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The future of academic publishing

February 10, 2012

I’ve been talking a lot to mathematicians in the past few days about the future of mathematics publishing (partly because I gave a talk about Math in Business out at Northwestern).

It’s an exciting time, mathematicians seem really fed up with a particularly obnoxious Dutch publisher called Elsevier (tag line: “we charge this much because we can”), and a bunch of people have been boycotting them, both for submissions (they refuse to submit papers to the journals Elsevier publishes) and for editing (they resign as editors or refuse offers). One such mathematician is my friend Jordan, for example.

Here’s a page that simply collects information about the boycott. As you can see by looking at it, there’s an absolutely exploding amount of conversation around this topic, and rightly so: the publishing system in academic math is ancient and completely outdated. For one thing, nobody I’ve talked to actually reads journals anymore, they all read preprints from arXiv, and so the only purpose publishers provide right now is a referee system, but then again the mathematicians themselves do the refereeing. So publishers are more like the organizers of refereeing than anything else.

What’s next? Some people are really excited to start something completely new (I talked about this a bit already here and here) but others just want the same referee system done without all the money going to publishers. I think it would be a great start, but who would do the organizing and get to choose the referees etc? It’s both lots of work and potentially lots of bias in an already opaque system. Maybe it’s time for some crowd-sourcing in reviewing? That’s also work to set up and could potentially be gamed (if you send all your friends online to review your newest paper for example).

We clearly need to discuss.

For example, here’s a post (hat tip Roger Witte) about using arXiv.org as a collector of papers and putting a referee system on top of it, which would be called arXiv-review.org. There’s an infant google+ discussion group about what that referee system would look like.

Update: here’s another discussion taking place.

Are there other online discussions going on? Please comment if so, I’d like to know about them. I’m looking forward to what happens next!

Categories: open source tools, rant
  1. February 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Andrew Stacey and Scott Morrison set up a forum (Math 2.0) specifically to discuss this (in a more convenient format than blog comments).


  2. Matt
    February 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Back in 1994, the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics (EJC) was started by mathematicians, for mathematicians. Being electronic, it needs its website to be maintained, but that’s about the only cost of operation. The work needed for its operations (or the arranging of resources so this work gets done) is essentially donated by people close to the journal. The rest of the work is done by the volunteer academics on the editorial board, just as with any other journal. (One of the boycott signatories, László Lovász, is also on the EJC editorial board.) Since the editorial board has many recognizable names from the top of the field, it is immediately obvious that it is a respectable journal. It is completely open and free, both for authors (they don’t even ask for the copyright) and readers.

    Back in 2003, Donald Knuth sent a famous open letter which led the entire editorial board of Elsevier’s Journal of Algorithms to resign and start a new ACM journal, Transactions on Algorithms. This is certainly an improvement in terms of library cost, but Knuth likes publishers in principle, and the new journal is not open access.

    Now another 9 years have passed, and another effort moves forwards. But the efforts seem less and less goal-directed. Elsevier will not go out of business. So when will the boycott have succeeded? Or is the boycott supposed to go forever? Should my university library stop subscribing to Elsevier journals to support the boycott? If your answer is “no”, then Elsevier is still winning the game, because you didn’t ask about the price first…

    The EJC solved this problem 18 years ago, when the web was in its infancy. Running a website has only gotten easier since then. As Nike would say, just do it!


  1. February 13, 2012 at 10:40 am
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