I thought that I more or less exhausted the topic of T. Gowers's mathematics and politics. I turned out to be wrong. The only aspect of Gowers's (quasi-)political activity which I supported was the initiated by him and supported by him boycott of Elsevier, the most predatory scientific publisher; namely the "Cost of Knowledge boycott". I had some reservations about the tactics (why Elsevier only, for example?), but felt that they are concerned with secondary issues and that the motives of Gowers are pure.
Well, in early July T. Tao published in his blog post "Forum of Mathematics, Pi and Forum of Mathematics, Sigma", which shed a lot of light on this political campaign. Further details were provided by T. Gowers himself in "A new open-access venture from Cambridge University Press".
It turned out that Gowers is also behind a project to establish a new electronic mathematical journal, or rather a system of new electronic journals, which will directly compete with the best existing journals, for example, with "Annals of Mathematics", which is usually regarded as simply the best one. In the words of T. Gowers:
"Thus, Pi papers will be at the level of leading general mathematics journals and will be an open-access alternative to them. Discussion is still going on about what precisely this means, but it looks as though the aim will probably be for Pi to be a serious competitor for Annals, Inventiones, the Journal of the AMS and the like."
Out of mentioned three journals, only the "Inventiones Mathematicae" (published by the second biggest scientific publisher after Reed-Elsevier, namely, Springer) is expensive. "Annals of Mathematics" is very cheap by any standards, and at the same time the most prestigious. One may suspect that it is subsidized by Princeton University, but I don't know. Why does it need any competition?
There is a buzz-word here: open access. Even the "Gold Open Access", which sounds great (this is what the buzz-words are for). Indeed, these journals are planned to be open for the readers, everybody will be able to download papers. But somebody is needed to pay at the very least for running a website, databases, for the servers. The "Gold" means that the authors pay. It is suggested that publishing an article in these "open" journals will cost the author $750.00 in current dollars, and the amount will be adjusted for inflation later. In order to attract authors, during the first three years this charge will be waived. Note that any new journal initially publishes mostly articles by the personal friends of the members of the editorial board; they will get a free ride. Gowers considers these three years free ride being really good news; I disagree and consider it to be a cheap trick to help launching his new journal(s).
I believe that it completely wrong to charge authors for publication. In the real world it is the authors who are paid if they done something good, be it a novel, a movie, or a painting. And what they will be paying for in this internet age? Not for the distribution of their papers, as before. Posting a paper at the ArXiv does this more efficiently than any journal. They will be paying for the prestige of the journal, i.e. for a line in CV which may increase their chances to get a good job, a salary raise, etc. This will introduce a new type of corruption into the mathematical community.
The idea of "gold open access" is very popular in the bio-medical sciences. If you work in a bio-med area, you need a big grant paying for your lab, equipment, lab technicians, etc. Adding to these huge costs only $750.00 per article is hardly noticeable (in fact, standard price for gold open access there is between two and three thousands depending on publisher). But mathematics is different. It is a cheap science. A lot of good mathematicians do not have any grants (about two thirds by an NSF estimate). In the current financial and political climate one cannot expect that their employers (the universities, except, perhaps, for a dozen of truly exceptional researches) will pay for publications. And $750.00 is not a negligible amount for a university professor, not to say about a graduate student.
I must mention that the idea of charging the author for the publication was realized in the past by some journals in the form of "page charges". The amount was proportional to the number of pages, since the typesetting costs were proportional; nowadays typesetting is done by the authors (which is, in fact, a hidden cost of publishing a paper), and only final touches are done by the publisher. Such journals existed about 30-something years ago. The author was never responsible for the payment, and if there was nobody to pay (no grant, the university has no such line in the budget) the paper was published anyhow. Still, the idea was abandoned in favor of the traditional publishing model: the one who wants to read a journal, pays for it. Exactly like in a grocery store: if you want an apple, then you pay for it, and not the farmer growing apple trees.
I believe that this idea of charging the authors for publications is much more morally reprehensible than anything done by Elsevier and is a sufficient ground for boycotting this Tao-Gowers initiative.
But this is not all...
Next post: The twist ending 2. A Cambridge don.