Alternative Oxfords and the Red Atlas

I attended the Bodleian Library’s fascinating webinar on unconventional maps of Oxford on Tuesday evening, where the star turns were easily the secret Soviet maps of the city from the 1970s.

It’s a fascinating, and not fully understood story. The Soviets produced top class maps of pretty much the entire planet between the 1950s and 1980s, which remained entirely secretly and unknown to the world until the early 1990s. So good are they, that the Bodleian itself still uses some of them for reference, particularly for Turkey and Greece, apparently.

Depicted, a detail from the Red Atlas featuring Dublin city centre, from c. 1980.

No one knows entirely why the Soviets did this, especially when you couldn’t even get a map of Moscow in Moscow until the very late 1980s. I can testify that when I lived in Minsk, there were no maps available. I ended up drawing my own in a notebook just to be able to get around.

The Red Atlas probably weren’t invasion maps, but they definitely were for restricted access. All sorts of fascinating locations are carefully marked up in purple, including the usual suspects like police stations, prisons and military bases, but also places of more curious interest, such as universities.

Chicago published a selection of them a few years ago, primarily of British and American locations, and called ‘The Red Atlas’. As for the Bodleian map librarians, ownership of this is probably useful if you can read a little Russian and don’t mind your maps being about five decades out of date.

It was a little disappointing though to discover that the Bodleian’s map librarians had never heard of the map of Lyra’s Oxford, from the fiction of Philip Pullman. Clearly they aren’t familiar with his work, despite it being probably the most famous and popular of speculative geographies of the city of dreaming spires.

Their other choices of alternative Oxfords included legendary town planner Thomas Sharp‘s vision of an automobile-enabled Oxford of the post-war period, and a civil war era map which may have been deliberately inaccurate in order to throw off enemy parliamentarian forces.

But the best of the rest, secret Soviet maps apart, was the 1883 ‘Drink Map’ of Oxford, produced in a spectacular example of an own goal, by the Temperance Movement. Its reverse featured a lengthy lecture on the dangers of alcohol and the evil magistrates allegedly facilitating excessive drinking in the city, but one gets the strong feeling that, as with other such drink maps of Britain at that time, they were more likely used by thirsty people seeking a nearby locale for some fortifying adult beverages.

Nowadays, such drink maps are basically pub crawls in cartographic form. They even come in formats where one may colour in images of pubs, like a drunken infant, thereby ticking off hostelries which you have deigned to feature with your sozzled presence.

The Sea Monsters Scam of Academic Publishing, or, how I published an article about mermaids in an oceanography journal

This was originally published on LinkedIn. At some point, I will likely decide that I have no real purpose or need of a presence there, hence reproducing it here.

The oceans of knowledge are not a safe place for an unwary early career researcher, or academic from the developing world, who needs to publish their work to gain tenure or promotion.

Here be monsters, shady companies who prey on desperate and ill-advised academics. The scam is simple. There is a drive to open source publishing in academia to make knowledge as freely available as possible. This is because academics tend to produce their work as employees of universities, who are then charged by publishers to access that same work. This too could be considered a little unethical, but it is not new. The system, for those unfamiliar with it, is well described here.

No, I’m talking about a more recent development. With the drive to online, publishers have emerged offering to publish academic work for a fee. This fee, they insist, is to cover things like editorial, proofreading, and layout, as well as online hosting costs. However, the fees requested often run into hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unwary academics, often from developing nations, do not always distinguish these ‘journals’ from more respectable ones, which is how they make their money.

Most academics have been spammed at some point by these journals (the respectable ones don’t need to spam to recruit submissions.). Most academics wearily delete the emails. Some academics dream of spamming them back. Sometimes, academics with a little spare time troll the spammers, publishing nonsense articles to highlight their lack of professional standards. There have been articles published on the use of geese in obstetrics, the existence of midichlorians (the fictional cause of Star Wars’ ‘force’), and even an article simply entitled ‘Stop emailing me’, which consisted of that phrase multiply repeated.

I’ve been on parental leave recently, and as I had a day between writing projects and the baby was behaving himself, I decided to bite on the latest spam from an alleged Journal of Advances in Oceanography and Marine Biology. This too is an indicator of a scam journal, when their topic is very distant from your own speciality subject. Mine is not oceanography. I’m a literary scholar who teaches literature and journalism. So, rising to the challenge, I wrote an article about mermaids, selkies, sea monsters and oceans of lard.

They asked for $979 to publish it. We negotiated, while the article allegedly was out for ‘peer review’. Peer review is a system where other academics read your work blind and offer guidance on whether it should be published. It’s a voluntary quality control system, which moves slowly, because academics aren’t paid to do it, and it’s often at the bottom of their large ‘to-do’ lists. Articles can languish in peer review for months, and sometimes even longer. So it is another indicator of a scam journal when your article completes peer review in ten days, as mine did.

Meanwhile, I had beaten the cost down to $50. They got sticky there, because obviously the sales people on the email line like to make their money and this seems to be their floor. Equally, I didn’t intend to pay at all, and I knew that for the scam to work on others, they needed some content. I gambled that they would publish my article for free to lure others. I also gambled that they hadn’t actually read it, and nor had any peer reviewer. The gamble was correct, and you can read my ridiculous article here (until they read this and delete it.) It’s called Speculative Oceanography.

The Times Literary Supplement is entirely correct to demand a reform of the practice of charging universities for work that they themselves produce. But there is a risk that we may then lurch to an even worse situation, where predatory journals scam desperate academics and researchers with ever more prevalence. A brave librarian in the United States used to maintain a list of such predatory journals and publishers, as a guide for academics to consult, but he and his university were threatened with lawsuits from the deep-pocketed publishers, and now that list is no longer updated, though new journals and publishers pop up daily.

As we move to fully open source academic publishing, we need an international quality control system to prevent predatory journals from preying on the unwary. We need to kill off the sea monsters of academia.

Mermaid research and the pay-to-publish grind

This has been all done and dusted already. Really what I’m doing is archiving it here in case the other locations for whatever reason go dark.

The short version of events is that I was spammed by a pay-to-publish academic publisher, and I trolled them. The longer version is that this is the tip of a very dangerous iceberg of academic publishing, which threatens to destroy the credibility of peer review itself, not to mention the careers of many developing world and early career researchers. Anyhow, I banged on about that here before. For reference and archiving, it is now reproduced on this blog here.

Anyhow, here’s the article in question, just in case the hosting scam publisher goes dark, which they might well. You might have fun with it. It’s short, and packed full of joke references and some fun satire of academic writing. And lots of science fiction in-jokes for the nerds out there.