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“I do not mind if you think slowly. But I do object when you publish more quickly than you think.”*…


open access


Each year, governments around the world pour vast sums of public money into scientific research — as much as $156 billion in the United States alone. Scientists then use that funding to further human understanding of the world, and occasionally to make compelling discoveries about everything from whale brains to dwarf stars to the genetic underpinnings of deadly cancers. But often, this research — despite being subsidized with taxpayer money — ends up being published in exclusive journals that sit behind steep paywalls with three- and four-figure subscription fees, accessible to only a tiny fraction of the public.

The power of these scientific publishers — with names even lay readers might recognize: Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, among a handful of others — is substantial. According to one estimate, just four corporations now publish close to 50 percent of scientific papers. Together, they control the copyright to much of the world’s scientific literature, charging billions of dollars each year for access to that body of knowledge — and securing hefty profits in the process.

Critics have argued for decades that this system is wasteful, and that the public should have access to the scientific literature that its tax dollars support. Scientists, scholars, and public institutions, they say — and not the private sector — should control access to this trove of knowledge. “The commercial interests of publishers trying to promote their brand should not be what determines what kind of scientific discipline becomes well-funded and well populated,” said Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and a vocal supporter of the alternative model of research distribution, broadly referred to as “open-access” publishing, which has long aimed to harness the internet to make research more widely available — at little to no cost. The current system, he said, gives a handful of publishers “a disproportionate power to shape the way that science is done.”

The ensuing decades have been, in certain respects, a triumph for supporters of open access. Research funders in the United States and Europe adopted policies to make more of the research they fund accessible to the public. Several open-access organizations now operate thriving journals, and pirating tools like Sci-Hub have made it easier than ever to sneak around publishers’ paywalls.

Meanwhile, a group of Europe’s largest scientific backers — including the funding agencies of France, Britain, and the European Union as a whole — will soon require all research they underwrite to be openly accessible to everyone. That scheme, called Plan S, may be the most ambitious government-sponsored open-access effort yet — though federal officials in the U.S. are considering a policy that would require immediate open-access publishing for all federally-funded research as well, potentially revolutionizing the publishing industry. “Open Access Is Going Mainstream,” The Chronicle of Higher Education announced in a headline last year.

These successes, though, have also revealed divisions within the open-access community over two now-familiar questions: Who should run the publishing houses? And who should pay for the whole system? Instead of an open-access commons run by scholars in the public interest, the new open-access revolution increasingly looks like it will depend on the same big commercial publishers, who, rather than charging subscription prices to readers, are now flipping the model and charging researchers a fee to publish their work. The result is a kind of commercial open-access — a model very different than what many open-access activists envisioned…

As it stands, all trends point to an open-access future. The question now is what kind of open-access model it will be — and what that future may mean for the way new science gets evaluated, published, and shared. “We don’t know why we should accept that open access is a market,” said Dominique Babini, the open-access adviser to the Latin American Council of Social Sciences and a prominent critic of commercial open-access models. “If knowledge is a human right, why can’t we manage it as a commons, in collaborative ways managed by the academic community, not by for-profit initiatives?”

Peer review, editorial prep: how should we manage–and pay for– the quality control that makes scientific discourse most effective? “A Revolution in Science Publishing, or Business as Usual?

(Coronavirus has led to an explosion of scientific publication… and it has amplified the debate over open access and how to accomplish it.)

* Wolfgang Pauli


As we share and share alike, we might send healing birthday greetings to Hattie Elizabeth Alexander; she was born on this date in 1901.  A pediatrician, microbiologist, and educator, she won international acclaim for developing a serum to combat influenzal meningitis, a common childhood disease that is nearly always fatal to infants and young children, virtually eliminating the mortality rate.

When the advent of antibiotics made the antiserum obsolete, she quickly mastered their use against all the bacterial meningitides.  Late in her career–the 1950s and 60s–she became a pioneer in microbial genetics.  She pioneered the study of bacterial mutation and resistance to antibiotics, and in 1964, she became one of the first women to head a national medical association as president of the American Pediatric Society.

Over her career she published over 70 papers.

Hattie Alexander source



“Peer review as practiced today is a form of hazing”*…



Cuneiform Letter from the astrologer Marduk-šapik-zeri to the Neo-Assyrian king Esarhaddon

The advance of science depends on the communications of research and experimental findings so that they can be, first, replicated and verified or refuted; then broadly understood by the scientific community.  Historically, that communication has depended largely on scientific journals, the primary vehicles of that dissemination.  The integrity of the system has depended on the peer-review process:  the examination of scientific papers submitted for journal publication by a jury of “peers” (in practice, usually very senior practitioners of the discipline in question) who evaluate the methodology and findings being reported and pass on whether or not they are “publishable.”

