Another journal flips
There is widespread (even if not universal) agreement that something is deeply wrong with the current system of academic publishing. The basic point, which has been made innumerable times by innumerable people, is that the really hard parts — the writing of papers, and the peer review and selection of the ones to publish — are done voluntarily by academics, and modern technology makes things like typesetting and dissemination extremely cheap. And yet publishers are making more money than ever before. They do this by insisting that we give them ownership of the content we produce (though many journals will publish papers even if you strike out the part of the contract that hands them this ownership — these days I never agree to give copyright to a publisher, and I urge you not to either), and by bundling their journals together so that libraries are forced into an all-or-nothing decision. (As another aside, I also urge libraries to look closely at what is happening in Germany, where they have gone for the “nothing” option with Elsevier and the world has not come to an end.)
What can be done about this? There are many actions, none of which are likely to be sufficient to bring about major change on their own, but which in combination will help to get us to a tipping point. In no particular order, here are some of them.
- Create new journals that operate much more cheaply and wait for them to become established.
- Persuade libraries not to agree to Big Deals with the big publishers.
- Refuse to publish with, write for, or edit for, the big publishers.
- Make sure all your work is freely available online.
- Encourage journals that are supporting the big publishers to leave those publishers and set up in a cheaper and fairer way.
Not all of these are easy things to do, but I’m delighted to report that a small group I belong to, set up by Mark Wilson, has, after approaching a large number of maths journals, found one that was ready to “flip”: the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics has just announced that it will be leaving Springer. Or if you want to be more pedantic about it, a new journal will be starting, called Algebraic Combinatorics and published by The Mersenne Centre for Open Scientific Publishing, and almost all the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics will resign from that journal and become editors of the new one, which will adhere to Fair Open Access Principles.
If you want to see change, then you should from now on regard Algebraic Combinatorics as the true continuation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, and the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics as a zombie journal that happens to have a name that coincides with a former real journal. And of course, that means that if you are an algebraic combinatorialist with a paper that would have been suitable for the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, you should understand that the reputation of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics is being transferred, along with the editorial board, to Algebraic Combinatorics, and you should therefore submit it to Algebraic Combinatorics. This has worked with previous flips: the zombie journal rarely thrives afterwards and in some notable cases has ceased to publish after a couple of years or so.
The words of one of the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, Hugh Thomas, are particularly telling, especially the first sentence: “There wasn’t a particular crisis. It has been becoming more and more clear that commercial journal publishers are charging high subscription fees and high Article Processing Charges (APCs), profiting from the volunteer labour of the academic community, and adding little value. It is getting easier and easier to automate the things that they once took care of. The actual printing and distribution of paper copies is also much less important than it has been in the past; this is something which we have decided we can do without.”
I mentioned earlier that we approached many journals. Although it is very exciting that one journal is flipping, I must also admit to disappointment at how low our strike rate has been so far. However, the words “so far” are important: many members of editorial boards were very sympathetic with our aims, and some journals were adopting a wait-and-see attitude, so if the flip of JACo is successful, we hope that it will encourage other journals. I should say that we weren’t just saying, “Why don’t you flip?” but we were also offering support, including financial support. The current situation is that we can almost certainly finance journals that are ready to flip to an “ultra-cheap” model (using a platform that charges either nothing or a very small fee per submission) and help with administrative support, and are working on financial support for more expensive models, but still far cheaper than the commercial publishers, where more elaborate services are offered.
Understandably, the main editors tended to be a lot more cautious on average than the bulk of the editorial boards. I think many of them were worried that they might accidentally destroy their journals if they flipped them, and in the case of journals with long traditions, this is not something one would want to be remembered for. So again, the more we can support Algebraic Combinatorics, the more likely it is that this caution will be reduced and other journals will consider following. (If you are an editor of a journal we have not approached, please do get in touch to discuss what the possibilities are — we have put a lot of thought into it.)
Another argument put forward by some editors is that to flip a journal risks damaging the reputation of the old version of the journal, and therefore, indirectly, the reputation of the papers published in it, some of which are by early-career researchers. So they did not want to flip in order to avoid damaging the careers of young mathematicians. If you are a young mathematician and would like to comment on whether you would be bothered by a journal flipping after you had published in it, we would be very interested to hear what you have to say.
Against that background I’d like to congratulate the editors of the Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics for their courage and for the work they have put into this. (But that word “work” should not put off other editors: one of the aims of our small group was to provide support and expertise, including from Johann Rooryck, the editor of the Elsevier journal Lingua, which flipped to become Glossa, in order to make the transition as easy as possible.) I’d also like to make clear, to avoid any misunderstanding that might arise, that although I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion with Mark Wilson’s group and wrote to many editors of other journals, my role in this particular flip has been a minor one.
And finally, let me repeat the main message of this post: please support the newly flipped journal, since the more successful it is, the greater the chance that other journals will follow, and the greater the chance that we will be able to move to a more sensible academic publishing system.