Archive for Institute of Physics

Neutrino Physics in a Small Universe

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve only just got time for a quick lunchtime post before I head off to attend an afternoon of Mathematics presentations, but it’s a one of those nice bits of news that I like to mention on here from time to time.

It is my pleasure to pass on the wonderful news that one of my colleagues in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex,  Dr Jeff Hartnell,. has been awarded  the High Energy Particle Physics prize of the Institute of Physics, which means that his name has now been added to the illustrious list of previous winners. The prize is awarded annually by the HEPP Group, a subject group in the Nuclear and Particle Physics Division of the IOP, to a researcher in the UK who has made an outstanding contribution to their field of study early in their career (within 12 years of being awarded their first degree).

There’s a very nice piece about this award here which reveals, amongst other things, that many moons ago at Nottingham I was Jeff’s undergraduate tutor! In fact Jeff also attended a third-year course on Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics I taught in those days. That he survived those experience and went on to be a world-leading physicist speaks volumes! Not only that, it’s also evidence that the world of physics is smaller than we sometimes suppose. I’ve crossed paths with a number of my new colleagues at various times in the past, but it’s particularly rewarding to see someone you taught as an undergraduate go on to a highly successful career as a scientist. Jeff was awarded a prestigious ERC grant this year too!

Jeff is currently in the USA helping to set up the largest-ever experiment in neutrinos to be built there, called NOvA. You can click on the preceding links for more technical details, and I also found this interesting video showing the NOvA detector being assembled. Particle physics experiments are never small, are they?

p.s. Why do they insist on writing “metric ton” instead of “tonne”?

RCUK is throwing money down a gold-plated drain

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by telescoper

Right. Now I’m annoyed. Annoyed enough to dash off a quick post before getting the train to London to see this year’s RAS Gerald Whitrow Lecture.

RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, has announced that it will set aside £17 million next year, and £20 million the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access publication of the research it sponsors. These funds will be made available to universities in the form of block grants to enable researchers to pay the infamous APCs  (“Article Processing Charges”). The average cost of an APC has been taken from the Finch report (estimated as £1727 plus VAT).

It’s astonishing that RCUK have fallen for this trap. What were they thinking of? The Finch report was clearly hijacked by the vested interests of the academic publishing industry who see the Gold Open Access model as an easy way of maintaining their profit margins at taxpayer’s expense. The new RCUK scheme will simply divert funds away from research into a subsidy for wealthy publishing houses (and, in some cases, the learned societies that run them). The actual cost of processing an article is nothing like £1727 and is any case borne by the people doing the work, i.e. academics who perform the refereeing usually for free. An APC at this level is simply a scam. That the RCUK has fallen for it is a disgrace.

What RCUK should have done was given universities and other research institutions funds to set up and maintain their own Green Open Access databases or international repositories like the arXiv. Throwing money at  Gold Open Access is disastrous way of proceeding. It’s not only ruinously expensive but also unsustainable. In a few years’ time it is inevitable that the traditional academic publishing industry will be bypassed by researchers doing it for themselves. All the money spent propping up the fat cats in the meantime will have been wasted.

However, despite its obvious stupidity, the RCUK did give me one idea. I’ve blogged before about how much learned societies such as the Institute of Physics “earn” from their own publishing houses. In effect, these outfits are living on income provided to them by hard-pressed university library budgets.  In such cases it can be argued that the profits at least remain within the discipline – the IOP does many good things with the money generated by its publishing arm – but is this actually an honest way of supporting the activities of learned societies?

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the financial model under which most learned societies, including the IOP, operate will not operate for much longer, as more and more researchers go for Green Open Access and more and more institutions cancel subscriptions to their ruinously expensive journals. How then can they survive in the long term?

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. That would pull the rug out from under the learned societies, but why not replace the funding they are syphoning off from journal subscriptions with direct block grants. Such grants would have to be audited to ensure that learned societies spend the money on appropriate things, and would probably amount to much less than such organizations currently receive. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think there’s a strong case for the IOP to be downsized, actually.

So there’s my suggestion. No RCUK subsidy for the academic publishing industry, but direct subsidies for the learned societies and Green Open Access to be compulsory for all RCUK funded institutions.

How’s that for a plan?

Whither the Learned Societies?

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on October 1, 2012 by telescoper

An interesting aspect of the ongoing debate about Open Access publishing is the extent to which “learned societies”, such as the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

IOP Publishing is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that generates annual income  in the region of £40M from books and journals. This is the largest source of the revenue that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which as a matter of fact I publish quite regularly.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to  its journals is nothing to do with the cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of  “promoting Physics”. This explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access that is being foisted on the research community, rather than the “Green” Open Access that it really wants.

