Conferences: SSCW and COMSOC

I recently (late June, but other things got in the way of this report) attended the Society for Social Choice and Welfare meeting in Boston and the Computational Social Choice meeting in Pittsburgh. Here follows a short report.

SSCW was held at Boston College with around 300 attendees.

Positives: The meeting was overall well organized and the open air conference “clambake” dinner a particular highlight. There were several famous speakers from the Boston area, including Amartya Sen and Daron Acemoglu.

Negatives: Holding parallel sessions in different buildings made switching sessions difficult, which was a problem because there were many sessions that clashed (at least for me). The schedule was very tough, with talks starting at 0800 most days, and the lack of accommodation on campus meant that, with travel time, each day was about 11 hours long. Several of the invited speakers were very hard to track down afterwards, and I suspect they only came in for their talk.

COMSOC 2014 was held at Carnegie Mellon University with around 70 attendees. It was nicely hosted by Ariel Procaccia, and the conference dinner among the dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was even better than the SSCW one. While less gruelling than the week before, this meeting was certainly a test of stamina for me. Carnegie-Mellon Computer Science was an impressive place, with the architecture of the Gates building and the conference auditorium coming complete with individually sponsored seats including some reserved for Manuel Blum and relatives (how many other university departments worldwide have 3 members of the same family as professors?)

I came away with some new ideas, but not as many as I had hoped, from these two meetings.

Perhaps it is time to rethink conferences of this sort. I would like to see more time for discussion, which probably means reducing the talk length even more. The main purpose of such meetings is to meet people and talk to them, but if you are sitting in talks all the time, this is not easy. Maybe everyone should give a 5-minute (or shorter) talk to advertise, and then have an enormous “poster session” where questions can be asked in detail. Speed dating for researchers has a certain appeal, perhaps.

CMSS Summer Workshop December 2014

6th CMSS Summer Workshop
8-12 December 2014
University of Auckland

The Centre for Mathematical Social Science (CMSS) is pleased to announce that its 6th Summer Workshop will be held at the University of Auckland in the week of 8-12 December 2014. The CMSS is an inter-disciplinary research centre whose members include mathematicians, computer scientists, philosophers and economists. Information on the CMSS, and details of previous Workshops, can be found on our website:
This year’s theme is diffusion in social networks, but submissions on any aspect of mathematical social science are welcome.

Confirmed speakers include:
– Matthew O. Jackson (Stanford University) — Seelye Foundation Fellow
– Damon M. Centola (University of Pennsylvania)

If you would like to participate in the Workshop, please contact any of the organisers listed below by 15 October 2014. Contributed slides or papers will be archived on the CMSS website. We will be glad to hear from you.

There is no fee for participating in the Workshop.

Patrick Girard (Philosophy)
Dion O’Neale (Physics)
Mark C. Wilson (Computer Science)
University of Auckland

Official Information Act requests in the style of Tim Gowers

Update: information from Victoria University of Wellington received.

Inspired by Gowers’ monumental effort to find out how much commercial publishers are charging universities for journal access, I have sent Official Information Act requests to New Zealand universities. It seems that in NZ (unlike UK) there is no right of internal appeal against a decision to decline to give information, and the next official step is to go to the Ombudsman, whose office is, I am told, overworked.

Here is what I have found out so far. I sent similar requests to several places, but made minor changes out of boredom and interest to see whether a different result would be obtained. As expected, the initial replies have not been very helpful. The next step is presumably to contact these institutions informally and see whether any rewording of the request could be more effective. Beyond that, all I can see is a long wait for the Ombudsman.

The replies (edited down to the essentials) so far are below. It doesn’t seem that there has been as much coordination with Elsevier as Tim suspected in the UK situation. Different excuses are given, which may make at least complaints to the Ombudsman more likely to succeed.

A note on overall journal subscription costs: this information for Australian and NZ universities can be obtained at According to this, for example, in 2013 University of Otago spent over AU$8.4M in serial subscriptions, just under AU$1.9M in non-serials, and a little over AU$9.0M in salaries. So journal subscriptions make up a very large fraction of their budget.

