Saturday, 17 November 2018

How strong are the objections to Plan S?

After a coalition of European science funding agencies announced their Plan S initiative for open access, a number of researchers wrote an open letter criticizing the move, under the title “Reaction of Researchers to Plan S: Too Far, Too Risky”. To summarize, they fear that Plan S would increase costs, lower quality, and restrict academic freedom. In order to evaluate how seriously these fears should be taken, let me start with a 5-point analysis of the issues, before discussing the open letter’s specific concerns.

Point 1: Traditional journals are overpriced by an order of magnitude.


Overall, publishers earn about 3800-5000 euros per article they publish. The true costs of organizing peer review are much lower: a few hundred euros per article at SciPost or PeerJ. The difference is therefore not mainly due to commercial publishers’ profits, but rather to large inefficiencies at all traditional publishers. (Have a look at the salaries of the American Chemical Society’s executives.)

Some publishers also use the money for subsidizing other activities, such as conferences (learned socities) or science journalism (Nature, Science). While these activities are valuable, they are not the main purpose of scientific publishing, and should not determine its future.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

CNRS rejects Couperin's claimed victory in Springer big deal

After long and tortuous negotiations, the French consortium Couperin has claimed victory in its recent agreement with Springer, after having secured price decreases. This claim seems reasonable, as prices of big deals with publishers tend to increase steadily. Of course, critics can still point out that Springer remains very expensive compared to smaller, more efficient publishers. But at least Springer seems amenable to some compromises in negotiations. And one should not forget that the greediest and most obnoxious publisher remains Elsevier, who even refused to join the Initiative for open citations.

I was therefore surprised when CNRS announced its rejection of the Springer deal, although CNRS takes part in Couperin and was actively involved in the negotiations. The email announcement came from Alain Schuhl, a CNRS official who is also a member of Couperins’ governing council. (See the email and its English translation below.) This email was a warning to CNRS researchers that access to Springer journals was now cut off. However, articles from 2017 and earlier are still available, as they are coverd by the previous subscription.

The explanation for the rejection is that the deal’s price was too high according to the Ministry’s open science plan. This explanation makes little sense for two reasons:
  • The plan was announced in July 2018, whereas the Springer negotiations were supposed to be concluded by the end of 2017. The negotiating mandate and strategy could therefore not take the plan into account.
  • The plan says much about open science, but nothing about costs. The email is all about costs, and does not mention open science.
The email also alludes to the ongoing negotiations of Couperin with Elsevier for a 2019-2021 deal, suggesting that the main reason for the rejection might be to show determination to Elsevier. But to survive without a Springer subscription tells little on CNRS’s ability to survive without an Elsevier subscription, for several reasons:
  • CNRS researchers often work in institutions such as universities, where they can access publications without resorting to CNRS’s subscription. Elsevier tries much harder than Springer to prevent this kind of double-dipping from subscribers.
  • In some subfields of medicine, chemistry and engineering, Elsevier journals are hard to ignore.
Nevertheless, when it comes to Elsevier, the best deal is no deal, as the German and Swedish examples demonstrate. Recent experience suggests that Elsevier will not consent to a deal comparable to Springer’s, let alone accede to the more ambitious demands of the Couperin consortium. (These demands include much about open access, not just price.) The only way to have some hope of a tolerable deal, is actually to prepare for a no deal scenario. This would imply warning researchers about the likely suspension of access to Elsevier journals. But CNRS is not doing this at the moment. Surely it would be pointless to make a show of symbolic and painless determination towards the relatively reasonable Springer, while preparing to accept a less palatable deal with the tougher Elsevier.

The rejection of the deal by CNRS also raises the issue of Couperin’s usefulness. The reconfiguration, or even disappearance, of the consortium might actually not be a bad thing, as the consortium’s large size makes it less able to withstand a no deal scenario, and to agree on a strategy. Agreeing on a strategy can be difficult: for example, having authors pay (rather than readers) would move costs from some institutions to some others. But having a strategy that involves open access is probably necessary, even if the aim is only to lower costs.

