Guest post: Why mathematicians do not solve the Open Access Problem?

The following is a guest post by Stephen Glasby.

In July 2012 Tim Gowers wrote A new open-access venture from Cambridge University Press. The idea of arXiv overlay journals has been around for over 4 years, and there are very powerful ideas to support them. Why then does the mathematical community seem reluctant to support them?

Let me begin with a some history and context.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Mathematics Reviews (MR) and Zentralblatt (Zbl). Although Zbl had been reviewing journal articles since 1931, antisemitic pressures at that time led to the establishment of MR in 1940 (the last printing of MR was 2012). The electronic database MathSciNet, established in 1996, has made the printed versions of both MR and Zbl obsolete. We all know that MathSciNet is not merely a list of reviews: it contains links to journal articles, authors, references, citations, and related reviews. MR employs about 100 people in An Arbor, Michigan, and these few people have transformed the way we do mathematics. Mathematics is fortunate to have both MathSciNet and the arXiv. The natural sciences, by contrast, do not have an equivalent of MathSciNet!

While MathSciNet could be further improved and extended, I will change tack and now focus on the Open Access Problem: that it is not free to publish/access/reuse research papers. This larger problem affects all of Mathematics. The Open Access Problem applies more generally to the sciences and medicine and it is described, with some solutions, in this broad context in the illustrated video. (Who owns your personal data is a very large issue.) Let us focus on mathematical Open Access problems and solutions, for mathematics has both the arXiv and MathSciNet. When we locate relevant research using MathSciNet, increasingly often, clicking on “article” to download the journal article shows that the article is “owned” by a publishing company, or a learned society, and downloading can cost US$40, or an annual subscription! This is a growing and lasting problem for mathematics, retarding both future research and proper referencing of past research.

One solution to the Open Access Problem, suggested by Tim Gowers and others, is to use arXiv overlay journals. Why is this practical solution not being implemented broadly? Such journals exist, but there are relatively few. I argue below that the solutions are easily implemented, and require essentially no additional effort, and have huge potential benefits. But they do require the mathematical establishment to embrace the change. Let us first look at problems and solutions before addressing the resistance to change.

There are many models for peer-reviewed Open Access publication, these have names such as Platinum, Gold, Diamond, and Green, but non-experts forget the definitions or use non-standard definitions. It seems better say whether articles are free to Publish, Access, Reuse, Typeset and Edited, etc. We will focus on journals that are free to Access (i.e. read and print), and free (or very cheap) to Publish and Reuse (i.e. link to, or republish, content). Clearly Typesetting and Editing are lesser problems for mathematics than the accessibility of past research.

Problem 0: A small fraction of new mathematical research is put on the arXiv before it is published, and this will remain the case for some time.

Solution: Establish journals that do publish on the arXiv, see Problem 2. The arXiv was established in 1991. It has 1.2M papers up to 2016, most are physics, and about 280,000 are in mathematics. MathSciNet lists 2.1M reviews from 1991-2016 so I estimate (very crudely) that about 1/7 of mathematical research papers are on the arXiv. The number of arXiv papers was doubling every 4 years, but this rate is slowing down. It is possible that in a decade the majority of math research papers will have preprint versions posted on the arXiv.

Problem 1: Many of the prestigious journals are owed by publishing companies, or learned societies, which make our research effectively inaccessible because of copyright, and cost of access. The cost of an average mathematics journal is US$1,700/yr and some papers have indefinite copyright. Subscription costs for some journals with shorter copyright periods can cost over US$8,000/yr (e.g. Elsevier’s Nonlinear Analysis).

Solution: Establish new journals that publish for “free” on the arXiv, see Problem 4. The research will be accessible and free (to read) in perpetuity. Moreover, it will be clear that the paper has been peer-reviewed, and MathSciNet can link to the refereed arXiv paper.

Problem 2: New journals have lower impact factors than expensive established journals, and academics must publish in high impact journals to be promoted, to obtain grants, etc.

