There had been quite a discussion on mathematics blogs about a recent request of the very well-known mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck. Amongst others he is a recipient of the fields medal – a kind of Nobel prize (since there exist also the Abel prize should one now say NoAbel Prize?) for mathematics. Since quite some time he lives secluded and disconnected from the mathematical world.
Alexandre Grothendieck is the author of a lot of very influential mathematical works. Unfortunately these works are in an area of mathematics I do not know much about, so I can’t really say much about his work. However, there are a lot of mathematicians who think that some of the older prints should be typeset again (which rarely happens for mathematical papers) and there are projects for that – in particular a project where the socalled Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie (short SGA) is typeset in LaTeX by many volunteers and which made parts of the SGA available on the electronic preprint arxiv (an archive, which makes it possible to provide math and physics preprints for free). Partly these SGA were published in a book, as well. As the Wikipedia page about the project says:
Legal permission to reprint the works was obtained from every author except Alexander Grothendieck himself, who cannot be contacted; it was decided to proceed without his explicit agreement.
Given the information provided by the mathematical blog “The secret blogging seminar” , what apparently happened now was that suddenly on a webpage for part 4 of the SGA the sentence:
Alexandre Grothendieck a malheureusement souhaité que cessent les travaux de réédition de SGA. Les pages qui étaient consacrées sont donc closes.
Dernière actualisation : 2 février 2010.
appeared. After that it became clear that this sentence was probably based on a letter which Alexandre Grothendieck wrote on Jan. 2 of this year. Here is the direct link to this (french) letter (typeset version of it) as made available on the secret blogging seminar (there is also an english translation in that blog post) .
In this letter he writes among others (modulo mistakes of readability):
Je n’ai pas l’intention de publier, ou de republier, aucune œuvre ou texte dont je suis l’auteur, sous quelque forme que ce soit, imprim´ee ou ´electronique, que ce soit sous forme int´egrale ou par extraits, textes de nature scientiﬁque, personnelle ou autres, ou lettres adress´ees `a quiconque – ainsi que toute traduction de textes dont je suis l’auteur.
So this came as a shock to a lot of mathematicians (the partially quite emotional discussion on the blogs displays this rather vividly), as it seems to indicate that Alexandre Grothendieck doesn’t give the permission to republish his works!
Consequently the reaction of the SGA project was to terminate the project of reediting the SGA (see above sentence). Summarizing it seems the already done voluntary work of a lot of people is lost, moreover the availability of the SGA will be reduced.
When I read all this I missed the discussion about one point in his letter. May be this is due to my poor knowledge of the french language, though. Let me explain this – maybe someone french can comment on this.
In german the word publication is “Veroeffentlichung”. However a preprint doesn’t count as a “Veroeffentlichung” (at least not in mathematics) that is, it is considered as a prepublication. In his letter Alexandre Grothendieck explicitly underlined the terms retirer du commerce that is, he explicitly says that he does not wish that his works turn into a/another commercial product. So may it be possible that the word “republication” should be seen as ambiguous, i.e. that he would tolerate (or accept) a “pre”-republication of his works as open access documents?
Remark: Even if if one knows a lot about licence agreements, open access etc. so that one could have formulated this more precisley one could still wish to keep the “fuzzy” formulation of “publication”. Why? It just occurred to me that nobody really knows what would happen to all the preprints in the arxiv.org if the university system shouldn’t be able to sustain it anymore. What would happen to orphan preprints? Maybe Alexandre Grothendieck prefers to be able to say that he never agreed even with a “pre”publication.
Another side remark: You may think that the assumption that the arxiv may go down is far-fetched. This could well be, but on the other hand I find the arxiv looks a bit untended. That is for example the searches are still a bit uncomfortable and the upload procedures are very tedious, especially if you have a lot of pictures. I don’t want to think what happenes if one would like to upload an article which includes an interactive applet. Maybe I should say at this place that I tried in vain to upload my thesis to the arxiv with Tims help (who is quite a LaTeX wizard). The problem was that the upload program at the arxiv automatically deleted some necessary files. After many emails forth and back with the arxiv people we finally gave up. In addition I proposed to the people at arxiv to introduce a closed pre-preprint section for the arxive for timestamping works (something I am going to talk about later in more detail) and heard nothing about that proposal since then.
Concluding: If there is any slight chance that the term “republication” in Alexandre Grothendiecks letter could be interpreted as ambiguous, one should think about this. It is completely acceptable that he would wish that his works are not to be made into a commercial product (Similar things can be said about the works of Grigori Perelman). One can make this understandable even by “capitalistic” standards, i.e. imagine a soup kitchen where volunteers cook (unfortunately this voluntary work is seen by some politicians not as “work”…) hand out food to poor people and someone fetches some of the food and sells it around a corner. I know this comparision is a bit drastic, but still.