As the dust settles … nothing has changed at Elsevier

Nor, frankly, anywhere else, for that matter. Greg Martin, mathematician at the University of British Columbia, wrote this eloquent letter (reprinted with permission on Tim Gowers’ blog) describing why he resigned as a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Number Theory. While I appreciate that it costs money to produce a journal, how is it that journals have gotten so prohibitively expensive while the technology required to produce them has dropped so dramatically? While it is easy to level charges at for-profit companies such as Elsevier, what excuse do the supposedly non-profit organizations have? For one professional organization that I won’t name for conflict-of-interest reasons, while individual online journal subscriptions for members aren’t all that expensive, I cannot locate institutional prices. In addition, these journals charge very expensive page charges that, frankly, not all researchers can afford to pay. Their attempt at “Open Access” simply shifts the cost from the subscriber to the author — open access publication in one of their journals, for example, costs $2700 per article. There seems to be an inherent assumption that only researchers at well-heeled institutions produce valid scientific results. This is on top of the $150+ annual membership dues.

I would have thought that the arXiv would have taught us at least a decade ago that there’s got to be a cheaper, more equitable model. I’m not saying “free” but at least “affordable.” I have, what I consider, a fairly sizable annual library budget. But the price of one “package” of good physics journals would eat up the entire budget. So, with the arXiv and Interlibrary loan satisfying most needs, I use that money to literally buy piles of books. And that’s what’s so odd. If you consider the editorial work, paper, typesetting, etc. that goes into the books I buy (and books aren’t cheap either!), and then look at just how many I can buy for the price of essentially one or two journal subscriptions, it demonstrates just how inflated those subscription prices are. The problem is that the system is self-perpetuating because, frankly, our institutions (whether they can afford to or not) place a premium on publication in these journals. And so nothing changes at the top, as usual…

Update: According to both Gowers’ Google+ feed and Nassif Ghoussoub’s blog, Martin’s UBC colleague Mike Bennett has also resigned from the board of JNT.

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4 Responses to “As the dust settles … nothing has changed at Elsevier”

  1. I share your bewilderment. Have you seen this graph http://www.lib.washington.edu/scholpub/images/economics_graph.png/view ?

    I am beginning to think that scientists want to do science and no more. And those who do publishing want to maximize profit. In fact I am beginning to see its really the librarians who have been pushing this since the 70′s. Take a look at figure 1 on page 8 and the references on page 37 – 39 in the google preview of http://books.google.tt/books/about/Report_of_the_ARL_serials_prices_project.html?id=xuXgAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

    • quantummoxie Says:

      Interesting. Is it the librarians or is it the institutions? I could see that it is the institutions who dictate to the librarians what they must purchase.

      • My understanding is its the libraries that (were) are being crushed, being in the middle of demand for papers by researchers and the cost demanded by the publishers. It was not the institutions. They seem to have recently joined in, and I would guess only after the researchers did. It is the libraries duty to provide the service, so the burden of delivering falls on them. That said, I don’t expect things to work the same at all institutions and libraries. But the ARL sure has been at this longer than us.

        I now see in the google preview above there are many papers in the book, so there are many page 8′s etc. But its still easy to get a glimpse of the history.

      • quantummoxie Says:

        Could be. Honestly it is probably a combination of reasons that contributed to the problem.

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