Mathematicians take a stand

Douglas Arnold and Henry Cohn have just posted to the arXiv their article Mathematicians take a stand, which will also appear in the Notices of the AMS shortly.

In it they describe the background to the Elsevier boycott, and make a case for more people joining in. It might appear at this point that the boycott is losing steam, but I’m pretty sure this is not the case. A lot has been happening, although too much of it is “behind the scenes”. Elsevier has made some concessions, although these so far seem to mostly miss the point. There’s a rumour of more to come. Two weeks ago some representatives met with the Journal of Number Theory’s editorial board, to discuss their concerns. The meeting was inconclusive, but it seems the editorial board there remains unsatisfied with Elsevier. (It appears that the minutes of that meeting are googleable…)

I hope that the prestigious mathematics journals still with Elsevier (particularly the three discussed in Arnold and Cohn’s article: Advances, the Journal of Algebra, and the Journal of Number Theory) make sure they get what they need from Elsevier. Right now, they have the support of the mathematical community, and I hope they will not be timid about making demands. I’m not sure what’s already been discussed in private, but this would be my list:

  • Legal ownership of the journals to be transferred to the editorial board or their chosen representatives, with Elsevier kept on as the publisher on a contract basis.
  • Open access to the historical archives (everything older than 5 years), with clear rules and ideally an open license, allowing access for indexing, preservation and analysis.
  • Prices reduced to no more than twice the per page cost of comparable journals published by professional societies, and a clear mechanism for libraries to achieve proportional reductions in bundle costs by dropping unwanted journals.

I don’t realistically expect that Elsevier will agree to any of these right away. But, nevertheless, I hope we demand this of them. At the moment their interests are simply diametrically opposed to ours — their commercial interest is to restrict access to our work, while our interest is to have the widest possible dissemination. Until they clearly see that we’re willing to take our toys and go home, I think there’s little hope of Elsevier taking meaningful steps.

Finally, it would be great  to hear from editors at Elsevier journals about the impact of the boycott. Has Advances seen a decrease in quantity or quality of submissions? If so, what are they going to do about it?

12 thoughts on “Mathematicians take a stand

  1. Thanks for posting this, Scott. Unfortunately, I think it does look as if momentum has been lost — even if the work going on behind the scenes will ultimately make up for that.

    It’s probably worth keeping in mind that only a small proportion of mathematicians read blogs, and probably only a minority of mathematicians are aware of the Elsevier boycott. In the end, it’s action taken outside the blogosphere that’s going to be decisive: which publishers editorial boards choose to employ, and which journals libraries choose to buy.

  2. Probably only a minority of mathematicians are aware of the Elsevier boycott

    I might not be so certain. I’m not even working around mathematicians anymore, and yet the topic of the boycott came up (not raised by me) at an after-work happy hour last week. If even *non*-mathematicians know about it…

  3. Why don’t the board of “Number Theory” just start “Independent Number Theory”? They don’t even need to publish anything. All they need is a cabal to review papers on arxiv and state which they would have published, surely?

  4. Regarding Independent Number Theory, it’s not easy to start a new journal and convince people to publish there, and it involves taking on a major long-term commitment. Elsevier doesn’t supply nearly enough value to justify their prices, but they do supply some real value (helping to manage submissions, copy-editing and typesetting, archiving, etc.), so replacing them will require either extra volunteers, some replacement source of funding, or compromises not everyone will be happy with.

    I see bundling as playing a major role in this problem: bundling locks up so much library funding that it becomes very difficult to start a competing journal, much more so than it would be in a properly functioning market.

    In the meantime, the JNT board (like many other Elsevier editorial boards) is very actively thinking about these issues and debating what to do, and there are a lot of ideas out there, but there’s no quick and easy solution. If some but not all of the board leave to found a low-cost replacement journal that does not catch on, then we’re in trouble: it will set a worrisome precedent that may dissuade other boards from trying anything, and Elsevier will presumably charge just as much for JNT as before, even if its prestige takes a hit. It’s much easier to screw up a journal than to create or improve one, and no board wants to go down in history for hurting their own journal without a net benefit for the community. So they are all moving slowly and carefully, but that’s not a bad thing. And I think it’s very valuable for the community to have editorial boards actively negotiating with Elsevier, rather than just leaving: ultimately, the best case scenario is if Elsevier can be convinced to adopt better practices, which will then spread throughout the industry. However, leaving Elsevier is certainly better than cooperating with them if they are unwilling to make major changes. So far, they have not done enough, and it’s up to them to take the next step.

  5. Events did not occur at “Internet speed” before the Internet, and there is no good reason to believe events will occur at “Internet speed” even with the Internet.

    I am as guilty of forgetting this as anyone else.

  6. Hello,

    I found this blog by chance.
    Just in case you wouldn’t know, in particle physics there is the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP), which is an independent, free, peer-reviewed etc journal. It is by now th most popular and has the highest impact factors.

    So starting an independent, free journal is certainly not impossible !

  7. Reagrding JHEP, their own website says they charge for subscriptions. That’s not a bad thing – plenty of wonderful journals do – but I don’t see how it counts as “free”.

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