Archive for the ‘books’ category

Response from Chicago

14th November 2007

The first response to my enquiry from the post on Traditional vs. Online Publishing comes from Jennifer Howard who is an Associate Editor for Physical Sciences at Chicago University press. The response comes in two parts, the first addressing the general issue of whether it is better to publish traditionally or online and the second addressing the specific questions that I asked. Here’s a quote from the first part:

The University of Chicago Press is a non-profit publisher, although we are one of the largest university publishers today . Our primary mission (carefully monitored by the University of which we are a part) is to help disseminate scholarly information. If a given work is already successfully distributed on the internet, my feeling is that a printed book is often not needed. For the prospective author considering whether to post or publish, however, there are a few issues to take into account:

1.) A print book is often better than an online publication when it’s longer than 100 pages. Most people don’t want to read an entire book online, though shorter snippets are usually fine. Most of our external reviewers, for example, decline the opportunity to read the electronic version of a manuscript, asking instead for a hard copy.

2.) A book, published by a university press, has a reputation and vetting process behind it. External experts from the author’s own field review and recommend improvements to the text prepublication. There are also copyeditors correcting typos and checking references. You know something about the quality of what you read or assign in class.

3.) As you mention on your blog, a book has the publisher’s advertising and marketing support behind it.

4.) For more established scientists, a book can be a capstone on a prestigious career. [I confess, I do not usually encourage younger scientists to write books–their case for tenure could be harmed if they are writing books rather than publishing original research articles. If a younger scientist has already written the bulk of the manuscript or feels strongly about publishing a book, however, I will consider it with the same care I would give to a more senior author.]

5.) A book also has a publisher working to secure its translation into other languages, something that is rare for online publications unless you have enterprising volunteers.

6.) A book has permanence–you can always access it, it’s not going to be taken offline or moved when the author goes to another university, gets bored with hosting a website, etc… Books are registered with the Library of Congress, for example, and can sit on the shelf until they are needed.

These are some good points about the benefits of traditional publishing, many of which I missed in my original post. There are a few things I disagree on though:

  • Firstly, if an online manuscript is popular and successful then I think that is exactly when it might be a good idea to publish it as a book, rather than just having the electronic version. Even if they have access to something online, people still want hard copies, and I think the interest generated by the electronic version would actually increase the sales of the book, particularly if the price is not set too high.
  • I’m not sure about the comment about young scientists writing books in point 4. I guess it is good advice in most of Physics, particularly in fast-moving, popular areas of research in which people are primarily judged by publications and citations. However, in less mainstream areas, such as the foundations of physics, having a longer-form to set out your ideas coherently can be a big advantage. Also, what about fields in which it is common practice to publish your Ph.D. thesis as a monograph? The point is just that the validity of this advice is heavily subject-dependent.
  • Point 6 is quite relevant at the moment, but I think it will disappear in the long term. Part of the reason for asking about repositories like arXiv, Connexions and Open Courseware is just that they are supposed to be more permanent than the author’s own website. Eventually, I imagine they will be integrated into the doi system, and that the Library of Congress might want to include them in its catalogues. I agree that the current systems for collating and cataloguing online academic texts are rather haphazard, so this might be a reason to go the traditional route for now.

For the second part of the response, I’ll respond to the responses in a bit more detail:

As some of your commentators suggested would be the case, I cannot claim any of the below responses to be Press policy. Hopefully, they give you a sense of my practices as an editor.

Yes, I would consider a manuscript that has been previously posted on the internet. This isn’t all that unusual and can provide an author with useful feedback.

I do not receive a lot of requests from authors to leave manuscripts online–most are glad to encourage readers to turn to the printed book, given the work they have put into writing the project. There are cases in which our authors have maintained online manuscripts, however, even after publication of their book. If you look at our list prices for these books, you will see why a lot of people are happy to buy them outright.

Well, the fact that leaving something online is an option with Chicago is definitely a plus point. Personally, I think we’ll see an increasing number of authors wanting to do this as a more internet-savvy generation begins to write books. Attitudes to Intellectual Property are changing, so I think academic authors will eventually become less concerned about whether or not people buy the hard copy book.

On posting with other sites. At this point, I haven’t considered this–noone has asked me for the opportunity. To be honest, we would probably have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis in conversation with the author.– I believe a few of our authors probably post early drafts on for feedback. Most ArXiv readers, however, are more interested in early news of new research. Because books are more often summations of existing literature–for the reference of researchers or for students in courses, I think these drafts are less often consulted at ArXiv. Some of your readers may have additional insight on this.

I know of at least one case of a book on arXiv, which I have mentioned previously on this blog. That’s the recent translation of the 1927 Solvay proceedings by Bacciagaluppi and Valentini (not exactly early news of new research!). Personally, I found the arXiv version enormously helpful.

