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The status quo of math publishing

March 18, 2019 2 comments

We all like the status quo.  It’s one of my favorite statuses…  The status quo is usually excellent or at least good enough.  It’s just so tempting to do nothing at all that we tend to just keep it.  For years and years which turn into decades.  Until finally the time has come to debate it…

Some say the status quo on math publishing is unsustainable.  That the publishers are much too greedy, that we do all the work and pay twice, that we should boycott the most outrageous of these publishers, that the University of California, German, HungaryNorway and Swedish library systems recent decisions are a watershed moment calling for action, etc.  My own institution (UCLA) is actually the leader in the movement.  While I totally agree with the sentiment, I mostly disagree with the boycott(s) as currently practiced and other proposed measures.  It comes from a position of weakness and requires major changes to the status quo.

Having been thinking about this all for awhile, I am now very optimistic.  In fact, there is a way we can use our natural position of strength to achieve all the goals we want while keeping the status quo.  It may seem hard to believe, but with a few simple measures we can get there in a span of a few years.  This post is a long explanation of how and why we do this.

What IS the current status quo?

In mathematics, it’s pretty simple.  We, the mathematicians, do most of the work:  produce a decent looking .pdf file, perform a peer review on a largely volunteer basis (some editors do get paid occasionally), disseminate the results as best as we can, and lobby our libraries to buy the journal subscriptions.  The journals collect the copyright forms, make minor edits to the paper to conform to their favorite style, print papers on paper, mail them to the libraries, post the .pdf files on the internet accessible via library website, and charge libraries outrageous fees for these services.  They also have armies of managers, lawyers, shareholders, etc. to protect the status quo.

Is it all good or bad?  It’s mostly good, really.  We want all these basic services, just disagree on the price.  There is an old Russian Jewish proverb, that if a problem can be solved with money — it’s not a real problem but a business expense (here is a modern version).  So we should deal with predatory pricing as a business issue and not get emotional by boycotting selective journals or publishers.  We can argue for price decreases completely rationally, by showing that their product lost 90%, but not all its value, and that it’s in our common interest to devalue it, but not kill it.

Why keep the status quo?

This is easy.  We as a community tend to like our journals more than we hate them.  They compete for our papers.  We compete with each other to get published in best places.  This means we as a community know which journals are good, better or best in every area, or in the whole field of mathematics.  This means that each journal has composed the best editorial board it could.  It would be a waste to let this naturally formed structures go.

Now, in the past I strongly criticized top journals, the whole publishing industry, made fun of it, and more recently presented an ethical code of conduct for all journals.   Yet it’s clear that the cost of complete destruction of existing journal nomenclature is too high to pay and thus unlikely to happen.

Why changing the status quo is impractical?

Consider the alternatives.  Yes, the editorial board resignations do happen, most recently in the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics (JACO) which resigned in mass to form a journal named Algebraic Combinatorics (ALCO) But despite laudations, the original journal exists and doing fine or at least ok.  To my dismay and mild disbelief, the new Editorial Board of JACO has some well-known and wildly respected people.  Arguably, this is not the outcome the resigners aimed for (for the record, I published twice in JACO and recently had a paper accepted by ALCO).

Now, at first, starting new journals may seems like a great idea.  Unfortunately, by the conservative nature of academia they always struggle to get off the ground.  Some survive, such as EJC or EJP, have been pioneers in the area, but others are not doing so well.  The fine print is also an issue — the much hyped Pi and Sigma charge $1000 per article for “processing”, whatever that entails.   Terry Tao wrote that these journals suggest “alternatives to the status quo”.  Maybe.  But how exactly is that an improvement?  (Again, for the record, I published in both EJC, EJP, and recently in Sigma.  No, I didn’t pay, but let me stay on point here — that story can wait for another time.)

