PolNet 2015 and APSA 2015

In June and September I attended two contrasting political science conferences on the West Coast of the USA. PolNet 2015 was small (of the order of 100 attendees) and focused on political networks. APSA 2015 was huge (about 7000 attendees), covering all areas of the field, with many business meetings and other professional activities in addition to research talks. Both were very well organized and had unusually good food available. These trips were very tiring physically, but very stimulating intellectually.

Personal highlights:


  • according to Skyler Cranmer, statistical inference on survey data usually makes an assumption of independence, which makes no sense for networks, and he found 700 published papers making this methodological error
  • David Lazer (and many collaborators) Moneybomb video
  • Kathleen Carley: 25-50% of tweeters are not human – biased data for social scientists!
  • really useful introductory tutorials by Skyler Cranmer, Lorien Jasny, Katherine Ognyanova, Scott Pauls


  • plenary talk by Robert Reich – in addition to the main substance, the anecdotes were very entertaining, especially his interview by a journalist askingabout a date he went on with Hillary Clinton about 50 years ago
  • British Election Forecasting session – interesting to see how so many different predictions were all so wrong, and concerns about “forecaster herding”
  • political networks session where several people agreed that it is a fad, but that is OK because it gives good results
  • APSA business meeting into which I was press-ganged in order to make a quorum. It seems that elections use Australian House of Representatives rules. The quorum was lost partway through, and a complaint made … The political scientists can sure talk!
  • talk by Carey, Masoud and Reynolds showing how close Tunisia came to failing like Libya and Egypt (small differences in the voting rules used)
  • Alex Montgomery’s favourite international organization is the  African GroundNut Council
  • many other interesting topics: why is there no right-wing party in many countries? ; effect of preferential voting on representation of minorities; poll herding hypothesis – low quality pollsters adjust results to match high quality ones; how can polarization be measured?


Barriers to open access – reading

Here is a list of references that may be useful when considering barriers to open access.

Reforming the profession

I have been following several issues in the world of academia and science over the last few years, all of which require urgent and serious attention, in my opinion. Progress has been less than I hoped, but it makes sense that inertia is large in such a system.

I collect here a list of important and interesting links, and hope they are useful for others.

Visionary stuff

Evaluating researchers

Evaluating research

Access to research

Researcher ethics

Inclusive culture

People to follow

Older writings

The sad story of OJAC

This is a short post to explain that I have resigned from all duties with Online Journal of Analytic Combinatorics. After 2.5 years during which I (among other activities) converted the journal’s online presence from PDFs on a Google site to an Open Journal Systems installation, kept proper archives of peer review, recruited several new editors, convinced LOCKSS to archive the journal, ensured that it was indexed by Zentralblatt, Scopus and Thomson Reuters, and processed several papers from submission to publication, I was given an ultimatum by the other three managing editors who wanted me to step down from the role. This occurred at the same time as an approach by Springer, which I was not given any details of. Of course I am very unlikely to agree to any deal with such a company, given my beliefs about the importance of open access and control of scientific literature by the research community.

Differences in style and expectations are inevitable in such an enterprise. I did become frustrated with what I saw as extreme lack of commitment by two of the other three managing editors. I can see that reasonable people can differ on such issues, and that my personal style might offend some. What is very irritating is having to work closely with people whose non-performance affects my reputation. What I find inexcusable is those same people using differences of style as an excuse to stage a clumsy coup with obvious ulterior motives.

Anyway, I don’t have much hope for the future of the journal, but I might be wrong. I have moved on to other pursuits. I am now an academic editor of PeerJ Computer Science, for example.

Conferences: SSCW and COMSOC

I recently (late June, but other things got in the way of this report) attended the Society for Social Choice and Welfare meeting in Boston and the Computational Social Choice meeting in Pittsburgh. Here follows a short report.

SSCW was held at Boston College with around 300 attendees.

