Better late than never?

Greetings, faithful readers!  I’m sure you have both been wondering why the long hiatus — lots of reasons, mostly to do with laziness, but there’s one in particular I need to get out of the way right away.  I promised myself that I wouldn’t say anything on the blog until I’d corrected an error — and promptly stopped blogging for about two years!

But now I have things I want to talk about again, so it’s time (OK, way past time!) to do the necessary update.

In these two posts, I relied heavily on an NIH estimate of author-side charges, using it to calcluate page and colour charges on the basis of the assumption that most toll-access journals charge these.

On liblicense-L, Anthony Watkinson took me to task for that assumption, pointing out that it did not accord with his many years of experience as a publisher and going to the trouble of soliciting opinion from colleagues with similar backgrounds (all of whom agreed with him).

At the time, I could do no more than cede Anthony’s point that my claim was shaky at best. This followup is so long in coming because I kept fooling myself that I would do something about obtaining better data, but of course I have not managed to get around to that.  The references I do have for the NIH estimates are, shall we say, not up to the standard I would like:

2. warning, huge pdf:

and Anthony’s comments make it clear that more than half of the STM literature probably doesn’t levy page or colour charges — so if the NIH figures are to be believed and attributed to page/colour charges, someone must be really gouging!

I don’t know what’s up with the numbers, and I may never get around to figuring it out (though I still think the questions are interesting and would like to see whether, for instance, the NIH has better data available).  The point of this post is to highlight the problem with the figures I used, particularly the shaky nature of the references, about which I should have been much clearer in the first place.  I’ll update the old posts with links to this one.

My apologies to anyone who made use of the earlier posts for the unconscionably long time this update/correction has taken.

give your brain a workout

My friend Björn has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, an invited article on the possible biological basis of free will.
In accordance with Björn’s commitment to openness in science, he circulated a preprint and paid to make the published version Open Access in the hope of stimulating further discussion:

The article has been through several rounds of peer-review, both informal and formal [...] since august this year. Of course, the real discussion, I would hope, isn’t starting until today, when the article actually became accessible.

I read the preprint, and it made my head ache. In a good way. I’m really not qualified to say whether Björn is right or wrong or completely nuts on this issue, but he’s taken an ambitious stab at a Big Question and that’s always good. More to the point, he’s done it well and carefully and it’s worth your time to play along at home.
Do your brain a favor and give it a workout — the full article is freely available online, and if you have substantive comments to make I guarantee you that the author will be delighted.
To whet your appetite, here’s the abstract:

Until the advent of modern neuroscience, free will used to be a theological and a metaphysical concept, debated with little reference to brain function. Today, with ever increasing understanding of neurons, circuits and cognition, this concept has become outdated and any metaphysical account of free will is rightfully rejected. The consequence is not, however, that we become mindless automata responding predictably to external stimuli. On the contrary, accumulating evidence also from brains much smaller than ours points towards a general organization of brain function that incorporates flexible decision-making on the basis of complex computations negotiating internal and external processing. The adaptive value of such an organization consists of being unpredictable for competitors, prey or predators, as well as being able to explore the hidden resource deterministic automats would never find. At the same time, this organization allows all animals to respond efficiently with tried-and-tested behaviours to predictable and reliable stimuli. As has been the case so many times in the history of neuroscience, invertebrate model systems are spearheading these research efforts. This comparatively recent evidence indicates that one common ability of most if not all brains is to choose among different behavioural options even in the absence of differences in the environment and perform genuinely novel acts. Therefore, it seems a reasonable effort for any neurobiologist to join and support a rather illustrious list of scholars who are trying to wrestle the term ‘free will’ from its metaphysical ancestry. The goal is to arrive at a scientific concept of free will, starting from these recently discovered processes with a strong emphasis on the neurobiological mechanisms underlying them.

Veteran’s Day

Today I put aside my troubles and remember the many dead of both World Wars — indeed, of all wars — for their sacrifice.

WITH rue my heart is laden
  For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
  And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
  The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
  In fields where roses fade.
–A.E. Housman

Lest we forget.



