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    • CommentRowNumber1.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 11th 2012

    Let us assume that journals as we know them will continue to exist for a substantial time. I am now close to convinced that no major technical issue prevents non-profit groups from using the subscription model and/or the gold OA (pay-to-publish) model to deliver journals much more cheaply than is currently done, with no loss in quality. When I started explaining to my wife why this issue was so important, she asked why the market does not take care of it. What are the barriers to entry to prevent someone undercutting Elsevier?

    It seems to me that the main reasons are: 1) excessive reliance on poorly defined and slow to change journal-level prestige measures for evaluation of researcher quality and 2) authors don’t directly receive price signals, and are not necessarily able to judge the value for money of a journal. In other words I agree with this post by John C. Baez:

    I would like to discuss whether there are any other reasons that should be considered, whether the above obstacles are indeed obstacles, and what we might do about it. Economists are particularly welcome.

    • CommentRowNumber2.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012
    • (edited Mar 12th 2012 by Andrew Stacey)

    I am trying to keep each post short, so here is the next one. One thing I find suboptimal is the way prestige of journals is measured and I would like to see it changed - perhaps the AMS and IMU could address this and push universities to adopt best practices.

    I see two ways currently used. One is appeal to folklore - “it is commonly accepted that”. This means that the speaker has heard this from his/her social network and sees no strong reason why it isn’t true. For those who for geographic and other reasons aren’t near the top 10 universities in the USA, this is a problem. I want to push the idea that mathematics is a global field and not confined to the top 10 places in the USA. Those are all very strong institutions, but there is a lot more out there. Tim Gowers had a recent post that discussed journals in combinatorics. I found it amazing that he had never looked at EJC until then, and when he did, he revised his opinion of it upwardly by a considerable amount.

    An alternative to folklore would be a broad-based survey of thousands of researchers to get their idea of which journals are in each level. The Australian ARC ERA journal and conference ranking project was one such attempt. It seemed fine to me, but now after huge effort has been discontinued. Classifying into 4 categories seem enough level of detail. One thing I find odd is people claiming to make very fine distinctions (“Inventiones is much better than Annals of Math” - type comments) which a) are surely wrong and b) are irrelevant to most mathematicians, who will never publish in either and may not read anything from either anyway. I guess

    Another method is citation statistics such as Journal Impact Factor. The IMU has a report on citation statistics which savages their naive use. However I doubt they will go away, and IMU report doesn’t give any other reasonable alternatives (on my cursory reading). For a fixed research field, a citation-based method might well be better than folklore. A PageRank-like system that doesn’t weight all citations equally may be better. I recently checked and found the AI score there to correlate strongly with my prejudices.

    Of course I maintain that for evaluation of researchers, article-level citation metrics will be much more informative than journal-level ones. But if a library is deciding on subscriptions, perhaps it should look at journal scores.

    • CommentRowNumber3.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012
    • (edited Mar 12th 2012 by Andrew Stacey)

    Bundling creates enormous barriers to entry. It more or less guarantees that the fraction of a library’s budget devoted to Elsevier journals (or those of any publisher using the same strategy) will gradually increase. The contracts I’ve seen have total costs that increase by 5% per year over a five-year period, with only very limited ability to cancel journals (if it can be done at all). You don’t have to renew a bundle when it expires, but then you’ll be paying list price, which is typically increasing even more rapidly.

    In order to accommodate this growth, libraries have to cut something, typically subscriptions from smaller publishers, and they have practically no funds available for new subscriptions. This makes it incredibly hard to start a new journal, much harder than it ought to be. Publishers like MSP, which offer better quality than Elsevier at a tiny fraction of the price (8 cents per page for the MSP Mathematics Package, vs. Elsevier’s new, reduced target of 50 to 60 cents per page), find it extremely difficult to get enough subscriptions to get by. Elsevier and its large competitors have locked up way too much library funding into huge, inflexible contracts, and everyone else is fighting like crazy over the portion remaining.

    I actually think this is a much bigger barrier than any of the sociological or psychological effects. For example, the MSP journals have become quite prestigious (much more so than all but a couple of Elsevier’s journals), and they have great bibliometrics. However, prestige just doesn’t translate into subscriptions when budgets are tight, and bundling guarantees permanently tight budgets for all journals that don’t come from the largest publishers.

