Archive for the ‘News’ Category

In case you haven’t heard what’s going on in Leicester …

September 15, 2016

Strangely, this is my second post about Leicester in just a few months, but it’s about something a lot more depressing than the football team’s fairytale winning of the Premier League (but let me quickly offer my congratulations to them for winning their first Champions League match — I won’t offer advice about whether they are worth betting on to win that competition too). News has just filtered through to me that the mathematics department is facing compulsory redundancies.

The structure of the story is wearily familiar after what happened with USS pensions. The authorities declare that there is a financial crisis, and that painful changes are necessary. They offer a consultation. In the consultation their arguments appear to be thoroughly refuted. The refutation is then ignored and the changes go ahead.

Here is a brief summary of the painful changes that are proposed for the Leicester mathematics department. The department has 21 permanent research-active staff. Six of those are to be made redundant. There are also two members of staff who concentrate on teaching. Their number will be increased to three. How will the six be chosen? Basically, almost everyone will be sacked and then invited to reapply for their jobs in a competitive process, and the plan is to get rid of “the lowest performers” at each level of seniority. Those lowest performers will be considered for “redeployment” — which means that the university will make efforts to find them a job of a broadly comparable nature, but doesn’t guarantee to succeed. It’s not clear to me what would count as broadly comparable to doing pure mathematical research.

How is performance defined? It’s based on things like research grants, research outputs, teaching feedback, good citizenship, and “the ongoing and potential for continued career development and trajectory”, whatever that means. In other words, on the typical flawed metrics so beloved of university administrators, together with some subjective opinions that will presumably have to come from the department itself — good luck with offering those without creating enemies for life.

Oh, and another detail is that they want to reduce the number of straight maths courses and promote actuarial science and service teaching in other departments.

There is a consultation period that started in late August and ends on the 30th of September. So the lucky members of the Leicester mathematics faculty have had a whole month to marshall their to-be-ignored arguments against the changes.

It’s important to note that mathematics is not the only department that is facing cuts. But it’s equally important to note that it is being singled out: the university is aiming for cuts of 4.5% on average, and mathematics is being asked to make a cut of more like 20%. One reason for this seems to be that the department didn’t score all that highly in the last REF. It’s a sorry state of affairs for a university that used to boast Sir Michael Atiyah as its chancellor.

I don’t know what can be done to stop this, but at the very least there is a petition you can sign. It would be good to see a lot of signatures, so that Leicester can see how damaging a move like this will be to its reputation.

Should I have bet on Leicester City?

May 3, 2016

If you’re not British, or you live under a stone somewhere, then you may not have heard about one of the most extraordinary sporting stories ever. Leicester City, a football (in the British sense) team that last year only just escaped relegation from the top division, has just won the league. At the start of the season you could have bet on this happening at odds of 5000-1. Just 12 people availed themselves of this opportunity.

Ten pounds bet then would have net me 50000 pounds now, so a natural question arises: should I be kicking myself (the appropriate reaction given the sport) for not placing such a bet? In one sense the answer is obviously yes, as I’d have made a lot of money if I had. But I’m not in the habit of placing bets, and had no idea that these odds were being offered anyway, so I’m not too cut up about it.

Nevertheless, it’s still interesting to think about the question hypothetically: if I had been the betting type and had known about these odds, should I have gone for them? Or would regretting not doing so be as silly as regretting not choosing and betting on the particular set of numbers that just happened to win the national lottery last week?
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Discrete Analysis launched

March 1, 2016

As you may remember from an earlier post on this blog, Discrete Analysis is a new mathematics journal that runs just like any other journal except in one respect: the articles we publish live on the arXiv. This is supposed to highlight the fact that in the internet age, and in particular in an age when it is becoming routine for mathematicians to deposit their articles on the arXiv before they submit them to journals, the only important function left for journals is organizing peer review. Since this is done through the voluntary work of academics, it should in principle be possible to run a journal for almost nothing. The legacy publishers (as they are sometimes called) frequently call people naive for suggesting this, so it is important to have actual examples to prove it, and Discrete Analysis is set up to be one such example. Its website goes live today.
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Interesting times in academic publishing

November 10, 2015

In this post I want briefly to mention four current goings on in the world of academic publishing.

First, I’ll just briefly say that things are going well with the new journal Discrete Analysis, and I think we’re on course to launch, as planned, early next year with a few very good accepted papers — we certainly have a number of papers in the pipeline that look promising to me. Of course, we’d love to have more.

Secondly, a very interesting initiative has recently been started by Martin Eve, called the Open Library of Humanities. The rough idea is that they provide a platform for humanities journals that are free to read online and free for authors (or, as some people like to say, are Diamond OA journals). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this initiative is that it is funded by a consortium of libraries. Librarians are the people who feel the pain of ridiculous subscription prices, so they have great goodwill towards people who are trying to build new and cheaper publication models. I think there is no reason that the sciences couldn’t do something similar — in fact, it should be even easier to find money.
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EDP28 — problem solved by Terence Tao!

September 20, 2015

I imagine most people reading this will already have heard that Terence Tao has solved the Erdős discrepancy problem. He has blogged about the solution in two posts, a first that shows how to reduce the problem to the Elliott conjecture in number theory, and a second that shows (i) that an averaged form of the conjecture is sufficient and (ii) that he can prove the averaged form. Two preprints covering (i) and (ii) are here and here: the one covering (i) has been submitted to Discrete Analysis.

