Open access, once again

It seems to me that “open access”, in academic publishing, should include authors as well as readers; that is, there should be no heavy page charges for publishing an article (a small administrative charge is probably acceptable), and there should of course be no charges for reading it.

However, as we know, academic publishing has one of the highest profit margins among legitimate industries, and the big publishers are prepared to do what is necessary to keep it that way, including changing the meaning of “open access” so that it does not include readers. They have to do so; it is their legal duty to their shareholders to maximise profits.

So it is our responsibility to keep a close eye on what is going on in the world of academic publishing, and to support the models we believe in by our actions.

I am writing this now because, while browsing this morning (in very constrained free time), I came on two things which are relevant to this discussion.

First, the Fair Open Access Alliance, who enunciate five “Fair Open Access Principles”:

  1. The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community.
  2. Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.
  3. All articles are published open access and an explicit open access licence is used.
  4. Submission and publication is not conditional in any way on the payment of a fee from the author or its employing institution, or on membership of an institution or society.
  5. Any fees paid on behalf of the journal to publishers are low, transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out.

I came to this indirectly from Tim Gowers’ blog: he has a post advertising a new open access journal, Advances in Combinatorics, but he also has a discussion of the present situation, in which he mentions that Acta Mathematica is “one of a tiny handful of very top journals”, which is fully open access with no author fees. So, in his opinion, “for a really good paper it is a great option.”

At the same time, a colleague sent me a list of the pure mathematics journals with the highest impact factors. (The figures are from about seven years ago, so maybe a little out of date, but still a fair indication.) As it happens, Acta is top of the list; but, as far as I can see, no other open access journals are there. Other observations can be made from this list. For example, there are six specialist journals in the list. Five of them have the word “geometry” in the title. (The sixth is in dynamical systems.) Not a single specialist journal in any part of algebra, combinatorics, or logic makes the cut. I offer this observation without explanation. It is not a matter of mathematical elitism since impact factors, if not sensible, are at least transparent, based on citations. However, the list is biased against new journals (including many newly-founded open access journals), both because of its age, and also because of the long publication times in mathematics.

The list of current members of the Free Journals Network is very different: a quarter of its mathematics journals are in combinatorics, graph theory, or discrete mathematics (at least in part), with several more involving computational topics. I am pleased to see the Australasian Journal of Combinatorics in the list. On the other hand, there is only one generalist journal among the two dozen in the list. The absence of algebra journals is also noticeable: algebraic geometry, algebraic combinatorics, but no algebra, group theory, etc.

So what should we do?

As usual, the answer is not entirely straightforward. For an old codger like me, it matters not at all where my papers appear, and given the option, I will always choose an open access journal. But there are two complicating factors. First, most of my papers have younger co-authors, for whom the situation is different; and second, some are contributions to a special issue of a journal (maybe in honour or memory of a colleague), where I have no choice.

For young mathematicians, it is still true that getting papers into good journals matters significantly for their future careers. The UK Research Assessment Exercise, when I was involved in it, went to some lengths to ensure that assessors judged the quality of the papers rather than the journals containing them; I am not confident that this principle has been maintained. Certainly for questions of appointment, tenure and promotion, there are plenty of people who look at the impact factors but take little note of the content of the papers. Until this changes, the big switch to open access is not going to take place.

For people in mid-career, this is not so crucial (except for promotion, but let us just consider people who have reached the top of the tree). For these people, it takes a certain amount of courage to opt for, say, Discrete Analysis or Annales Henri Lebesgue rather than a traditional journal. But these are the people who could really make a difference.

And, as long as measures like impact factor are in use, the only way to raise the profile of open access journals is to publish in them papers which will get cited. To that extent, it is in our hands!

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Open access, once again

  1. Some of my co-authors are from countries or institutions which have lists of “acceptable” journals, and they are restricted to these. This changes slowly.
    My last single-author papers appeared five years ago, one in an open-access journal, one in a conference proceedings in Discrete Mathematics (who did such things back then). This year has been good for me; seven papers have appeared, two in open-access journals (one in a special issue), and five in regular journals (two in special issues).

  2. Mark C. Wilson says:

    You may be interested in this:
    – check out Sept Euro MS newsletter too

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