Vienna

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!

Banff

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.

Journal-flipping

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.

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).

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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.

Fair Open Access Principles

I have been working for the last 18 months with a group of talented and committed people to accelerate conversion of subscription journals to open access. There are many barriers, and many pitfalls. For example, so-called “predatory” open access journals that take authors’ money and provide no quality control have gained considerable publicity and must be avoided. Large, inefficent and greedy commercial publishers have attempted to “double-dip” by introducing Hybrid OA. Otherwise well-run open access journals still have high publication charges.

Our aim is to avoid these problems by retaining community control of journals and adhering to high ethical standards. Here is a list of our basic principles, based on the original version introduced by LingOA. This list was developed after extensive discussion and some consultation with other OA advocates such as Peter Suber and Marie Farge. We hope it will be useful in delineating what we see as the ideal way to publish journals. This is not to say that all other ways are necessarily “unfair”, of course, although some of them clearly are!

The Fair Open Access Principles

  1. The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community.
  2. Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.
  3. All articles are published open access and an explicit open access licence is used.
  4. 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.
  5. Any fees paid on behalf of the journal to publishers are low, transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out.

Clarification notes:

  1. This could be ownership by an editorial board, or by a democratically controlled scholarly society, for example. Key points are that the controlling organization, not a commercial publisher, must own the journal title, so that a change of service provider can be achieved without changing the title, and so publishing companies simply compete to offer services to the journal. We strongly recommend that the ownership structure allow for democratic input by the community of readers, authors and referees, in addition to editors, and that procedures for making key decisions about the journal’s future be formally (even legally) specified. We strongly recommend that the governing organization be fully nonprofit (for example, IRS 501 (c) (3) in USA). A for-profit company accountable only to shareholders is not compatible with Principle 1.
  2. The  journals and their publishing house can still propose, among their services, to take care of possible legal issues pertaining to copyright on the author’s behalf, under the author’s oversight. We strongly recommend that reviewers also retain copyright of their reviews, and journals retain ownership of all correspondence and mailing lists compiled on the electronic submission system put at their disposal by the publisher.
  3. Any form of subscription paywall is unacceptable, including “hybrid OA”. We  strongly recommend that the industry standard CC-By licence be used. All content of the journal should be easily accessible from the journal website to anyone with a standard internet connection.
  4. The key idea is that journals be “free at the point of use” by authors and readers. Principle 3 deals with readers and Principle 4 with authors. Compulsory APCs (article publication charges) are not compatible with this principle. Journals should ideally be funded by general contributions from universities and research funders, with these contributions not tied to individual articles or groups of authors. Principle 4 is not compatible with “APC Big Deals”, whereby institutions pay for APCs of their employees but do not contribute to a general fund. Also not compatible is the practice of charging APCs by default to the author’s institution, with waivers for authors who do not have institutional funds. The principle does not preclude voluntary APCs, but requests for these must be unobtrusive and no barrier to publication. APCs must be “opt-in”, never “opt-out”.
  5. “Low” depends on the particulars of each journal, but we strongly recommend an absolute maximum of $1000 per article published or $50 per page for the total expense of any journal, and substantially lower fees in all possible cases. We recommend that an itemized price structure be made public in order to ensure transparency and make the proportionality principle apparent.

 

What happens to journals that break away?

Although it is still a relatively rare occurrence, several journal boards have broken away from large commercial publishers. A good list is at the Open Access Directory. These journals usually are required to change their name, because the previous publisher will not relinquish it. They are cut off from the enormous support provided by large commercial publishers (after all their subscription prices are so high, the money is surely being put back into developing better infrastructure, rather than, say enriching shareholders, giving inflated honoraria to editors or paying inefficient support staff). Thus one might expect that these journals would struggle.

I looked at the fortunes of the mathematics journals that have taken this route. Below I list the original title name, the approximate date of the breakaway, the new title and publisher, and citation impact measures taken from 2014 data at eigenfactor.org, and compare them to the results for the original journal. Those measures are EF (size-dependent measure of importance) and AI (analogous to Impact Factor, but based on the same kind of reasoning as underlies PageRank – not all citations are equal). Each has a maximum value of 100. These are of course not the only measures one could use. I also list CE, the 2013 cost-effectiveness rating from journalprices.com (essentially, subscription cost per citation) – the smaller the better.

