There's been a rebellion, not with pitchforks but pocket calculators. The nine members of the editorial board of the Oxford University-based mathematics journal Topology have signed a letter expressing their intention to resign on December 31. They cited the price of the journal as well as the general pricing policies of their publisher, Elsevier, as having "a significant and damaging effect on Topology's reputation in the mathematical research community."
The subscription cost of journals can be difficult to determine, since institutions often subscribe to many periodicals in a single bundle. But according to Elsevier's Web site, in 2007 the cost of a single year (six issues) of Topology, in all countries except Europe and Japan, will be $100 for individuals and $1,665 for institutions.
Founded through the vision of the Oxford topologist J.H.C. Whitehead in mid-century, Topology has an "illustrious history" with "some of the greatest names of 20th century mathematics" among its editorial and honorary advisory editorial board members, the editors wrote in their resignation letter, dated August 10. "Elsevier's policies towards the publication of mathematics research have undermined this legacy."
A company spokesman, David Ruth, replied, "Elsevier regrets the decision taken by the editorial board of Topology, but we believe it doesn't fully reflect the changes we have made over the past decade, and continue to make, which have moderated price increases and provided considerably more value for customers, in terms of both cost per article and research efficiency."
Board resignations have occurred at other Elsevier publications, such as the Journal of Logic Programming and the Journal of Algorithms, and also at a variety of other publishers such as Kluwer and Taylor and Francis. Of the Topology resignations, Mr. Ruth said, "Considering that Elsevier publishes more than 1800 journals, this still constitutes a pretty rare occurrence."
Topology is the study of the qualitative geometry of shape and form. Not concerned with size, area, or volume, topologists are interested in what form something takes. Whether two knots, for example, are the same or different does not depend on their size. Topology has applications in areas such as theoretical physics, in studying the shape and structure of the universe.
The journal Topology covers topics such as global Riemannian geometry, homotopy theory, Lie Groups, and complex manifolds. It's unlikely to ever reach wide circulation, like that of Time or Newsweek, but experts in these areas of mathematics are likely to read the journal.
Mr. Ruth said investment in electronic distribution and online tools means "that Topology is actually available today to more people than ever before."
One editor of Topology, John Roe, whose specialty is the relation between geometry and differential equations, said the rising cost of journals has concerned academics, not just mathematicians, for a long time.
To those who favor free online access to scholarship, mass resignations of editors are "declarations of independence," a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College, Peter Suber, said. Usually, he said, an editorial board "has a long track record of failed negotiations with their publisher. The typical scenario is the editors resign, form a new journal at a lower price, and the old journal hires new editors."
A Lehigh University mathematics professor, Donald Davis, who moderates an online algebraic topology discussion list, said, "University library budgets are no longer adequate to subscribe to all the journals they used to." The Head Librarian of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences Library at New York University, Carol Hutchins, said, "The degree of choice is shrinking" and cited reasons such as the consolidation of publishing firms.
"Elsevier's prices are very high," said an emerita mathematics professor at Barnard College, Joan Birman, who resigned a few years ago from the board of an Elsevier journal, Topology and Its Applications. She said her feeling was, "We do the work, we check each other, we referee the articles, edit and typeset them and send them to the publisher, which slaps them between two covers and charges a huge amount."
A professor at New York University, Sylvain Cappell, who is an editor of Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics, published by John Wiley & Sons with the Courant Institute, said in addition to bundled subscriptions, journals have complex subsidiary rights and other concerns: "You would need a staff as large as the publishing houses to keep track of that."
Mr. Ruth said: "In considering the price of journals, it is important to recognize the investment and value provided by publishers: in managing the peer review system that is essential to fostering scientific excellence; in preparing articles for publication; in hosting articles online and disseminating them globally; and in preserving authors' work as part of the permanent scientific record."
Mr. Cappell said tension is created by other modes of information distribution becoming available now: "In an age of email, people are likely to resent getting higher bills from the Pony Express." Indeed, there is a larger issue of how scientific information will be transmitted in the future. The noted Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman published his solution to the Poincaré conjecture in an open access online archive, not in a peer-reviewed print journal.
The higher a journal price becomes, Mr. Suber said, the more its audience is limited, the fewer citations it receives, thus lowering its "impact factor" and prestige in the field.
What will the board do next? An editor at Topology and Oxford professor, Marc Lackenby, declined to speculate: "Until December 31, we are employed by the journal and our allegiance is to it."