Archive for academic publishing

The Price of Jackson

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 25, 2016 by telescoper

The chance conjunction on this blog of a post about the death of Professor  J.D. Jackson with another about the greed of academic publishers caught the attention of one Ian Jackson (son of the aforementioned Professor) and prompted him to forward me some correspondence between his father and the publisher of the famous textbook, Classical Electrodynamics (published by John Wiley & Sons).

I won’t copy it all here, but here is an excerpt:

The Letter of Agreement of 1996 stipulates that Wiley should not increase the net price more than 5% in any two year period with the author’s permission. A month or so ago I found out from the physics Editor that the US net price was $87, a big jump from the last number I knew. By knowing that the list price is closely 1.3 times the net, I could look at my records of the single copy list price on Wiley’s web site to find that they had increased the price by 5% at least once and probably twice beyond what was permitted by our agreement. I wrote a strong letter, citing chapter and verse about their obvious violation.

John David Jackson was obviously a generous man: the royalties for this book were divided among his four children (including my correspondent Ian). He goes on to add in a letter to all four of them, after the publishers agreed to reduce the list price:

Sorry to be keeping your royalties in check, but I was thinking of the poor students who are paying 1.3 x $82 = $106.60.

They do keep the book for the rest of their lives, so perhaps it is an OK investment.

I don’t remember how much I paid for my copy, but I don’t begrudge the amount because it’s an excellent book. You should always remember, however, that the author of a textbook typically only gets a small percentage (usually~10% ) of the net receipts.

The correspondence sent by Ian includes this hand-drawn graph by the late Professor Jackson:

Jackson_price

It seems Professor Jackson shared my (low) opinion of academic publishers!

For the record, my textbook on Cosmology (co-authored with Francesco Lucchin) was also published by Wiley. A representative of the publisher explained to me that their pricing strategy involved trying to keep the revenue constant in time, so that as sales went down the price went up. My book is now very much out of date so I can understand why the sales have fallen off, but I find it hard to believe that the same is true of an enduring classic. Professor Jackson seems to have agreed; he described Wiley’s pricing strategy as “gouging”…

Sinister Moves by Elsevier

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on May 18, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve been away at yet another Awayday today so only have time for a brief post before I go home and vegetate. I felt obliged, however, to draw the attention of my readership to the fact that there’s something sinister afoot in the world of academic publishing. It seems that the notoriously exploitative academic publishing company Elsevier has acquired the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), which is  the leading social science and humanities repository and online community. The SSRN currently allows readers free access more than 500,000 academic papers for free but that is highly likely to change under Elsevier whose previous practice has always been to squeeze the academic community for every penny it can get. In particular, Elsevier has a reputation for cracking down on academic papers for which it owns licences, so these recent acquisitions look like very bad news.

The Chairman of SSRN is  trying to present this as a positive move:

SSRN announced today that it has changed ownership. SSRN is joining Mendeley and Elsevier to coordinate our development and delivery of new products and services, and we look forward to our new access to data, products, and additional resources that this change facilitates.

Like SSRN, Mendeley and Elsevier are focused on creating tools that enhance researcher workflow and productivity. SSRN has been at the forefront of on-line sharing of working papers. We are committed to continue our innovation and this change will enable that to happen more quickly. SSRN will benefit from access to the vast new data and resources available, including Mendeley’s reference management and personal library management tools, their new researcher profile capabilities, and social networking features. Importantly, we will also have new access for SSRN members to authoritative performance measurement tools such as those powered by Scopus and Newsflo (a global media tracking tool). In addition, SSRN, Mendeley and Elsevier together can cooperatively build bridges to close the divide between the previously separate worlds and workflows of working papers and published papers.

We realize that this change may create some concerns about the intentions of a legacy publisher acquiring an open-access working paper repository. I shared this concern. But after much discussion about this matter and others in determining if Mendeley and Elsevier would be a good home for SSRN, I am convinced that they would be good stewards of our mission. And our copyright policies are not in conflict — our policy has always been to host only papers that do not infringe on copyrights. I expect we will have some conflicts as we align our interests, but I believe those will be surmountable.

