Another journal flips

There is widespread (even if not universal) agreement that something is deeply wrong with the current system of academic publishing. The basic point, which has been made innumerable times by innumerable people, is that the really hard parts — the writing of papers, and the peer review and selection of the ones to publish — are done voluntarily by academics, and modern technology makes things like typesetting and dissemination extremely cheap. And yet publishers are making more money than ever before. They do this by insisting that we give them ownership of the content we produce (though many journals will publish papers even if you strike out the part of the contract that hands them this ownership — these days I never agree to give copyright to a publisher, and I urge you not to either), and by bundling their journals together so that libraries are forced into an all-or-nothing decision. (As another aside, I also urge libraries to look closely at what is happening in Germany, where they have gone for the “nothing” option with Elsevier and the world has not come to an end.)

What can be done about this? There are many actions, none of which are likely to be sufficient to bring about major change on their own, but which in combination will help to get us to a tipping point. In no particular order, here are some of them.

  1. Create new journals that operate much more cheaply and wait for them to become established.
  2. Persuade libraries not to agree to Big Deals with the big publishers.
  3. Refuse to publish with, write for, or edit for, the big publishers.
  4. Make sure all your work is freely available online.
  5. Encourage journals that are supporting the big publishers to leave those publishers and set up in a cheaper and fairer way.

Not all of these are easy things to do, but I’m delighted to report that a small group I belong to, set up by Mark Wilson, has, after approaching a large number of maths journals, found one that was ready to “flip”: the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics has just announced that it will be leaving Springer. Or if you want to be more pedantic about it, a new journal will be starting, called Algebraic Combinatorics and published by The Mersenne Centre for Open Scientific Publishing, and almost all the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics will resign from that journal and become editors of the new one, which will adhere to Fair Open Access Principles.

If you want to see change, then you should from now on regard Algebraic Combinatorics as the true continuation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, and the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics as a zombie journal that happens to have a name that coincides with a former real journal. And of course, that means that if you are an algebraic combinatorialist with a paper that would have been suitable for the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, you should understand that the reputation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics is being transferred, along with the editorial board, to Algebraic Combinatorics, and you should therefore submit it to Algebraic Combinatorics. This has worked with previous flips: the zombie journal rarely thrives afterwards and in some notable cases has ceased to publish after a couple of years or so.

The words of one of the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, Hugh Thomas, are particularly telling, especially the first sentence: “There wasn’t a particular crisis. It has been becoming more and more clear that commercial journal publishers are charging high subscription fees and high Article Processing Charges (APCs), profiting from the volunteer labour of the academic community, and adding little value. It is getting easier and easier to automate the things that they once took care of. The actual printing and distribution of paper copies is also much less important than it has been in the past; this is something which we have decided we can do without.”

I mentioned earlier that we approached many journals. Although it is very exciting that one journal is flipping, I must also admit to disappointment at how low our strike rate has been so far. However, the words “so far” are important: many members of editorial boards were very sympathetic with our aims, and some journals were adopting a wait-and-see attitude, so if the flip of JACo is successful, we hope that it will encourage other journals. I should say that we weren’t just saying, “Why don’t you flip?” but we were also offering support, including financial support. The current situation is that we can almost certainly finance journals that are ready to flip to an “ultra-cheap” model (using a platform that charges either nothing or a very small fee per submission) and help with administrative support, and are working on financial support for more expensive models, but still far cheaper than the commercial publishers, where more elaborate services are offered.

Understandably, the main editors tended to be a lot more cautious on average than the bulk of the editorial boards. I think many of them were worried that they might accidentally destroy their journals if they flipped them, and in the case of journals with long traditions, this is not something one would want to be remembered for. So again, the more we can support Algebraic Combinatorics, the more likely it is that this caution will be reduced and other journals will consider following. (If you are an editor of a journal we have not approached, please do get in touch to discuss what the possibilities are — we have put a lot of thought into it.)

Another argument put forward by some editors is that to flip a journal risks damaging the reputation of the old version of the journal, and therefore, indirectly, the reputation of the papers published in it, some of which are by early-career researchers. So they did not want to flip in order to avoid damaging the careers of young mathematicians. If you are a young mathematician and would like to comment on whether you would be bothered by a journal flipping after you had published in it, we would be very interested to hear what you have to say.

Against that background I’d like to congratulate the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics for their courage and for the work they have put into this. (But that word “work” should not put off other editors: one of the aims of our small group was to provide support and expertise, including from Johann Rooryck, the editor of the Elsevier journal Lingua, which flipped to become Glossa, in order to make the transition as easy as possible.) I’d also like to make clear, to avoid any misunderstanding that might arise, that although I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion with Mark Wilson’s group and wrote to many editors of other journals, my role in this particular flip has been a minor one.

