Elsevier in Australia

I’ve just got back from talking to Roxanne Missingham, the University Librarian here at ANU, about Elsevier, and I want to quickly report on what I learnt.

I don’t yet have any of the juicy numbers revealing what libraries are paying for their Elsevier subscriptions (as Timothy Gowers has been doing in the UK; if you haven’t read his post do that first!). Nevertheless there are some interesting details.

Essentially all the Australian universities, excepting a few tiny private institutes, subscribe to the Freedom collection (this is the same bundle that nearly everyone is forced into subscribing to). The contracts are negotiated by CAUL (the Council of Australian University Librarians).

My librarian was very frank about Article Processing Charges (APCs) constituting double-dipping, whatever it is that Elsevier and the other publishers say. The pricing of journal bundles is so opaque, and to the extent we understand it primarily based on the historical contingencies of print subscription levels more than a decade ago, that in practice the fraction of articles in a subscription bundle for which APCs have been paid has no meaningful effect on the prices libraries pay for their bundles.

I think this point needs wider dissemination amongst mathematicians — whatever our complaints about APCs inhibiting access to journals for mathematicians without substantial funding, we are just plain and simple being ripped off. Gold open access hybrid journals are a scam.

Now, on to some details about contracts. First, my librarian confirmed the impression from Gowers’ investigations in the UK — bundle pricing is based largely on historical spending on print subscriptions, with annual price increases. Adding some interesting context on the numbers we’re now seeing out of the UK, she told me that the UK is widely perceived as having received a (relatively) great deal from Elsevier, in terms of annual price increases. If the UK numbers scared you, be aware that here in Australia we may well have it worse. A curious anecdote about historical pricing of subscriptions is that one division of CSIRO happened to have cancelled most of their print journals the year before they took out an electronic subscription with a commercial publisher, and as a result got an excellent deal. The Australian universities have apparently mostly signed confidentiality agreements regarding their journal subscription costs (as we expect, by now), but my understanding of the conversation was that the ANU in particular had not.

Finally, my librarian pointed out that doing what I hope to do next, namely use the FOI act to obtain detailed information on Elsevier subscription costs, may be counterproductive, as the most likely result of unusual discrepancies in pricing being revealed is some libraries simply having budgets cut, rather than actually giving the negotiators any more power in the future. I got the impression she’d talked to other Australian librarians about this, and there was some amount of nervousness.

I’ve been told I should go talk to Andrew Wells, the librarian at UNSW, and after posting this I’m going to get in touch with him!

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?


Although I wouldn’t want to a hit someone while they’re down, hitting a large faceless evil corporation, whose sole purpose is to extract rents from the academic community, while they’re down rather appeals to me.

Elsevier just sent out an email announcing (amongst many other things, to be blogged about later, I guess) they are withdrawing support for the Research Works Act.

Elsevier has announced today that we are withdrawing our support for the Research Works Act. In recent weeks, our support for the Act has caused some in the community to question our commitment to serving the global research community and ensuring the best possible access to research publications and data. We have heard concerns from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers that the Act would be seen as a step backwards for expanding options for free and low cost public access to scholarly literature. That was certainly not the intention of the legislation or our intention in supporting it. Please read our full statement online.

Good news—now let’s turn retreat into rout.

Value removed by journals

It is a truth universally acknowledged that journals fail to add significant value in a way that justifies their high prices (we write, typeset, referee, edit, and they do basically nothing except charge an arm and a leg for it). However, I think it is underappreciated the ways in which some journals actually take away value. Typically by wasting our time with bad interfaces or imposing unreasonable typesetting/file format requirements. I’m in the middle of a particularly hellacious experience with the Journal of Functional Analysis (whose support staff have been unhelpful on top of incompetent) but I’ve also run into similar inconveniences with IMRN (where at least the support staff was helpful in getting around the problems).

