The formal launch has just taken place at the European Congress of Mathematicians in Krakow of the Forum of Mathematics, which to a first approximation is a new open-access electronic journal. However, the singular “journal” is misleading, because in some ways it is more like a whole set of journals. But there will be considerable interdependence between the elements of the set, so “journals” is misleading too. We need an intermediate number between singular and plural. Also, although the journal(s) is/are primarily electronic, there will be a print-on-demand option if anyone wants it.
What is the Forum of Mathematics?
Terminological questions aside, how will this new journal-like object work? I think the easiest way of explaining it is to describe the process for submitting an article, which is similar to the process for submitting an article to a conventional maths journal, but with one or two unusual aspects.
First of all, as with any journal you’ll need to decide whether your article is likely to be of the required standard. Except that here there are two standards to worry about, which brings me to the main unusual feature: the Forum of Mathematics, as the journal(s) is called, has two “levels”, called Pi and Sigma. A paper suitable for Sigma should be of the kind of standard you would expect in a leading journal in the area of that paper. For example, if your paper is in combinatorics, then it will be suitable for Forum of Mathematics: Sigma if it is of roughly the standard expected by Combinatorica or JCT A/B. As for Pi, that is for papers that are sufficiently interesting or important that their appeal goes beyond their immediate area of mathematics. Thus, Pi papers will be at the level of leading general mathematics journals and will be an open-access alternative to them. Discussion is still going on about what precisely this means, but it looks as though the aim will probably be for Pi to be a serious competitor for Annals, Inventiones, the Journal of the AMS and the like. Of course, we can only really know what the level and characters of the two journals will be when they have been going for a while. The CUP website says this:
Pi is the open access alternative to the leading generalist mathematics journals. Papers published will be of a high quality and of real interest to a broad cross-section of all mathematicians.
It will also be possible for papers submitted to Pi to be reconsidered for Sigma, if the author is willing for this to happen. However, to encourage authors to think hard before submitting to Pi, rather than merely trying their luck with it, there will be a requirement that papers submitted to Pi are accompanied by a justification of a side or two, which should explain why the paper is of more than merely specialist interest. I hope that these justifications will be very useful documents for the editors, and perhaps even for readers of the papers at a later stage, but that kind of detail has not yet been decided.
The editorial board of the Forum of Mathematics will be divided into “clusters” of people, with each cluster representing a different area of mathematics. When you submit a paper, you will decide which is the appropriate cluster to submit it to, and the editors in that cluster will handle the paper. However, not all papers can be easily classified, and that is where the not-quite-singular-but-not-quite-plural aspect of the Forum of Mathematics becomes apparent. It’s not just papers that are hard to classify, but also editors, and some editors will belong to more than one cluster. Also, there will be plenty of communication between editors of different clusters in an effort to achieve a reasonably uniform standard across the whole of the Forum of Mathematics.
Otherwise, the journal will be pretty conventional. Once you’ve submitted a paper, it will be processed in basically the same way as papers are processed for any other journal. A small but important difference is that the Forum will not have “issues”. As with many other electronic journals, once a paper is accepted, it goes straight up on the website. It will have a number for reference purposes, and if it is a Sigma paper then it will in some sense “belong” to the relevant cluster, but it won’t belong to an issue (though there will be “volumes” for those who want print copies). One of the advantages of this is that the Forum of Mathematics will be able to aim for an absolute standard rather than taking space into account when deciding whether or not to accept papers.
Speaking as one of the editors, I’d like to say that this is something I feel very strongly about. It is very unclear at this stage how popular the Forum of Mathematics will be. I would hate to be under pressure to lower standards in order to attract more papers, or to turn away good papers because there wasn’t room for them. An electronic journal makes it easy to avoid that kind of pressure, and for the Forum of Mathematics it will be avoided.
How will the journal be paid for?
So far, what I’ve been discussing is only rather minor modifications of the normal practice of journals. But I said at the beginning of this post that the Forum of Mathematics will be open access. What does that mean, and how will the finances work? Before I answer this, let me briefly introduce some terminology.
