What’s wrong with electronic journals?

It probably sounds disingenuous of me to say this, but when I sat down to write a post about Elsevier I wasn’t really trying to start a campaign. My intention was merely to make public, and a little more rigid, a policy that I and many others had already been applying, in my case without much difficulty, for several years. The idea of setting up a website occurred to me as I was writing the post: I considered it (and still consider it) not as a petition to Elsevier to change its ways — since I don’t believe there is any realistic chance of that — but as a simple way to bring out into the open all the private boycotts and semi-boycotts that were going on, and thereby to encourage others to do the same.

By accident, the post seems to have been quite well timed. Probably it’s not an accident at all, and that whatever atmosphere it was that prompted me to get round to writing the post (for example, certain discussions I had had with other mathematicians, some of them online) was the same as what made it a good moment. Anyhow, accident or no, the result is that some people have talked about “momentum”, and I’m starting to feel a responsibility, not particularly welcome (because it threatens to involve work), not to squander that momentum.

I’ve actually been ill in bed for much of the last few days, so most of the rest of this post will be reporting on some feverish thoughts, which I’ll try to organize into a more coherent form. I’ll also try not to write too much, though that may be quite difficult.

What next?

What I really mean is more like, “How much next?” Do we just let the number of signatures at Tyler Neylon’s website continue to grow at its currently healthy rate and sit back and hope that at some point there will be a phase change? That was something like my original plan — or rather non-plan. But there are reasons to suppose that provoking a phase change will take a bit more effort.

I felt I had at least to think about that when Michael Harris made a comment of which here is the beginning.

When the number of signatures reaches a certain target figure — 500, say, or 1000 — the next step is to send an open letter to the members of the editorial board of one of the Elsevier journals, explaining why they might want either to look into changing publishers or, if this is impossible for contractual reasons, to resign. Since the editors are colleagues, the tone should not be confrontational. Instead, one should make the point that their remaining on the editorial board in the face of such a massive show of rejection will naturally be interpreted as a defense of Elsevier’s business practices; and more pragmatically, it will be more difficult to maintain the quality of a journal subject to boycott.

I’m willing to draft such a letter if there is sufficient interest and if no one else volunteers, though I’m hardly the most qualified to do so. It would need at least 20 signatures from a broad sampling of mathematical specialties.

My initial impulse on reading this was to think that maybe that was moving a bit fast. I also latched on eagerly to the words “the tone should not be confrontational” and started mentally drafting letters full of assurances that they were not in any sense a criticism etc. etc. Meanwhile, it soon became clear that the 1000-signatures mark would be quickly passed, as it now has been. (However, the proportion of mathematicians has dropped. For a while it was almost 100% but now it is a lot less than that. So a target that might be appropriate is 1000 mathematicians. Restricting the list by subject is not yet possible, but Tyler Neylon assures me that it will become so. With a bit of effort, I’ve done a not terribly reliable count and concluded that there are 430 mathematicians so far.)

I then read this (written, as you can see, in response to another comment).


We agree that technology is making publishing an electronic journal easy without technical expertise.

A group of current UChicago and forner grad students and alums have created Scholastica, (http://www.scholasticahq.com), an academic journal management platform and scholarly community. Anyone can create their own peer reviewed journal, manage their peer review process, and ultimately publish without the need for publishing companies like Elsevier. There’s also a section of the application called ‘The Conversation’ (http://scholasticahq.com/conversation) that is very similar to Mathoverflow that allows academics to build reputation points that can be used to be recruited as a referee.

We hope that this is seen as more than a shameless plug as we’ve been working tirelessly over the last year with no pay to provide something to address the problems with academic publishing that Tim and others describe here.

We would love your support.

– Rob Walsh

A little later, I had an exchange of emails with Brian Cody, another member of the Scholastica team, and it became clear that one of their aims was to make it almost effort free for the editors of a journal to do what the editors of Topology did: resign en masse and start again somewhere else with a modified name. Scholastica may well not be the only venture of its kind, and perhaps one can argue about whether it is the best, but what one can say now, with confidence, is that there is a web tool out there that makes the mechanics of starting up a new (but secretly not so new) journal almost trivial. I’d add that the site is in beta at the moment, with an eager team of developers who are ready to add features if there is a demand for them. I urge people to have a look.

It seems to me that if lots of mathematicians feel that enough is enough with Elsevier, and if it is easy to move a journal, then one really can start to think that something might happen sooner rather than later. But there is one snag, which brings me to the title of this post: a journal set up with Scholastica is electronic. [I write that without being 100% certain that it is correct — I have written to them to check.]

Electronic Journals.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? I don’t have a good answer, but I do have a bad answer, which is that I, and probably many other people, have an irrational prejudice against them. (There’s also a potentially better answer to do with whether electronic archives are likely to be as durable as paper ones have shown themselves to be, but I’m going to ignore that issue.) I grew up with the paper journal, I remember the thrill of seeing my first paper in print, I enjoyed browsing in libraries, I liked the long traditions that accompanied certain journals, and so on, and when the first electronic journals started, there just didn’t seem to be any point in submitting to them: why sacrifice that lovely paper when you didn’t have to? Somehow, electronic journals weren’t the real thing.

Recently, however, my prejudice has weakened. An obvious reason is that I don’t actually have any of the experiences that I enjoyed when I was starting out in my career: I can’t remember when I last set foot in a maths library, I think people have stopped sending me fifty offprints whenever a paper of mine comes out (which is a relief, as the ones I do have are a silly waste of shelf space, though I can’t bear to throw them away), the moment a paper “comes out” is nowadays the day I put it on the arXiv rather than the almost irrelevant day a couple of years later when it is published. In short, I do pretty well everything on my computer these days, so the idea of an electronic publication has lost the “unreal” feeling it used to have.

However, I do think that kind of prejudice probably still survives to a significant extent, and that it would be good to try to combat it. Here it seems to me that electronic journals have missed a trick. When I see the name “Electronic Journal of Combinatorics”, for example, my instinct is to read it as something like, “Journal of Combinatorics — except it’s only electronic”. In other words, the word “electronic” has entirely negative associations. (At this point I should say that yesterday out of curiosity I browsed the archive of the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics for the first time ever, and discovered to my surprise, and slight shame, that it was full of excellent papers by excellent mathematicians. Moreover, in the sample I looked at every single paper made me think, “Hmm, that looks interesting.” By way of apology, I shall submit to them when I next have a suitable paper. I was also shocked to discover that Herb Wilf, who founded the journal, died a few weeks ago. That news had passed me by.)

There must surely be ways that an electronic journal could exploit its electronic character in order to have a positive appeal. Why not have an electronic journal that isn’t run on quite the same lines as a conventional journal? Let me describe an imaginary new journal that would be close enough to conventional journals not to ruffle too many feathers but different enough that at least some people might find it dynamic, forward-looking, and somewhere one would love to be published.

Breakthroughs in Mathematics.

The journal Breakthroughs in Mathematics is set up with one main aim: to accept papers only if they are outstanding. As its name suggests, the editors will be looking for papers that open up new areas, get past seemingly impregnable barriers, or solve long-standing open problems.

If you have written such a paper, why might you wish to submit it to Breakthroughs rather than to, say, Annals, Acta or the Journal of the AMS? Here are a few reasons.

1. Our attitude is that if you publish with us, then we are doing you a favour rather than the other way round. The journal does not have a print version, so there is no need to fill issues with papers that do not meet its exacting standards. If a few months go by without a breakthrough, then that’s fine by us. The average number of papers published so far has been about ten per year, so publication in Breakthroughs is something of an event in the way that publication in a conventional journal, however prestigious, is not.

2. We have a large, youthful and diverse editorial board, consisting mainly of mathematicians who are active on the internet. If that is not your thing, then by all means submit to a conventional journal, but if you are part of the internet generation of mathematicians, then you may feel more at home at Breakthroughs.

3. The submission and refereeing process works as follows. Authors are required to submit not just their papers but also a short account of their work, in which they should explain their result in terms that are comprehensible to mathematicians outside their speciality, paying particular attention to what it is that makes it more than just an ordinary piece of very good mathematics. There is then an initial filtering process by the editorial board, helped by quick opinions solicited from experts in the relevant areas, which is based more on the short account of the paper than on the paper itself and is intended to establish whether the result is sufficiently interesting to sufficiently many editors to be publishable in Breakthroughs. In the rare event that it is, the paper then goes to a technical referee, whose job is not to evaluate the paper, but simply to comment on how it is written and to check that the author has done what he or she claims to have done.

