So how about a website at the above address?

The problem is that lots of old math papers aren’t online, and that we cumulatively spend too much time tracking them down, and making our own individual copies of these. Happily, many people now scan them, producing PDFs, once they’ve finally got their hands on a copy. The solution to the problem then, is perhaps a really simple website, giving people a way of sharing these PDFs.

Clearly, it would take a while (and many contributed photocopies) before this became a really useful resource, and its unclear that there’d be sufficient enthusiasm early on. Below, I have some suggestions for an initial implementation, which it seems wouldn’t be much effort to get going.

Version 0 of such a system would just have 2 pages: a form, in which you could enter

  • Title
  • Author
  • a URL to the PDF of the paper

and a list of all the papers submitted so far.

This itself could conceivably work. But there are lots of ways it could be made much more useful.

First and foremost, many people find it difficult, or don’t know how to, host a file on a webserver, and an alternative to providing a URL should simply be a file upload form, with oldmathpapers.org providing the hosting.

After that, it would be great to collect, and provide, better metadata for each paper. No will want to have to enter the bibliographic data by hand (and remember, this is completely useless if we can’t convince people to voluntarily contribute papers, so it had better be extremely easy). Perhaps the solution is to ask people to enter the mathscinet identifier, which is fairly easy to determine, and also fairly easy for a script to automatically convert into full metadata. It probably wouldn’t hurt to ask people for their email address as they submit papers (no need to display this, but it might help for tracking down problems).

Both people I’ve mentioned this to so far (Ben and Sammy Black, from Eugene), have asked about copyright issues. Clearly, they exist. First of all, with no money involved, there’s not much danger of serious trouble. Secondly, a nasty letter is only going to turn up after the service has become useful — at which point you might just want to publish the letter in the Bulletin, and see what happens. By this stage, we might just have the publishers over the barrel anyway, and the right strategy at this point might be to start picking fights.

For now, though, I’m not that interested in the copyright side of things, although this is being addressed in the comments below. I’d really like to know

  • Do you have PDFs of papers which you’d be interested in submitting? (I know I have plenty; 20-30 perhaps).
  • What can we do to make this as easy as possible for everyone involved — submitters, searchers, and authors?

9 thoughts on “oldmathpapers.org

  1. I think it’s important to put some thought into how to structure this so that you don’t piss off the authors. Presumably most people would be happy to have their old articles up somewhere, but they just can’t be bothered to deal with it themselves. But there’s definitely the occasional person who would be weird about it.

    Furthermore, for papers that are already online at subscription sites I think this would be going too far. The point is that they are old papers that you otherwise can’t get online, right?

  2. Ummm, dude.

    Highly illegal. The issue of money being involved is not relevant. It’s been a while since I looked at copyright law, but there are what are called statutory damages, and they can be “serious trouble”. There’s no need for the publishers to prove actual damages.

    You may be keen to pick a fight, but you’re going to lose. The law just isn’t on your side here.

  3. The safest way is to get the author(s)’ permission.

    Worst can happen is you get a takedown notice.

    Look at Zotero (Firefox extension) for metadata ideas.

  4. Copyright laws are very different from one country to another. For instance according to wikipedia the law in the US says that copyright length in years are as follows: 28 (if copyright not renewed) or 95 years for works copyrighted 1923-1963; 95 years for works copyrighted 1964-1977; thereafter life plus 70 years. (Copyrights prior to 1923 have expired.). Now that pretty much rules out everything.

    What might work is simply to boycott, until they comply, those publishers (to which most authors have given their copyrights…) which don’t participate to free access archiving initiatives like Numdam (although even there not all old issues are available, for instance the Bourkaki seminar is thankfully available from 1968 to 2000 but the issues from 1948 to 1967 will be downloadable only in three years time).

  5. @noah:
    I think for now I’m agnostic about desiring papers that are otherwise available (to those with institutional affiliations, at least) online. While it would definitely be more antagonistic to publishers to have articles which are also available via subscriptions at their sites, it’s also considerably less likely that such papers will be submitted anyway — simply because for most mathematicians, there’s no need.

    I absolutely agree, though, that it’s important to keep authors happy! Perhaps the solution is to have a link next to every submitted paper, something along the lines of
    “I’m the author or copyright holder of this paper, and would like to have it removed.”
    That could ask for your email address, and whether you’re the author or copyright holder. If you claim to be the author, we’d simply immediately remove the paper. If you’re the copyright holder, we could ask for the standard hooping jumping of the DCMA take-down procedure for hosted content.

  6. The technicalities of running such a site seem simple bordering to trivial to me. As previously indicated, the devil is in the legalities. Thus, for this kind of thing to happen, it would desperately need a host organization with willingness, clout, and expertise at least for hire to pull it through.

    Tell me when you’ve found that. I feel a slight interest to help out designing the technicalities and to tinker. :)

  7. Great idea. I have been scanning and putting old papers about the Cavendish experiment here.

    These papers belong to humanity not to unhuman corporations who hide this knowledge from humans by using copyright laws.

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