More on journals

Since my post on journals seemed to strike a few nerves (I even received an email about it from the publisher of the Elsevier pure mathematics editor), I thought I would clarify a little bit about my previous post. You might call it a prequel.

There was an important but unstated personal belief of mine as regards journals. I would sum it up as follows: “It no longer makes sense for mathematics research aimed at mathematicians to be published by for-profit publishers.” Let me unpack that below.

By “no longer makes sense,” I mean that it is a poor use of the mathematics communities limited resources in money and time to support corporations that very little value to mathematics research, at least relative to their cost.

There was a time (or at least, I’m willing to believe such a time existed. I haven’t done a huge amount of research on this point) when it did make sense for corporate publishers to publish mathematics journals. In the past, printing a journal was a more capital intensive operation. Type had to be set, pages had to be printed. The mathematics community at the time was smaller and had less money. It would have been rather difficult for a mathematician to start a journal on their own, so getting a commercial publisher to do the heavy lifting made a certain amount of sense.

But things change. The internet has arrived, and now it is free to distribute mathematics research, in essentially professionally typeset form. At least amongst my generation of mathematicians, the idea that journals are really essential in distributing mathematics borders on laughable. Their content is so out of date that by now many papers have been cited dozens times of time by the time they have appeared in print (at least three of my papers were cited by articles on the arXiv before they even accepted by a journal, let alone actually printed). I’m not sure I’ve ever looked up an article published in the 21st century in printed form. I very rarely know which journal the important research articles I read were published in (for example, in my paper with Nadya, there were 10 references, and the only ones with proper references were one I had written and a 15 year old article of Vassiliev). Obviously, the contribution that printed copies of journals make to distributing mathematics is still far from trivial, but it is dropping precipitously.

Now, journals do still have an important role to play in the mathematics community. Peer review is a very good thing. It is important to have quality control on papers, and in my own experience, comments from referees and editors can be rather helpful (the disappointing referee’s reports I’ve gotten have simply had nothing to say about the paper). Since one of the hardest thing about mathematics is getting other mathematicians to even notice your work, having someone look over your papers in any capacity is very helpful. The slowness of peer review is rather problematic, especially for grad students and postdocs, for whom the difference between a paper being accepted 6 months or a year after its finished could be the difference between getting a particular job or not, but understandable based on its use of volunteer labor (actually, worse than slowness is its terrifying inconsistency. It would be one thing if it just took, say, 8 months to get a paper reviewed, consistently. But given that I know people whose papers have taken 2 years to be accepted, there seems to be no definite upper-bound on how long it might take. But that’s a complaint for another day).

But, of course, (at least in my understanding) this remaining valuable contribution of journals is exactly the part that the corporate publishers have nothing to do with. All that work is done by mathematicians. So what are the corporate publishers actually contributing here? Not to suggest that they are literally doing nothing, of course, simply that the examples of the AMS and MSP seem to suggest that the contribution they are making could be done at a fraction of the cost.

Furthermore, there’s a very important reason to prefer non-profit journals over for-profit ones, even if they are comparable in cost. Corporations are run solely for the benefit of their stockholders, by law. Seriously. Look it up, it’s called fiduciary responsibility. If, for example, Springer and Elsevier were to make freely available their large collections of old papers in digital form, this would obviously be a great thing for mathematics, but the stockholders of Springer could actually sue the company for making a business decision that didn’t match their interests (defined narrowly in term of money). Whereas, a non-profit organization has the freedom to make decisions that hurt its bottom line, but benefit the community served. The AMS, for example, is even a democratic organization, giving the mathematics community a chance to influence the destiny of journals and copyrights held by the AMS, unlike corporate publishers.

Now the question of what peer review structures should replace the corporate journal one is a very good question. In my heart of hearts, I feel convinced that the internet gives us the opportunity to have a more distributed and efficient peer review structure (one more like BitTorrent than Napster, if you know what I’m saying), but I can seem to put my finger on how it should work. Any thoughts?

13 thoughts on “More on journals

  1. There are two advantages of journals. One is that they show you things you’re not looking for – which keeps you broader and stimulates your mind. After all, why does everyone read Nature? Not for their own specialisation, because there will be specialist journals for it.

    The peer-reviewedness of the articles is the BIG advantage that journals still have. You *might* think that a Slashdot-style sort of moderation would help, but actually it wouldn’t work. It’s based on snap judgements and ends up being factional.

    You’re asking for hours of work from your referees, and the only way to get good work out of them is to pay them. I know that money is old technology, but it does solve a lot of problems.

    So when you submit a paper to the community publishing process, pay up front, to reward the referees for reading it, whether or not it gets published. Presumably you can do this out of the money you’ve saved from your magazine subscription budget.

    There’s an additional advantage for outsiders. Faced with six journals with essentially identical titles you have no idea where to submit, unless your friends give you useful gossip. [To see just how horrible the problem can be, look at the essentially identical editorial policies shared by *all* the MAA’s periodicals]. With paid peer review there would be only one place to submit.