Old: Journal of Logic Programming (Elsevier), changed name more than once to Journal of Logical and Algebraic Methods in Programming, still publishing, EF = 0, AI = 0, CE = 84.73
New: (1999) Theory and Practice of Logic Programming (Cambridge), EF = 31, AI = 40, 42.33

Old: Machine Learning (Springer), EF = 77, AI = 92, CE = 27.01
New: (2001) Journal of Machine Learning Research (diamond OA), EF = 94, AI = 97, CE = 0.0

Old: Topology and Its Applications (Elsevier), still publishing, EF = 78, AI = 33, CE = 32.34
New: (2001) Algebraic and Geometric Topology (Math Sciences Press), EF = 77, AI = 77, CE = 3.67

EDIT: I received email from Alex Scorpan saying: “The facts are that AGT was born by splitting off from “Geometry & Topology”. The resignation of the board of “Topology and its Applications” may have occurred at the same time, may have involved people on the board of AGT, and may have involved the same ethos that moved the founders of GT and AGT, but otherwise the two events are not connected.” Alex has edited the OAD wiki to fix this. I haven’t looked into the question any further.

Old: Journal of Algorithms (Elsevier), stopped publishing after 6-7 years.
New: (2003) Transactions on Algorithms (ACM), EF = 60, AI = 76, CE = 5.57

Old: Topology (Elsevier), stopped publishing after 6 years
New: (2006) Journal of Topology (Oxford), EF = 70, AI = 93, CE = 39.24

Old: K-Theory (Springer), stopped publishing very soon, and archives disappeared.
New: (2007) Annals of K-Theory (Math Sciences Press) (after an intermediate change to Journal of K-Theory (Cambridge), EF = 59, AI = 79, CE = 102.47), too new for EF, AI

Old: Journal of Philosophical Logic (Springer), still publishing, no EF, AI or CE listed (the website lists only “interim editors”)
New: (2007) Review of Symbolic Logic (Cambridge) EF = 35, AI = 49, CE = 222.58

It seems clear that the new journals are doing considerably better than the old ones overall. I wonder whether the idea often touted by radical leftist OA advocates that large commercial publishers don’t add much value could have a grain of truth in it.

We have met the enemy, part 2: clueless authors

In recent discussions, an editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal made the assertion that there is no point in going through the hassle of switching to an open access publishing option, because authors are allowed to post the final accepted version (“postprint”) publicly, for example at arXiv.org.

Ignoring the rather cavalier attitude to readers (what if the author doesn’t bother to do it?) and the tacit admission that journals serve no real purpose other than (possible) post-publication peer review improvements and giving a 0-1 quality stamp, let us focus on the authors.

After all the hard work involved in writing and paper and having it accepted, few authors relish the extra work involved in ensuring that the readership of the paper is maximized. But this is a very small amount of work in comparison to the total for the project. Uploading to arXiv takes only a few minutes, and there are plenty of other venues with similarly low overhead (institutional repositories, sites like ResearchGate (if ethically acceptable to the author), and other subject repositories). Even putting the postprint on a personal webpage is better than nothing.

Yet despite the ease of making their work available, a large fraction of authors simply don’t do it. In 2011 Kristine Fowler surveyed mathematicians’ views on various issues (the linked article is well worth reading) and found that only about half of authors practise self-archiving (some publish in open access journals but this is relatively rare). She lists several other barriers to self-archiving found in previous studies: lack of time, not regarding it as an important dissemination venue, concerns about copyright, publishers’ attitudes, the quality of the archive, inadvertent changes to the work, and the deposit procedure.

Fowler’s survey also discusses author rights. The results are remarkable to me, two striking quotes being:

Several open-ended comments indicate that some mathematicians do not know or do not care about author rights issues: “I don’t usually think much about this aspect of publishing” and “I have to say that I generally just ignore any associated author rights and do what I like with my paper.”

and

… only 16% of mathematics authors (91 respondents) report having tried to improve the terms of publication, whereas most have signed a publisher-provided author agreement, either before (27%) or after (59%) reading it (participants could report more than one action). Among those who have negotiated with publishers to retain more author rights, 92% report they are usually or always successful.

So: my working hypothesis is that a sadly large fraction of my colleagues just don’t think it is important to ensure that their work is available to read, use excuses for inaction, and are happy to live up to the stereotype of the unworldly academic. For me, this is unacceptable.