Starting small but adding up: a free maths archive

Initiative aims to be one-stop shop for articles.

A small group of researchers is meeting in Birmingham, UK, later this month to plan a free digital library of mathematics.

All the mathematical literature ever published runs to more than 50 million pages, with around 75,000 articles added each year. Over the past decade there have been several attempts to make this prodigious body of work accessible in a single digital archive, but so far none has succeeded.

A group of mathematicians intends to change this. They have started small, with a handful of digitization projects in Poland, Russia, Serbia and the Czech Republic. In a few years they hope to unite these repositories with their western European counterparts in an archive to be hosted by the European Union, according to the organizer, Petr Sojka, an informatics scientist at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic. Eventually this pan-European archive could be expanded globally, he says.

To make such an archive easier to search, researchers have found ways to guess the subject of a paper on the basis of the frequency of symbols in it. But there will be many more-practical challenges, such as finding the funds to scan millions of old papers and striking deals with publishers who hold rights to them.

It may already be too late to build a single free mathematical archive, according to John Ewing, head of the American Mathematical Society, which maintains a list of more than 1,500 journals whose archives have already been digitized. “A few years ago, this model had the potential to change the mathematics journal literature in profound ways,” he says. But most publishers have rushed to scan their own archives in order to lock them up and sell them to libraries.

“While the effort to digitize the smaller collections is admirable, and it's certainly worthwhile, it's unlikely to effect a larger change,” says Ewing.

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Hoffman, J. Starting small but adding up: a free maths archive. Nature 454, 263 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/454263b

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