Sometimes, it does take a mathematician to make us do the math. In January 2012, Timothy Gowers, a British mathematics professor at the University of Cambridge, called for a boycott of Elsevier on his personal blog. He criticized the high prices practiced by the Dutch publisher and the difficulty in finding out how much libraries are actually paying for its services, which come often entangled in bundle subscriptions. At the same time, Elsevier, as the majority of publishers, does not pay for the peer-reviewing process. Looking at all those numbers, something doesn’t add up. Gowers decided to make his voice heard. As he claimed, he was not ‘only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but (he was) saying so publicly.

Soon after, The Costs of Knowledge statement was released. 34 prestigious mathematicians joined Gower’s boycott, refusing to either submit their articles to Elsevier, referee for them, or join their editorial boards. More than a question of numbers, the Elsevier boycott was a question of principles that the mathematicians’ community represented the noblest way possible. Today, four years after the signing of the statement, more than 15 thousand researchers have joined the Elsevier boycott, and every researcher is free to do so, via The Costs of Knowledge’s website.

The alternative is to continue with the status quo, in which Elsevier harvests ever-larger profits from the work of us and our colleagues, and this is both unsustainable and unacceptable.
'The Costs of Knowledge' Statement of Purpose


Discrete Analysis

Now, Gowers has a new project in hands: the launching of Discrete Analysis mathematics’ journal. Once again, Gowers challenges the traditional publishing models, this time with a journal that is neither published nor electronically hosted but rather consists of a list of links on arXiv.

How exactly does the publication process work? Discrete Analysis will be hosted on a publishing platform called Scholastica, which is also responsible for the refereeing process. Besides, the articles in the journal will be based on the arXiv model, an electronic archive and distribution server for research articles. Gowers agrees that this model might be a novelty, but hopes ‘that in due course people will get used to this publication model, at which point the fact that Discrete Analysis is an arXiv overlay journal will no longer seem interesting or novel, and the main interest in the journal will be the mathematics it contains.

The Discrete Analysis journal represents a new model of Open Access publishing: the Diamond model, meaning that the articles are made freely available both to the reader and to the authors. The costs of running the journal will be significantly lower than those of traditional publishers. Scholastica does charge a small amount per article submission (10$ per article, 100 times less than a more conventional journal). Currently, these costs are being covered by a grant from Cambridge University, which Gowers expects to be sufficient to cover the first 500 submissions. After that, Gowers believes he will find additional funding or, worst case scenario, he will ‘have to ask people to pay an amount roughly equal to the cost of a couple of beers to submit a paper in a few years’ time.

Peer review, updates and attractive design

The articles submitted to Discrete Analysis will be subjected to a peer-review process, identically to what happens in more conventional journals. Gowers defends that the peer-review process is one of the features that distinguish this journal from a mere list of preprinted links. In addition, Discrete Analysis enriches its webpage by adding an “Editorial Introduction” to each article, therefore providing access to interesting editorial information that, in the current publishing system, never reaches the reader. The arXiv model also allows for an innovative feature: the possibility for updated versions of the articles. While in the current publishing models, an article is a rather strict final product, the arXiv model will keep the reader informed about the latest updates.
If a list of preprints makes you think of a boring website, think twice. Scholastica was responsible for the website design (Gowers says they see it as an investment), making it quite distinguishable from the majority of mathematicians’ journals: it has an attractive visual interface and enables the reader to easily explore the content without having to click on every link.

All these characteristics stressed Gower’s view that ‘the cheapness of running the journal is completely compatible with high quality. As for the articles submission criteria, Gowers does not want to put the standards so high that they cannot publish anything, but he sets the bar high enough for wanting ‘genuinely interesting papers’.
There is no doubt that the Open Science movement is growing bigger every day. Discrete Analysis is one perfect example of that. Beware greedy publishers: changes are on the way and they will definitely not be discrete.
Watch Timothy Gowers talk about the importance of Open Science and Elsevier boycott:

Discrete Analysis homepage
Gowers’s Weblog

Featured image from Scholastica

I joined United Academics team in 2015, during my Master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences, at the VU Amsterdam. By that time, I was starting to realize that, more than planning scientific experiments, I was interested in understanding how science evolved and where it is going. After joining United Academics, it became clearer that open access must be the path for science advancement. In 2016, I became United Academics's editor-in-chief.