We have met the enemy, part 3: out of touch patriarchs

It is easy to argue that the problem of commercial control of scholarly journals is largely the fault of previous generations of academics. If they had not been so naive as to cede control of  journals, and to fall for the wiles of Robert Maxwell, giving away valuable content and labour for free, we may have avoided the mess we are in now. This is probably unfair. After all, the publication and marketing of journals was difficult, researchers wanted to focus on research, funding was increasing, and academics were not used to dealing with unscrupulous businesspeople.

However, it has been abundantly clear since at least the late 1990s that the current system in which Elsevier and other large companies sell back the fruits of our labour at exorbitant and ever-increasing cost, while the overall value added decreases, is not sustainable. It is also clear that a major reason it has not collapsed and been replaced by a simpler, fairer, more efficient and higher quality system is the lack of leadership by senior figures in the research community. The examples of Donald Knuth and Randy Schekman are impressive precisely because of their rarity.

Here is an anecdote. I recently approached the editor in chief (call him H) of a strong specialized mathematics journal (call it J) with a carefully worked out proposal for leaving its publisher E.  After 3 attempts over many months by email and a promise by another editorial board member to raise the matter with H, nothing happened. I then approached B, the founder of the journal and indeed of much of the research field. There followed a few rounds of civilized discussion by email during which I believe that I dealt with some of B’s rather cliched concerns about the effect on junior researchers. It all seemed to be going well, until B took offence at my claim that H was behaving unacceptably, and claimed that I was arrogantly judging H for his refusing my proposal. The explanation that I was in fact judging H for his refusal to engage with the proposal (a refusal would have been an improvement on being ignored repeatedlly) was apparently not understood, and discussion ceased.

I simply cannot understand the attitude of B, who exited in the 1990s the role of EiC at  the journal he created in the 1980s. The sensitivity to criticism is unworthy of someone of such stature. The excessive loyalty to H who whatever his other merits may be, has clearly not acted professionally in this situation, is strange. All that would be required is for B to ask H to consider this seriously and give an answer, and surely this would get some results. If even this is too much, then perhaps E is right that academics do not deserve to run their own journals.

Two new initiatives in journal publishing reform

I have started (with help) two new initiatives intended to improve scholarly publishing.

The Free Journal Network is in its initial recruitment phase. It aims to foster independent open access journals to the point where direct competition with the big commercial publishers is possible, and will also help with starting new journals.

An online discussion forum and file repository is intended to become *the* place on the internet to discuss journal reform with emphasis on the Fair Open Access model.

Get involved now!

Big Deal journal bundles: price information from New Zealand

“Big deal” journal contracts by libraries with commercial publishers have been controversial for many years. Such contracts consume a large fraction of university serials budgets, and annual price increases are unsustainable in the long term. One main cause of such market dysfunction is  price secrecy, whereby some publishers (including Elsevier and Springer, certainly) insist on confidentiality clauses in contracts (other causes include bundling of journals and the apparent inability of the research community to stop using historical journal reputation to evaluate  researchers). While these companies are never short of justification for their actions, I believe that the main reason for these clauses is to facilitate differential pricing and weaken the negotiating situation of buyers.

In 2014 Timothy Gowers and others used Freedom of Information laws to extract the relevant price information from UK universities. See here for more detailed information. Earlier (2009), less extensive, work in the USA  had also been done by Ted Bergstrom and others. Inspired by this, I tried the same thing in New Zealand (for 7 of the 8 universities – representing around 8400 academic/research staff and 130000 students, so far (Lincoln University, very much smaller than the others, was omitted owing to an oversight). Whereas Gowers was able to obtain the requested information within a few weeks, it has taken me 3.5 years. In both countries universities originally refused to release the information. However, in the UK there is an automatic right of review of such decisions, undertaken by an academic. In NZ, no such right exists, and my next step was to complain directly to the Ombudsman, the government official charged with determining whether information from the state sector should be publicly disclosed (all NZ universities are public).

The process was long and required persistence.  I count at least 36 emails and several phone conversations. I commented on the preliminary report earlier this year, and the large publishers certainly had considerable input. The final report was released on 8 October 2017, more than 3 years after my first complaint. Gratifyingly, it ruled unambiguously that the commercial interests of the publishers and universities were outweighed by the public’s right to know. The universities have all complied, supplying me with the amounts spent on journals from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Taylor & Francis for years 2013-2016 inclusive. There are several other problematic publishers, notably the American Chemical Society, but I had to stop somewhere. I hope that others can continue this work in NZ and other jurisdictions.

There are some subtleties (such as exactly what products from the listed publishers the money is spent on, different currencies and exchange rates) that need more clarification than space permits here. I present basic derived data here, with the almost raw data also available. Prices have been converted at an exchange rate of $NZ = EUR0.63 = US$0.77 = $A0.90 for the entire period, which is obviously not completely accurate but is my best estimate based on looking at exchange rate graphs over the period 2012-2017 from x-rates.com.