University of Auckland

The University currently pays Taylor/Francis USD 413,715 + AUD 20,292 and Wiley USD 891,067.

Making information about what we currently pay Elsevier and Springer for journal access available would be likely to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the University. Withholding this information is necessary to enable the University, without prejudice or disadvantage, to carry on negotiations with these publishers. Accordingly, the information requested is withheld under s 9(2)(b)(ii) and s 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act.


AUT has a contractual arrangement with Elsevier. For this reason we have reached the decision that it is necessary to withhold the information in accordance with section 18 (a) Official Information Act 1982 and pursuant to section 9(2)(i) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, commercial activities and section 9(2)(j) to enable the University to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, negotiations.

University of Waikato

The University and Elsevier have a confidentiality agreement regarding the financial and commercial terms of their contract. Your request is therefore refused under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) of the Official Information Act 1982 on the grounds that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of Elsevier.

Massey University

You have requested details of Massey University’s expenditure annually for access to Elsevier journals. You have specifically requested the total annual fee, split into three components. You have also requested the annual total budget for journal access for all publishers.

Massey University advises that the access to Elsevier electronic journals is subject to a confidential legal agreement. Accordingly, Massey University declines to release the information requested under section 2 (b) (ii)  of the Official Information Act 1982 – which protects the commercial position of those who are subject to the enquiry e.g. Elsevier and Massey, and 2 (ba) which provides for protection of information which is subject to an obligation of confidence.

Victoria University of Wellington

In 2013 they paid Taylor & Francis $484000 and Wiley $542856.  This is for (T&F) Core Journal Collection, Social Science Journals, Science and Technology Journals, CRCnetBASE products; (Wiley) Wiley e-journal package, Current Protocol Online. They also said

The details for Elsevier and Springer are withheld under Section 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act 1982, on the basis that withholding this information is necessary to prevent prejudice or disadvantage to the ability of Victoria to carry on negotiations with these providers.


University of Canterbury

The University can release to you the second part of your request. The total Library information resources budget for 2014 is $5.9M. … A reasonable estimate of ongoing journal purchases would be $4.6M. ….

The University is withholding the first part of your request – the total annual fee for Elsevier journals – under Section 9(2)(ba) of the Official Information Act on the basis that the information is subject to an obligation of confidence created by a confidentiality clause at 7.8 of the agreement we hold with Elsevier.

The University also withholds this information under Section 9(2)(b)(ii) on the basis that making the information available would be likely unreasonably to prejudice  Elsevier’s commercial position where they have negotiated specific terms with us.

Lincoln University

I have not made a formal request. An informal one to the library resulted in:

I am afraid that Lincoln University is unable to provide you with this information. Most licence agreements prevent us from disclosing this information. I am sorry I am unable to be more helpful.

University of Otago

In 2013 the University of Otago’s budget for print journals and eresources (this includes all e-continuations, databases, journals, streaming video, ebook collections etc  – with ongoing fee, not just journals) was NZD $9,031,438.

The amount spent annually for access to Elsevier journals is withheld under sections 9(2)(i) and 9(2)(j) of the Official Information Act.  The reasons being commercial sensitivity and prejudice to commercial negotiations.


National Statement of Science Investment

Yesterday Minister Steven Joyce released the  NSSI and called for submissions (deadline 22 August). One useful feature is that it explains the current system.
It has become clear that huge changes have been made to the science funding system in the last few years. There have been some very worrying developments, such as the removal of the NZST postdoc scheme, the appallingly cronyistic way the National Science Challenges have been run, the disorganization of MBIE (look at their website sometime!), etc. The sheer amount and rate of change is perhaps the worst problem. It is surely time that some kind of multi-party consensus on science funding be forged, so such large changes don’t happen so often. Without high quality input from the sector, I don’t see that happening.

I urge everyone in the research sector (and maybe others) to consider participating in a submission. It is annoying that we seem to have to spend so much time on non-core business these days, but this is important enough (in my opinion) to be an exception to the apparent rule that one should ignore such ephemera and concentrate only on one’s own research.

