Beyond Journals

The electronic era of publishing presents an opportunity to move far beyond merely adapting the current journal model.  In my September, 2011 column in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, I noted that, of the four original benefits offered by traditional journals — enhancement, dissemination,archiving, and validation — in the electronic era only the last remains: validation of the correctness, originality, and status of papers, thereby validation of its authors’ status for hiring, promotion, grant funding, salary, etc.  However, not all fields remain in thrall to the journal system, and status in areas such as computer vision, cryptography, and computer algebra relies nowadays primarily on prestigious conference proceedings.
In the column, I propose, as a possible alternative to journal validation, establishing a “Michelin Guide” to mathematical works on the internet.  Thus, one’s vita might contain 5 one-star, 3 two-star, and one very rare three-star “Mathelin” rated paper, as evaluated by the Guide’s referees.  Moreover, unlike journals, Mathelin ratings can well be time-varying.  One can even envision a variety of general purpose Guides, with competing ratings, as well as specialized Guides that convey status within a particular field.  What is less clear is how such a system could be practically instituted, although it is worth noting that a large amount of money is now being fed to commercial publishers from libraries and institutions worldwide, and even diverting even a small fraction would easily support the running and compensated refereeing of such a Guide.
Related proposals include Stefan Müller’s that internet-based journals be overlays of the arXiv, where posted preprints can be submitted and refereed.  Once accepted, no additional publication would be required, but the paper would then carry the imprimatur of the overlay journal and be listed therein.   Timothy Gowers, in an earlier (12.12.2011) comment on this blog, points to his proposal to implement a system “something like a cross between the arXiv, a social networking site, Amazon book reviews, and Mathoverflow”, detailing its advantages over traditional validation based on unpublished, anonymous referee reports.  As I state in my column: “The time is ripe for a radical rethinking of the traditional academic model for scholarly communication within mathematics.  …  If we are not properly engaged, the future will be decided for us and, almost certainly, will not be to our liking.”

Peter J. Olver