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 It is also clear that a major reason it has not collapsed and been replaced by a simpler, fairer, more efficient and higher quality system is the lack of leadership by senior figures in the research community.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!

Cybermath column NZ Math Society Newsletter Dec 2017

As the deadline for each column approaches,  I hope to write about something other than journal publishing, but lately there has been so much news from that direction that it is hard to ignore.
In 2014 Timothy Gowers and others used Freedom of Information laws  to discover the amounts paid by UK universities for journal subscriptions to Elsevier. The reason they did this was that Elsevier (and SpringerNature, and maybe other publishers) insist very strongly on confidentiality agreements when they sign contracts with universities. The presumed reason for such insistence is that this makes their job of profit maximization much easier by lowering the bargaining ability of the universities.
The UK data showed that not only was each university spending a large amount, these numbers varied substantially even between universities with very similar size and research profile.
Earlier work in the USA and later work in Finland and Netherland  have confirmed this overall picture. In 2014 I wrote toall NZ universities except Lincoln (for no really good reason, and I should rectify this, although it is only 1/4 the size of the next smallest university), requesting information of subscriptions paid to Elsevier, Springer, Taylor \& Francis, and Wiley (the first three are actually divisions of larger companies RELX, SpringerNature, Informa). These are the top 4 publishers in terms of expenditure by most libraries, although they account for considerably less than half of total journal expenditure. The universities concerned have around 8400 EFT academic/research staff and 130000 EFT students.
As expected, all the universities refused, and it was clear from the similarity of their answers that they had help from the publishers. Unlike the situation in UK there was no right of review of these refusals at a university level, so I complained next to the Ombudsman, citing the Official Information Act 1982.
After over 3 years of delays of all types, the Ombudsman’s final report  unambiguously ruled in my favour, and the universities eventually supplied the information. So now we know how much they have spent, and the results are illuminating. Because of the fact that payments were made in various currencies, I have had to make some assumptions on exchange rates based on historical data. The raw data is available on Figshare.
  •  For just these 4 publishers, the 7 universities paid NZ$19.4 million in 2016 in order to rent access to journal articles.
  • This amounts to $2300 per academic/research staff member.
  •  For comparison, the Marsden Fund awarded $84.6 million this year, a big increase on previous years.
  • In the period 2013-2016, the amount paid rose by 17%, whereas CPI inflation in NZ and most other developed countries was around 3% over that period.
Longtime readers of this column will have no doubt about my opinion on these data. A huge waste of public money is occurring – independent estimates of the real cost of production of journal articles by modern publishers put it around US$500 per article, at most, while the current setup yields income 10 times that for the large publishers. These publishers make profits of around 40%, unmatched in any other legal industry.
The big publishers realise that the current subscription model is not sustainable. Although the way they market journal bundles — “Big Deals” — helps to insulate them from cancellations, such cancellations by academic libraries are slowly increasing, because the cost increases year on year re simply too much for budgets to bear. The publishers have seized upon the author-pay open access model as a way to protect their revenue. This model  has serious resistance from researchers in fields such as mathematics.
Readers interested in learning about how we got to such an unpleasant situation should read this article. Readers interested in helping to get us out of the situation could do worse than to contact me at info@mathoa.org.

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.

Cybermath column NZ Math Society Newsletter August 2017

This column is focused on a single specialized topic. For almost the last two years I have been  involved with several international collaborators (from Australia, Netherlands, UK, France and Germany) in a project to accelerate the conversion of mathematics journals to a model involving open access with no direct payments by authors (sometimes called “diamond open access”). Some of these activities have been reported on in this Newsletter in the last several columns.

We created a legally constituted non-profit foundation (Stichting) called MathOA in the Netherlands in order to oversee the “flipping” of subscription journals to open access​.  The advisory board for MathOA includes Timothy Gowers, David Mumford, and several strong mathematicians who haven’t won the Fields Medal. MathOA is modelled on LingOA, a foundation in linguistics that organized the defection of the board of Lingua from Elsevier and the re-founding of the journal under the name Glossa, published by Ubiquity Press.

LingOA and MathOA have since been joined by PsyOA (in psychology) and we intend to create a loose organization called Fair Open Access Alliance. We have formulated what we call the Fair Open Access Principles

We have also invited existing mathematics journals that (essentially) conform to these principles to join an as yet unnamed network which will become part of FOAA. So far the following have agreed to do so: Australasian Journal of Combinatorics, Discrete Analysis, Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, Epijournal de Geometrie Algebraique, INTEGERS: The Electronic Journal of Combinatorial Number Theory, Internet Mathematics, Journal de th\’{e}orie des nombres de Bordeaux, Journal of Computational Geometry, Logical Methods in Computer Science, SIGMA. FOAA is in its infancy and we are investigating ways in which we can create synergy between these independent journals, and make them even better (they are already very good or excellent in many respects).​

After the administrative details above, the \textbf{big news} to report is that the editorial board of Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics, currently published by Springer, has resigned to create a new journal (which is clearly the re-formation of the old one) under the name Algebraic Combinatorics, published in association with Centre Mersenne. This has been assisted from the start by MathOA.

Conversion of journals to open access is accepted by the large publishers only if it doesn’t negatively affect their profits. Thus if they own the journal title, what usually happens is  a refusal to negotiate seriously and an attempt to find a new editorial board to continue the old title. In my opinion, it is an attack on the mathematical community (and the wider public, and science itself) for a researcher to accept an offer to run such a zombie journal. Almost always, journals losing their entire editorial board in this way do cease publication within a few years (see my blog post)  and the new ones thrive.

Although this action by the editors is in some sense obviously ethically correct, and is made  easier by legal and practical help from MathOA, it still requires considerable courage from the editors. Leaving aside them having to forego approximately $2^11 annual stipend, they need to deal with pestering by publisher representatives (who suddenly discover how important the journal is after years of taking it for granted), media attention, learning new editorial software, and general uncertainty. So I salute Akihiro Munemasa, Hendrik van Maldeghem, Christos Athanasiadis and Hugh Thomas, who to my knowledge are the first editors-in-chief to flip their mathematics journal from a subscription model to one run according to Fair OA principles. May they be followed by many, and soon!

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.