Crisis in the cost of journals

Publishers of scientific journals today actually
impede the flow of information rather than enable it.
-- Jeff Ullman

... I strongly commend you on your courage...
ToC will give many more researchers a reason to
mount a boycott against for-profit journals.
-- Don Knuth, greeting the launch of the Theory of Computing

On October 25, 2003, Don Knuth sent a 14-page letter to the Board of Editors of the Journal of Algorithms. Pointing out the "turmoil in the world of scholarly publishing," Knuth analysed the economics of periodicals in theoretical computer science. Knuth's letter precipitated the dramatic resignation of the entire editorial board of the Journal of Algorithms over the pricing policies of its publisher, Elsevier, and created a new, society-owned journal, ACM Transactions on Algorithms. (See here for more on this).

Publishers used to do the typesetting of papers; thanks to TeX, nowadays the authors do the typesetting. Publishers used to perform an essential service by distributing the scientific papers; thanks to the Web, this service is no longer needed. Why should the community subsidize, with enormous investment of volunteer work, commercial enterprises that take away the copyright, charge exorbitant fees, and restrict access to the online versions of their publications? (It only adds to the irony that virtually every mathematics and CS journal uses some version of TeX, created with great care and distributed free of charge by Don Knuth.)

In its December 17, 2003 resolution, the Cornell University Faculty Senate delivered a scathing indictment of the commercial science publishing industry and especially of Elsevier, the giant which now owns such venerable publishers as Academic Press. (The resolution was updated on May 11, 2005; click here if that link is broken.) Faculty senates of Ivy League schools have not been known to be gathering places of revolutionary hotheads, so the strong language used in the Cornell resolution deserves special attention. The resolution does not mince words. It uses phrases like "crisis in the cost of journals," "literally unbearable," "unsustainable," "threatens to undermine core academic values," "Elsevier's prices are radically out of proportion with the importance of those journals..."

The last paragraph of the Cornell resolution should be taken to heart by all scientific communities, including ours: "the Senate encourages the faculty vigorously to explore and support alternatives to commercial venues for scholarly communication."

ToC's mission is to provide the Theory community with such an alternative.

Laci Babai

P.S. The May 11, 2005 update of the Cornell Senate Resolution explicitly calls for boycott (highlighting added):

"The Senate strongly urges tenured faculty to cease supporting publishers who engage in exorbitant pricing, by not submitting papers to, or refereeing for, the journals sold by those publishers, and by resigning from their editorial boards if more reasonable pricing policies are not forthcoming."

A subsequent paragraph strongly endorses open access publication.

"The Senate strongly encourages all faculty, and especially tenured faculty, to consider publishing in open access, rather than restricted access, journals or in reasonably priced journals that make their contents openly accessible shortly after publication."

While the new resolution does not mention Elsevier by name, the preamble mentions as an example of action already taken the resignation of an associate editor of an Elsevier journal "because of Elsevier's pricing policies." No other publisher is mentioned by name anywhere in the document. Ample reference is made, however, to "certain publishers" who "continually raise their prices far above the level that could be reasonably justified by their costs." The "Discussion" section refers to the December 11, 2003 resolution and states:

"Since that date [Dec 11, 2003] the underlying problem of certain publishers charging excessive prices for subscriptions has continued, driven by stock market forces that demand ever-higher profits. At the same time, these journals could not even exist without the faculty who submit papers and act as editors and reviewers."

While Elsevier is certainly not the only culprit, the December 11, 2003 resolution highlighted Elsevier as being chiefly responsible for the crisis by the sheer magnitude of its operation. I quote from the 2003 document:

"In 2003 Cornell subscribed to 930 Elsevier titles at a cost of approximately
\$1.7 million. Those 930 titles represent fewer than 2% of the total number of serials titles to which Cornell subscribes; the \$1.7 million comprises something over 20% of the library's total serials expenditures, including those of the Medical School. Elsevier's proposed price increase of 6.5% for 2004 would have required an increase in the library's serials expenditures of approximately \$100,000. By contrast, the library's total materials budget, including materials for the Medical School, has in fact decreased by 1.4%. It is clear that increases of the magnitude that Elsevier regularly expects have become quite literally unbearable."

Click here for links related to Open Access.

Last updated October 15, 2006.