Math as a social medium, part 1

The Commercial Dispatch, a regional newspaper based in Columbus, MS — hometown of Tennessee Williams — reviewed my book yesterday.  With a review (and a reviewer) like that, I wish the Dispatch had a circulation greater than the 14000 claimed on Wikipedia.  The reviewer’s attention to my outline of the sociology of the profession reminds me that I have been meaning to explain how my (sociological) Chapter 2 was influenced by the Elsevier boycott, launched in early 2012 by Timothy Gowers.

A quick search of the relevant literature indicates that the Elsevier boycott has been mentioned prominently in several articles published in journals that specialize in scientific communication, for example in this article on Open Access and the role of Brazilian universities (but most of the article is relevant to universities anywhere).  The editors of the new journal Confero, based in Sweden and devoted to “issues related to education and social criticism,” chose to introduce their first issue with a brief account of the Elsevier boycott:

In sociological terms, the opposition between Gowers and Elsevier could be thought of as an inherent conflict between work and capital. Currently, the channels for communicating research are not owned by the ones that produce them. That global publishing companies are in the quest for financial return should hardly come as a surprise. What is at stake here is nothing less then the on-going commodification of research and research results.

The editors go on to evoke the “entrepreneurial mindset” that I have often mentioned on this blog, in quite vivid terms:

Having outsourced essential aspects of the valuation of knowledge to blind bureaucratic regimes of quality assurance, it is arguable if scholars can be seen as a profession at all.

The editors of Confero seem to agree with me that the Elsevier boycott is an exemplary incident in the persistent conflict between the academic profession and the economic system in which it is embedded.  But as far as I know (and I may be wrong), the incident has not been analyzed for its relevance to the sociology of mathematics — except briefly, and unprofessionally, near the end of my Chapter 2.

My own involvement in the Elsevier boycott was modest; I helped publicize it in France and I took part in the discussions that led to the publication (in several languages) of this Statement of Purpose.  These discussions helped confirm one of the main theses of Chapter 2, namely that a hierarchy of values is largely constitutive of the practice of pure mathematics.  In a subsequent post I’ll explain how this played out in later discussions on alternative models of scientific publication.


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