Various and Sundry

First, news related in some way to Australia:

  • This summer the Sydney Morning Herald published a nice profile of Geordie Williamson.
  • By the way, the ICM plenary lectures are finally available on video, with Williamson’s among those worth watching.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald also recently had an article on quantum computing, motivated by a public talk by Patrick Hayden. The opening lines of the piece contain a classical superposition of quantum hype:

    Quantum computing will be so advanced that it will make your desktop computer look like an abacus, says Stanford University professor Patrick Hayden.

    However Professor Hayden, who will present a public lecture in Sydney on Wednesday, is keenly aware that “the hype is just out of control at the moment”.

Among talks I wish I’d gotten to see or am sorry I won’t be able to attend, there’s

If you just can’t get enough of the debate over string theory:

On politics and quantum theory:

  • I learned today from the Economist that the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, is a theoretical physicist. Early in his career he worked in general relativity, see here. The Economist has Sarkissian promoting the idea of “quantum politics”:

    In his view, our interpretation of how politics traditionally works should be updated to reflect the way that physics has been reimagined. The classical world of post-Newtonian physics was linear, predictable, even deterministic. By contrast, the quantum world is highly uncertain and interconnected and can change depending on the position of the observer.

    “A lot of things in our lives have quantum behaviour. We are living through a dynamic process of change,” he says. “I think we have to look at our world in a completely different way.”

    I have no idea what’s going on in Armenian politics and whether quantum theory is the way to understand it. As for the current horror-show that is US politics, one thing that doesn’t deserve the blame for it is quantum theory.

A very quick mini-book review:

  • I just got a copy of Alvaro de Rújula’s Enjoy Our Universe, which is a short and entertaining, colorfully illustrated, overview of the current state of of high energy physics and the universe. The book brings back fond memories of a late-seventies course on particle physics that I took from de Rújula, whose humorous and lively character comes through in the book. For instance, about credit for discoveries:

    There is increasingly convincing evidence that the Vikings set foot in America as early as the tenth century. There is no question that the Amerindians were there much before that. And yet, the glory of “discovering” America goes to Columbus. Thus, the point is not being the first to discover something, but the last.

    About the relation of theory and experiment (this comes with a hand drawn illustration):

    In particle physics, discoveries – serendipitous or not – are generally made by experimentalists, in astrophysics and cosmology by observers. In both cases there are also the theorists. High time to explain the distinctions. This is done in Figure 53. The question is what the similarities between the two sets are. One set consists of a farmer, his pig, and the truffles, the other of the theorist, the experimentalist (or the observer), and the discoveries. The farmer takes his pig to the woods. The pig sniffs around and discovers a truffle. The farmer hits the pig with his bat and takes the truffle away. These are the similarities. The difference is that the theorist scarcely ever directs the experimentalist to woods where there are truffles.

    Beside the humor, the book is mostly succinct, clear and profusely illustrated explanations of important physics and astrophysics. The author early on explains that he plans to avoid discussing the sort of speculation popular in many other books, with a footnote justifying this:

    There is nothing wrong in discussing these subjects, except, in my opinion, doing it without a very clearcut distinction between facts, reasonable conjectures, and outright fantasies.

Update: Some news and views on an open access development, courtesy of Mark Hillery:

  • “Plan S has been put forward by a consortium of European funding agencies, including those of the UK, France, and the Netherlands, though not, as of now Germany, and it would require recipients of their funding to publish in gold open-access journals or vaguely defined compliant open access platforms by 2020. Hybrid journals, such as the Physical Review, will not be allowed. Gold open access requires that authors pay to have their papers published. The claim is that a cap on article processing charges (APC’s) will be mandated, but the details have not been spelled out yet. More information can be found here.

    A good discussion of open access can be found here.

