At the moment I am two-thirds of the way through what is one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am certainly not going to twitter (with a small t) about it until I have reflected on it a bit. But here is something else. While I was away at the BCC last week, the current European Mathematical Society newsletter arrived. This always has some stimulating reading, and is not afraid to be controversial. A couple of articles caught my attention.

The first, by Alexey Nikolaevich Parshin, is about the golden epoch of Moscow mathematics around 1960s, when people like Gel’fand, Kolmogorov, Arnol’d, and Shafarevich were there, and what has happened since. What caught my eye was a description of Gel’fand’s seminar. After describing the topics that were discussed in the seminar, including algebraic geometry, algebraic and differential topology, complex analysis, dynamical systems, Lie algebras and groups, representation theory, differential functions and discrete groups, Parshin says,

This involved a large circle of people, each working in their own subject, yet everyone is interested in everything.

This seems to me to be a necessary condition for a successful seminar, and very difficult to counterfeit. It may even be sufficient.

Later he explains how the easy availability of information nowadays has not necessarily made mathematics more universal; we feel overwhelmed by information and tend to retreat into our niches. A timely warning.

The second article was by Tomaž Pisanski, entitled “Open access – who pays?” He distinguishes between “author pays” and “neither author nor reader pays”, what I have been in the habit of calling gold and diamond open access. He doesn’t mince his words:

The “author pays” model discriminates against poor mathematicians, and is therefore unethical and totally unacceptable.

He does go on to describe several ways in which this discrimination works, including the fact that “young and unknown, but talented, mathematicians […] will offer their work [to holders of large paying grants], increasing the brain drain” away from places without such stars.

He also has several recommendations for the EMS about how to counter author-pays and foster free access.

In an email he said to me “Since EMS Newsletter does not have very wide readership I am very grateful that you will make the article better known to the concerned.” This I am very happy to do.

The Newsletter is on the web here, but I have not found a way to link to individual articles.

My first thought on reading ‘The “author pays” model discriminates against poor mathematicians’ was not of the “not wealthy” sense of “poor”, which led to a certain subsequent confusion until I’d sorted it out!

You’re not the only one to think that …

I discussed this with Laci Babai. He first of all pointed out that there is another model, which he describes as “author pays with waivers”, i.e. if you can’t pay, you don’t have to. I have misgivings about this, but Laci strongly supports it, which makes me think that perhaps it is not as bad as I fear. This, if I understand right, is the approach the new Cambridge journal “Forum of Mathematics” (the one with pi and sigma) is taking.

I share your misgivings. Who decides if the author “can’t pay”? Based on their country or origin, or do they submit a tax return? Paying from their own pocket or from a grant? If some percentage of people don’t pay, then the nominated price must exceed the true cost, but by how much? Ultimately to break even, the journal must, by fair means or foul, ensure that the proportion of full cost papers must suffice to pay the bills.

Not to forget that academically respectable “author pays” journals lend legitimacy for the “you pay we publish” predatory journals – how could I say to a Dean that he shouldn’t count my (hypothetical) colleague’s 32 papers in the “Antarctic Journal of Mathematics” because they were just purchased, if he knows that I’m purchasing articles elsewhere (also hypothetical!).

Today I received an interesting information from a colleague of mine. He forwarded to me the following part of a message he had received earlier:

——————————————————————–

Have you seen this list of the 99 most cited mathematicians?

5 of them are from KAU.

Another 20 has KAU as second affiliation.

http://highlycited.com/

——————————————————————-

It seems that after all open access offers an easy solution to poor mathematicians that can be summarized as follows: If you are poor do not worry, there are rich universities out there that will help you get famous.

I am currently re-reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”. He dedicated it to two members of the nobility, hoping to get some reward from them (but apparently was unsuccessful, even though the book became enormously popular). It seems we are going back to the mediaeval concept of patronage. I am not sure this is altogether good.