I’m ridiculously busy (at work today, Saturday, for instance), but I wanted briefly to mark the occasion. It’s Juneteenth, an emancipation anniversary which — if I understand it correctly — focuses on the joy without needing to downplay the grim realities, and is for everyone who feels that, for all its unresolved legacies, the end of US slavery is something to celebrate. I’m so white I’m actually pink, but Juneteenth makes me happy too.
Fortunately, my friend Abel has done a great job of introducing and explaining the day and its background, so I’ll just point you there: What is this Juneteenth of which you speak?

advantage, schmantage

In a recent post at The Scholarly Kitchen, Philip Davis takes issue with a recent article by Alma Swan regarding the controversial Open Access citation advantage, the idea that any given paper is, ceteris paribus, more likely to be cited if published under an Open Access model than it would be if published behind a paywall.
The FUD merchants want to claim that, if no citation advantage exists, there is no point to Open Access: that unless OA papers are currently garnering more citations than their TA equivalents, current levels of access must be adequate; or that if OA papers, which presumably are read more, are not cited more, then OA must be a repository for the second rate. Hence the controversy: it’s an easy way to obscure the debate, sending up a cloud of statistical argument like a fleeing cuttlefish squirting ink. “Look over there, OA proponents are wrong about this, surely they must be wrong about everything, pay no attention to the massive profits behind the curtain.”
Considering that:

  • only around 20% of the world’s scholarly journals are OA, and very few of those have been around for more than about a decade
  • the subscription model is propped up by systemic inertia and by the fact that it simultaneously makes competitors into complements and hides its costs in multiple places, thereby divorcing demand from the reality check that costs ought to provide; and
  • although we might wish it were otherwise, the practice of citing papers known only from their free-access abstracts or mention in another paper is hardly uncommon

it’s something of a miracle if any OA citation advantage shows up anywhere. More importantly, though, the citation advantage was always a minor point in the list of reasons to prefer Open to Toll Access:
(1) Not everyone who needs to read the primary literature is going to write anything citing it. That doesn’t make providing them with access to the literature any less important, and no payment or institutional affiliation is required to read Open Access information.
(2) Toll Access confines data- and textmining to isolated, artificial commercial sections of the body of knowledge, hindering progress on mining methodologies, restricting the reach of existing work and precluding any idea of a comprehensive protocol.
(3) OA provides better value for money than Toll Access. Regardless of where the money comes from, OA is a one-time up-front expense that covers all subsequent use: pay the midwife, but keep the baby. Peter Suber has written a careful exposition of this argument from the taxpayer perspective, but most if not all of his points map readily onto any research funder.
(4) Open Access scales where Toll Access doesn’t; my own recent estimate (caveat lector!) is that library access, even at the best funded libraries, runs to around half of the total available scholarly journal literature. What use is a system that enables publication without enabling access?The subscription model divorces (part of) the cost of dissemination from the overall cost of production of scholarly information, which has allowed research funders to overlook that part of the cost of their mission. It’s been historically picked up by libraries, but that’s easily revealed as a shell game when you look at where library funding comes from. Who loses the shell game? Academics whose work is less widely available than it should be, and anyone who wants to read the primary literature. Who wins? Publishers, whose prices have been allowed to escalate because they have largely escaped scrutiny (except by librarians, who for no good reason that I can see have been largely ignored, at least until relatively recently, by academic and political decision makers).
So I don’t think the citation advantage question has much bearing on the larger question of the value of Open Access. Existing access is clearly inadequate by comparison with Open Access by way of points (1) and (2) above, and OA is in any case preferable by way of point (3) and inevitable by way of point (4).

from my commute this morning

On the Train
Two well scrubbed boys
in suits and ties
ruined my morning with their talk,
feigning interest in my book
and where I’m from
and friendly lies
the way they’re taught, to draw me in
till they can teach me of my sin.
Listen here, my shiny lads,
my would-be rescuers of soul—
but here’s your stop, so shake my hand
and go your way and wish me well.
A narrow Heaven chafes your thought,
quite unlike my light, loose-fitting Hell.