    In order to have a reasonable scholarly publishing landscape, we’re going to have to end these pricing policies. With luck, we’ll be able to do it through community pressure, such as the boycott. If necessary, we may have to explore options like antitrust law. (For a 2004 analysis, see Of course I don’t have any legal expertise, but I believe the situation has grown considerably worse since then, and an antitrust case is not an implausible end game here.)

    • CommentRowNumber4.
    • CommentAuthorScott Morrison
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012

    This reminds me of the joke about an economist refusing to pick up a $20 bill from the street, on the grounds that an efficient market ensures that it couldn’t possibly actually exist.

    But of course Henry’s explanation is pretty much it.

    • CommentRowNumber5.
    • CommentAuthorMike Usher
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012
    Purely from our perspective as submitters of articles, at least in my experience there is plenty of competition among journals. There are many hundreds of journals in mathematics, and new ones seem to be springing up all the time, though admittedly I don't know how financially viable the new ones are. I think that for every paper I've written there have been multiple journals that would have been reasonable places to submit it to.

    But from the perspective of the entities (libraries) that are actually paying for the journals, there is much less competition: every one of the hundreds of journals has a monopoly on the publication (at least in journal form, with details of the monopoly depending on the copyright agreement) of the particular content that it publishes. To the extent that its content is seen as vital to the field, a journal is going to be able to charge a high price for it, quite independently of the fact that there are other journals publishing similarly-important content for a much lower price. This makes the prices of more expensive journals less sensitive to the entry of competitors than one might wish.

    This is in some sense related to Mark's point 2) about authors not receiving price signals. To an author, two different journals may be essentially substitutable, but this is not true to a reader: it may be about equally valuable to me to publish my paper in the (cheap) Transactions of the AMS as in the (expensive) Mathematische Annalen, but if I publish it in Math. Ann. and you need to read it, it will be no consolation to you that comparably-good articles about completely different topics can be found in Transactions.
    • CommentRowNumber6.
    • CommentAuthorMark C. Wilson
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012

    Thanks Henry - that clarified things a lot.

    On bundling and what to do about it: this list may be useful It is interesting how few institutions have done anything. I guess the professional societies should make some clear statements to their members.

    Another question: I have a meeting with our top university librarian and some other committee members next month. Any advice for what I should ask/tell them? I will try to find out what we pay for serials, broken down as much as possible.

    • CommentRowNumber7.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 12th 2012
    • (edited Mar 12th 2012)
    (oops, posted a partially written comment by accident)
    • CommentRowNumber8.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeMar 14th 2012

    This has been a very interesting discussion to follow. I have not a lot to contribute to the main thread, but I have some conclusions from what you two have said. It looks as though it would be very hard to break the hold of the big publishers by trying to siphon off their main journals to independent publishers (or some such). Doing it piecemeal, as it currently is being done, produces no drop in cost to the library on the existing journals (and even if the old version of the journal does not persist, there’s still the back issues to take into consideration) and so actually shifting journals away from commercial publishers is possibly not a viable strategy. This is perhaps a bit depressing, but on the other hand makes me more eager to find solutions to the publishing issue that are, in some sense, orthogonal to journals so that they can exist alongside journals while we still have journals in the system.

    • CommentRowNumber9.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 14th 2012
    Trying to move large numbers of journals at once from commercial to non-profit publishers is probably infeasible: it would require way too rapid an expansion of non-profit publishing, and given the budgetary constraints (thanks to budgeting) I think some journals would die in the process.

    However, it's entirely possible for editorial boards to get important concessions from Elsevier even without moving (provided they are willing to move, so it is not a bluff). What I'm hoping for is a model in which non-profit organizations own the journal names and back issues, while commercial publishers have an exclusive license to publish and distribute the recent contents, and this contract is renegotiated periodically (maybe every three to five years), with the option of switching to another publisher if the current publisher seems inadequate. This way the community could take advantage of Elsevier's expertise and scale, and they could earn a profit by providing valuable services. Editorial boards should also be pushing hard to solve the back issue problem, and Elsevier's recent steps show that this may not be so hard to solve.