I don’t think the question of what most arXiv readers currently use it for is particularly relevant. The arXiv can cater to niche audiences as well as mainstream ones. It is pretty flexible, so they could introduce new categories for books if there is the demand. Part of the reason for posting something there would be to have more permanence than you would get on your own website.

On licensing and rights. The licenses you list below can be good, usually if the author does not intend to publish with a publisher. The author at least establishes her or his ownership of the material, though with the internet, any right restrictions that exist in the contract are, in reality, somewhat illusory. Anyone across the world can pick up the material from the web, and it becomes quite difficult to track someone who is using the material in a way that is restricted, moreso to prosecute illegal use.

Agreed. I’m actually imagining that most authors using these licenses would not want many restrictions on how the material is used, particularly with regard to making copies and using the material in lectures. I still think you should ALWAYS explicitly license an electronic book in some way, because it makes it clear to the reader what the allowed usage is and avoids legal ambiguities. I imagine that the license would only be enforced in cases of extreme violation, e.g. if someone is exploiting the work for commercial gain without permission.

Any publisher will need the exclusive right to publish the print book. If one of the licenses below prevented that, we could be in a situation where a fly-by-night operation without a vetting process could publish a version of the book that looks like ours and takes advantage of our reputation and promotion efforts. This, without securing expert review and subsequent revisions or doing the kind of careful copyediting that transforms a manuscript into a published book. This would be harmful to a publisher’s good reputation and ultimately to our books and authors. I would not decline a book because it was licensed under one of these licenses, but we would have to find a way for the Press to be the sole publisher of the material.

This is more or less the answer I expected and is fair enough in the current IP climate. However, some of the licenses I mentioned would definitely be ruled out by this, e.g. I don’t believe the GNU license has provision to distinguish a published version from an electronic version. Probably, one of the Creative Commons licenses allows for this, but I’d have to look into the details to determine which one.


Publishing Online vs. Traditional Academic Publishers

5th November 2007

Lately I’ve been thinking about a few ideas for books that I might want to write at some point in the near future. However, that is not the topic of this post. Instead, I want to talk about how one should go about publishing an academic book in the post-internet age.

As an example, consider a book that arises from a lecture course. A prof teaches the same course for a few years, using feedback from the students to find out which explanations work well and which ones need to be improved. After a while s/he has established a good set of lecture notes, which might be worth making available to the wider community in book form.

These days, the lecture notes often appear online in various forms, either on the lecturer’s own website or on repositories such as MIT Open Courseware, Connexions, etc. One major advantage of this is that feedback can be obtained from an even larger pool of readers whilst the notes are still being written. However, it is actually quite a bad idea to just put lecture notes up on your own website without any form of explicit license, despite the fact that this is quite common practice in academia at the moment. You might intend the notes to be freely available, copyable and modifiable, but unless there is a specific license to this effect then standard copyright law still applies to them (at least in the US). If you later decide to publish a book based on the notes via a traditional academic publisher then they may demand that you remove the electronic version from your website after publication, forcing your future students in this subject to buy a copy of the book from them, often at an inflated price. You can avoid this by making sure you license your notes under a license that explicitly grants copying rights, such as a Creative Commons license, the GNU Free Documentation license or the Open Course license. However, if you do this then a traditional publisher may simply refuse to publish your work as a matter of policy.

My initial response to this problem is so what? After all, if the notes are widely available on the internet then why do I need to bother with a traditional publisher at all? If there is demand for a hard-copy version then it can always be made available on a self-publication service like Lulu. However, there are still a couple of reasons why you might want to publish your book via a traditional academic publisher in addition to making it available online. The first is that the academic publishers have a much better ability to promote your book than you do. If you want it to appear in university libraries, which are the main customers for academic texts, then it is still pretty much essential to publish it in the traditional way way. The second reason is the prestige attached to having a book published via a traditional academic publisher is far greater than just putting something on the net. Unlike online materials, having a traditionally published book is actually worth something on your CV, which is not a small concern for a young academic who is still trying to establish a reputation and secure a faculty position.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the policy of the major academic publishers is on these issues. It is difficult to find out from their websites, so I recently sent out the following email to a some of them in order to test the waters. In coming weeks I will let you know their responses, and we will see which of them is most flexible towards online availability of materials.

Dear Sirs,

I am collecting information on the policy of academic publishers towards publishing works based on materials that have already appeared online. I would be grateful if you could provide answers to the following questions. Responses may be quoted on my blog


Matt Leifer

Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared online on a website or blog maintained by the author?

Would you require the electronic version of the book to be removed from the author’s site after publication?

