“I consider humans to be noise.”

Zioluc1.jpg Heh. Me too, for the most part. Richard Akerman, talking about Flickr groups and other very, very special interest online groups (“narrowcasting”):

“There are of course huge Flickr groups devoted to topics of typical photographic interest, like Sunrises and Sunsets (12,453 members).  But there is also the “I didn’t think anyone else was interested in that” sort of groups.  For example, I like to take photos that are empty of people.  I consider humans to be noise that messes up the framing of my shots.  As luck would have it, I can submit my photos to the Flickr group The Last Person on Earth (1,036 members) (or see just my contributions). This isn’t even the only “no people in the photo” group, there’s also No people. Beyond that, in Lonely City, you can’t even have animals in the photos.”

Zioluc2.jpg I usually like to keep people out of my photos, for two good reasons: 1. they are really hard to photograph; seriously, people are some of the most difficult subjects there are; and 2. privacy concerns. I never publish photos with identifiable humans in them, unless I have explicit permission to do so (and since I almost never have the gumption to ask, that means I almost never post people shots). I know that one has a diminished expectation of privacy in a public space, but I am not making a living as a photographer or journalist. I can afford to go a bit further in my consideration of other people’s privacy than the law strictly requires.
I wanted to use Richard’s photos, but he reserves all rights and I’m lazy, so I hunted around the LPOE pool until I found Zioluc, who releases his shots under a Creative Commons licence (attribution/noncommercial/noderivs) that lets me use them. Grazie, signore! Top left: isoletta aspettami; bottom right: welcome.

An odd oversight on the part of J Neurosci

For the last few months, the Journal of Neuroscience has been hosting a series of articles on Open Access and the future of scientific/scholarly publishing. Laudably, they are all freely available; inexplicably, you have to search for them one-by-one. The big red “Free Articles on Open Access” link on the front page goes to the editor-in-chief’s editorial introducing the series, but the list of articles is not hyperlinked to the articles themselves.
So here, without further ado, is the list of articles complete with links to the full text:
Sept 6 Why Open Access to Research and Scholarship? John Willinsky
Sept 13 Will Research Sharing Keep Pace with the Internet? Richard K. Johnson
Sept 20 As We May Read. Paul Ginsparg
Sept 27 Reinventing the Biomedical Journal. Richard Smith
Oct 4 Open Access and the Future of the Scientific Research Article. Matthew Cockerill and Vitek Tracz

“Those who believe in dialogue do so for the simple reason that they understand that they might be wrong.”

See, that’s why I read Steve, and you should too. If I’ve learned anything worth knowing in my decade and a half of trying to be a scientist, it’s exactly this: I might be wrong.
No matter how sure I am, no matter how careful I’ve been, no matter how smart I like to think I am, no matter how intellectually and emotionally satisfying I find my position, I might be wrong. And the corollary: if I am in fact wrong, I will be better off knowing about it, and preferably sooner rather than later so that I don’t waste effort on mistakes that will later be pulled down around my ears.
That’s why, when I read that former House majority leader Dick Armey recently said in an interview:

Dialogues are what Democrats do, not what Republicans do. Only liberals think that if you’ve had a dialogue about something, you’ve done something.

it literally makes me want to puke. I feel physically sick at the thought of someone so arrogant, callow and ignorant being in a position of real power.
So my blogroll, that list of links over there on the right, is Pepto-Bismol for the brain. Try it, you’ll like it.
Here’s the full quote from Steve; go read the whole entry, too.

Those who believe in dialogue do so for the simple reason that they understand that they might be wrong. They don’t think they are, but understand that they might be and so seek to test out their ideas against the strongest objections that can be leveled against them. Like a belt holding boxer who refuses to take on legitimate challengers in defense of his title, the only people who run from dialogue are those who are afraid they will lose.

Open Question on Open Access

In a comment on Scott’s recent entry (discussed below), Mark D makes a good point, one that I’ve touched on previously and that bears repeating:

The problem is, I haven’t seen any hard data that documents the cost of peer review, redaction, and publishing. Everyone throws numbers around as if they were confetti. We are all, supposedly (publishers and librarians) in the scientific/technical community, yet so very few people take a scientific approach to this issue.
The first step on the road to open access, should be a review of the processes and costs associated with scientific publication. Sounds like a good paper for the library association journal. Any librarians out there that want to tackle this paper?
And as for the publishers, if they really do wish a dialogue, then why don’t they reveal their redaction costs? Any takers out there in the publishing world?

