Michael Eisen: 20 years of cowardice: the pathetic response of American universities to the crisis in scholarly publishing

I propose a simple solution. We should give the public access to the peer-reviewed scientific journals in which we publish our ideas and discoveries.Michael Eisen, December 22, 2005

The question inevitably asked is, “Who goes first?” Which major universities and which scholarly societies have the will, confidence, and financial resources to get the process started?

Our answer is simple and to the point. It is time for the presidents of the nation’s major research universities to fish or cut bait. Collectively, they have both opportunity and motive—and, in the Association of American Universities, they have an organization with the capacity to convene the necessary negotiations.Association of Research Librarians, March 1998

PLoS co-founder Michael Eisen has earned the right to call cowardice on the elite universities that have continued to allow the journal monopolies to maintain their out-date business model, and their extortion-level pricing. Other academics will sometimes write supporting open access, but overall their posture remains submissive. In this essay Michael is refreshingly clear and frank on why the serials crisis still exists, at least a decade after universities could have refused to pay the extortion:

When Harvard University says it can not afford something, people notice. So it was last month when a faculty committee examining the future of the university’s libraries declared that the continued growth of journal subscription fees was unsustainable, even for them. The accompanying calls for faculty action are being hailed as a major challenge to the traditional publishers of scholarly journals.

Would that it were so. Rather than being a watershed event in the movement to reform scholarly publishing, the tepidness of the committee’s recommendations, and the silence of the university’s administration, are just the latest manifestation of the toothless response of American universities to the “serials crisis” that has plagued libraries for decades.

Had the leaders major research universities attacked this issue head on when the deep economic flaws in system became apparent, or if they’d showed even an ounce of spine in the ensuing twenty or so years, the subscription-based model that is the root of the problem would have long ago been eliminated. The solutions have always been clear. Universities should have stopped paying for subscriptions, forcing publishers to adopt alternative economic models. And they should have started to reshape the criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure, so that current and aspiring faculty did not feel compelled to publish in journals that were bankrupting the system. But they did neither, choosing instead to let the problem fester. And even as cries from the library community intensify, our universities continue to shovel billions of dollars a year to publishers while they repeatedly fail to take the simple steps that could fix the problem overnight.

The roots of the serials crisis

Virtually all of the problems in scholarly publishing stem from the simple act, repeated millions of times a year, of a scholar signing over copyright in their work to the journal in which their work is to appear. When they do this they hand publishers a weapon that enables them to extract almost unlimited amounts of money from libraries at the same research institutions that produced the work in the first place.

The problem arises because research libraries are charged with obtaining for scholars at their institution access to the entire scholarly output of their colleagues. Not just the most important stuff. Not just the most interesting stuff. Not just the most affordable stuff. ALL OF IT. And publishers know this. So they raise prices on their existing journals. And they launch new titles. And then they raise their prices.

What can libraries do? They have to subscribe to these journals. Their clientele wants them – indeed, they need them to do their work. They can’t cancel their subscription to Journal X in favor of the cheaper Journal Y, because the contents of X are only available in X. Every publisher is a monopoly selling an essential commodity. No wonder things have gotten out of control.

And out of control they are. Expenditures on scholarly journals at American research libraries quadrupled from 1986 to 2005, increasing at over three times the rate of inflation. This despite a massive reduction in costs due to a major shift towards electronic dissemination. These rates of growth continue nearly unabated, even in a terrible economy. (For those interested in more details, I point you to SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, who tracks journal pricing and revenues).

The opportunity universities missed

Just as the serials crisis was hitting its stride in the mid-1990′s, fate handed universities an out – the internet. In the early 1990′s access to the scholarly literature almost always occurred via print journals. By the end of the decade, virtually all scholarly journals were publishing online.

This radical transformation in how scholarly works were disseminated should have been accompanied by a corresponding radical shift in the economics of journal publishing. But it barely made a dent. Publishers, who were now primarily shipping electrons instead of ink on paper, kept raising their subscription prices as if nothing had happened. And universities let them get away with it.

