Cybermath column NZ Math Society Newsletter Dec 2018

I have been writing this column for the last few years. Here is the upcoming column – if I have time I will include the older ones here, although some may be only of historical interest now.


Having failed to make the last issue, this column is probably too late to say anything interesting about the Fields medallists for 2018. The best general description of the medallists and their work that I saw was in Quanta magazine – there is a wealth of interesting information there. This free online resource backed by the Simons Foundation (itself created by the world’s richest mathematician) has many excellent articles written for the thinking layperson. For a completely different perspective, see Doron Zeilberger’s opinion.

I have started using Twitter (but only as representative of professional organisations MathOA and Free Journal Network) and have been looking for interesting mathematical content there. Twitter is best used to advertise links to other content, and formulae are not easy to include there. It might be fun to try to present a nontrivial proof in 140 (or 280) characters! A recent tweet by Clifford Pickover presented a 1966 paper from Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society  that was only two sentences long, with no abstract, which is presumably a record. If any readers have interesting links to mathematics on Twitter, please let this column(ist) know.

So, as usual, back to academic publishing. The big news since the last column is the advent of Plan S, stemming from a decision by several national European science funders to accelerate the change to open access publication that has been seen by many as inevitable since the internet became widely used on the late 1990s. After all, publication mean making public, and not using modern technology to do that seems very weird. Plan S, which has already been revised once and which has a feedback deadline of 1 Feb 2018, has attracted support from charitable funders (such as the Gates Foundation) and non-European government funders – including several from China, which many outsiders had seen as uninterested in open access. If it is implemented as expected, within 2 years all grant-funded research will have to be published under stringent open access rules. This is a major incentive for “prestigious” journals to change their way of operating. I recently had a conversation with the Editor-in-Chief of perhaps the most highly-reputed mathematics journal, who is concerned about this issue (but apparently not yet concerned enough to make major changes in the journal’s antiquated processes!)

As usual when the status quo is threatened, there has been resistance. An open letter by researchers mainly in the field of chemistry has circulated. And support: a letter supporting funder mandates of the Plan S type has circulated more recently. Each has 1000-2000 signatories, a  tiny fraction of researchers worldwide (I have signed the second but not the first). The main concerns of the former letter are academic freedom (which I consider to be barely relevant here) and the impact on scholarly societies, which often subsidise their operations via journal subscriptions.

The NZ Journal of Mathematics, supported by the NZ Math Society and the University of Auckland Maths Department,  is freely available online with no authors charges, which is excellent. However it has been allowed to stagnate in some ways, and is not up to the standard of similar journals. I am not discussing the editorial and refereeing standards, but the website, licence information, ethics statement, and other things expected from a serious publisher (see the criteria for membership of the Free Journal Network, satisfied by the Australasian Journal of Combinatorics and Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, for example). I hope that some much-needed modernisation can occur and this journal can take its rightful place in the journal ecosystem.

It is not hard to imagine a much better system than the current one. Universal open access, with publication costs paid for by libraries and research funders without authors having to consider payment, would save perhaps 80% of current costs worldwide (now paid mostly by libraries via subscriptions). To keep costs even lower, a widespread use of the arXiv overlay model used by, for example Tim Gowers’ recently established Discrete Analysis and Advances in Combinatorics would be a substantial improvement. One of the features of the current system that every researcher knows about but is rarely mentioned in policy discussions is that (at least in fields like mathematics) commercial publishers very often subtract value from an arXiv version by making typesetting and proofreading errors. In fact, the published version has not really been peer reviewed, because changes can be made by the author after acceptance and usually only non-researcher publisher staff see them.
Conversion to a better system has been much slower than everyone expected. My opinion is that there is plenty of blame to go around and that big commercial publishers must share some of it, but universities, learned societies and researchers have had the ability to fix the situation and have largely abdicated their responsibility.​ I urge all readers to at least support those of us who are working hard to bring about a better system, even if you can’t spare any effort to help. A simple discussion with colleagues and administrators at your own institution can often be surprisingly fruitful. And make your voice heard by signing relevant petitions, or explicitly state that you are apathetic and I can have your proxy vote! And those happy few readers who are in a position to influence policy, please doing it, or ask me how. For example, the RSNZ/Marsden Fund could sign up to Plan S right away if they chose.
For those interested in control by researchers of scholarly publishing (which is the first principle of Fair Open Access and without which, in my view, no good sustainable alternative system can function), there will be an online event on 7 February 2019 with which Free Journals Network is involved, among several other organisations. Check out Academic-Led Publishing Day
Some other big news since the last column concerns the Ted Hill affair. This is an enormously controversial issue, and I will give some selected links for those who have not already followed it. Briefly, a paper studying a model of evolution with possible implications that support the general view that differences in participation in research mathematics by men and women may not be due solely to deficient social organization was accepted by Mathematical Intelligencer, then rejected for political reasons. It was then accepted in New York Journal of Mathematics and swiftly removed after complaints by its editorial board. The Editor-in-Chief died very soon after and the accepting editor is no longer an editor there. My opinion is that very few people came out of this looking better than when they went in, and it shows the need for high ethical standards in all aspects of research. When the basic standards of liberal democracy are under heavy assault by authoritarian leaders and their helpers worldwide, we must hold the line and not allow science to be polluted. And we should strive to improve our standards – several years of being interested in academic publishing have shown me that there are many dodgy practices still out there!
Some links:

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.

Research news

A few papers are working their way through the journal system:

Once all these are finally done, I can get back to some work on generating functions, after several years, which I am very much looking forward to.


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.

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

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!