4. The technical referee is not anonymous. Indeed, he or she is positively encouraged to interact with the author, asking for help in understanding difficult parts of a paper, and so on. Authors can even nominate their own technical referee if they wish, though Breakthroughs has the final say.

5. When the paper is published, it appears along with an explanation, written by a suitable member of the editorial board, of why it is deemed important enough to appear in Breakthroughs. This will typically be based on the short account provided by the author, as well as on remarks made by the referees, and possibly on other sources such as online discussion of the result (which will typically by this time be quite well known, though we aim to deal with our papers quickly). It also comes with a comments page, to which anybody can contribute remarks about the paper — such as alternative proofs of certain steps, notification of applications, and the like. The author can respond to these remarks. In these ways, we attempt to give a bit of publicity to the papers we publish, and to provide some context for the general reader.

6. We have made a serious attempt to be precise about what is required of a paper for it to be published in Breakthroughs. For details, see our page, “What is a breakthrough?” Of course, it is impossible to give exact necessary and sufficient conditions, but the fact that we at least try makes it clearer what it means to have a Breakthroughs in Mathematics paper on your CV than it would if we simply said that we had very high standards.

But still: what now?

A journal like that is not going to answer the need for new journals to replace the overpriced conventional ones, but it could at least make electronic journals sexy in a way that they aren’t at the moment. It would also have the great virtue of not requiring much work of the editors. (It would require quite a lot of work per accepted paper, but the number of accepted papers would be very small.)

I’m aware though that I haven’t really faced up to the question of whether the editors of an Elsevier journal should be gently encouraged to consider switching publishers. As a matter of fact, I heard from an Elsevier editor recently. Let me call him/her X. X had approached a potential referee and had just received a refusal in which my earlier blog post was mentioned. X was somewhat critical of encouraging people not to referee for Elsevier journals, but said that he/she had some sympathy with the reasons. My guess is that on any journal there will be a small handful of very active editors, often just the official main editors, who in a sense “are” the journal and whose lives could be a little disrupted, and a much wider set of editors who wouldn’t at all mind moving if there were good reasons to do so.

How much of an imposition this would be would depend on a number of factors. One factor I find hard to judge because of my lack of experience running journals is probably the most important: the extent to which the smooth running of a journal depends on a good relationship between the managing editors and certain representatives, who may have genuine mathematical sympathies and expertise, of the publishers. Giving up a relationship like that would be a genuine sacrifice unless there was a realistic prospect of a new and similar relationship to take its place. Asking a print journal to go electronic would also be asking quite a lot, though, for reasons I indicated above, perhaps not too much.

Combinatorics journals.

In the course of writing the last couple of paragraphs I found myself thinking about the situation in combinatorics, and I have come to realize that I am on the editorial boards of at least two Springer journals: the Annals of Combinatorics, which is not really my kind of combinatorics and has involved zero work, and Combinatorica, which is one of my favourite maths journals. Since the general view seems to be that Springer has become a problem company as well, I should perhaps consider my position. I find it quite hard to get comprehensible information about the prices of these journals, but I think that if I could sell the back numbers that I’ve received from them at their official cost price, I could go on a round-the-world cruise and still have plenty of change.

What are the options if you want to publish a good result in combinatorics? (Here, I’m mainly talking about Hungarian-style combinatorics rather than enumerative or algebraic combinatorics.) If the result is interesting enough, you could of course publish in a general-interest journal, but let’s suppose you want it to appear in a specialist journal. The list of journals that would naturally spring to my mind is this. I’ll also give my associations with each one, which should not be taken seriously because I haven’t made any effort to test whether they are correct. I’m sure other people have different pecking orders.

Combinatorica: used to be regarded as the number one journal in combinatorics, and very possibly still is; quite slow and with a big backlog (that was true once but may be out of date). [Springer]

Discrete Mathematics: good solid journal; not of the absolute top rank. [Elsevier]

Edit. The assessments of the next two journals were based on ignorance and were wrong: I am told by those in the know that JCT is roughly on a par with Combinatorica, or perhaps just the tiniest bit behind. So they are very good.

Journal of Combinatorial Theory A: good solid journal; not of the absolute top rank. [Elsevier]

Journal of Combinatorial Theory B: good solid journal; not of the absolute top rank. [Elsevier]

European Journal of Combinatorics: OK, but not as good as I thought it was when I submitted a paper I very much liked to it twenty years ago. [Elsevier]

Random Structures and Algorithms: very good; lots of interesting papers. [Wiley]

Combinatorics, Probability and Computing: a personal favourite; set up recently(ish) by Béla Bollobás and maintains a high standard. [Cambridge University Press]

Electronic Journal of Combinatorics: now that I’ve actually looked into it … good.

I’ve probably missed some obvious further possibilities there, but the fact remains that that is my mental list of good combinatorial journals, and if I want to avoid the big publishing houses then my list goes down from eight to two. It’s not as bad as it sounds though. The only one of those journals that I’ve actually submitted to is Combinatorics, Probability and Computing, and the only one of the first six that I’d feel sad about boycotting is Combinatorica, though I also feel quite positive about Random Structures and Algorithms.

So if anything is to be done about outrageously high journal prices in combinatorics, it looks as though new journals, or migration of existing ones, will be needed. (Incidentally, I’m writing all this on the assumption that we stick with something close to the current system of journals providing varying stamps of quality. Obviously other systems are possible, but persuading large numbers of mathematicians to move to those systems would be much more of a challenge.)

Are there two kinds of mathematician?

I was quite surprised that the reaction to the idea of a boycott was as positive as it was: I had expected a more divided response. I still wonder whether the true response is more divided. Could it be that the kind of mathematician who participates fully in online discussions on blogs, Mathoverflow etc. is naturally enthusiastic, whereas a more traditionally-minded mathematician just wants to be left alone to continue with a way of doing things that seems perfectly satisfactory? If so, then the apparently strong support could be misleading. I think it is this thought that makes me want to tread carefully after reading Michael Harris’s suggestion. But treading carefully doesn’t necessarily mean not treading at all. I’d be very interested to know what other people think about this: is there some moment that needs to be seized, or should we simply sit back and watch the number of signatures grow?

97 Responses to “What’s wrong with electronic journals?”

  1. D. Eppstein Says:

    Among the combinatorics journals, you missed European J. Combinatorics at least. But that one’s also Elsevier.

  2. Jon Awbrey Says:

    Having spent a good part of the1990s writing about what the New Millennium would bring to our intellectual endeavours, it is only fair that I should have spent the last dozen years wondering why the New Millennium is so late in arriving. With all due reflection I think it is time to face the fact that the fault, Dear Gowers, is not in our technology, but in ourselves.

    Here is one of my last, best attempts to get at the root of the matter:

    Journal version

    Conference version

  3. Pierre Colmez Says:

    Moving away from a publisher does not always have the consequences that one could hope for. For example, the Annales of Ecole Normale Superieure moved from Elsevier to Societe Mathematique de France, whith lower pricing, but the level of subscription was lower after than before… (at least in the first years; I did not check what happened more recently). I think this is even worse when moving to an electronic form.

    • Greg Martin Says:

      Perhaps one should take this data as indicating the barrel over which commercial publishers currently hold mathematicians. If they’ve set up a bad system where access would be even worse without them (at least at the beginning) – that’s a pretty shrewd business model, isn’t it?

    • Lior Silberman Says:

      Our library has a limited journal budget, to which the bundles from Elsevier, Springer etc make the first claim, leaving less money for other journals.

      When the journal leaves Elsevier the publisher does not reduce the price of the bundle accordingly (they probably don’t reduce it at all). So for a library to subscribe to the new stand-alone journal they need to increase the journal budget. As Greg says this is a symptom of the strangle-hold they have over the market by virtue of owning so many journals.

      Moreover, I don’t think the bundling is done by field — so even if this drive would get all significant mathematics journals to leave Elsevier and Springer, most libraries would still have pay for whatever mathematics is left together with the medical journals, chemistry journals and so on.

