This Means War

Chris Pine will play Tim Gowers in the movie version.

You may not know it, but mathematicians have been very unhappy with some of the publishers of journals (e.g. Elsevier).

Imagine this:  you write a research article, do all of the typesetting in LaTex, and then submit it to a journal.  The editor finds people to referee the article (who read it carefully making sure it is correct and suitable for the journal) and based on the recommendations of the referees the editor accepts it in the journal.   Your library pays a subscription so that you and everyone else at the university can read the journal.

That sounds okay until you realize that the author, editor, and referees all work for free*, and the library is paying thousands of dollars a year!

Wait, what?!?

That’s right, that math community provides the product for free and then pays large amounts of money to buy it back!  It’s as if you wrote apps for Apple for free, then paide large amounts of money to use the apps, and the app authors getting none of the money.

You can imagine why this is a great deal for the publishers.  They provide paper and electronic copies of the journal to libraries and a few other bells and whistles, but the vast majority of the value in their product they get for free.  And they get to charge ridiculous prices, to boot!  Hmmm, maybe we should start The Journal of OU Math Club Blog Mathematics :-).

A little over a month ago Tim Gowers, mathematician and blogger, posted a manifesto saying he wasn’t going to take it anymore.  That is, he was going to boycott Elsevier’s journals.

This lead to a flurry of activity among other frustrated mathematicians all across the internet.  Thousands of people joined the boycott, started talking of making new, lower cost journals, or even radical new alternativesIzabella Laba pointed that there is a big risk of inventing something even worse if we aren’t careful.  Heck, it even appeared in the New York Times (thanks to our own Andy Magid for pointing this out).

Today Elsevier gave an inch.  They sent an email to mathematicians everywhere (including us at Blog HQ.  How’d they get our number?) saying:

A letter to the mathematics community.

We are writing to let you know of a series of changes that we are making to how the Elsevier mathematics program will be run. Some of these are new initiatives, and some reflect changes that we have been working on over a longer period.

We have been listening actively to the community and we see a number of issues that we need to address, not least being open to what the community has to say:

Mathematics journals published by Elsevier tend to be larger than those of other publishers. On a price-per-article, or price-per-page level, our prices are typically, but not always, lower than those of other mathematics publishers.

Our target is for all of our core mathematics titles to be priced at or below US$11 per article (equivalent to 50-60 cents per normal typeset page) by next year, placing us below most University presses, some societies and other commercial competitors. Where journals are more expensive than this, we will lower our prices….

We welcome your views on these and all our efforts at:


David Clark & Laura Hassink
Senior Vice Presidents, Physical Sciences

Tim Gowers, Scott Morrison, and others remain unconvinced. Considering Elsevier was a big supporter of the Research Works Act, we don’t blame them.

Between you and us, we think Elsevier is seriously worried.  They’re worried that we’ve figured out that the emperor  has no clothes.  Elsevier does little for math that we can’t do for ourselves.  If the bigshots start setting up new journals and people stop submitting to Elsevier, then Elsevier is going to be SOL.

*  Some editors receive a small amount of pay for their work.


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