Email announcement: English translation


Dear colleagues,

As you may have noticed, access to 2018 issues of Springer journals has been partly suspended on the BibCNRS portal by Springer. This suspension affects all institutions that did not (or not yet) renew their subscriptions in 2018, following Springer’s offer [to the Couperin consortium] for the period 2018-2020. These institutions include CNRS.

Two weeks ago, Couperin’s negotiations with Springer have led to an offer by Springer that includes, for the first time, a steady decrease of subscription costs over 3 years, but covers a slightly reduced list of journals. CNRS acknowledges the negotiatiors’ work.

However, CNRS has decided to reject Springer’s offer, and has asked for a new offer. Springer’s offer indeed comes in the context of a transformation of scientific publishing’s economic model. (Scientific publishers’ yearly revenues for France are almost 100 million euros.)

For several years, scientific communities have been involved in an endeavour to make scientific publications accessible at a “fair price”. Moreover, the French minister of Research has announced a plan for “open science” on July 4th, 2018. This plan aims to reduce the budgets for contracts with publishers. We believe that Springer’s offer is still too expensive for being compatible with this plan’s goals.

We are fully conscious of the difficulties that are caused by this suspension. But we are convinced that a firm stance towards publishers is needed for bringing costs back to reasonable levels. This is all the more important now that difficult negotiations with Elsevier have just started.

Email announcement: French original

Chères et chers collègues,

Comme vous avez pu le constater, les accès aux titres Springer 2018 ont été partiellement coupés sur le portail BibCNRS par l’éditeur. Cette interruption concerne l’ensemble des établissements qui ne renouvellent pas leur abonnement en 2018 ou qui n’ont pas encore confirmé le renouvellement, suite à la diffusion de l’offre Springer couvrant la période 2018 à 2020. C’est le cas du CNRS.

Les négociations de Couperin avec Springer ont abouti il y a quinze jours à une offre de l’éditeur qui comprend, pour la première fois, une baisse continue du coût des abonnements sur 3 ans, concernant toutefois un périmètre légèrement réduit de titres de revues. Le CNRS salue le travail des négociateurs.

Cependant, le CNRS a décidé de refuser l’offre de Springer et demande à l’éditeur de lui faire une nouvelle proposition. En effet, cette offre de Springer arrive aujourd’hui dans un contexte de transformation du modèle économique de l’édition scientifique, marché qui pèse, en France, près de 100 millions d’euros.

Depuis plusieurs années, les communautés scientifiques sont engagées dans une démarche visant à rendre accessible les publications scientifiques « au juste prix ». De son côté, la ministre de l’Enseignement Supérieur, de Recherche et de l’Innovation a présenté le 4 juillet dernier un plan national pour la « science ouverte ». Ce plan vise, entre autres, à réduire sensiblement les budgets dédiés aux contrats avec les éditeurs. Le coût des abonnements proposé par Springer reste selon nous trop élevé au regard des objectifs fixés par ce plan.

Nous avons pleinement conscience des difficultés induites par cette interruption. Mais nous sommes convaincus que seule une position ferme vis a vis des éditeurs peut nous permettre de ramener le coût des publications scientifiques à un niveau raisonnable. C’est d’autant plus important au moment où viennent de s‘engager des négociations difficiles avec Elsevier.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

SciPost two years on

There are two reasons why we should care about the journal SciPost Physics: it practices open peer review, by publishing the exchanges between authors and reviewers, and it is free to authors and readers, at a time when academia is struggling to escape the stranglehold of predatory publishers such as Elsevier.

Two years after it was launched, SciPost Physics is alive on well, with 155 published articles at the time of this writing. The journal has managed to attract articles of high quality, some of them by well-known physicists such as Cardy, Verlinde, Seiberg, or Rychkov. The main challenges are now to attract many more authors, and sustainable funding. The journal is funded by institutional subsidies, an economic model that works for arXiv but that is rare for journals. If the finances worked out, the journal could ultimately hope to become a megajournal, and publish thousands of articles a year like PLOS One or PeerJ. For the moment, the stated aim of the “Expansion and Sustainability Drive” is to publish 500 articles a year at a cost of 200.000 euros. So each published article should cost 400 euros, a very reasonable price for a lean electronic journal: an order of magnitude more than arXiv, an order of magnitude less than Elsevier. (Unlike Elsevier, SciPost does not pay executives, lobbyists, shareholders, salespersons, lawyers, etc.)