    This is an attempt to force the gold open access model on all of scientific publishing. In a rebuttal to Plan S,

    Response to Plan S from Academic Researchers: Unethical, Too Risky!

    a group of young European researchers has pointed out that it would prohibit them from publishing in 85% of existing journals. They also point out a number of additional problems with Plan S.
    1. While anyone can read an article in a gold open access journal without charge, publishing in one is a different story. APC’s, or what used to be known as page charges, are typically several thousand dollars per article. This seriously restricts the pool of people who can publish is such journals.
    2. What happens if the rest of the world does not go along with Plan S? Collaborations between EU and non-EU researchers would not be able to publish their results in many high-impact journals (Physical Review Letters, for example), and this could discourage such collaborations. It should be noted that Robert-Jan Smits, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission, is tying to persuade funding agencies in North America to join in Plan S.
    3. Telling people where they can publish violates academic freedom.
    4. In a gold open access journal, the financial incentives favor publishing lots of papers; the more papers published, the greater the income of the journal. This could lead to quality problems.
    The rebuttal also points to possible alternatives to Plan S, such as green open access, which would allow a researcher to deposit a version of their paper in an online depository, such as the arXiv, at the time of submission and then submit the paper to a journal of their choice.

    While I am not a fan of commercial scientific publishers, whose profit margins are ridiculous, I am a fan of society journals (I work part time for one, Physical Review A). These journals are reasonably priced, and income from them helps support societies, such as the American Physical Society, and their activities. Plan S is a bureaucratic attempt to impose, from the top, a publishing model on the world with which many people disagree or have grave reservations.”

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30 Responses to Various and Sundry

  1. Sebastian Thaler says:

    Speaking of Richard Dawid and books, the lectures from his “Why Trust a Theory?” workshop are being published in the spring:

  2. Shantanu says:

    Peter: What does De Rujula say in his book about super-symmetry and BSM theories in general and also about string theory etc?

  3. CWJ says:

    As a researcher with an incredibly tight research budget, I find “no page charges” a greater benefit than “open access.” If we had to pay for every article published, that would throw grant budgets into considerable chaos–and probably cut back on funding for grad students.

    Green open access works perfectly well.

  4. Matt Grayson says:

    But the Nobel Prize goes to the pig.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    de Rujula deals with string theory and most BSM stuff by ignoring it completely. Supersymmetry is mentioned in one footnote.

    Matt Grayson,
    Not necessarily, and especially not recently in HEP, where the experimental groups are large, without a recognizable leader. For example, in the case of the Higgs discovery, the Nobel went to the theorists, not to the experimentalists who made the discovery.

  6. Narad says:

    I am a fan of society journals (I work part time for one, Physical Review A). These journals are reasonably priced, and income from them helps support societies, such as the American Physical Society, and their activities.

    I couldn’t agree more, having worked as a manuscript editor on the portfolio of the American Astronomical Society. I cannot for the life of me figure out how, e.g., PLoS One (which doesn’t bother with such niceties as editing in the first place and doesn’t produce formatted PDFs) can justify so much as $1595, for “publication expenses – including those of peer review management, journal production and online hosting and archiving.”

    I’ve worked as a freelance editor since, and the money is a pittance. Even if some of the Gold OA journals actually engage skilled editors (who are few and far between, especially when it comes to nonnative speakers), I doubt that it’s a significant part of the overhead. Formatting? Give me a break. Sizing art is not a big deal, and nobody’s going to fix your horribly prepared LaTeX.

    At least the AAS journals, after IoP took them over, paid a nominal 30 dollars an hour (more like 14 in real life) and kept the page charges low. One-year embargo, and your paper is open-access, and IIRC, you could host a copy yourself.

  7. Matt Grayson says:


    True, and Einstein was a theorist, too. I was thinking of the CMB prize, and just pointing out that it isn’t quite as dire as the quote indicated. In the case of the Higgs, didn’t the theorists, in fact, lead the experimentalists into the woods?

  8. SITPWatcher says:

    Tom Rudelius from Princeton will be speaking October 1st at the SITP.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks, interesting to see that Team Stanford is inviting Team Vafa to play. I haven’t checked to see if any of Team Stanford has been invited to Harvard. As noted in a previous posting, one of Vafa’s motivations for this seems to be that he feels that Team Stanford’s multiverse mania is discrediting string theory. Rudelius appears to have some other motivations for challenging the multiverse, see

  10. Francesco Ginelli says:

    Forcing golden open access is a disgrace, evidently pushed by people without any reasonable understanding of how collaborative science works. And no interest in practically solving the problem of granting a wider access to research papers.

    The argument that funding agencies have the right decide what should be done with their money is a slippery slope. Public funding agencies should use public money to support academic freedom, not promote political agendas which suppress it.

