Mathematicians aim to take publishers out of publishing

The archaic Victorian concept of publishing papers in peer-review journals that are locked behind paywalls is rapidly changing, and rightly so. Many balk at the concept of having to pay for access to the results of publicly funded research.

Nature News reports on the latest community that is attempting to embark down the path of open-access …

Mathematicians plan to launch a series of free open-access journals that will host their peer-reviewed articles on the preprint server arXiv. The project was publicly revealed yesterday in a blog post by Tim Gowers, a Fields Medal winner and mathematician at the University of Cambridge, UK.

The initiative, called the Episciences Project, hopes to show that researchers can organize the peer review and publication of their work at minimal cost, without involving commercial publishers.

It’s a global vision of how the research community should work: we want to offer an alternative to traditional mathematics journals,” says Jean-Pierre Demailly, a mathematician at the University of Grenoble, France, who is a leader in the effort. Backed by funding from the French government, the initiative may launch as early as April, he says.

But why would they bypass the traditional publishers, what exactly is the problem?

Many mathematicians — and researchers in other fields — claim that they already do most of the work involved in publishing their research. At no cost, they type up and format their own papers, post them to online servers, join journal editorial boards and review the work of their peers. By creating journals that publish links to peer-reviewed work on servers such as arXiv, Demailly says, the community could run its own publishing system. The extra expense involved would be the cost of maintaining websites and computer equipment, he says.

… and that is essentially the problem, the traditional model is one in which the publishers contribute very little, yet reap considerable (almost excessive) profits.

So now the mathematicians are rebelling, for their Episciences Project, they plan to create a publishing platform that will support online peer-reviewed journals. Each journal, or ‘epijournal’, would have its own editor and editorial board, and authors could submit their arXiv-posted papers to their journal of choice. The journal would then organize peer review, perhaps using workflow software provided by the CCSD (Centre for Direct Scientific Communication, based in Villeurbanne, France). Peer-reviewed papers would be posted on arXiv alongside their un-reviewed versions. A central committee would manage new journal candidates and make recommendations on paper formatting, but each journal would be free to set its own policies (including whether to charge for publication).

As mentioned above, this was all publicly revealed yesterday in a blog post by Tim Gowers. He plans to start a journal in the interdisciplinary field of additive combinatorics. There is a bit of history here, Gowers has strong views on shaking up research publishing — last year, he kick-started a boycott of the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier (see also Nature’s profile of Gowers).

It is all rather inevitable really, the rise of the infosphere is disrupting many previously viable business models and rendering them obsolete. It is not just the likes of retailers such as Blockbusters, Jessops, Woolworths and HMV that fall, academic publishers will face the same. While we might feel a twinge of regret about the passing of the retailers, all such feelings evaporate when faced with the thought of the passing of academic publishing due to their excessive profiteering, that event instead leads to celebration.

It will yield a greater degree of openness and an increased flow of scientific knowledge, with the exception of the Victorian information barons, who can possibly object to that? Nobody at all.

(nature News article is here)

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