Other alternatives are even less effective.  Boycotting selective publishers gives a free reign to others to charge a lot, at the time when we need a systemic change.  I believe that it gives all but the worst publishers the cover they need to survive, while the worst already have enough power to survive and remain in the lead.  There is a long argument here I am trying to avoid.  Having had it with Mark Wilson, I know it would overwhelm this post.  Let me not rebut it thoroughly point-by-point, but present my own vision.

What can we do?

Boycott them all!  I mean all non-free journals, at all times, at all cost.  By that I don’t mean everyone should avoid submission, refereeing, being on the editorial board.  Not at all, rather opposite.  Please do NOT boycott anyone specifically, proceed with your work, keep the status quo.

What I mean is this.  Boycott all non-free journals as a consumer!  Do NOT download papers from journal websites.  I will give detailed suggestions below, after I explained my rationale.  In short, every time you download a paper from the journal website it gives publishers leverage to claim they are indispensable, and gives libraries the fear of faculty revolt if they unsubscribe.  They (both the publishers and the libraries) have no idea how little we need the paid journal websites.

Detailed advice on how to boycott all math journal publishers

Follow the following simple rules.  On your side as an author, make every(!) paper you ever wrote freely accessible.  Not just the latest – all of them!  Put them on the arXiv, viXra, your own website, or anywhere you like as long as the search engines can find them.  If you don’t know how, ask for help.  If you can read this WP blog post, you can also post your papers on some WP site.  If you are afraid of the copyright, snap out of it!  I do this routinely, of course.  Many greats have also done this for all their papers, e.g. Noga Alon and Richard Stanley.  Famously, all papers by Paul Erdős are online.  So my message for all of you reading this: if you don’t have all your papers free online, go ahead, just post them all!  Yes, that means right now!  Stop reading and come back when you are done.

Now, for reading papers the rules are more complicated.   Every time you need to download an article, don’t go to MathSciNet.  Instead, google it first.  Google Scholar usually gives you multiple options on the download location.  Choose the one in the arXiv or author’s website.  Done.

If you fail, but feel the paper could be available from some nefarious copyright violating websites, consider using Yandex, DuckDuckGo, or other search engines which are less concerned about the copyright.

Now, suppose the only location is the journal website.  Often, this happens when the paper is old or old-ish, i.e. outside the 4 year sliding window for Elsevier.  As far as I am concerned, this part of the publisher is “free” since anyone in the world can download it without charge.  Make sure you download the paper without informing your campus library.  This is easy off campus — use any browser without remote access (VPN).  On campus, use a browser masking your ip address, i.e. the Opera.

Now, suppose nothing works.  Say, the paper is recent but inaccessible for free.  Then email to the authors and request the file of paper.  Shame them into putting the paper online while you are at it.   Forward them this blog post, perhaps.

Suppose now the paper is inaccessible for free, but the authors are non-responsive and unlikely to ever make the paper available.  Well, ok — download it from the journal website then via your library.  But then be a mensch.  Post the paper online.  Yes, in violation of copyright.  Yes, other people already do it.  Yes, everyone is downloading them and would be grateful.  No, they won’t fight us all.

Finally, suppose you create a course website.  Make sure all or at least most of your links are to free version of the articles.  Download them all and repost them on your course website so the students can bypass the library redirect.  Every bit helps.

Why would this work?  I.  Shaming is powerful.

Well, in mathematics shaming is widespread and actually works except in some extreme cases.  It’s routine, in fact, to shame authors for not filling gaps in their proofs, for not acknowledging priority, or for not retracting incorrect papers (when the authors refuse to do it, the journals can also be shamed).  Sometimes the shaming doesn’t work.  Here is my own example of shaming fail (rather extreme, unfortunately), turned shaming success on pages of this blog.

More broadly, public shaming is one of the key instruments in the 21st century.  Mathbabe (who is writing a book about shaming) notably shamed Mochizuki for not traveling around to defend his papers.   Harron famously shamed white cis men for working in academia.  Again, maybe not in all cases, but in general public shaming works rather well, and there is a lot of shaming happening everywhere.  

