Discrete analyst of academic publishing launches open access journal

It may be necessary for things to go a bit quiet while we lay the ground work and put in some hard graft.

Sir Timothy Gowers
Sir Timothy Gowers

That was four years ago in the wake of the storm Trinity Fellow Professor Sir Timothy Gowers stirred up when he blogged about his reasons for boycotting the publisher Elsevier.

Today that hard graft and the support of the mathematics community have paid off: Discrete Analysis goes live, offering a rigorously peer-reviewed online journal that is easy to navigate and – of course – free to access and publish with.

Open access is not just a buzzword in academic publishing – it’s contentious and has become rather complicated. Put simply, increasing resentment about the cost of journal subscriptions led academics and funding institutions to set up free online platforms for academic articles, thus bypassing traditional commercial publishers.

I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to run a high-quality mathematical journal at a fraction of the cost that the commercial publishers say is necessary.

Articles in Discrete Analysis will cost an average of £20 to publish, says Professor Gowers, and that cost is covered by the journal, not the author.

A typical article processing charge by a commercial journal or learned society publisher will be 50 to 100 times that.

screengrab_0Quiet and calm – he even moves softly – Professor Gowers confesses he’s ‘an OA activist by accident’. He has played a key role in the movement nonetheless. Within 24 hours of his January 2012 blog ‘Elsevier – my part in its downfall’, a sympathetic reader had set up the Cost of Knowledge. Thousands of scholars took a stand against Elsevier. The Guardian talked of an ‘Academic spring’ and a scientific revolution.

The Royal Society Research Professor at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics doesn’t strike you as a rebel. He seems rather surprised by developments and is uncertain what effect Discrete Analysis will have.

The title of the journal describes a collection of broadly related subfields of mathematics. It also happens to reflect Professor Gowers’ thoughtful brand of activism, which developed from blogging about mathematics and led to numerous Freedom of Information (FoI) requests about how much Russell Group universities were paying to Elsevier. All FoI requests were, eventually, successful – and caused consternation in some quarters.

Cambridge was paying £1,161,571 a year and some far more. These sums were based on ‘historical spend’ linked to print journal costs and the negotiations were behind closed doors. The only thing we need is an organised peer review process and that is being done by unpaid editors and referees. Much is being spent on services that are completely anachronistic now.

What’s really scandalous, says Professor Gowers, is that not only do academics provide their research and labour to journal publishers free of charge, their universities then have to pay to access that work – which may have been publically funded in the first place.

This frustration, well simmered over the last four years, has had a productive – and potentially groundbreaking – outcome. Chicago-based Scholastica set up (for free) an appealing and user-friendly website that fronts the arXiv journal.

There will be no diminution in the quality of academic research published by Discrete Analysis. The editorial board – including Professors Ben Green, Gil Kalai, Nets Katz, Bryna Kra, Terence Tao and Tamar Ziegler – will see to that. Professor Gowers is managing editor.

People should not think that an arxiv overlay journal is a second best journal. The peer review process is 100% traditional. To be accepted by the mathematics community it will have to be. We have been surprised and gratified by the high standard of submissions, which has allowed us to set a high bar, turn away some perfectly respectable papers, and establish Discrete Analysis as a distinctly good journal.

Plus, the website offers much more than traditional journals, says Professor Gowers.

Most journals offer little more than a list of titles with links to the articles (at least those that are not behind a paywall). The Discrete Analysis website makes browsing easy – the number of clicks is minimized so readers can quickly view the few paragraphs describing the content and setting the context of each article.

The navigation, visual appeal and accessibility (on tablets and phones) of Discrete Analysis is like a Rolls Royce compared to the Trabants of other online mathematics journals, says Professor Gowers, ‘except that someone has mischievously exchanged the price tags.’ Notwithstanding the skill of the web designers, the implication that this is all someone else’s doing is also, of course, mischievous.

The editorial board welcomes submissions and those published will be in ‘very good company’ writes Professor Gowers in his latest Weblog.

Papers published will be properly promoted on a website that embraces what the internet has to offer rather than merely being a pale shadow of a paper journal. And you will be helping, in a small way, to bring about a change to the absurdly expensive and anachronistic system of academic publishing that we still have to put up with.

Infographic by Giulia Forsythe
Infographic by Giulia Forsythe

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