I normally don’t write about academic politics, but today I found myself challenged by them. It all started with the joint resignation of the whole editorial board of Topology and a post in Tim Gowers blog. To cut a long story short, there is this science publisher called Elsevier which owns many very good journals and also some really bad ones. Their practices include overpricing, bundling… and more things you can read in Gowers blog. Just to give you an idea, is like if you go to buy bananas (you love bananas, everyone does) and the guy at the grocery store tells you that you cannot take them with you if you don’t buy also some apples that you hate, some kiwis that you are allergic to, and some things that you’ve never seen before in your life but that he swears they are fruit. And you would go somewhere else to buy your bananas  but it seems he is the only one selling bananas in town. And because he has being doing that for decades there is no other grocery that people trust enough to sell the bananas to the final customers. Change the fruits for journals and articles and you have Elsevier. Quite close to Syndicate tactiques… Can something be done?

Some people thought enough is enough and created a sort of public commitment declaration to boycott Elsevier including not publishing, peer-reviewing or joining Editorial Boards of Journals own by Elsevier. In principle it seems like a good idea. Let alone the moral stand: Our university is facing cuts in research budget (for seminars, travelling, even teaching) every year for the last three. Giving money to a company whose only effort is some secretary work, printing books and running a website making over 20% of benefit a year seems wrong. Especially if we take in account that there are lots of academics behind, funded by public bodies and usually Governments, doing most of the work for free. What’s more, paying for it, since these universities and research centres are the ones which pay for the journals.

So I was all ready to sign and commit and then I stopped and thought: What if when I have a paper ready (and I almost do) it turns out that the appropriate place for publishing it is an Elsevier journal? Or if I write something with my supervisor and he says ‘we will try to publish it in this journal’ that is Elsevier? How do I tell him no?

It is hard to commit to this when one is not established enough. And that is why Elsevier is still there. It uses the status quo. We need his bananas. We need to buy the bananas directly from the producers. A boycott is good, but it needs strategy.

Last week I’ve been in a Winter School and one of the students I talked to said he did not care at all about this. If he was aware that the money saved could go into his benefit maybe his point of view would change.

For a start we need alternatives for those who are young. And the community can get organised easily. Possible steps are:

  1. Contacting the members of Elsevier Journal editorial boards to lobby Elsevier to change its policy or resign, with a deadline for change to happen, including at the very least the end of bundling and reducing the prices of the journals. This should be done by senior, well-established mathematicians. It is enough to convince one member to discuss it with the others to get the snowball moving.
  2. A database (a wiki in wikia would be enough) with alternatives to each of the journals of Elsevier (similar subject, similar impact factor). This would help young researchers to find alternatives. It is easy to set it up, but to fill it in is harder.
  3. An easy way of creating alternative journals for each of those that Elsevier is willing to lose before they agree to change their policy. I think the Journal of Topology is the way to go. In case they have doubts they may not the impact factor was doubled after the change. It is necessary to contact alternative publishers who are reasonable is a good idea.
  4. Some incentive for those who behave like mushrooms to take action (I’m not sure what this incentive would be).

Any more ideas?