What We Can Do About Science Journals

John Baez

January 24, 2011

The problem and the solutions

The problem of highly priced science journals is well-known. A wave of mergers in the publishing business has created giant firms with the power to extract ever higher journal prices from university libraries. As a result, libraries are continually being forced to cough up more money or cut their journal subscriptions. It's really become a crisis.

Luckily, there are also two counter-trends at work. In mathematics and physics, more and more papers are available from a free electronic database called the arXiv, and journals are beginning to let papers stay on this database even after they are published. In the life sciences, PubMed Central plays a similar role.

There are also a growing number of free journals, especially in mathematics. Many of these are peer-reviewed, and most are run by academics instead of large corporations.

The situation is worst in biology and medicine: the extremely profitable spinoffs of research in these subjects has made it easy for journals to charge outrageous prices and limit the free nature of discourse. A non-profit organization called the Public Library of Science was formed to fight this, and circulated an open letter calling on publishers to adopt reasonable policies. 30,000 scientists signed this and pledged to:

publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.
Unsurprisingly, the response from publishers was chilly. As a result, the Public Library of Science started its own free journals in biology and medicine, with the help of a 9 million dollar grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

A number of other organizations are also pushing for free access to scholarly journals, such as Create Change, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and the Budapest Open Access Initiative, funded by George Soros.

Editorial boards are beginning to wise up, too. On August 10, 2006, all the editors of the math journal Topology resigned to protest the outrageous prices of the publisher, Reed Elsevier. In August of this year, the editorial board of the Springer journal K-Theory followed suit. The Ecole Normale Superieure has also stopped having Elsevier publish the journal Annales Scientifiques de l'École Normale Supérieure.

So, we may just win this war! But only if we all do our part.

What we can do

What can we do to keep academic discourse freely available to all? Here are some things:

  1. Don't publish in overpriced journals.
  2. Don't do free work for overpriced journals (like refereeing and editing).
  3. Put your articles on the arXiv before publishing them.
  4. Only publish in journals that let you keep your articles on the arXiv.
  5. Support free journals by publishing in them, refereeing for them, editing them... even starting your own!
  6. Help make sure free journals and the arXiv stay free.
  7. Help start a system of independent 'referee boards' for arXiv papers. These can referee papers and help hiring, tenure and promotion committees to assess the worth of papers, eliminating the last remaining reasons the existence of traditional for-profit journals.

The nice thing is that most of these are easy to do! Only items 5 through 7 require serious work. As for item 4, a lot of journals not only let you keep your article on the arXiv, but let you submit it by telling them its arXiv number! In math it's easy to find these journals, because there's a public list of them.

Of course, you should read the copyright agreement that you'll be forced to sign before submitting to a journal or publishing a book. Check to see if you can keep your work on the arXiv, on your own website, etcetera. You can pretty much assume that any rights you don't explicitly keep, your publisher will get. Eric Weisstein didn't do this, and look what happened to him: he got sued and spent over a year in legal hell!

Luckily it's not hard to read these copyright agreements: for math journals, you can get them off the web from the arXiv. A more extensive list is available from Sherpa, an organization devoted to free electronic archives.

If you think maybe you want to start your own journal, or move an existing journal to a cheaper publisher, read Joan Birman's article about this. Go to the Create Change website and learn what other people are doing. Also check out SPARC - the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. They can help. And try the Budapest Open Access Initiative - they give out grants.

You can also support the Public Library of Science or join the Open Archives Initiative.

Also: if you like mathematics, tell your librarian about Mathematical Sciences Publishers, a nonprofit organization run by mathematicians for the purpose of publishing low-cost, high-quality math journals.

Which journals are overpriced?

In 1997 Robion Kirby urged mathematicians not to submit papers to, nor edit for, nor referee for overpriced journals. I think this suggestion is great, and it applies not just to mathematics but all disciplines. There is really no reason for us to donate our work to profit-making corporations who sell it back to us at exorbitant prices!

How can you tell if a journal is overpriced? Up-to-date information on the rise of journal prices is available from the American Mathematical Society. They even include an Excel spreadsheet that lets you do your own calculations with this data! Some of this information is nicely summarized on a webpage by Ulf Rehmann. Using these tools you can make up your own mind which journals are too expensive to be worth supporting with your free volunteer labor.

When I first learned how bad the situation was, I started by boycotting all journals published by Reed Elsevier. This juggernaut was formed by merger of Reed Publishing and Elsevier Scientific Press in 1993. In August 2001 it bought Harcourt Press - which in turn owned Academic Press, which ran a journal I helped edit, Advances in Mathematics. I don't work for that journal anymore! The reason is that Reed Elsevier is a particularly bad culprit when it comes to charging high prices. You can see this from the above lists of journal prices, and you can also see it in the business news. In 2002, Forbes magazine wrote:

If you are not a scientist or a lawyer, you might never guess which company is one of the world's biggest in online revenue. Ebay will haul in only $1 billion this year. Amazon has $3.5 billion in revenue but is still, famously, losing money. Outperforming them both is Reed Elsevier, the London-based publishing company. Of its $8 billion in likely sales this year, $1.5 billion will come from online delivery of data, and its operating margin on the internet is a fabulous 22%.

Credit this accomplishment to two things. One is that Reed primarily sells not advertising or entertainment but the dry data used by lawyers, doctors, nurses, scientists and teachers. The other is its newfound marketing hustle: Its CEO since 1999 has been Crispin Davis, formerly a soap salesman.

But Davis will have to keep hustling to stay out of trouble. Reed Elsevier has fat margins and high prices in a business based on information - a commodity, and one that is cheaper than ever in the internet era. New technologies and increasingly universal access to free information make it vulnerable to attack from below. Today pirated music downloaded from the web ravages corporate profits in the music industry. Tomorrow could be the publishing industry's turn.

Some customers accuse Reed Elsevier of price gouging. Daniel DeVito, a patent lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is a fan of Reed's legal-search service, but he himself does free science searches on the Google site before paying for something like Reed's ScienceDirect - and often finds what he's looking for at no cost. Reed can ill afford to rest.

Why should we slave away unpaid to keep Crispin Davis rolling in dough? There's really no good reason.

More recently I have had to boycott Springer-Verlag as well. I did this with real regret: this publisher had demonstrated a serious interest in mathematics for its own sake in years past. But then they were bought by Bertlesmann Media World, which also owns Random House, the record company BMG, and so on... and on February 2004 BertelsmannSpringer was bought by Cinven and Candover, who had already bought Kluwer in January 2003. So, they are now part of an enormous publishing conglomerate, and we can expect them to pay increasing attention to the "bottom line". Many Springer-published journals are already very expensive, and they will probably raise prices to the limit of what the market will bear.

I have also boycotted Birkhäuser, for similar reasons. By now I mainly do free work for free journals and journals run by the AMS and other professional societies. There are a lot of these, so I'm sure I'll still be busy.

Sneaky tricks

To fight against the free journals and the arXiv, publishing companies are playing sneaky tricks like these: Also see this page.

© 2007 John Baez