Quick reaction on Gowers’ “Why I’ve joined the bad guys”

Here are some quick comments on the post “Why I’ve joined the bad guys” by Timothy Gowers.  For starters, don’t read only Gowers post, but do go and read as well Orr Shalit’   Worse than Elsevier.

[UPDATE: See also Second thoughts on Gowers’ “Why I’ve joined the bad guys”, it’s more constructive.]


I really think this is the worse moment to discuss such subjects.

The long, but not heavy post by Gowers is curious.  Let’s see:

Re: “It is just plain wrong to ask authors to pay to get their articles published“.

Let me begin with the “it is just plain wrong” part. A number of people have said that they find APCs morally repugnant. However, that on its own is not an argument. It reminds me of some objections to stem cell research. Many people feel that that is wrong, regardless of any benefits that it might bring. Usually their objections are on religious grounds, though I imagine that even some non-religious people just feel instinctively that stem-cell research is wrong.

If that is the level of the discussion then here is an answer on a par: What do you think  Aaron Swartz would say about such an argument pro APC?

[Who is Aaron Swartz: (wikipedia), (official website), (blog) .]

Re: APC vs APC.

In my previous post about Forum of Mathematics I made a bad mistake, which was to suggest that APC stood for “author publication charge” rather than “article processing charge”.

Ah, OK. So the author pays after, not before.

Forum of Mathematics will not under any circumstances expect authors to meet APCs out of their own pockets, and I would refuse to be an editor if it did. (I imagine the same holds for all the other editors.) Of course, it is one thing to say that authors are not expected to pay, and another to make sure that that never happens. Let me describe the safeguards that will be put in place.

If this is true, then it would be the same to do like this: don’t expect authors to pay. If they want to pay in order to help the journal, then they can make a Paypal  contribution.

Re: “What??!! How can it cost £500 to process an article?

So how can the costs reach anything like £500? I’ll talk in general terms here, and not specifically about Forum of Mathematics. There are many things that an academic journal does to a paper once it has gone through the refereeing process and been accepted. It does copy-editing, typesetting, addition of metadata, and making sure the article appears on various bibliographic databases.

Short answer: Latex and Google Scholar. Organizing peer-review is the only worthy service today.

Re: Forum of Mathematics is even worse than Elsevier.

Please tell me where in his post Orr Shalit claims that FoM is worse than Elsevier.

Re: “Authors are doing a service to the world, so making them pay is ridiculous“.

…that service is already done the moment they put their paper on the arXiv or their home page (assuming they do). So why do they bother to publish? As I think everybody agrees, now that we have the internet, the main function left for journals is providing a stamp of quality.

… for money.  Yes, this is the truth, actually, everybody agrees.  These stamps are needed for a reason which has nothing to do with math or science, see further.

There is a big question about whether we actually need journals for that, but that question is independent of the question of who benefits from the service provided by journals.

Let me parse this: the questions

  1. “do we need journals for providing quality stamps?”
  2. “who benefits from this service provided by journals?”

are independent. Say the question 1.  has answer “yes”, then it does not matter who benefits by providing a needed service.Say the question 1.  has answer “no”, then again it does not matter who benefits from providing a useless service. Hm…

The main person who benefits from the stamp of quality is the author, who boosts his or her CV and has a better chance when applying for jobs and so on.

Yes, everybody knows that this is the reason why researchers feel forced to publish in the old way. So let me translate: the real reason of existence for journals is to simplify the work of the HR departments.

If you feel that APCs are wrong because if anything you as an author should be paid for the wonderful research you have done, I would counter that (i) it is not journals who should be paying you — they are helping you to promote yourself, and (ii) if your research is good, then you will be rewarded for it, by having a better career than you would have had without it.

(i) the purpose of journals used to be the one of disseminating knowledge, (ii) the same argument applies for green open access journals.

Re: Maybe a typical article costs around £500 to process under the current system, but do we need what we get for that money?

This is a much more serious question. While I’m discussing it, let me also highlight another misconception, which is that the editors of FoM regard it as a blueprint for the future of all of mathematical publishing.

… well, that is almost enough for a quick reaction. Let’s stop and think about:

“is a misconception [that] the editors of FoM regard it as a blueprint for the future of all of mathematical publishing.”

Here is a last one, though.

Re: I don’t want traditional-style journals with APCs. I want much more radical change.

I basically agree with this, but as I argued in the previous section, I think that there is a case for having APCs at least as a transitional arrangement.

This reminds me about that dinosaur joke.

4 thoughts on “Quick reaction on Gowers’ “Why I’ve joined the bad guys””

  1. Gowers said “An article processing charge is what it says – a charge for the processing of an article.” If this is true, then why not allowing the authors to save this money, or at least a big part of it, by processing themselves their articles?

  2. You’ve mentioned arXiv a few times. Doesn’t it already provide stamp of quality as in it’s not viXra? Not that I can really understand the papers in either, or take much time to really parse them….

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