    Moving the cost from the reader to the writer is going to create obvious problems. Starting from incentives for journals to publish abysmally low quality papers to the problem of publication access for researcher that do not directly control the funds. Wait for the day a lab director with a tight budget has to chose which paper publication fees to cover.
    This agenda should be resisted by the academic community.

    I typically publish all my paper in green open access on the arXiv the very day I submit them (as much as I can to no-profit publishers such as APS, I do not see why private institution should profit from my work and public funds) and the system works perfectly. To push open access, it would be enough to forbid embargos and let everyone go green.

    Frankly, seen from UK it looks like an effort to further compress regular research costs (standard journals fees in this case) and distribute even more money via the winners take all grant system. Which is of course is a well documented trend, which places more powers in the hand of funding agencies undermining academic freedom (UK being bottom in EU).

  11. Narad says:

    The AAS pricing structure is nothing if not baroque, but the Gold OA premium can be discerned.

  12. John Baez’s slides from his Unsolved Mysteries talk can be found on his web site/ He says “In this century, progress in fundamental physics has been slow. The Large Hadron Collider hasn’t yet found any surprises, attempts to directly detect dark matter have been unsuccessful, string theory hasn’t made any successful predictions, and nobody really knows what to do about any of this”. I do. You go over the old ground playing the detective looking for clues. And you find them everywhere, scattered around like low-hanging fruit. It’s like Bert Schroer said: “Perhaps the past, if looked upon with care and hindsight, may teach us where we possibly took a wrong turn”.

  13. Yemon Choi says:

    Given that you mention Plan S and then also link to that interview with Poynder, might be worth adding a few words to clarify that the interview/discussion seems to date from 2016.

    (FWIW I’m generally sympathetic to Poynder’s views/analyses)

  14. Fred P says:

    As a consumer of research, I’ll note that Green open access is more useful than Gold or a journal publication. Simply put, I have to look through fewer places to find research.

  15. Francesco Ginelli says:

    Fred P: exactly.
    These days, even as a professional physicist, it is enough to skim through titles and abtracts of your arXiv daily list of papers from your chosen field(s) and that’s it.

    This not to say that the peer review validation is not extremely important, or that we could do away with journals (no we can’t). It just points out how useful green repositories are.

  16. Marko says:

    After reading through all the relevant stuff, it seems to me that the essence of plan S has nothing whatsoever to do with either moral or practical benefits of open access publishing. Rather, this looks like a straight boxing match between the publishers, whose profit margins are outstandingly big, and science funding agencies, who are done watching that outstanding amount of money going to publishers over and over.

    So funders decide to exercise their power over scientific researchers by imposing a requirement to publish exclusively in journals which are gold open access, and — crucially — put a (yet undefined) cap on how big a publisher’s profit-per-paper can be. Simple, crude, accross-the-board calculated strategy, with the aim to blackmail publishers into (a) becoming gold OA, and (b) setting their gold OA fees to this overall cap. Otherwise, they risk being strangled with no papers to publish. If plan S receives global support from other funders worldwide, and this kind of blackmail gets enforced onto the publishers by the entire global scientific community, the funders will gain the power to dictate the gold OA price of the article to the publishers, rather than the other way around. Then, over time, the funders can gradually lower the cap to reasonable APC’s, and the publishers would have to either obey or perish. One might call this kind of game bullying, but I guess this is a perfectly normal thing in the business world (as opposed to the world of academia).

    Crucially, this kind of game relies on global support for plan S by all funders worldwide. But given the current outrageous profit margins of the publishers, it’s actually quite likely that plan S will be met with positive sentiment by funding agencies across the board. Basically everyone, funders, librarians, scientific community at large, etc…, seem to be sick of being siphoned for outrageous amounts of money by the publishers, for very little added value.

    It is important to note that this is a power struggle between two parties *with power* — namely those who give money for scientific research (funders), and those who take the money to transform that research into a quantifiable product (publishers). The scientists are a third party, the one with no power, since they depend on both funders and publishers. So nobody is asking their opinion, and nobody cares what this opinion might be, because both the funders and publishers have a clear-cut calculation in this whole turf-war. Whatever happens to scientific research, publication quality, international collaboration, young scientists, etc…, is just collateral damage, neither of the two big players could really care about. They only care about the flow and the amount of money.