  4. Tom Leinster Says:

    As I understand it, the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics was one of the first online mathematics journals, and the founders of various later online journals also thought that the word “Electronic” was, in retrospect, a mistake. I read a piece by someone (maybe one of the founders of Geometry and Topology?) saying that they would no more call their journal “Electronic Journal of X” than “A4 Journal of X”.

    I think it’s good that you’ve aired your feelings of discomfort about electronic journals, because they’re probably fairly common – even though some people might not admit to them for fear of sounding irrational. But I also think that prejudice will become less widespread as the years go by, simply because people will stop knowing whether or not a journal is electronic-only. I suppose we can assume that anything published by Elsevier or Springer has a print version, but maybe on that front too, things will change.

  5. ogerard Says:

    An aspect that deserve more coverage in my opinion, is what is to happen to the large legacy that all these traditional journals have created in all those years (especially in Mathematics where many articles age very well). Elsevier, Springer, etc. still own the copyright of every article published in most of their journals, even if their editorial boards resign (the legal situation is not homogenous, for instance when publishing articles of a national academy). They have indexed, registered, sometimes retro-digitized these articles and have legal control on their public diffusion. The fact that new, cheaper and perhaps better or differently designed journals exist for new research do not change the need to access (and link to, and search for, and publish errata for) these previous works, and the need to do this at a reasonable cost from any institution in the world or for any individual researcher.

  6. ogerard Says:

    About your idea of a journal called “Breakthroughs in Mathematics”.

    That is the kind of journal for which one might consider retro- or ante- publishing. By that I mean to publish, (in negative-integer-numbered issues ?), articles which represented in their time breakthroughs in mathematics (with all the apparatus you suggest for new articles) and were not published (or not in easily available medium, or language, or with sufficient care) in the form they deserve.

  7. Bobito Says:

    There certainly are two kinds of mathematicians. Those who post on blogs and pay attention to blogs appear to me to be a still small minority. Here’s an experiment: pick your favorite “good” university and read through the list of math professors, paying attention only to those younger than some arbitrary cut-off like 45 and ask yourself how many of them are presences in online mathematics. If the result is as much as 1/5 I’d be quite surprised.

    Also there is another very consequential divide: those who think their job is to educate and discover/create new mathematics, and those who think their job is to teach and to publish papers. This divide is more complicated than it appears – some of those who think their job is to publish papers publish very good papers anyway – and some of those who try to do something imaginative fail.

  8. plm Says:

    Thank you Tim.

    I think the last point you make is very important. It seems to me that online mathematicians are a minority -from leaders like Terence, you, Thurston,… to students, probably more onlinized. I have been feeling this while observing discussions of alternatives to traditional journals. Recent posts on alternative rating systems for mathematicians’ output (by you, Cathy O’Neill, maybe others) seemed to overlook this a little.

    And I wonder whether it should change at all. The computer, the web, social networks, are something very difficult to understand and control, and people are launching themselves into those powerful systems in many ways. This is very much a world-scale experiment about which I feel little confidence.

    On publishing and rating systems, I remember the example of a mathematician who used to wait one year after finishing his papers to send them for publication (the name of Mackey comes to my mind but I feel this was not him).

    The easier it is to publish the more discipline we must exert (virtual backlogs for online journals?), to maintain performance of our rating system, research philosophy/ies. Changing rating/acceptation systems may affect the direction of research in undesirable ways. I think we need some modeling to really develop confidence in our intuition.

    Perhaps a journal, defined broadly as a group of (researchers) editors working efficiently together, with a common history/experience, is ideal as rating system. I have tried a little to formalize this and how a competitive “economy of knowledge” chooses rating systems, using simple economic models, perhaps also how a research community with various (local) objectives should cluster using ideas from optimal currency areas. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimum_currency_area)
    I think it would be highly helpful and healthy to keep in mind a few simple models in (blog) discussions.

    But this is beyond my capacities/motivation for the moment.

  9. Scott Morrison Says:

    I worry that the current (great!) list at http://thecostofknowledge.com is becoming diluted. I understand that this is an issue that goes beyond mathematics, and I’m excited to see we’re not alone in looking for post-Elsevier solutions.

    But if we want to be able to use this list to provide moral backing when we refuse to referee, or to encourage editorial boards to move away from the worst commercial publishers, it is essential that someone glancing at the list can see that there are lots of people *from our field* who are motivated to make change.

    A very concrete suggestion: how about some extra domain names, e.g. http://math.thecostofknowledge.com/, which simply apply a filter to the displayed list? I think this would be very straightforward to implement.

    • gowers Says:

      As I said in the post, I am assured by Tyler Neylon that this important feature will be added in due course.

    • ogerard Says:

      This feature has now been added. But the companion features of restricting the listing to a discipline or a general tally by discipline would be great.

    • Scott Morrison Says:


      I had been talking about “filtering”, meaning restricting the listing. As Tim points out, Tyler says he’s working on it!

    • Bobito Says:

      As an unimportant, uninfluential mathematician, I also think the following is important: that me and lots of people like me sign the list is great, but will have little effect. That Tim Gowers and Terry Tao and lots of people like them sign the list is great and will have more effect. It is important that these things be headed by those with names recognizable even to non-mathematicians, or at least with credentials impressive to them.

      A bunch of grad students is not the same as ten members of the NAS.

    • Cameron Neylon Says:

      As a bioscientist who has signed up, and encouraged others to sign up it would be good to have a sense of how the community that built this feels. From a wider perspective it is important to show that there is disquiet across a wide spread of disciplines. But I appreciate for the mathematics community this may be felt as something which takes attention away from the changes that you want to see.

      Either way splitting the list up into disciplines will I hope address those issues and allow a large overall number but also a real sense of how specific communities feel.

  10. Michal Kotowski Says:

    One thing that people doubtful about developing electronic, open-access journals should bear in mind is that 30 years from now most more conservative/older mathematicians will be retired, dead or not so active anymore, while the younger generation will be stuck with the same ill-functioning system, if we don’t take any more radical steps to change the situation (I’m 25 and, to be honest, the feeling of discomfort associated with online journals is completely alien to people of my generation).

    Frankly speaking, while I don’t find arguments of the more cautious people completely insubstantial, they are, for the most part, fairly weak, mostly concerned with the more “technical” aspects of online journals’ (or “quasi-journals”) functioning, and in the end, despite their proponents’ being well-intentioned, they may actually help conserve the status quo, which is definitely not the desired outcome of the whole boycott or discussion.

    I think that now the most fruitful direction of the discussion would be to work out carefully and in down-to-earth detail how the mathematical community should go about establishing open-access journals, as an alternative to the boycotted ones hidden behind the paywalls. The most difficult part, of course, will be convincing researchers that it is actually worthwile to submit papers to the new journals, but this is exactly the point where the support of senior and renowned mathematicians, like Terence Tao or Tim Gowers, would be useful (they could help convince other mathematicians in their fields to consider serving as editors of the new journals). However, this can be done without rethinking any elements of the system like peer-review etc., so in this sense the difficulty is merely “technical” and this option is in fact fairly conservative (which may make it more palatable).

  11. mrgunn (@mrgunn) Says:

    I’m no mathematician, but I like what you’ve started and would like to see the momentum grow, if for no other reason that it supports the movements in other fields where they don’t use the Arxiv and where the need is therefore much greater.

    Thanks for doing this.

    What’s next? A letter writing campaign to editors seems like a smart next step. We have to grow the size of the boycott significantly before we start to attract real attention.

  12. outofthenormmaths Says:

    Part of the discomfort people feel for electronic journals may be that publishing a physical journal seems to be a ‘costly signal’. In general, I’m more likely to believe something I’ve read in a book than something I’ve read on the internet.

    Even if it’s false (as the printed ‘Chaos, Solitons, and Fractals’ suggests), it still feels like a reasonable first heuristic. Perhaps, to overcome this, e-journals need some sort of common branding, or independent body that approves their methods. It could be as simple as having lists of journals such as yours.