In this post I will comment on SciPost’s workflow and platform, updating my earlier assessment in light of two years’ worth of experience. The aims are to help authors decide whether this journal suits them, to determine which features of SciPost should be emulated (or avoided) by other journals, and to provide feedback to SciPost itself.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Directive sur le droit de copie: quelques critiques

Le parlement européen doit prochainement voter un projet de directive sur le droit de copie, qui a fait l'objet de nombreuses critiques. J'en ai parlé il y a une dizaine de jours à Cédric Villani, le député (certes pas européen) de ma circonscription. D'après lui, le gouvernement français pousse pour que la directive soit adoptée. Je lui ai écrit ensuite l'email suivant, qui résume certaines critiques:

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Where should academics write if they want to be read?

Out of the 2 million academic articles that are published each year, many are not read by anyone but their authors, and most have no more than a handful of readers. For someone who writes in order to spread ideas, and does not publish just to avoid perishing, this can be quite discouraging. Of course, not everything one has to say is of interest to many people. Still, part of the problem could come from the academic article as a venue, and one may wonder whether other writing venues (such as a blog) could reach more readers.

In this post I will list various venues for scientific writing, and try to do an order-of-magnitude comparison between them. I will not simply estimate how many readers are reached: a tweet may reach many people, but it is read in seconds and can be quickly forgotten. Rather, I will try to estimate the ratio between the time spent by all readers on a text, and the time spent writing it.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Write that printing money creates wealth, get published in Nature

In the debate about the carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies, Nature has recently published a one-page correspondence titled “Cryptocurrency mining is neither wasteful nor uneconomic”. This counter-intuitive claim provoked me to read the text in search of a non-trivial idea. To my shock and horror, the only basis for the claim is the trivial wordplay of using the same term “wealth” for both money and goods and services.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Springer threatens to go rogue, and retreats

In its negotiations with Springer, the consortium Couperin that was in charge of most French researchers’ subscriptions had been modestly asking that Springer renounce “double dipping”, i.e. does not get paid twice for the same articles – once via subscriptions, once via open access APCs. But this would have meant decreasing subscription prices by 15%, while Springer has been used to yearly increases of the order of 3-5%.

Today’s news are that negotiations have broken down, and most French researchers are set to lose legal access to most articles published by Springer on April 1st. (See CNRS’s note on the subject, in French.) In such a conflict, researchers can stand up against the publisher by
  • not complaining when they lose access to journals, and getting the articles elsewhere (which nowadays mostly means at Sci-Hub),
  • boycotting the publisher, i.e. not submitting articles to its journals, and not working for them as a referee or editor.
Coincidentally, I have received an invitation to referee an article for JHEP, a journal published by Springer. I have declined as follows:
Most French research institutions are set to lose access to Springer journals on April 1st. I am aware that this does not affect access to JHEP, which is covered by SCOAP3, and that in our field all articles are on arXiv anyway. However, as a matter of principle, I would like to protest Springer’s extortionate commercial practices, and to show solidarity with colleagues who will lose access to their own work. Therefore, I am suspending all new collaboration with JHEP, and I am declining to review this article.

Update on April 3rd: According to an email from Couperin, access to Springer journals has in fact not been cut off. It seems that Couperin got away with rejecting Springer's latest offer, and saying that they were willing to continue negotiating. So Springer was bluffing, and does not dare take a hard line against Couperin. If such a weak and ill-prepared consortium, with little support from researchers (who else is boycotting Springer?) can defeat Springer, pretty much anyone can.

Update on April 11th: There is now a petition called "Springer, we can do without".

