Tag Archives: web

Strange happenings at arXiv.org

Update: All seems to be well at the arXiv site now. Still no word about what happened.

This morning I read a tweet from Daniel Lemire saying that some papers have gone missing from arXiv.org, the primary repository for preprints in physics and some areas of mathematics and computer science. I checked and it seemed that a lot of more recent papers were missing in several searches that I tried.

Just now, I heard from Martin Roetteler that arXiv.org is redirecting to a random mirror site, e.g. the Australian, Brazilian or Chinese mirror. At the time of writing, at least the mirror sites seem to be working correctly.

Speculation is that perhaps the arXiv has been hacked, but at the very least least they are having some pretty major problems with the main servers at Cornell. It comes as a big shock because the arXiv has always been one of the most stable sites that I use regularly and the physics community depends on it. I can’t remember anything like this having happened before.

At the time of writing there is no official comment from the arXiv.

Response from Chicago

The first response to my enquiry from the post on Traditional vs. Online Publishing comes from Jennifer Howard who is an Associate Editor for Physical Sciences at Chicago University press. The response comes in two parts, the first addressing the general issue of whether it is better to publish traditionally or online and the second addressing the specific questions that I asked. Here’s a quote from the first part:

The University of Chicago Press is a non-profit publisher, although we are one of the largest university publishers today . Our primary mission (carefully monitored by the University of which we are a part) is to help disseminate scholarly information. If a given work is already successfully distributed on the internet, my feeling is that a printed book is often not needed. For the prospective author considering whether to post or publish, however, there are a few issues to take into account:

1.) A print book is often better than an online publication when it’s longer than 100 pages. Most people don’t want to read an entire book online, though shorter snippets are usually fine. Most of our external reviewers, for example, decline the opportunity to read the electronic version of a manuscript, asking instead for a hard copy.

2.) A book, published by a university press, has a reputation and vetting process behind it. External experts from the author’s own field review and recommend improvements to the text prepublication. There are also copyeditors correcting typos and checking references. You know something about the quality of what you read or assign in class.

3.) As you mention on your blog, a book has the publisher’s advertising and marketing support behind it.

4.) For more established scientists, a book can be a capstone on a prestigious career. [I confess, I do not usually encourage younger scientists to write books–their case for tenure could be harmed if they are writing books rather than publishing original research articles. If a younger scientist has already written the bulk of the manuscript or feels strongly about publishing a book, however, I will consider it with the same care I would give to a more senior author.]

5.) A book also has a publisher working to secure its translation into other languages, something that is rare for online publications unless you have enterprising volunteers.

6.) A book has permanence–you can always access it, it’s not going to be taken offline or moved when the author goes to another university, gets bored with hosting a website, etc… Books are registered with the Library of Congress, for example, and can sit on the shelf until they are needed.

These are some good points about the benefits of traditional publishing, many of which I missed in my original post. There are a few things I disagree on though:

  • Firstly, if an online manuscript is popular and successful then I think that is exactly when it might be a good idea to publish it as a book, rather than just having the electronic version. Even if they have access to something online, people still want hard copies, and I think the interest generated by the electronic version would actually increase the sales of the book, particularly if the price is not set too high.
  • I’m not sure about the comment about young scientists writing books in point 4. I guess it is good advice in most of Physics, particularly in fast-moving, popular areas of research in which people are primarily judged by publications and citations. However, in less mainstream areas, such as the foundations of physics, having a longer-form to set out your ideas coherently can be a big advantage. Also, what about fields in which it is common practice to publish your Ph.D. thesis as a monograph? The point is just that the validity of this advice is heavily subject-dependent.
  • Point 6 is quite relevant at the moment, but I think it will disappear in the long term. Part of the reason for asking about repositories like arXiv, Connexions and Open Courseware is just that they are supposed to be more permanent than the author’s own website. Eventually, I imagine they will be integrated into the doi system, and that the Library of Congress might want to include them in its catalogues. I agree that the current systems for collating and cataloguing online academic texts are rather haphazard, so this might be a reason to go the traditional route for now.

For the second part of the response, I’ll respond to the responses in a bit more detail:

As some of your commentators suggested would be the case, I cannot claim any of the below responses to be Press policy. Hopefully, they give you a sense of my practices as an editor.

Yes, I would consider a manuscript that has been previously posted on the internet. This isn’t all that unusual and can provide an author with useful feedback.

I do not receive a lot of requests from authors to leave manuscripts online–most are glad to encourage readers to turn to the printed book, given the work they have put into writing the project. There are cases in which our authors have maintained online manuscripts, however, even after publication of their book. If you look at our list prices for these books, you will see why a lot of people are happy to buy them outright.