    Incidentally, regarding lack of ‘divided response’, though I feel the boycott to be positive, if I were continuing to be an early career researcher in academia, I wouldn’t sign: getting a paper in the best possible journal (for that paper) would still be my priority. Equally, I would not necessarily feel confident imposing my wishes on co-authors (this is less theoretical, having one co-authored paper still to submit). However, in knowledge of Evilseer’s practices, I would feel better about submitting to substitutes, or suggesting them as a preference to colleagues. This is another reason why I feel subject-specific journal lists such as the one in your post are valuable.

    • a Says:

      “Incidentally, regarding lack of ‘divided response’, though I feel the boycott to be positive, if I were continuing to be an early career researcher in academia, I wouldn’t sign: getting a paper in the best possible journal (for that paper) would still be my priority.”

      Agreed. As a graduate student who has just submitted what could be my first paper to a (very good, probably better than the paper deserves) Elsevier journal at the suggestion of a (very famous) editor of said journal, while I sympathize with the ideas present, I do not feel like I have any way of participating.

  13. Peter Krautzberger Says:

    Thank you for continuing this discussion. I had feared it would stop after the pledge worked so well.

    I must admit that I find myself wondering if the points you raise are going in the right direction.

    I got rather uncomfortable when you described the idea of “Breakthroughs in Mathematics”. I don’t think that breakthrough papers are the problem — with your support, such a journal would likely be an instant success.

    The problem is rather with average papers. The kind of papers that more and more young researchers find themselves writing not because they want to write them but because they must publish to find a job, to survive an evaluation etc. And of course, these papers must end up at reasonably high impact factor journals because that is what we are reduced to in job applications.

    This, I think, is the main problem why the journal system appears broken — an inflation of papers that has devalued the concept of papers and hence of the only thing we consider in the research section of a mathematician’s CV.

    I seems that the problem of scientific and mathematical research is not the production of results anymore. Your generation has done a great job at creating more and more PhDs that can write papers aplenty.

    Instead of production, the problem is now attention, i.e., identifying the better papers amid the flood of average papers that nobody has time to read. As you described yourself, you were surprised that the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics actually contained a lot of interesting material that you didn’t even know about. Have you ever considered writing about interesting papers? And maybe even use http://www.researchblogging.org to make this known? Or perhaps use http://www.papercritic.com to rate the paper? (You could also do this anonymously.)

    Instead of more papers (and hence more journals), I strongly believe that we need to focus on new ways of finding good research results and value this as research activity. In fact, after your suggestion for a MathOverflow+ArXiv publishing system, Claire Mathieu had suggested to only publish other people’s work — taking the idea of valuing the identification of good research to a wonderful extreme. There’s of course also the much larger debate going on regarding post-publication peer-review (such as http://www.f1000.com/) which is precisely about this issue.

    The second problem I see is what Michael Nielsen raises in Reinventing Discovery: the modularization of research. The sciences have already experimented very successfully with ways to modularize research from by now classic examples like Galaxy Zoo to more recent ideas http://whale.fm/ and http://www.FigShare.com.

    We mathematicians have nothing to offer in this respect.

    As you wrote yourself a while ago, the wonderful tricki has failed much like other wikis outside of Wikipedia (whereas other research areas have begun to value Wikipedia contributions as research).

    I would even go as far as say that Polymath has failed (even though it was all about publishing papers and not disruptive in that sense). However, there still might be a chance to salvage it if we find a way to scale it away from top research to more average level research, more realistic problems or simply open-notebook science.

    At the same time, a lot of young mathematicians “grow up” online. But they are still strongly discouraged not to experiment with communicating their mathematics online. Having attended Science Online 2012 last week, I was again shocked by the positive community the online science community offers.

    The scientific online community embraces the younger generation. (Did you know that young graduate students write at the Scientific American’s blog network as equals of experienced scientists and professional science journalists?.) In mathematics, e.g., the MathOverflow community has worked very hard at discouraging even experienced graduate students from contributing (just ask some average graduate student). The scientific online community also offers protection and support by encouraging and developing safe systems for pseudonymous online activities.

    As some comments have already indicated, we mathematicians are significantly behind in founding an online community that deserves the name. In particular, our academic societies do not take the online community seriously — which is somewhat bizarre given the current count of roughly 350 blogs in the research category on http://www.mathblogging.org.

    Can we find a way to raise awareness of the potential for our community? Can we get to a culture where we value more and more experiments like the tricki, Polymath, mathoverflow until we find enough systems that actually work and everyone can participate meaningfully?

    Finally, in a most likely vain attempt at getting back on topic: Can we find a way to use online journals in new ways, to modularize the mathematical research process instead of just copying a 300 year old idea to the web?

    Oh dear, this has gotten far too long. I apologize.

    • Andrew Stacey Says:

      You seem to imply that “other wikis outside of Wikipedia” are doomed to failure.

      That’s news to us at the nLab. We’re even experimenting with our own version of online publishing.

      I’d never heard of “open notebook science” before, but from a brief look at the wikipedia page (!), that pretty much describes what the nLab is; indeed, our “tag line” on the home page is “We think of this wiki as our lab book that we happen to keep open for all to see”. Nice to have a label to describe what we’ve been doing all this time.

    • Alexander Woo Says:

      I can’t completely put an exact finger on it, but I have this vague feeling that you have contradictory aims here – that the promotion of ‘average’ mathematicians is not compatible with online community of the kind you envision.

      Mathematics is not science. Like the arts and humanities and unlike the social and natural sciences, mathematics is defined by a common tradition – in our case proof and various ‘foundational’ ideas – rather than by common problems or goals. Mozart sometimes hired people to write recitative for his operas, and Philip Glass has a team of people filling in the details in his film scores, but the average composer contributes to music not by directly contributing their small piece to the work of someone else but by creating their own works from which others may take ideas.

      The strength and richness of mathematics comes from having everyone work on different problems with shared histories that may or may not reconnect in the future, not from having everyone work on different approaches to the same overall goal.

    • Peter Says:

      Hm. no threaded comments — I hope this ends up in the right place…

      Thanks, @Andrew Stacey. You are, of course, completely right — the nLab is a great example. What I’m trying to argue is that most wikis have been founded with the idea “if you build it they will come”. But the opposite seems to be true — only continuous and laborious community work of a few will make it work.

      The nLab is excellent at community building; you have the Cafe, the forum and the forum’s blog, people are on MO etc. Now you just need to teach other fields how to pull that off 😉 Actually, seriously, Science Online 2013 could use a session on that.

      @Alexander Woo: No, I don’t think that online communities are incompatible with “average” research. Pretty much the opposite is true. I think good online projects such as MO, papercritic, researchblogging etc will precisely help the culture you describe.

      Since we mathematicians are working on very different problems, online communities could help us find interesting results that connect up with your own research even though a) we don’t have enough time to read all papers so as to find those that connect with our work or b) we might not be able to recognize a potential connection.

      But what I tried to argue is that this is much much harder for average research than it is for a “Breakthroughs” journal. If you solve a Millennium problem, of course it doesn’t matter where you publish.

    • Alexander Woo Says:

      @Peter: I think what I am trying to say is that the nature of mathematics research is such that it cannot be modularized, unless what you mean and what I think you mean by ‘modular’ are very different.

      Because mathematics is so different from science, the kind of online community and the kinds of online community tools found in science are unlikely to work for mathematics.

    • Peter Krautzberger Says:

      Alexander, I don’t know what modularization would mean for mathematics, but I doubt that it’s impossible.

      In a way, MathOverflow has modularized mathematics, in a way Polymath has done it (but has yet to scale to a wider audience), in a way, blogs do.

      Could we imagine a figshare of mathematics? A micro-contribution journal? A journal for “failed attacks on a problem”? Could we imagine crowd-sourced survey articles?

      I think we have enough creative people in mathematics that have thought about these things but there’s no incentive to spend time realizing them — after all “you could write a paper instead”…

    • vcvpaiva Says:

      hi Peter, I’ve learned lots from your long response, thanks. Totally agree that the point is not what to do with breakthroughs, but how to make it possible to focus on new ways of finding good research results and actually ways of composing or adding these research results together, to accomplish larger tasks within mathematics.
      yes, more stuff like polymath.
      Thank you Tim for keeping up the discussion, it sure needs an awful lot more discussion to make the momentum of the boycott accomplish something of lasting value. As mentioned in google+, I think the main problem is that Elsevier is not the only publisher that needs boycotting and it’s still career-suicide for young people to stop publishing in all commercial publishers. While some of the reasons for disliking electronic journals might be simply anachronisms, it is a fact that even very established open source journals like TAC (Theory and Applications of Categories) do not count a iota for research councils, H-indexes and some hiring boards. I guess if anyone was asking me what a next step in a movement against commercial publishers ought to be, I’d suggest compiling lists of open source journals in the subfields of mathematics that we’d recommend people to publish in. I know the list for category theory, but when checking the directory of open access journals for logic, http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=findJournals&uiLanguage=en&hybrid=&query=logic nothing much stands out. yeah, I know no one was asking, but it would be a good step to know if there are really open access journals in all the subareas that one could direct good ideas to.