We have met the enemy: part 1, pusillanimous editors

I have been semi-obsessively following developments related to the Elsevier boycott, open access publishing, and related issues for the last 2 years. Perhaps my idealist personality is always in need of a cause to fight. As so often in the past (e.g. the uprisings in Iran and Arab countries in the last few years), my initial hopes that the world would be reorganized in a more reasonable, fairer, and more efficient manner have not been fulfilled. There are many reasons why progressive movements fail. The goals may be unrealistic, there may be powerful individual incentives against collective action, etc. In the next few posts, I want to discuss why progress is so slow in moving to a new system of research publishing that almost everyone seems to think is inevitable and most think is desirable. I am not trying deliberately to be offensive, but I feel that the time is right to start talking more directly about the ethical standards of our research colleagues. Commercial publishers certainly don’t have the interests of science at heart, but they are not the main cause of the current malaise.

One reason for lack of change is the lack of a reason to change. I presume there are some people who still think the current journal system is close to optimal. This is likely a minority opinion, but still needs to be addressed.

Difficulties with the current system (System A)

  • Most journal titles are owned by for-profit companies (usually called “publishers”, but I will call them “owners”).
  • Each journal has a monopoly on its content.
  • Pricing information is deliberately made opaque by owners, using bundling and non-disclosure clauses in contracts.
  • Therefore, journal prices increase at a rate well above true costs, leading to huge profits by the owners and financial strain on libraries. For this, very limited access to content is given to the public.

A better version of the current system (System B)

  • Each journal is owned by a nonprofit society, university library, or similar organization.
  • Any publishing services required by the journal are contracted out transparently and competitively.
  • This should lead to lower overall subscription costs for libraries. The issue of public access is not addressed.

An alternative (System C)

  • Authors pay the up-front cost of publication.
  • Content is freely available to anyone.

This is usually called “gold open access”. Switching to such a system would lead to large savings overall compared to the current system. There are problems with exactly how authors pay, among other things.

System C deserves its own post. In the rest of this post, I want to discuss the more traditional options.

How to change from A to B

Owners accustomed to supernormal profits will resist giving up the exclusive right to use journal titles. Methods to achieve the desired result include

  • Asking assertively.
  • Threatening to move the editorial board to another publisher (changing the name, but making it clear that the “real” journal will be moving and the traditionally named one is not supported by the editorial board.
  • Carrying out such a threat.

Why has so little happened?

Tim Gowers’ latest post includes the following:

There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have done in the past), which would have forced Elsevier to sit up and take more serious notice. Instead, they waited for things to settle down, and now, two years later, the main problems, bundling and exorbitant prices, continue unabated: in 2013, Elsevier’s profit margin was up to 39%. (The profit is a little over £800 million on a little over £2 billion.)

I find this very hard to understand. There is a clear path to follow, demonstrated by several editorial boards. I read some comments about deliberations by the editors of Journal of Number Theory in 2012. Apparently: (attributed to Urs Hartl) “in a recent vote among the 36 editors – 19 wanted the divorce – 6 didn’t – 6 were not ready to commit at this time and abstained – 5 didn’t respond.” It would be very interesting to read public comments from some of the editors.

An anecdote: I was asked to referee a paper by an Associate Editor (whom I dont know personally) of the Elsevier journal Discrete Mathematics. After rejecting this because of the Elsevier boycott, I received an email from this Associate Editor.

If you have a colleague who is an Elsevier editor, take a look at
their tools for managing a journal.   Similar open source tools could
be developed, but  serious dedicated resources would be needed.
Working at [redacted] and on software for [redacted] have taught me not to underestimate the task of creating top notch tools.  Besides tools, Elsevier provides large databases of
potential referees, referee reviewing history, and on-line access to
large libraries of papers.  They make it very easy to manage the
editorial process.   Their tools have helped our efforts to improve
the journal Discrete Mathematics.