Solution: If all mathematicians put the refereed and corrected version of their paper on the arXiv (even if it lacked the journal formatting) then this problem would be solved. As remarked above, this is not likely to happen soon. Another solution is to ask the editors of Journal X to resign en masse and establish a new journal called Journal EX (for Electronic Journal of X). The editors will review to the same standard as before so Journal EX must have the same academic standing as Journal X, see Problem 5.

Problem 3: Journal X has Editorial Management software, the new Journal EX would require similar software to be developed and maintained.

Solution: Free Editorial Management software already exists. Learned societies, or grants, or nominal “Publication Fees” could subsidize the cost of maintaining and further developing the software, see Problem 4.

Problem 4: There are unavoidable costs that must be born by the arXiv and MathSciNet. Who will pay for these?

Solution: There are many solutions here. The major costs would be refereeing and editing, but we perform these gratis, and distribution via the arXiv is close to free, so that leaves copy editing and maintaining MathSciNet databases. A growing number of universities have pledged to support fees for Open Access publication for articles written by their faculty, see this link. A nominal Publication Fee could be levied from author(s), or author(s) may be required to donate a nominal sum to a fund to maintain the arXiv, to keep MathSciNet subscriptions low, and to develop and maintain Editorial Management software, and maybe fund some copy editing. (The 2017 pricing for MathSciNet Consortia ranges from US$339.00 per institution to US$11,887.00: a fraction of library subscriptions costs for mathematics journals.)

Problem 5: Editors of high impact journals need not be concerned about egalitarianism and Open Access. Why should they resign en masse from the board of Journal X and form a new Open Access Journal EX?

The three main problems are: critical mass, will, and inertia. The work load of a editor is independent of whether s/he works for a journal that: exploits mathematical creativity, or one that fosters creativity (by rapid, free, accessible publications). I argue that editor intransigence is a major impediment to Open Access publication. I know of cases of individual editors whose libraries do not carry key journals because of cost, and yet these editors do not support Open Access. Why? Gowers suggested that a number of mathematicians have an emotional objection to Open Access publication.

A minority of mathematicians are editors for Open Access journals. Is this minority more concerned about the health of mathematical research than the majority? or are there cogent reasons for maintaining the status quo? I have tried to make new arguments for Open Access publishing in mathematics. A good source for further reading is Tim Gowers blog.

A sad day for blackboards at UWA

Over the next few months, the whole of the Mathematics building at UWA will be refurbished, including air-conditioning on the first floor, a re-design of the administration area, and an overhaul of the surrounding lecture theatres. Weatherburn LT, Blakers LT, and Maths Lecture Room 1, 2, 3 have had their blackboards ripped out, to be replaced with WHITEBOARDS (see the carnage below). I have already given my reservations about this exchange and lost the battle, and I am sure we will regret this move … alas.



Our Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics ran, what I think, was an excellent idea; to support “seed” projects of each of the “critical mass research groups” of the faculty. So in December, we put forward a plan to do a few interesting things with the funds given to us by the faculty, that would give returns. One of these was our retreat in February, which we already knew would give back more than was put in, as we had been doing this for a few years already. The other more significant expense was to set up a meeting between us and the Monash group of combinatorialists. This meeting has also coincided with the visits of Peter Cameron and Rosemary Bailey, who are the “professors-at-large” supported by the seed funding. So Ian Wanless, Graham Farr, Kerri Morgan, Daniel Horsely, and Darcy Best flew over from Melbourne and have been in Perth this week, and we have had talks and discussions over the last three days. The title of the meeting has now officially been coined “MUSIC” after a suggestion by Peter Cameron: Monash UWA Symposium In Combinatorics.MUSIC.jpg

Some slides of the talks are provided below:

More will be posted here soon once the meeting has concluded …

Two more conferences

It’s been a while since the last post, and much has happened. Last week, I attended “Combinatorics 2016” in Maratea Italy; a beautiful spot for a conference. I gave two talks: a short talk that was originally planned, plus I filled in for Tim Penttila’s plenary lecture since he was unable to make it at the last minute. Tim’s talk was about three instances where algebra and geometry are intimately linked:

  1. A proof of Wedderburn’s little theorem using the Dandelin-Gallucci theorem;
  2. A proof of the Artin-Zorn theorem by using the Glauberman-Heimbeck theorem;
  3. An alternative approach to proving the Burn-Hanson-Johnson-Kallaher-Ostrom theorem.