Update on October 18th: An agreement has been found between Couperin and Springer. Couperin boasts that it has obtained a modest price decrease: this merely reverses a few years out of several decades of unjustified increases. And the 9-10 months where Couperin's member institutes kept access to Springer journals without a subscription, will eventually be paid retroactively. (Except for institutes who did not accept the new agreement.) Still, Springer's behaviour is not too bad for a predatory publisher. And the price decrease is in absolute terms a large amount of money, which could make much difference if it was injected into frugal publishing platforms. So I am no longer boycotting Springer.

Couperin is now negotiating with Elsevier, aiming to achieve comparable savings, and pushing for open access. Nevertheless, it is not clear to me how Couperin's deal with Springer, and negotiating stance with Elsevier, are compatible with the Plan S to which CNRS officially subscribes: if Couperin believed in Plan S, it should at least refrain from committing beyond 2020, the date at which Plan S is supposed to come into force.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The open secrets of life with arXiv

If you only think of arXiv as a tool for making articles openly accessible, consider this: in 2007, a study showed that papers appearing near the top of the daily listing of new papers on arXiv, will eventually be more cited than papers further down the list – about two times more cited. And there is a daily scramble for submitting papers as soon as possible after the 14:00 EDT deadline, in order to appear as high as possible on the listing. The effect is not as perverse as it seems, as there is no strong causal relation between appearing near the top and getting more citations. (More likely, better papers are higher in the listing because their authors want to advertise them.)

The consequences of arXiv’s systematic use in some communities are actually so deep that a speciation event has occurred among researchers, and a new species of arXivers has appeared. Here I will try to explain how arXivers live, in order to help non-arXivers understand arXivers, and have an idea of what could happen to them if the currently proliferating clones of arXiv gained widespread use.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Uniqueness of Liouville theory

The original definition of Liouville theory by Polyakov in the 1980s was written in terms of a Lagrangian, motivated by applications to two-dimensional quantum gravity. In the 1990s however, Liouville theory was reformulated and solved in the conformal bootstrap approach. In this approach, the theory is characterized by a number of assumptions, starting with conformal symmetry. In order to actually define the theory, the assumptions have to be restrictive enough for singling out a unique consistent theory.

After assuming conformal symmetry, it is natural to make assumptions on the theory’s spectrum, i.e. its space of states. For any complex value of the central charge \(c\), the spectrum of Liouville theory is
\[\mathcal{S} = \int_{\frac{c-1}{24}}^{\frac{c-1}{24}+\infty} d\Delta\ \mathcal{V}_\Delta \otimes \bar{\mathcal{V}}_\Delta\ ,\]

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Couperin vs Springer and Elsevier: towards less extortionate deals?

Historically, the French consortium Couperin has obtained poor results in negotiating with predatory publishers, mostly consenting to their high and increasing prices. This is not necessarily Couperin’s fault, although it does not help that Couperin’s leadership appears weak and ill-informed. Rather, this is a consequence of the basic economics of scientific publishing, with publishers systematically abusing their strong position. Even the Finnish consortium FinELib, which was determined to seek a good deal and enjoyed a fair amount of support from researchers, recently consented to one more extortionate deal with Elsevier.

However, recent developments suggest that Couperin could fare better in current and upcoming negotiations:

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Germany won't pay for Nature's "scientific porn", and other messages from Couperin's open science days

Earlier this week, there was a mini-workshop in Paris called Couperin’s open science days 2018. (Original title in French: Journées sciences ouverte 2018.) I followed most of it via webcast, and I will now summarize some of the salient points. The videos are available online, but most of them are in French.

The German way: Horst Hippler and Ralf Schimmer


The most important messages came from Germany: the country whose academic institutions have thought seriously about scientific publishing, and have organized themselves so as to drive the needed reforms. The most salient manifestation so far has been the standoff with Elsevier, and it was nice to have further details on the strategy.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Will no one rid me of these tiresome Latin plurals?

The English language has inherited many scientifc words from Latin: a spectrum, an index, a torus, a formula. Then which plural forms should we use: the Latin plurals two spectra, two indices, two tori, two formulae? Or the English plurals two spectrums, two indexes, two toruses, two formulas? The Latin and the English plurals of these words are both considered correct, but the Latin plurals are more widespread. I will nevertheless argue that using Latin plurals is impractical and illogical, and should often be avoided.