Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Tim Gowers and I have something in common. Unfortunately it’s not our math skills.

Heavy paper.
What would you say if a man with British accent cold-calls you one evening to offer money because he likes your blog?

I said no.

In my world – the world of academic paper-war – we don’t just get money for our work. What we get is permission to administrate somebody else’s money according to the attached 80-page guidelines (note the change in section 15b that affects taxation of 10 year deductibles). Restrictions on the use of funds are abundant and invite applicants to rest their foreheads on cold surfaces.

The German Research Foundation for example, will – if you are very lucky – grant you money for a scientific meeting. But you’re not allowed to buy food with it. Because, you must know, real scientists don’t eat. And to thank you for organizing the meeting you don’t yourself get paid – that wouldn’t be an allowed use of funds. No, they thank you by requesting further reports and forms.

At least you can sometimes get money for scientific meetings. But convincing a funding agency to pay a bill for public outreach or open access initiatives is like getting a toddler to eat broccoli: No matter how convincingly you argue it’s in their own interest, you end up eating it yourself. And since writing proposals sucks, I mean, sucks up time, at some point I gave up trying to make a case that this blog is unpaid public outreach that you'd think research foundations should be supportive of. I just write – and on occasion I carefully rest my forehead on cold surfaces.

Then came the time I was running low on income – unemployed between two temporary contracts – and decided to pitch a story to a magazine. I was lucky and landed an assignment instantly. And so, for the first time in my life, I turned in work to a deadline, wrote an invoice, and got paid in return. I. Made. Money. Writing. It was a revelation. Unfortunately, my published masterwork is now hidden behind a paywall. I am not happy about this, you are not happy about this, and the man with the British accent wasn’t happy about it either. Thus his offer.

But I said no.

Because all I could see was time wasted trying to justify proper means of spending someone else’s money on suitable purposes that might be, for example, a conference fee that finances the first class ticket of the attending Nobel Prize winner. That, you see, is an allowed way of spending money in academia.

My cold-caller was undeterred and called again a week later to inquire whether I had changed my mind. I was visiting my mom, and mom, always the voice of reason, told me to just take the damn money. But I didn’t.

I don’t like being reminded of money. Money is evil. Money corrupts. I only pay with sanitized plastic. I swipe a card through a machine and get handed groceries in return – that’s not money, that’s magic. I look at my bank account statements so rarely I didn’t notice for three years I accidentally paid a gym membership fee in a country I don’t even live. In case my finances turn belly-up I assume the bank will call and yell at me. Which, now that I think of it, seems unlikely because I moved at least a dozen times since opening my account. And I’m not good updating addresses either. I did call the gym though and yelled at them – I got my money back.

Then the British man told me he also supports Tim Gowers new journal. “G-O-W-ers?,” I asked. Yes, that Tim. That would be the math guy responsible for the equations in my G+ feed.

Tim Gowers. [Not sure whose photo, but not mine]
Tim Gowers, of course, also writes a blog. Besides that, he’s won the 1998 Fields Medal which makes him officially a genius. I sent him an email inquiring about our common friend. Tim wrote back he reads my blog. He reads my blog! A genius reads my blog! I mean, another genius – besides my mom who gets toddlers to eat broccoli.

Thusly, I thought, if it’s good enough for Gowers, it’s probably good enough for me. So I said yes. And, after some more weeks of consideration, sent my bank account details to the British man. You have to be careful with that kind of thing, says my mom.

That was last year in December. Then I forgot about the whole story and returned to my differential equations.

Tim, meanwhile, got busy setting up the webpage for his new journal “Discrete Analysis” which covers the emerging fields related to additive combinatorics (not to be confused with addictive combinatorics, more commonly known as Sudoku). His open-access initiative has attracted some attention because the journal’s site doesn’t itself host the articles it publishes – it merely links to files which are stored on the arXiv. The arXiv is an open-access server in operation since the early 1990s. It allows researchers in physics, math, and related disciplines to upload and share articles that have not, or not yet, been peer-reviewed and published. “Discrete Analysis” adds the peer-review, with minimal effort and minimal expenses.

Tim’s isn’t the first such “arxiv-overlay” journal – I myself published last year in another overlay-journal called SIGMA – but it is still a new development that is eyed with some skepticism. By relying on the arXiv to store files, the overlays render server costs somebody else’s problem. That’s convenient but doesn’t make the problem go away. Another issue is that the arXiv itself already moderates submissions, a process that the overlay journals have no control over.