I recently came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing Green Open Access:

There is also great incentive for the people who manage and run these organisations to defend their cartel. For example, the American Chemical Society, a huge opponent to open access, pays many of its employees, as reported in their 990 tax return, over six figures. These salaries range from $304,528 to $1,084,417 in 2010.

I don’t know the salary of the Chief Executive of the IoP.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold. First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of Green Open Access. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that journals are already  redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics. The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its spacious  buildings in Portland Place and pay the no doubt “competitive” salaries of its officers, will therefore surely dry up in the near future.  The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations is unjustifiable and unsustainable and it won’t last. The IoP, RAS et al need to find another way of funding their activities pronto, or downsize accordingly.

The other problematic aspect of this  approach is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with disseminating research. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed oustandingly good – but that does not give them the right to syphon off funds from their constituents in this way.  Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfils little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

But I wonder if the learned societies will go the same way.  Is there a financial model according to which they can enjoy a stable and sustainable future?  Are they actually needed? After all, if we can publish our own physics, why can’t we ourselves also promote it?

Time to go it alone on Open Access

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 10, 2012 by telescoper

Not at all surprisingly, the government has announced  that existing research council budgets are to be raided to provide funds (to the tune of £10M) to pay for “Gold” Open Access to scientific research. This is the model of open access in which most authors will have to pay publishers a whopping fee up front in order to disseminate their work. The figures being talked about are in the region of £2000 per paper by way of an “article processing fee”.

I put “article processing fee” in quotes there because a fee of that size bears no relation to the actual cost to the publishers of processing an article: articles in most physics journals are typeset by the author, and refereed for free by other academics suggested by the editor (another academic).  What it really represents is the amount of money researchers will have to pay to maintain the humongous profit margins currently enjoyed by the academic publishing industry. Currently they rake in the cash through subscription charges after papers have been published in their journals . In future they will get the dosh in advance, which will probably make their business even more lucrative. And who will pay for maintaining their profitability? Researchers, of course. It’s clear who is going to benefit from the provisions of the Finch Report, and it’s not us.

Not surprisingly the publishing racketeers want to try to make us think they provide a worthwhile service for all the money they sting us for. For example, in this month’s Physics World, there’s a response from Steven Hall (Managing Director of IOP Publishing) to a letter from a certain Dr Garrrett. The original letter pointed the facts of the current state of affairs that I have bemoaned on many occasion on this blog:

Currently, researchers have to typeset their own work, sign away the copyright to publishers and referee the work of their peers – all for no remuneration. They then pay large sums in publication fees or library subscriptions to buy that work back in refereed and collated form.

Steven Hall’s response includes the following paragraph:

Researchers do not perform peer review alone: publishers organize and manage it, invest in people and systems to facilitate it, appoint and support editorial boards to oversee it and develop journals to meet the needs of scientific communities.

This is very far from being an accurate or fair representation of the way things work, at least not in physics. Researchers do carry out peer review alone. And unpaid. The main system that facilitates it is email (which, to my knowledge, was not developed by the academic publishing industry). And the journals that IOP develops are less to do with the “needs” of scientific communities than they are with the desires of a profit-making company to exploit said communities for even greater commercial gain.

Don’t you think it’s very strange that in a time of shrinking library budgets the number of journals seems to be growing all the time? Do we really need new ones? Do we even need the old ones? I think not.

And for those of you who think that IOP Publishing, as a part of the Institute of Physics, must be acting in the best interests of physics research, that’s simply not the case. It’s run as a private publishing company that behaves in exactly the same unscrupulous profiteering manner as, e.g. Elsevier. The IOP’s Open Access journals already charge £1700 per paper in article processing fees. They’re also in the habit of peddling meaningless “impact factor” statistics when trying to market their journals, many of which have lamentably poor citation rates despite their extortionate costs. Hence the IOP’s practice of bundling journal subscriptions in order to force institutions who want the good stuff to pay for the dross as well.

Having looked carefully into the costs of on-line digital publishing I have come to the conclusion that a properly-run, not-for-profit journal, created for and run by researchers purely for the open dissemination of the fruits of their research can be made sustainable with an article processing charge of less than £50 per paper, probably a lot less.

There’s only one response possible to those who’ve hijacked the Finch committee to serve their own ends, and that is to cut them out of the process. I think we can do it better (and cheaper)  ourselves. And very soon I hope to prove it.

The Quality of Physics

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on February 21, 2012 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post this lunchtime,  in between meetings and exercise classes. My eye was drawn this morning to an article about a lengthy report from the Institute of Physics that gives an international comparison of citation impact in physics and related fields.

According to the IOP website..

Although the UK is ranked seventh in a list of key competitor countries for the quantity of its physics research output – measured by the number of papers published – the UK is second only to Canada, and now higher than the US, when ranked on the average quality of the UK’s physics research output – measured by the average number of times research papers are cited around world.