Would you consider publishing a book which had already appeared on a website that is not maintained by the author, such as MIT Open Courseware (, LearningSpace ( or Connexions (

Would you allow an electronic version of the book to be uploaded to a preprint server, such as

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses ( and, if so, which ones would be acceptable?

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (

Would you consider publishing a book if the electronic version had been licensed under the Open Course License (

Here is the list of publishers I have sent this email to so far. If you would like to see any other publishers included then please let me know.

University Presses

  • Oxford University Press
  • Cambridge University Press
  • Princeton University Press
  • Harvard University Press
  • MIT Press
  • University of California University Press
  • University of Chicago Press

Professional Societies

  • Institute of Physics

Other Academic Publishers

  • Springer-Verlag
  • Kluwer
  • World Scientific

Quantum Physics at the Crossroads

30th October 2006


When I was but a young undergrad student, I read some interesting books about the history and foundations of quantum theory. In those books the Solvay conferences played a major role, particularly the 5th conference in 1927. I was informed that the official part of the proceedings was largely insignificant, and that all the action centred around the debates that took place between Bohr and Einstein, in which Einstein repeatedly tried to undermine the uncertainty principle via a series of thought experiments, but Bohr was always quick to respond with a correct analysis of the experiment that showed uncertainty to be triumphant. This always put in my mind a picture similar to da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, with Bohr playing the role of Jesus, regailaing his many disciples with the moral parable of the day over dinner.

Another piece of folklore concerns the Ph.D. thesis of one Prince Louis de Broglie. This contained the famous de Broglie relation that gives the wavelength of the waves to be associated with matter particles. The story goes that the thesis was on the verge of being rejected, but was saved by Einstein’s recommendation, who was the only person to recognize the deep significance of the relation. As the story is told, it is hardly surprising, because the contents of the rest of the thesis is never explained. One is left to imagine a document that could only have been about 10 pages long, which intrroduces the relation and then explains some of its consequences. That may seem stong enough for a very good Phys. Rev. article, but is hardly enough to warrant a Ph.D.


Since those distant days of my youth, I have attended many a physics conference myself. I now recognise that it is the general rule, almost without exception, that the participants regard the discussions they have outside the talks as being much more important and interesting than anything that was said in the talks themselves. This rule holds regardless of the actual inherent interest of the topics under discussion. In fact, it is quite common to find some of the older participants banging on about some Hamiltonian they wrote down in the 1970s, whereas the young guns are talking about something genuinely new and interesting, the significance of which is not understood by the older guys yet. It is also extremely unlikely to find the entire group of conference participants, however small that group may be, listening in rapt attention to the discussion of just two people over dinner (if only because there are simply some groups of people who don’t get on with each other, and others who are more interested in going to the pub), and it is equally unlikely that that conversation represents the only interesting thing going on at the conference.

Also, it goes without saying really that I don’t know of anyone who got their Ph.D. for a 10 page paper, however great the idea contained therein happens to be.

Currently, I am about half way through reading “Quantum Theory at the Crossroads”, the new book by Bacciagaluppi and Valentini about the 1927 Solvay conference. The second half of the book is an English translation of the proceedings, but equally interesting is the new analysis of the conference discussions from a modern point of view, contained in the first half. Here are some things I found particularly interesting.

– The only witnesses to the famous Bohr-Einstein debates were Heisenberg and Ehrenfest. The usuall account of these debates comes directly from an article written by Bohr many years after the conference took place. Heisenberg roughly confirms the account, also in recollections written many years later. The only account written shortly after the conference is a letter written by Ehrenfest, which seems to confirm that Bohr was triumphant in the debates, but gives no details.

– Bacciagaluppi and Valentini argue that it is highly unlikely that Einstein’s main target was the uncertainty relations. This is because, outside of Bohr’s account of the conference discussions, Einstein hardly mentions the uncertainty relations as a point of concern in any of his correspondence or published works. Instead, they argue, it is likely that he was trying to get at the point that the concept of separability was incompatible with quantum theory, which was later crystallized in the EPR argument. In fact, Einstein gives an argument in this direction also in the published general discsussion at the conference. It seems likely that Bohr missed this point, just as he seemed to miss the point years later in his published response to the EPR argument.