The algebraic statements of these results are fundamental in algebra, and they are accordingly:

  1. A finite division ring is a field;
  2. A finite alternative division ring is a field;
  3. A finite Bol quasifield is a nearfield.

And the beautiful geometric counterparts are:

  1. A finite Desarguesian projective plane is Pappian;
  2. A finite Moufang projective plane is Pappian;
  3. A finite Bol projective plane is coordinatised by a nearfield.

The short talk I gave was on joint work with Tim on the foundations of hyperbolic plane geometry, but more about that in a later post.

There were many talks, and I didn’t attend all of them, but the highlights for me were:

  • Ferdinand Ihringer’s talk “New bounds on the Ramsey number r(I_n,L_3)
  • Jan De Beule’s plenary lecture “Arcs in vector spaces over finite fields”
  • Geertrui Van de Voorde’s talk “Point sets in PG(2,q) such that every line meets in 0, 2, or t points”
  • Daniel Horsely’s plenary lecture “Extending Fisher’s inequality to coverings and packings”
  • Zsuzsa Weiner’s talk “A characterisation of Hermitian varieties”

This week, I attended another conference, but shorter. It was in the La Rioja wine region of north-west Spain, the second joint meeting of the Royal Spanish, Belgian, and Luxembourg mathematical societies. We had a special session on combinatorial and computational geometry which was perhaps the most international of the special sessions. From finite geometry, we had talks by myself, Aida Abaid, Maarten De Boeck, Nicola Durante, and Ferdinand Ihringer (pictured below).


My two favourite plenary lectures were the first and last of the conference: Sara Arias de Reyna  (A glimpse of the Langlands programme) and Jesús María Sanz Serna (Forests, Trees, Words, Letters).

New directions in additive combinatorics: day 4

The longer the conference goes, the more time I spend doing research with some of the participants, and I tend to day-dream more in the lecture, so the quality of reporting will inevitably be low. Ben Green completed his mini-course on finite field models in additive combinatorics, with many many applications of the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality. We then had a session of short talks by Peter Sin and Xiang-dong Hou. The former spoke on generalised adjacency matrices of graphs and when two such matrices of the same graph can be similar and be “Smith Normal Form” equivalent. The latter outlined a proof of a conjecture on “monomial” graphs, which has connections to generalised quadrangles (since the conjecture is about a girth 8 bipartite graph). After lunch, Peter Keevash finished off the proof of his fabulous theorem by wrapping up the strategy that he outlined in the first lecture. We then completed the day by a very nice session of short talks by Alice Hui and Sebastian Cioabă. The former gave a very nice result on switching strongly regular graphs arising from geometric configurations in symplectic spaces, and the latter gave a stimulating summary of the speaker’s work on different types of connectivity and expansion properties of distance-regular graphs and graphs coming from association schemes.

New directions in additive combinatorics: day 3

Yesterday, we had four 90 minute talks! We began with more of the details of Peter Keevash’s proof, that uses some interesting results on hypergraphs and counting paths. After morning tea, Aart Blokhuis delved into t-fold blocking sets, followed by Simeon’s introduction to the links with coding theory. In the afternoon, we moved to the Department of Mathematics (at NUS) to see a colloquium by Ben Green on “Permutations and Number Theory”; a fabulous talk, one of the best I’ve ever seen him give. Finally, the “young person’s talk” was given by Ameera Chowdhury who spoke on a cool way to view and prove the MDS conjecture for prime fields and in the De Beule – Ball bound case.

In the evening, I spent two hours with Qing Xiang, Tao Feng, and Koji Momihara chatting about some interesting directions and problems we could look at in finite geometry. These guys are very good with Gauss sums and cyclotomic constructions, and so we are looking for more problems of this kind. Watch this space … work is now underway to construct some interesting objects in finite geometry! What was most interesting in our two hour session was the bottomless amount of notes and random pieces of paper that Qing seems to have stashed in his bag. Often I would be at the whiteboard saying something like “and from some work I did ten years ago …” and then Qing would pull out the relevant pages of information from his mystery bag. It is conjectured that he could also find a rabbit in there with some extra effort.