Having these tools available has made it possible to keep plugging
away given the turmoil in the peer reviewing process.  I have handled
a nontrivial number of papers for which finding willing reviewers was
a challenge.  I’ve found that the Elsevier tools (together with Google
Scholar) have made it possible for me to ultimately end up with two
reports for even the most troublesome paper.   By the way, I feel that
referees should be compensated; I’ve  articulated this view several
times to Elsevier when I’ve had the chance to provide suggestions.
However, there seems to be little opportunity to change things, even
in token ways.  Although I would like to more precise, I think all I
can say is that Discrete Mathematics associate editors get a mid-four
figure salary (in US$), enough not to feel taken advantage of, but
less than it should be.   I also know that the chief editor receives
quite a bit more, as he should.

…  Everyone on the editorial board resonates with many of the
complaints raised by the boycott.   But we all have decided to
continue working on the journal and encouraging Elsevier to change
many of its ways.  I feel I am doing a service to the authors and to
the mathematical community by this work.

Let’s address the main points raised here:

  • The owner provides me with a lot of useful software tools to do my job.

Since I am not an Elsevier editor I can’t comment on their tools. My recollection from the time when I was an Elsevier referee is that the Elsevier Editorial System was nothing special.

However, I do have considerable experience as an editor using Open Journal Systems software. My enquiry to the Associate Editor about which features EES has that OJS doesn’t was met with silence. Does anyone reading this have a good answer?

  • The owner pays me thousands of dollars a year.

My own opinion is that this is scandalous. I am sure not everyone will agree. It certainly creates a strong impression in my mind of conflict of interest.

  • I am working to change the system from the inside.

Concessions made by Elsevier so far to a strong campaign by researchers have amounted to not much more than reduction in rates of price increase and freeing up of archives in some subject areas that don’t substantially impact the profitability of Elsevier. It is not remotely enough. My enquiry to the Associate Editor as to his progress in changing things was met with silence.

My conclusions, in the absence of further information: senior researchers by and large are too comfortable, too timid, too set in their ways, or too deluded to do what is needed for the good of the research enterprise as a whole. I realize that this may be considered offensive, but what else are the rest of us supposed to think, given everything written above? I have not even touched on the issue of hiring and promotions committees perpetuating myths about impact factors of journals, etc, which is another way in which senior researchers are letting the rest of us down (there are very few prepared to do what Randy Schekman has). That might be a topic for another post.

I very much hope that this post will stimulate serious discussion and we can really hear some principled reasons why, at the very least, we haven’t seen more progress toward System B, or a cheaper version of System A. Senior researchers invested in the current system, please let us know your views!

Open access news

Sometimes it is easy to forget that there may still be people who are not informed about this issue.

  • A nice summary by Samuel Gershman. He doesn’t mention one reason for the status quo being so hard to change: each journal has a monopoly on papers, and publisher packages (“the Big Deal”) make it hard to cancel individual journals – in any case, authors are insulated from having to make decisions about publication venues based on price.
  • Peter Murray-Rust is rightly angry about devious/incompetent publishers getting in the way
  • A great title: Causes for the persistence of impact factor mania
  • Meanwhile, Elsevier (anagram of Evil Seer) just keeps on going, with rising profits
  • The University of Waikato now has an open access “mandate” (a bit toothless for that name, really a policy, but a reasonable start). I have seen claims that it is the first in NZ, but it seems Lincoln University beat them to that. I know the University of Auckland has a working group on this issue. So, some slow progress, and maybe in my lifetime we will get where we ought to be already.

Jobs in the department

From Head of Department:

Just to let know that the three new lecturer positions in our department are now live on the university vacancies page. Closing date of 31 March for applications, so please pass the news around top candidates that you are feel might be interested. The three positions are:

Lecturer in Digital Security

Lecturer in Bioinformatics

Lecturer in Software Engineering

Is there a better way to fund research?

As I submit yet another low-probability grant bid that took up too much of my time, once again thoughts that “there must be a better way” come to mind. It seems that many colleagues feel the same way. Some interesting reading:

I have always felt that adding a random component to the grant award system, so as not to waste so much time trying to distinguish between very similar proposals, and giving out more, but smaller, grants, would be improvements. Reading comments on the above articles shows that several others agree. Perhaps it is time to try out some more modelling!