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

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.

Cybermath column NZ Math Society Newsletter April 2017

This column takes a break from its recent heavy focus on publication reform to list a few interesting links more related to mathematical research and other professional issues. It is a partially fenced stream of consciousness, but may be useful all the same.

Laci Babai made a bold claim, which generated substantial publicity, that determining whether two graphs are isomorphic can be solved in quasipolynomial time. Harald Helfgott found a flaw while reading the paper deeply in order to present it to S\'{e}minaire Bourbaki, which I had no idea still existed. Babai retracted the claim on 4 January 2017, and reasserted it after fixing the proof on 7 January 2017. How long would this process have taken under the current journal system — would the error have been spotted at all? (sorry, couldn’t resist that). This is an important theoretical breakthrough and shows how well mathematics can work in the internet age.

Speaking of internet mathematics, there is a  journal of that name, devoted really to the mathematics of complex networks (what we used to call graphs before the marketers took over). Not only is the journal interesting and apparently well run, it uses the new platform  Scholastica (as does Tim Gowers’  Discrete Analysis). Another interesting fact is that the journal was formerly published by one of the traditional publishers (Taylor \& Francis), and they gave it up to the editors (not, however, before charging them for the back issues).

Getting back to mathematics on the internet, Polymath is still active, although generating less publicity than a few years ago. They are currently focusing on Rota’s basis conjecture:  if $B_1, B_2, \dots, B_n$ are disjoint bases of an $n$-dimensional vector space $V$  then there exists disjoint bases $C_1, \dots, C_n$ such that each $C_j$ contains one element from each $B_i$.

The arXiv has become very important to mathematicians. At my urging my university will become a financial supporter. I challenge other readers to get their institutions to do the same, rather than freeload as seems to be NZ policy in so many areas in recent years. Although it is cheap to run per paper, the total cost is nontrivial because there are so many papers. It is a challenge to keep up with new postings, so if you trust recommendation algorithms, try  arXivist (“your personal guide to the arXiv”) or Scirate to navigate it. An alternative is to visualise its million-plus papers as a complex network using Paperscape.

The arXiv idea has recently spread to disciplines with very little preprint tradition. The Center for Open Science has developed a preprint platform used by psychology, engineering, sociology and other fields. Maybe journals will change radically soon, after all.

Springer made many old volumes in its Graduate Texts in Mathematics series available for free download in late 2015. The direct links can be found easily by searching although they have apparently revoked the free deal. If they were serious, presumably they would remove the links.

If you want to attend a mathematical meeting in person rather than do everything via the internet, try MathMeetings.Net which aims to be a complete list.

I recently read (much of — far too many letters and namedropping for my taste to finish all of it) The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. A controversial figure but certainly a mathematician (for part of his life) who followed his conscience wherever it took him. The American Mathematical Society is awarding the Bertrand Russell Prize every 3 years from 2018, for “research or service contributions of mathematicians or related professionals to promoting good in the world and recognizes (sic) the various ways that mathematics furthers human values.” Thomas Hales has apparently funded the prize. It would be good to see nominations (which close 30 June 2017) from this part of the world.

Of course, political activity by mathematicians can cause problems and muddy reputations, as the recently deceased great mathematician Igor Shafarevich found out. Other nonagenarians who have left us recently, in mathematics or related fields, include Kenneth Arrow, Joseph Keller, Howard Raiffa and Thomas Schelling. Going back a year, there is also Christopher Zeeman (whom I am sure visited NZ sometime), Fields Medallist Klaus Roth, while Felix Browder made it to 89. Best wishes to all readers aiming to make 100 while still doing mathematics! The longest-lived mathematician that I am aware of is Leopold Vietoris who not only lived during three centuries, has quite a few concepts named after him.

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.


Election 2014: ethical standards

Media coverage of the election campaign so far has been dominated by allegations and revelations of unsavoury behaviour by various politicians and hangers-on.

The recent revelations by Nicky Hager  were shocking to me. I don’t believe that “everyone is doing it”, as some commentators and political actors claim; the sooner the people involved are flushed out of the system, the better. However, unless we do something to change the practice of politics, it is likely to happen again (with more secrecy, making it even more damaging).

Several commentators have called for more focus on policy, and less on people. In general, I agree with this. However, maybe this is misguided (I also suspect that in many cases it is self-serving, because “their” side is on the receiving end for once). Trust and ethical issues are certainly important in politics, and one can even argue that they are increasingly important, as more and more government decisions are made in a less than transparent way, and become technically difficult and hard for voters to understand. No amount of policy discussion will be useful if those charged with making major decisions on our behalf have ethical standards as low as have been revealed recently.

