Open access publishing

Open access publishing is back in the news. Tim Gowers reports that Horizon 2020, Europe’s “Framework Programme for Research and Innovation”, is to support (or require?) open access publication of the research it supports.

They have not given precise details yet, but it seems that the eventual scheme will incorporate both “gold” and “green” open access. EPSRC announced some time ago that they supported both models.

These are very different things. “Gold” access costs the author money (as the name suggests). You pay up front (a large amount, typically thousands of pounds), and then anyone can access your published paper on the journal website without charge. I remain implacably opposed to this. Apart from other drawbacks, it creates two levels of researchers: those who have research grants including a sum for open access publishing, and those who don’t. Already, administrators are developing the mindset that the only researchers worthy of respect are those who have grants. This attitude is disastrous for mathematics.

“Green” access means putting your paper on an open repository (such as the arXiv, or an institutional archive). Of course, publishers don’t like this: it presumably damages their subscription base if people can get the paper for free. There are arguments over fine details, such as whether you can post a corrected proof of the article or merely a pre-publication preprint. I don’t think this matters too much to the reader (though clearly it does to the publisher).

Now Elsevier, the publisher we all love to hate, has muddied the waters further by adding a clause to its statement of authors’ rights. The relevant two items now say:

  • the right to post a pre-print version of the journal article on Internet websites including electronic pre-print servers, and to retain indefinitely such version on such servers or sites for scholarly purposes (with some exceptions such as The Lancet and Cell Press);
  • the right to post a revised personal version of the text of the final journal article (to reflect changes made in the peer review process) on your personal or institutional website or server for scholarly purposes, incorporating the complete citation and with a link to the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) of the article (but not in subject-oriented or centralized repositories or institutional repositories with mandates for systematic postings unless there is a specific agreement with the publisher).

In other words, the preprint is OK, but for the corrected proofs, as Stevan Harnad paraphrases it in a comment on Gowers’ blog, “You retain the right to post if you wish but not if you must!”

I am in the awkward position of having a foot in both camps.

First, as chair of the British Combinatorial Committee, I have responsibility for our practice of publishing (refereed) contributed papers to our biennial conference in an issue of the Elsevier journal Discrete Mathematics. Our relations with Elsevier have been difficult in the past, but at the time of the last conference, they were quite satisfactory.

Second, I am an honorary editor of the Australasian Journal of Combinatorics, which is currently debating whether to become entirely free and open-access, following such journals as Theory of Computing and Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, which have established themselves as respectable journals despite charging neither authors nor readers. (Laci Babai made the case for this in the first ever guest post on this blog.)

I clearly have some thinking to do. Your comments might help me reach some sort of conclusion.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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19 Responses to Open access publishing

  1. gowers says:

    I’m not quite clear after reading the post what you are trying to reach a conclusion about. But if you are wondering whether the BCC should continue with Elsevier, then I think a lot depends on what you mean when you say that relations are now quite satisfactory. Does that mean simply that processing the submissions was done in a satisfactory way, or does it mean that you are happy with the price of and level of access to the resulting volume?

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    By nature and training a whole systems thinker, I tend to view the architecture of commerce, the architecture of government, and the architecture of inquiry as participants in a larger system.

    When it comes to the desiderata of inquiry, I find myself constantly returning to the guidance of Charles S. Peirce, so elegantly maximized in the following words:

    Do not block the way of inquiry.

    My last best expression of how I saw the problem of sustaining the soul of inquiry within the body of the post*modern millennial university is contained in the following paper:

    Conceptual Barriers to Creating Integrative Universities

    One out of three is all I can do today …

    * Yes, that’s a Kleene star. You do the math.

  3. dratman says:

    It seems that open access must inevitably win out over any sort of pay system. The internet now contains such an unimaginably large amount of information that the idea of charging more than a token fee to access any of it is continually becoming less plausible.

    Here is one way to think about this: companies can charge money for alcoholic beverages, but even the most determined businessperson cannot arrange to be paid for ordinary air. Why? Liquor is hard to make, and especially hard to make well. There is absolutely no reason for a manufacturer to give it away.

    On the other hand, air is simply too abundant to sell. There are so many ways to get it! Cutting off access to air would in fact be expensive, impractical and physically intrusive. Those are the same problems associated with paywalls, copy protection schemes and raiding the establishments of copyright pirates.

    One final point. In the long run, who wants to publish their ideas and results through a channel which guarantees a smaller audience?

  4. Gordon Royle says:

    Unfortunately I think that dratman is overlooking a critical point, which is that journal publication nowadays is more about validation and evaluation of the work than mere dissemination. Most of us could easily put all our papers and results onto arxiv which pretty much covers the “dissemination” side of things. The trouble is that our Deans etc. don’t want us to do only that because they feel they measures that allow them to compare us, and the journals in which the work appears is an important proxy measure for the quality of the work. This is why Elsevier are in a strong position – as JCT-B is the premier journal in my flavour of combinatorics, just having a paper accepted there is an important boost to one’s CV. People like Tim Gowers and Terry Tao are untouchable and so can safely submit wherever they want. However our University periodically ranks us and sacks the ones at the bottom of the list to balance the budget, and so we have less latitude (assuming we value continued employment.)

  5. Jon Awbrey says:

    As far as the interaction between the dynamics of commerce and the dynamics of inquiry goes, there may always be a tension between the two value systems, the one that is coming to value short-term monetary profit above all else, and the one that orients itself toward sustainable truth over the long haul.

