Archive for Royal Astronomical Society

Learned Societies, Equity, and Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2021 by telescoper

I’m not getting much time these days to think about new ideas for blog posts so yet again I’m going to rehash an old one, but at least it is somewhat topical because of an interesting blog post I saw recently about the American Sociological Association. Referring to the inequity of the way this particular society is funded the author says

The greatest source of income for the association is publications, which is mostly subscriptions to journals paid by academic libraries, which are being bled dry by profit-making publishers that ASA organizes academic labor to subsidize with free content and editorial services. This is a wealth transfer from poorer, teaching-intensive libraries to richer, research-intensive libraries.

I tthink it’s relevant to raise some points about the extent that such organizations (including, in my field,  the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics) rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals and why this is not in the best interests of their disciplines.

Take IOP Publishing, for example. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that has an annual turnover of around £60M generated from books and journals. This revenue is the largest contribution to the income that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which as a matter of fact I have published quite a few papers.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing some time ago in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to  its journals is nothing to do with the real cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of  “promoting Physics”.

This is the case for other learned societies too, and it explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access some authorities are attempting to foist on the research community, rather than the far more sensible and sustainable approaches to Open Access employed, for example, by the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

Some time ago I came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing anything other than the most expensive forms of Open Access:

There is also great incentive for the people who manage and run these organisations to defend their cartel. For example, the American Chemical Society, a huge opponent to open access, pays many of its employees, as reported in their 990 tax return, over six figures. These salaries ranged from $304,528 to $1,084,417 in 2010.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold.

First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of  other forms of Open Access publishing. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that traditional journals are already virtually redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics where we have been using the arXiv for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.

The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its brand new building in King’s Cross, will dry up unless these organizations find a way of defending it. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations their attempt to stem the tide. I think this move into Gold `Open Access’, paid for by ruinously expensive Article Processing Charges paid by authors (or their organizations) is unsustainable because the research community will see through it and refuse to pay.

The other problematic aspect of the approach of these learned societies is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and other institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with that purpose. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed outstandingly good – but that does not give them the right to siphon off funds from their constituents in this way.  Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel reasonably comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial, and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The commercial academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfills little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

The question for learned societies is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that isn’t reliant upon effectively purloining funds from university library budgets. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

Congratulations to the RAS Medallists!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2021 by telescoper

Given all the doom and gloom going around I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some good news and also offer my public congratulations to the all the winners of medals and awards announced yesterday by the Royal Astronomical Society. Let me draw particular attention to the three, purely on the grounds that I know them and their work personally.

First, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who receives the Gold Medal. For some reason the citation doesn’t mention that she should have won a share of the Nobel Prize in 1974.

Second, star cosmologist Hiranya Peiris who gets the Eddington Medal.

And third, Steven Smartt of Queen’s University Belfast, who gets the Herschel Medal.

Congratulations to them and indeed to all the winners of awards and medals, a complete list of whom may be found here.

Late in the Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , on December 12, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve noticed over the last few months that things coming from the UK to Ireland are getting heavily delayed en route, which is probably a sign of things to come. Last year my Royal Astronomical Society diary arrived in October. This year’s – complete with new logo – arrived yesterday (Friday 11th December):

The subscription to Physics World that comes with my IOP membership has suffered even worse disruption. Since I moved to Ireland I noticed that copies of this magazine take at least 6 weeks to arrive. After the pandemic started however, they stopped coming altogether until I contacted the Institute of Physics last month. They sent a package of replacement issues, which arrived promptly. The December issue arrived last week, in a white paper envelope instead of the usual plastic covering. Why that would make a difference to its speed of delivery I don’t know, but it seems to.

Usually I get an IOP wall planner every year, but the 2021 version hasn’t arrived yet. I’m not too worried about that, however, as the 2020 planner in my office is probably the item that proved of least use for me in 2020. Come to think of it, I haven’t had much call to use the RAS diary, either…

Some weeks ago I ordered a couple of chairs through a website with a “.ie” address. The chairs were actually made in Spain though and had to make the journey to Ireland through the UK. This process took much longer than I thought it would but when I queried with the supplier I was eventually given a delivery date of last Sunday (6th December). They didn’t show up. Using the tracking facility supplied by the company, the two packages seemed to have been lost. The customer service people had no information either. I was about to cancel the order and asked for a refund, but they showed up in Ireland on Thursday night; I received delivery this morning and am very happy with them. All’s well that ends well, I suppose, though the disruption to shipments coming through the UK is obviously not going to stop anytime soon.

My strong preference in shopping online is to buy from local (i.e. Irish) companies. Sometimes, though, businesses based elsewhere have a website in Ireland but nothing else. A lesson from this episode is to check carefully where the goods are actually going to be sent from before you order. Those that have to travel through England will probably arrive very late.

