Should MathSciNet be a social network?

Jim Borger makes the following interesting suggestion in comments to the “Do you follow the arXiv?” thread:

What I think would be way better is if the MathSciNet sent out emails with abstracts of newly published papers. With some very basic filtering, based on which authors, subjects, key words, etc you like, they could probably keep the emails reasonably small. That would be much more useful than the archive digests. Then you could truly keep an eye on whatever fields you want without much effort.

This would presumably be easy to implement, given some kind of personal login to MathSciNet — but do you want MathSciNet keeping track of what abstracts you looked at, and which ones induced you to click through to the article?

The right way to do this, I guess, would involve allowing us to tag MathSciNet abstracts, so that overlaid on the AMS subject classification would be an emergent user-generated classification scheme which I’d expect to be much richer and more useful.  And it wouldn’t stop there — I imagine MathSciNet would keep track of everybody’s browsing in order to identify users with similar tastes, and make recommendations accordingly.  “People who looked up Deligne’s “Le Groupe Fondamental de la Droite Projective Moins Trois Points” also liked…”

Three questions:

  1. Would you be into this?
  2. Does Google Scholar already do this for people who use it while logged in to their Google accounts?  Is Google keeping track of my scholarly interests and ordering its Scholar search results accordingly, as it does for web search?
  3. Why doesn’t the arXiv allow tagging?  Or does it, and I can’t find it?  There are already links on each article page for bookmarking at CiteULike, del.icio.us, and digg, all places where you can tag; so arXived articles are tagged, but the tags are scattered across different services used by different populations.  Why not tag where most people read?

By the way, I really like Jim’s new paper “Lambda-rings and the field with one element.” Yes, another definition of the category of schemes over F_1; but this approach smells particularly good to me.  Here’s one thing I like.  As always, you have some notion of which Spec Z – schemes descend to Spec F_1, and what should be meant by “descent data.”  In Jim’s story, you can do the same thing starting with S-schemes, where S is an algebraic curve over some finite field F_q.  But the target of this construction is not, as you might initially think, F_q-schemes — rather, there’s another category, “F_1^S-schemes”, which lies between S-schemes and F_q-schemes.  In this category you have, e.g., some rank 1 Drinfel’d modules.  I take this to be saying that you can’t take the slogan “Spec Z is like an algebraic curve over Spec F_1″ too seriously; maybe there just isn’t anything which is to Spec Z as Spec F_q is to S.

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7 thoughts on “Should MathSciNet be a social network?

  1. Abstract emails from MathSciNet would definitely be useful, but I don’t see how they could replace the arXiv mailings. Since they would be based on published papers, they would be too dated to keep up with the latest developments, typically 1-3 years behind the arXiv. Rather, MathSciNet emails would be a modern replacement for the new journal shelf at the library.

  2. I have the impression that even the first postings on MathSciNet (without review, just the title) come often a few months after the papers are actually available in most “new journals” shelf — though I’m not sure if this is really the case, since the time when journals actually arrive physically in libraries seems also to be quite random.

    In any case, I must say I would find very useful to have some modern version of the “new journals shelf”, though I would prefer a dedicated website…

  3. Jim says:

    Hi Jordan. Thanks for the mention!

    As for your main question, I think there are few issues, which I’ll try to tease out a bit.

    First, there is the issue of whether you want MathSciNet (or whomever) to know anything about your reading preferences. So, either they could know all about you and send you what they think you’d like best, or at the other extreme, they could broadcast to everyone all the raw information and then each of us could have our own computers do all the ranking, based on our individual preferences.

    Second, there is the issue of how closely you want the ranking to follow orders from you. At one extreme, you could have complete control, where you’d tell the ranker exactly how to do its job. For instance, it could be some kind of point-based thing, like Spam Assassin, say. (E.g., Author=Ellenberg: +100; Keyword=p-group: -20; Subject=number theory: +50; Cutoff: +60; etc) At the other extreme, the ranking could be based entirely on your browsing habits and correlations with other people’s browsing habits. It seems that there’s a whole continuum between these two. For instance, I think your proposal is the second, browsing one, but with qualification that no data is collected but the tagging data.

    (It’s pretty clear that these two issues are not independent. You can’t very well collect nothing about people’s browsing and at the same time make the ranking based only on browsing information.)

    I can see two disadvantages to the tagging approach. First, it requires people to continually do something (tagging), and people are lazy. The purely browsing approach requires people to do nothing, and the point-based approach requires people to do something only once. Second, one of the main points is to keep up with new papers. But not many people will have tagged this month’s new papers (definition of ‘new’), and so you wouldn’t be given very good advice about what to read and what not to read. But I also spend a lot of time looking at old papers (in fact, most of the papers I look at are old), so the tagging approach would still be useful to me.

