Perishing Publishers

How do you publish a research paper? Unlike book publishing where authors, as a general rule, get advances, you first have to write it. You then submit it to a journal, and after a long process of refereeing and possible rejection it may eventually go to press, with the quality of the journal lending gravitas to promotion and salary decisions.

In this important system, all the work, from submission, refereeing, editing, and final acceptance, is done by academics at universities. Many of the journals appear under the imprimatur of academic publishing houses, and as academics now typeset their own papers using modern technical software the publisher’s costs have come down in recent years. Yet strangely the price of some journals from commercial publishers has risen, and this at a time when papers appear on the internet well before printed versions arrive in libraries.

As far as costs go, mathematics is an extreme case because of its very complicated notation: matrices, arrows, sub-superscripts, and strange symbols. But with the advent of automatic typesetting, mathematicians have become incensed by the pricing policies of some commercial publishers.

The frustration has built over a long time. In 2006 the entire editorial board of an important mathematics journal called Topology resigned. They were seriously annoyed at the pricing of a journal, published by the Dutch academic publisher Elsevier, for which they were working without pay. Just to give an idea of prices, in 2007 the Annals of Mathematics, published by Princeton University Press, cost $0.13 per page. By contrast, ten Elsevier mathematics journals cost $1.30 per page or more.

The storm warning over Topology was ineffective, and frustration within the mathematics community has become so intense that Tim Gowers, a Cambridge professor, has organised a boycott of Elsevier. As the London Mathematical Society says in the March issue of its newsletter, “the focus…is on Elsevier because of the widespread feeling among mathematicians that they are the worst offender”.

Elsevier is rattled, and has sent members of the mathematics community an open letter trying to limit the damage. I doubt it will work. In his widely read blog (Gowers’s Weblog), Gowers does them the courtesy of answering the points they raise in the letter, but he clearly thinks Elsevier is behind the curve. His opinion is that “the entire system of commercial publishing of academic papers needs to be replaced . . . When a paradigm shift takes place, one does not expect the main players to remain the same.”

So what will happen? Academics can be a tough lot, mathematicians in particular. They spend years thinking intensely about problems they consider important, and the publishing business is vital to them because the promotion prospects of up-and-coming young researchers depend on it.

The motto of the academic community always used to be the warning “Publish or Perish”, but many academics are changing it to “May the Publisher Perish”. If a publisher is to survive, emollient letters like the one from Elsevier will not be enough.

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