Notices AMS 49, May 2002, No. 5, p. 541.
The system for publishing
mathematical articles should be reformed
and the new system should resemble,
on the economic side, the bottled water industry.
My main theses are: (i) the results of
the mathematical research
should be available to the public just like
tap water, (ii) the role of the commercial
(and non-commercial) publishers should
be to sell an upgraded version of the product
(``bottled water''), and (iii)
only a coordinated action
of big and powerful institutions (i.e., universities
and the government) can bring about the change
to the system.
The advent of electronic databases and the Internet
changed the economics of mathematics publishing.
In the past, a mathematical paper used to be sold only
once, on paper. Recently commercial (and not
only commercial) journal publishers started
collecting journal articles in their private databases.
Then they started selling access to their databases---an
article can now be sold an unlimited number of times
over an indefinite period.
Electronic databases have a huge technical advantage
over paper versions of journals---they offer
search facilities unparalleled by anything one
can possibly do with paper copies.
results do not compete with each other the way
various models of automobiles do---a mathematician
must have access to all known results in the field
to be efficient and competitive. Hence,
universities cannot choose between various publishers---they
have to subscribe to all major journals
This gives the publisher of a journal the monopoly power,
even if the company owns only a small proportion of the
scientific literature in the field.
As a result,
some journal prices are outrageous.
The emergence of commercial electronic databases only
aggravated the situation.
Mathematical articles should
be made available to the public in the same way the
water is. Public money is used to provide
safe and cheap drinking water to most people.
Companies selling bottled water exploit the fact that
many people are willing to pay a premium price
for bottled water for various reasons---taste,
portability, etc. People have a choice---to drink
tap water, provided free or almost free at many
locations, or pay an extra fee for extra value.
The public and private universities, and the
government should create databases for mathematical
papers in their least refined form. The
is an example of such a database. The articles deposited
there are not refereed. They are available
in several electronic formats but the typesetting
is only as good as the author chooses it to be.
This is equivalent to tap water. The universities
and the government should make it mandatory
for mathematicians supported in any way by
salaries or grants to deposit their articles
in one of such databases.
Journal publishers should be in business of selling
``bottled water,'' i.e., the enhanced version
of research articles. The enhancements would include
elegant typesetting and linking to other articles,
If the new system is implemented, one might
expect that the journal prices would go down.
The price of bottled water
cannot be too high, as long as everyone has access
to tap water.
The new proposed system
would work only if the universities had a
choice to opt out and cancel subscriptions
to commercial publisher databases. But this
will be a realistic possibility only when the free, university
and government supported databases of articles
in their raw form are complete. One cannot
expect that voluntary submissions of some articles
by some researchers would make a difference.
An appeal to the universities
to create free databases and an appeal
to the mathematicians to deposit their
manuscripts in them will have little effect even
if a small but non-negligible proportion
of researchers ignore it.
The universities and the government agencies
such as the National Science Foundation have
a legitimate claim to ownership
of the mathematical results as they are the organizations
who pay for the research. They should make
it mandatory for the mathematicians to submit
their preprints to free public databases in the
final (revised) form before transmitting them to the publishers
My proposal is far from a new camouflaged form
of taxation in which the government takes away
from mathematicians the fruits of their labor. It is much
closer to the government imposed and enforced
traffic laws---even extreme libertarians
might approve traffic lights. I believe that
all mathematicians would be happy to distribute
their theorems for free to all other mathematicians
and to the general public. Many mathematicians send
their recent results to their colleagues as paper
preprints or electronic files, post their articles
on their personal Web pages or deposit them in public
archives. The current system is chaotic with the result
that for most articles, the access is free
only to a limited number of people and only for a limited
amount of time. Only a government action could introduce
the order in the system and assure the permanent free access
to all of mathematical literature for everyone.
Department of Mathematics, University of Washington,
Seattle, WA 98195