Online publication dramatically lowers costs relative to printed journals, but it is not free. Copyediting is still required, peer review must be co-ordinated even though the actual reviewing is done by authors for no charge, and the digital objects (articles, data, etc) must be created, archived and maintained in an accessible format. There are surely other important costs, too, that do not occur to me right now. All of this costs money, but the Big Question of OA is: how much money? According to a recent survey, publishers experimenting with optional OA charge author-side fees ranging from $85 to $3000, while fewer than half of full-OA journals charge any author-side fees at all (Peter Suber has a good discussion of no-fee OA here). Alternative revenue streams listed include member dues (e.g. for journals published by scholarly societies), industry support (I think this means/includes advertising), third-party licences, grants and subscriptions.
So, an open question: just what does it cost to run an OA scholarly journal?
The Public Library of Science charges $2500 for an article in its flagship journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine and $2000 for its second-tier journals, about which they say this:

Ultimately, the fees that PLoS charge reflect the costs associated with publishing. We are not in this to make a profit – our bottom line is to make the literature a public resource.

According to this article, PNAS articles cost “up to $3800” to publish. BioMed Central charges about $1400 per article in most of its OA journals, with a few under $1000 and about a dozen in the $1500 – $1800 range. BMC also maintains a helpful comparison table of author-side fees, which shows that they are one of the less expensive options, with typical charges in the $2000 – $3000 range. Hindawi is a fully OA publisher whose business model is based on page charges of about $60-$120/page (say around $500 for a typical article).
I mention Hindawi specifically because they are already showing profit, and because of a recent comment by their senior publishing developer Paul Peters on the Nature newsblog. Responding to an article by Declan Butler (toll-access! see Declan’s blog) focusing on PLoS finances and entitled “Open-access journal hits rocky times”, Peters wrote:

Based on our experience as a publisher of both subscription-based journals and author-pays open access journals, I would not only argue that the author-pays publishing model is sustainable, but also that it has many economic advantages over the subscription model. Even though our open access journal collection is only a few years old, we have already achieved profitability for the collection as a whole. […]
Opponents of open access publishing will most likely use the financial information that is available about the Public Library of Science to defend their stance that the author-pays business model in unsustainable. However, drawing conclusions about a business model based on the financial records of a single non-profit organization, whose stated purpose is that of an advocacy organization, seems like a rather weak argument. It is much more telling to look at a commercial publisher like Hindawi and ask why we would employ an author-pays business model, since our main objective, like that of all commercial enterprises, is financial success.

The emphasis is mine; and yes, it would be very informative to see inside the finances of a variety of OA publishers. Knowing what publishers charge, as above, does not tell us what it actually costs to run the journals. Beyond saying “we are showing profit”, Hindawi does not seem to be forthcoming on that issue. I take it as read that for-profit ventures charge what the market will bear, but when the market in question is largely scientists and their allies (librarians, clinicians, &c.), it seems logical that the market should look for data on which to base decisions about just what it will bear. Commercial entities rarely have open-access balance sheets, but perhaps OA publishers could take the lead there as well?

Update:Peter Suber has some sensible things to say about this.

Congratulations to Peter Suber

It seems just a trifle odd that a for-profit, mostly toll-access publisher has created a one-time special award for a “Non-Librarian Working for Our Cause” in order to recognize Peter Suber “for his excellent work in managing the influential SPARC Open Access Forum (blog) and the Open Access Newsletter”.
Nonetheless, there you have it, and congratulations to Peter, who richly deserves all OA-related honors that come his way.
Hat-tip: Heather at OAL.

Does this make me Orthodox?

T. Scott Plutchak describes himself as an OA heretic (“Martin Luther continued to believe in Jesus…”) in decrying what he calls the “strong moralistic approach” to Open Access advocacy. He and I disagree fairly extensively (hence the entry title); to wit:

When one takes the strong moralistic approach, the open access all or nothing approach, and treats it as if it is the most important issue in scholarly publishing, then one is essentially absolved from the difficult consideration of social costs. If one feels that the social benefits of open access are clearly and completely overwhelming, then one is compelled to push for whatever solutions might point in that direction and let the chips fall where they may. But to righteously ignore the fact that some of those chips may fall very heavily indeed is irresponsible.

1. It’s hardly fair to equate ethical arguments for OA with an “all or nothing” approach and to set up “if one feels that” strawmen, particularly if you’re going to complain in the same entry that others’ rhetoric “has been extremely damaging to the entire discussion”.
2. Of the issues of which I am aware, OA is the most important issue in scholarly publishing, being at once one of the most pressing and one of the most readily solved. I’d be interested to hear of any that are more important. That being said, the most important issue is not the only important issue, and there is no shortage of reasonable OA advocates happy to acknowledge that.
3. “Social costs” is frequently shill-speak for “loss of profits” on the part of publishing companies. My heart does not bleed at this prospect. (Scott, I hasten to add, means something different — he goes on to talk about re-allocation of research budgets to cover publishing costs; see below.)

In a mom and apple pie kind of way, the statement that taxpayers should have immediate access to the results of federally funded research is trivially true. But this could easily be met by having scientists write up the results of their work and post it to publicly available websites. This, however, is clearly not what those who are making the argument would be satisfied with — they still want the benefits of the peer review and editing processes that are part of the publication system and that are not, under the traditional system, paid for by the taxpayers. It is the subscription system that currently pays for those added benefits.