    I’m actually quite interested to see who is going to win this one, and at what cost…


  17. Peter Erwin says:

    At least the AAS journals, after IoP took them over, paid a nominal 30 dollars an hour (more like 14 in real life) and kept the page charges low. One-year embargo, and your paper is open-access, and IIRC, you could host a copy yourself.

    All the main astronomical journals (the AAS journals, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Astronomy & Astrophysics) allow posting preprints on the arXiv (and I believe always have), and everyone does this, so the entire field is “green open access.” None of these journals meet the “Plan S” requirements, however, so astronomers funded by the agencies taking part in Plan S would be unable to publish in any of the field’s main journals.

  18. anon says:

    Actually, why do libraries subscribe to astronomical journals? I work in astrophysics, but I don’t even remember the last time when I read an article in a journal instead of arXiv (except maybe some old pre-arXiv articles, which are open access anyway).

  19. a1 says:

    For the moment some of the major publishers are in position to collude with funding agencies to siphon money for a few more years and plainly that is what they are trying to do. The key claim is that only they are able to organize (and maintain ) a good peer review system. The reviewing however is done by the scientific community. There are actually some journals that are just an index to papers from the arxiv which have obtained peer review approval. Thinking along these lines will make it obvious that publishers are easily eliminable: one has to realize that during the 20th they became involved in academic publishing mostly as distributors but currently they are obstructing the circulation of papers.
    Let’s hope that Gold OA wont get off the ground because if that happens soon the publishers will start lowering quality with the argument that the APCs are insufficient and need to be raised. The scientific community a sure loser for one more time.

  20. Narad says:

    Actually, why do libraries subscribe to astronomical journals? I work in astrophysics, but I don’t even remember the last time when I read an article in a journal instead of arXiv (except maybe some old pre-arXiv articles, which are open access anyway).

    I dunno; the language improvements can sometimes be significant, and I’ve prevented more than one erratum. I’ve also found a surprising number of errors in supplementary tables. I realize that it’s a field where one can pretty much rely on the authors, but there’s always room for polishing. (Even the cleanest manuscript I ever saw admitted two reference corrections. Taylor was enthused, as I recall.)

    @Peter Erwin: I was referring to the published version, not a preprint.

  21. Peter Erwin says:

    @ anon:

    Actually, I frequently read articles in journal form (and prefer to get the official journal PDF rather than the arxiv PDF, if possible), for several reasons. One is what Narad said: it’s nice to have an extra round of language and proofreading improvements. Plus its nice to have a properly formatted articles, given that some authors still post their manuscripts to the arXiv in outdated “referee format” (single-column, figures-at-the-end, or even double-spaced). Sometimes it’s quicker to skim through an HTML page rather than wait for a PDF to download, and sometimes it’s nice to be able to retrieve data tables in simple-text form from the journal. And there are still way too many authors posting to the arXiv who aren’t aware that the gradually increasing arXiv file-size limits means they usually don’t have to provide their figures in heavily compressed, semi-illegible JPEG format any more.

    (I am, of course, talking about online versions of the journals; I’ll admit I can’t remember the last time I read an article in a physical paper journal.)

  22. Dr Beaker says:

    The SMH story on Geordie Williamson was actually published in winter.

  23. Marko says:


    “Let’s hope that Gold OA wont get off the ground because if that happens soon the publishers will start lowering quality with the argument that the APCs are insufficient and need to be raised.”

    Lowering quality (i.e. accepting more submitted papers than usual) will eventually reflect in the lower impact factor (since the latter is just the ratio of cited and published papers). Note that the funders will retain the IF as a metric of publication quality, but now with OA enforced and a cap on the APCs. Various publishers will have to compete for IF/APC ratio, as opposed to the current situation where they are trying to maximize both IF and APC independently.

    So I don’t think that publishers will dare lowering the quality, since then the IF of their journal will drop wrt. to competition, and this will reflect badly in their relevance in the publication market — since scientists will keep getting grants based on their accumulated IF.

    I don’t like IF as a measure of quality, but I bet that both funders and publishers will continue to use it as a primary metric — they have nothing else available. Btw, as a side-effect of OA, it will be substantially easier for any third party to calculate the IF of any journal — publishers will not be able to hide the citations behind a paywall anymore.