    And if we can end bundling, then the system will begin to sort itself out automatically, through genuine price competition. This will be a big fight, but I don't think it's obviously impossible to win. We'll have strong community pressure on our side, and it will grow as more people become aware of the issues. Some universities are already moving away from large bundles, and as prices come down more will join them. I'm hoping that at some point one large publisher will decide the benefits to their corporate image of moving to a different pricing structure would be large, and then the whole system will come down (since this is the sort of system that is very difficult to defend unless you can say all your main competitors are doing it). There may also be a strong legal argument against the current practices, under US or EU law - I'm obviously not a lawyer, but I've started talking with lawyers about this; if we can get them to lay out the argument, it will really add to the pressure.
    • CommentRowNumber10.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeMar 15th 2012

    And if we can end bundling, then the system will begin to sort itself out automatically, through genuine price competition.

    Unfortunately, I think that Mike’s last paragraph (#5) scuppers this. The Elsevier boycott did not say:

    I refuse to read or cite any article published in an Elsevier journal.

    Moreover, the backlog issue is immense. I remember hearing a radio show about baked beans (this might not make sense for non-UK readers!). Branston (of pickle fame) were trying to get into the market and, of course, the big name in baked beans is Heinz. So the radio show did a taste test and the person doing the test said something of the nature of that the Branston one was really nice and they really liked it, but it just wasn’t Heinz baked beans and Heinz had so many memories and associations for them, that there was no way they were going to buy another. Elsevier and so on have all our archives, so it’s going to be very hard to compete with that.

    • CommentRowNumber11.
    • CommentAuthorEric
    • CommentTimeMar 15th 2012

    I’ve been meaning to comment here…

    If you were an investor back in Henry Ford’s day and you convinced yourself that one of these days, those crazy automobiles would fill the streets and change transportation forever, which of the many automobile companies should you invest in? Pick the wrong one and you’re bust. Choose too many and you don’t win because you’ve invested too little in the winners.

    The answer: short horses.

    One way to bring markets into this is to fund a team to develop the technology, lobby the universities, and market the products that would end Elsevier and other publishers. How do you fund it and where is the market incentive?

    The answer: short publishers.

    PS: I’m seriously considering this.

    • CommentRowNumber12.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeMar 15th 2012
    @Andrew: I'm not that worried about negotiating access to the archives. We're moving rapidly in the direction of open access after a delay: Elsevier is now partway there and just needs to be pushed further, and I know of another major publisher that is seriously considering it. Nobody is actually making very much money off of old back issues, it won't threaten the subscription model, and there's strong community pressure for access, so I believe this is a fight we'll win.

    The archives issue looms much larger in mathematics than in any other scientific field, since nobody else reads or cites old papers at remotely the rate we do, so this is a much bigger deal for us than it is for a broad company like Elsevier. They are presumably looking for things they can do to pacify the mathematicians before the boycott becomes too popular beyond mathematics, without creating precedents that would lose them money in other fields. Open archives would make us happy while having a negligible effect on their overall business model, so it's not so surprising that they taking up this idea.

    As for price competition, I agree that we can't rely on mathematicians submitting papers to choose based on price. It's nice when it happens, but not everyone will pay attention and even the people who do may reasonably have higher priorities (e.g., career development). Instead, the competition I'm talking about is at the level of library purchasing. In a world without bundling, every library supporting research mathematics would subscribe to Geometry & Topology, and there would be a robust market for high-quality, affordable journals, but librarians would cancel subscriptions to overpriced journals. (Sure, researchers would complain, but it's hard to answer the question "Do you really think this journal should cost ten times as much as the Annals?" And the mere threat of cancellation would already eliminate the worst behavior.) This would put a lot of pressure on prices and would keep Elsevier in line. Of course, that's exactly what they're afraid of, that they will no longer be able to charge whatever they wish. So, unlike the case of open archives, I think they'll fight as hard as they can on this issue.

    @Eric: It took me a moment to realize you weren't talking about breeding tiny horses. :-) Is short selling actually a realistic approach here? It sounds awfully risky, and I'm skeptical that any broker would be willing to provide enough shares to fund anything at scale.
    • CommentRowNumber13.
    • CommentAuthorEric
    • CommentTimeMar 15th 2012

    Hi Henry :)

    Yeah, I meant short selling. Not tiny horses :)

    Getting size is not an issue. The numbers in finance are mind numbing. It would not take more than a few 10s of million USD to fund the project and that is a neglible drop in the bucket. It is risky and there would need to be someone willing to back the project if the stock moved against you to avoid getting stopped out from a margin call, but it could be very profitable if the project was a success.