Suppose we lived in a world where journals did the following

  1. Took submissions of papers by receiving their arXiv ID number.
  2. Refereed them and had the authors make necessary changes.
  3. Slapped the journal’s logo on the paper and called it accepted.

That to me is the baseline of how things should work (and is roughly how things do work at many journals: ANT/G&T/AGT obviously, but also CMP/JAMS/Acta were more or less similar). Anything else the journals do beyond that should add value rather than remove it. Here are ways that journals often remove value:

  • Requiring additional typsetting work prior to submission. I’m happy to do a little bit of grunt work on an accepted paper, but it’s very frustrating to struggle to just submit a paper. ArXiv or PDF should be good enough for submission.
  • Having difficult to use and poorly engineered submission systems. (E.g. JFA has no way of allowing you to delete multiple files you’ve uploaded. So if you upload 200 images and then need to change them because their system failed to compile you need to remove each file manually.)
  • Having unnecessarily strict file format requirements (e.g. JFA doesn’t want .png, and IMRN wasn’t able to deal with TikZ).
  • Having strange limitations on how files can be uploaded, in particular not allowing subfolders (JFA and IMRN) or only allowing particular sorts of zip formats (IMRN).
  • Inserting the evil “et al.” into citations.
  • Update: Introducing mathematical errors during copy-editing

Any other important ways that journals remove value that I’m missing?

UPDATE This post has been attracting an extraordinary amount of spam. (See post above.) I (DES) have changed the title to see if that helps.

In which I freep the President

In this blog (in contrast to when you meet us in person), we tend to steer away from politics. But, of course, we do make an exception for science/technology politics, and I’d like to talk to you about some of that today. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is holding an open web forum on access to scientific results; specifically, how to craft a policy for when to require federally funded research to be openly accessible. I recommend that all of you go and leave respectful comments encouraging as strong a requirement along these lines as possible.

You also might want to go sign this petition for open-access in the EU.

Elsevier plumbing new lows

We’ve beat up a bit on Elsevier a number of times on this blog, but this time they’ve really made it too easy: they’ve admitted to publishing journals that are un-peer-reviewed advertisements for drug companies.

Let that sink in for a moment; a supposedly respectable academic publisher put their imprimatur on Merck propoganda disguised as scientific journals. They even had the nerve to claim that they weren’t journals, even though one is called The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, and is printed to look like any other Elsevier journal.

So, any time you hear people from the publishing industry blathering about how for-profit journals are necessary to maintain peer review, keep this story in mind. The drive for profit is undermining the integrity of peer review, and Elsevier is on the forefront of doing so.

EDIT: Let me elaborate a little, in response to the excellent comment of Greg below. I agree with most of what Greg said, and I think we’re coming from roughly the same position, but putting a different emphasis on things. I absolutely agree that our current publishing system is broken, and needs to be changed.

The present journal system is essentially 19th century in character, except with shorter travel times, and has done very little to capture the free-floating information on the web. But part of building support for moving to a new model is pointing out how deeply flawed the previous model is, and how badly it’s failing us. While this and El Naschie are extreme cases (one could also include the bizarre events around the breakup of K-theory), they’re also vivid illustrations of how unreliable our current system is. I think people are somewhat conservative by nature and are very reluctant to drop a model long after it has become extremely suboptimal. If one is to prod them into considering something new, I think loudly pointing out the failure of the current regime is very necessary, if not at all sufficient.

The Conyers Bill Disaster

So, perhaps you’ve heard about the Conyers bill (“Fair Copyright in Research Works Act”).  There are some emails circulating about this online (I got a forward of one originating with David Yetter), mostly leading back to a post of Lawrence Lessig’s at the Huffington Post.

You can read more details at the Lessig post, but the short version is this:  this bill would make it illegal for any federal agency to require you to cede any copyright privileges to the government in exchange for research funding.  The only current instance of this I know of is that all NIH funded research must be posted on PubMed.  This bill would make it illegal for the NIH to require that, which would be a terrible thing to do.  John Conyers should be ashamed of himself for introducing such a bill, and you should write you congresscritter about it, especially if they’re on the Judiciary Committee (it would be much better if this died in committee).

