Occupy publishing

Timothy Gowers is boycotting Elsevier and hopes to spark reform that will replace expensive journals with a more rational system

February 16, 2012

Credit: Marcus Butt

For many years, I, like several other mathematicians, have been careful not to submit papers to journals published by the huge publishing conglomerate Reed Elsevier. Our reasons will be familiar to many readers of Times Higher Education.

There was a time when typesetting and dissemination were essential services provided by publishers. Now, almost all mathematicians write their papers in LaTeX (a document-preparation system), and dissemination typically takes place online, long before papers appear in journals. That leaves one main service performed by journals: providing a stamp of approval that, in principle at least, gives one confidence in the correctness of a paper and some rough idea of its quality. Such evaluations can be difficult and time-consuming: however, luckily for the publishers, they are done free of charge by academics, who regard this as part of their duty to their peers.

One might have thought, in the light of this, that maths journals would be very cheap indeed. However, university libraries are in a weak bargaining position: there are some journals that are very important to some academics, so libraries are extremely reluctant to cancel their subscriptions to them. The result is that the major publishers, the likes of Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, have been able to set their prices extraordinarily high. It is hard to say exactly how high because they typically sell their journals in huge "bundles" that run across all subjects, and they ask libraries to sign confidentiality agreements. But if you have a chat with your department's library representative, you are unlikely to find that they are happy with the deal that has been negotiated.

The only reason this situation persists, in maths at least (I will concentrate on that discipline here, although much of what I say applies more generally), is a certain stability that is built into the system. Journals take time to build up reputations, and we rely on those reputations for making quick evaluations of other mathematicians. That is why the current journal system, despite repeated predictions of its imminent demise, has changed remarkably little in the past 20 years.

Recently, I thought that I could add to the pressure for change by making public my refusal to publish with Elsevier, which seems to be the publisher people dislike the most. I did this by writing a blog post in which I added that I would not do any editorial work for the publisher (as luck and one deliberate decision a few years ago would have it, I am not on the editorial boards of any of its journals), or, more controversially, referee for it. I had the thought that it would be good if there were a simple website where people could make similar declarations: it is easier to contemplate action against Elsevier if you know that many others are doing the same. I mentioned this thought and Tyler Neylon, a graduate student at New York University, decided to set one up. At the time of writing, the petition on The Cost of Knowledge website has been signed by 4,370 academics, 869 of them mathematicians.

There are two natural questions that arise from this: what does a boycott achieve besides making life more difficult for our hard-working colleagues, and why focus on Elsevier when the other major publishers are also eye-wateringly expensive? Different signatories will have different answers to these questions. Here are mine.

I do not see the boycott as an attempt to get Elsevier to change: it thrives because our systems for judging each other allow it to. The mathematical section of the boycott is really aimed at other mathematicians. I hope that it will provoke even colleagues who have not signed to think twice before submitting their work to Elsevier journals or joining their editorial boards. I also hope that it will provide strong encouragement for people to set up cheaper alternatives, which takes time and work.

In particular, it is extremely important for these alternatives to have high standards, so that they can quickly build up reputations to equal those of the established journals. There are several examples that show that this can be done, but also some that have been less successful. In short, I hope that the boycott will encourage mathematicians to think about these issues and hasten the move to a more rational system.

The main reason for focusing on Elsevier is that it is a realistic first target. Very few people could feasibly withdraw their cooperation from all the major commercial publishers simultaneously, so it is better to concentrate on one to begin with, and Elsevier seems to be the most resented. However, if the boycott succeeds in its aim of changing the way mathematicians evaluate each other, we can free ourselves not only of Elsevier, but also of the entire problem of expensive journals. Our universities' money can surely be put to better use.

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