Written: Jan. 29, 2012
I have always admired Tim Gowers for his great depth, breadth, and initiative, and for sharing his usually great insights in his rightfully celebrated blog.
In a recent post, Tim Gowers is proposing a boycott against the commercial publisher Elsevier. I agree that Elsevier should be boycotted, but it would be really hypocritical to only boycott Elsevier. The statement 15+24=24+15 is a true statement, but it would be misleading to only publish a paper proving that theorem, rather than proving the much more general theorem a+b=b+a, and pointing out that the former statement is but a corollary of the latter.
So, Tim, I will gladly join you in the boycott, if you would join me in my already unofficial boycott against all subscription journals (both electronic and print). All my single-authored papers only go to my own free electronic Journal as well as to the most important "journal" that exists today, arxiv.org. [And sometimes also to solicited volumes in honor, or memory, of good friends.] For obvious reasons, papers co-authored with collaborators who are not yet tenured, or fully promoted, still have to be submitted to "real", "peer"-reviewed journals, that charge an arm and a leg. For example, the very mediocre "Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society" charges $758.40 per ONE volume (see this page) from individuals who are not affilated with an institution. I don't know how much an individual subscription (for non-affiliated people) to MathSciNet costs, but I am sure that it is a good amount.
Of course, no one in their right mind would pay these prices from their own pocket. Most papers published in "real" journals (usually at least two years after they are submitted) already exist either in the arxiv, or the authors' website (easily found by google), often in both places. "Peer"-reviewed, "anonymous-referee", journals are a thing of the past, that in an ideal world, would already perish. Of course, "we" still wear suits and ties (the collective we, personally I don't), so the demise of journals will take awhile, but it would be counterproductive to "pick" on one specific, commercial, publisher, rather than try to combat the whole system.
And beware of "non-profit" official societies. They are just as greedy as commercial publishers, often more so. The Joint Mathematical Meetings have exponentially grown in recent years, but the quality of the invited talks (and attendance in these talks) has also declined exponentially. It seems that the American Mathematical Society (and to a lesser extent AMM and SIAM) only cares about the "bottom line". They would only publish a book for which they expect to make a profit. In other words, they are just as "sleazy" as Elsevier, but in addition they are hypocritical.
In the past, commercial publishers did a great job in increasing mathematical knowledge and diversity. "Official" journals by "official" societies like the AMS, tend to publish the same-old currently mainstream research, that would soon (and in quite a few cases, is already) be made obsolete with computers. I have recently witnessed the narrow-mindedness of an AMS journal. The innovative article, (more interesting that 99% of the articles published there) by my student Andrew Baxter and myself, was rejected by the Proc. of the Amer. Math. Soc. Luckily, Andrew Baxter kindly agreed to only publish it in our websites and the arxiv, and I solicited nine expert referees who wrote non-anonymous reports, that make obvious both its formal correctness and its significance. In principle, one can also ask for non-solicited reports or reviews, and offer monetary prizes for detecting errors. This would be much more reliable than the currently dysfunctional anonymous refereeing system, that is very unreliable.
And indeed, that's the way to go. Using authors' appointed non-anonymous referees, and only publishing in the two most important places, the authors' websites and arxiv.org, so please join me in boycotting (to the extent possible) ALL "peer"-reviewed journals, especially those who are not free, not just those published by one publisher, who is admittedly greedy, but not-as-greedy as many so-called "non-profit" ossified institutional journals.