So think about it — what if we can shame every working mathematician into posting all their papers online?  We can then convince libraries that we don’t need to renew all our math journal subscriptions since we can function perfectly well without them.  Now, we would still want the journal to function, but are prepared to spend maybe 10-15% of the prices that Springer and Elsevier currently charge.  Just don’t renew the contract otherwise.  Use the savings to hire more postdocs, new faculty, give students more scholarships to travel to conferences, make new Summer research opportunities, etc.

Why would this work?  II.  Personal perspective.

About a year ago I bought a new laptop and decided to follow some of the rules above as an experiment.  The results were surprisingly good.  I had to download some old non-free papers from  publisher sites maybe about 4-5 times a month.  I went to the library about once every couple of months.  For new papers, I emailed the authors maybe the total of about once every three months, getting the paper every time.  I feel I could have emailed more often, asking for old papers as well.

Only occasionally (maybe once a month) I had to resort to overseas paper depositaries, all out of laziness — it’s faster than walking to the library.  In summary — it’s already easy to be a research mathematician without paying for journals.  In the future, it will get even easier.

Why would this work?  III.  Librarian perspective.

Imagine you are a head librarian responsible for journal contracts and purchasing.   You have access to the download data and you realize that many math journals continue to be useful and even popular.  The publishers bring you a similar or possibly more inflated date showing their products in best light.  Right now you have no evidence the journals are largely useless are worried about backslash which would happen if you accidentally cut down on popular journals.  So you renew just about everything that your library has always been subscribing and skip on subscribing to new journals unless you get special requests for the faculty that you should.

Now imagine that in 2-3 years your data suggests rapidly decreasing popularity of the journals.  You make a projection that the downloads will decrease by a factor of 10 within a few more years.  That frees you from worrying about cancelling subscriptions and gives you strong leverage in negotiating.  Ironically that also helps you keeps the status quo — the publishers slash their price but you can keep most of the subscriptions.

Why would this work?  IV.  Historical perspective.

The history is full of hard fought battles which were made obsolete by cultural and technological changes.  The examples include the “war of the currents“, the “war” of three competing NYC subway systems, same with multiple US railroads, the “long-distance price war“, the “browser war” and the “search engine war“.  They were all very different and resolved in many different ways, but have two things in common — they were ruthless at the time, and nobody cares anymore.  Even the airlines keep slashing prices, making services indistinguishably awful to the point of becoming near-utilities like electric and gas companies.

The same will happen to the journal publishing empires.  In fact, the necessary technology has been available for awhile — it’s the culture that needs to change.  Eventually all existing print journals will become glorified versions of arXiv overlay publications with substantially scaled down stuff and technical production.  Not by choice, of course — there is just no money in it.  Just like the airline travel — service will get worse, but much cheaper.

The publishers will continue to send print copies of journals to a few dozen libraries worldwide which will be immediately put into off-campus underground bunker-like storages as an anti-apocalyptic measure, and since the reader’s demand will be close to nonexistent.  They will remain profitable by cutting cost everywhere since apparently this is all we really care about.

The publishers already know that they are doomed, they just want to prolong the agony and extract as much rent as they can before turning into public utilities.  This is why the Elsevier refuses to budge with the UC and other systems.  They realize that publicly slashing prices for one customer today will lead to an avalanche of similar demands tomorrow, so they would rather forgo a few customers than start a revolution which would decimate their journal value in 5 years (duration of the Elsevier contract).

None of this is new, of course.  Odlyzko described it all back in 1997, in a remarkably prescient yet depressing article.  Unfortunately, we have been moving in the wrong direction.  Gowers is right that publishers cannot be shamed, but his efforts to shame people into boycotting Elsevier may be misplaced as it continues going strong.  The shaming did lead to the continuing conversation and the above mentioned four year sliding window which is the key to my proposal.

What’s happening now?  Why is Elsevier not budging?