    The problem with the approach where no one knows anything about your preferences is that someone would have to write a program to do the ranking locally, and we’d all have to download and install it, which seems a bit unlikely. A compromise would be to have a third party, something like Google Reader, where you would have an account with all your personal preferences and which would get the data from MathSciNet and sort it for you how you like.

    Maybe the easiest thing to implement would be something like the archive email digests, but with the papers sorted according to a point-based scheme. So just as you send emails to the archive telling them which groups you’d like to subscribe to, you’d send an email to MathSciNet telling them your point scheme, and then they’d send you emails periodically telling you about published papers that pass your cutoff. The main downside of this approach would be that your point scheme wouldn’t be automatically adjusted according to your reading habits. Also, if you might not like it if you’re afraid of MathSciNet and their black helicopters.

    But I do really think something along these lines would be a big help, as Emmanuel Kowalski says, a modern version of the new journals shelf. Also, I agree with Nathan Dunfield, that it shouldn’t replace the archive emails. For some mathematicians it’s really important to be able to react quickly to recent news.

  4. Frank says:

    One potential problem with this. MathSciNet is proprietary, and IMHO too damned expensive. My understanding is that there are a large number of fairly decent colleges in the US that elect not to pay for it. And, of course, independent mathematicians and hobbyists get shut out as well.

    AMS is a nonprofit, and I don’t wish them ill (something I couldn’t say for some other parts of the academic publishing industry), but personally I would like to avoid putting my eggs in any baskets that are not freely available to all interested mathematicians.

  5. JSE says:

    Re Jim’s #3: “I can see two disadvantages to the tagging approach. First, it requires people to continually do something (tagging), and people are lazy. The purely browsing approach requires people to do nothing, and the point-based approach requires people to do something only once.”

    This is true, but lots of people are squicky about privacy and PREFER to operate on the basis of “cloud learns something about me only when I purposefully decide to talk to the cloud.’

    Frank has a point about MathSciNet — but please read the question as applying to both MathSciNet and arXiv. I really want Kuperberg to show up here and tell me why arXiv isn’t taggable!

  6. Jim says:

    Re privacy: yeah, I know. Maybe the perfect system would have both–if you accept their cookies, then your tagging is automatic, and otherwise you have to do it by hand.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Why doesn’t the arXiv allow tagging?

    I really hope they never do any sort of tagging or ranking whatsoever (even an implicit ranking of “papers likely to be of interest to you”). If they do, I’ll do everything I can to change their minds, or to organize a boycott if they won’t. Two reasons:

    (1) I view the arXiv as playing a very important quasi-official role in distributing mathematics papers. I don’t want it polluted with potentially misleading tags or comments, value judgements about which hot papers everyone should want to read, etc. I want an absolutely clear distinction between the basic functions of the arXiv and other services that could be layered on top, and the only way to achieve that is to make them independent of each other. Of course this isn’t really a huge obstacle – anybody can set up their own overlay system of this sort. The only advantage to building it into the arXiv itself is that it would encourage everyone to use it, but I don’t think that’s crucial. If there’s enough demand, this will take off eventually, and if people keep interoperability in mind from the beginning, their effort will not be wasted even if someone else’s system becomes the popular one.

    (2) Quite aside from whether it should be part of the arXiv itself, I’m not convinced such a system would be good for mathematics. Any additional information about popularity or ranking will eventually be used for evaluation purposes (no matter how silly it is or how strongly people are warned against it). Think about citation counts – most mathematicians wouldn’t be foolish enough to knowingly make important judgements based on such counts, but Google Scholar makes it too easy to type in a name and form an opinion based on the first page of results. In an ideal world, providing more information could never hurt, but in the real world you can seriously bias things by making particular types of information much more easily available than others. Not that we don’t already have biases, but things could be much worse. And this is not even counting all the wasted effort put into gaming the system (e.g., journals trying to find easy ways to improve their impact factors, or mathematicians choosing journals based primarily on impact factor because their government considers this number very important).

    So, in addition to not wanting this to be part of the arXiv per se, I don’t want it to be endorsed by the AMS as something mathematicians ought to be doing. Maybe my fears are exaggerated, but I’m not convinced yet.

    By the way, perhaps the arXiv facebook app (http://arxiv.org/help/facebook) is already a step in the direction you would like? It allows commenting on papers, seeing what your friends like, etc. I don’t mind it so much since (being on facebook) it is clearly separated from the arXiv itself. There’s also some relevant information at http://arxiv.org/help/social_bookmarking.

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