More on journals August 7, 2007Posted by Ben Webster in evil 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 Their content is so out of date that by now many papers have been cited dozens times of time by the time they have appeared in print (at least three of my papers were cited by articles on the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?