This post is therefore the final post of the polymath5 project. I refer you to Terry’s posts for the mathematics. I will just make a few comments about what all this says about polymath projects in general.
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Discrete Analysis — an arXiv overlay journal

September 10, 2015

This post is to announce the start of a new mathematics journal, to be called Discrete Analysis. While in most respects it will be just like any other journal, it will be unusual in one important way: it will be purely an arXiv overlay journal. That is, rather than publishing, or even electronically hosting, papers, it will consist of a list of links to arXiv preprints. Other than that, the journal will be entirely conventional: authors will submit links to arXiv preprints, and then the editors of the journal will find referees, using their quick opinions and more detailed reports in the usual way in order to decide which papers will be accepted.

Part of the motivation for starting the journal is, of course, to challenge existing models of academic publishing and to contribute in a small way to creating an alternative and much cheaper system. However, I hope that in due course people will get used to this publication model, at which point the fact that Discrete Analysis is an arXiv overlay journal will no longer seem interesting or novel, and the main interest in the journal will be the mathematics it contains.

The members of the editorial board so far — but we may well add further people in the near future — are Ernie Croot, me, Ben Green, Gil Kalai, Nets Katz, Bryna Kra, Izabella Laba, Tom Sanders, Jozsef Solymosi, Terence Tao, Julia Wolf, and Tamar Ziegler. For the time being, I will be the managing editor. I interpret this as meaning that I will have the ultimate responsibility for the smooth running of the journal, and will have to do a bit more work than the other editors, but that decisions about journal policy and about accepting or rejecting papers will be made democratically by the whole editorial board. (For example, we had quite a lot of discussion, including a vote, about the title, and the other editors have approved this blog post after suggesting a couple of minor changes.)

I will write the rest of this post as a series of questions and answers.
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The selected-papers network

June 16, 2013

This post is to report briefly on a new and to my mind very exciting venture in academic publishing. It’s called the Selected Papers Network, and it has been designed and created by Christopher Lee. If you want to know what it is and what you can do to help it become a success, then you may wish to stop reading this post and turn straight away to a post by John Baez, who has been closely involved with the venture and understands it better than I do. But let me just briefly mention the main point that has struck me so far.

A problem with the current situation is that it is easy to come up with ideas for websites where people can review papers, complete with clever protocols for how the reviewing should take place, whether it is open, reward systems, etc. etc. It’s much less easy to persuade people to use the sites that are created as a result: what is going to persuade them to make the effort, when there’s only rather a small chance that the site will become in any sense “official”?

The Selected Papers Network potentially solves this problem in a very interesting way: it is not a website with a system for reviewing, evaluating, rewarding etc.. Rather, it is an environment that makes it easy to build your own systems.
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Pierre Deligne wins the 2013 Abel Prize

March 20, 2013

I have just finished presenting the work of this year’s Abel Prize winner, who is Pierre Deligne. In due course, the talk will appear on the Abel Prize website. As in the last two years, I have also prepared a written version of the talk, which goes into more detail. However, even the written version leaves a lot out. It was intended for a general — that is, not necessarily mathematical — audience, though I had to assume at least some maths. If your level of mathematical experience means that you find it too elementary, then I have three recommendations for further reading. I found these slides of Kumar Murty about Ramanujan’s tau function helpful and interesting. I also very much like Brian Osserman’s article on the Weil conjectures, written for the Princeton Companion to Mathematics. Finally, Nick Katz did the laudatio for Deligne’s Fields Medal and wrote an excellent article on his work. (Another article that I stumbled on only recently that looks incredibly nice, which is not about Deligne, though it mentions him, but which sheds interesting light on some of Deligne’s work is Finding Meaning in Error Terms, by Barry Mazur. So far I have just skimmed through some of it, but I think I’ll be going back to read it in more detail.)

Why I’ve also joined the good guys

January 16, 2013

For some months now I have known of a very promising initiative that until recently I have been asked not to publicize too widely, because the people in charge of it did not have a good estimate for when it would actually come to fruition. But now those who know about it have been given the green light. The short version of what I want to say in this post is that a platform is to be created that will make it very easy to set up arXiv overlay journals.

What is an arXiv overlay journal? It is just like an electronic journal, except that instead of a website with lots of carefully formatted articles, all you get is a list of links to preprints on the arXiv. The idea is that the parts of the publication process that academics do voluntarily — editing and refereeing — are just as they are for traditional journals, and we do without the parts that cost money, such as copy-editing and typesetting.
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EPSRC update update

May 31, 2012

This brief post is to update further a recent post that was itself an update on the situation with EPSRC. The good news is that EPSRC postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics are now available for “intradisciplinary research” (as was already the case with the early career and established career fellowships). I am told that a certain amount of work went on behind the scenes to achieve this: we should be very grateful to the mathematicians involved, and grateful also to EPSRC for being prepared to show a degree of flexibility in this instance. I am also told, though only time will tell how true this is, that the interpretation of the word “intradisciplinary” will be generous, so unless your research is extremely narrow, you should be able to present it in a way that will qualify.