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Elsevier's recent update to its letter to the mathematical community (gowers.wordpress.com)
64 points by vgnet on May 5, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 17 comments

I agree with the authors complaints (I'm not in the same field, but the general complaint holds across disciplines). However the solution really is trivial. The machine learning community solved this problem a decade ago when the editorial board (40 of them) resigned en-mass from the Machine Learning Journal: http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/statement.html JMLR (http://jmlr.org) is now the premier venue for machine learning publications, and you can visit their home page to see the (non-)restrictions they place on access. They are also very cheap to subscribe to if you prefer dead trees. Any other discipline that really cared about open access could do the same in a heart-beat. The research produced by a discipline is largely consumed by that discipline. If they want to know who is keeping the academic publishing racket alive they just need to look at themselves.

> However the solution really is trivial.

I find this statement rather presumptuous. I take it as axiomatic that any problem which Tim Gowers and Terry Tao are in the process of trying to solve, and have not yet solved, is not trivial.

Agreement with Gowers' position is widespread but not universal. For example, of the last nine Fields medalists, four are signatories to the boycott. If the other five are still publishing in Elsevier journals, then libraries are still going to subscribe to them.

I am personally a signatory and a strong supporter of the boycott, and I know many others who are the same. However, I know others who disagree. They argue that having our work published by commercial publishers such as Elsevier lends dignity to the process, and that having to spend a lot of money makes us look important in the eyes of university administration.

A further, very substantial obstacle is that junior scholars have to publish in the best journals they can to enhance their reputation, and thanks to buyouts of Academic Press and others, Elsevier now owns many of the titles that publish good-but-not-great papers.

"Our discipline" does not make decisions. That is up to individual researchers, and for the time being, many of them continue to choose to publish excellent papers in Elsevier journals.

Of course we know that ourselves and our colleagues are a large part of the problem. The hard part is convincing enough people that there is a problem, and that we can solve it by working together.

I think JMLR is something of a special case in academic publishing. While there are a few subject fields that would be already have almost exactly the right skill set to set up their own electronic publishing infrastructure, I think that expecting the same level of technical expertise from, say, biochemists is a bit unrealistic. That said, it is getting easier, and once enough people are on board, I suspect we'll see lots more like this in the next decade or so.

The machine learning community (along with the combinatorics, category theory and many other communities) created an open access journal. While this is laudable it did not solve the non-trivial problem that commercial publishers have a lock on 60 years of scientific publications.

This really is a hard problem. I'm not sure this is right, but I think there's probably a case to be made that congress should seize the IP under eminent domain, write the publishers a check and tell them to go home.

I really wish this would happen too... For "national security" reasons!

That is exactly the point. The parent of this thread stated that it was a trivial problem to solve!

Who needs old journals? Doesn't the important timeless material end up in books?

It is possible that in one hundred years or so that many of the "most useful" results published in copyrighted journals of the 20th century and available nowhere else will have found their way into the public domain. But it need not turn out that way. Cory Doctorow spoke about the coming war on general computation at 28c3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUEvRyemKSg So we cannot be complacent.

I agree with you, but wouldn't it be much harder to pull off with, say, mathematics? Machine learning is a much smaller field.

I imagine a sub-field of mathematics could coordinate the required effort. Mathematicians are familiar enough with the technical aspects (namely, use Latex). Once one sub-field is successful I imagine others would follow.

Done there, been that:

Electronic Journal of Combinatorics: http://www.combinatorics.org/

Theory and Application of Categories: http://www.tac.mta.ca/tac/

As has been noted elsewhere, establishing open access journals presents no technical difficulty, especially with systems such as the Public Knowledge Project's Open Journal Systems journal management and publishing system, which has been around for at least 7 years. http://pkp.sfu.ca/?q=ojs

The high price of 60 years of scientific content is at issue. Of course, the establishment of open access journal should be encouraged.

>Urs countered that “according to Florian Breuer’s computations the University of Stellenbosch, South-Africa pays roughly the same than the University of Muenster, Germany.

wow. Given that Stellenbosch is substantially smaller and in a 3rd world country one would expect that they'd pay less.

The choice of Stellenbosch in South Africa as an example is perhaps not ideal. While SA may be a third world country in parts, it is very "first-world" in others and has a GDP greater than Denmark, Finland, Singapore and Ireland. Stellenbosch is also one of the countries premier Universities. I am not sure we'd be as surprised if Universities from those countries were chosen as an example.

I'm sure it's more of a case of Elsevier charging whatever it could to each university.

> has a GDP greater than Denmark, Finland, Singapore and Ireland.

That says absolutely nothing. You'd need to look at it on a GDP per person basis. There all those countries you listed are far ahead of South Africa, in some cases by a factor of 10x.

According to computations sounds to me like it's a cost of living adjusted comparison.

That story about the MFN clause (if there is even a clause) is amusing.

The academic publishing industry seems a bit like the film and recording industries. They do not want to face the fact that distribution and production are becoming less expensive. And they are going to fight to the end.

But their high fee structures will eventually be unsustainable.

UCal tried to take at least one of these publishers on some years ago, forcing them to renegotiate licensing terms. What ever became of that?

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