Until recently I was convinced that the SSRN community was best served being a stand-alone entity. But in evaluating our future in the evolving landscape, I came to believe that SSRN would benefit from being more interconnected and with the resources available from a larger organization. For example, there is scale in systems administration and security, and SSRN can provide more value to users with access to more data and resources.

On a personal note, it has been an honor to be involved over the past 25 years in the founding and growth of the SSRN website and the incredible community of authors, researchers and institutions that has made this all possible. I consider it one of my great accomplishments in life. The community would not have been successful without the commitment of so many of you who have contributed in so many ways. I am proud of the community we have created, and I invite you to continue your involvement and support in this effort.

The staff at SSRN are all staying (including Gregg Gordon, CEO and myself), the Rochester office is still in place, it will still be free to upload and download papers, and we remain committed to “Tomorrow’s Research Today”. I look forward to and am committed to a successful transition and to another great 25 years for the SSRN community that rivals the first.

Michael C. Jensen
Founder & Chairman, SSRN

It sounds like they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse…

I don’t think Elsevier’s involvement in this is likely to prove beneficial to anything other than their own profits. Elsevier is one of the biggest problems in academic publishing and can  never be part of the solution.

My main concern, however,  is  that some day Elsevier might launch a hostile takeover bid for the arXiv, which would be a major setback to the physics community’s efforts to promote the free exchange of scientific papers. That must be resisted at all costs. How did the academic community allow its publishing culture to be hijacked by such companies?

 

 

 

 

Measuring the lack of impact of journal papers

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on February 4, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve been involved in a depressing discussion on the Astronomers facebook page, part of which was about the widespread use of Journal Impact factors by appointments panels, grant agencies, promotion committees, and so on. It is argued (by some) that younger researchers should be discouraged from publishing in, e.g., the Open Journal of Astrophysics, because it doesn’t have an impact factor and they would therefore be jeopardising their research career. In fact it takes two years for new journal to acquire an impact factor so if you take this advice seriously nobody should ever publish in any new journal.

For the record, I will state that no promotion committee, grant panel or appointment process I’ve ever been involved in has even mentioned impact factors. However, it appears that some do, despite the fact that they are demonstrably worse than useless at measuring the quality of publications. You can find comprehensive debunking of impact factors and exposure of their flaws all over the internet if you care to look: a good place to start is Stephen Curry’s article here.  I’d make an additional point here, which is that the impact factor uses citation information for the journal as a whole as a sort of proxy measure of the research quality of papers publish in it. But why on Earth should one do this when citation information for each paper is freely available? Why use a proxy when it’s trivial to measure the real thing?

The basic statistical flaw behind impact factors is that they are based on the arithmetic mean number of citations per paper. Since the distribution of citations in all journals is very skewed, this number is dragged upwards by a few papers with extremely large numbers of citations. In fact, most papers published have many few citations than the impact factor of a journal. It’s all very misleading, especially when used as a marketing tool by cynical academic publishers.

Thinking about this on the bus on my way into work this morning I decided to suggest a couple of bibliometric indices that should help put impact factors into context. I urge relevant people to calculate these for their favourite journals:

  • The Dead Paper Fraction (DPF). This is defined to be the fraction of papers published in the journal that receive no citations at all in the census period.  For journals with an impact factor of a few, this is probably a majority of the papers published.
  • The Unreliability of Impact Factor Factor (UIFF). This is defined to be the fraction of papers with fewer citations than the Impact Factor. For many journals this is most of their papers, and the larger this fraction is the more unreliable their Impact Factor is.

Another usefel measure for individual papers is

  • The Corrected Impact Factor. If a paper with a number N of actual citations is published in a journal with impact factor I then the corrected impact factor is C=N-I. For a deeply uninteresting paper published in a flashily hyped journal this will be large and negative, and should be viewed accordingly by relevant panels.

Other suggestions for citation metrics less stupid than the impact factor are welcome through the comments box…

 

Why traditional scientific journals are redundant

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 20, 2015 by telescoper

Was it really six years ago that I first blogged about the Academic Journal Racket which siphons off millions from hard-pressed research budgets into the coffers of profiteering publishing houses?

