April 19, 2014

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Journal of Algorithms Editorial Board Revolts

The editorial board of the Journal of Algorithms has resigned en masse, to protest what they call price-gouging by Elsevier, the company that publishes the journal. The journal’s annual subscription price had risen to $700, which is beyond the reach of many libraries, not to mention individuals.

The resigning board includes very distinguished computer scientists such as Donald Knuth. They have announced their intention to work on a new journal, Transactions on Algorithms, to be published by ACM, the leading professional society for computer scientists.

It’s surprising that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. The value of a journal comes from the quality of articles in it; and this quality derives mostly from the reputations of the editorial board members and the work they do in choosing and editing articles. If a journal’s management takes a direction that the scientists on the editorial board don’t like, there is something they can do about it!

Elsevier says they will find a new board and continue publishing the journal, but it’s hard to imagine that anybody in the field will take it seriously anymore.

Computer scientists are lucky, in that most of our best journals and conference proceedings are published by our professional societies at reasonable prices and terms. The new Transactions on Algorithms will be yet another example.

Comments

  1. Michael Weiksner says:

    I agree. Furthermore, what’s the value of the printed product? Why can’t these journals be blogs only? Blogs and web-publishing is perfect for academia, where most articles ought to be universally-accessible but in fact are only read by a few peers and grad students.

  2. Cypherpunk says:

    “Computer scientists are lucky, in that most of our best journals and conference proceedings are published by our professional societies at reasonable prices and terms.”

    Reasonable is relative. I buy conference proceedings in my field and pay for them out of pocket, and they are usually in the $50-$100 price range. That’s better than $700 but still more than many people would pay.

    My real complaint, as Michael describes above, is that the online access to these publications is restricted. Luckily I have a semi-hacked access (oops, there’s that word; I mean, I’m not sure I am supposed to have the access which I have found that I do, using an old computer account) to the Springer-Verlag LINK online service, for which I can get the Lecture Notes in Computer Science series. But most people can’t do this without what I understand is quite an expensive subscription.

  3. Scott Aaronson says:

    A few days ago I refused to referee for the Elsevier journal Theoretical Computer Science because of its price-gouging, and (call it peer pressure if you want) it makes me feel better that others are making a similar decision. It occurred to me that both liberals *and* conservatives should want to boycott overpriced journals: liberals so as not to help greedy corporations, conservatives so as not to work pro bono.

  4. joe says:

    yay! Gouging hurts…

  5. Crooked Timber says:

    En masse resignation of journal editorial board

    Ed Felten reports that the entire editorial board of a journal has quit to protest the high price of the journal. I agree with Ed that it is somewhat surprising this does not happen more often given the increasing price…

  6. Seth Finkelstein says:

    If there ever was a case for “disintermediation”, it would seem to be here.

  7. Seth Schoen says:

    People who are interested in this subject should enjoy Peter Suber’s Open Access News.

  8. MyLabIsOnFire says:

    Algorithm Method

  9. Robert Heckendorn says:

    What is amazing is that I bet if Elsevier wanted to improve profits, recognition, and sales they would lower the price to $50 per year instead and see a 50 times increase in their subscription rate. It seems that they are taking the unrealistic and unfortunate stance that if they were to raise it to a $100000/yr and sell one copy they will win. THis is really a loss for everyone.

  10. Peter MacLeod says:

    Why require dead trees at all? Take a look at the Journal of Vision or look at the full historical index.

    It is free, available online, has HTML as well as PDF content, is lovely to look at, and has top researchers in the field contributing to it. ACM is swell and all, and their individual subscription prices are indeed much more reasonable than Elsevier’s, but I’d rather see them move towards a model like JoV, where those who live in places where $50/year is still a lot of money can still access the best literature.

  11. Ed Felten says:

    Publishing a journal online seems like a no-brainer. The ideal journal would offer both online and dead-tree versions.

  12. Peter MacLeod says:

    The question is whether an organization like the ACM could tolerate publishing an online version of a journal for free. Would people still join the ACM and pay dues if the ACM journals were available for free online? Would anyone still pay $50 for a dead-trees version if there was a free online version?

    I don’t think the blog model is quite right for a journal–you still need an editorial board. I can’t see anyone getting a job (except in a new media department ;) based on a CV filled with only blog postings.