As everyone who ever asked for a discount knows, you should do this privately, not publicly.  Very quietly slashing the prices by a factor of 2, then trying to play the same trick again in 5 years would have been smarter and satisfied everybody.  To further help Elsevier hide the losses from shareholders and general public, the library could have used some bureaucratic gimmicks like paying the same for many journals but getting new books for free or something like that.  This would further confuse everybody except professional negotiators on behalf of other library systems, thus still helping to push the prices down.

But the UC system wanted to lead a revolution with their public demands, so here we are, breaking the status quo for no real reason.  There are no winners here.  Even my aunt Bella from Odessa who used to take me regularly to Privoz Market to watch her bargain, could have told you that’s exactly what’s going to happen…

Again, the result is bad for everybody — the Elsevier would have been happier to get some money — less than the usual amount, but better than nothing given the trivial marginal costs.  At the same time, we at UCLA still need the occasional journal access while in the difficult transition period.

AMS, please step up!

There is one more bad actor in the whole publishing drama whose role needs to change.  I am speaking about the AMS, which is essentially a giant publishing house with an army of volunteers and a side business of organizing professional meetings.  Let’s looks at the numbers, the 2016 annual report (for some reason the last one available).  On p.12 we read: of the $31.8 mil operating revenue dues make up about 8%, meetings 4%, while publishing a whopping 68%.  No wonder the AMS is not pushing for changes in current journal pay structure — they are conflicted to the point of being complicit in preserving existing prices.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  On p.16 we see that the journals are fantastically profitable!  They raise $5.2 mil with $1.5 mil in operating expenses, a 247% profit margin.  With margins like that who wants to rock the boat?  Compare this with next item — books.  The AMS made $4.1 mil while spent $3.6 mil.  That’s a healthy 14% profit margin.  Nice, but nothing to write home about.  By its nature, the book market is highly competitive as libraries and individuals have option to buy them or not on a per title basis.  Thus, the competition.

If you think the AMS prices are lower than of other publishers, that’s probably right.  This very dated page by Kirby is helpful.  For example, in 1996, the PTRF (Springer) charged $2100, the Advances (Academic Press, now Elsevier) $1326, the Annals (Princeton Univ. Press) $200, while JAMS only $174.  Still…

What should be done?  Ideally, the AMS should sell its journal business to some university press and invest long-term the sale profits.  That would free it to pursue the widely popular efforts towards free publishing.  In reality that’s unlikely to happen, so perhaps some sort of “Chinese wall” separating journal publishing and the AMS political activities.  This “wall” might already exist, I wouldn’t know.  I am open to suggestions.  Either way, I think the AMS members should brace themselves for the future where the AMS has a little less money.  But since the MathSciNet alone brings 1/3 of the revenue, and other successful products like MathJobs are also money makers, I think the AMS will be fine.

I do have one pet peeve.  The MathSciNet, which is a good product otherwise, should have a “web search” button next to the “article” button.  The latter automatically takes you to the journal website, while the former would search the article on Google Scholar (or Microsoft Academic, I suppose, let the people choose a default).  This would help people circumvent the publishers by cutting down on clicks.

What gives?

I have always been a non-believer in boycotts of specific publishers, and I feel the history proved me more right than wrong.  People tend to avoid boycotts when they have significant cost, and without the overwhelming participation boycotts simply don’t work.  Asking people not to submit or referee for the leading journals in their fields is like asking to voluntarily pay higher taxes.  Some do this, of course, but most don’t, even those who generally agree with higher taxes as a good public policy.

In fact, I always thought we need some kind of one-line bill by the US Congress requiring all research made at every publicly funded university being available for free online.  In my conspiratorial imagination, the AMS being a large publisher refused to bring this up in its lobbying efforts, thus nothing ever happened.  While I still think this bill is a good idea, I no longer think it’s a necessary step.

Now I am finally optimistic that the boycott I am proposing is going to succeed.  The (nearly) free publishing is coming!  Please spread the word, everybody!

UPDATE (March 19, 2019):  Mark Wilson has a blog post commenting and clarifying ALCO vs. JACO situation.