Well, the fact that leaving something online is an option with Chicago is definitely a plus point. Personally, I think we’ll see an increasing number of authors wanting to do this as a more internet-savvy generation begins to write books. Attitudes to Intellectual Property are changing, so I think academic authors will eventually become less concerned about whether or not people buy the hard copy book.

On posting with other sites. At this point, I haven’t considered this–noone has asked me for the opportunity. To be honest, we would probably have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis in conversation with the author.

ArXiv.org– I believe a few of our authors probably post early drafts on ArXiv.org for feedback. Most ArXiv readers, however, are more interested in early news of new research. Because books are more often summations of existing literature–for the reference of researchers or for students in courses, I think these drafts are less often consulted at ArXiv. Some of your readers may have additional insight on this.

I know of at least one case of a book on arXiv, which I have mentioned previously on this blog. That’s the recent translation of the 1927 Solvay proceedings by Bacciagaluppi and Valentini (not exactly early news of new research!). Personally, I found the arXiv version enormously helpful.

I don’t think the question of what most arXiv readers currently use it for is particularly relevant. The arXiv can cater to niche audiences as well as mainstream ones. It is pretty flexible, so they could introduce new categories for books if there is the demand. Part of the reason for posting something there would be to have more permanence than you would get on your own website.

On licensing and rights. The licenses you list below can be good, usually if the author does not intend to publish with a publisher. The author at least establishes her or his ownership of the material, though with the internet, any right restrictions that exist in the contract are, in reality, somewhat illusory. Anyone across the world can pick up the material from the web, and it becomes quite difficult to track someone who is using the material in a way that is restricted, moreso to prosecute illegal use.

Agreed. I’m actually imagining that most authors using these licenses would not want many restrictions on how the material is used, particularly with regard to making copies and using the material in lectures. I still think you should ALWAYS explicitly license an electronic book in some way, because it makes it clear to the reader what the allowed usage is and avoids legal ambiguities. I imagine that the license would only be enforced in cases of extreme violation, e.g. if someone is exploiting the work for commercial gain without permission.

Any publisher will need the exclusive right to publish the print book. If one of the licenses below prevented that, we could be in a situation where a fly-by-night operation without a vetting process could publish a version of the book that looks like ours and takes advantage of our reputation and promotion efforts. This, without securing expert review and subsequent revisions or doing the kind of careful copyediting that transforms a manuscript into a published book. This would be harmful to a publisher’s good reputation and ultimately to our books and authors. I would not decline a book because it was licensed under one of these licenses, but we would have to find a way for the Press to be the sole publisher of the material.

This is more or less the answer I expected and is fair enough in the current IP climate. However, some of the licenses I mentioned would definitely be ruled out by this, e.g. I don’t believe the GNU license has provision to distinguish a published version from an electronic version. Probably, one of the Creative Commons licenses allows for this, but I’d have to look into the details to determine which one.

Publishing Online vs. Traditional Academic Publishers

Lately I’ve been thinking about a few ideas for books that I might want to write at some point in the near future. However, that is not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to talk about how one should go about publishing an academic book in the post-internet age.

As an example, consider a book that arises from a lecture course. A prof teaches the same course for a few years, using feedback from the students to find out which explanations work well and which ones need to be improved. After a while s/he has established a good set of lecture notes, which might be worth making available to the wider community in book form.

These days, the lecture notes often appear online in various forms, either on the lecturer’s own website or on repositories such as MIT Open Courseware, Connexions, etc. One major advantage of this is that feedback can be obtained from an even larger pool of readers whilst the notes are still being written. However, it is actually quite a bad idea to just put lecture notes up on your own website without any form of explicit license, despite the fact that this is quite common practice in academia at the moment. You might intend the notes to be freely available, copyable and modifiable, but unless there is a specific license to this effect then standard copyright law still applies to them (at least in the US). If you later decide to publish a book based on the notes via a traditional academic publisher then they may demand that you remove the electronic version from your website after publication, forcing your future students in this subject to buy a copy of the book from them, often at an inflated price. You can avoid this by making sure you license your notes under a license that explicitly grants copying rights, such as a Creative Commons license, the GNU Free Documentation license or the Open Course license. However, if you do this then a traditional publisher may simply refuse to publish your work as a matter of policy.

My initial response to this problem is so what? After all, if the notes are widely available on the internet then why do I need to bother with a traditional publisher at all? If there is demand for a hard-copy version then it can always be made available on a self-publication service like Lulu. However, there are still a couple of reasons why you might want to publish your book via a traditional academic publisher in addition to making it available online. The first is that the academic publishers have a much better ability to promote your book than you do. If you want it to appear in university libraries, which are the main customers for academic texts, then it is still pretty much essential to publish it in the traditional way way. The second reason is the prestige attached to having a book published via a traditional academic publisher is far greater than just putting something on the net. Unlike online materials, having a traditionally published book is actually worth something on your CV, which is not a small concern for a young academic who is still trying to establish a reputation and secure a faculty position.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the policy of the major academic publishers is on these issues. It is difficult to find out from their websites, so I recently sent out the following email to a some of them in order to test the waters. In coming weeks I will let you know their responses, and we will see which of them is most flexible towards online availability of materials.

