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It has been a little over two weeks now since the protest site at thecostofknowledge.com was set up to register declarations of non-cooperation with Reed Elsevier in protest of their research publishing practices, inspired by this blog post of Tim Gowers.   Awareness of the protest has certainly grown in these two weeks; the number of signatories is now well over four thousand, across a broad array of academic disciplines, and the protest has been covered by many blogs and also the mainstream media (e.g. the Guardian, the Economist, Forbes, etc.), and even by Elsevier stock analysts.    (Elsevier itself released an open letter responding to the protest here.)  My interpretation of events is that there was a significant amount of latent or otherwise undisclosed dissatisfaction already with the publishing practices of Elsevier (and, to a lesser extent, some other commercial academic publishers), and a desire to support alternatives such as university or society publishers, and the more recent open access journals; and that this protest (and parallel protests, such as the movement to oppose the Research Works Act) served to drive these feelings out into the open.

The statement of the protest itself, though, is rather brief, reflecting the improvised manner in which the site was created.  A group of mathematicians including myself therefore decided to write and sign a more detailed explanation of why we supported this protest, giving more background and references to support our position.   The 34 signatories are Scott Aaronson, Douglas N. Arnold, Artur Avila, John Baez, Folkmar Bornemann, Danny Calegari, Henry Cohn, Ingrid Daubechies, Jordan Ellenberg, Matthew Emerton, Marie Farge, David Gabai, Timothy Gowers, Ben Green, Martin Grotschel, Michael Harris, Frederic Helein, Rob Kirby, Vincent Lafforgue, Gregory F. Lawler, Randall J. LeVeque, Laszlo Lovasz, Peter J. Olver, Olof Sisask, Richard Taylor, Bernard Teissier, Burt Totaro, Lloyd N. Trefethen, Takashi Tsuboi, Marie-France Vigneras, Wendelin Werner, Amie Wilkinson, Gunter M. Ziegler, and myself.  (Note that while Daubechies is current president of the International Mathematical Union, Lovasz is a past president, and Grotschel is the current secretary, they are signing this letter as individuals and not as representatives of the IMU. Similarly for Trefethen and Arnold (current and past president of SIAM).)

Of course, the 34 of us do not presume to speak for the remaining four thousand signatories to the protest, but I hope that our statement is somewhat representative of the position of many of its supporters.

Further discussion of this statement can be found at this blog post of Tim Gowers.

EDIT: I think it is appropriate to quote the following excerpt from our statement:

All mathematicians must decide for themselves whether, or to what extent, they wish to participate in the boycott. Senior mathematicians who have signed the boycott bear some responsibility towards junior colleagues who are forgoing the option of publishing in Elsevier journals, and should do their best to help minimize any negative career consequences.

Whether or not you decide to join the boycott, there are some simple actions that everyone can take, which seem to us to be uncontroversial:

  1. Make sure that the final versions of all your papers, particularly new ones, are freely available online, ideally both on the arXiv and on your home page.
  2.  If you are submitting a paper and there is a choice between an expensive journal and a cheap (or free) journal of the same standard, then always submit to the cheap one.

A few days ago, inspired by this recent post of Tim Gowers, a web page entitled “the cost of knowledge” has been set up as a location for mathematicians and other academics to declare a protest against the academic publishing practices of Reed Elsevier, in particular with regard to their exceptionally high journal prices, their policy of “bundling” journals together so that libraries are forced to purchase subscriptions to large numbers of low-quality journals in order to gain access to a handful of high-quality journals, and their opposition to the open access movement (as manifested, for instance, in their lobbying in support of legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Research Works Act (RWA)).   [These practices have been documented in a number of places; this wiki page, which was set up in response to Tim's post, collects several relevant links for this purpose.  Some of the other commercial publishers have  exhibited similar behaviour, though usually not to the extent that Elsevier has, which is why this particular publisher is the focus of this protest.]  At the protest site, one can publicly declare a refusal to either publish at an Elsevier journal, referee for an Elsevier journal, or join the board of an Elsevier journal.

(In the past, the editorial boards of several Elsevier journals have resigned over the pricing policies of the journal, most famously the board of Topology in 2006, but also the Journal of Algorithms in 2003, and a number of journals in other sciences as well.  Several libraries, such as those of Harvard and Cornell, have also managed to negotiate an unbundling of Elsevier journals, but most libraries are still unable to subscribe to such journals individually.)

For a more thorough discussion as to why such a protest is warranted, please see Tim’s post on the matter (and the 100+ comments to that post).   Many of the issues regarding Elsevier were already known to some extent to many mathematicians (particularly those who have served on departmental library committees), several of whom had already privately made the decision to boycott Elsevier; but nevertheless it is important to bring these issues out into the open, to make them commonly known as opposed to merely mutually known.  (Amusingly, this distinction is also of crucial importance in my favorite logic puzzle, but that’s another story.)   One can also see Elsevier’s side of the story in this response to Tim’s post by David Clark (the Senior Vice President for Physical Sciences at Elsevier).

For my own part, though I have sent about 9% of my papers in the past to Elsevier journals (with one or two still in press), I have now elected not to submit any further papers to these journals, nor to serve on their editorial boards, though I will continue refereeing some papers from these journals.  As of this time of writing, over five hundred mathematicians and other academics have also signed on to the protest in the four days that the site has been active.

Admittedly, I am fortunate enough to be at a stage of career in which I am not pressured to publish in a very specific set of journals, and as such, I am not making a recommendation as to what anyone else should do or not do regarding this protest.  However, I do feel that it is worth spreading awareness, at least, of the fact that such protests exist (and some additional petitions on related issues can be found at the previously mentioned wiki page).

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