1. The “mom and apple pie” clause and the word “trivially” are pure snark here. The statement is simply true.
2. What proportion of the libraries and institutions that form the bulk of the subscription market are publicly funded? I’d be surprised if, even in the US, the majority of toll-access revenues were not readily traceable back to public coffers. Moreover, the return on whatever public dollars are being spent on subscriptions could be increased by using that money to pay for OA. Yes, research and scholarly publication are separate costs, but it’s a mistake (or a convenient strawman) to claim that the taxpayer access argument conflates them. It does not; Peter Suber has gone over this in some detail in the SPARC newsletter, issue #65.

…having funders pay for publication costs […] seems perfectly reasonable and logical to me. It is not, however, without social costs, and the blithe response on the part of the advocates, who dismiss the concern about costs by saying it is such a tiny portion, maybe 2% or so, of overall NIH funding, is simply not sufficient. At a time when the NIH budget is flattening and competition for grants is becoming tighter and tighter (at present, NIH is funding just under 20% of approved applications), and promising young scientists are leaving academic careers because they’re not able to get that all important first grant, shifting even 2% of the budget toward publication is not a trivial matter. Open access advocates need to do a much better job of making a compelling and detailed case for why the benefit is worth the cost.

1. OA advocates have put forward a great many compelling and detailed arguments regarding the benefits of OA; see also Peter Suber’s response to Scott.
2. A 2% shift in a $25 billion budget is not a trivial amount of money, nor are the careers potentially cut short trivial, but we are not talking about absolute amounts and feel-good (or feel-bad) personal stories. We are talking about policy decisions at the federal government level. I stand a fair chance of being one of the young scientists (I scruple to describe myself as “promising”!) who will fail to establish an academic career as a result of tightening budgets. From that precipitous perspective, let me state for the record: if one of the costs of widespread OA is my research career, then so be it: the needs of the many, and all that. I got into science in the first place to try to make the world a better place.

The taxpayer rights argument is the soundbite hook on which FRPAA hangs as well, and it is a soundbite that plays well with members of congress and in the press. But, of course, FRPAA itself is a compromise and doesn’t provide any more immediate access than the Highwire publishers do independently. “Libraries aren’t going to cancel subscriptions if there is an embargo,” say the partisans. Since this seems so obvious to them, they accuse the publishers who are opposed to FRPAA of bad faith for claiming that they are concerned about the survivability of their organizations.

1. The access may not be any more immediate, but it is a lot cheaper. Further, if all the embargo is doing is protecting the profits of private corporations, governments would seem to me to have a compelling interest in mandating (and, yes, paying for) immediate OA.
2. In respect of subscriptions, I agree in part with Scott, in that I think OA — especially once we get rid of the embargo by paying publication costs upfront — will cause subscription cancellations. (Although I have yet to see any data that support this contention, it still seems intuitively likely to me.) The obvious impact is two-fold: for-profit publishers will have to adapt or die, and the science community is going to have to find new ways to carry out peer review. Between traditional publishers who are willing and able to adapt, existing OA publishers (PLoS, Hindawi, BMC) and numerous high-profile experiments in overhauling peer review, I am confident that no scholarly crisis is likely when the subscription model dies.

Dear Public: please don’t mistake PZ Myers for a representative of my profession.

New(ish) bioethics blog Biopolitical Times has a post up which takes issue with PZ Myers’ response to the proposal to carry out therapeutic cloning using enucleated cow eggs and human somatic nuclei. Myers:

In fact, I want to go further than these scientists propose.
Don’t terminate the experiment after a few days when you’ve got healthy, growing blastocysts. Slip the best looking ones back into the cow. Work out methods for gestating them in a non-human mammal.
I want to be there nine months later when the vet reaches into the cow’s vagina and pulls out a slick, slimy, healthy human infant.
I want to see the Pope’s head explode when he sees it. I want David Cronenberg there with a camera, cackling happily.

Jesse at BT:

All this is proposed to rile up cultural conservatives, whom the blogger ridicules. Speaking as a generally secular political progressive, this attitude frightens and frustrates me. I’ve long felt that embracing the worst aspects of human biotechnology, such as these “Brave New World” scenarios, is a short road for progressives to lose sight of their core values and alienate the majority of the public. Rubbing this in the faces of those who are opposed – a group much larger than religious conservatives – for the purpose of a “fun and exciting” discussion is adolescent.

Now, I think Myers is trying to be funny. It’s impossible to tell, of course, because mixed in with what might pass for humor is his usual brand of vicious elitism and kneejerk prejudice.
The thing to remember about Myers is that, as I’ve noted before, he’s not a scientist (ask PubMed), nor is he an ethicist. He’s just a loudmouth braying into the cozy echo chamber of his blog. Best to ignore him, except that I feel obligated to push back from time to time just in case real people (“Joe Sixpack”, as Myers would have it) start mistaking him for a spokesman for actual research.

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.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.
2005 entry.
2004 entry.