(…) The unholy alliance between journals and universities

The biggest obstacle to the rise of open access journals was (and to a large extent still is) the major role that journal titles play in how universities evaluate candidates for jobs and promotions. In most academic disciplines, careers are built by publishing papers in prestigious journals – those that are the most selective, and therefore have the most cache. Scholars rising through the ranks of graduate school, the job market, assistant professorships and tenure face a nearly contant barrage of messages telling them that they have to publish in the best journals if they want to succeed at the next step. Never mind that it is far less true than people believe. That people believe it is all that matters.

Almost everyone I know thinks that simply looking at journal titles is a stupid way to decide who is or is not a good researcher, and yet it remains. There are many reasons why this system persists, but the most important is that universities like it. Administrators love having something like an objective standard that can be applied to all of the candidates for a job, promotion, etc… that might allow them to compare not only candidates for one job to each other, but all candidates for any honor across the university. This is perhaps why no university that I know of has taken a forceful stand against the use of journal titles as a major factor in hiring and promotion decisions. And it is, I believe, a major reason why they are unwilling to cut off the flow of money to these journals.

It’s never too late


Read the whole essay for the solution. If Harvard is feeling squeezed by the extortion, then we may be reaching the tipping point.

Naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them

We read a fair bit of current science most days, then are a bit shaken by our lack of progress in educating the broad population. This New Yorker piece looks at some of the work attempting to account for our failure:

Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.

Such poll data raises questions: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?

A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance. As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue. For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there’s the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don’t seem to be evolving.

This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin.

Read the whole thing.

False Positive Science

This science policy post by Roger Pielke Jr. is a gem. You’ll want to keep these principles in mind whenever you read new research press releases (much of the science reporting you read in the media is regurgitated press releases). Here’s an excerpt:

(…) The problem of “false positive science” is of course not limited to the discipline of psychology or even the social sciences. Simmons et al. provide several excellent empirical examples of how ambiguity in the research process leads to false positives and offer some advice for how the research community might begin to deal with the problem.

Writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullam says that a gullible and compliant media makes things worse:

Compounding this problem with psychological science is the pathetic state of science reporting: the problem of how unacceptably easy it is to publish total fictions about science, and falsely claim relevance to real everyday life.

Pullam provides a nice example of the dynamics discussed here in the recent case of the so-called “QWERTY effect” which is also dissected here. On this blog I’ve occasionally pointed to silly science and silly reporting, as well as good science and good reporting — which on any given topic is all mixed up together.

When prominent members of the media take on an activist bent, the challenge is further compounded. Of course, members of the media are not alone in their activism through science. The combination of ambiguity, researcher interest in a significant result and research as a tool of activism makes sorting through the thicket of knowledge a challenge in the best of cases, and sometimes just impossible.

The practical conclusion to draw from Simmons et al. is that much of what we think we know based on conventional statistical studies published in the academic literature stands a good chance of just not being so — certainly more than the 5% threshold used as a threshold for significance. Absent solid research, we simply can’t distinguish empirically between false and true positives, meaning that we apply other criteria, like political expediency. Knowing what to know turns out to be quite a challenge.

Smart Meters cause cancer, sterility and hearing loss…

…according to Australian advocacy groups. Dan Rutter has a comprehensive piece electricity smart meters and the political reactions to same. Excerpts

Australia, or at least Victoria, is getting “smart” electricity meters.

Unlike the old spinning-disc or slightly newer digital meters, smart meters can report power usage in real time, to the customer via a display inside the house and to the power company as well, without any requirement for legions of meter-readers. Smart meters can do various other tricks, too, like for instance changing the cost of electricity by time of day, to make it more expensive when there’s high demand and deter some people from turning on the air conditioner and adding their own little electrical vote for a new coal-fired power station.

Heck, the smart meters may even be able to measure power factor, and theoretically create a need for those zillions of “power savergadgets. Which the power saver gadgets will not actually fill, of course, on account of how they usually don’t do anything at all, but you can’t have everything.

The Australian meters seem to report every thirty minutes, via radio.

So, naturally, people think they cause cancer.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Very funny and informative. Read the whole thing »

What the green movement got wrong

Mark Lynas was a contributor to the captioned UK Channel 4 documentary aired in November 2010. Here are some of Mark’s comments on the associated controversy:

Does the environmental movement still speak for the environment? Or are the greens in danger of being left behind, trapped in their own ideological fortress, as the world outside changes rapidly?

