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 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.]
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.
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?