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:

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