The results are qualitatively similar to those found in USA and UK. At first glance, there are some major points:

  • The total amount of money spent on just 4 publishers is substantial, around US$14.9M in 2016.
  • The mean expenditure per academic/research staff member  in 2016 is around US$1800.
  • University of Canterbury is getting a much worse deal than the others, 35% above the mean.
  • The rate of increase of  subscription costs (17%) over the period clearly exceeds the Consumer Price Index inflation rate over the period (2-3% in NZ, USA and Europe).
  • The publisher with highest percentage increase over the period was Taylor & Francis (33%).

Universal open access to (largely publicly funded) research will remove barriers to readers, but still has costs that must be paid, presumably by reallocating money currently spent on subscriptions. The GoldOA model with author-paid APCs has been popular with traditional publishers, who often set the APC level in the $2000-3000 range. The analysis above implies that wholesale conversion to such APCs will not save substantial money for NZ universities. This is of course the aim of the publishers who try to exert their market power to prevent real competition. In order to provide market price controls of APCs, it is necessary to decouple ownership of a journal title from provision of publication services. This reclaiming of community control is the most fundamental of the recently formalized Fair Open Access Principles. New organizations such as MathOA, PsyOA, LingOA   and the Fair Open Access Alliance  have been set up precisely in order to facilitate large-scale conversion of subscription journals to an open access model with community control of journals and no direct author payments. We expect that savings of at least 75% can be made by using modern publishing providers. What is the research community waiting for?



I spent almost 2 weeks in Vienna, Austria in November, visiting the Schroedinger Institute. The work environment was excellent (maybe the blackboards on the toilet walls were overkill) and the city is really impressive – no wonder it ranks so highly in the standard international quality of life surveys. In addition to the ease of getting around by foot, tram or U-bahn, and the high quality music (I went to 3 operas, a highlight being a 3 euro Stehplatz L’Elisir d’Amore experience at the Staatsoper), both of which I expected, the well priced and varied restaurants and cafes, and the cosmopolitan feeling were a nice surprise and different from what I remember from 25 years ago. I highly recommend a visit to Vienna!


I attended a workshop at Banff International Research Station last week. The setup there is very conducive to productive work, although there is too much good food available (and because of the signs about bears, I didn’t do any any serious walking). The  workshop itself was very well put together with a lot of interesting talks. Really good video of talks is available. Thanks to the organizers Mireille  Bousquet-Mélou, Stephen Melczer, Michael Singer and Marni Mishna and to the participants.


As a board member of MathOA I have been involved in helping the editors of Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics to break away from Springer and found the replacement journal Algebraic Combinatorics. This is part of a much larger effort to reclaim community ownership of research journals and run them according to the FairOA principles. Anyone interested in helping with the administrative work, persuasion, and fundraising needed, please contact me.

Fair Open Access Principles for AOASG blog

The https://aoasg.org.au/2017/06/23/fair-open-access-principles-for-journals/ carries a piece by me and Alex Holcombe, which can be read below (minus hyperlinks, so please look at the AOASG version for best reading).


In March 2017 a group of researchers and librarians interested in journal reform formalized the Fair Open Access Principles.

The basic principles are:

  • The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community.
  • Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.
  • All articles are published open access and an explicit open access licence is used.
  • Submission and publication is not conditional in any way on the payment of a fee from the author or its employing institution, or on membership of an institution or society.
  • Any fees paid on behalf of the journal to publishers are low, transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out.

Detailed clarification and interpretation of the principles is provided at the site.

Here, instead, we put these principles into context and explain the motivation behind them.

Our basic thesis is that the current situation in which commercial publishers own the title to journals is untenable. Many existing journals were begun by scholars but subsequently acquired by Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and other commercial publishers. These publishers now have a strong incentive to oppose any reform of the journal that would benefit the community of authors, editors and readers but not help the short-term interests of its own shareholders. We have seen several examples of this in recent years (the Wikipedia entry for Elsevier, for example, collects many examples of malfeasance.

The evidence is now overwhelming that the interests of large commercial publishers are not well aligned with the interests of the research community or the general public. Thus Principle 1 is key. Changing a journal to open access but allowing it to be bought easily by Elsevier, for example, would be a pointless exercise. We must decouple ownership of journals from publication services. This will allow editorial boards to shop around for publishers, who must compete on price and service quality rather than exploit a monopolistic position. In other words, a functioning market will arise. Also, journals will have more chance to innovate by not being locked into inflexible and outdated infrastructure.

