Everybody's Libraries

November 11, 2010

You do the math

Filed under: open access,publishing,serials,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 6:02 pm

I recently heard from Peter Murray-Rust that the Central European Journal of Mathematics (CEJM) is looking for graduate students to edit the language of papers they publish.  CEJM is co-published by Versita and Springer Science+Business Media.

Would-be editors are promised their name on the masthead, and references and recommendations from the folks who run the journal.  These perks are tempting to a student (or postdoc) hoping for stable employment, but you can get such benefits working with just about any scholarly journal.  There’s no mention of actual pay for any of this editing work.  (Nor is there any pay for the associate editors they also seek, though those editors are also promised access to the journal’s content.)

The reader’s side of things looks rather different, when it comes to paying. If we look at Springer’s price lists for 2011, for instance, we see that the list price for a 1-year institutional subscription to CEJM is $1401 US for “print and free access or e-only”, or $1681 US for “enhanced access”.  An additional $42 is assessed for postage and handling, presumably waived if you only get the electronic version, but charged otherwise.

This is a high subscription rate even by the standards of commercial math journals.  At universities like mine, scholars don’t pay for the journal directly, but the money the library uses for the subscription is money that can’t be used to buy monographs, or to buy non-Springer journals, or to improve library service to our mathematics scholars.  Mind you, many universities get this journal as part of a larger package deal with Springer.  This typically lowers the price for each journal, but the package often includes a number of lower-interest journals that wouldn’t otherwise be bought.  Large amounts of money are tied up in these “big deals” with large for-profit publishers such as Springer.

If you can’t, or won’t, lay out the money for a subscription or larger package, readers can pay for articles one at a time.  When I tried to look at a recent CEJM article from home, for instance, I was asked to pay $34 before I could read it.  Another option is author-paid open access.  CEJM authors who want to make their papers available through the journal without a paywall can do so through Springer’s Open Choice program.  This will cost the author $3000 US.

So there’s plenty of money involved in this journal.  It’s just that none of it goes to the editors they’re seeking.  Or to the authors of the papers, who submit them for free (or with a $3000 payment).  Or to the peer reviewers of the papers, if this journal works like most other scholarly journals and uses volunteer scholars as referees.  A scholar might justifiably wonder all this money is going, or what value they get in return for it.

As the editor job ads imply, much of what scholars get out of editing and publishing in journals like these is recognition and prestige.  That, indeed, has value, but the cost-value function can be optimized much better than in this case.  CEJM’s website mentions that it’s tracked by major citation services, and has a 0.361 impact factor (a number often used, despite some notable problems, to give a general sense of a journal’s prestige).  Looking through the mathematics section of the Directory of Open Access Journals, I find a number of scholarly journals that are also tracked by citation services, but don’t charge anything to readers, and as far as I can tell don’t charge anything to authors either.   Here are some of them:

Central Europe, besides being the home of CEJM, is also the home of several open access math journals such as Documenta Mathematica (Germany), the Balkan Journal of Geometry and its Applications (Romania), and the Electronic Journal of Qualitative Theory of Differential Equations (Hungary).  For what it’s worth, all of these journals, and all the other open access journals mentioned in this post, currently show higher impact factors in Journal Citation Reports than CEJM does.

Free math journals aren’t limited to central Europe.  Here in the US, the American Mathematical Society makes the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society free to read online, through the generosity of its members.  And on the campus where I work, Penn’s math department sponsors the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics.

A number of other universities also sponsor open-access journals, promoting their programs, and the findings of scholars worldwide, with low overhead.  For instance, there are two relatively high-impact math journals from Japanese universities: the Kyushu Journal of Mathematics and the Osaka Journal of Mathematics.  The latter journal’s online presence is provided by Project Euclid, a US-based initiative to support low-cost, non-profit mathematics publishing.

Ad-hoc groups of scholars can also organize their own open access journals in their favored specialty.  For instance, Homology, Homotopy and Applications is founded and entirely run by working mathematicians.  Some journals, such as the open access Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, use Open Journal Systems, a free open source publishing software package, to produce high-quality journal websites with little expenditure.

The Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences: Mathematical Sciences is an interesting case.  Like many scholarly societies, the Indian Academy has recently made a deal with a for-profit publisher (Springer, as it turns out) to distribute their journals in print and electronic form.  Unlike many such societies, though, the Academy committed to continuing a free online version of this journal on their own website.

This is a fortunate decision for readers, because libraries that acquire the commercially published version will have to pay Springer $280 per year for basic access and $336 for “enhanced access”, according to their 2011 price list.  True, libraries get a print copy with this more expensive access (if they’re willing to pay Springer another $35 in postage and handling charges).  But the Academy sends out print editions within India for a total subscription price (postage included) of 320 rupees per year.   At today’s exchange rates, that’s less than $8 US.

Virtually all journals, whether in mathematics or other scholarly fields, depend heavily on unpaid academic labor for the authorship, refereeing, and in some cases editing of their content.  But, as you can see with CEJM and the no-fee open access journals mentioned above, journals vary widely in the amount of money they also extract from the academic community.  In between these two poles, there are also lots of other high-impact math journals with lower subscription prices, as well as commercial open access math journals with much lower author fees than Springer’s Open Choice.  These journals further diversify the channels of communication among mathematicians, without draining as much of  their funds.

I certainly hope mathematicians and other scholars will continue to volunteer their time and talents to the publication process, both for their benefit and for ours.  But if we optimize where and how we give our time and talent (and our institutional support), both scholars and the public will be better off.  As I’ve shown above, with a little bit of information and attention, there’s no shortage of low-cost, high-quality publishing venues that scholars can use as alternatives to overpriced journals.

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