How not to write a review of a journal paper

My excellent PhD student submitted a paper to a special issue of a journal dedicated to network science. One of the reviewers wrote a report that included the following choice observations. We have since been told that the writer is a very senior figure in the field, and the editor apologized for the tone. This is a fairly outrageous abuse of power and not likely to nurture future researchers. There were some useful observations that made sense but not as many as I would have expected from someone with such alleged competence.

I regret to claim that, despite the enthusiasm with which I accepted the invitation to review this manuscript, I am appalled by it. My sense is that you do not comprehend the nature of signed networks, their subtle dynamics and have produced a manuscript that lacks any understanding of the substantive concerns surrounding the study of signed networks. You appear to be clueless – sorry, but I must be blunt – about important substantive and technical issues in this area. Substance matters when studying social networks not you give an airborne copulation about substance. Nor do you appear to care about the interplay between substance and technique in studying social networks.


These figures are meaningless. While moving onto the realm of biological networks has potential interest value, the exposition adds nothing. I am sure there are substantive issues in this literature that dwarf a narrow-minded concern with frustration indices as if this is the entry point to the kingdom of eternal life.

Please pay attention to substance! But I suspect, given this manuscript, you do not care about substance. As I read your manuscript, substance just gets in the way of a narrow focus on methods.

You have got to be kidding!  …  your claim, given the equivalence of two measures, strikes me as false and designed to promote your own work.

AlCo vs JACo – a stark comparison

Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics has been published by Springer since 1992. It was founded by Chris Godsil, Ian Goulden, and David Jackson. It has been a well regarded specialised journal.

In June 2017 the four editors-in-chief gave notice to Springer that they would resign at the end of the year. The entire editorial board (except for two members who decided to retire on the grounds of age) followed the EiCs to a new home. The new title is Algebraic Combinatorics, currently published by Centre Mersenne. Note that this journal is run according to the Fair Open Access Principles, so that any subsequent change of publisher will not require a change in the title of the journal.

Springer is attempting to continue the old title J. Algebraic Combinatorics with new editors. I know of many people from the algebraic combinatorics research community who were approached and refused. Eventually Ilias Kotsireas has accepted the offer to be EiC, despite explicitly being asked not to by the former EiCs.

The entire editorial board of Algebraic Combinatorics, including the 4 current EiCs, consists of 43 people. JACo, on the other hand, has 15 including 4 Advisory Editors.. The new editors of JACo have very little to do with the subject of algebraic combinatorics. Using the American Mathematical Society’s invaluable (and paywalled) resource MathSciNet, we can look for at papers written by various editors, having either primary or secondary classification 05E (Algebraic Combinatorics). We find the following data for JACo.

  • EiC – Kotsireas 0
  • Advisory board (4 people) 1
  • Editors (10 people) 9

However for AlCo:

  • EiCs (4 people) 69
  • Editorial board (4 of 39, almost randomly selected) 110

AlCo has published 12 papers since January 2018 and received 140 submissions since July 2017.  According to one of the EiCs, the quality of submissions has risen since the move from Springer (although some subfields have reduced in quantity, which he attributed to authors waiting until AlCo is fully indexed).

It is completely clear that Algebraic Combinatorics is the continuation of the original journal founded in 1992, and the journal currently called JACo is a “zombie”.

Kotsireas’ recent editorial states: “…the research area of algebraic combinatorics is vibrant enough to sustain two high- quality journals”.

The obvious response is: “Why not set up a new journal elsewhere if there is so much room in the market?” If there were room, why didn’t Springer, or the new editors, do this? It seems clear that they only seek to use the reputation created by the old editors (and authors and reviewers) to improve their own personal standing, at the expense of the research field they purport to represent. Whatever that research field is, it seems that it is not really algebraic combinatorics.

Kotsireas also says: “I would like to thank the previous Editors- in Chief of JACO, with whom we had a very professional, productive, cordial and effective collaboration, during the transition period.”

This ignores the fact that the following message was received from Springer by the EiCs, who had agreed to work until 31 Dec 2017 and to see through all papers in their editorial queue.

“Due to the fact that a competing journal in 2017 (Algebraic Combinatorics) has been formulated which comprises the board of JACO, Ilias Kotsireas will be installed as an EIC as of Sunday October 15.  It is also our understanding that current EICs of JACO (or at least some of you) will also become EICs of board members of Algebraic Combinatorics in 2018. Due to these extraordinary circumstances, we want Ilias Kotsireas to have final input on the acceptance and rejection of all articles that are in process until the end of your terms on December 31. If you feel you cannot comply with this measure and cooperate fully with Illias on the disposition of all papers, then it is best to part ways at this point and terminate your contracts early.”