Principle 2 (authors retaining copyright) seems obvious. Large publishers have claimed that having authors assign them copyright to articles protects the authors. We know of no case where this has happened. However, publishers have prevented authors from reusing their own work!

Open access is of course the main goal and thus the associated principle (Principle 3) needs little explanation. Some authors appear to believe that posting occasional preprints/postprints on their own website is as good as true open access. This is not the case – some of the reasons are licence issues, confusion about the version of record, lack of machine readability, inconsistent searchability, and unreliable archiving.

APCs (Article Processing Charges) are a common feature of open access journals and a main source of income, particularly for “predatory” journals whose sole function is to make money for unscrupulous owners. Large commercial publishers have responded to pressure by offering OA if an APC is paid. These APCs are typically well over US$1000. The fact that over 60% of journals in DOAJ do not charge any APC, and the low APCs of some high quality newer full service publishers (such as Ubiquity Press) shows that there is much room for improvement. In many fields there is considerable resistance to authors paying APCs directly. For example in a recent survey of mathematicians that we undertook, published in the European Mathematical Society Newsletter,
about a quarter of respondents declared APCs unacceptable in principle and another quarter said they should be paid by library consortia. We do not deny that there are costs associated with OA publishing, and are not advocating every journal run using self-hosted OJS and volunteer time (although there are many successful and long-lived journals of that type, like Journal of Machine Learning Research or Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, and we feel it still has untapped potential). We aim to ensure that unnecessary barriers are not erected for authors, in particular fees – Principle 4. Any payments on behalf of authors should be made in an automatic way – the idea is for consortia of institutions to fund reasonable operating costs of OA journals directly.

Principle 5 (reasonable and transparent costs) will automatically hold if the journal is sufficiently well run and independent as described by Principle 1, and is included in order to reinforce the point that a competitive market is our main goal rather than wasting public money to maintain the current profits of publishers. Recently, initiatives such as OA2020 have emphasized large-scale conversion of subscription journals to OA. We believe that if the ownership of the journals isn’t simultaneously changed, there will remain little incentive for publishers to keep prices down. If a researcher believes that a paper in Nature will make her career, will she be denied this by the APC-paying agency if Nature choose to charge a premium APC? In addition, if journal ownership is not taken from the publishers, they can lock us into their existing technologies, which hinders innovation in scholarly communication.

We are presently working on disciplinary organizations aimed at helping journals flip from a subscription model to Fair OA, and have so far started LingOA, MathOA and PsyOA. We plan a Fair Open Access Alliance which will include independent journals already practising FairOA principles, flipped journals, and other institutional members with a strong belief in FairOA. The idea is to share resources and harmonize journal practices. We hope that these activities will yield a way forward that avoids sterile debates about Green vs Gold OA. We welcome feedback and offers of help in our wider effort to convert the entire scholarly literature to Fair Open Access.

Multi-district preference modelling

This paper with longtime coauthor Geoffrey Pritchard is an important step toward systematic design of electoral systems.

Abstract: Generating realistic artificial preference distributions is an important part of
any simulation analysis of electoral systems. While this has been discussed in some de-
tail in the context of a single electoral district, many electoral systems of interest are based
on districts. Neither treating preferences between districts as independent nor ignoring
the district structure yields satisfactory results. We present a model based on an extension
of the classic Eggenberger-Pólya urn, in which each district is represented by an urn and
there is correlation between urns. We show in detail that this procedure has a small num-
ber of tunable parameters, is computationally efficient, and produces “realistic-looking”
distributions. We intend to use it in further studies of electoral systems.

New algorithms for matching problems

A preprint with Jacky Lo, just submitted to arXiv and on my publications page. The paper was ultimately inspired by a Christmas party game, which shows that the line between work and play is hard to draw.

Abstract: The standard two-sided and one-sided matching problems, and the closely related school choice problem, have been widely studied from an axiomatic viewpoint. A small number of algorithms dominate the literature. For two-sided matching, the Gale-Shapley algorithm; for one-sided matching, (random) Serial Dictatorship and Probabilistic Serial rule; for school choice, Gale-Shapley and the Boston mechanisms. The main reason for the dominance of these algorithms is their good (worst-case) axiomatic behaviour with respect to notions of efficiency and strategyproofness. However if we shift the focus to fairness, social welfare, tradeoffs between incompatible axioms, and average-case analysis, it is far from clear that these algorithms are optimal. We investigate new algorithms several of which have not appeared (to our knowledge) in the literature before. We give a unified presentation in which algorithms for 2-sided matching yield 1-sided matching algorithms in a systematic way. In addition to axiomatic properties, we investigate agent welfare using both theoretical and computational approaches. We find that some of the new algorithms are worthy of consideration for certain applications. In particular, when considering welfare under truthful preferences, some of the new algorithms outperform the classic ones.