|Jackson A (2002) From preprints to e-prints: the rise of electronic preprint servers in mathematics. Notices Amer Mathemat Soc 49:23–32.|
Abstract: One of the earliest preprint servers in mathematics was launched in July 1991 in the mathematics department of the University of Texas at Austin. Called mp_arc, for “mathematical physics preprint archive”, it was the brainchild of Hans Koch, Rafael de la Llave, and Charles Radin, who had no grander scheme than to provide themselves and their colleagues in mathematical physics with an efficient and organized way of exchanging preprints. In the state next door, the hep_th preprintserver went online in August that same year at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) in New Mexico. Founded by physicist Paul Ginsparg, hep_th, which stands for “high energy physics—theoretical”, housed preprints in that rapidly moving field. Both mp_arc and hep_th operated by e-mail and ftp; the World Wide Web had not yet been invented.
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- In the days before the Internet, preprints were on paper and were usually circulated by postal mailor handed out at lectures. Preprints are now circulated mostly electronically, often through e-mail but increasingly through websites. A preprint server is an automated electronic mechanism, usually Web-based, for exchanging preprints of scholarly articles. The servers are fully accessible to anyone. Authors post their preprints; readers retrieve the preprints they are interested in. There are no gate-keepers judging the quality of the posted material (though oversight is exercised to eliminate inappropriate postings), and there are no access fees. Sometimes preprints are removed from a server after publication, but because many servers retain the material in perpetuity, they call themselves “preprint archives”. What is more, a few journals have begun to post published articles on these servers, rendering the term “preprint” a misnomer. Thus the phrase “e-print archive” has come into use.
- When the Erwin Schrödinger Institute (ESI) was launched in Vienna in 1993, ESI immediately set up a preprint server, which was one of the very first to use HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). Today the server contains about 1,000 preprints.
- Most of the mathematics preprint servers that have thrived have served relatively small communities of mathematicians, numbering in the hundreds, who share common interests.
- However, as Greg Kuperberg points out, starting a preprint server is risky. “Most preprint servers and archives fail, just like startup businesses,” he points out. “Most of them either never get off the ground or eventually stall.” Some servers had widespread support but died anyway.
- Asked about the pros and cons of distributed versus centralized archives, Peter Michor says that both are needed.
- The final and perhaps biggest concern about preprint servers is permanence. One of the central questions is the long-term reliability of electronic storage.
- Another concern pertaining to permanence of electronic archives is how to ensure their financial and institutional security.
- Some dream of the day when MathSciNet will contain links not only to electronic versions of peer-reviewed articles but to articles on preprint servers as well. And some are also convinced that a new breed of search engines, ones that can understand mathematical content, will revolutionize the electronic navigation of mathematical literature.