Change is coming much more slowly over the last few years than I had anticipated when I wrote that piece, but at least there are signs that other disciplines are finally cottoning on to the fact that the old-style model of learned journals is way past its sell-by date. This has been common knowledge in Physics and Astronomy for some time, as I’ve explained many times on this blog. But, although most wouldn’t like to admit it, academics are really a very conservative bunch.

Question: How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Change!!???

Today I came across a link to a paper on the arXiv which I should have known about before; it’s as old as my first post on this subject. It’s called Citing and Reading Behaviours in High-Energy Physics. How a Community Stopped Worrying about Journals and Learned to Love Repositories, and it basically demonstrates that in High-Energy Physics there is a massive advantage in publishing papers in open repositories, specifically the arXiv.Here is the killer plot:

citations_arXivThis contains fairly old data (up to 2009) but I strongly suspect the effect is even more marked than it was six years ago.

I’d take the argument further, in fact. I’d say that journals are completely unnecessary. I find all my research papers on the arXiv and most of my colleagues do the same. We don’t need journals yet we keep paying for them. The only thing that journals provide is peer review, but that is done free of charge by academics anyway. The profits of their labour go entirely to the publishers.

Fortunately, things will start to change in my own field of astrophysics – for which the picture is very similar to high-energy physics. All we need to do is to is dispense with the old model of a journal and replace it with a reliable and efficient reviewing system that interfaces with the arXiv. Then we’d have a genuinely useful thing. And it’s not as far off as you might think.

Watch this space.

A scientific paper with 5000 authors is absurd, but does science need “papers” at all?

Posted in History, Open Access, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2015 by telescoper

Nature News has reported on what appears to be the paper with the longest author list on record. This article has so many authors – 5,154 altogether – that 24 pages (out of a total of 33 in the paper) are devoted just to listing them, and only 9 to the actual science. Not, surprisingly the field concerned is experimental particle physics and the paper emanates from the Large Hadron Collider; it involves combining data from the CMS and ATLAS detectors to estimate the mass of the Higgs Boson. In my own fields of astronomy and cosmology, large consortia such as the Planck collaboration are becoming the exception rather than the rule for observational work. Large ollaborations  have achieved great things not only in physics and astronomy but also in other fields. A for  paper in genomics with over a thousand authors has recently been published and the trend for ever-increasing size of collaboration seems set to continue.

I’ve got nothing at all against large collaborative projects. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re enormously valuable not only because frontier research can often only be done that way, but also because of the wider message they send out about the benefits of international cooperation.

Having said that, one thing these large collaborations do is expose the absurdity of the current system of scientific publishing. The existence of a paper with 5000 authors is a reductio ad absurdum proof  that the system is broken. Papers simply do not have 5000  “authors”. In fact, I would bet that no more than a handful of the “authors” listed on the record-breaking paper have even read the article, never mind written any of it. Despite this, scientists continue insisting that constributions to scientific research can only be measured by co-authorship of  a paper. The LHC collaboration that kicked off this piece includes all kinds of scientists: technicians, engineers, physicists, programmers at all kinds of levels, from PhD students to full Professors. Why should we insist that the huge range of contributions can only be recognized by shoe-horning the individuals concerned into the author list? The idea of a 100-author paper is palpably absurd, never mind one with fifty times that number.

So how can we assign credit to individuals who belong to large teams of researchers working in collaboration?

For the time being let us assume that we are stuck with authorship as the means of indicating a contribution to the project. Significant issues then arise about how to apportion credit in bibliometric analyses, e.g. through citations. Here is an example of one of the difficulties: (i) if paper A is cited 100 times and has 100 authors should each author get the same credit? and (ii) if paper B is also cited 100 times but only has one author, should this author get the same credit as each of the authors of paper A?

An interesting suggestion over on the e-astronomer a while ago addressed the first question by suggesting that authors be assigned weights depending on their position in the author list. If there are N authors the lead author gets weight N, the next N-1, and so on to the last author who gets a weight 1. If there are 4 authors, the lead gets 4 times as much weight as the last one.

