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Srinivasa Ramanujan: A cautionary tale about the importance of open access

Could open access publishing help prevent geniuses from poorer backgrounds from slipping through the net?

National education policies outline the requisite courses school students must take and pass to access institutions of higher learning, or to qualify to work in particular professions.

An image of a commemorative stamp of Srinivasa Ramanujan.

A commemorative stamp of Srinivasa Ramanujan. When he wrote to GH Hardy, Ramanujan was very poor. He described himself as a 'half-starving man'. His work has since received recognition in India and across the globe. Image courtesy University of Madras.

Experience, however, tells us that forcing subjects on students doesn’t always work: it can actually put students off a subject. We also hear anecdotes about successful people who dropped out of formal education. So is it access to education that’s important or open access to information? Mathematics is a case in point: experts around the world have debated to what level students should study the subject to give them the grounding they need be successful.

Andrew Hacker, emeritus professor of political science at the City University of New York recently wrote a column in the New York Times, putting forward his opinion that forcing high school students to take – and pass – algebra courses to access college prevents otherwise ‘perfectly capable’ students from successfully studying arts and humanities at a higher level. This won him few friends among the normally quiet ‘math people’.

In the UK, studying mathematics beyond 16, even for those wishing to study sciences at university, is not a prerequisite. Lecturers have bemoaned student’s declining mathematical ability, while the House of Lords has called for the study of mathematics to be made compulsory for all those wishing to enter higher education. In other words, the exact opposite of what Andrew Hacker is suggesting.

Mundanity to infinity

In India, 2012 is the National Year of Mathematics. It was named so by prime minister Manmohan Singh, after Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who ‘knew infinity’. Falling 125 years after his birth, 2012 also marks one hundred years since Ramanujan first visited the UK and formed a friendship with Cambridge professor GH Hardy. Ramanujan’s genius lay in uncovering deep mathematical truths about infinite series, mathematical sequences encapsulated by formulas of intrinsic beauty.

Born into poverty, he labored for years on math problems, inventing his own notation along the way. Much of his work was highly original, but he spent at least some of his time going over old ground. He couldn’t have known, because he didn’t have access to recent journal publications, and much of his work was inspired by just two textbooks. As recounted elsewhere, it is a tragedy for a man who would only live to 32 to spend some of his most fruitful years repeating the work of others. He may have known the infinite, but his blocked access to recent work meant he didn’t know what part of the infinite to concentrate on exploring. (A good source for those wanting to know more about Ramanujan is Rovert Kanigel’s 1991 book The Man Who Knew Infinity).

The explosion in the number of journals being published occurred after Ramanujan’s formative years. But, unequal access to them, thanks to hefty subscription fees has simply confounded the sense of inequality. Students at colleges in much of the developed world have never really suffered the same lack of access: whether students of math or not, they have access to front-line research thanks to their host institutions being able to afford the subscription fees, although this is also changing even in the developed world.

Opening Access

In an era of web-connectedness, however, this model just doesn’t add up. Although it’s taken some time to gain traction in the wider research community (notably, after hard-won backing from funders and governments) open access publishing makes new findings available for free over the web. The model is funded by charging the scientists themselves, who pay for publication from their grants. Crucially, it means that students in poorer countries aren’t denied access to contemporary research due to exorbitant journal subscription fees. This goes some way to leveling out the playing field.

An image of a page from Ramanujan's notebook.

Ramanujan's formulas apparently came to him in dreams. He eventually wrote them down in notebooks, some of which are still being studied to see if they contain new ideas that haven't been explored yet. Image courtesy University of Madras.

Speaking at a conference to launch the National Year of Mathematics, held last December in Delhi, Singh called on educators to reinforce the value of mathematical study to students. He reminded his audience of mathematics’ relevance, which pervades not only the ‘hard’ sciences, but other areas of human endeavor as well.

“Life sciences did not seem to have much use for mathematics… but lately mathematical interventions have had a tremendous impact on biology…the work of many of the Nobel Laureates in economics is highly mathematical” said Singh. 

At the same press conference, Kapil Sibal, minister for human resource development and chair of the National Committee organizing the year-long celebrations, cautioned that even global efforts to improve access to education could not completely eradicate the possibility of a future Ramanujan slipping through the nets.

“The genius in many of our young minds may never be recognized because of extreme poverty,” he said. On the other hand, Sibal suggested, Ramanujan’s story also tells us that, “Students should be encouraged to strike a new path for themselves”. Open access publishing, at least in part, makes this possibility viable.

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