These are the questions asked by What the Green Movement Got Wrong. Before the programme even airs, it is mired in controversy, with environmentalists in the major campaign groups already crying foul before most of them have even seen what the documentary contains.

My view, as one of the contributors to the film, is simple: the greens can dish it out, but they can’t take it. This is a real debate and the environment movement needs to tackle it head-on rather than asserting that all challenges must be part of some imagined evil conspiracy. Unless we can have a constructive debate about what environmentalism is seeking to achieve, its potency as a force for good in the world is in danger of being diluted by a religious-style adherence to the campaigns of the past.

Take nuclear power. The origins of the modern environmental movement are intimately bound up with its anti-nuclear campaigning – but it is by no means clear that this has been beneficial to the environment. Nuclear power has not caused a single species to go extinct. Instead it is of enormous benefit in helping industrialised, densely-populated, power-hungry societies to generate much-needed electricity without emitting carbon.

Green anti-nuclear campaigning has already added to the atmospheric stock of carbon dioxide, probably to the tune of more than a billion tonnes. Why? Because nuclear plants which were opposed by greens in the 1970s and 1980s were instead replaced by coal plants.

In hindsight that was obviously a mistake, but it is one that today’s environmental lobby groups seem determined to repeat.(…)

Read the whole thing »

Media + WHO + cell phones + cancer = “run for the hills!”

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, composed of 31 scientists from 14 countries, said that a review of existing studies into cell phone use and brain tumors shows that long-term use is “possibly carcinogenic.”

One more time, Univ. of Maryland physicist Bob Parks explains why cell phones do not cause brain cancer:

Here’s the conversation I have several times a day with total strangers: Caller: do you use a wired earphone? BP: No. Caller: would it be too much trouble? BP: No. Caller: Wouldnt you be safer? BP: No. Caller: How do you know? BP: Quantum physics; all cancers are caused by mutant strands of DNA. Electromagnetic radiation can’t create mutant strands of DNA unless the frequency is at or higher than the blue limit of the visible spectrum the near-ultraviolet. The frequency of cell phone radiation is about 1 million times too low. Caller: Wow! When did this news break? BP: Albert Einstein let it out in 1905. Robert Millikan, considered to be the world’s top physics experimentalist, spent a decade constructing an experiment to test it. It confirmed Einstein’s theory perfectly. Caller: I’m shocked! Are you sure this is right? BP: Virtually the entire modern world rests on it. Caller: Why am I just hearing about this? BP: Because Sanjay didn’t tell you. We all depend on the news media to keep us informed, and the news media all over the world let us down on this one. And we scientists should have been screaming louder.

Read the whole thing. This is a funny post – e.g., you learn that CNN’s medical ‘authority’ Sanjay Gupta uses a wired earpiece. If you want still more good science on the topic, this Bob Park search should satisfy you.

Still more? OK, anti-bad-science campaigner Steve Packard says WHO Drops the Ball on Cell Phones and Cancer. And anti-bad-science blogger Orac has much more to say on the zombie cell phone cancers in The bride of the son of the revenge of cell phones and cancer rises from the grave…again. And then anti-bad-astronomer Phil Plait says Why I’m (still) not worried about my cell phone hurting my brain.

MacKay: making make physical numbers memorable

Physicist David MacKay has a knack for communicating science and engineering. In this post David demonstrates how it is possible to make nonintuitive units easily understandable. I think this is brilliant [SEWTHA is short for MacKay’s famous energy policy book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” .] As I’ve mentioned before, Dr. Mackay is now Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. And he is definitely shaking things up in that stodgy bureaucracy. Example, see the new My 2050 website.

I’m always looking for new ways to make physical numbers memorable.

  • One method is to use a picture (eg nuclear waste, per person, per year) [page 170, SEWTHA]
  • Another general rule is to choose units such that the answer to be remembered comes out between “1 unit” and “200 units”, because smallish numbers are easier to remember.
  • Another idea is to reexpress the quantity in completely different units, which may be more familiar and more memorable, as illustrated in this earlier post where I converted an incomprehensible 20 x 1022 J into a hopefully more human-friendly ocean temperature rise of 0.2 degrees C.

David continues with more illustrations. I especially like the way he expresses the cost of desalination: 7 degrees C.