    • CommentRowNumber14.
    • CommentAuthorDaniel Moskovich
    • CommentTimeApr 16th 2012
    • (edited Apr 16th 2012)
    This is an interesting thread. I want to think about it first on a purely ideological level.

    Ultimately, it's not a very capitalist idea, but I think that funding has to be directed directly from governments to journals, ArXiv, open source projects, etc. I don't think that researchers, libraries, or indeed universities should be paying for it. After all, fundamental research is government-funded anyway. The scholarly communication crisis, as I see it, is the result of a company exploiting the disconnect between the funding agency (who provides an unlabeled "library budget"), the researcher (who needs the journal as a work resource), and the library who are caught in between. By cutting out the library and the researcher from this economic equation, one is making journal companies into de-facto government contractors, and removing the mechanism by which they can overcharge and bundle. Of course, how funding is directed would be determined by a panel of experts, as other government funding projects now operate.

    In the end, the government save money, the system is more transparent and honest, and researchers and libraries get what we need. I would want to see direct government financial support (by a large group of governments) for ArXiv, Mathoverflow (as an independent group), journals, and other shared academic resources.

    This would be my dream at the moment, and I wonder whether it is shared. If so, the practical course of action would be to attempt to communicate with people, in various countries, who are in positions to make such things happen.
  1. @Eric: This makes rational sense, but do you mean "short horses" as individual investors, or somehow as some kind of larger mathematical investors body? I wonder what Jim Simons, of Rennaisance Techlonogies, a fine mathematician and somebody with tremendous financial clout, would make of the idea? Speaking of which, I'm very much interested in what his opinion (as somebody experiences with economics and with mathematics) would be of this whole matter.
    • CommentRowNumber16.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeApr 16th 2012

    After all, fundamental research is government-funded anyway.

    Only some of it, and a minority of mathematics research, even if you use a broad definition of government funding (to include things like tax deductions for donations to universities).

    removing the mechanism by which they can overcharge and bundle

    Actually, government contracts are part of the mechanism by which Elsevier can overcharge and bundle. They love to make deals at as high a level as possible (multiple campuses or even entire countries at once), perhaps partly for the sake of efficiency, but seemingly also because it takes control away from faculty and librarians. The nightmare scenario is that Elsevier and some government officials work out a deal and then impose it on everyone. That already happens too often, and we certainly shouldn’t encourage it.

    Overall, I’d push for exactly the opposite approach, namely trying to minimize the role of governments in making any funding decisions for journals:

    (1) They aren’t competent to do a good job in any way except by asking researchers and librarians what to do, and I don’t trust them to do that reliably in the long run. Even if they started with good intentions, we could eventually end up with a bureaucratic nightmare involving impact factors and other bibliometrics.

    (2) There’s way too much potential for political influence. If the government is in charge, then that’s tantamount to putting lobbyists and interest groups in charge. Elsevier has more money and more lobbying experience than we do, and that translates into more political influence.

    (3) We cannot count on consistent levels of government support: budgets fluctuate due to government priorities, the economy, etc., and we’ve seen disastrous effects on state universities. We have to deal with these fluctuations no matter what, but we should try to isolate journal funding from them as much as possible, since archiving and journals are intended to be permanent. The government may be able to cut math funding, but they should not be able to specifically cut journal funding.

    (4) The government’s incentives are not aligned with ours. They don’t particularly want to advance mathematics for its own sake, but rather to the extent it helps achieve other goals. I don’t want the government micromanaging our publishing system according to their own priorities (for example, increasing funding to journals in areas they care more about or that sound good to voters).

    Ultimately, when I see the EPSRC disasters or massive cuts to state universities in the US, I’m really glad these organizations are not in charge of our publishing system. The sort of decentralized system we have now is better than any centralized system I can envision.