  14. André Joyal Says:

    I thank you for launching this boycott Tim Gowers! It may not be exactly what you expected, but it is great! We badly needed this kind of action. It is already some kind of success! But what should we do next? Your idea of writing a letter to the editorial boards of Elsevier is great! But let us not worry too much about short term success. We may take our inspiration from a man like Gandhi. Above all, we should try to do what is right. Even if we loose a battle, we will eventually win the war! The Light is on our side.

  15. Sam Alexander Says:

    Here’s an idea: an electronic journal can retain “printed” status extremely easily by granting libraries a license to print volumes. Rather than printing all the volumes centrally, let libraries who want physical copies print their own. Libraries already do this with doctoral dissertations and masters theses (and they bind them, too, at least here at OSU). There’s no reason they can’t do it with journals. Economy of scale would be lost, yes, it would be more expensive to print copies locally with a laserjet than to print 10 million copies centrally with a press… but the actual printing costs should be trivial compared to the savings gained by cutting out parasitic for-profit publishers.

  16. Hell's Granny Says:

    It is not worrying that the petition is being signed outside mathematics, it is essential that it should be. I am not arguing against being able to sort the list between disciplines, but if you want to make the maximum impact on Elsevier, it is important to build a coalition across all academic disciplines, as they publish very widely (into the Humanities too). And what about those scholars who do not fit into established disciplines, those of us who work across disciplines, those of us who would eschew the notion of disciplines as part of our approach to intellectual inquiry?

    I have worked, both practically and analytically, in the area of the politics of knowledge and communication for many years, and I find these latest developments so exciting in the context of what is happening in the world at the moment – we are the 99% of the scholarly community, we are the people who are bearing the brunt of government cutbacks in all previously public institutions, from universities to care homes. So let’s seize the moment to build the widest possible coalition – politely, of course – and believe we can make a difference. On February 25th there is to be a meeting for all those who are interested in expanding the concept of free universities, and this is another expression of the frustration people are feeling with the current situation.

    Also, Tim, please do not ignore the issue of whether electronic archives are likely to be as durable as paper ones have been. It is a crucial element in analysing the current over-reliance on digital media – one might even say the unquestioning worship of digital media. The reasons for wanting to keep every type of publication available in print has practically nothing to do with sloppy sentimentality.

  17. Declarations « Log24 Says:

    […] Gowers and […]

  18. Marcin Kotowski Says:

    @Peter Krautzberger:

    “In mathematics, e.g., the MathOverflow community has worked very hard at discouraging even experienced graduate students from contributing (just ask some average graduate student). ”

    “At the same time, a lot of young mathematicians “grow up” online. But they are still strongly discouraged not to experiment with communicating their mathematics online.”

    Can you substantiate? Who’s discouraging whom from what? As a casual MO user (and grad student myself), I don’t find the environment there intimidating (on the contrary, MO comes as close to “academic online math community” as it gets now). I don’t think that anyone is actively discouraging young people from online participation.

    • Peter Krautzberger Says:

      @Marcin Kotowski.

      My wording regarding MO was unfortunate. I did not mean to imply graduate students are actively discouraged by the community. However, almost all graduate students I have talked to about this (here at Michigan but also at conferences and workshops) have given me precisely this impression — they do feel discouraged to participate. This has many reasons and for privacy reasons I don’t want to describe individual stories. There’s also the “problem” of MO having extraordinary users in some areas (such as my own), making it impossible to participate much (have you ever tried answering a question that Joel Hamkins knows the answer to?). Finally, there are those fields which are not well represented on MO in general, another hindrance for younger researchers.

      I do think that MO is an amazing community in many, many ways and something where we are truly ahead of everybody else, really. But that doesn’t mean it’s without flaws.

      The second part you quoted was much more general in nature, not just about MO but also other activities such as blogging, wikipedia, tricki, expository writing, reviewing other people’s papers, engaging with your community through social media etc.. From my own experience but also from conversations with other postdocs, it is clear that non-tenured folk are discouraged to do anything online — if you’re very good, then it is non-negative for your career.

      I’ve personally heard the advice to “definitely not mention this on your CV”. It boils down to the old “you could have written a paper instead”-argument, really, and it is not going away while hiring committees effectively reduce applicants to impact factors of the journals they publish in. Again, as I said before, this is not about breakthrough mathematics but about “average” research.

      Finally, here’s a link to a video from Science Online 2011 on “blogging in the academy” starting with an introduction from the perspective of MIT. It’s quite sobering even if it is only about blogging.

  19. David Wood Says:

    Other free combinatorics journals include:
    Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (http://www.dmtcs.org/) and Contributions to Discrete Mathematics (http://cdm.math.ca/index.php/cdm). See http://www.emis.de/journals/index.html for more free mathematics journals.

  20. obryant Says:

    On the ranking of journals, I enjoy browsing the Eigenfactor website (similar in concept to impact factors, but easily available with lots of pretty graphs). They also have pricing for the journals, but I’m not sure how their “cost effectiveness” metric is normalized. Anyway, here’s Tim’s list ranked by Eigenfactor (the proportion of time a reader repeatedly following a random citation will spend in a given journal).

    Discrete Mathematics: 0.022

    Journal of Combinatorial Theory A: 0.013

    European Journal of Combinatorics: 0.0114

    Electronic Journal of Combinatorics: 0.0109

    Journal of Combinatorial Theory B: 0.010

    Random Structures and Algorithms: 0.007

    Combinatorica: 0.007

    Combinatorics, Probability and Computing: 0.006

    Annals of Combinatorics: 0.002

    There seems to be enough noise in the signal to justify any reordering one pleases, and this measure is sensitive to the size of the journal, so Discrete Math is high not because of article excellence but because of the number of articles.

  21. b Says:

    I have seen a list of costs for journals for various publishers and journals by AMS. You should be able to find it by Googling.

    It might be possible to get Google/Microsoft involved in this. They provide services free of charge for academics (well, they show ads). If we can convince them (or YC) to support these projects the prospect of succeeding will increase significantly.

  22. Tom Leinster Says:

    I would like to tentatively suggest Advances in Mathematics as a first journal to approach.

    Michael Harris, in his original comment, mentioned Comptes Rendus as a possibility. (He later clarified that he wasn’t necessarily saying they should be the first target). Comptes Rendus has the advantage of being based in France, where there seems to be the most dissatisfaction with Elsevier. Presumably he also knows some of its editors.

    But here are some reasons for picking Advances. First, according to the data I’m currently looking at (eigenfactor.org), it’s the highest-impact journal published by Elsevier. Second, it’s a general-interest journal. If the editors of Advances decide to take their business elsewhere, that will make a big splash. Editors of lesser journals might be inspired to follow suit.

    Third — and this is admittedly a flimsier reason — Advances was founded by Gian-Carlo Rota, who, I gather, was not one to stay quiet when the emperor visibly had no clothes. Perhaps an appeal could be made to the spirit of the founder.

    There’s also a possible reason not to choose Advances, which is that it might not be particularly expensive. The editors might, therefore, feel relatively comfortable with continuing to support Elsevier. The data I’m looking at is Ulf Rehmann’s survey based on AMS data from 2008, which puts Advances in the bottom half for price/page ($0.41). But I’m not sure how relevant that figure actually is, even if it’s still accurate. Almost all libraries buy Elsevier journals as part of a bundle, don’t they? So I don’t actually know what it means to give a price for an individual journal. If the bundle is so expensive that it’s crippling libraries, it doesn’t matter how the cost is nominally distributed between journals.

    In any case, it would be great if the board of a high-profile journal such as Advances decided to take the plunge.

