub of the establishment.

Traditional academic publishers may not exactly be shaking in their boots quite yet, but the world of electronic publishing and self-publishing is certainly going to change the rules. And the peer review process has been shown to not be the stranglehold on academic publishing that publishers thought it would be.

We are seeing in the present times that changes in publishing are not nearly determined by the technology alone. As the technology has advanced, we see that there is a power struggle involving publishers, consumers, technologists and even politicians that have a lot to say about the future of publishing and e-books. It's all still up for grabs, and it will be interesting to see where everything lands. I just hope that in the end, we haven't left the people doing the reading with the short end of the stick.

Via Future Of The Book.
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