It is unfortunate that the phrase “open access” has come to mean different things to different people. The result is that if you say that you are in favour of open access, you have to clarify what you mean, since there may be business models that you are not in favour of but that are nevertheless called open access by their proponents. However, there are two types of open access, known as gold and green, that have well-established meanings. Gold open access is where a paper is published in a journal and made freely available online, and the publisher is paid by the author. So a more descriptive name would be author-pays open access. Green open access is where papers are published in the usual way, but also made available on repositories such as the arXiv, so that even if the formatted journal versions are behind a paywall, freely downloadable versions of the papers will still appear when you Google them.
The advocates of green open access argue that if everyone makes a habit of posting their papers on places like the arXiv, then in time the problems we have with expensive journals will melt away: there will simply no longer be any point in subscribing to them at ridiculous prices. Opponents of green open access, and especially of mandates from funding bodies that people should make their papers available online, use exactly the same argument but with one extra line: if everybody did it, then there would be no point in subscribing to a journal, and therefore the journals as we know them would no longer be financially viable.
I will resist the temptation to discuss these arguments in more detail, because gold open access is more relevant to the Forum of Mathematics (though papers submitted to the Forum of Mathematics can also be posted on the arXiv, so it is completely sympathetic to green open access). Here there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that it will cost money to have a paper published in the Forum of Mathematics. In other words, it is following a gold open-access model. The good news is hidden in the word “will”. For the first three years of the journal, Cambridge University Press will waive the publication charges. So for three years the journal will be what Marie Farge (who has worked very hard for a more rational publication system) likes to call diamond open access, a quasi-miraculous model where neither author nor reader pays anything.
A second piece of good news will seem like good news only if you know what typical author publication charges, or APCs as they are commonly called, are. (Actually, APC officially stands for “article processing charge”.) Here are a couple of examples. One of the most famous open-access journals is the Public Library of Science, or PLoS. PLoS has several high-quality journals and a big all-encompassing journal called PLoS-ONE that has a high acceptance rate and is basically somewhere where you put a paper if all you want to signal is “this was a publishable paper”. The APCs are between $2000 and $3000 for the high-quality journals and are $1350 for PLoS-ONE. The details are on this page from their webiste. Another example is the London Mathematical Society’s open-access option. If you want your LMS-journal paper to be freely available after it is published, then you can have that for a fee of $3050 (or £1925) from outside the UK or £2310 from within the UK. The UK figure includes VAT of 20%.
The proposed charge for the Forum of Mathematics after the initial three years is £500 or $750. These figures do not include VAT, and are in absolute terms quite a lot of money, but they are nevertheless much cheaper than what appears to be the industry standard at the moment. They will also be waived for people from developing countries (CUP has a list of the countries for which fees will be waived) and for people who can demonstrate a genuine inability to pay. In addition, CUP promises to be transparent about its costs, so one will be able to understand the justification for the fees. I do not know the exact form that this transparency will take: what I would like to see is a web page somewhere that discusses in detail the cost of processing a typical paper, but maybe they won’t go that far.
A further point is that CUP would like to keep the fees as low as possible, even after the three years are over, and will seek funding to do so. The dream scenario would be a rich donor agreeing to underwrite APCs for several years after the initial three-year period. But there are also smaller things that can be done. For example, some people are at institutions that routinely agree to cover author charges. Such people will be encouraged to pay the author charges if they get a paper into the Forum of Mathematics, since it will not be a problem for them to pay, and the money received will be used to mitigate in one way or another the introduction of APCs in three years’ time. I am being slightly vague here because there are different forms that this mitigation might take: for example, there might be a choice between waiving APCs completely for a further period and half waiving them for longer.
Some pros and cons of gold open access.
I have talked to a number of mathematicians about author publication charges, and it is clear that the idea is regarded with deep suspicion by many people. It is also clear that many of the arguments that people have against it are good ones. Before I go into some of those arguments, I would urge you to bear in mind that there are also some very strong arguments against the current subscription system. It seems to me that every system of publication has its drawbacks, so pointing out those drawbacks is not enough: one must argue that they outweigh the drawbacks of the existing system.
The main drawback of gold open access is that it makes life more difficult for people from less wealthy institutions. More generally, it introduces financial considerations into certain decisions that one would prefer to be made entirely on academic grounds. An example of the kind of consequence this might have if gold open access became the norm is a less well-off UK university telling its academics that it would pay for just the papers needed for the next Research Excellence Framework. In fact, I have even heard a rumour of this kind, and apparently the decision about which papers would be supported was to be taken by the university administration and not by the academics. I very much hope that won’t be typical.