On the other hand, certain email forwards seem to have gotten it in their heads that this bill would forbid people who get NSF grants from posting on the arXiv, but it sure doesn’t look like the text of the bill could possibly imply that.  Am I right here, or am I somehow misreading things?

On the other other hand, this is something of a big deal, in that it is a big middle finger from all the publishers to even the most mild-mannered open-access advocate.  The message is roughly that the publishers think their profit margins are more important that people dying.  Which is fine;  they’re corporations, that’s how corporations are required to function by law.  It just should make you think twice about whether corporations are a good vehicle for scientific publishing.

Anyways, everybody chill out.  Then call your congresscritter.

EDIT: Right after posting this, I got another forward of an email by David Yetter, saying that he had misunderstood the legislation and that my (still displeasing) interpretation is correct. (Just so we’re clear, that had nothing to do with the post.  It’s just a coincidence.)


I’m curious: how do you decide where to submit your papers?

I’m perfectly willing to admit, my algorithm is roughly as follows:

  1. Try to get my coauthors to decide instead of me.
  2. Failing that, try to figure out a mathematician who is likely to edit some journals, and who would like the paper and know who should referee it.
  3. Find out what journals they edit (harder than it should be, though Google is OK for this purpose).
  4. If I’m happy with one of those journals, submit there.  Otherwise, back to step 1. or 2.

I’ve never heard a more sensible algorithm than this one, though I hope such a thing does exist.

L’affaire El Naschie

So I know I’m a little late to the party on this, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the strange case of M. el Naschie (I assume that this is just the German transliteration of the name English speakers would be more likely to spell al Nashi). Zoran Škoda brought him up in the comments to a post at the n-Category Cafe, and John Baez did an excellent job exposing the level of intellectual bankruptcy at the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. The details are better recounted elsewhere, (unfortunately the posts above have been removed. Those interested in following the case can try Richard Poynder’s blog Open and Shut) but in a nutshell, El Naschie published dozens of papers in his own journal (he’s the editor-in-chief) which appear to be of no scientific or mathematical merit (this is my judgment based on excerpts and titles, and also seems to be the consensus of commenters at nCC), which make rather grandiose claims based on rather incoherent numerology. John Baez characterized him as “worse than the Bogdanov brothers,” which is pretty high up in the food chain of physics hoaxes.

But my intent here is not to beat up on El Naschie. He’s already set to retire in shame. The people who really have egg on their face here are those who enabled the man who is for all intents and purposes a crank to run a superficially prestigious-seeming journal. Continue reading

Out-of-print books

If you ever need an example of how unhelpful and badly designed our current publishing system is, the existence (or rather, lack of existence) of out-of-print books is ready-made.

Now there was a time when not publishing a book could make serious economic sense.  Publishers couldn’t afford to publish runs of books below a certain number, and the demand for some books can become so small that there was no way to profitably print them.  It’s a shame but an understandable economic reality.

This is simply no longer the case.  Print-on-demand services (for example, lulu.com) can now print books as people order them for a cost considerably lower than the list price of any math textbook.  All a publisher needs to do is put PDFs of their books on such a website, put a $30 markup on them (or more, considering how much math books cost), and let the money roll in.  If they don’t have PDFs, I bet Google Books would make them for free.  In short, publishers are leaving money they could be making on their back catalogue on the table, and hurting the mathematical community at the same time.  Thanks, guys.

This rant was engendered by a post of Timothy Chow’s at What’s New (a.k.a. Terry Tao) about a new website, where one can express one’s desire for a old math books to be brought back into print.  The website’s a good idea but ultimately getting specific books that are particularly popular back into print is a short-term fix.  The real problem is that publishers’ mindset still hasn’t caught up to the advances in technology. When are they going to enter the 21st century?

[Ed. – last paragraph edited a bit in response to comments]