  2. @Henry Cohn: I understand your points, although I think many governments are likely to act more rationally than the UK government has been. Elsevier say that there is no viable economic model for the journal industry save the existing one. I don't think that open source solves that problem, because running a journal ultimately costs money. Not to mention that ArXiv, MathOverflow, and other projects also deserve funding, and aren't getting sufficient funding at the moment. The only economic solution that I can see would be to completely short-circuit the whole system by having money flow directly from funding agencies to publishers... Perhaps another approach would be to push for anti-bundling legislation, making massive journal bundling illegal, and thus cutting away the main barrier to competition. That sounds really difficult though...
    • CommentRowNumber18.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeApr 16th 2012

    Elsevier say that there is no viable economic model for the journal industry save the existing one.

    I haven’t seen them say that, and they claim to be open to other funding models (see, for example, I don’t expect them to lower their prices without a fight, but I doubt they are especially committed to their current business model, except to the extent that it seems to be working for them.

    short-circuit the whole system by having money flow directly from funding agencies to publishers…

    That’s part of what worries me: if all the money flows through one place, then that can be a single point of failure, so it’s very important to make sure it remains under control of the research community (rather than being manipulated through politics). Lobbying to a handful of government agencies is much easier than to thousands of universities.

    You might be interested in SCOAP3, which is a consortium that will sponsor open access journals in high energy particle physics with no publication charges, starting in January, 2013. It sounds similar to what you imagine, except it is not a government-run project. It will get funding from a mixture of government funding agencies and university libraries, and it will redirect this funding to selected publishers for open access journals. Elsevier is one of those publishers.

    Doing this in math would be a lot harder, since math is a vastly larger field than particle physics, but one could start small and build out from there. The role of funding agencies and large organizations (e.g., particle accelerators) is much lower in mathematics, so I expect libraries would play an even bigger role in a math analogue of SCOAP3. The hard part is getting it started, which has been a multi-year process for SCOAP3. I hope the IMU can play a leading role in organizing this, and they are well aware of the possibility, but it will take real thought to figure out what is feasible and desirable.

    • CommentRowNumber19.
    • CommentAuthorzskoda
    • CommentTimeApr 17th 2012

    Is SCOAP3 directed toward existing journals made free or toward creating new journals. If it is creating new journals than why to distribute to so manz platforms and commercial publishers as well. New journals would be cheaper from a single large platform (like arXiv), or even overlay for the existing arXiv. It is waste of money to get lots of small expensive sites, instead of doing one big whose price is comparably as small (per unit size) as the funding of arXiv. The small changes are the biggest enemy of big changes.

    • CommentRowNumber20.
    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeApr 17th 2012

    SCOAP3 works with existing journals. The huge advantage it has over more radical proposals is that it’s more or less risk-free and a Pareto improvement (it offers real advantages without actually making anybody worse off). Even so, it took a lot of negotiation to set up: you have to convince publishers that they really aren’t taking a risk or setting a bad precedent, you have to convince libraries that it is better to fund this project than to wait and hope someone else does, you have to deal with technicalities (for example, state universities are sometimes not legally allowed to buy anything except for the lowest available price, out of concerns about corruption, so you need to offer participants a governing role that justifies paying money for a journal that will then be freely available to everyone), etc. However, they have managed to work it all out. If they were aiming for something riskier or more controversial, I doubt they could have done it at all.

    The way I see it is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. SCOAP3 is certainly not the best of all possible publication systems, but it may be the best we can reasonably get in the foreseeable future. And the most important aspect from my perspective is that it’s the only scalable business model we currently have for full open access (with no time delay) and no publication charges, without substantially changing what we expect from a journal (in terms of copyediting, formatting, archiving, etc.) or relying heavily on volunteers (which can’t be scaled up a hundredfold). So I see sponsoring consortia like SCOAP3 as the idea that could save us from publication charges if the outside pressure towards open access gets too strong.

    [I think open access is great, but math is already doing an excellent job at “green open access” through the arXiv. From my perspective, subscriptions with guaranteed open access after five years and freedom to post to the arXiv would be better than full open access based on publication charges, and a SCOAP3 analogue would be better than either one.]

    • CommentRowNumber21.
    • CommentAuthorzskoda
    • CommentTimeMay 8th 2012

    Ok, I like the idea, thanks for explaining. My negative remarks were about a possible nonoptimal scenario for creating new journals on a variety of platforms.