    • Matthew Daws Says:

      There’s an unfortunate paradox here: if a journal like Advances went the same way Topology did, then actually, it would hurt our library. Because presumably the Science Direct subscription wouldn’t fall, and so we’d have to find additional funds to subscribe to Advances 2 (as it were).

      Indeed, our library doesn’t have a massive problem with Elsevier, because averaged out, Science Direct is quite good value for money (based on the flawed metric of “cost per view”). (I personally share all the concerns expressed in this blog and elsewhere, but if you talk to the head of finance at the library, Elsevier is not their biggest problem). We recently broke apart our Springer package, and this did hurt mathematics.

      (Sorry, slightly depressing thoughts. But these things are complicated. I am the maths representative to our library, but I don’t profess to know all the details, so take with pinch of salt).

    • Bobito Says:

      Another obvious target might be the Journal of Algebra.

    • Tom Leinster Says:

      But Matthew, doesn’t your argument equally say that it would hurt your library if any decent journal left Elsevier?

    • gowers Says:

      I think that this argument could well be a good argument against a journal leaving Elsevier and moving to a publisher such as the LMS, which, while considerably cheaper, is still aiming to make significant money from its journals (with the huge advantage, from our point of view, that that money is spent on promoting mathematics). If Advances were to become electronic and free, then the problem wouldn’t arise.

    • Tom Leinster Says:

      Even if an ex-Elsevier journal doesn’t become electronic and free, there is the shining example of Annals to follow. They’re not free, but very cheap. Going by the same AMS 2008 data as before, Annals is $0.13/page or $260/volume. This is peanuts.

      Actually, that’s another argument for first targetting a high-profile journal. If a library continues to buy the Elsevier bundle, it will (as Matthew points out) have to spend extra money buying the reincarnated ex-Elsevier journals, until the stranglehold is broken. Libraries are more likely to find the cash for Advances 2 than Journal of Obscure Studies 2. Thus, the editors of high-profile journals have less reason to worry that libraries won’t subscribe to them.

    • Alexander Woo Says:

      On the subject of Advances, does anyone know more about why it publishes 4-5x as many pages as it did 10 years ago? Is Elsevier behind this in an attempt to make the journal look less expensive? While there may be 10000 pages a year submitted to and worthy of the Advances every year, continued expansion would eventually mean a decline in the quality of the journal; is there any plan to stop?

  23. anon Says:

    We should be careful not to fall in another well when exiting the current one.

    Is scholasticahq there mainly to make money or to improve the situation for academics? It seems to be the later:

    “you agree not to … build a product using similar features, functions, or graphics of the Site”.

    They say that you cannot build a similar software if you use theirs.

  24. Andrew Stacey Says:

    It’s easy to have good ideas (I think I have a few of them myself!), and one-shot big actions (like signing the Elsevier petition) are also easy.

    What’s hard is figuring out what we want the publishing landscape to be like in, say, 10 years’ time, working out the details, and pushing it through. This would have to take on board the views of old-and-crusty academics (who sit on review boards) as well as of the young-and-dynamics (who will replace them) (hyperbole hopefully clear). One person, however well-intentioned, cannot head this up: it’s too much work, and such an endeavour needs to be seen to be “community based” or it doesn’t have a hope of succeeding.

    This “figuring out” stage will not happen in blog comments: there is too much noise and it is too difficult to follow precisely how comments follow other comments (despite threading). Please consider using a forum for further discussion – it would also lighten the load on you to be initiating all the topics. If that sounds reasonable, then I can help in that I can set up a forum in seconds (the point of this offer is mainly that technological considerations shouldn’t be considerations).

    I think that the momentum that you have (perhaps inadvertently) created is fantastic, and it would be a shame to let it slide back to the level of grumblings at conferences.

    • gowers Says:

      That’s a very interesting suggestion. The one thing that makes me hesitate is that if the issue of leaving Elsevier gets mixed up with the issue of whether we want journals at all, then change could become quite a lot less likely. One way forward that is imaginable at least is that most reputable maths journals leave the big publishers and become electronic, and that once they are electronic it becomes much easier to experiment with new ideas such as non-anonymous refereeing. That is, we could get from the current deep potential well to a flatter place from which the system could evolve in directions we wanted it to go.

      I agree with your central point, though: if there is to be a debate about what we want mathematical publishing to be like in ten years’ time, then a forum is a better place for it than this blog.

    • Scott Morrison Says:

      There are so many great ideas and such enthusiasm in this comment thread — it will be a shame when they go no further.

      I don’t think we need to be thinking 10 years out. I think we need to be deploying all this energy to evaluate next steps and actually make some happen.

      A forum would be perfect. Here’s a potential list of starting topics, cherry picked from this thread:

      * Should we launch “Breakthroughs in Mathematics”?
      * Systematically evaluating Scholastica, aiming to provide feedback both to them and the mathematical community on how it fits our needs.
      * Which editorial boards should we approach about leaving Elsevier? How do we persuade them?
      * How can we improve thecostofknowledge.com?

    • Pierre Colmez Says:

      @scott morrison
      As anyone who played a game like chess or go will tell you, moving ahead without knowing where you want to go is a sure receipe for disaster. There are many issues to be thought of if we really want the academic community to take over scientific publications in order to better serve scientific communication and take away the incredible profits made by corporate publishers. Amongst them is:

      — what will happen to the issues that these publishers would still own ? (In mathematics, the life expectancy of a good paper is quite long, and I don’t see why the publishers would not use this to try to make a lot of profit without any extra work.)

      — is it possible for mathematicians to act alone? (As was pointed out somewhere above, the bundle strategy of the scientific publishers makes this rather difficult as it leads to an augmentation of the costs for general university libraries.)

      — where would we find the people to administrate the new system?
      (I guess that Annals of Maths is so cheap because the staff of IAS is put to contribution.)

    • Scott Morrison Says:


      Don’t forget that, like in chess, we are playing against a clock.

      My main point is that this blog comment thread is not the right place to discuss all these questions. There’s just too much going on here — we need to be able to separate out discussions about the long term goals, and analysis of the large problems, as well as provide space for people who actually want to do something. 🙂

    • jake lyles Says:

      As an unaffiliated individual who retains an interest in Computer Science and Economics, I urge more journals to go the way of Journal of Machine Learning Research, which is completely open access: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journal_of_Machine_Learning_Research

      In addition, I support legislation to free, open archiving of all papers which were funded with federal money.

      JSTOR doesn’t even sell subscriptions to individuals. It’s ridiculous that access to knowledge is so exclusive in the age of the internet.

  25. UVL Says:

    Dear Tim, Terry and All,

    Thank you Tim for this interesting entry.

    It is probably sensitive to talk about prestige of math. journals. However comments from experienced people may help, I believe.

    In this post, Tim wrote: “If you have written such a paper, why might you wish to submit it to Breakthroughs rather than to, say, Annals, Acta or the Journal of the AMS? Here are a few reasons.”

    In http://www.math.ucla.edu/~tao/submissions.html, Terry said: “Note that JAMS sets very high standards for its articles (comparable to Annals or Inventiones)”

    My colleagues believe JAMS, Annals and Inventiones are comparable and the most prestigious ones. This sounds similar to Terry’s comment in your homepage.

    Here Tim mentioned to Acta, but Terry didn’t include this journal when he compared some with JAMS.

    It would be useful to hear more from you about this.



  26. Peter Cameron Says:

    A footnote to your comment about the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics:

    In the very early days of this journal, ini order to pay for the incidental running expenses, the editorial board agreed for a publisher called International Press to bring out a hard-copy version of the first year’s papers. The hard copy was called “The Journal of Combinatorics”. The policy backfired when the Australian Research Council produced their list of journal rankings. Because nobody cited the Journal of Combinatorics, it was given the lowest ranking. Then they decided that since the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics was “the same”, it should share this lowest ranking.

    Incidentally, can I draw to everyone’s attention a letter from Laszlo Babai, defending the concept of free high-quality journals run by academics for academics, here:

  27. Ben Says:

    Here is open-source journal management software:

    Glancing over the website, it looks stable, high-quality, and widely used. If a journal can find a volunteer to set it up, and if a university will provide hosting, then the administrative cost of running a journal should be low.