Eye on Burlington House

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 27, 2020 by telescoper

Having been forewarned of this story as soon as my copy of Private Eye arrived (this morning, owing to the Bank Holiday weekend) I headed straight to this:

It sounds rather alarming for the Royal Astronomical Society, which is currently accommodated in Burlington House in Piccadilly, but I do remember something similar being in the air not too long ago when I was a Member of RAS Council. The Government of the time threatened to increased rents and everyone involved with the RAS, including its Fellows, was a bit worried but an agreement was struck. Presumably now the leases are up for negotiation again?

It’s worth pointing out a few inaccuracies in the Eye piece.

  1.  “..the six Learned Societies complacently assumed they would continue to pay a peppercorn rent forever”. This is untrue as the rents have been renegotiated before (see above).
  2.  “The Royal Academy is still relatively flush….but the other five are effectively broke”. I don’t know anything about the others but I’d be very surprised if the Royal Society of Chemistry is “effectively broke” given the income from its academic publishing wing. It also has sizeable industrial income, as does the Geological Society. The Royal Astronomical Society has sizeable reserves in the form of a portfolio of long-term investments built up over the 200 years of its existence but it tends not to use them to fund expenditure; its main cash flow is provided again by academic publishing, especially Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This year – the bicentenary of its foundation – is a bit of an exception because it has dipped into reserves to fund a series of celebratory outreach activities.
  3. The description of “vast clubbable tearooms” is inaccurate too. The RAS occupies rather cramped accommodation in one corner of Burlington house. There is a Fellows’ Room but it is rather small. There are staff offices, a (small) lecture theatre and an important historical library. There are also the President’s Apartments (which I have of course never seen).

I wouldn’t put it past this particular Government to kick out the Learned Societies and outsource Burlington House to Serco but even if this does happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  In my view the RAS needs to shake off the fusty image that its current accommodation in what looks like an old museum tends to perpetuate.  It has always been the case that most of the regulars at the monthly Open Meetings in Burlington House are based in or near London, which means many Fellows don’t get the chance to be involved. Would it really be all that bad for the Royal Astronomical Society had to move? They may have to overhaul their finances anyway if their publishing revenues dry up…

Why not use the opportunity to move the Society out of London altogether to a place with a strong astronomical connection, Bath for example, although that would admittedly make it difficult to get to the Athenaeum in time for dinner…

And if “commercial rates” are going to be the thing for Government-owned buildings, shouldn’t the occupant of 10 Downing Street be charged for his accommodation?



Monthly Notices goes Online-only

Posted in Open Access with tags , , on June 14, 2020 by telescoper

I just heard that the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society which has been publishing astronomy research since 1859, is no longer producing a print edition and instead will be publishing online.

The decision is in response to falling demand for the printed version which has made it no longer economically viable profitable to continue producing it. I choose the ‘profitable’ because the prime purpose of MNRAS is no longer the dissemination of scientific results but the generation of income to fund other activities of the Royal Astronomical Society. Despite the move to the much cheaper digital-only publishing mode, the annual cost of an institutional subscription to this journal is over $10,000. Most of that is goes as profit to Oxford University Press (the actual publisher) and to the Royal Astronomical Society.

Much of what the RAS does with this income is laudible of course, but I don’t think it is fair to inflate institutional subscription costs in order to fund it. University libraries are meant to provide access to research, not to act as cash cows to be milked by learned societies. The Royal Astronomical Society society isn’t the only learned society to use its journals this way, nor is it the most exploitative of those that do, but I believe the approach is indefensible.

My very first research paper was published in MNRAS way back in 1986 and I’ve published many others there over the years, so it’s with a certain amount of nostalgia that I look back on the old style journal. As. Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society I used to get my own copy in the post at a discounted rate but had to stop and dispose of the old ones when I moved to Nottingham as they took up too much room.

My own belief is that it’s not only the print edition that has had its day but the whole idea of a traditional academic journal.

I’ll just take this opportunity to remind you that The Open Journal of Astrophysics publishes papers (online only) in all the areas of Astrophysics covered by MNRAS, and more, but is entirely free both for authors and readers.

An Astronomical Anniversary

Posted in Biographical, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 10, 2020 by telescoper

I was reminded via Twitter that today is the 200th anniversary of the first formal meeting of the Astronomical Society of London which took place on 10th March 1820. This society turned into the Royal Astronomical Society when it was given a Royal Charter in 1831. Here is the first page of the the Minutes of that first meeting:

Those of you who have been paying attention will recall that the decision to form the Society was taken at a dinner in January 1820 and the bicentenary of this event was celebrated in January by the RAS Dining Club (of which I am a member).

Club Dinners usually take place after the Open Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society on the second Friday of the month. Sadly, however, there won’t be a Club Dinner this Friday as it has been cancelled owing to the Coronavirus emergency. I’ll have to make do with beans on toast again then.

Incidentally, I thought I’d share this list of the first 200(ish) members of the Royal Astronomical Society (PDF) kindly sent to me by former Cardiff colleague Mike Edmunds. There are some illustrious names among the early members, including Laplace and Bessel, as well as some oddities, such as His Excellency Alexis Greig (Vice Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy) and Edward Riddle, Esq. (First Mathematical Master, the Royal Naval Asylum).



