It’s contagious!

Well, it would seem that the editorial board of K-Theory has “pulled a Topology” (I’m really hoping this becomes an actual phrase) and resigned en masse.

Since we seem to be the last in the mathematics blogging community to have noticed, let me offer some editorial content to make up for our tardiness: good for them. Whether you believe that there is a place for for-profit publishers in research mathematics, or like me, you think they are doomed by technology changes (the capital investment required for a journal has dropped so much that they’re just not necessary), I think all mathematicians should see this as a positive development. Why?


Because developments like this, where simply changing the name of a journal can slash its price by half or more should make it clear just how extraneous the expensive publishers have become, both to mathematicians and to the publishers. Either the publishers will respond, by figuring out a way to add more value to their product above what unpaid mathematicians contribute (I’m not sure what this would be, but I’m not a publisher), or mathematicians will respond by quitting editorial boards. Though, I have to wonder how long publishers have before this process hits a tipping point, at least in topology. Mathematicians, like every other group of people, have a bit of a herd mentality, and the interconnection of editorial boards could well speed the process up even more. It could be that scholarly societies and non-profit publishers will soon start picking up editorial boards as fast they can be absorbed. They might already be, behind the scenes. Presumably, editorial boards have been working behind the scenes to get their new journals set up before resigning, so there could be more already in the works that the great unwashed masses (yup, that’s us) haven’t gotten word of yet. Only time will tell.

Advertisements

19 thoughts on “It’s contagious!

  1. This is certainly great news. But it’s not just the price reduction that matters, nor even the fact that the journal is now more under the control of academics than it was. It’s that the money is going to a good place – and this is a factor that people sometimes overlook when judging which journals are “good” and which “evil”.

    In this case, the journal is migrating to Cambridge University Press. CUP is a registered charity, which means that it’s not allowed to make a profit. (I think it’s actually the case that textbooks on English as a foreign language are by far its biggest sellers and subsidize their other publications, but I’m not sure and it isn’t important to the point I’m making.) What this means is that CUP can be relied on more than most publishers to keep their prices down.

    Some other journals are run by learned societies, e.g. the European, American, and London Mathematical Societies. Now, in some cases their prices are not drastically less than some of the prices charged by Springer et al. But my point is that we should be much happier paying $2000 a year to a mathematical society than the same $2000 to Springer or Elsevier. The $2000 that goes to a mathematical society stays within the system: it might get used for giving out travel grants, or running conferences, or developing a useful web resource, or any of the other good things that learned societies do.

  2. Good points all. Almost as important to me is the difference between the purpose of for-profit and non-profit publishers. For-profit publishers exist to make profits and maximize shareholder value (and in just some squishly, leftist-rhetoric sense, but a legally binding one), whereas non-profits exist mainly to serve communities, in this case the mathematics one, and can make decisions which hurt their bottom line, but help the communities they serve.

  3. I haven’t chimed in yet about this stuff, so maybe this is a good time to do so.

    We mathematicians need to start thinking about what we want math publishing to look like 20 years from now, because for-profit math publishing is going to succumb to evolutionary pressures. It did serve a valuable purpose in the past: transcription and distribution. But between latex and the internet, we don’t really need it anymore. Mathematicians have always taken care of the peer reviewing process essentially for free, and there’s not really much reason aside from habit for us to pay large sums for journals.

    So at this point, thanks to intellectual property laws, mathematics journal publishers like Springer, Elsevier, and the rest are basically squatting on a piece of intellectual real estate. Said property used to be quite valuable, and was worth the rents they charged. This is no longer the case; a lot of new land has just opened up. We’re living in a frontier age now. (Is it coincidence that topologists and K-theorists, who are used to thinking globally, are among the first to act? :)

    I don’t know what shape publishing should take in the future — it wouldn’t surprise me if journals became more like blogs, combining refereeing and commentary, while actual publication was taken care of by centralized e-print repositories — so let me finish with two random thoughts:

    1) Careful peer review needs to be preserved.
    2) Allowing publication in multiple journals might be a fairly good way of measuring a paper’s impact. More interesting papers — say Witten’s QFT & the Jones Polynomial — could be printed and reprinted in multiple locations.