Positives: The meeting was overall well organized and the open air conference “clambake” dinner a particular highlight. There were several famous speakers from the Boston area, including Amartya Sen and Daron Acemoglu.

Negatives: Holding parallel sessions in different buildings made switching sessions difficult, which was a problem because there were many sessions that clashed (at least for me). The schedule was very tough, with talks starting at 0800 most days, and the lack of accommodation on campus meant that, with travel time, each day was about 11 hours long. Several of the invited speakers were very hard to track down afterwards, and I suspect they only came in for their talk.

COMSOC 2014 was held at Carnegie Mellon University with around 70 attendees. It was nicely hosted by Ariel Procaccia, and the conference dinner among the dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was even better than the SSCW one. While less gruelling than the week before, this meeting was certainly a test of stamina for me. Carnegie-Mellon Computer Science was an impressive place, with the architecture of the Gates building and the conference auditorium coming complete with individually sponsored seats including some reserved for Manuel Blum and relatives (how many other university departments worldwide have 3 members of the same family as professors?)

I came away with some new ideas, but not as many as I had hoped, from these two meetings.

Perhaps it is time to rethink conferences of this sort. I would like to see more time for discussion, which probably means reducing the talk length even more. The main purpose of such meetings is to meet people and talk to them, but if you are sitting in talks all the time, this is not easy. Maybe everyone should give a 5-minute (or shorter) talk to advertise, and then have an enormous “poster session” where questions can be asked in detail. Speed dating for researchers has a certain appeal, perhaps.

CMSS Summer Workshop December 2014

6th CMSS Summer Workshop
8-12 December 2014
University of Auckland

The Centre for Mathematical Social Science (CMSS) is pleased to announce that its 6th Summer Workshop will be held at the University of Auckland in the week of 8-12 December 2014. The CMSS is an inter-disciplinary research centre whose members include mathematicians, computer scientists, philosophers and economists. Information on the CMSS, and details of previous Workshops, can be found on our website: http://cmss.auckland.ac.nz/.
This year’s theme is diffusion in social networks, but submissions on any aspect of mathematical social science are welcome.

Confirmed speakers include:
– Matthew O. Jackson (Stanford University) — Seelye Foundation Fellow
– Damon M. Centola (University of Pennsylvania)

If you would like to participate in the Workshop, please contact any of the organisers listed below by 15 October 2014. Contributed slides or papers will be archived on the CMSS website. We will be glad to hear from you.

There is no fee for participating in the Workshop.

Patrick Girard (Philosophy) p.girard@auckland.ac.nz
Dion O’Neale (Physics) d.oneale@auckland.ac.nz
Mark C. Wilson (Computer Science) mc.wilson@auckland.ac.nz
University of Auckland

Official Information Act requests in the style of Tim Gowers

Update: information from Victoria University of Wellington received.

Inspired by Gowers’ monumental effort to find out how much commercial publishers are charging universities for journal access, I have sent Official Information Act requests to New Zealand universities. It seems that in NZ (unlike UK) there is no right of internal appeal against a decision to decline to give information, and the next official step is to go to the Ombudsman, whose office is, I am told, overworked.

Here is what I have found out so far. I sent similar requests to several places, but made minor changes out of boredom and interest to see whether a different result would be obtained. As expected, the initial replies have not been very helpful. The next step is presumably to contact these institutions informally and see whether any rewording of the request could be more effective. Beyond that, all I can see is a long wait for the Ombudsman.

The replies (edited down to the essentials) so far are below. It doesn’t seem that there has been as much coordination with Elsevier as Tim suspected in the UK situation. Different excuses are given, which may make at least complaints to the Ombudsman more likely to succeed.

A note on overall journal subscription costs: this information for Australian and NZ universities can be obtained at http://statistics.caul.edu.au/inst_data.php According to this, for example, in 2013 University of Otago spent over AU$8.4M in serial subscriptions, just under AU$1.9M in non-serials, and a little over AU$9.0M in salaries. So journal subscriptions make up a very large fraction of their budget.