And finally, let me repeat the main message of this post: please support the newly flipped journal, since the more successful it is, the greater the chance that other journals will follow, and the greater the chance that we will be able to move to a more sensible academic publishing system.

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37 Responses to “Another journal flips”

  1. Stephanie Walker Says:

    Hooray! Thank you so much for your advocacy in this issue, Dr. Gowers. As a long-ago former math major, I am also thrilled that mathematics as a field is doing a fair bit to advance this important issue. And as a Dean of Libraries at a mid-sized R2 research institution, which has been experiencing serious budget issues due to the regular far-above-inflationary price increases of academic journals, I am deeply grateful for the advocacy and support of faculty on this issue. No one would listen if it was librarians alone: we need you.

  2. Anurag Bishnoi Says:

    “risks damaging the reputation of the old version of the journal, and therefore, indirectly, the reputation of the papers published in it, some of which are by early-career researchers.” – if it does work like that, then as an early career researcher I am certainly concerned about it. I suppose the rankings of JACO decided by organisations like SJR will go down, hence possibly affecting the reputation of the papers in the eyes of hiring committees. Are there some ways in which such a thing can be countered?

    • Mark C. Wilson Says:

      Reputation of journals takes many years to change. My guess is that anyone who worries about this will no longer be an early career researcher by the time it matters.

  3. Mel Nathanson Says:

    I tried to get pdf files of papers I published 40 years ago in the Journal of the London Mathematical Society, but it seems that the LMS will only sell me ($38/paper) online access for 24 hours. This seems inappropriately avaricious.

    Should the London Mathematical Society be added to your list of publishers to boycott?

    • gowers Says:

      I have extended my own personal boycott to all the big commercial publishers (though not quite with 100% consistency — I did publish with Springer a couple of years ago because there wasn’t an obvious alternative for that particular paper), and therefore decided personally to boycott the LMS when they struck a deal to be published by Wiley. But what you write sounds like a good additional reason to do so: a learned society should at the very least make all papers over a certain age available free of charge, and offering only 24 hours’ access to someone who’s paid $38 is outrageous.

    • gowers Says:

      I see that to add insult to injury they require you to register before you can purchase temporary access to an old article.

    • floerhomology Says:

      Even more outrageous when you are the author of the articles in question.

  4. Blake Stacey Says:

    I’m a young physicist, rather than a young mathematician, but I suppose the situations are roughly comparable, particularly since I work in theory and not in a giant experimental collaboration. For my own part, I would not be bothered if a journal in which I’d published then flipped. The benefit to the field as a whole would, in my view, outweigh whatever inconvenience to me might be involved. I would add an asterisk to that line in my CV and to the journal-ref field of its arXiv page, saying “this paper was published before the editorial board all left to continue the journal in open-access form, under the new name Algebraic Combinatorics,” or words to that effect.

    After reading this blog post, I did have one idea for something that could be done on the journal’s side (although it might not be feasible in all fields). Perhaps the flipped journal could have a category of papers, called “Brief Reviews” or the like, that would concisely summarize results and situate them in context, rather like the editorial introductions in Discrete Analysis. Priority would be given to young researchers, particularly those who had published more than once in the old journal, so that they could give a précis of their earlier work. This would give them a presence in the new and better journal, and it would add value to the literature, since (let’s be honest) the original papers were probably written in the traditional style, where all humanity is ritually excised and the reader can’t see the forest for the lemmas.

    I do not know if this idea is actually practical. It is, after all, more work for everybody. But I’d think the reviewing load would be fairly light, since the original work would already have passed a quality filter, and the number of papers coming in to this new channel would not be that large. And if my own experience is at all typical, the young researchers in question would have already been writing summaries, for grant proposals and progress reports and posters and talk abstracts and….

    (I can also easily see a new faculty hire telling a PhD student, “You should write about our group’s work for this ‘Brief Reviews’ column. It will be a good learning experience for you.”)

    One downside of this would be that the Brief Reviews would, by necessity, point back to papers in the old journal, giving that bit more citation-juice to a publication we’d like to see die off. By the same token, though, articles that cite the old work would cite the summary as well (“For a digestible overview of [17,18], see [19]”).

    This is just an idea I had this morning, before I’d even gotten all the way through my caffeine unit, so it may be very silly!

  5. Jeffrey Shallit Says:

    I agree with the sentiment, but Springer is actually one of the more reasonable publishers. For example, they provide pdf files for many recently published books, with no DRM. Maybe we should concentrate our efforts on the truly scummy publishers first, like Taylor and Francis.