New directions in additive combinatorics: day 2

I forgot to write the report last night as I got carried away with some mathematical discussions with a colleague; better late than never! First, I missed two talks today, due to forgetting the time mainly when I was talking with Simeon Ball about (q+1)-arcs of projective spaces. We’ve ended up doing something, and that’s what has occupied me in the last while. Anyway, Aart Blokhuis and Simeon Ball began their mini-course on “Polynomial methods in finite geometry” yesterday, beginning with blocking sets. What I took away was that Hasse derivatives do something that the standard derivatives do not, but I’m still at a bit of loss why they are so successful in capturing the information about directions determined by a function. After morning tea, Lev spoke on the state of the art on quadratic residues and difference sets. I found this harder to follow, but there were some very interesting tables on computer output where some strange things happen. Five primes come out as solutions on a test of trillions of integers. Luckily we will have the slides posted on the webpage so I can remember exactly what these computations were about. Then Stefaan De Winter gave a beautiful talk on partial difference sets, where he and his co-authors have knocked off most of Ma’s list of parameters on at most 100 vertices. This was very impressive. There’s more on this talk over at Peter Cameron’s blog.

In the afternoon, Ben Green gave the second part of his series; this time on Rusza’s results and various improvements and advances thereof. Today (the third day) he will be giving a colloquium in the mathematics department here. As I said above, I lost track after afternoon tea and missed Ken Smith and Jim Davis’s talks; but then regained my composure and attended Oktay Olmez’s talk on directed strongly regular graphs and partial geometric designs; a great finish to another fantastic day at NUS!

New directions in additive combinatorics: day 1

I know I’m not going to be able to keep this up, but I felt I needed to report on the first day of what is turning out to be an excellent conference at the National University of Singapore. This will leave me with the issue that my reporting of subsequent talks in this conference will not be at the same degree as I will present here, even though they might be of the same standard. So I apologise in advance.

First of all, we kicked off with Ben Green’s first lecture in his series on Finite Field Models (and in particular, to problems simulating outstanding problems in additive combinatorics). What was quite novel about this talk was that the news about the Sunflower Conjecture was placed in the centre of his talk: it was a news breaking talk. Add to this Tao’s reformulation of the Croot-Lev-Pach principle, and it really felt like everything we were being told was hot off the press. The next talk was by Peter Cameron, and he spoke about some problems to do with synchronisation (for automata and permutation groups). I was reminded that we still not have an idea what is going on with S_n acting on k-subsets for k>3. Something perhaps worth thinking about when I have time. Then Kai-Uwa Schmidt spoke about his recent results on o-polynomials; which are the functions you get when you coordinatise a hyperoval in a finite Desarguesian projective plane. I remember seeing his papers on the arxiv some time ago, so it was nice to see it all placed in context: some very nice recent results there on a problem that hasn’t seen many advances for a while. There were two citations of SymOmega in his talk: one of them was a comment I made about hyperovals, the second was a comment from Tim Penttila.

In the afternoon, Peter Keevash set the scene for his series on designs. He gave his big result of yesteryear, and all of its many consequences: Wilson’s Conjecture and the Existence Conjecture. He has only just outlined the strategy behind the proof, so the best is yet to come. I then gave the first talk after afternoon tea: it was a tad rushed, but I managed to get to the end. After my talk was a summary of the EKR problem for finite polar spaces by Klaus Metsch. Klaus has produced many interesting results in this area of late, and often by applying the Hoffmann bound to linear combinations of adjacency matrices of an association scheme! He showed that good old finite geometry techniques pair up well with the algebraic combinatorial techniques, when both cannot do the job alone.

There might be more reporting tomorrow … if I have time.





Marketing campaign trivialises research

All the universities in Australia are having their “Open Day” events, which usually consists of a mix of a children’s carnival plus some information on courses and degrees for secondary school students. Just when you thought the marketing fraternity could not get lower, the geniuses at La Trobe University have introduced an instagrants campaign. The idea was that if you took a selfie in front of a designated research poster, then $150 would be given by the university to that research area. I wonder how long it will take the other universities to come up with this idea too!

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