200 Years of the RAS Club

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 11, 2020 by telescoper

Here I am in Heathrow Terminal 2 waiting for flight back to Dublin. I managed to get to London from Birmingham in time for a special dinner to mark the 200th anniversary of the RAS Club. As I have mentioned in previous posts, according to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

Since the RAS Club always dines on the second Friday of the month after Ordinary Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society itself, January 10th was the closest date to that first dinner. As expected for such a special occasion, there was a very big turnout with more than double the usual number of diners (and many more guests than usual). It was very nice to see some people I haven’t seen for ages! The food and wine were excellent and we ended with champagne and a slice of a cake baked and decorated for the occasion. Unfortunately it was so crowded in the Gallery Room that I couldn’t get close enough to take a photo of it before it was whisked away to be cut into slices.

After dinner we had some speeches, including one really brilliant one by my former colleague from Cardiff days, Mike Edmunds who had researched the `14 gentlemen’ who attended that first dinner. I had known previously that Charles Babbage and John Herschel were there but here (thanks to Mike) is a complete list:

Charles Babbage, Esq. M.A. F.R.S. L. & E. No. 5 Devonshire Street Portland Place
Arthur Baily, Esq, Gray’s Inn
Francis Baily, Esq. F.R.S. & L.S. Gray’s Inn
Major Thomas Colby, of the Royal Engineers, LL.D. F.R.S. L. & E. Tower
Henry T. Colebrooke, Esq. F.R.S. & L.S. Albany, Piccadilly
Olinthus G. Gregory, LL.D. Professor of Mathematics Royal Military Academy, Woolwich
Stephen Groombridge, Esq. F.R.S. S.R.A.Nap. Blackheath
J.F.W. Herschel, LL.D. F.R.S. Slough
Patrick Kelly, LL.D. Finsbury Square
Daniel Moore, Esq. F.R.S. S.A. & L.S. Lincoln’s Inn
Rev. William Pearson, LL.D. F.R.S. East Sheen, Surrey
James South, Esq. F.R.S. and L.S. No. 11 Blackman Street Southwark
Charles Stokes, Esq. F.R.S. S.A. & L.S. Gray’s Inn
Peter Slawinski D.P. Proff. University Wilna

P.S. Because I was attending the LGBTQ+ STEMinar I couldn’t get to the ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society earlier in the day, which was a shame because it was there that the winners of this year’s awards were announced. You can find a full list here. Congratulations to all!

Exams and Anniversaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 9, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (10th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is tomorrow.

On the equivalent day last year I reflected on examinations and in particularly on the fact that the system of education both here in Ireland and in the United Kingdom places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment compared to learning and understanding.

Also on the equivalent day yesterday I was about to travel to London to attend my first LGBT+STEMinar at the Institute of Physics in London. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a similar thing, getting up at stupid o’clock
to travel to Birmingham for the 2020 event. The main difference this year (apart from the change of venue) is that I’m not giving a talk this time. This is good news for me (because it means I can relax a bit more) and for the attendees (because they don’t have to listen to me rambling on like they did last year).

I won’t be able to stay to the end of the LGBT+STEMinar, however, as I have to get to London. As I have mentioned previously here, 2020 marks the bicentenary of the Royal Astronomical Society:

According to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

To be precise, the Society only became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but its roots go back to 1820.

It’s not only the Royal Astronomical Society that has survived and prospered for two hundred years. The group of `gentlemen’ who met for dinner in January 1820 has also carried on in the form of the RAS Club which is, of course, older than the RAS itself. The Dining Club always meet on the second Friday of the month, which means that tomorrow is the closest date to that very first meeting. There will therefore be a special club dinner tomorrow night, with more guests than usual. I’m looking forward to it a lot, actually, although I’m slightly apprehensive about the fact that I’ll be relying on the train to get me there in time!

Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy

Posted in Art with tags , , on October 11, 2019 by telescoper

One of the nice things about the location of premises of the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House is that it’s right next to the Royal Academy. I took advantage of this proximity yesterday to have a look at the exhibition of work by Antony Gormley. The Main Gallery was very busy as I did my tour but I spent a very enjoyable time wandering around the various rooms and, in some cases, inside the installations therein.

The Royal Academy is a very traditional gallery space and it was the ingenious use of that space within the formal confines of the gallery that I found most impressive. In some of the rooms thin steel bars run through and out from the doors like beam of laser light. Two such beams arrive in one room where they are joined by a vertical bar of the same type, setting up coordinate axes for the whole show.

Here are some snaps I took on the way around:



Lost Horizon



`Cave’ is a large sculpture in rolled steel that you can go into. Parts of it are very dark; the photograph I took was from inside looking out. `Lost Horizons’ has typical Gormleyesque human figures standing upright, upside-down and horizontally on the floor ceiling and walls, an idea that resonates with the coordinate axes mentioned above, which you encounter just before entering this room.

But one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition is the large collection of Gormley’s workbooks, which show how he develops his ideas, always with reference both to the form and materials of his sculpture and the space into which they are to be placed.

The exhibition is open until 3rd December 2019. Do catch it if you can!