Dear Sirs,

I am collecting information on the policy of academic publishers towards publishing works based on materials that have already appeared online. I would be grateful if you could provide answers to the following questions. Responses may be quoted on my blog http://mattleifer.wordpress.com


Matt Leifer

Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared online on a website or blog maintained by the author?

Would you require the electronic version of the book to be removed from the author’s site after publication?

Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared on a website that is not maintained by the author, such as MIT Open Courseware (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm), LearningSpace (http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/) or Connexions (http://cnx.org/)?

Would you allow an electronic version of the book to be uploaded to a preprint server, such as www.arxiv.org?

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses (http://creativecommons.org/about/license/) and, if so, which ones would be acceptable?

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/fdl.html)?

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the Open Course License (http://www.opencourse.info/license/)?

Here is the list of publishers I have sent this email to so far. If you would like to see any other publishers included then please let me know.

University Presses

  • Oxford University Press
  • Cambridge University Press
  • Princeton University Press
  • Harvard University Press
  • MIT Press
  • University of California University Press
  • University of Chicago Press

Professional Societies

  • Institute of Physics

Other Academic Publishers

  • Springer-Verlag
  • Kluwer
  • World Scientific

Quantum Foundations Resources

Since I get asked a lot, I have added a collection of links to resources on quantum foundations to the About page.  Any suggestions for additions will be gratefully received, especially if you know of any good quality popular talks that can be viewed online.

P.S.  In case you were thinking of asking, neither “The Tao of Physics” or “What The Bleep Do We Know?” are ever going to be added.

Baez on Quantum Foundations

I just wrote another post on the fqxi site, but to cut a long story short it gives a link to the latest “This Week’s Finds..” on quantum foundations.

Geek blog is on the move

This is just a gentle prod to remind you that I have an even geekier blog than this one called Academic Tech.  I’ve actually started writing things for it now, and there will be lots of interesting links, such as this one.  This is the last time I’ll mention it here, unless there is something to do with quantum theory because I want to keep this a quantum foundations only zone.

Real Estate

These days, having a good up-to-date personal website can be as important as having a good CV for an academic. If you are applying for a job, you can be sure that someone on the committee has googled you. Also, if you meet someone at a conference and got them interested in your work, your website is the first place they will look for further details.

Most postdocs know how annoying it can be to constantly have to change jobs, and there is an associated change the location of your website each time. This means that people have to update their links every time you move. Also, the URLs of personal homepages at academic institutions are often long and not very easy to remember, so it would be better to have a permanent catchy URL for your site. The solution to this is to buy your own domain name, as I did recently with mattleifer.info. Rob.rwspekkens.com and scottarronson.com are further examples from my colleagues. This has the added advantage of providing me with the email address matt{at}mattleifer.info, which also won’t change when I move. You can buy your own domain name from many companies. I used GoDaddy, which is one of the largest companies with a reputation for the cheapest prices (5.99USD per year in my case). Here are some points to bear in mind when buying your domain:

  • A lot of people want a .com domain because these are the most common and easiest to remember. Strictly speaking, .name and .info are the more appropriate for personal websites, even though your website may be about “selling yourself”. Although these are less common at the moment, their usage should be increasing in the next few years, so they are worth bearing in mind.
  • After purchasing your domain name you have two options. Either you can get the domain name to be forwarded to your existing website at your institution, or you can opt to have it hosted on a server elsewhere. If you do the former, you have to comply with any restrictions your institution has about what you can put on your site and you have to remember to update when you change institution. On the plus side, this option is usually free, and it is what I did. External hosting is usually only free if you are prepared to have obtrusive ads on your site, and it can be quite costly, but you do get a choice of different companies with different regulations, so you can find one that will let you put up whatever you want so long as it’s legal. This could be relevant if you want to write applications to run on your site, since your institution may not support the tools you need installed on the server side. If you don’t know what that last sentence is about then it probably doesn’t apply to you and you should just use forwarding.
  • Companies like GoDaddy are cheap, but they will try to extract money from you by upselling. This means they will try to convince you to buy hosting, security features, etc. when you buy your domain name. Work out if you need any of this stuff before you go to the site and investigate how much it costs from other companies. If in doubt, just buying the domain name is probably the best option.

More on criteria for interpretations

Well, my “big list” has proved to be my most popular blog post to date, thanks in no small part to a mention over at Uncertain Principles and a n u mber of other blogs. I know when I’m on to a good thing, so let’s stick with the topic for one more post.