Personally, I find this to be inconsistent with the description by Kotsireas. The fact that the original editors of JACo did not cause problems when presented with a fait accompli is not the same as having a “very professional, productive, cordial and effective collaboration, during the transition period.”

At first sight, it seems that it would have been so much easier for Springer to just agree to Fair Open Access, and publish the journal at a reasonable price. But the business model of such big commercial publishers involves running down the reputational capital generated by decades of work by authors, editors and reviewers, and investing as little as possible, and maintaining huge profit margins. Why work for a living if you can be a rentier capitalist? The company founded in 1842 by Julius Springer had a long history of service to the mathematical community, but, like journals such as JACo, the current entity usually called “Springer” bears little relation to the original entity. Since its takeover by Bertelsmann in 1998 it has gone through several incarnations, currently being called SpringerNature after a merger in 2015.

My guess is that the current JACo EiC is being paid about $8000-10000 per year, getting another CV item, and perhaps getting local recognition at his institution, so motivation there is clear. Exactly what the advisory board members and some associate editors, distinguished mathematicians from other fields, think they are doing is very unclear to me. I call on them to let the title die a natural death. Clear public statements by senior members of the algebraic combinatorics community are desirable. And the founding editors should insist on their names being removed from the JACo site. They founded a journal, and it continues under a new name, with them as editorial board members. The zombie journal must die.

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.

Fair Open Access Principles for AOASG blog

The 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.

A rant about Lufthansa

Apologies, a rant is required. I just swore at someone on the phone, which is quite a rare occurrence. Read on to see why, if you dare.

Lufthansa is by far the worst airline I have ever had the misfortune to deal with (I haven’t flown on anything really unsafe, of course, but have flown in Iran on a Tupolev). Not only is their in-flight service embarrassingly behind my usual carriers such as Emirates, Singapore, Air New Zealand, their customer service is a joke. My wife has flown them twice in the last year.

Example 1: The first time she bought an in-class upgrade in order to make a further upgrade using Mileage Plus miles. Then was told that the upgrade was not possible. Nor was a refund and in-class downgrade. She flew in the same seat as before, and after 10 months they have offered to refund 20% of the cost, but still haven’t done it more than 3 weeks after asking for bank details. Each time I enquired it took weeks or months to get an email reply.

Example 2: She was denied boarding for LAX-Munich on a trip from Auckland to Europe (because of a newly enforced rule on passport validity that was not picked up at Auckland), and the other 5 legs of the trip were then cancelled. She had to buy a 1-way ticket home. Note that because my wife never made it to her invited conference talk, she doesn’t want to ask the organizers for any money, and they probably think she is being refunded by the airline. The original was bought through Expedia. After hours talking to Expedia we have been told that Lufthansa will within a few days let us know how much they will refund, and then it will take 10 weeks for a refund. I asked Expedia to transfer me to Lufthansa in order to discuss the extra costs incurred that were not on the ticket. The LH staff member told me this number is not for customers, only travel agents. She refused to give me any contact numbers other than the general US 1-800 number. Not wanting to start all over again and failing to convince her with reasoned argument I yelled and hung up.

I don’t want to make too many jokes about Germans, but there is some really stereotypical behaviour going on here. Is customer service, or basic human flexibility, such as difficult concept to grasp?

I strongly urge anyone reading this to avoid Lufthansa if possible. Other tips – never buy your own ticket if it is supposed to be reimbursed by others, get them to buy it directly; make sure your passport has 3 months validity past the end of your stay in Schengen area. And maybe consider cancellation insurance!

Predicting the 2015 Canadian election

The Canadian general election will be held on 19 October. The most basic prediction method uses the full district (“riding”) vote information from the last election (in 2011), the current poll estimate for national level support for each party, and a model of changes in district votes. There are two main models used in predicting elections under First Past the Post (single-winner plurality in districts), namely Uniform (additive) Swing and Proportional (multiplicative) Swing.

Based on the aggregate poll at, these two models predict the following point estimates for the seat distributions (after scaling up to account for the increase in parliament size since 2011):

Multiplicative: CON 133 NDP 71 LIB 125 BQ 7 GRE 1
Additive: CON 145 NDP 85 LIB 101 BQ 6 GRE 1

NDP have lost a lot of support in recent weeks, but it still looks as though no party will have an absolute majority and CON will be the largest party.