  4. Everything’s going to be a blog one day.

    I’ve thought this about newspapers before; a newspaper is just a really big group blog that prints out a bunch of entries every day. There’s no reason why the scholarly journal won’t go the same way. One effect this would have is that it would facilitate commenting, as A. J. points out above.

    But a paper in a journal is a complex document, much longer than the average blog post. What I’d like to see — and what current blogging technology doesn’t really allow for, AFAIK — is the ability to make comments that apply to just a certain portion of an article (a particular theorem, for example) instead of the whole thing. Of course, not having this should not preclude the blogization of mathematics; it’s just that as we move in this direction, we ought to keep in mind that there are things which will be feasible which just weren’t feasible before.

  5. What I’d like to see — and what current blogging technology doesn’t really allow for, AFAIK — is the ability to make comments that apply to just a certain portion of an article (a particular theorem, for example) instead of the whole thing.

    It depends what you mean. I mean, now people often comment on portions of posts, usually by just including quotes in their comments.

    If you’re thinking of something like looking at a PDF, clicking on a theorem, and the comments on it popping up (like happens in google maps, say), I doubt it would be so hard to implement. I doubt that the user base is there for it just yet, though.

  6. I am not a regular poster to this blog. I just thought I would point out one practical matter relating to publishing. Mathematicians are not the purchasers of journals — librarians are. We can plot how we are going to change the publishing world. But if you want to learn the real issues involved, you should go chat with your local university librarian. If mathematicians cannot convince librarians to forgo traditional print journals, then all the wiki-blog-e-journals in the world will have no effect on the publishing world.

  7. To follow up Jason’s comment, which I think is right on the money, here’s one potential short term problem that has me concerned. Many or most university libraries have package subscriptions to major publishers such as Springer and Elsevier, and I have a hard time imagining that the Elsevier price will go down when Ann Sci ENS is dropped from the package (or do I not understand how these packages work?); in the meantime we will need to purchase a new, separate subscription for Ann Sci ENS.

    One plausible outcome might be that my library is not able to afford the separate Ann Sci ENS subscription, or at least that it will make it much easier for the library to cancel Ann Sci ENS at some future moment of belt-tightening. The Elsevier package is untouchable, of course — in our latest round of journal cancellations, none of the Springer, Elsevier, Kluwer, etc. journals were on the table, whereas we had to fight to keep Crelle, Pub. Math. IHES, Bulletin of the LMS, and the like.

    So I am nervous that in the short term, unless more changes come rapidly and dramatically, this could hurt our libraries more than it helps them. An idle thought, if this turns out to be a problem: could various national mathematics professional organizations and learned societies consider forming a consortium and offering a journal subscription package in the way that major publishers do?

  8. Jason & David: The pricing problem you mention might also have the opposite effect, driving more mathematicians to publish in cheap online formats. After all, most of the mathematicians I know prefer printing out e-prints to visiting the library. Maybe at some point — when there are enough prestigious online publishing options — we’ll decide that print journals aren’t worth the trouble and leave the chemists and biologists to sort out their problems with the publishing conglomerates.

  9. One thing that bothers me, with regard to the discussion about non-profit vs for-profit publishers, is the following. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is a non-profit organization. It says on it’s website:

    The IEEE, a non-profit organization, is the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology.

    How can we square that with this powerpoint presentation made in 2005 by the VP in charge of Publications? (See also these graphs illustrating the revenue increase from Google). Observe that they make no bones about (a) the use of Google to find free versions of publications and (b) Open Access journals as a huge threat to their revenue.

    I guess their reply will be that, although they are (?) a non-profit organization overall, their publications department makes a huge profit which the other sections feed off.

    Nevertheless, I want to make two points. Firstly, that the publications sector of the IEEE is unashamedly a massive money-making machine and most definitely for-profit. This happens on such a scale that, in discussions on publishing, it is misleading to say that they are a non-profit organization. Secondly, they see free journals and the archive as a huge threat (so they shouldn’t be lumped together on the same side of the equation).

    I would propose a cap for the percentage of revenue which academic societies and non-profit organizations can make from journals…. otherwise it’s an abuse of the term.

