What Discrete Analysis says (and doesn’t say) about the future of academic journals
This news is a bit old, but the recent announcement by Timothy Gowers on the formation of the journal Discrete Analysis provides an interesting glimpse into what the future of academic publishing might look like. Aside from one key feature, it seems to be a perfectly ordinary academic journal; it will have an ISSN, its articles will have DOIs, it will feature a fairly traditional refereeing process, and already has a (very prestigious) list of editors. The difference? The journal will be an arXiv overlay journal, meaning that all of the journal’s content will be hosted on the popular Open Access pre-print archive arXiv.org.
This means that costs for the journal are kept exceptionally low. Gowers predicts that each article will cost the journal about $10 to produce, most of which will go towards the management of the peer review process via Scholastica. The typesetting, copy editing, and hosting, though, will all be out of the journal’s hands, resulting in a very minimalist operation. As Gowers says in the journal’s announcement:
…if you trust authors to do their own typesetting and copy-editing to a satisfactory standard, with the help of suggestions from referees, then the cost of running a mathematics journal can be at least two orders of magnitude lower than the cost incurred by traditional publishers.
Discrete Analysis seeks then to address one of the issues at the core of the Open Access movement: how can OA publishing be made sustainable? No matter what, it has seemed, either authors or libraries are going to have to pay for OA somehow. If Discrete Analysis is successful, it may prove to be a new model for sustainable scholarly publishing, albeit on a smaller scale.
It is important not to get too worked up over this, though. The uniqueness of the scholarly publishing process in mathematics plays into the suitability of this model quite a bit. Content on arXiv is largely formatted using TeX or LaTeX, a markup language designed specifically for (among other things) typesetting mathematics. Many established mathematics journals, in fact, provide authors with TeX/LaTeX templates for article submission. A natural result of this is that pre-prints prepared using this method often look fairly close to published journal articles.
It also feels that researchers in mathematics are less phased by issues that would be fixed by a traditional copyediting process. Their mentality has always seemed to be that, if the logic behind an argument is sound, the reader should be able to fill in the gaps and dissect any leaps of logic that may occur. For these reasons, the model that Discrete Analysis plans to follow is one that may not be suitable for other subject areas. It will be very interesting, though, to keep an eye on this journal and to see if any others pop up based on this model or if any existing journals begin to shift towards this sort of model in the future.