One of the best ways to avoid unpleasant consequences of that kind is to make the charges small enough that they are relatively painless for universities and funding bodies to pay. Maybe the charges for the Forum of Mathematics could be lower still — I don’t know — but the fact that they are much lower than the ones that are prevalent at the moment is at the very least a significant piece of progress. (I would add here that Rob Kirby, who will be the managing editor and who has been campaigning against expensive journals for many years, regards the £500 price as an absolute bargain.)
An important point to make is that while libraries continue with their subscriptions to existing journals, APCs are simply an additional cost to universities and funding bodies. However, if we were to switch tomorrow to an author-pays model (that is, stop all subscriptions and do all publishing through gold open access), then the total cost of the publication system would be much less than it is now. Or at least so I have read many times, and I find it plausible. For instance, I have been told that University College London pays over a million pounds a year to Elsevier for its subscriptions. Even if APCs were £2000, a million pounds would be enough for 500 papers. Elsevier has 2000 or so journals, so I would guess that the total number of articles is something like 30,000. If 1% of these articles come from University College London (surely an overestimate — many of those 2000 journals are not all that high quality and there are many good universities round the world), then that’s 300 papers, so already a significant saving. Improvements to this back-of-envelope calculation are welcome. (Of course, APCs of £500 alter the calculation dramatically.) Thus, one needs to take a long-term view when thinking about APCs. I see the pain of paying APCs as to some extent a good thing: if academics themselves feel that pain (not quite directly but through their departments or other funders) then they will be less likely to accept outrageous prices than they are now, when the pain of journal prices is felt by librarians.
Since switching to an author-pays model would save universities a lot of money, one option that looks very attractive on the face of it would be for a large number of universities to club together and agree to fund APCs for journals that were sufficiently cheap and of sufficiently high quality. If that could be organized, then the consortium of universities would have much more bargaining power than libraries do at present: a journal would much rather be able to say, “Don’t worry about APCs — they are paid for by consortium X,” than have explicit APCs. (Why? Well, which kind of journal would you prefer to submit to?) So with luck there would be significant downward pressure on prices. The difficulty, of course, is of a prisoner’s-dilemma type: while it may be in the collective interest of universities to set up a fund to cover APCs, any individual university would do better by not contributing to the fund. However, if enough universities could be persuaded to start such a fund, then moral pressure could be put on other universities to join in — especially wealthy universities whose members frequently benefit from the fund. I hope that the Forum of Mathematics will quickly become such a valued part of the mathematical landscape that many of us will make efforts to bring a fund like this into existence (perhaps initially just for FoM, but ideally the fund would grow and support other open-access journals).
My plans as an editor.
Here I am speaking for myself only. The idea of taking on a significant editorial job was not one that would ordinarily have appealed to me, but when David Tranah (whose brainchild all this was) summoned me for a chat in early February, shortly after I had published my first Elsevier post, I realized that it was basically impossible for me to say no.
Having got myself into that position, I now want to think of ways of doing the work efficiently. Here are a few ideas I have had so far.
1. I will follow the practice of many editors these days and ask for quick opinions first, unless I myself already have a quick opinion. I will proceed to a more detailed reference only if the initial opinion suggests that it is worth doing so.
2. One reason I have been rather inefficient at this kind of job in the past is that I always feel guilty asking potential referees for a favour. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. To counteract that, I would like to compile a list of names of people who volunteer in advance to do a certain amount of work for the discrete maths cluster of the journal (which is the cluster I’ll be part of). What I’d like is for people to tell me roughly how often they are prepared to handle a paper and roughly what topics they are ready to cover. That way, if I have a paper that matches a referee who has not yet reached his/her quota, I’ll be able to ask that person without the slightest embarrassment. If you are reading this and feel like showing your support for the journal by dropping me an email and making a commitment of that kind, I will be very grateful. If you don’t, and if you are a discrete mathematician, you may find that I email you at some point. I won’t hold anyone to the commitments that they make. The main purpose of this is to make it easier to ask for help, but if you’ve said you can handle three papers a year and a long and difficult paper comes along at a bad time, I will understand.
