The blogosphere has been abuzz lately with news of the boycott against Elsevier and its unexpectedly quick impact. Indeed, the fact that the Research Works Act was shelved is a triumph for the forces of good.
It’s hard to not to catch the revolutionary fervor, but I do want to raise several points. The boycott is led by a stellar group of mathematicians who, generally speaking, individually satisfy at least one of the two following properties:
- Being Tenured. Or winning the Fields Medal. Typically both.
- Working in fields where Elsevier journals are not considered essential. For example, the statement of purpose of the “Cost of Knowledge” initiative mentions several top mathematics journals, and says that “none of Elsevier’s mathematics journals is generally considered comparable in quality to these journals.” A similar situation exists in theoretical computer science, where as far as I know the top journal among the ones published by Elsevier is the Journal of Computer and System Sciences (JCSS).
In contrast, here is my point of view:
- I am untenured. Very much so. In fact, when I joined CMU half a year ago I received a formal letter from the department that so far I have 0 years of service, and therefore my tenure decision will be made in 2020. Rub it in, why don’t you?
- I work in fields where Elsevier journals are held in high regard. The journal Artificial Intelligence (AIJ), published since 1970, is generally considered to be the most important journal in AI (but see below regarding JAIR). In economics, Games and Economic Behavior (GEB) is the premier game theory journal, and historically has played a crucial role in facilitating the interaction between computer science and economics.
So an obvious conclusion from 1 and 2 is that the professional cost varies across different people, but this is a minor issue — point 1 is just my self-deprecating humor at work. The point I want to focus on is this: it is difficult, perhaps even morally “wrong”, to boycott Elsevier if you work in a field that has been significantly advanced by journals that happen to be published by Elsevier. It’s not only the historical aspect, it’s also the many great people who have invested their time and effort in these journals.
Therefore, I think the current initiative, by its nature, would have to exclude many fields. So what should we do? AI is an interesting case study. AIJ’s main competitor is the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research (JAIR), published since 1993, which nowadays is comparable in prestige although perhaps still a notch below AIJ. Notably, JAIR is an open access journal. The rise of JAIR has inevitably made its mark on AIJ, which since 2008 has had a rather impressive open access policy. First, all articles become free after four years. Second, anyone can gain immediate access to all articles by signing up (for free) as an “IJCAI associate”. It seems though that someone (AAAI?) is picking up (some?) of the tab for the latter policy.
I think everyone agrees that open access will be the norm soon; the only question is how soon (two years? five? ten?), and whether it would happen “naturally” through new open access journals and initiatives. The zeitgeist is Facebook’s motto of “move fast and break things”. An interesting recent article in the New York Times contrasted this approach with Bell Labs’, whose motto might have been “move deliberately and build things”. You get the point. (OK, this paragraph reads like I’m 90.)
One example of the constructive approach (which no doubt was brought about by the boycott) is the Federal Research Public Access Act, which “proposes to make manuscripts reporting on federally funded research publicly available within six months of publication in a journal.” A petition supporting the bill is available. Apparently if the petition gets 25,000 signatures by March 10, it will be reviewed by President Obama. After I signed it on Saturday it had 799 signatures, and now it has 898, so there is a chance of reaching the astronomical number of ONE THOUSAND signatures. Hold on… Bummer.