  28. David Speyer Says:

    I haven’t read the entire discussion, so my apologies if I am repeating others’ points: Breakthroughs in Mathematics sounds like a fascinating idea, but it is not relevant to replacing Elsevier. Elsevier’s most prestigious journals are, in my subjective opinion, Advances and Comptes Rendus. These are both (again in my subjective opinion) below the level of JAMS, Annals, Acta and Inventiones. You say that you envision Breakthroughs being at this top level, and it sounds to me like it would be even higher.

    This means that you are not relevant to any young academic looking for an alternative to an Elsevier journal. It would be much more useful to think of how to create journals which fill the niches currently filled by, for example, Discrete Math or Journal of Algebra.

    • Yemon Choi Says:

      I think this last part is the nub (or is it the rub?). Journal of Functional Analysis and lower down the order Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications would be two examples I would mention, having published in both during the frantic trying-to-get-a-job period.

    • gowers Says:

      I agree about this: when I said I was reporting on my feverish bed-ridden thoughts, that is exactly what I was doing, and I regard creating a replacement for mid-level journals as the main priority.

    • Peter Says:

      Thanks, David for repeating this point. Great to hear that this is a “main prioritiy” for Tim!

  29. Edgar A. Bering IV Says:

    Having recently started a journal from scratch, I would urge caution when assuming the “online generation” has discounted or forgotten print altogether.

    The Waterloo Mathematics Review is published to target undergraduates, so the details of its implementation are a bit different from a traditional journal. Instead of charging for subscriptions we ship it free of charge to student unions and mathematics societies to distribute on their campus. Doing this we have achieved a print circulation of 2000. We also publish online (the original concept was to publish exclusively online, but early in the project we decided print was beneficial), and the online circulation (a harder number to calculate, the one I’ll use is number of unique visitors that downloaded either the whole issue or a particular article while that issue was the ‘most recent’ one) is about 1500. There is no doubt some overlap, being maximally conservative and removing all hits from locations that receive print issues reduces the unique online circulation to about 800.

    These numbers paint a powerful picture. Our primary readership is the Canadian undergraduate population, members of the “online generation”, and they seem to greatly prefer the print version. This may simply be a result of the print version being better advertised (set out in student lounges and union offices) than the online version, but if this were the case I would expect a greater uptake in online readership which hasn’t happened.

  30. Thinking about Elsevier replacements « Secret Blogging Seminar Says:

    […] Discrete Math The only paper I have sent to them was a long time ago. My impression is that they are a top paper for Hungarian-style combinatorics, particularly graph theory. Tim Gowers discusses some alternatives here. […]

  31. anon Says:

    Having an optional printed copy would be nice. The journal can keep the online version free and open-access, but if someones wants a printed copy of it they can order it and a small percentage will go to the journal to pay for the costs. There are publishers who can print costume documents (even books) with reasonable quality and price.

  32. John Says:

    Interesting to hear that there’s such a prejudice against electronic journals. I hope this fades in time.

    As an amateur mathematician who doesn’t have access to pay-walled journals, I have a prejudice *for* the online journals. (It doesn’t hurt that my first publication was in Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, after a nice correspondence with Herbert Wilf.)

  33. Mike Taylor Says:

    Just a note that I am strongly in favour of Michael Harris’s plan, and of making the whole process as open and public as possible.

  34. Gordon Royle Says:

    In 2010, the Australian Research Council commissioned a ranking of all journals for research evaluation purposes. Their rankings for combinatorics journals were quite different to your personal opinion.
    In particular JCT-A and JCT-B were given the top rank of A* while Discrete Maths was given a B. (The ranks were A* – top 5%, A – next 20%, B – next 25%, C – the rest.) While any borderline case can be argued indefinitely, I think most people publishing primarily in combinatorics would definitely value a paper in JCT-A/B much more highly than one in Discrete Maths.

    Unfortunately of course, the JCT’s are both Elsevier 😦

  35. dmoskovich Says:

    I wonder whether there are ways to break the Elsevier bundle by suing them in court. Although I know virtually nothing about law, it seems to me that Oxford Journals, say, could sue Elsevier under some anti-monopoly act. Even if they were to lose, defending against such a suit would cost Elsevier a lot of money.

    My fundamental point is that the goal is to break free entirely, not to get slightly better short-term conditions. Let me illustrate via a biblical analogy. When Moses came before the Pharaoh to demand that the Children of Israel go free, the Pharaoh’s reaction was to make our workload worse. Thus, if one journal breaks away, the library has to find funds for another journal (Advances 2 or whatever), and our financial situation turns out to be worse. The Children of Israel complained to Moses, but there were wrong. Why? Because the goal is to be free, not to be slaves in Egypt under improved conditions! It’s the same exact story here. The goal is to be free. Not to get marginally better deals from Elsevier.

    I think that there is a momentum, and that once things build, if there are enough signatures, then maybe an editorial board (perhaps even outside mathematics) can move to a new company. And then maybe another publisher will be motivated to sue Elsevier. And maybe congress could pass an anti-bundling bill. And one thing might lead to another- it might and it may, you never know- eventually resulting in Elsevier’s stranglehold being broken, and perhaps even in Elsevier’s downfall.

    So I posit that we should be willing to endure short-term increased stress on our journal budgets, and a slightly smaller selection of journals to submit to, in exchange for the ultimate goal of freedom from Elsevier and its terrible publishing practices.

  36. André Joyal Says:

    But what is this “prestige” that certain journals seem to have and others dont. It is all pointing out to some kind of social hiearchy that the mathematical community has developped for itself. I find it striking that the “prestigious” journal are exactly those having a “prestigious” editorial board. Prestige also means exclusive. To have a paper accepted in a prestigious journal is like been admitted into an exclusive club. There is a pride attached to it. If you are pride to be member of a club, you may not want the club to disappear. We are fighting the owner of the name of the club.

  37. André Joyal Says:

    The hiearchy within the mathematical community maybe questionnable, but a hiearchy is unavoidable. I like to imagine that the mathematical community is some kind of eco-system. Each field is a niche where a mathematician of some sort can grow, live and reproduce. Every niche is depending on other niches. A large variety of fields is probably essential to the health of mathematics as a whole. The eco-system of mathematics is itself a kind of super-niche within the larger system of science, which is part of human society. The analogy between the mathematical community and a living biological system is not perfect, but it is helping me to understand the nature of the problem we are facing. Some publishers have evolved from been useful economic partners to the role of parasites. They are are now sucking the blood of our universities via our libraries. The scientific community is exploited. We better get rid of them! Otherwise, they will take control of science by using their copyrights.

    A possible action could be to invite every mathematical institute of the world to create a journal that would reflect their history and personality. For example, the Fields Institute could create a journal called *The Fields Institute Mathematical Journal* or another journal called *The HSM Coxeter Mathematical Journal”, since Coxeter spended most of his career in Toronto.

    • Jon Awbrey Says:

      There are indeed Big Picture questions that open up here — the future of knowledge and inquiry, the extent to which their progress will be catalyzed or inhibited by collaborative versus corporate-controlled information technologies, the stance of knowledge workers, vigilant or acquiescent, against the ongoing march of global corporate feudalism — and maybe this is not the place or time to pursue these questions, but in my experience discussion, like love and gold, is where you find it. Being questions of this magnitude, they will of course arise again. The question is — who will settle them, and to whose satisfaction?

  38. Libres pensées d'un mathématicien ordinaire » Publications: science, money, and human comedy Says:

    […] What’s wrong with electronic journals? by Tim Gowers […]

  39. Albert Mao Says:

    I believe that a many-sided approach will be more effective in bringing about change in the behavior of Elsevier and other publishers. Besides refusing to perform referee and editorial duties for them, we should also encourage institutional libraries to boycott their publications, thereby depriving them of a principle revenue stream.

    This boycott should be easier to organize than the one being proposed, because there are fewer institutions than individual scholars and they are already motivated to reduce expenses. Universities also seem to exhibit silly peer-imitating and hierarchical behavior patterns that can be exploited. For once, the interests of cost-cutting administrators and students / faculty are in perfect alignment: stop funding the parasites that exploit us.

    PS Drop the “Breakthroughs in”. Just “Mathematics”. It’s cleaner =)

  40. jake lyles Says:

    Would “Breakthroughs in Mathematics” be open access, or would reading its papers still be restricted to those who pay tuition or that receive a paycheck from a research institution?