    • gowers Says:

      I should make it clear that we approached journals from all the big commercial publishers. The fact that a Springer journal was the first to agree to flip is not a reflection of any kind of policy on our part — it’s just the way things turned out.

    • Mark C. Wilson Says:

      1) What Tim said
      2) Jeff – please answer my emails about JIS.

    • Darij Grinberg Says:

      At least to me, the main point is not “Springer is extraordinarily evil and we need to make an example of them” but “a broken legacy system whose usefulness is long gone is still preventing people’s access to science and costing academia significant money”. Ultimately all journals will flip; whether a Springer or a T&F journal is the next one to go is a mere footnote. (Though I’d, too, prefer a T&F one to go first. Springer, one could argue, is even helping pirates in many ways… But I’m glad it is JACO, because this makes it a lot easier *for me* to publish in an OA journal.)

      If you want to reasonably differentiate, I suggest making a distinction between publishers who allow accepted manuscripts to be posted on the arXiv and publishers who don’t. While this is probably not of much *practical* relevance (I am pretty sure that a significant portion of arXiv preprints violate copyright agreements, yet I have never seen a preprint getting DMCAd from the arXiv), the intent does matter: the latter publishers are brazenly privatizing the referees’ work! If you ever get too many referee requests and you need to triage, I think this is as good as a criterion can get.

  6. Niles Johnson Says:

    You write: “the reputation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics is being transferred”.

    This is of course an important point, but it is hard to keep track of these flips, particularly when the names are similar and I don’t work in that area. I admit I always have to search around a bit to keep track of which K-theory journal is the new good one. I think it would be very useful to include some documentation on the new journal’s website. Perhaps a tactful statement in a section called “History”?

    If not this, how else can one verify the transfer other than by pulling email archives or blog posts such as this one? I’m thinking in particular about the kind of documentation one might submit to a hiring or tenure committee.

  7. Ferdinand Ihringer Says:

    I am a young (29 counts?) mathematician and a paper of us in JACO got minor revisions recently, so I am directly affected and we even have to decide if (so late in the process) we change from the old to the new JACO.

    For many institutional applications the new JACO currently counts less than the old JACO. For example the Flemish Research Foundation values publications in journals that are in the Web of Science higher than other publications. The old JACO, the new JACO is not (and who knows when it will be).

    Of course at one point the old JACO will be out of all the lists and the new JACO will be in. Then there is the same problem with my publications in the old JACO. Not with mathematicians I hope, but when institutions use metrics.

    To summarize: the transition period bothers me for sure, but I am supportive in general and I do not see any alternative to this.

    • Mark C. Wilson Says:

      Please encourage the Flemish Research Foundation to sign up to DORA: http://www.ascb.org/dora/

      Using Web of Science as a whitelist is suboptimal – it is much slower to add good new journals than Scopus, for example. There is no getting around the fact that researchers should be evaluated based on their work, not on the journal it appears in, and that journals ought to be compared on the basis of procedural quality, not on slowly varying vague historical reputation.

  8. λ Says:

    My “young mathematician’s” perspective: as a graduate student who has not yet published anything, I can definitely appreciate the fear of a journal flipping at an inconvenient time, even though it’s not the kind of thing I’ve actually had to worry about before.

    However, as someone who cares about open access, one worry that I’ve had quite a bit is that I’ll have to choose between my principles and what is best for my career when it does come time to submit something. As it happens, I work in algebraic combinatorics, so this news is very welcome.

  9. Tom Brander Says:

    And don’t forget https://scihub.org/

  10. AP Says:

    Have you seen this yet?

    “Sci-Hub’s cache of pirated papers is so big, subscription journals are doomed, data analyst suggests.”

    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/sci-hub-s-cache-pirated-papers-so-big-subscription-journals-are-doomed-data-analyst

  11. David Roberts Says:

    A comment merely to subscribe to the discussion here. But, on-topic, bravo to all who helped get this far!

  12. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    Here is an attempt to crowdsource: which journal would you like to see follow in the footsteps of JACo?

    • poiuyt Says:

      From the Taylor & Francis catalogue, certainly Experimental Mathematics would be a fine journal to flip. Especially considering that most of the time the code used to produce the numerics is under some open licence.

      From Springer, of course Inventiones would be nice…

    • David Speyer Says:

      Journal of Algebra. An excellent place to put algebraic results which are too technical for a general purpose journal, unfortunately published by Elsevier. I’ve been using Journal of Commutative Algebra as an alternative but, of course, not all algebra is commutative algebra. Algebra and Number Theory is another alternative, but I think their standards are a fair bit higher.