University of Auckland

The University currently pays Taylor/Francis USD 413,715 + AUD 20,292 and Wiley USD 891,067.

Making information about what we currently pay Elsevier and Springer for journal access available would be likely to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the University. Withholding this information is necessary to enable the University, without prejudice or disadvantage, to carry on negotiations with these publishers. Accordingly, the information requested is withheld under s 9(2)(b)(ii) and s 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act.


AUT has a contractual arrangement with Elsevier. For this reason we have reached the decision that it is necessary to withhold the information in accordance with section 18 (a) Official Information Act 1982 and pursuant to section 9(2)(i) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, commercial activities and section 9(2)(j) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, negotiations.

University of Waikato

The University and Elsevier have a confidentiality agreement regarding the financial and commercial terms of their contract. Your request is therefore refused under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) of the Official Information Act 1982 on the grounds that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of Elsevier.

Massey University

You have requested details of Massey University’s expenditure annually for access to Elsevier journals. You have specifically requested the total annual fee, split into three components. You have also requested the annual total budget for journal access for all publishers.

Massey University advises that the access to Elsevier electronic journals is subject to a confidential legal agreement. Accordingly, Massey University declines to release the information requested under section 2 (b) (ii)  of the Official Information Act 1982 – which protects the commercial position of those who are subject to the enquiry e.g. Elsevier and Massey, and 2 (ba) which provides for protection of information which is subject to an obligation of confidence.

Victoria University of Wellington

In 2013 they paid Taylor & Francis $484000 and Wiley $542856.  This is for (T&F) Core Journal Collection, Social Science Journals, Science and Technology Journals, CRCnetBASE products; (Wiley) Wiley e-journal package, Current Protocol Online. They also said

The details for Elsevier and Springer are withheld under Section 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act 1982, on the basis that withholding this information is necessary to prevent prejudice or disadvantage to the ability of Victoria to carry on negotiations with these providers.


University of Canterbury

The University can release to you the second part of your request. The total Library information resources budget for 2014 is $5.9M. … A reasonable estimate of ongoing journal purchases would be $4.6M. ….

The University is withholding the first part of your request – the total annual fee for Elsevier journals – under Section 9(2)(ba) of the Official Information Act on the basis that the information is subject to an obligation of confidence created by a confidentiality clause at 7.8 of the agreement we hold with Elsevier.

The University also withholds this information under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) on the basis that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice  Elsevier’s commercial position where they have negotiated specific terms with us.

Lincoln University

I have not made a formal request. An informal one to the library resulted in:

I am afraid that Lincoln University is unable to provide you with this information. Most licence agreements prevent us from disclosing this information. I am sorry I am unable to be more helpful.

University of Otago

In 2013 the University of Otago’s budget for print journals and eresources (this includes all e-continuations, databases, journals, streaming video, ebook collections etc  – with ongoing fee, not just journals) was NZD $9,031,438.

The amount spent annually for access to Elsevier journals is withheld under sections 9(2)(i) and 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act.  The reasons being commercial sensitivity and prejudice to commercial negotiations.


National Statement of Science Investment

Yesterday Minister Steven Joyce released the  NSSI and called for submissions (deadline 22 August). One useful feature is that it explains the current system.
It has become clear that huge changes have been made to the science funding system in the last few years. There have been some very worrying developments, such as the removal of the NZST postdoc scheme, the appallingly cronyistic way the National Science Challenges have been run, the disorganization of MBIE (look at their website sometime!), etc. The sheer amount and rate of change is perhaps the worst problem. It is surely time that some kind of multi-party consensus on science funding be forged, so such large changes don’t happen so often. Without high quality input from the sector, I don’t see that happening.

I urge everyone in the research sector (and maybe others) to consider participating in a submission. It is annoying that we seem to have to spend so much time on non-core business these days, but this is important enough (in my opinion) to be an exception to the apparent rule that one should ignore such ephemera and concentrate only on one’s own research.