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Journal presents a mathematical conundrum

Nature volume 448, pages 846847 (23 August 2007) | Download Citation

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Strife proves hard to solve for K-theory.

A branch of mathematics known as K-theory has this month seen its flagship journal bifurcate in a strange dispute, the details of which were still emerging as Nature went to press.

The events centre on Anthony Bak, a mathematician at the University of Bielefeld in Germany and until recently managing editor of the Springer journal K-Theory. Bak left the monthly journal, due, he says, to production problems and a too-high subscription rate. He has arranged to launch a rival title with another publisher that has offered a lower subscription rate, in the process shedding some editors unhappy at how the shift has been managed.

In seeking to cut prices, the editors follow the lead of the editorial board of the Elsevier mathematics journal Topology, which quit to launch a competing non-profit title (see Nature 445, 351; 2007).

The cover date of the last issue of the supposedly monthly K-Theory was April 2006. Bak has withheld all papers accepted by the journal since then — a situation that not all of the editors, or the papers' authors, seem to have been aware of until recently.

In January 2007, the publisher sacked Bak. That month Bak wrote to his editorial board members asking them to resign en masse, which they did. As well as the cost of the journal, he mentioned production problems at Springer. But he neglected to tell Springer of the resignations. “At no point did Bak communicate to Springer directly that the board had resigned,” says Catriona Byrne, editorial director for mathematics at Springer.

It was only in May that Springer learned that the board had resigned. In August, Bak announced publicly that he had arranged to launch a rival title, the Journal of K-Theory, with Cambridge University Press at a lower subscription rate. Springer has now said that it will lower the K-Theory subscription rate.

“There is a lot of concern in the mathematics community about the cost of journals”

Eric Friedlander at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a former editor at K-Theory, is in principle sympathetic to the switch. “There is a lot of concern in the mathematics community about the cost of journals,” he says. But on 17 August, Friedlander wrote to Bak to say that despite being named as a member of the editorial board of the new journal, he was not willing to serve “because I cannot endorse the process by which you have withheld manuscripts submitted to K-Theory and proceeded without consultation with authors and the editorial board”.

One of the editors who resigned, Andrew Ranicki of the University of Edinburgh, UK, has returned to the Springer journal. He and mathematician Wolfgang Lück of the University of Münster, Germany, issued a statement on 13 August to say that they would act as interim managing editors for the journal.

Bak launched K-Theory in the 1980s and ran it successfully for many years. He became increasingly unhappy after Springer acquired the journal through its merger with Kluwer Academic Publishers in 2004. Bak says that the editorial board agreed in 2004 to consider moving to a different publisher.

Byrne admits there were some teething problems, but says these were being or had been dealt with. She adds that Bak failed to send sufficient manuscripts to fill the journal and that those he did send arrived erratically, creating difficulties with the workflow. Bak confirms that after April 2006 he stopped sending Springer the manuscripts passed on to him by K-Theory's other editors.

Friedlander is uncomfortable that papers were held up: “Our responsibility is to review mathematics that is submitted to us and disseminate it.” Lück calls it “a scandal”.

Another former editor says they understood the backlog at Springer to have been so bad that the withholding of the papers would have made little difference to when they appeared. Byrne says: “This is definitely a misconception.”

Lück and Ranicki have asked authors to contact them if they have papers accepted by K-Theory that they want to be published in the journal. Meanwhile, Bak has offered authors publication in the new Journal of K-Theory.

K-theory, which is concerned with the algebraic properties of space, has had some high-profile moments. One major contributor to the field, Hyman Bass of the University of Michigan, received a US National Medal of Science on 27 July. But K-theory remains a relatively small discipline, which does not need more than one dedicated journal.

For this reason, Ranicki and Lück said on 17 August that they will not try to continue K-Theory, but deal only with the papers that have already been accepted.

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