Debates about ethics in politics are often hijacked by spurious arguments about aspects of morality that are largely irrelevant. The Len Brown saga showed that politicians can behave poorly in their “private” lives. However salacious media coverage of his affair failed to follow up some important questions. Some small irregularities involving free hotel rooms were all that came out of the weeks (months?) of coverage. Despite complaining to the NZ Herald, I never saw any satisfactory investigative journalism or commentary on what I saw as a key issue: a candidate for local government with a recent conviction for dishonesty was put forward by her party without disclosing her past to the voters, and the media didn’t find out until after she became (in)famous for other reasons. As someone who voted for her, I feel completely taken advantage of.

In every profession (medicine, teaching, engineering, …) there are ethical standards, which carry severe penalties if broken. I am not sure whether there can be a more prescriptive code of ethics for politicians, for one reason because it is not supposed to be a profession (although at national level it largely is). An alternative to having to trust is to use greater transparency. We should have more information about what our representatives are doing, so as to judge their performance better. However I don’t see how the kind of behaviour that has been revealed recently can be prevented by increasing transparency.

This is why we have the press, the “fourth branch of government”. Recently it has become abundantly clear just how low the NZ mass media have sunk in the area of news and current affairs, and how intellectually weak their reporting is. Without a serious commitment (backed up by real money) to public service broadcasting, it is unlikely to improve. I am really surprised that this is not a bigger election issue. In the short term, issues such as the electoral system, public broadcasting, free speech and even education may not seem the most essential. In the long term, unless they are dealt with properly, everything else degrades because the quality of decision-making goes down. If I am reading the financial statement correctly, Radio NZ and TVNZ receive at most 1/4 of the government funding per capita of the ABC in Australia.

The reaction to a satirical column  by Toby Manhire shocked me. I thought I had some idea of the intellectual level of New Zealanders, or at least those who comment online. The fact that such a large percentage of readers did not recognize the article as satire was extremely depressing. Manhire’s columns are always worth reading, and almost always satirical, so this reaction was really unexpected. New Zealand culture has many very good features, but critical thinking and introspection have never been among them. Without help from high quality journalism, it becomes even more difficult for the public to concentrate on important issues. I must add that the weak tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, acting as the “critic and conscience of society” as universities are supposed to by law, exacerbates the situation.

We need to pay attention to the part of the body above the neck if this country is to thrive.

Election 2014: overview

NZ has a general election scheduled for 20 September 2014. While voting in an election is a very small part of democratic participation, it is undeniably important. I have spent substantial research time studying voting methods in general, and have submitted to the Electoral Commission review of MMP in 2012. The shelving of the Commission’s recommendations was disappointing. However I believe that overall New Zealand has a highly performing electoral system, compared to other countries. We should aim to optimize it, but the main problem with democracy lies elsewhere.

I am less confident now  than ever before that representative democracy can fulfil all the expectations we have of it. The rise of internet technology allows us to connect the public with its representatives much more easily than before. Perhaps it is time to think hard about whether our current system of (essentially) delegating a proxy vote is the best possible. I don’t have much insight yet on this topic, so will stick to the current paradigm for now. In other posts, to come soon, I will discuss a few issues related to the current election, from the perspective of a voter and an observer of politics, with no research agenda or claims to special knowledge.

In 2011 Geoffrey Pritchard and I produced an online simulator to predict the outcome of elections under several alternative voting systems under consideration in the referendum on MMP. Since MMP was confirmed by the referendum and no changes have yet been made to its parameters, this tool is of no real use in 2014. It is good to see that there are other online tools that aim to assist voters to make an informed choice. A new one getting a lot of publicity is VoteCompass. I tried it out yesterday, and it seems definitely worth using in order to get an idea of party policies and one’s own political preferences.

In the 2013 local elections, Generation Zero had useful scorecards rating the candidates, based on interviews and email surveys. I recall seeing simpler scorecards that rated party policies in specific areas for previous elections, but haven’t found any this year. A systematic presentation of these would be very helpful. Another idea is to look at voting records of representatives, and performance measures of members of parliament. Something like this is done in USA, by organizations such as the League of Women Voters. In general, if representative democracy is to work well, much more transparency is needed, and it should be as easy to compare candidates as it is to decide on which model of a particular consumer good to buy.