    But I think we are passing a critical point, where the party of gold is now insisting on a right to control the whole, or else crush the party of green out of existence.

    Back when this discussion starting hitting the air webs, I collected a few of my impressions on this blog page:

    Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite❢

  6. Pingback: Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite❢ | Inquiry Into Inquiry

  7. dratman says:

    Gordon Royal is spot on for now, but notice that I wrote “in the long run.”

    During the 20th century age of “publish or perish,” granting agencies monitored the scholarly literature and made funding decisions as a sort of second order effect of an already-indispensable system of publication on paper. You (or your library) had to pay the journals if you wanted to read the work of other researchers in your field. There was no alternative method.

    Today the idea of making marks on sheets of paper and sending them around the world is the subject of sentimental tears. Information thus delivered reaches people too late to be useful and is too expensive to justify. The big houses perform a largely ceremonial function.

    When online peer review becomes robust and readily available, the publishing companies will learn to participate in some other way, or else, in lieu of publishing, they too may perish.

    Sic inscripta. Cum grano salis legere.

  8. Jon Awbrey says:

    Peer review as measure of quality can be replaced — and in these times there is no austerity of forces pushing to replace it with something far worse. Wherever you find a measure of quality that is too one-dimensional and simple-minded to be true, you will find that someone is getting filthy rich selling the custodians of quality a clockwork broom.

  9. James Street says:

    I can’t imagine Newton, Einstein or Galois being peer reviewed. When scientists and mathematicians become worker bees for the sustenance of the Queen-oligarchy then peer review is simply door keeping for the hive.

    I think this constipated view of knowledge comes from a feeling that everything important has already been discovered and the rest is simply filling in the details.

    But truth will probably always be confrontational of the status quo and provocative. The “details” are the radium of the next revolution. It wasn’t very long ago that the work of Mandelbrot was considered little more than the musings of a mathematical crank. We can’t allow ourselves to forget it.

    • Jon Awbrey says:

      We may continue to criticize establishment ways of doing everything, as I, for one, have always done, but my point is that far worse ways are now in the offing, and being pushed by forces that are resolutely alien to the common ideals of our many-splinterd communities of inquiry.

      • James Street says:

        It looks as if oligarchic capitalism, along with its little sister, free enterprise capitalism, have become the new religion where God has become Money, and Salvation has become Financial Success. Like all religions, ideology replaces thought and Free Enquiry becomes the new Political Incorrect/Heresy. I was just pointing out that “peer review” can fit into this scheme very nicely too, as most religions show us with their regulation of eating, dress and just about every other human activity. It is usually some group of worthies (peers) who decide these things and modify them from time to time.

      • Jon Awbrey says:

        Strictly speaking, “peer” means “equal”. When a question cannot be settled among equals, “an umpire”, whose name derives by false division from “a non-peer“, must be called into play. However imperfect a given peer system may be in practice, nothing destroys the community and its ideals so much as umpires who insinuate themselves in the process of inquiry when there is no call for them to do so.

      • James Street says:

        The umpires might better be called ur-peers who are modern naked apes with letters behind their names and medals pinned to their shirts. Their game has always been power, and science and mathematics are simply another means to power for them.They meddle everywhere, from atomic physics to cryptography, as they always have.

        The life of Charles Peirce himself is a sad example of a genius who had very little collaboration with his peers and was completely ignored by his “ur-peers,” probably because his work had very little perceived “cash value.”.

      • Jon Awbrey says:

        Having said a little about the dynamics of inquiry in its own right and the impact of commerce and inquiry on each other, it was my intention to make at least tangential remarks on the other sides of the tri-umpirate: {Commerce, Government, Inquiry).

        We have quite naturally come to the lambda point of all three, but there very little but chaos reigns, so let me back up and offshore a fraction of the excess tension to a brant on my own blog —

        The Prime Movers of Disaster Capitalism

  10. Pingback: Open access publishing « Peter Cameron’s Blog

  11. As always, thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Can we do things differently? For all the stick that peer review takes, you have to ask, for example, would the mistake in Andrew Wiles’ paper have been found if the paper had not been submitted to a prestigious journal and peer-reviewed very carefully?

    That is not a rhetorical question. I think that the rather different story of Grisha Perelman’s papers shows that, if the result is important enough, it will be scrutinised carefully. Moreover, Perelman was offered prizes for his work, despite shunning the traditional publication route.

    But 99.99% of mathematical papers are never going to get the level of scrutiny that these received, even with the peer review system. How often does it happen that a paper is accepted for publication, and some time later a mistake is noticed? This shows, mainly, that someone did actually care about the result. So I am, paradoxically, pleased when it happens to me. (There was a mistake in my paper with Bill Kantor on antiflag-transitive collineation groups – we missed one group – but the journal declined to print a correction even though it was quite short.)

    The problem, of course, is that while mathematicians would be happy with a “caveat emptor” system where it was my responsibility to check any result I quote, the funders most definitely would not!

    As to Tim Gowers’ point, I have to say that, with respect, the problems he meets are not those of the typical mathematician. There are many countries where publication of a paper in an “international journal” is a necessary condition for obtaining a PhD. One of the functions of the BCC contributed papers volume is to provide such a platform, linked to talking about the result to a big and diverse audience (and possibly getting useful feedback). We cannot abandon the present system until such rules have been reformed.

  12. Pingback: Open access publishing « Peter Cameron’s Blog

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