2004: Fleeced, 2012: The cost of knowledge

In 2004 Rob Kirby publishes in the Notices of the AMS the opinion article “Fleeced?“.  Let me quote a bit from it.

“Most mathematicians feel that they own their journals. They write and submit papers to their favorite (often specialized) journals. They often referee for those same journals. And some devote time and energy as editors. Throughout this process there is no contact with nonmathematicians, except for some of the editors. It is no wonder that mathematicians have a sense of pride and ownership in their  journals.

But the truth is that, legally, mathematicians do not own the commercial journals. Elsevier and Academic Press journals are a highly profitable part of a big corporation. Bertelsmann has recently divested Springer, and now  Springer, Kluwer, and Birkhäuser are owned by an investment company (who did not buy these publishers in order to make less profit than before).  […]

We mathematicians simply give away our work (together with copyright) to commercial journals who turn around and sell it back to our institutions at a magnificent profit. Why? Apparently because we think of them as our journals and enjoy the prestige and honor of publishing,  refereeing, and editing for them. […]

What can mathematicians do? At one extreme they can refuse to submit papers, referee, and edit for the high-priced commercial journals. At the other extreme they can do nothing. […]

A possibility is this: one could post one’s papers (including the final version) at the arXiv and other websites and refuse to give away the copyright. If almost all of us did this, then no one would have to subscribe to the journals, and yet they could still exist in electronic form.
Personally, I (and numerous others) will not deal with the high-priced journals. What about you?”

In 2012 appeared The cost of knowledge, a site inspired by the blog post Elsevier – my part in its downfall by Timothy Gowers.

In 12 years the world changed a bit in this respect. It will change much more.

Let me finish this post by describing my modest experience related to this subject, during these 12 years.

In 2004 I was a kind of a post-doc/visitor (on a contract which was prolonged once a year, for a max of 6 years) at EPFL (Lausanne, Swiss). I already decided some years ago to act as if  the future of mathematical publication is the arxiv and alike. One reason is the obvious fact that the www will change the world much more than the invention of the press did. Almost all research which was left in manuscript perished after the press revolution. Everybody who wants to give something to the research community has to put its research on the net, I thought, and simultaneously, to help the old system to die, by not publishing in paper journals.  Moreover,  I had troubles in the past with publishing multidisciplinary papers. I always believed that  it is fun to mix in a paper several fields,  that there is one mathematics, and so on, but such papers were extremely difficult to publish, at least these papers written by me, with my modest competence (and Romanian origin, I have to say this). So, lulled by the relative swiss security, I was just putting my papers on arxiv,  moreover written in an  open form which was inviting others to participate to the same research, at least that I was thinking.

The result? In 2004-2005 I was practically laughed into the face. Who cares about a paper in arxiv, which is not published in journal form?

In 2006 I returned in Romania, decided to start to publish in paper journals, because what I was trying to do  was either disregarded as not counting, or discretely and “creatively” borrowed.  I could not renounce to my believes, therefore I arrived to a system of waves of papers in arxiv, some of them sent to publication (so to say, the most conservative ones).

After a time I started to recover after my strategic “fault”, but still there is work to do. But is it right to be forced to hide own beliefs?  Apparently, I am right in my beliefs,  which are similar to those publicly declared by  great mathematicians, at least since 2004.  Practically, a big chunk of my career was/is still disturbed by this immense inertia.  I am surely just an example among many others  colleagues who are suffering similar experiences.

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