Either way, it is a trend that I welcome because overlays offer scientists what they need from journals without the strings and costs attached by commercial publishers. It is, most importantly, an opportunity for the community to reclaim the conditions under which their research is shared, and also to innovate the format as they please:

“I wanted it to be better than a normal journal in important respects,” says Tim, “If you visit the website, you will notice that each article gives you an option to click on the words ‘Editorial introduction.’ If you do so, then up comes a description of the article (not on a new webpage, I hasten to add), which sets it in some kind of context and helps you to judge whether you want to find out more by going to the arXiv and reading it.”

But even overlay journals don’t operate at zero cost. The website of “Discrete Analysis” was designed by Scholastica’s team, and their platform will also handle the journal’s publication process. They charge $10 per submission and there are a couple of other expenses that the editorial board has to cover, such as services necessary to issue article DOIs. Tim wants to avoid handing on the journal expenses to the authors. Which brings in, among others, the support from my caller with the British accent.

In the two months that passed since I last heard from him, I found out that 10 years ago someone proved there is no non-trivial solution to the equations I was trying to solve. Well, at least that explains why I couldn’t find one. My hence scheduled two-day cursing retreat was interrupted by a message from The British Man. Did the money arrive?, he wanted to know. This way forced to check my bank account, it turned out not only didn’t his money arrive, but neither did I ever receive salary for my new job.

This gives me an excuse to lecture you on another pitfall of academic funding. Even after you have filed five copies of various tax-documents and sent the birth dates of the University President and Vice-president to an institution that handles your grant for another institution and is supposed to wire it to a third institution which handles it for your institution, the money might get lost along the way – and frequently does.

In this case they simply forgot to put me on the payroll. Luckily, the issue could be resolved quickly, and the next day also the wire transfer from Great Britain arrived. Good thing because, as mommy guilt reminded me, this bank account pays for the girls’ daycare and lunch. My writer friends won’t be surprised to hear however that I also had to notice several payments for my freelance work did not come through. When I grow up, I hope someone tells me how life works. /lecture

Tim Gowers invited submissions for “Discrete Analysis” starting last September, and the website of the new journal launched todayyou can read his own blogpost here. For the community, they key question is now whether arxiv-overlay journals like Tim’s will be able to gain a status similar to that of traditional journals. The only way to find out is to try.

Public outreach in general, and science blogging in particular, is vital for the communication of science, both within our communities and to the public. And so are open access initiatives. Even though they are essential to advance research and integrate it into our society, funding agencies have been slow to accept these services as part of their mission.

While we wait for academia to finally digest the invention of the world wide web, it is encouraging to see that some think forward. And so, I am happy today to acknowledge this blog is now supported by the caller with the British accent, Ilyas Khan of Cambridge Quantum Computing. Ilyas has quietly supported a number of scientific endeavors. Although he is best known for enabling Wittgenstein's Nachlass to become openly and freely accessible by funding the project that was implemented by Trinity College Cambridge, he is also a sponsor of Tim Gowers' new journal Discrete Analysis.


  1. Congratulations, Sabine! And many happy returns too!

    (I on the other hand, am not that lucky, although I am sure the equations I want to construct will have physical solutions).

  2. That's the best-rant-with-a-silver-lining-at-the-end I will read today.


  3. First congratulations. I hope you are developing some traction in all this being "paid to think and write". Perhaps the "man with the British accent" (or someone like him) will support my writing philosophy books!

  4. "Money corrupts" Money purchases goods, incurs obligations, and manipulates actions. It is better than calloused fists, edged weapons, and impressed famines.

    "I just write" Your own international healthcare experiment discloses the bandgap between advertised and delivered services. Dare to be stupid! (But, truly, don't.)

    "I hope someone tells me how life works." It doesn't, and vastly worse with positive feedback for being administered. Administration is intellectual alienation demanding equality among all men, and now women. Equality is diversity demanding the incapable can assault a violin and you must like it. "He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole." That is enough. Few people have enough - at both ends. Bee wonderful.

  5. Awesome story! And BIG congratulations!!! That must have been extremely uplifting experience :-)

  6. "Money is evil. Money corrupts.". actually, money is simply a medium that replaces the barter system of exchange and allows for the division of labor so that some people can engage in esoteric activities such as studying quantum gravity while others engage in more 'mundane' activities such as studying soft matter physics.

  7. Naivetheorist,

    Yes... I wasn't really serious. But note that money also buys influence and this can interfere with objectivity. There's a reason academic research is traditionally tenured and scientists have to disclose COIs. Best,


  8. Well deserved, Bee! Seems there is some justice in the World!

  9. That is great! Looking forward to reading your book one day. I will buy it even if your book is about physics (I don't know jack about physics but im fascinated by it). Keep us posted please.


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