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In all these discussions, there is one point that I would like to make at the start and which I think is relevant to any proposal to set up something new for mathematicians (or more generally, for academics). That is that whatever system is set-up it must be:
Useful at the point of use
This is something that I’ve learnt from administering the nLab over the past few years. It keeps going and there is no sign of it slowing down. The secret of its success, I maintain, is that it is useful at the point of use. When I write something on the nLab, I benefit immediately. I can link to previous things I’ve written, to definitions that others have written, and so link my ideas to many others. It means that if I want to talk to someone about something, the thing we are talking about is easily visible and accessible to both (or all) of us. If I want to remember what it was I was thinking about a year ago, I can easily find it. The fact that when I come back the next day, whatever I’ve added has been improved, polished, and added to, is a bonus - but it would still be useful if that didn’t happen.
For other things, then I need more of an incentive to participate. MathOverflow was a lot of fun in the beginning, but now I find that a question needs to be such that it’s fairly clear that I’m one of the few people in the world who can answer. It’s not that my enthusiasm for the site has gone down, just that everything else keeps pushing it out of the way. So a new system has to be useful to those who use it, and ideally the usefulness should be proportional to the amount of effort that one puts in.
A corollary of this is that it should be useful even if only a small number of people use it. The number of core users of the nLab is not large, but nevertheless the nLab is still extremely useful to us. I can imagine that when a proposal for something new is made, there will be a variety of reactions ranging from “That’ll never work” through to “Sounds interesting, but …” with only a few saying “Count me in!”. To have a chance of succeeding, it has to be the case that those few can get it off the ground and demonstrate that it works, without the input of the wider sceptical community.
At the time of writing, I have yet to sign the Boycott of Elsevier. It’s not that I’m not going to, but just that there were a few comments that I wanted to make and so I decided to wait until I had somewhere to make those comments. As I now do, once I’ve written this then I’ll happily sign up.
Listing the reasons at the top of the page makes it look, at least at first glance, as if this is the first stage in a negotiation. If, so the inference goes, Elsevier stopped indulging in those practices, we’d happily all go back to submitting, refereeing, and editing with Elsevier journals.
Not because I think that Elsevier are so awful that I’d never do business with them again. But because I think that journals are going to be increasingly irrelevant so why would I bother?
Indeed, I can imagine doing business with Elsevier again, if they had something that I wanted to buy. At the moment, I wouldn’t buy it, on principle. But if they do make it clear that they are prepared to treat academics fairly then I see no reason not to consider them in the future. Just not for journals. Moreover, the practices that have been outlined, whilst bad for me and other academics, don’t seem like particularly bad business practices: buy low, sell high - isn’t that the canonical business motto? That we’ve gotten ourselves into a sticky situation is our fault: and our responsibility to get ourselves out of it. Blaming others is fun, but won’t - ultimately - get us to a better place.
So demanding that they stop these practices doesn’t seem the right thing to ask.
What really is scandalous is not the prices they charge for journals now, but the fact that they hold the copyright to so much of our ancestry. As pointed out in an article on Forbes, it’s the back catalogue that provides them with the leverage. So the gesture that I would like from Elsevier - and the other publishers - is related to that. What I would like is for them to declare that they would not pursue anyone who makes available a copy of a published work, providing it was done with proper attribution.
If they do that, I’ll call it an amicable separation. If not, then I’m afraid they’re still the Bad Guys.
Either way, I’ll not submit, referee, or edit for an Elsevier-based journal again.
I’ll start the discussion on the future of journal publishing by repeating something that I put in the comments on Tim Gowers’ blog 1. I don’t claim to be the only one who had this idea, nor the first. Here’s what I said:
My proposal would be to have “boards” that produce a list of “important papers” each time period (monthly, quarterly, annually – there’d be a place for each). The characteristics that I would consider important would be:
The papers themselves reside on the arXiv. A board certifies a particular version, so the author can update their paper if they wish.
A paper can be “certified” by any number of boards. This would mean that boards can have different but overlapping scopes. For example, the Edinburgh mathematical society might wish to produce a list of significant papers with Scottish authors. Some of these will be in topology, whereupon a topological journal might also wish to include them on their list.
A paper can be recommended to a board in one of several ways: an author can submit their paper, the board can simply decide to list a particular paper (without the author’s permission), an “interested party” can recommend a particular paper by someone else.
Refereeing can be more finely grained. The “added value” from the listing can be the amount of refereeing that happened, and (as with our Publications of the nLab) the type of refereeing can be shown. In the case of a paper that the board has decided themselves to list, the letter to the author might say, “We’d like to list your paper in our yearly summary of advances in Topology. However, our referee has said that it needs the following polishing before we do that. Would you be willing to do this so that we can list it?”
I can’t find the actual comment right now, I’ll add the link when I can. ↩
The purpose of Math2.0 is to provide a forum for discussion of the future of mathematical publishing. It’s something that I’ve viewed as an important issue for years, and have had many, many interesting conversations about, but somehow nothing much seems to happen. I’m hoping that the momentum from Tim Gowers’ recent blog posts might lead to something and I’d like to capitalise on that.
However, most of the discussion currently is happening in the comments on blog posts. This is hard to follow, and hard to separate out the new suggestions from the discussions on old ones. I think that forums are much better for discussion, hence this one.
The name, Math2.0, is intended to signify two things: that it’s time for an upgrade of the mathematical environment and that I think we can learn a lot from looking at how software - particularly open source software - works. By “mathematical environment”, I don’t mean how we actually do the mathematics but what happens next, particularly communicating the ideas that we create. This is where the internet can really change things for the better (as it has started to do with the arXiv), but where I think that we have yet to figure out how to make best use of it.
This doesn’t just include journals, but I think that that’s an obvious place to start.
So: welcome to Math2.0. Please join in. It’s important.
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