The evolution of the paper

One of the nice consequences of the current development of online archives is that reading the classics has really become much easier than before. Of course, “classics” refers here to those mathematical texts which were published in journals since the middle to late 19th century, and are in easily accessible languages (which, for me, means French or English, and I guess I can look a little bit at Italian papers without feeling too lost too quickly).

As a sometime “flâneur” along those roads, my favorite site is NUMDAM, which contains archives of many journals and seminars, mostly French (there are a few Italian journals and seminars included, as well as Compositio Mathematica). Compared with other sites like JSTOR, Project Euclid, or the Goettingen archive, NUMDAM seems much quicker and easier to browse. It is also freely available (except for the last few years of some journals, but since we speak of classics here, this is not an issue). Moreover, besides the standard PDF format, it has copies of the papers in the djvu format, which is much more compact.

During the last snowy Easter week-end, I’ve looked at NUMDAM to check some points of what might be called the natural evolution of the mathematical paper. I used the Annales Scientifiques de l’École Normale Supérieure as a source, because it has been published continously since 1864.

So one finds, in no particular order (nor guarantee of correctness of the dates mentioned…):

  • That proper separate bibliographies did not occur until around 1948, with footnotes then indicating that “Numbers between brackets refer to the bibliography located at the end of the paper”.
  • Except that this was mostly in French; in fact, the first papers not in French in this journal appear in 1968 only (series 4, volume 1; it may be, and this would be easy to check, that this new series was the first where languages other than French were permitted). The second such paper is quite famous: it is John Tate’s Residues of differentials on curves.
  • What about the first joint paper? The honor goes to Castelnuovo and Enriques, in 1906. But this is an outlier: the next two only occur in 1934 (one is also famous, due to Leray and Schauder), and papers with more than one author can be counted on two hands until 1954. (I am disregarding, here, two earlier papers by Pasteur and Raulin, in 1872, which have to do with the fight against silk-worm diseases, and another one on the construction of the official “mètre étalon”, or yardstick; such non-mathematical papers disappeared around that time, although in 1896, the journal included the discourse given by the renowned Désiré Gernez on the occasion of the inauguration of a statue of Pasteur.)
  • Then, what about the first joint paper in English? There’s Tate again, with F. Oort in 1970.
  • OK, and what about the first paper written by a French person in English? Here, there can be some ambiguity, since someone may well be French without having a name that claims it to the world (…), but Alain Connes may be the first one.
  • Another information that could be interesting would be the first article written by a woman, but since first names are typically missing from much of the early tables of contents (and can be ambiguous), this is even harder to decide. The first unambiguous example I saw is due to Jacqueline Ferrand, in 1942.

In an idle moment today, I also looked more quickly at the Bulletin de la Société mathématique de France, which goes back to 1872. The various dates are somewhat similar; there is a single paper not in French before 1952, by Wiener (in 1922). I can envision a vicious fight among the editors to decide if it could be published; at least the first few paragraphs mention that the work on which the paper is based was done in France, and thank profusely Fréchet for his insights… (There are also a few earlier papers translated in French from their original language, for instance Heegaard’s thesis appears in 1916, translated, presumably, from the Norwegian). The first joint paper appears in the same year, 1916, and the next one only in 1930.

Reading the titles of article before 1950 or so can be quite amusing; mixed with terminology that still seems very modern and recognizable, there are certain gems like the anallagmatic metric (“métrique anallagmatique”) of R. Lagrange, in 1942. Strangely enough, this is a word recognized by the OED: “Not changed in form by inversion: applied to the surfaces of certain solids, as the sphere”, with quotations from Clifford, in 1869, and Salmon, in 1874. This is too bad, since I was hoping that the date indicated that this paper was an elaborate coded transmission to the Free French… There is also in most titles an element of high and formal seriousness that can be a bit tiring; all those papers starting with “Sur une équation…”, or “Sur une propriété…”, or “Sur quelque chose…” (“On something…”) do not give a great impression of the fun of doing mathematics.

The authors of the early papers are also divided pretty sharply between names we all know (or have heard about, not only French, but from most countries we think of as having a strong mathematical culture in that period), and completely obscure characters (at least to me). The most magnificent I found is the (probably) redoubtable Gaston Gohierre de Longchamps who published three papers in the Annales de l’ENS between 1866 and 1880 (the second of which concerns Bernoulli numbers, and quotes the equally remarkable M. Haton de la Goupillère).

Finally, one observes with interest that the poor reputation of rigor of these older mathematicians is an unwarranted slander; no erratum is needed for the entire corpus of the Annales de l’ENS until 1953, with the single exceptions of one in 1907 (a paper by Émile Merlin), and of a remonstrance by Brouwer pointing out a few mistakes in a paper of Zoretti in 1910, which the latter rather grudgingly accepts (by claiming that another mathematician had priority in finding those)…

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

One thought on “The evolution of the paper”

  1. I also had a look at the older issues of the Bulletin de la SMF before WW1 last year and was a bit sad to see that most of these papers were about things long considered now to be non-rigorous and/or just tiny examples without much substance (lots of things on curves in the plane for instance). These people were as clever as us today but didn’t have the luck to live in a great period for maths. I then wondered if people in 200 years will think the same about us…

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