– At the time of the conference, the consolidation of quantum theory was far from complete. Three approaches were discussed in the talks: de Broglie’s pilot wave theory, Schrödinger’s wave mechanics and Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics (with additions by Born). Despite the fact that “equivalence proofs” between wave and matrix mechanics had been published at the time of the conference, they were treated as distinct theories, which could potentially make different predictions. This is because, at the time, Schrödinger did not accept Born’s statistical hypothesis for wave mechanics, which was not yet formulated for arbitrary observables in any case. Also, Heisenberg and Born did not accept the fundamental significance of the time-dependent Schrödinger equation, and still clung to a view of matrix meachanics as describing the transition probabilities for systems always to be thought of as being in definite stationary states. In fact, it seems that the only person at the conference who presented something that we would now regard as being empirically equivalent to modern quantum theory was de Broglie.
– This was not recognized at the conference, partly because de Broglie did not realize that one sometimes has to treat the apparatus as a quantum system in pilot wave theory in order to get equivalence with standard quantum theory. Also, there was as yet desciption of spin within de Broglie’s theory, but on the other hand this same objection could be levelled at wave mechanics. Finally, de Broglie himself regarded the theory as provisional, since it was not relativistic and involved waves in configuration space rather than ordinary 3d space. He placed great significance on ideas for a better theory, which were far from complete at the time of the presentation.

– Schrödinger emphasizes that de Broglie’s work was a major inspiration for his wave equation. In particular, de Broglie’s idea of unifying the variational principles of Newtonian mechanics with those of geometrical optics, was used in the derivation of the equation.

– de Broglie presented his pilot-wave theory for multiparticle systems, not just for single particles as is commonly thought.

In light of this and other arguments, Bacciagaluppi and Valentini argue that the time is ripe for a revision of the usual textbook history of quantum mechanics, and in particular of de Broglie’s contribution . Those who believe that the history of science should be written with the same objective standards that we hope to uphold for science itself, rather than simply being written by the victors, are well-advised to read this book.

Quantum foundations before WWII

24th September 2006

The Shtetl Optimizer informs me that there has not been enough contemplation of Quantum Quandaries for his taste recently. Since there has not been a lot of interesting foundational news, the only sensible thing to do is to employ the usual blogger’s trick of cut, paste, link and plagiarize other blogs for ideas.

Scott recently posted a list of papers on quantum computation that a computer science student should read in order to prepare themselves for research in quantum complexity. Now, so far, nobody has asked me for a list of essential readings in the Foundations of Quantum Theory, which is incredibly surprising given the vast numbers of eager grad students who are entering the subject these days. In a way, I am quite glad about this, since there is no equivalent of “Mike and Ike” to point them towards. We are still waiting for a balanced textbook that gives each interpretation a fair hearing to appear. For now, we are stuck trawling the voluminous literature that has appeared on the subject since QM cohered into its present form in the 1920’s. Still, it might be useful to compile a list of essential readings that any foundational researcher worth their salt should have read.

Since this list is bound to be several pages long, today we will stick to those papers written before the outbreak of WWII, when physicists switched from debating foundational questions to the more nefarious applications of their subject. This is not enough to get you up to the cutting edge of modern research, so more specialized lists on particular topics will be compiled when I get around to it. I have tried to focus on texts that are still relevant to the debates going on today, so many papers that were important in their time but fairly uncontroversial today, such as Born’s introduction of the probability rule, have been omitted. Still, it is likely that I have missed something important, so feel free to add your favourites in the comments with the proviso that it must have been published before WWII.

  • P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, Oxford University Press (1930).
  • J. von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Princeton University Press (1955). This is the first English translation, but I believe the original German version was published prior to WWII.
  • W. Heisenberg, Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik, Zeitschrift für Physik, 43, 172-198 (1927). The original uncertainty principle paper.
  • A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete? Phys. Rev. 47, 777 (1935).
  • N. Bohr, Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?, Phys. Rev. 48, 696 (1935).
  • N. Bohr, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr (vols. I and II), Oxbow Press (1987). It is a brave soul who can take this much Bohrdom in one sitting. All papers in vol. I and about half of vol. II were written prior to WWII. There is also a vol. III, but that contains post 1958 papers.
  • E. Schrödinger, Discussion of probability relations between separated systems, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. 31, 555-562 (1935).
  • E. Schrödinger, Die Gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik, Die Naturwissenschaften. 23, 807-812; 824-828; 844-849 (1935). Translated here.
  • Birkhoff, G., and von Neumann, J., The Logic of Quantum Mechanics, Annals of Mathematics 37, 823-843 (1936).

Many of the important papers are translated and reproduced in:

  • J. A. Wheeler and W.H. Zurek (eds.), Quantum Theory and Measurement, Princeton University Press (1983).

Somewhat bizzarely it is out of print, but you should find a copy in your local university library.

I am also informed that Anthony Valentini and Guido Bacciagaluppi have recently finished translating the proceedings of the 5th Solvay conference (1927), which is famous for the Bohr-Einstein debates, and produced one of the most well-known photos in physics. It should be worth a read when it comes out. A short video showing many of the major players at the 1927 Solvay conference is available here.

Update: A draft of the Valentini & Bacciagaluppi book has just appeared here.