    I urge you to support open access, and not merely fleeing the abuses of the worst publishers. Only through open access can the great masses of people gain access to knowledge, many of whom hold graduate degrees and maintain the capacity and inclination to enjoy academic work. Some of them might even be inspired to contribute themselves to humanity’s body of knowledge.

    Open access allows people to build tools for indexing, discussing, and sharing papers, like Mendeley. Support open access and let a new age of open scholarship bloom.

  41. plm Says:

    Has anyone else felt an increase in arxiv submissions since Tim started posting on the issues of mathematical publishing and Elsevier?
    I feel this may have been very significant. I would see this as a major positive impact of Tim’s initiative.

    A related discussion on the issue of Elsevier replacement, journal scope and rankings: http://sbseminar.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/thinking-about-elsevier-replacements/

    • Yemon Choi Says:

      I can’t say I have (arXiv submissions have been increasing for some years now) but this is only a “feeling” and it would be good to see some numbers on this

  42. Paul Matthews Says:

    Nothing is wrong with electronic journals. In dynamical systems, the electronic-only SIADS has rapidly established itself as one of the top journals in the field. It has an impact factor of about 1.5. The annual subs is only $190.

    This journal does
    “exploit its electronic character in order to have a positive appeal.”
    Colour images and videos can be attached to papers.

    • Mike Taylor Says:

      In my field (vertebrate palaeontology), PLoS ONE has quickly established itself as one of the more prestigious venues. I think this is in part because the PLoS journals exploit their e-only nature to allow authors arbitrarily many high-resolution figures (specimen photos), videos, digitiser point-clouds, CT-slice stacks, etc. (For what it’s worth, PLoS ONE’s current impact factor of 4.411 is better than the great majority of specialist palaeontology journals. But we all know better than the trust IFs.)

  43. Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite❢ | Inquiry Into Inquiry Says:

    […] Re: What’s wrong with electronic journals? […]

  44. Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite❢ | Inquiry Into Inquiry Says:

    […] Post 1 […]

  45. WarriorClass III Says:

    I found this enlightening:

  46. Elsevier, la AAA e la rivolta in favore dell'Open Access | Professione Antropologo Says:

    […] non pensava di dare inizio a un vero e proprio movimento, come ha spiegato in un post successivo. Ma come egli stesso scrive, evidentemente si è trattato del momento più […]

  47. jscammel Says:

    I am a Librarian working in a UK University Library, I don’t doubt the large cultural shift that ‘open research’ will need, but @Pierre Colmez asks ‘where would we find the people to administrate the new system?’

    University librarians can perform this task. For example, if journals are based at Universities then an infrastructure is already in place via institutional repositories (which are maintained on the whole by Library staff) possibly or platforms using open source software, as others here have already referred to.

    As an alternative approach, Cameron Neylon has written a very interesting analysis in his blog post “The Research Works Act and the breakdown of mutual incomprehension”. He envisages that funders would perform the content publishing role and “within ten years all major funders will mandate CC-BY Open Access on publication arising from work they fund immediately on publication”.

    Other factors which I don’t think have yet been mentioned are that University Library and Computing staff spend many, many hours negotiating licenses with publishers, maintaining authentication systems, training institutional staff and students to navigate these authentication systems which can be tricky as there is a lack of standardisation amongst publisher websites. So, instead of these time-consuming, costly activities staff could concentrate on maintaining open access systems, and ensuring ease of access.

    I understand the wish to be published in a prestigious journal, but could this evolve to being published by a prestigious University in their repository or equivalent? The concept of a journal could be maintained but would it still be needed? The academic community also relies heavily on various citation metrics, including of course the impact factor of a journal. Perhaps these need re-thinking as well. At the article level, free tools like Google Scholar Citations are available. Not perfect, but if the development of a new model for academic online publishing adopts the principles of a Semantic Web as first proposed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee then it should be possible to develop tools to generate these metrics.

    Content already owned by publishers may still be subject to subscription fees, but in time perhaps these can be re-negotiated. As others have noted, this transition needs a strong will, but does online publishing of academic research still need the traditional publishers?

  48. Ralph Says:

    I was just today having a discussion with a colleague of mine how it would not be hard (I have a fair bit of web development experience) to create a site that acts as a layer on top of arxiv (or mathscinet, or other sources) and allows comments, reviews, voting, etc. He did think that it could destroy the math environment as we know it, though needs to be done if done in the right way. As noted above, the tricky part is figuring out how exactly to set it up.

    One approach could be to use the reddit system, which has been open-sourced (https://github.com/reddit/reddit/wiki)
    The way it works is that there are multiple “subreddits” [ see for example http://www.reddit.com/r/math ] which have a short list of moderators, and to which anybody can submit links, upvote, downvote, and comment. In this system we could have “subreddits” corresponding either to arxiv categories (math.NT, math.AG, etc) or to ad-hoc online journals where the moderators correspond to a review board. There’s a notion there of which posts have been verified or not, which corresponds to having a proper reviewer vet the result. So links to new papers could be submitted and there would be a mix of crowdsourced due-diligence, and certain control and oversight by an editorial board. One can then search for existing papers, see comments, browse categories, and see both the newest and the top papers per category by day,week,month,year,etc
    And since this is open-source all of this could be available immediately, given a good system administrator.

    • Scott Morrison Says:


      I don’t think anyone doubts that software fulfilling any particular requirements can be built. Indeed, any proposal which frames the difficulties as “building software” is probably doomed. The difficult questions that have to be thought through are more along the lines of “how will this coexist with the existing system?”, and “how will this be useful for the first tiny fraction of people using it?”. Imagining a replacement system isn’t very useful by itself; we need to know which directions in the tangent space get us closer.

  49. plm Says:

    Ralph, that would be mathoverflow-type revolutionary. Please proceed, the way you find appropriate. Hopefully you would soon find support -from Cornell library, mathematicians, physicists,…

    Thanks alot just for the proposal. I really wish it happens and I am convinced many more would love it.

    PS: I tried posting this comment yesterday but it did not work, without any error message.

  50. vcvpaiva Says:

    Reblogged this on LogCat and commented:
    Need to organize my ideas on the unpleasant subject of commercial publishers. Reposting it here to remind me of doing it.

  51. El coste del conocimiento « Clionauta: Blog de Historia Says:

    […] electrónicas de calidad y acceso libre (o unirse a las existentes), aunque para ello sea preciso olvidar los prejuicios irracionales que alberga buena parte de la comunidad académica. Me gusta:Me gustaSé el primero en decir que te […]

  52. Augusto Says:

    I’ve read the article in The Economist, then I’ve read this article of yours and searched for the price of one back issue of Combinatorica, just for reference. With back issues starting from 140 dollars and ending at 250, it’s no wonder there is such a movement happening.

    So, what if “Breakthroughs” existed not only as a web venue, but also had a printed copy? This printed copy could be sent to libraries / subscribers whenever a particular number of pages is reached, or papers would be sent individually as they get approved for publication?

    “Breakthroughs” could be a venue with multiple disciplines, with specialist editors for each broad subject and a pool (or community) of editors in a diverse range of specialties, not only on mathematics, but also on other sciences as well.

    It could charge a symbolic price for submissions (which is meant to keep time-wasters away), but everyone could consult it online. Subscriptions could be based on broad subject (ie. Maths) or specialties (ie. Combinatorics) and as articles are printed individually, one could also purchase a single printed copy of any article (so one can frame their article and hang it on the wall, for instance).

    I’d love to work in this project, if it ever see the light of day, but for that the first thing that Breakthrough needs is editors.

  53. Marcelo Fernandes Says:

    Reblogged this on Marcelo Fernandes.

  54. What do math journals do? | Igor Pak's blog Says:

    […] journals, some of which go back many decades.  See e.g. a section of Tim Gowers’s post about his views of the quality of various Combinatorics journals, since then helpfully updated and […]

  55. Discrete Says:

    Prof. Gowers

    Do you evaluate the level of jornal ‘Discrete applied mathaematics’ as high as ‘Discrete mathematics’?

  56. Pink Iguana Says:

    […] What’s wrong with electronic journals? here. […]

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