The piece also goes on to note that the UK’s share of the total number of research papers written has decreased

For the UK, however, its proportionate decrease in output – from 7.1% of the world’s physics research in 2001 to 6.4% in 2010 – has been accompanied by a celebratory increase in overall, average quality – with the average number of citations of UK research papers rising from 1.24 in 2001 to 1.72 in 2010.

This, of course, assumes that citations measure “quality” but I’ve got no time to argue that point today. What I will do is put up a couple of interesting figures from the report.  This one shows that Space Science in the UK (including Astronomy and Astrophysics) holds a much bigger share of the total world output of papers than other disciplines (by a factor of about three):

While this one shows that the “citation impact” for Physics and Space Science roughly track each other…

..apart from the downturn right at the end of the window for space sciences, which, one imagines, might be a result of decisions taken by the management of the Science and Technology Facilities Council  over that period.

Our political leaders will be tempted to portray the steady increase of citation impact across fields as a sign of improved quality arising from the various research assessment exercises.  But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It seems that many developing countries – especially China – are producing more and more scientific papers. This inevitably drives the UK’s share of world productivity down, because our capacity is not increasing. If anything it’s going down, in fact, owing to recent funding cuts. However, the more papers there are, the more reference lists there are, and the more citations there will be. The increase in citation rates may therefore just be a form of inflation.

Anyway, you can download the entire report here (PDF). I’m sure there will be other reactions to it so, as usual, please feel free to comment via the box below…

Decline and Fall

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2011 by telescoper

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at the e-Astronomer Andy Lawrence’s blog about truth, lies and astronomy grant funding.

The centrepiece of Andy’s post is the following graph, which is based on the most accurate available figures, showing how the number of postdoctoral research associate (postdoc) positions funded (first by SERC, then by PPARC, and then by STFC) in Astronomy has evolved over the last couple of decades, along with the number of permanent academic staff employed in UK universities.

To be precise it shows the number of new postdoc posts funded each year; since a postdoc position typically lasts 3 years, the total number of postdocs at ay time is roughly 3 times the number shown.

A few things are immediately clear. One is that both the number of academics and the number of postdocs grew steadily over the period covered by the graph, until 2006 after which there was a steep decline in the number of postdocs to a level substantially lower than the number funded in 2000. It’s not a coincidence that STFC was created in 2007.

The numerical growth of the UK astronomical community coincided with a  general expansion of the number of academics in the University resulting from the growth of funded student  numbers, but it also was also accompanied by improved access to large facilities. It also happened to be a time of high achievement by British astronomers, who played major roles in large projects that uncovered many deep secrets of the Universe, such as the existence of cosmological dark matter and dark energy.

Further details of the achievements of UK Astronomy over the last decade are given by our own Bill Frindall, Paul Crowther (see his page for references):

Astrophysics: UK space science (astrophysics) is ranked 2nd in citations (1999-2009), while UK physics ranks 5th internationally (1997-2007). According to Section 3 of the RCUK Review of Physics, combining these two categories places the UK 2nd to the USA overall – see bibliometric analysis. According to the IoP Survey of Academic Appointments in Physics, the UK astronomy academic community grew by 14 per cent in the 5 years leading up to 2008, compared with 12% for physics overall. From 2003/04 to 2007/08 physics departments expanded by 14%, equal to the wider UK average for all disciplines (see Sustainability of the UK research workforce report from RCUK. Undergraduate applications (admissions) to physics grew by 19% (11%) between 2002-2007 according to the DIUS Research Report 08-21. Astrophysics formed one of the case studies for a CSHE (UC Berkeley) science communication report from Jan 2010.

All this expansion didn’t come cheap, of course, but in my view  it was entirely justified on the grounds of scientific excellence. That used to count for something among the science policy makers, but those times seem to have gone. Not that the collateral benefits were negligible, as you can see from the above.

I’ll grant that it is not easy to establish what fraction of STFC’s budget should be spent on its “core” science and how much on managing facilities, but I think the balance has obviously gone way too far in one direction. I’m not the only one to think so. The probably deliberate decision to clobber astronomy grants flies in the face of the Institute of Physics Review of International Perceptions of UK Physics, carried out in 2005, which says

In summary, the state of astrophysics and solar system physics is relatively healthy at this time. Morale is good in the research community, particularly among the young, and wise investments seem to have been made since the 2000 review. Attention will need to be paid over the next five years to foster the astronomical observing community so as to recoup the investment in large telescope access.

STFC has done many things since its creation in 2007, but fostering the astronomical observing community is definitely not amongst them. Instead it has slashed the postdocs needed to collect, reduce and analyse the data coming from the facilities we paid so much to access.

