I’ve written before about the Elsevier boycott and the current shift in community feelings about the traditional journal model. Namely, that it stinks. The traditional journal model, that is. This morning while perusing my Monday morning blogroll I found something that piqued my interest.
To quickly recap, academic journals are ridiculously expensive to administer, subscribe to, and even publish in. This is all so crazy when you imagine that I, as a junior faculty looking towards tenure, am required by my institution to publish in the leading journals. So I submit a paper, the fruits of months of my own labor and hand it over to the Journal of Whatever and Such-and-Such. If it is accepted, I’m then given the option: publish it open-access for a cost of upwards of $1,500 (typically paid by the university, I guess, to be honest I’ve never picked this option) or publish it normally, in which case the only people who can read it are those who pay the — some huge amount of money — per year subscription fee to the journal. And in the age of the internet, what is it that you’re really paying for? Official journal typesetting, a meager 200 KB of server space to host the paper, and a whole bunch of pointless overhead.
But as long as you can use LaTex, the official typesetting really isn’t all that important. Reach some minimum baseline aesthetic and your paper is more than readable. And I can think of a place where you can upload all the KB of paper you want: the ArXiv. So really, all you’re paying for is the pointless overhead part. Enter Tim Gowers, host of the great Gowers’s Weblog, and the editorial team of the new journal Discrete Analysis.
What they are launching is called an ArXiv overlay journal. What this means is, from the editorial standpoint it looks exactly like a traditional journal. The editorial board deals with submissions, sending them out to be peer-reviewed by appropriate reviewers, and managing the quality of content of the journal. Accepted papers are edited and the typesetting is cleaned up, per the referee’s suggestions, and uploaded to the ArXiv. Then Discrete Analysis hosts a page of ArXiv links with abstracts. Your paper has gone through all of the rigors of the traditional peer-review process, and it will even get a special Discrete Analysis stylized bibtex entry, but you’ve saved everyone a lot of time and money.
I think it’s an interesting model. I mean, we all want to do math, we want to publish math, and we want to read math. It makes sense to keep the process as close to the mathematicians as possible. Right now the electronic end of the journal is being run on a relatively cheap platform that costs $10 per submission. That’s currently covered by a grant, but when that runs up, Gowers points out, “the absolute worst that could happen is that in a few years’ time, we will have to ask people to pay an amount roughly equal to the cost of a couple of beers to submit a paper, but it is unlikely that we will ever have to charge anything.”
Gowers, who won the Fields Medal in 1998, gives a great point-by-point explanation of every facet of the publishing process, and whether you agree with the feasibility of the model or not, I think it’s a worthwhile read.