    And for people too busy to read through long lists of papers with attendant referee reports, someone could start a business sifting through those lists and selecting the ones that seemed most relevant and interesting.

    That service would be on a subscription basis, of course.

    You could call it a “journal”.

  2. Yes, journals are pretty much obsolete. But are electronic journals really the future forever?

    The advantage of arXiv is that it is a convenient place to look for stuff that interests you. The advantage of putting documents there is harder to assess. You get a certain amount of exposure, but you have no idea who is reading it.

    You can write your documents up in \LaTeX and publish them on your own website. The advantage over arXiv is that you get DNS records of who downloads it. And if someone does a search for the methods you use, they will find your paper if they widen their search to the internet. The DNS records are like the reprint post cards people used to send you.

    This might seem like a weird way of doing science, but welcome to the future. I wrote a paper on the neutrino masses last year, delivered it at a physics conference and published it on my website (and nowhere else). Since then it’s picked up four journal citations and a few arXiv citations as well.

    The advantages of doing science this way? Think about it. No messing around with peer reviewing. No paying page fees to journals. No need to do anything except your work. You get to keep the fun part of physics but you don’t have to suffer through the part that is painful and maddening. For someone who has tenure, or for an amateur like me who does this as a hobby, what better way to publish than on their own website?

  3. For someone who has tenure, or for an amateur like me who does this as a hobby, what better way to publish than on their own website?

    This does seem to be the operative point: if you think virtue is its own reward, and don’t want to worry about getting a job or grants or tenure or promotions, then you may have a point (though a few caveats may be necessary. If you ask me, peer review is like medicine: it doesn’t always go down easy, and occasionally the cure is worse than the disease, but on the whole it leads to science being healthier. Of course, in this analogy, it takes several months for the pharamacist to fill your prescription).

    But most of the rest of us don’t seem to have the fortitude to get a non-academic job and continue with research (though maybe if I could get a sinecure in the Royal Mint…), or to go on public benefits and do math in our copious spare time, so the continuance of scientific research is fairly dependent on jobs or grants being handed out, with the advancement of your career at least somewhat tied to the illustriousness of your research accomplishment.

    And without peer review of some sort, what yardstick would we have for that? Ideally, of course, the committees deciding these things would read your publications and judge for themselves how well you had done, but that’s not particularly feasible. Even the most diligent of committees would wear themselves out before getting through the stack, and would, for the most part, not know enough about your field to put what you had done in context. So, without peer-review to give something of an aggregate view of how people in your field have judged your work, committees would just fall back on that old standby, nepotism (or proxies for it, like recommendation letters, and even acquaintance with people from conferences).

    Now if you ask me, anything that helps to de-nepotize the job market is a good thing. So, hurray for peer-review!

  4. I’m still naive enough to think peer review is for the mathematics itself, not for the careers of the mathematicians. Mathematics isn’t all about sitting in one’s room thinking lofty thoughts: instead, it is one’s responsibility to partake in both creation and distribution. Distribution involves teaching, giving talks, writing books, and reviewing papers (and getting your own papers published and reviewed) so the “body of work” that we are all creating is correct and accessible, because we all need to use it when we go back to creating. In consequence

    1) We should not just published on our websites and disregard the review process. If we all did that, it would be hard to sort out good from bad and relevant from useless, weed out mistakes, and help graduate students get started — in fact, it would be hard to find anything (google’s skill doesn’t replace math reviews)! In the end, our own math would suffer.

    2) We do need to spend that time volunteering to review as part of our community dues (besides, it’s don’t forget it’s a good thing to be reading papers). We shouldn’t be paid to do it. Besides, I suspect paying people would just lead to poor reviewing.

    Imperfect as it is, review is important, whether or not it’s tied to for- or non-profit journals.

  5. I’m still naive enough to think peer review is for the mathematics itself, not for the careers of the mathematicians.

    I don’t see any reason to set up an opposition between these. After all, I feel like the ideal is to have mathematical achievement and career advancement moving together (which is to a reasonable degree true, though like everything else, it could use some improvement).

    Now, for me, peer review has served mostly as career advancement because referees don’t give me helpful comments. I’ve now received 6 referees reports, and not a single one of them made substantive comment on the mathematics in the paper (one did have significant comments about the structure of the paper, and for one, an editor of the journal pointed out a reference we missed). I’m thankful for the typos that they pointed out, but on the whole I’ve gotten much more more helpful commentary from random mathematicians who read the paper, or from the audiences at talks.

    After all, peer review is only as good as your reviewer. While we all know we should review papers quickly, thoroughly and carefully, people simply aren’t going to put refereeing ahead of their own research or service duties unless the incentive structure is changed in some way. It’s a thankless job, and people tend to avoid doing those whenever they can get away with it.

