NO 202 - March 12, 1998

Editor: Marcia Tuttle

ISSN: 1046-3410



Silvio Levy, University of California - Berkeley,

[Received January 30, 1998. First appeared on PAMnet.]

Dear Colleagues

This is a writeup of some remarks on journals and libraries, which I made at a panel during the recent AMS meeting. The panel was called The Electronic Environment: Changing the Relationship Between Mathematician and Librarian. The other panelists were John Ewing (AMS), Andrew Odlyzko (AT&T Research) and Steven Weintraub (Louisiana State U.) There was no discussion among the speakers, only questions from the audience. The remarks from all the panelists will appear somewhere, thanks to Nancy Anderson. Meanwhile, I'd welcome any feedback.

I will speak as a librarian and mathematician and address only some of the questions posed.

The issue of journal prices is independent of whether the journal is electronic or print. There are excellent and cheap print journals, excellent and cheap electronic journals. And there are expensive ones in both categories. The trick is to support the fairly priced ones and not the overpriced ones. We're in the midst of a crisis in libraries, cuts must be made, etc. But how did we get to this situation? How did we allow 15-20% price increases, for several years in a row, in the prices of certain journals?

In my view, this happened because the consumers of mathematical information are not the ones affected by rising prices. As a result of the separation of librarian and user, three key ingredients are almost never found together: first-hand exposure to prices, decision-making power, and mathematical knowledge. Librarians and mathematicians need to communicate better and not wait until a crisis looms. Faculty library committees are a good way to do this, if they are in close contact with librarians, if they take their work seriously, and if they are empowered to make difficult decisions. All mathematicians would profit from looking at Kirby's remarks at

Besides rising prices, the main reason for libraries being in dire straits is the excessive number of journals. Although we keep hearing predictions about the demise of paper, each of the last three years saw the creation of about 20 new journals in mathematics, of which 1/3 were paper only, 1/3 electronic only, and 1/3 both formats. Do we really need that many new journals? There is a need for journals in new areas of mathematics, but why do we see new journals in areas that already have good journals, or in generic math? Could vanity have something to do with it? (Grin) Must every paper written by a mathematician end up published somewhere, regardless of how many people will read it? (Groan)

We need to change the way in which tenure and promotion decisions are made, shifting the focus away from the number of publications (and I mean the number, not the quality). The most perverse aspect of the current system is that if I publish what is essentially the same paper in three journals, with minute incremental improvements, I get almost three times as much credit than if I published only one paper. Examples could be multiplied. The way NSF reviews grant proposals is a good model: they ask the applicant to list what he/she considers to be his/her top ten papers.

Speaking of the question of tenure and promotion decisions, the worry that electronic journals "won't count" is misguided. In my opinion, Peter Doyle has solved the issue once and for all:

If you publish an article in the new AMS Journal Conformal Dynamics and Geometry, how will the dean know that this is `merely' an electronic journal? To keep the deans happy, it is only necessary for electronic publishers to omit any mention of the format of the journal from the title, and ... to have each article be assigned a randomly selected nominal initial page number, and a corresponding final page number that fairly represents the length of the article.

The idea of expunging any reference to the format of the journal from the title makes good sense on general principles. Why should we have The Electronic Journal of [Whatever], any more than we have The 8-by-10 Journal of Probability or The Off-White Journal of Analysis, or The Acid-Free Journal of Geometry?

Another question posed to the panel was: "What responsibility do we have to a large segment of the world, where electronic publications cannot be accessed?" This worry, too, is misguided; in 1998 a library, anywhere in the world, that cannot afford access to the Internet isn't buying much in the way of paper journals either. And the relative cost of electronic vs. paper for such disadvantaged libraries will keep dropping.

The relevant question for poor libraries is: are the good electronic publications going to be the free/cheap ones? This is so now in some areas: the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics is a good example. It will remain so only if mathematicians make a conscious and long-term effort to be involved in pricing and quality issues. And this requires that mathematicians educate themselves.

We're now in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water: some people have claimed that we don't need publishers because they add no value. Perhaps some don't, but the ones I work with do. As the Editor of a journal (Experimental Mathematics), and of the MSRI book series, I can attest that the practicalities of publishing would be much more difficult without a publisher; moreover the quality of the final product would not be as good, because the papers would have no editorial input. I know that lack of editorial input is the standard in many journals, even some good ones, but the feedback and thanks that I've received over the years have persuaded me that my editorial work does represent added value.

The last question posed to the panel concerned the durability of archived electronic material. This is a matter that requires attention. It's not enough to say, as some do, that it will take care of itself. If a document is important to a rich organization or group, they'll make sure it gets preserved. But if the document is unimportant now, it may be lost when someone decides to look for it because it was important after all -- especially if the someone is a historian of mathematics, a being with no clout. To draw a parallel: Famous recordings of great classical pieces have migrated from 45rpm records to LPs to CDs and beyond; but much audio material that is not so commercially attractive has been lost (including recordings in dying and dead languages, which linguists would love to have).

This doesn't mean that we should not publish in electronic journals; it does mean that we should only support electronic journals that take archiving seriously, and that "sell" or "give away" information rather than "renting" it. (If a publisher doubles its prices and you have to drop the journal, are you left with nothing?)

Carol Keck, Center for Creative Leadership,

[Received February 3, 1998.]

I would like to correct a statement in my submission to NOSPI No. 196. I said that MCB's Journal of Management Development was indexed by ABI/Inform, and it is not. I believe it was at one time (leading to our interest), but I am glad it is no longer. Our decision to cancel it and MCB's Journal of Organizational Change Management was made much easier because neither is indexed in ABI/Inform. Now, we no longer subscribe to any MCB journals, and I hope we will have no reason to subscribe to them in the future. At a small, special library, (or even a large, academic one), I cannot think any librarian can justify $4,949 per year subscriptions to their governing bodies. Our other management journals average $122 per year, and do not have 18-33% yearly price increases.

Our users of these journals, researchers and educators, had much input in this decision to cancel. They mostly said "It's not worth it." Hopefully, they will also quit submitting to these publications, which few of their colleagues can afford to read.

Rob Kirby, University of California, Berkeley,

[Received February 3, 1998.]

I received the following email from Nigel Stapleton, CEO of Reed Elsevier, in response to my letter of December 30, 1997. This letter is a good beginning, and I look forward to hearing from Russ White and hope for a profitable dialogue between academics and Reed Elsevier.

3 February 1998

Professor Rob Kirby
Mathematics Department
University of California
Berkeley CA 94720-8204

Dear Mr Kirby

I wanted to acknowledge the letter that you sent on 30 December to Russ White and me. I was interested to read from this letter your view of the future of maths publishing and how it relates to Reed Elsevier. I have already followed up some of the comments in your letter with Herman Spruijt, the Chief Executive of Elsevier Science. If you are agreeable I would like to leave it to Russ White -- who is far more closely involved in such issues than I could ever be -- to respond in more detail to the issues raised in your letter. I can assure you, however, that I am taking the issue seriously and will retain a close involvement to make sure that your thoughts are properly considered. I apologise for the delay in acknowledging your 30 December letter but because the address was incomplete it took a little while to reach me at our offices in London.

With best regards

Yours sincerely

Nigel Stapleton

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