With the advent of the web, this system is loosening.  Scientists are sharing “pre-prints” in sites like arXiv, reaching around the journals’ referees to reach their communities at large.  Still, the feedback that they get is a form of peer review…

While we tend to date the birth of the scientific method, and this approach, to the early 17th century and the thinking of Bacon and Descartes, archaeologists suggest that the approach might have have much deeper roots…

In some respects, the life of a Mesopotamian scholar in the seventh century B.C. was not so very different from that of a modern academic. While the former might be responsible for reporting on celestial phenomena and whether they augur well for the king’s reign, and the latter might be searching for evidence of a new subatomic particle to better understand the origins of the universe, in either case, one’s reputation among colleagues is paramount.

Let’s take, for example, the lot of an unnamed astrologer who was subjected to a vicious onslaught of peer review from some of the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s top minds after claiming to have sighted Venus around 669 B.C. In a letter to the king Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.), a fellow stargazer named Nabû-ahhe-eriba, who was part of the inner circle of royal scholars, inveighed, “(He who) wrote to the king, my lord, ‘The planet Venus is visible, it is visible (in the month Ad)ar,’ is a vile man, an ignoramus, a cheat!” Slightly more charitable, though still cutting, was a scholar named Balasî, who tutored the crown prince Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.). “(T)he man who wrote (thus) to the king, (my lord), is in ignorance,” Balasî informed Esarhaddon. “The ig(noramus)—who is he?…I repeat: He does not understand (the difference) between Mercury and Venus.”

These quotations are excerpts from just two of around 1,000 letters and reports written by scholars to Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal in cuneiform on clay tablets that were discovered during nineteenth-century excavations of the archives of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, near Mosul in Iraq, including Ashurbanipal’s library…

The perils of peer review– what was old is new again: “Ancient academia.”

* John Hawks


As we contemplate constructive criticism, we might send repetitious birthday greetings to Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie; he was born on this date in 1857.  A pharmacist who began practicing as a psychologist, Coué opened a clinic in Nancy, and introduced a method of psychotherapy characterized by frequent repetition of the formula, je vais de mieux en mieux, “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better”; he counseled his patients to repeat this 15 to 20 times, morning and evening. This method of autosuggestion came to be called Couéism, and was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. (Norman Vincent Peale’s brand of positive thinking was rooted in part in Coué’s work.)  The popular press raved about his approach, even as the medical and psychological establishment dismissed it.  And as the seemingly positive results he achieved with his patients faded– as they seemed for the most part to do– so did enthusiasm for the Coué method.  Still, one can hear its echo in approaches alive today, for instance neuro-linguistic programming.

A contemporary, Rev. Charles Inge, captured Coué’s simplistic method in a limerick (1928): “This very remarkable man / Commends a most practical plan: / You can do what you want / If you don’t think you can’t, / So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

220px-Émile_Coué_3 source


“God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world…”*

email readers, click here for video

From Yann Pineill & Nicolas Lefaucheux at Parachutes.tv, “Beauty of Mathematics.”

* Paul Dirac

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music.”

– Betrand Russell


As we count our blessings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the very first issue of Nature was published.  Edited by astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer, the inaugural issue included articles on astronomy, plants, moths, paleontology, science teaching in schools, an obituary for Thomas Graham, and meeting notices.  Lockyer took the journal’s title from a line by Wordsworth: “To the solid ground of nature trusts the Mind that builds for aye.”

Nature was at its inception part of a movement of interdisciplinary (or perhaps better said, pre-disciplinary journals), unique in drawing on a contributor base composed of progressive, and somewhat controversial scientists like Joseph Dalton Hooker, Herbert Spencer, and John Tyndall– all avid supporters of Darwin and his theory of evolution, a very fashion-forward position at the time.  But while most journals have become ever-more specialized, Nature has hewed to its interdisciplinary roots– “a way of creating a sense of community among people who would otherwise be isolated from each other”– and has become pre-eminent: it was ranked the”world’s most cited” scientific publication by the Science Edition of the 2010 Journal Citation Reports.

Nature cover, November 4, 1869



Written by LW

November 4, 2013 at 1:01 am

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