    Now, I don’t know what the solution is, (despite Nugae seems to imply, I am quite aware that a Slashdot/Digg type system would be a disaster), but find it hard to imagine we can’t improve on what we’re doing now.

  6. “I don’t see any reason to set up an opposition between these.”

    You’re right of course.

  7. Regarding peer review, it’s not clear to me that the history of math and physics shows that peer review is necessary or even useful. There are plenty of examples where peer review held back good ideas. The one that comes to mind is Kaluza’s brilliant paper that showed gravitation with a hidden dimension gave Einstein plus Maxwell. Einstein sat on it for 3 years before it was published. A better word for “peer reveiw” is “senior review”, as in those senior in the field determine what will be published.

    If the only reason you have for peer review is to find out whether your stuff is any good, try sending copies of it to people who work in the field. If they don’t comment in 7 days, send a letter to someone else. This will save you a lot of time and aggravation. For example, the paper submittal process requires that you not submit the paper to more than one journal at a time, a restriction I would certainly accept only if they guaranteed publication in advance, or paid me a non refundable fee. (This sort of thing arises in the business world now and again, and the solution is to agree on a price for the option of exclusivity.) Right now, it’s clear to me that if you don’t have tenure, you really have no choice but to knuckle under to the system as it is set up, but it is hardly in your best interests except for tenure.

    This blog talks about rejecting expensive math journals. If you’re trying to do something at all revolutionary, then put it on the web where other researchers will find it for free. Many of us don’t read the papers that hide behind expensive journal subscriptions anyway. In physics things are pretty easy. Math is not the same. In my case, most of the useful work in the primitive idempotent structure of Clifford algebras is either in books or in expensive journals.

  8. Carl,

    Peer review is to mathematics what experiment is to physics. It is genuinely important that someone has gone through the paper and checked it over carefully. Just asking an expert whether she thinks your idea sounds correct isn’t good enough.

    And for the record, I‘m not trying to do anything revolutionary. I’m interested in what various economic pressures will do to our system of journal publishing.

  9. Carl,
    Just to be clear: I am not arguing against posting stuff on one’s webpage. I post all my papers on my webpage and the arXiv, and appreciate it when other people do this (the arXiv is really one of the best things every to happen to mathematics). I don’t think anyone should hide their work behind paywalls for any reason. But access and peer review are (or at least should be) entirely separate issues.
    What i’m arguing is that putting stuff on your webpage is not enough.

    I don’t (and doubt anyone does) use peer review to find out whether their work is good. You’re entirely correct that direct contact with people in your field is better for that, though peer review isn’t entirely useless; an extra pair of eyes never hurts.

    What peer review is for is convincing other people who don’t have the time to read your papers that they are good, or at least don’t suck. Peer review is a signaling mechanism, and I mean that in a complementary way. As I said, if you aren’t interested in getting an academic position or grants, then just putting your papers on your webpage is fine (though I don’t see how sending your paper to a referee would hurt). But you were ever on a hiring committee (or grant committee) with 50 applications staring you in the face, I think you would really appreciate an independent way of gauging the quality of papers without actually reading them.

    Is this entirely fair? No, of course not. Journal acceptances are far more random than is desirable, and as I’ve said several times before, I feel sure there is a better system of peer review out there, waiting to be discovered. But if you have to consider what hiring committees will fall back on with having journals attached to papers. Probably relying more on recommendation letters, on who they personally know, on other credentials like previous employers and education. In short, advantaging the well-connected (who are already doing pretty well in the current system) over the not-so-well-connected. That’s not something I would really like to see, and I doubt you would either.

  10. The Journal is dead, long live the Journal.

    On balance, I think this is just another case of the internet removing the middleman, while improving supply.

    If we were to take the best features of the Journal System and translate them to the web what would that be like?

    Well, we already have arXiv – wildly successful – so whats missing?

    I tend to look to blogs such as Gowers, Terry Taos and others to refer me to interesting ArXiv papers…

    So.. should we just add usability features to ArXiv?
    eg –
    – vote on quality of paper – eg 4 stars
    – peer review / suggestions for clarification/improvement
    – page rank for papers [ if many papers refer to paper X, its more important, and the authors are more important ]

    I think there is emerging already a surrounding economy of blogs/review sites that do the job of summarizing, surveying and recommending the significant papers…

    Perhaps the issue of ‘paying someone to review’ is solved by having Mathematicians spend a certain part of their funded time on freely available reviews/surveys/critiques of arXiv papers?

    I think there is a minority who would pay for a regular high quality survey magazine monthly, theres probably a market for it – so it could be that journals can adapt to this more nimble business model. You’d probably want a pdf in your email, or a loging site for that, or maybe its paid by having ads appear on the ArXiv style site?

    One precedent for this in the linux development world is the site, which sells its freshest news, and offers older news for free. works well, but I guess doesnt make a huge profit… maybe unis could subsidize something like that for math? Seems more efficient use of money than journal fees.

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