This result brings home that if the desalinated water is going to be used for a shower or for cooking, the energy cost of the desalination is fairly tiny compared to the energy that will be used later in the water’s lifecycle.

We will need to do a lot of desalination, which will be feasible if we have converted to a nuclear generation fleet. I think it is likely that after about 2025 most of that nuclear expansion will be Gen 4 reactors (which can consume what people today call “nuclear waste”). The above example of per person/per year waste from Gen 4 reactors will be even smaller, about half the above illustration, or the size of a soda can.

The SETI Game

I found this Robin Hanson analysis fascinating. Have you ever considered how another civilization would optimize their transmissions if their resources were not infinite? We have no way to know if they are out there somewhere, nor what their resource constraints might be. Regardless, Robin makes a good case that we are unlikely to detect their signal by the methods we have been pursuing.

When listening for signals from aliens, it isn’t enough to just point an antenna at the sky. One must also choose details like directions, angles, frequencies, bandwidths, pulse widths, and pulse intervals. Apparently most SETI searches assume that for a given signal power density, aliens would pick details to make it as easy as possible for us to detect their signals. So standard SETI searches are optimized for such easily-seen signals. Two excellent papers, published back in July, instead consider what sort of signals would be sent by “beacon” building aliens, who seek to create the maximum possible power density at any given distance away from them. (One of the authors is SF author Greg Benford.) Such signals are quite different, and most of today’s SETI searches are not very good at seeing them:

Minimizing the cost of producing a desired power density at long range … determines the maximum range of detectability of a transmitted signal. We derive general relations for cost-optimal aperture and power. … Galactic-scale beacons can be built for a few billion dollars with our present technology. Such beacons have narrow “searchlight” beams and short “dwell times” when the beacon would be seen by an alien observer in their sky. … Cost scales only linearly with range R, not as R2. … They will likely transmit at higher microwave frequencies, 10 GHz. The natural corridor to broadcast is along the galactic radius or along the local spiral galactic arm we are in. …

(…) Behind conventional SETI methods lies the assumption that altruistic beaming societies will send persistent signals. In searches to date, confirmation attempts, when the observer looks back at a target, in practice usually occur days later. Such surveys have little chance of seeing cost-optimized beacons. … Distant, cost-optimized beacons will appear for much less time than as assumed in conventional SETI. Earlier searches have seen pulsed intermittent signals resembling what we (in this paper) think beacons may be like, and may provide useful clues. We should observe the spots in the sky seen in previous work for hints of such activity but over year-long periods. (more)

Of course both the usual assumption that aliens will pay any cost to make a given power density signal easy for us to see, and the new assumption that aliens ignore our costs and merely seek to maximize power density, are both somewhat unsatisfactory. It would be better to model this interaction as a game, where each side has a limited budget and seeks to maximize the probability of at least one successful communication, holding constant the behavior it expects from the other side. Each side would of course also have to integrate over possible locations and budgets for the other side.

I’m very interested in working with (sim, math, or physics) competent folks to more formally model this SETI communication game.

[From The SETI Game]

If you can contribute, contact Robin!

Rob Dunbar: Discovering ancient climates in oceans and ice

We recommend Rob Dunbar’s recent TED Talk. In this post we are collecting a few of the links we have found researching the drillship JOIDES Resolution and the IODP Wilkes Land Expedition. The photo above is from Rob’s mid-expedition dispatch “Iceberg City “.

Rob Dunbar-Home Page-Stanford University

Robert Dunbar | Center for Ocean Solutions

Rob Dunbar | Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists

Science: trial by Twitter

This is old news in physics and mathematics, which have for years been posting online pre-publication drafts for review and comment. This article in Nature discusses the fast-feedback controversy in biology and similar fields.

(…) In some fields, notably mathematics and physics, this sort of public discourse on a paper has long been the norm, both before and after publication. Most researchers in those fields have been depositing their draft papers in the preprint server arXiv.org for two decades. And when blogging became popular around the turn of the millennium, they were quick to start debating their research in that form.

Scientists in other fields seem less willing to get involved in pre-publication discussion. Biologists, in particular, are notoriously reluctant to publicly discuss their own work or comment on the work of others for fear of being scooped by competitors or of offending future reviewers of their own work. Adding to the disincentive is the knowledge that tenure committees and funding agencies do not explicitly reward online activity.