  24. Narad says:


    Lowering quality (i.e. accepting more submitted papers than usual) will eventually reflect in the lower impact factor (since the latter is just the ratio of cited and published papers).

    I don’t generally like to cite The Scholarly Kitchen, as I view the general tone as being one of being apologists for industry, but they do have an item from 2017 showing that the IF of PLoS One has been dropping despite reduced submissions. The traffic instead seems to be going to Springer’s competing megajournal Scientific Reports.

    The only criterion for acceptance in PLoS One was some sort of methodological soundness; Scientific Reports advertises its own similarly, for “all scientifically valid research.” I really have no idea what’s driving the shift.

  25. Francesco Ginelli says:

    leaving society journals (like the superb gamma of Phys Rev by APS) out of your consideration is a dire omission.
    They are essentially no-profit operations and do not squeeze money out of public funded research into private hands. They typically do not impose embargos and are the ones risking to be penalized from plan S and should be protected from it (explicitly stating that green open access without embargo is fully OK).
    If you want to go after big private publishers, there are other ways, like refusing to referee for them (admittedly difficult if Nature is asking — as one would like to have a say in selecting the high profile papers in her/his community — but easier on other mid-range publications).
    Or if you sit in hiring committees, stopping taking Nature & Science publications as automatic conditions for tenure.

    For the remaining of your arguments, the too vague formulations about price caps leaves me with little hope that they will be effective. And the observation that a pay to publish model will not decrease quality will only work for top journals, mid range ones which already have a “normal IF” (lets say in the 2-5 range) will predictably just go for volume and more fees.

  26. Plan S is the worst among the better solutions, so there are easy to find pros and cons. It is good news for publishers and funding agencies, bad news for researchers, because better solutions already exist, like green OA and Open Science.

  27. Brian Dolan says:

    I agree with Francesco Ginelli. Personally I do not believe that journals serve any function whatsoever in the dissemination of scientific knowledge in physics. The archive does that perfectly well (at least for physics). Journals are only relevant for job, promotion and grant applications. I am totally against gold OA as it essentially bars anyone without a grant from publishing (and as a theoretical physicist working in the Republic of Ireland, where the principle government funding agency does not fund basic science with no immediately foreseeable applications, I do not have a grant). In my opinion gold OA is nothing more than a way of funneling tax payers money into the pockets of commercial publishing houses, via government grants. No wonder that publishers are in favor of it.

  28. For those that aren’t aware, the potted history of Gold OA (named because Gold=money, rather than Gold=’gold standard’) is this: Public Library of Sciences started up with a journal in biology (now PLOS Biology), and needed to fund it somehow, and since biologists paid page charges anyway, it wasn’t an issue to change from paying page charges for toll-access journals to Article Processing Charges. Especially as the APC was set at about the level that the cash-rich biologists were paying anyway: ~$1500 was the original price. See this archived FAQ page where it is said

    We ask that–as a small part of the cost of doing the research–the author, institution, or funding agency pays a modest fee, $1500, to help cover the actual cost of the essential final step, the publication. (As it stands, authors now often pay for publication in the form of page or color charges.)


    The ability of authors or their institutions to pay publication charges will never be a consideration in the decision whether to publish.

    The journals that followed were all in similarly expensive areas of research: Medicine, Computational Biology, Genetics and Pathogens. So if you were already doing research in these areas, a few thousand dollars on top of the massive cost of doing the actual research was just change.

    It’s when people for whom a single APC costs the same as their annual conference budget (if any), and they have no other large costs, are forced into paying similar fees that the model breaks down.

  29. anon says:

    I find it very strange that not-for-profit PLoS journals have page charges that are at the same level as those of commercial open-access publications. Especially as they make such a big deal of being there to serve scientists and the public good. Yet their CEO is paid $500k a year…

  30. Narad says:

    Yet their CEO is paid $500k a year…

    Even society journals are not immune to the flowing of money upward to administrative positions, rather than having it plowed back into development or, heaven help us, staff salaries. The difference, at least at the university press I worked for, was that the total amount was capped by the fee-for-service model. The spillover went to prop up the money-losing books division of the outfit. “Make it up in volume,” as they say.

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