Open-Access Mathematics Journals

January 29, 2013

I have written here a number of times before about the movement toward providing open access to scholarly research.  I’ve noted before the decisions by a number of different organization, including Princeton University, the Royal Society, the JStor research archive, and the World Bank, to provide open access to some or all of their research publications.  There have been launch announcements from some new open-access journals, notably in particle physics and in the life sciences.

Now Nature is reporting, in a recent news article, that a new series of open-access journals in mathematics is being put together.  The plan is that these journals will have a peer review process similar to traditional print journals, but will post their articles on the arXiv pre-print site, hosted by the Cornell University Library.

The initiative, called the Episciences Project, hopes to show that researchers can organize the peer review and publication of their work at minimal cost, without involving commercial publishers.

“It’s a global vision of how the research community should work: we want to offer an alternative to traditional mathematics journals,” says Jean-Pierre Demailly, a mathematician at the University of Grenoble, France, who is a leader in the effort. Backed by funding from the French government, the initiative may launch as early as April, he says.

The “epijournals” would provide Web directories to the articles approved by their review processes, along with editorial reviews, and possibly forums for comments.   Readers might have to give up something; for example, reviewed articles might not follow formatting standards to the same extent as articles in traditional journals.   On the other hand, the general availability of articles would be substantially increased.

One of the supporters of this project is the Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers, a recipient of the Fields Medal (often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”).   He has a blog post that explains the idea of these “overlay journals” in more detail.

What is an arXiv overlay journal? It is just like an electronic journal, except that instead of a website with lots of carefully formatted articles, all you get is a list of links to preprints on the arXiv. The idea is that the parts of the publication process that academics do voluntarily — editing and refereeing — are just as they are for traditional journals, and we do without the parts that cost money, such as copy-editing and typesetting.

There was a time when the typesetting and copy editing function provided real economic value (although, of course, not necessarily what the publishers were charging for it).  Today, though, better technology (think MathML or LaTeX) allows authors to prepare publishable drafts with reasonable effort.

Mr. Gowers was also a prime mover in the Elsevier boycott movement, launched early in 2012.  He’s apparently done some “sounding out” regarding the possibilities in one of his areas of interest:

Apparently, the plan is for the whole thing to start this April. Because I have known about the project for some time, I have quietly sounded out a few people in additive combinatorics, and it seems that there is enough enthusiasm that we will be able to start an epijournal broadly in that area …

I’m glad to hear of this development, and I hope that the new journals will be a success.   As I’ve said, one of the most important potential benefits of the “Internet Age” is the wider availability of knowledge, particularly to a large chunk of humanity that would otherwise, for reasons of geography, politics, or economics, never have had a chance.

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