  13. gowers Says:

    Here’s an article about the flip.

  14. The Mathematics Spring – The Intrepid Mathematician Says:

    […] to sources on-line, the editors say there was no particular crisis that caused the flip. They viewed it as a natural […]

  15. N. W. Clerk Says:

    I’m still waiting for my free (and legal and complete) electronic copy of Gowers’ _The Princeton Companion to Mathematics_.

  16. Quick Links | Not Even Wrong Says:

    […] The editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics are leaving the Springer journal, setting up a new journal, Algebraic Combinatorics. For more about this, there’s a press release, a story at Inside Higher Education, and a blog entry by Timothy Gowers. […]

  17. Algebraic Combinatorics ditches Springer | The Aperiodical Says:

    […] Another victory for fair and sensible maths publishing, brought about by a small group of OA advocates set up by Mark Wilson and including Timothy Gowers. There’s much more about what’s happened and why you should support the new journal on Gowers’s w…. […]

  18. More Thoughts About Scholarly Publishing | FromMelbin Says:

    […] are also frustrated and doing something about it as illustrated well in this recent (July 2017) post from Professor Timothy Gowers. His frustrations with the current dissemination model are neatly […]

  19. umtassio Says:

    Another young mathematician here (only one paper accepted so far). Suppose I had the gift of “flipping” a journal whenever they accepted a paper of mine… then, well, I would be working twice as hard to prove more and greater theorems!

  20. Maxis Jaisi Says:

    Dear Prof Gowers, although this might be slightly out of place, I can’t help but ask if all your expository articles written for undergraduates are listed on your site; I found one nice article ( https://www.dpmms.cam.ac.uk/~wtg10/meta.integers.html ), thanks to Google, but which isn’t in the “informal discussions” page

  21. simonbatterbury Says:

    Excellent. If possible, it would be good to obtain more details on the procedures the team used to encourage change. I am a social scientist and the journal landscape (for WoS listed) journals is approaching 70% domination by the ‘big’ five’. This is the conundrum: even radical and critical social scientists regularly publish with them. My own discipline is like this. Editors and editorial boards of big 5 journals are not yet being approached to change, to my knowledge – there is little coordination. But it is time to start.

  22. Masoud Says:

    Hello everyone,

    I’m a firm believer in the need for a changing in academic publishing practices and do not publish/edit/referee for big corporate journals (Elsevier, Springer). As a relatively young researcher, I have found a few issues very challenging while adhering to this policy. For instance,

    1. Recently, I wrote a paper about linear algebra, so “Linear Algebra and its Applications” was the most natural destination. But I didn’t want to send it there. So I had to spend a lot of time (tens of hours) thinking/trying other journals. In general, I have found that trying to avoid corporate journals why still trying to get your paper in good journals is can be quite challenging.

    2. Upon reading this blog I learned that it is not a great idea to publish with London Maths Society. That came out as a surprise.

    Based on the above and similar considerations I advocate having a master list of journals and for each journal having a score from 0 to 10. 10 means they have good publishing practices and 0 means they have terrible practices. And then for journals with low scores, have some suggestions for alternatives. This is not as daunting as it sounds. For instance, Australian Maths Society has compiled a list of journals and one can start there:

    https://www.austms.org.au/Rankings/AustMS_final_ranked.html

    • gowers Says:

      That does sound like a very good idea. And it’s great to hear that you are taking this stance against the current publication system despite being at an earlyish stage in your career.

      I might add that I don’t know what the precise arrangements are between the LMS and Wiley, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling people that they should boycott the LMS. I myself can afford to take a guilty-until-proved-innocent attitude, so I do. But some might argue that since a share of the profits of the LMS journals goes to the LMS, which then funds mathematical activities, it’s not as bad as a journal published entirely for the benefit of the shareholders of a commercial publisher. (I don’t like this argument myself because I think we should find an alternative funding model for learned societies, so that they are no longer complicit in the system.)

    • Masoud Says:

      Hi Tim,

      It is exactly because of the nature of the current discussion, that I advocate having a “scoring system” for each journal. Probably LMS Journals would get 5, whereas Elsevier Journals would get 1 and AMS Journals would get 9.

      As far as I know, currently, every person wishing to adhere to a policy towards big publishers has to invent their own system, spending hundreds of hours trying to maneuver the minefield. It would be nice to have a “manual” to deal with this. I would guess if you asked for volunteers, you would get a good response and this can be done in a “polymath” way…

      Best,
      Masoud

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