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For the past few months, Cambridge University Press (in consultation with a number of mathematicians, including Tim Gowers and myself) has been preparing to launch a new open access journal (or more precisely, a complex of journals – see below) in mathematics, under the title “Forum of Mathematics“, as an experiment in moving away from the traditional library subscription based model of mathematical academic publishing.   (The initial planning for this journal happened to precede the Cost of Knowledge boycott, but the philosophy behind the journal is certainly aligned with that of the boycott, which I believe is further evidence that the time has come for mathematical journal reform.)  The journal will formally begin accepting submissions on October 1st, but it has already been officially announced by Cambridge University Press, with an editorial board (with Rob Kirby as managing editor, thirteen other editors including Tim and myself, and a board of associate editors that is still in the process of being assembled) and FAQ already in place.

In many respects, Forum of Mathematics functions as a regular mathematics journal, in that papers are submitted by the authors, sent out to referees by the editors, and (if accepted) published by the Forum.  There are however a couple of important features that distinguish the Forum from traditional mathematics journals.  The first is the open access, publication-charge based publishing model (sometimes known as “gold open access”).    Namely, all articles will be freely available without subscription charges, but authors, upon their paper being accepted, be asked to pay a publication charge to cover costs.  The publication charges will be set at zero for the first three years, and then raised to somewhere around £500 GBP or $750 USD after the initial three-year period (with fee waivers available for authors from developing countries).  (One reason that the publication charges are not entirely fixed at this point is that there is the possibility of obtaining additional funding sources for this journal, for instance from philanthropic organisations, which may allow for fee reductions or additional waivers.)    This is of course a non-trivial sum of money, but it is significantly lower than the charges for most other gold open access journals.   Also, editorial decisions will not be influenced by the author’s ability to pay for the charges, which only come into effect in the event that the paper is accepted for publication.

(One way in which Cambridge University Press is keeping costs low, by the way, is to keep the journal purely electronic, with physical issues available on a print-on-demand basis only.  A side benefit of this choice is that there is no hard constraint on how many or how few pages will be published each year, so that acceptance decisions will not be influenced by artificial constraints such as the size of the journal backlog.)

Another distinctive feature of Forum of Mathematics lies in its scope and structure.  It is not exactly a single journal, but is instead a complex consisting of a generalist flagship journal (officially known as Forum of Mathematics, Pi) and a specialist journal (Forum of Mathematics, Sigma) which is in turn loosely organised for editorial purposes into “clusters” for each of the major subfields of mathematics (analysis, topology, algebra, discrete mathematics, etc.).   As a first approximation, Pi is intended as a top-tier journal (on the level of, say, the Journal of the American Mathematical Society, Inventiones, or Annals of Mathematics) that only accepts significant papers of interest to a wide audience of mathematicians, while Sigma resembles a collection of specialist journals, one for each major subfield of mathematics.  However, the journals will be using the same editorial interface, and so it will be possible to easily transfer a submission between journals or clusters (while retaining all the referee reports and other editorial data).  This is meant to help address a common issue in traditional mathematical journals, namely that if the editorial board decides that a submission falls too far outside the scope of the journal, or is not quite at the desired level of quality, then the authors have to start all over again with a new journal (and new referee reports).    Of course, it is still possible (and perhaps even fairly common) that a submission to Forum of Mathematics will be deemed unsuitable for either Pi or Sigma, and thus rejected entirely; but the structure of the Forum should give some additional flexibility, to reduce the frequency that papers are rejected for artificial reasons such as being out of scope.  (Of course, we would still expect authors to aim their submission at the most appropriate location to begin with, in order to reduce the time and effort expended on processing the paper by everyone involved.)

Further discussion of this journal can be found at Tim Gowers’ blog.   It should be fully operational in a few months (barring last-minute hitches, we should be open for submissions on 1 October 2012).    Of course, a single journal is not going to resolve all the extant concerns about the need for journal publishing reform, such as those raised in the Cost of Knowledge boycott; but I feel that it is important to have some experimentation with different publishing models, to see what alternatives to the status quo are possible.