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In the mathematics community it's quite common for professors to write their own notes for the classes they are teaching. The notes are then usually published in both PDF and PS form on the course website. However, it's extremely rare to see anyone publish the LaTeX source code for their notes and slides. As a student this has always bugged me while as an instructor this has to me seemed like something obvious to do, meaning I don't see how it could hurt and it can only help, so why not do it?

Here are a few reasons for publishing source code for notes:

  1. Makes it possible for students to easily create condensed versions of the notes for future review.

  2. They can easily edit the text and add their own comments to it if something is unclear or they can even replace a proof with one of their own, if another proof seems more natural to them. They can also edit them to remove material that's obvious/known to them, thus making the notes quicker for them to read.

  3. If a student in the class has a habit of typing up their own notes, they will be able to copy paste e.g. statements of definitions and theorems from the class notes, which will save them considerable time.

  4. There are flashcard programs out there like e.g. Mnemosyne and Anki that support LaTeX input. Having the source code would make it considerably faster to create cards for e.g. precise definitions and statements of theorems. Especially in fields like algebra, algebraic geometry etc. which have tons of terminology, this could be useful for quick memorization while learning material for the first time.

My questions is then: why aren't most people publishing source code? Is this something they just haven't thought about? On the other hand, as a student I asked professors for the source code quite a few times and my request often got rejected with no explanation.

As an aside I might add that I grew up as a teenager in the early 90s hacking on Linux, so open source has always seemed like the "right" idea to me for any knowledge sharing.

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closed as not a real question by Gjergji Zaimi, Steven Landsburg, José Figueroa-O'Farrill, quid, Andy Putman May 12 '12 at 3:36

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Not sure this question belongs here, but I'll add a comment: some people upload their course notes to the arXiv (probably more often for more advanced courses). The Latex source is then by default publicly available. –  Tom Leinster May 11 '12 at 15:32
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This is really the only forum I know where I could ask this, but I apologize if this doesn't belong here. There's another point I could also add to the list: if the students see the LaTeX code it might encourage some of them to learn LaTeX. –  evf May 11 '12 at 16:24
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There's the large debate about open access journals and how much it costs the research community. On the other hand textbooks are also very expensive and controlled by often the same publishing companies. I've often wanted to write my own notes for a class, but not had the time. If I had someone else's notes to use as a basis, I would probably go with this option more often. I'm curious how many hours of work have been wasted reinventing the wheel by writing yet another set of linear algebra notes starting from scratch? –  evf May 11 '12 at 18:12
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This probably is not a good reason (nor am I an experienced enough teacher to have a well-formed opinion), but part of the thrill of using LaTeX is producing something "beautiful" that I want others to see. The source code itself is usually rather ugly, and I am not all that enamored of the idea of other people looking at it. If I were to release the source code, I would feel pressure to "beautify" it as much as possible (make the line breaks nicer, insert commented-out blank lines in appropriate places, organize the preamble,...) and I do not consider this a good use of my time. –  Charles Staats May 11 '12 at 20:31
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@evf: The debate you alude to even 'created' the following forum publishing.mathforge.org , which in fact seems like a much better place for this question/discussion than MO. –  quid May 12 '12 at 0:08
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3 Answers 3

Here my reason for not doing it (I usually teach rather elementary courses).

It will result in a large set of edited notes I have no control on. This means that some of those edited notes may well contain errors or do not reflect the spirit of my course and at the same time be very popular between students for being "condensed", "easy to read", "good to pass the exam". This will damage some students, that can get something wrong from the course because of sloppiness.

Also, as a personal experience, at least on one occasion I had someone trying to get some money out of my notes. Starting from the source file it would be even easier for them to rearrange the file in a form that makes it even harder to give them some trouble for this behaviour.

On the other hand we now have rather professional Pdf-Notes like softwares that allow everyone to underline, put on evidence, highlight whatever they want. With the positive point, though, that such modifications of the original file are clearly identified for what they are: additional material.

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I was expecting one of these points to come up. Someone trying to make money is something that affects many open source software projects. There are websites trying to make money on packaging e.g. the 3D animation software Blender. Most open source projects just choose to ignore it, since it's very marginal and is hard to prevent. Not releasing their software as open source would, however, be a much larger net loss than making sure no one tries to make money unfairly on their work. –  evf May 11 '12 at 17:43
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Yes, true. On the other hand I feel not releasing my tex-notes as a very marginal loss to the math community :D –  Nicola Ciccoli May 11 '12 at 22:08
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I have lots of undergraduate notes in PDF form on my web pages (http://shef.ac.uk/nps). No one has ever asked me for the source files. Nonetheless, I have thought about releasing them explicitly in LaTeX form under a creative commons license. This has not happened for fairly mundane reasons:

  • Some of the notes are partially based on earlier notes by colleagues, and I have not discussed things with them.

  • Most courses have a fairly elaborate setup with separate files for notes, problem sheets and lecture slides, auxiliary files that are \included in the main files, Maple worksheets used to generate jpeg diagrams and so on. I have not worked out a good way to package everything.

  • All my courses have detailed solutions to all the problems, which I release to students a week or so after the problems have been assigned. I have not decided what would be the best thing to do with such solutions if I were to make the source files freely available. At the moment I have things set up so that the solutions are in the same files as the problems, with LaTeX macros etc to switch them on and off.

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Regarding the last point, I just put an \input after each problem. I have a separate folder from which everything gets included and a make-file that simply copies the actual solutions there or just an empty file depending on what flag I give "make". For people not familiar with build tools, there's the obvious solution of just maintaining two files, one with and another without solutions. –  evf May 11 '12 at 20:14
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I see no problem with publishing LaTeX source codes for books and more-or-less stable versions of lecture notes. However, I often feel that what I have written is not mature enough, and it seems that there is not much point in publishing the source code if you are not completely satisfied with the current version.

I agree with you generally though. In fact I started releasing source codes for homework problem statements since some students like to type their homework solutions in LaTeX and having the statements' source code would save them some time.

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I've also heard this argument, although I don't see the difference between releasing a PDF or the source file in this case. If the source code is not useful, because the document is of such low quality, then why would the PDF be? –  evf May 11 '12 at 20:19
    
I guess what I was trying to say is that it is not worth the extra effort to publish the source code, when the PDF is already of a low quality. –  timur May 11 '12 at 20:41
    
Charles Staats comments to the OP nicely captures what I mean by the extra effort. –  timur May 11 '12 at 20:48
    
In another thread, Gireaux asked that the source code be made available for the use of the blind. This is reason enough to do so, in my opinion. –  Scott Carter May 12 '12 at 1:53
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