The big news is that we have the first response to the criteria from an interpreter of quantum theory over at koantum matters. I would love to see responses from advocates of other interpretations, not because I expect many surprises, but more because it would help me to improve the criteria. I’d like to know if interpreters interpret the criteria in the way I intended.

One of the reasons for engaging in a project like this is that I personally don’t find any of the contemporary interpretations all that compelling. Advocates are often fairly good at arguing their case, so it can be hard to express exactly why a given interpretation makes me uneasy. It is fairly clear that, rightly or wrongly, most of the physics community agrees with me on this, since otherwise there would not be such an emphasis on Copenhagen and Orthodox Dirac-von Neumann ideas in undergraduate quantum mechanics courses. Other interpretations are usually dealt with in one or two lectures at the end of a course, if they are mentioned at all.

In my opinion, the most likely way that the debate on interpretations can be closed is if one interpretation makes itself indespensible for understanding quantum theory. This could be because it leads to new physics, but alternatively it could just lead to a far better way of explaining the phenomena of quantum theory to both students and the general public.

A useful comparison here is to Einstein’s approach to special relativity. In fact, the postulates of quantum theory have been compared to Einstein’s postulates by a variety of authors (e.g. see here and here). Despite Einstein’s insights, the plain fact of the matter is that almost all of the predicitive content of special relativity is contained in the Lorentz transformations, and their extension to the Lorentz and Poincare groups. Especially when doing quantum field theory, special relativity is almost always reduced to just this in modern applications. We could then contemplate starting with a mathematical axiomatization of the Lorentz group and never bother to teach students about Einstein’s postulates at all. This is supposed to be analogous to the current situation in quantum theory, where we cannot derive the whole theory from postulates that are explicitly physical in nature, but are ultimately forced to thinking in terms of abstract Hilbert spaces and the like.

In my view, the main advantage of Einstein’s approach is that it leads directly to the main phenomena of the theory without having to posit the Lorentz transformations to begin with. For example, by considering Einstein’s train thought experiments, we can understand why there is length contraction, time dilation and relativity of simultanaeity directly from the postulates themselves. We would consider a student ill equipped to study relativity if these arguments were not understood before diving into the derivation of the Lorentz transofrmations. In my opinion, it is this that makes relativity more easily understandable than quantum theory.

Therefore, I would argue that to replace orthodoxy in the classroom, an interpretation will have to provide a direct route to some of the main phenomena of quantum theory, as well as facilitating an elegant route to the full mathematical formalism. If not, the interpretation is always likely to remain interesting to only a small band of specialists. Part of the aim of the criteria is to try and make interpreters think about these sort of issues, and that was in particular the point of the “principles” criterion.

Another aim, and perhaps the main one, is to try and move the debate about interpretations forward a little bit. Currently, interpretaions are usually understood as counterpoints to Copenhagen/Orthodoxy. That is, we first explain these ideas, then poke holes in them by discussing the measurement problem, and finally introduce a new interpretation that is supposed to fix the problem. However, we now know that Copenhagen/Orthodoxy is just a small corner in a large space of possibilities, and not necessarily the most convincing of the possibilities at that. Therefore, it seems silly to focus exclusively on these ideas as the starting point. However, once we recognise this, it becomes difficult to formulate the conceptual problems of quantum theory in an interpretationally neutral way, since the measurement problem cannot even be formulated precisely unless we have already taken some stand on the meaning of the wavefunction. Nevertheless, unease about interpretations persists, so the criteria are partly designed to give interpreters a hard time by identifying the weaknesses in their proposals in a more neutral way. This is problematic because there are a number of known issues that only seem to apply to particular interpretations, e.g. it would be nice if the criteria forced many-worlds advocates to discuss the basis problem and the meaning of probability, which may not have analogs in other interpretations. One way of doing this would be to introduce a series of if … then … clauses into the criteria, e.g. if you take an ontological view of the wavefunction then explain the Born rule. However, this is obviously very inelegant and it would be nicer to capture the problems with all interpretations in a short simple set of criteria that applies to every interpretation equally.

With this in mind, it should be clear that the current list is far from final, and I would welcome any ideas on how to improve it.

Brainstorm for quantumfoundations.org

Lucien Hardy informs me that he has purchased the internet domians www.quantumfoundations.org and www.quantumfoundations.com. The aim is to provide a central resource for the quantum foundations community, which is balanced (i.e. not biased towards a particular interpretation) and contains info on conferences, jobs, links to groups and researchers around the world etc. It would also be nice to have some original content, such as opinion pieces, as opposed to just links.

Don’t expect the site to appear overnight, since it will probably take quite a while to get all the concepts together, do the web design, etc. However, if you have any ideas for the site then either contact Lucien or leave a comment below, which I will pass on.