The Not-So-Strange Case of Dr. Gowers and Mr. Hyde

Last year at this time, Timothy Gowers famously used his blog to voice discontent towards the publishing practices of Elsevier. Two posts in recent days provide a glimpse into the work he’s contributed towards correcting the issues he recorded. This work is not without criticism, which he addresses in the first post: Why I’ve joined the bad guys. This article defends his involvement in a new open access journal funded by article processing charges, fees paid upon acceptance of a work. A more radical solution emerges in the second post, Why I’ve also joined the good guys, where he announces development of a platform that will “make it very easy to set up arXiv overlay journals.”

Pinning down the cost of knowledge.

In October 2012, Cambridge University Press began accepting submissions to two new open-access journals Forum of Mathematics, Pi and Forum of Mathematics, Sigma. Both Timothy Gowers and Terence Tao discussed their involvement with this project in July of last year. Perhaps the least controversial aspect of this story–Forum of Mathematics will be published electronically to lower costs. Additionally, it will be open-access; a term with many meanings. According to the FAQ, articles published in the Forum of Mathematics will be freely available in PDF form under a Creative Commons license (though a specific license is not mentioned) with the author retaining copyright. The author also maintains the right to repost the work elsewhere provided the journal is attributed. If you recall, one of the issues Professor Gowers highlighted about Elsevier was their support for the Research Works Act. This piece of legislation would have supplanted public access policies of US federal agencies such as the National Institute of Health, which requires that investigators submit a final version of any publication to PubMed. So it is not surprising that Prof. Gowers contributed effort towards a journal following the open-access model. The main criticism arises for a very simple reason: money. Consider the following two examples of open-access journals. In 1994 Herbert Wilf established the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, according to Wikipedia one of the first academic journals to allow authors to retain copyright over their work. Delving into their editorial policies uncovers the surprising fact that “The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, as a free web-based mathematics journal, relies on the generosity of many people and institutions for its operation. We have no income and no paid employees.” Contrast with the Public Library of Science, which charges authors a fee upon acceptance of their work by the peer-review system. Forum of Mathematics will, like many open-access journals, impose article processing charges. Prof. Gowers spends most of his first blog post defending such a system, the pros and cons of which won’t be rehashed here. In the course of his post, Prof. Gowers agrees with some of his detractors, wishing for “more radical change” than that offered by Forum of Mathematics.

Technology to the rescue?

Both the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics and PLoS are examples of the so-called “gold open-access” system. They are journals in the traditional sense of organizing an editorial board and managing the peer-review process. Contrast this with the less resource intensive “green open-access” websites such as arXiv or CiteSeerX. In his second blog post, Prof. Gowers describes his involvement with a new platform for turning green into gold:

“For some months now I have known of a very promising initiative that until recently I have been asked not to publicize too widely, because the people in charge of it did not have a good estimate for when it would actually come to fruition. But now those who know about it have been given the green light. The short version of what I want to say in this post is that a platform is to be created that will make it very easy to set up arXiv overlay journals.”

With authors performing a majority of typesetting, mathematicians volunteering as editors and reviewers and the arXiv hosting PDFs, what is stopping those interested in boycotting Elsevier from setting up a journal ala the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics? The not quite unveiled Episciences Project aims to provide a technological solution to this question. An official statement is still forthcoming, but this Nature story provides a few more details.

About Derek Smith

Former weather dude and scientific software developer. In the upcoming 2015-16 year I will complete my PhD at UCSB in nonlinear dispersive equations. I enjoy spending time with my two young daughters and running.
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