From The Origin

From the Origin provides a forum for lively discussion of issues of importance to the mathematical community. The Michigan Section-MAA Newsletter solicits opinion pieces for publication in this column from anyone in the Michigan mathematical community. In addition, comments on pieces published in earlier issues are welcomed.

Items for From the Origin should be submitted to the editor by the beginning of October to be considered for inclusion in the December issue and by the beginning of February for the April issue. Main opinion pieces should be at most 1800 words long, and responses at most 400. The editors reserve the right to shorten responses, if necessary, in order to fit as many as possible within the available space.


by Jane Kister, Executive Editor, Mathematical Reviews

Michigan has many renowned centers of mathematical activity, both in large state universities and in smaller colleges and institutes, but it is much less well known that Michigan is also the home of one of the world's largest mathematical journals. In Ann Arbor, about one mile west of the University of Michigan central campus, in a turn-of-the-century orange brick building that in earlier days first housed a brewery (rumored to have had links with Al Capone in the 1930s), are the editorial offices of Mathematical Reviews (MR), the premier reviewing journal of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), and the related early awareness journal Current Mathematical Publications (CMP).

MR, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in January 2000, has long been a familiar, and ever expanding, sight in college libraries. A complete run of the large orange journals now takes up over 64 linear feet of library shelving! In the early days, a staff of four was sufficient to produce the journal, which in the first year contained just over 2000 reviews. Now, 60 years later, the number of reviews has grown 25-fold and the staff likewise has increased. There are now 70 AMS staff members in the Ann Arbor office, who are responsible for putting together the MR database and generating the MR camera-ready copy. In addition to an editorial staff of PhD mathematicians, there are copy editors, librarians, translators, TeX keyboarders, systems staff, and staff to manage the huge flow of mail in and out of the office. MR has close ties to the University of Michigan. For example, several faculty members serve as consultants in their areas of expertise. The MR editors themselves have courtesy appointments in the mathematics department. Also, MR is able to use the many UM libraries, which provide invaluable resources, especially in areas of applied mathematics.

Since the early 1980s, the MR database has been the foundation for various electronic products in addition to the classic paper Mathematical Reviews. The database was first made available on-line in 1982 as MathFile, through various vendors who charged for access time and per hit. Then in the late 80s the data was put on CD-ROMs (MathSciDisc), to which institutions could subscribe annually; and finally, in 1996, MathSciNet, the subscription-based Web version of the MR database, was first released. Over this 18-year period, the pre-1980 data from MR was gradually added to the MR database. This enormous task was finally completed in 1999; the database (and thus MathSciNet) now contains the complete set of bibliographic data and reviews for the approximately 1.6 million items in MR and CMP from 1940 to the present, all in TeX format. The MR staff works closely with others in the AMS headquarters office in Providence, RI in the ongoing design and development of MathSciNet.

The advent of MR on the Web has revolutionized the use of MR data. Mathematicians no longer have to go to the library and search through (possibly many) paper indexes to find what they are looking for. They can now access MathSciNet from their own office computers and, with a few keystrokes, quickly locate articles or books of interest, whether it be the latest paper by a Fields medalist, recent items on Fermat's last theorem, all items authored by colleagues at their own institution or department, or their own published reviews. (In earlier days, users of paper MR could search author and subject indexes to find partial answers to the first two examples. Only the most sophisticated of MR page thumbers and eyeball scanners would attempt the second two searches, and then with only very limited success.) Moreover, having found the listing or review of an item of interest, the user can very often, with one click of the mouse, go right to the original article. The AMS is committed to further enhancement of MathSciNet, and especially to enlarging the number of links both to and from MathSciNet.

MR is primarily a reviewing database for mathematical research, but it is not just for research mathematicians. There is much to interest almost any mathematician; there are reviews covering, for instance: the history of mathematics, including biographical material about mathematicians; textbooks at the senior undergraduate/graduate level; and articles from journals such as the American Mathematical Monthly and the College Mathematics Journal. Thus, MR can be a useful tool for the college teacher. In each subject area covered by MR (represented by a 2-digit classification number), there is a subclassification with the extension -01 for "Instructional exposition (textbooks, tutorial papers, etc.)". Textbooks in group theory, for example, are given the classification 20-01. You can find articles on matrix theory suitable for undergraduates by searching on 15-01. In MathSciNet, it is possible to search on any given phrase, using the "Anywhere" field, to find items in which the phrase occurs in the title or review text; using this technique, you can, for instance, assist bright undergraduates who would like to know more about a given topic in finding items of interest to them.

In 1995 a new type of review was introduced. These Featured Reviews are intended to give users an overview of some of the most interesting new mathematics being published. The MR editors, with expert outside help, select some of the best books and papers for this treatment. The reviewers for these items are asked to write a review that is accessible to a general audience rather than just the specialist in the field of the item. These reviews are flagged in paper MR and in all the MathSci products so that users can easily find in each monthly issue the ten or so items given Featured Reviews. In order to make these reviews as widely available as possible, those from the three most recent issues of MR are freely available on the AMS web site (

In 1999, over 66,000 new items and over 53,000 reviews were added to the MR database. The majority of these reviews were written by mathematicians around the world who have volunteered their services. Currently, there are over 10,000 active reviewers, but as the literature grows and new areas of mathematics assume greater importance, there is a need for more. We welcome new reviewers in the fields covered in the MR database. We invite those of you who are not already reviewers for MR, and who would like to join your colleagues as a reviewer, to write to us (, letting us know your fields of expertise.

Despite the invaluable volunteer efforts of the thousands of mathematicians who review for MR, the cost of maintaining and developing the MR database is considerable. The AMS receives no subsidy to help defray that cost; instead, the cost must be recovered from the subscribers. For some years the MR subscription has been out of reach for some institutions and in particular for most small colleges. This has meant that many mathematicians haven't had access to MathSciNet, despite the fact that it is an almost indispensable tool for the research mathematician and an increasingly valuable one for all mathematicians in academia. In an attempt to address this problem, the AMS has introduced Consortia Pricing for MathSciNet (see Colleges that have not been able to afford MR in the past can now join with a group of other universities and colleges to form a consortium and thereby subscribe to MathSciNet at a reasonable rate. Universities and colleges that were already MR subscribers also benefit by being members of a consortium. In Michigan, over a dozen universities and colleges have formed the Michigan Library Consortium. There is also a multi-site University of Michigan consortium. Two other Michigan colleges are members of a multi-state consortium of four-year colleges. Some Michigan colleges are in current discussions with the AMS either to set up a new consortium or to join an existing one. If your institution is not among those mentioned, I urge you to contact your librarian, or the AMS directly, to see how your institution might also subscribe.

In recognition of the 60th anniversary of MR, there will a special session at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Washington, DC in January, 2000. The scheduled speakers include V. Frederick Rickey and Andrew Odlyzko. We hope that many of you will be able to join us on Friday, January 21, at 2:00 pm for the session and the reception that follows immediately afterwards.

The mathematicians and staff of the Ann Arbor office welcome visitors. We encourage Michigan mathematicians and mathematics librarians who are going to be in the Ann Arbor area to let us know if they would like a tour of the office. The entire staff of the AMS takes great pride in the MR database and MathSciNet. We in Ann Arbor are also proud to be a part of the Michigan mathematics community.

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