UPDATE 19 October (NZ time): using the latest poll estimate the models now give:

Multiplicative: CON 131 NDP 72 LIB 128 BQ 3 GRE 1
Additive: CON 137 NDP 86 LIB 109 BQ 5 GRE 1 predict: CON 120, NDP 71, LIB 141, BQ 5, GRE 1
Toronto Star predict: CONS 124, NDP 71, LIB 140, BQ 2, GRE 1

Let’s see the results tomorrow.

Election 2014: scorecards

I believe that systematic use of scorecards (report cards) by NGOs is helpful for voters. I haven’t found many used in the NZ context. By simple Google searches and personal knowledge I have found the following. Maybe more will come this week.

It is also useful to have the policies available without being told what to think about them.

  • A summary of parties’ policies on various issues at
  • The NZ Herald has a comparison of several parties’ “major” policies

Election 2014: research funding

This election, increasingly annoyed by the research funding situation, I decided to become (almost) a single-issue voter, and concentrate on what parties want to do to improve NZ’s chronic underfunding of science and research. My feeling after many election campaigns is that New Zealand just doesn’t value these things as much as other countries. However this may be unfair – we have had a more democratic system than many other countries, public goods are known to be underfunded if left to individuals, and more successful countries like USA have tended to fund research by stealth (under the Department of “Defense”) rather than make a strong case to the voters, or by fiat (e.g. Singapore). In any case, it is clear that as a country we have under-invested for decades, and that our relative slide in living standards is largely owing to a productivity problem which can (only) be fixed by increasing investment. Paul Callaghan (someone for whose work I have great respect, but I don’t use titles like “Sir” on principle) and Shaun Hendy (now my colleague at University of Auckland) have made this case at length in recent years, for example in books such as Wool to Weta and  Get Off the Grass. If you believe that “growing the national cake” is important, then this is a critical political issue.

The NZ Association of Scientists has made a submission (to which I made an infinitesimal contribution) to the National Statement of Science Investment feedback process, which sums up very well the problems with the current government’s policies. So much time in recent years has been wasted rebranding and reorganizing, losing institutional memory in the process ignoring the real problem: not enough money. Every new initiative seems to be funded by killing an old one, and this zero-sum attitude appears to be entrenched.

A very perceptive colleague in my department sent me the following:

… rather than attempting to become more like the “average” OECD nation with respect to R&D, I think it’s most likely National (and perhaps also Labour) will continue to (try to) emulate Ireland’s performance, i.e. to continue to run a lean/mean R&D machine with very little governmental funding.

I’m picking on Ireland because of a presentation I attended yesterday ( — the presenter from Ireland (Prof Ferguson) dropped some hints that suggest, to me, that folks in MBIE have been paying close attention to his story.

Ireland runs in the bottom-half of the EU pack for governmental R&D expenditure (only about 0.5% of its GDP!), but ranks near the top of that league for R&D impact on national economy (as measured by the EC).
NZ gov’t also spends about 0.5% of GDP on R&D, i.e. we’re running neck-and-neck with Ireland, suggesting that our government “merely” has to make our country more closely resemble Ireland in a few other ways before we’ll also enjoy a top-of-league economic payback on R&D expenditure. …

The NZAS also asked political parties some good questions  about their R&D policies. Not all the parties have responded. None of those that have responded are making the kind of commitment that I think is essential: double the Marsden Fund, for example. You can see the questions and answers here and make up your mind.

Governments worldwide apparently see research as an engine of economic growth (which perhaps it is) ignoring the less tangible benefits to be gained from intellectual growth.  A major side-effect of adopting the research mentality is better decision-making. Roughly speaking, my feeling is that businesses and government should try to learn how to run themselves more like the worldwide scientific/research enterprise, instead of trying to make it conform to their models. This involves (in theory) some well-known practices that still seem not very well used in wider society: avoidance of hierarchy (no authorities, only experts); recognition of human cognitive fallibility and processes devised to ameliorate it, such as methodologies for assessing evidence; using the wisdom of crowds to aggregate information; continuous improvement and a humble recognition that the “final” answer has probably not been obtained. Much current political practice seems to use the opposite of each of these practices.

If we allow the further degradation of our decision-making capability, other policies, no matter how good they may seem, will not be implemented properly. So, I will base my vote to a large extent on policies on research and tertiary education, with some serious attention to ethics and trust.