  10. I have been in a university where librarians ask mathematicians for suggestions about which journals to buy. They listen to our suggestions, and then make their own decisions. The idea that mathematicians can dictate journal policy to librarians is roughly equivalent to the idea that physicists and engineers can dictate the calculus syllabus to mathematicians. Of course we take their advice, but we aren’t about to take their orders. Moreover, librarians’ jobs depend on the current system. Librarians could adapt by learning the technology to be the leaders of a new electronic journal system. But inertia suggests that won’t happen.

  11. So what should Inventiones be renamed to after its editorial board resigns?

    The current pattern suggests “Journal of Inventiones Mathematicae.” I’m not sure if that would hold up in court, though.

  12. If mathematicians cannot convince librarians to forgo traditional print journals, then all the wiki-blog-e-journals in the world will have no effect on the publishing world.

    I suppose it depends what you mean by “effect on the publishing world.” If Journals 2.0 becomes a real phenomenon then that will be a whole new part of the publishing world, which I think will be valuable on its own terms. I’m not sure anyone has tried to quantify the effect of the arXiv on mathematics research, but I’m fairly sure it has been positive (I know it has been for me. 20 years ago, the West and Soviet bloc were duplicating each others work because of bad communication. Whereas last year, a graduate student in Moscow gave a seminar talk on one of my papers before it was even published).

    If you’re referring to just corporate publishing, it’s true that the effects there will probably be slower. But I feel like mathematicians have to change their ways before we can ask librarians to. If mathematicians make sure it really it is true that buying Elsevier journals is a waste of money, hopefully librarians will listen. From what I understand, libraries are already starting to pass up on print versions of journals in favor of electronic access, so hopefully the process is already underway.

  13. Nevertheless, I want to make two points. Firstly, that the publications sector of the IEEE is unashamedly a massive money-making machine and most definitely for-profit. This happens on such a scale that, in discussions on publishing, it is misleading to say that they are a non-profit organization. Secondly, they see free journals and the archive as a huge threat (so they shouldn’t be lumped together on the same side of the equation).

    I have to disagree with you there. Of course, non-profits can be quite guilty of greedy and reprehensible behavior, but they are still fundamentally different from for-profit corporations.

    First of all, where is the money going? Money that corporations make goes to their shareholders, in the form of dividends or higher stock prices. Money that the IEEE makes (presumably) goes back into the electrical engineering community. I don’t want to get too far into the particular example of the IEEE, but presumably they do something a bit better with that money than fatten the pockets of investors.

    Secondly, who is in control? The important decisions at a corporation are made by the shareholders, or the board and CEO, who are legally bound to pursue the financial interests of the shareholders as a reasonable person would their own. At a scholarly society, the decisions are undertaken by officers elected from and by the membership of the society. So, if electrical engineers are troubled by the cost of the IEEE’s journals, they have the power to, and should, make it an issue in the election of new officers.

    While, it’s true that simply switching to a non-profit isn’t a magic bullet that solves all problems, I think it is a more sensible basis on which to continue scholarly publishing.

  14. Jason — it’s been my experience as well that journal acquisition decisions are ultimately made by librarians, but I know this isn’t universally true (and perhaps we have just been unlucky).

  15. Hi Ben,

    Of course, non-profits can be quite guilty of greedy and reprehensible behavior, but they are still fundamentally different from for-profit corporations.

    Fair point, and I agree with you there. Still, initially I had the impression that if an organization was non-profit, then all products and services provided by that organization would be priced reasonably and not greedily. This is not the case : what they make on the roundabouts, they give to the swings.

    I guess that’s the way it has to work in the modern world. I’m just a bit uncomfortable with it… it doesn’t feel right. To quote from the book I linked above,

    “As the nonprofit sector grows in size and commercial activities, is it becoming indistinguishable from the private sector? The fundamental issue is how, if at all, does revenue source affect an organization’s behaviour?”

    I accept that when spoken of in this broad sense, this is really a political issue and not one confined to the question of academic journals.

    Perhaps I just haven’t come to terms with the modern world. I am uncomfortable with nonprofit organizations making barrel-loads of cash from certain sectors in order to fund their other sectors. The end shouldn’t justify the means,kind of thing.

Comments are closed.