  13. Wim L says:

    A similar shift has happened in physics, with “preprint” servers like xxx.lanl.gov and arxiv.org drawing readers away from the journals that the articles are supposedly preprints for. Some journals charge sizable fees to subscribers and to authors — that is, you have to pay them to publish, and pay again to read it. Quite the racket. Combine the expense with the fact that the online sources have fresher news, and it’s not surprising that people are willing to do without the traditional peer review process.

  14. vlorbik says:

    oh, yeah.
    now (as i said in linking this story at
    my blog) for the real scandal: textbooks.

  15. Anthony says:

    vlorbik – textbook prices aren’t nearly as scandalous as you think they are. Even journal prices, for deadtree journals, aren’t terribly overpriced, relative to the costs of production.

    Small print runs are expensive. Face it, even a “popular” academic journal is a small print run.

    The reason small print runs are expensive is that there are a lot of one-time costs to setting up a print run, even after all the editorial content is produced. The more units printed, the lower the per-unit cost will be.

    There are several possible solutions: raise the price to keep up with the rising costs of printing, try to increase the paid volume to spread the printing costs across a larger volume, or try to lower the production costs. Raising the volume and lowering the price is risky; some journals’ demand is pretty inelastic. Raising the price runs a risk that the demand isn’t as inelastic as you thought. Printing is pretty capital-intensive, so shipping your printing operation to non-union printers in West Virginia or West Bengal won’t save you much.

    That leaves lowering production costs by changing away from dead-tree production. Unfortunately, a lot of the cost of producing a journal is before ink hits paper – there’s the entire peer-review process, there’s layout, there’s proofreading and editing, etc., etc., all of which cost a lot. Even if burning, packaging, and mailing CDs is cheaper than printing, packaging and mailing paper journals, there’s still a lot of cost to spread over a relatively limited audience.

  16. DavidM says:

    One of the arguments I’ve heard for keeping paper journals is that electronic-only journals are taken less seriously by tenure committees. Can anyone speak to this? I am not at the point yet where I have any insight into how that process works.

  17. Scott Aaronson says:

    As for why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often, I think part of the answer is that scientists are the most reluctant revolutionaries on Earth. Look at the web sites that *favor* boycotting companies like Elsevier — for the most part you’ll find detailed price data, guarded prose, and skeptical counterarguments, not indignance over being charged a fortune to buy back a community’s own intellectual work. People are unlikely to do anything if they don’t feel emotionally that they’ve been wronged.

  18. Anonymous says:

    This sort of thing is happening very often, the Open Access movement is well underway. Follow some of the links from http://ourpla.net/cgi/pikie?OpenAccessMovement

  19. Lessig Blog says:

    the algorithm of closed source publishing

    As Ed Felten reported last week, the Journal of Algorithm’s Editorial Board has quit en masse. Elsevier had raised its annual subscription price to a point the board thought prohibitiv…

  20. Bryan says:

    The reason why dead trees are better than the on-line variety is that I can go the library and grab an issue of Geophysics from 30 years ago and read it just fine. Show me a file format that can survive 30, 50 or even 100 years (with easy-to-read text, equations, and graphics) of file format evolution, and I’ll rethink my position.
    I’ll concede that searching for a topic using on-line journals is much easier than paging through dead-tree indexes. The best of both worlds would be to have an on-line index and the print articles.
    Unfortunately, most journals are getting crazy with the prices. I’m going to have to let my subscription to Geophysics expire because they increased prices again this year. Check out Knuth’s letter (pdf) for additional information (unfortunately, because it is Knuth, there are a lot of words for you to wade through, but the trip’s worth it).

  21. Freedom to Tinker says:

    More Journal Editors Have Declared Independence

    In response to my previous post about the revolt by the editors of the Journal of Algorithms, Peter Suber points out that journal editors have “declared independence” before, at least twelve times. Peter’s blog, Open Access News is a great source for n…

  22. STLQ says:

    Journal of Algorithms Fallout Getting Noticed

    On December 31, 2003, the editorial board of the Journal of Algorithms resigned, in protest of Elsevier pricing policies. George Porter from CIT posted this message to a number of listservs today: Lance Fortnow (University of Chicago) maintains a compu…