SIAM News Blog

Putting a Value on Expository Writing

By Jim Crowley

Why don’t applied mathematicians write more expository articles? How can SIAM promote good expository writing and encourage more members of the community to write such articles?

Part of the reason, of course, is that technical articles, written for experts and published in scholarly journals, are the gold standard for professional applied mathematicians. We write for the few people who work in our own research areas, or perhaps for scientists in the main application areas for our work. But we tend not to spend a lot of time writing for a more general audience – even if that audience is only as broad as the SIAM membership.

Even review articles, written for a large audience, are not the norm in our field. Certainly SIAM Review publishes review articles, but such articles seem to be more highly regarded (and hence rewarded) in other disciplines. You need only look at the list of titles in Annual Reviews to get the sense that perhaps mathematicians do not place such a high value on writing such reviews; or else one would expect an AR to have a publication in mathematics.

Mathematicians do appreciate good writing, even when it’s intended for the general public. The Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) gives an annual prize to writers “who bring mathematical ideas and information to nonmathematical audiences.” The list of JPBM Communications Award recipients includes writers like Phil Davis and Barry Cipra, who have been regular contributors to SIAM News, and Steve Strogatz and Marcus du Sautoy, who have written for wider audiences (like readers of The New York Times).

Nevertheless, something within the culture of our discipline caused John Hopcroft to remark recently that “we need to encourage more writing of expository articles.” We hear similar comments from people working in industry, where the wish is for more articles that explain current research results to someone trained in the discipline but not necessarily an expert in the area of a particular research result. Many of our members outside academia need to draw on a broad array of ideas from our discipline, and access only through research articles written for specialists can be daunting.

Two unrelated items are relevant to this discussion. First, SIAM’s Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession went this year to Arieh Iserles, in part for his role in founding Acta Numerica, a journal which contains review articles. Arieh demonstrates that he values good writing. On his web page you will find his piece “How to Write a Paper.” Clearly, he cares about the audience for a piece of writing, likening a carefully written paper to roses for a Valentine: “it demonstrates to your readers (in particular, to your referees) that you care and that you respect them.”

It should be noted that SIAM Review also has a section devoted to review articles. It is a highly regarded publication, but publishes only a limited number of review articles each year.

Expository writing takes this a step further. Here one is writing not for the experts in the field (or for one’s referees), but for a wider audience, such as the applied math community or even the scientifically literate public.

The second item of note is a new SIAM prize created to recognize outstanding expository writing. The $10,000 George Pólya Prize for Mathematical Exposition will be awarded for the first time in 2015. It will recognize “an outstanding expositor of the mathematical sciences” for work “that communicates mathematics effectively.” Exposition was always one of the many possible reasons for nomination for the Polya Prize when it was awarded in “areas of interest to George Polya.” It was decided to change the Polya Prize from a biennial prize to an annual prize and to honor the author of “How to Solve It” by explicitly having exposition as the theme in odd-numbered years (in even years, the prize alternates between combinatorics and other areas of interest to George Polya).

We hope the SIAM community will think about candidates for the new prize, colleagues who have been especially effective in communicating mathematical or computational work. We hope to receive a strong set of nominations for the initial awarding of the prize. View the prize page for instructions on submitting a nomination.

   Jim Crowley is the executive director of SIAM.
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