3. I plan at some point to write some guidelines for what I personally consider makes a combinatorics paper good enough to publish in Sigma and what gives it that extra Pi-like quality. This probably won’t be easy, but I hope that authors and referees will find it useful to have some explicit criteria (which they will be free to ignore) rather than relying on some vague instinct that “this paper is good enough for the Forum of Mathematics: Sigma”.
How does all this relate to the Elsevier boycott?
Here again I am speaking for myself rather than for CUP, though I hope my opinions will be shared by many others. As it happens, the idea of the Forum of Mathematics predates the Elsevier boycott, so in a sense the answer is that it has nothing to do with the boycott at all. However, I myself see it as potentially a very important development in the campaign for a better system of academic publishing. In particular, it greatly weakens what was previously quite a strong argument for some people against participating in the Elsevier boycott: that the best specialist journal in their area is an Elsevier journal so joining the boycott would harm their career.
Well, maybe that has been true up to now, but it is about to become less true. If you have a paper that is suitable for the best specialist journal in your area and that journal happens to be very expensive, then you now have the option of submitting your paper to Forum of Mathematics: Sigma instead. Similarly, if you were thinking of submitting a top-notch paper to a top-notch but expensive journal (Inventiones comes to mind here — a Springer journal, but this discussion is not just about Elsevier), then you can get just as much of a career boost from Forum of Mathematics: Pi but also enjoy the warm glow that comes from knowing that your paper is freely available to all mathematicians.
At some point I hope to compile an informal list of expensive journals of roughly the same standard as Forum of Mathematics: Sigma, though for that I’ll need help, as I have very little idea of the standards of specialist journals outside my areas of mathematics.
It is of course unlikely that the Forum of Mathematics will change the face of mathematical publishing in three years. To be a serious direct threat to Elsevier’s mathematics journals, for example, it would need to cause a reduction of their quality by enough to make libraries consider cancelling their subscriptions, which is very difficult when mathematics journals are bundled together with journals from other subjects. However, the Forum of Mathematics can still have a big influence. For one thing, it will demonstrate that a major publishing house can produce a high-quality journal with high-quality formatting and editing with APCs of around £500. I hope that people in charge of funding bodies who are considering open-access mandates will ask some tough questions of publishers who continue to charge four times that. Secondly, if the Forum of Mathematics is successful, it has the potential to reduce the quality of a number of other journals, which will at least strengthen the hand of librarians who are bargaining with publishers like Elsevier (because cancelling their subscriptions won’t cause quite the inconvenience that it would at the moment). Thirdly, the Forum of Mathematics may encourage other publishers to set up cheaper open-access journals — one huge gap in the market would still be a place where people could submit papers that were perfectly worthy but not good enough for the Forum of Mathematics. I myself think that for such papers, there is a strong case for not putting in too much effort into formatting and typesetting, since the papers will usually not be read all that much, and since many people can produce a decent typescript themselves. So it ought to be possible to produce such a journal (or journal-type object, if it is like the Forum of Mathematics) with smaller APCs.
And even if we forget all about price, we still have the huge bonus that the papers published in the Forum of Mathematics will be freely accessible. I hope that once people start to get used to a high-end journal being freely accessible, they will feel all the more keenly the inconvenience of paywalls.
So I urge you to support the Forum of Mathematics. If you’ve got a good paper, then why not hold on to it until 1st October and submit it to us? If the Forum of Mathematics takes off, then you will be able to look back with pride and say that your paper was one of the very first — who knows, perhaps even the first — to appear in it. If your department has not yet thought about author charges, then another thing you can do is initiate a discussion about those — something I plan to do in Cambridge — since, as I said above, any author fees that are paid voluntarily during the first three years will help keep the fees lower later on and increase the chances that the venture will be a success, which in turn will raise the prospect of saving a lot of money in the longer term.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I am keen on the idea of much more radical changes to the way we evaluate and disseminate our work. However, I am also in favour of evolutionary change rather than a sudden collapse of the existing system, and that is what the Forum of Mathematics offers. It is not a solution to all our problems, but neither is anything else. What it is is another way of doing things, and the more of those we have, the greater the chance that some of them will work and become successful and help us move to a cheaper and more open system of publishing.