I still don’t know what UK astronomy did to deserve the kick in the teeth it received in 2006 which precipitated the steep decline shown in the graph. Remember that this was before the credit crunch, which really took hold in 2008, so the cuts imposed STFC were clearly not in response to that. The message consistently being put out by the STFC Executive at the time was that it was spending “too much on science exploitation”, i.e. on doing science, and that a larger slice of the cake needed to be devoted to facilities and operations.

I suspect that the backlash against astronomy was led by senior figures in the Treasury who did not, still do not, and probably never will, see science as worth doing for its own sake rather than as a way of subsidising industry. I suspect also some senior figures in  UK Physics were not sorry to see the astronomical arrivistes get their comeuppance. I have encountered a number of distinguished physicists – usually of the condensed matter persuasion – who clearly resented the new wave of astronomers arriving in their departments. As long as they bring in more students, take on heavy teaching loads and don’t ask for expensive equipment then astronomers are fine, but what they do isn’t really proper physics is it?

But precisely who it was that was behind the strange demise of British astronomy is now not the main issue. The real question is what can be done about it starting from where we are now.

As things stand under the current STFC leadership, the grant line will stay roughly level in cash terms for the next three years. Adding in the effect of inflation that means the number of postdoc grants will slowly dwindle. Better than the last few years, but hardly grounds for celebration. The steady attrition of grant funding will eventually push many excellent university research groups over the edge and prematurely terminate many promising scientific careers.

STFC will be looking for a new Chief Executive very soon, and that raises at  the admittedly faint hope that some things might change for the better. What we need is a someone  who is prepared to champion fundamental research because he or she actually believes in it;  the  bedgrudging attempts of the current Chief Executive simply don’t convince in this regard.

Whether we get someone who fits the bill remains to be seen. If we don’t the future for UK astronomy looks very bleak.


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Truth, Lies and Wikipedia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 19, 2010 by telescoper

I think it’s time to post a brief update on the story of Mark Brake, a Professor at the University of Glamorgan who falsely claimed to have a PhD from Cardiff University when applying for a grant in 2006. After this came to light through a story in the Western Mail, it was covered in the Times Higher, and I also blogged about it here.

There’s relatively little I can say about what’s been going more recently on in connection with this story, for reasons of confidentiality. However, one thing I am allowed say in public that Professor Mark Brake is no longer a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, a status he acquired in 2008.  I’m not allowed to discuss the events leading up to, or the reasons behind, his decision to resign from the IOP, but he did so in January 2010.

That little bit of news hardly merits an entire blog post, but what’s interesting is the subsequent behaviour of the wikipedia editors. Mark Brake’s wikipedia page currently states:

He was elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2008[1] and is presently Director of the Science Communication Research Unit at Glamorgan.

As soon as Brake creased to be a FInstP, the IOP Director of Membership and Business, John Brindley, edited the page to make it clear that he no longer held the Fellowship. Bizarrely, however, a wikipedia editor overruled the change and the text reverted to the above form. The editor says that this “leaves open the possibility that this may no longer be the case”.

Well, it may leave open that possibility but the implication of the above form is definitely that Brake remains a Fellow. As John Brindley himself wrote on the corresponding wikipedia discussion page

there is a well established and understood convention that memebrships of professional institutions is considered as continuous from the date of election unless or untl a date of resignation or removal is given.

However, the editor has refused to budge on the grounds that

Other than your comments here, which unfortunately can’t be considered to be a reliable source according to wikipedia rules, I can find nothing to indicate that he has, in fact, resigned.

Short of putting an announcement on their webpages that Brake has resigned his Fellowship – something that is contrary to their usual practice – there doesn’t seem to be anything the IOP can do to convince wikipedia to amend this page so it says the whole truth, rather than just a partial and potentially misleading version.

And while I’m on the subject of potentially misleading statements, it is perhaps worth going back to the original grant application that started this whole affair off. I showed part of this in a previous post, but here is the whole page showing the false claim of a PhD:

Under Professional Qualifications you will see Brake lists professional connections with the Royal Society of Chemistry as well as a Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society. This was written in 2006. In fact Brake disappeared from the membership register for the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1993 and ceased to be a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1994. Hmmm…

You might argue – as the editor seems to be doing in the case of the wikipedia page – that these aren’t factually incorrect in that they give the year of election but say nothing about whether his tenure may or may not have ended.  I think most academics would agree with John Brindley, however, that the convention is to give a date of termination if the qualification no longer applies, otherwise the implication is that the status is unchanged.

Seeing further pieces of misleading information on the grant application doesn’t really surprise me, but I find it strange that somebody seems to want wikipedia’s pages  to misrepresent the truth in a similar fashion.

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