Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Diamond Forever

Recently, the academic community started to fight back against traditional academic publishers, who earn large profits without any longer providing many clear services.  The internet has been a great tool for taking care of such inefficiencies, and it's quickly disrupting the publishing market as well.

Having thought a bit about these issues myself, I wanted to summarize my views of some of the various publishing models (as described by Tim Gowers) under consideration, as well as the pros and cons of each.  It's possible, even likely, that I am missing something, so feel free to point it out in the comments.

The Systems


screenshot, after I tried to access a paper from nature.com

system: Researchers send manuscripts to publishers. Publishers have volunteer editorial boards consisting of researchers who decide whether to accept/reject manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts are published but cannot be accessed without a paid subscription to the given journal. Authors lose most (or all) rights to their own work.

who wins: publishers, by charging for access

who loses: university libraries and therefore scientists who pay for it with overhead; the public, who doesn't get access to the research their taxes likely funded; authors, who cannot easily have their research read and used.

opinion: This system made some sense before the internet era, where there were few other good ways to disseminate research. The publishers used to have to work hard for their profits by doing serious formatting/printing/publishing work. With the internet, all of this is now done by the authors, and the closed-access system no longer makes sense.


system: Same as closed-access, except that authors are allowed to put their accepted manuscripts on their websites and onto online repositories such as the arXiv.

who wins: publishers, by charging for access; researchers who put their papers online

who loses: basically same as closed-access, except for the authors who put their papers online

opinion: This is the system most journals are now on, or at least they usually don't go after scientists who keep their papers online. This is strictly better than closed-access, but doesn't go far enough. Too many scientists do not put their papers on their websites or arXiv. There is still no guarantee that science will be public, as it should be.


a screenshot of the new gold-access math journal

system: Researchers send manuscripts to publishers. Publishers have volunteer editorial boards consisting of researchers who decide whether to accept/reject manuscripts. Authors of accepted manuscripts pay to have their work published but published manuscripts are freely accessible to everyone online.

who wins: the public, who can access research for free. the publishers, who still get paid (but not as much)

who loses: the authors, who have to pay (usually large sums) to have their work published. universities, which might need to subsidize the fees. quality (see below).

opinion: I think adopting this system would be a mistake. First, scientists are the ones doing the work, the editing, and the main contributions -- it seems unfair to make them pay as well. Researchers without grants or university support would have to use their personal funds. Moreover, I think this would seriously impact paper quality.  In this system, journals would make money by accepting more papers as opposed to getting more readers, and some authors may have incentives to pad their CVs. I cannot see how this wouldn't go wrong.


the journal of machine learning research, image from their website

system: Researchers send manuscripts to publishers. Publishers have volunteer editorial boards consisting of researchers who decide whether to accept/reject manuscripts. Authors of accepted manuscripts have their work published for free and published manuscripts are freely accessible to everyone online.

who wins: scientists, who can publish for free and have their papers read. the public, who can access research freely. universities, who do not have to pay for journal access. research quality.

who loses: publishers, who cannot any longer charge for anything

opinion: This is the best of all worlds. Everyone seems to win, and research quality especially wins because nobody makes a profit from publishing bad results.  The only problem is that the publishers lose, and why would anyone run a journal without making a profit?

A Solution

Diamond-access is the best system for everyone, except for the publishers.  However, publishers need incentives to run a journal, which they wouldn't have in a diamond access system.  Now, becoming a publisher would involve operating at a loss.  So who should take the hit?

One obvious solution is for universities to publish (or pay for publishing) journals.  They would make a sacrifice in maintaining the journals for free, but what would they win? Quite a lot actually.  Were we do switch to this system, university libraries would no longer have to pay subscription fees to journals, and the university professors wouldn't have to pay to have their work published.  And the quality of publications wouldn't suffer.   Some of this cost could even be handled by overhead.

Yale's library (from wiki), where I not once went to do research during my Ph.D.

But what is the cost of running a diamond access publication?  Well, it turns out to be very small.  With pdfs online, there's really no need to publish paper proceedings.  I don't think I've ever gone to a library to find an article on paper -- pretty much nobody does these days.  So, all you need to do is register a domain and pay for some maintenance and hosting.  The rest of the work is done by volunteers.  Looking at the financial statement (of which I learned from Google+) of the Journal of Computational Geometry, it could take as little as $10 per year.  Heck, we don't really need universities to pay for it.

Yes, it really costs very little to run a journal these days if you do it right.  There's no need for readers, or authors, to pay huge sums to middle-men.


  1. I agree with all of the above. Why do you think the new Forum of Mathematics journals need so much money to operate? $750 seems incredibly excessive for an online-only journal

  2. While it's considerably less than Springer's $3000 fee, I don't really see how it can be justified. I think that, in the end, Cambridge University Press is a for-profit company, and it's tempting to justify using the money for people's salaries, building maintenance, etc. It's also harder for CUP to get resources donated than for a University. Perhaps the real cost really is close to $750 per article (given it has to be hosted indefinitely and it's hard to predict the future), but I still don't think the authors should be paying the fee directly.

  3. Correction -- CUP is not-for-profit (or rather its profits go to the university). But I don't think this changes much.

  4. I used to be a strong proponent of diamond access, but recently I've softened a bit and believe the ACM model is actually a decent compromise. ACM is a well-run non-profit organization with a good digital library that is inexpensive compared to most publishers. Authors retain rights to post copies on their own website (green access) and also to link to the full official version in the ACM digital library (see ACM Authorizer service) -- a sort of greenish-gold access model. The money goes to ACM to support the computing community, and some of the money goes to the Special Interest Group (e.g., SIGACT) that published the paper, to support the specialist research community (e.g., the CS theory community).

    I worry a bit about the longevity of online-only journals. How wonderful is it to be able to read a paper from a century ago? Are you sure that the papers in the Journal of Computational Geometry will be accessible in 100 years? What institution is invested enough to ensure that? I trust the longevity of ACM more. I agree that universities would be another natural, trustworthy, stable institution to serve as publishers -- I like your idea. I'm not sure if potential conflicts of interest might arise when authors and publishers come from the same institution(s).

    I do also think that the quality of papers goes down when authors are responsible for everything -- writing, typesetting, citation format, etc. Some amount of editing is actually quite valuable. Note however the ACM model does not generally include editing either.

  5. Thanks for your comment. ACM isn't bad, and in my view better than gold access models, but I hope we can do better.

    I'm not very worried about the papers being around in 100 years, but I agree it needs to be thought about. I imagine some solutions could include conferences forcing their proceedings to be posted to arXiv, or even conference/journal acceptances just being arXiv tags (I think this idea comes from Doron Zeilberger, partly in jest). I'm certainly not worried about arXived papers being around, and the centralization could make things more efficient.

  6. I don't quite see either what value journals provide, but I can imagine that long-term archiving is one of them. Assuming there is some benefit to devoting significant resources toward running the journal, the Gold Model (which is essentially the model of conferences that require an author register and attend) seems like it would be better than the current semi-closed system. it would also make sense to me for the research institutions that are already providing salaries and offices to the "volunteers" to get together and create or fund their own "publishers". So fundamentally the same funding situation as now, except the material is also open-access.

  7. Sorry "Unknown" was me.

  8. @Aaron I think that apart from longevity, journals provide the very valuable service of peer-reviewing long articles. While many ideas can be proven in the short space of a conference article, some cannot be. I definitely appreciate when an author takes the time and effort required to completely describe a result. This is especially important for very intricate proofs and ideas. As a result, journal versions of articles are, in my opinion, much more useful to the scientific community in the long run.

    That being said, I agree with Lev and many others in that the journal system is very dated.