Caring For The Community

Photo courtesy of Scott Traczyk, via Flickr CC

Photo courtesy of Scott Traczyk, via Flickr CC

As academic mathematicians, we spend a great deal of our days performing deeds of service to the mathematical community. Editing papers, organizing workshops, contributing to open-source software initiatives. One could even argue that it is out of sheer benevolence to the mathematical community that we even write papers at all. In a blog I just discovered by mathematician and Clay Prize winner, Michael Harris, the dynamics of this community get a very thorough and thoughtful analysis.

Mathematics without Apologies is, in the words of Michael Harris, “an unapologetic guided tour of the mathematical life.” Harris takes us on a tour of some of the very compelling — and highly fraught — issues that arise when you start to think about the mathematical profession, and its community, from a sociological point of view. Michael Harris is a professor of mathematics at Université Paris-Diderot and Columbia University.

In a multi-part post, Harris explains the much debated Elsevier boycott initiated by fellow mathematician and blogger, Tim Gowers. The boycott was proposed in 2012 in opposition to the extremely high price tag the Elsevier puts on its research papers that are essentially donated to them. Harris addresses some of the alternative publishing models that people have proposed. One idea is that the math community should be doing our own reviewing and publishing through Yelp-style real time user reviews. Harris is not so keen on this idea.

I don’t like the fact that unpaid Customer Reviews have undermined professions (as Tom Waits pointed out). I’m wary of replacing a practice that has evolved over several centuries to serve the needs of the profession by a model of sociability that in less than a decade has led to the creation of massive fortunes and an enormous shift of power with practically no democratic oversight.

What I really appreciate about Harris’ blog is that it is very mindful of the community aspect of the mathematical profession. In one post he writes about Mathematics as a gift community, where we are defined by the gifts that we bring to it. He reflects on the amount of time and effort that it takes to be a good community member, and that it should be in all of our best interest to improve our community through deeds of service. I suppose this is true across all disciplines in academia, but it’s nice to think of things that way. It makes me happy to mow my mathematical lawn and take out the trash to help my whole mathematical neighborhood look a bit more sparkly and clean.

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