This proposal has some merit but it does not take account of the possibility that the author list is merely alphabetical which actually was the case in all the Planck publications, for example. Still, it’s less draconian than another suggestion I have heard which is that the first author gets all the credit and the rest get nothing. At the other extreme there’s the suggestion of using normalized citations, i.e. just dividing the citations equally among the authors and giving them a fraction 1/N each. I think I prefer this last one, in fact, as it seems more democratic and also more rational. I don’t have many publications with large numbers of authors so it doesn’t make that much difference to me which you measure happen to pick. I come out as mediocre on all of them.

No suggestion is ever going to be perfect, however, because the attempt to compress all information about the different contributions and roles within a large collaboration into a single number, which clearly can’t be done algorithmically. For example, the way things work in astronomy is that instrument builders – essential to all observational work and all work based on analysing observations – usually get appended onto the author lists even if they play no role in analysing the final data. This is one of the reasons the resulting papers have such long author lists and why the bibliometric issues are so complex in the first place.

Having thousands of authors who didn’t write a single word of the paper seems absurd, but it’s the only way our current system can acknowledge the contributions made by instrumentalists, technical assistants and all the rest. Without doing this, what can such people have on their CV that shows the value of the work they have done?

What is really needed is a system of credits more like that used in the television or film. Writer credits are assigned quite separately from those given to the “director” (of the project, who may or may not have written the final papers), as are those to the people who got the funding together and helped with the logistics (production credits). Sundry smaller but still vital technical roles could also be credited, such as special effects (i.e. simulations) or lighting (photometic calibration). There might even be a best boy. Many theoretical papers would be classified as “shorts” so they would often be written and directed by one person and with no technical credits.

The point I’m trying to make is that we seem to want to use citations to measure everything all at once but often we want different things. If you want to use citations to judge the suitability of an applicant for a position as a research leader you want someone with lots of directorial credits. If you want a good postdoc you want someone with a proven track-record of technical credits. But I don’t think it makes sense to appoint a research leader on the grounds that they reduced the data for umpteen large surveys. Imagine what would happen if you made someone director of a Hollywood blockbuster on the grounds that they had made the crew’s tea for over a hundred other films.

Another question I’d like to raise is one that has been bothering me for some time. When did it happen that everyone participating in an observational programme expected to be an author of a paper? It certainly hasn’t always been like that.

For example, go back about 90 years to one of the most famous astronomical studies of all time, Eddington‘s measurement of the bending of light by the gravitational field of the Sun. The paper that came out from this was this one

A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun’s Gravitational Field, from Observations made at the Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919.

Sir F.W. Dyson, F.R.S, Astronomer Royal, Prof. A.S. Eddington, F.R.S., and Mr C. Davidson.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series A., Volume 220, pp. 291-333, 1920.

This particular result didn’t involve a collaboration on the same scale as many of today’s but it did entail two expeditions (one to Sobral, in Brazil, and another to the Island of Principe, off the West African coast). Over a dozen people took part in the planning,  in the preparation of of calibration plates, taking the eclipse measurements themselves, and so on.  And that’s not counting all the people who helped locally in Sobral and Principe.

But notice that the final paper – one of the most important scientific papers of all time – has only 3 authors: Dyson did a great deal of background work getting the funds and organizing the show, but didn’t go on either expedition; Eddington led the Principe expedition and was central to much of the analysis;  Davidson was one of the observers at Sobral. Andrew Crommelin, something of an eclipse expert who played a big part in the Sobral measurements received no credit and neither did Eddington’s main assistant at Principe.

I don’t know if there was a lot of conflict behind the scenes at arriving at this authorship policy but, as far as I know, it was normal policy at the time to do things this way. It’s an interesting socio-historical question why and when it changed.

I’ve rambled off a bit so I’ll return to the point that I was trying to get to, which is that in my view the real problem is not so much the question of authorship but the idea of the paper itself. It seems quite clear to me that the academic journal is an anachronism. Digital technology enables us to communicate ideas far more rapidly than in the past and allows much greater levels of interaction between researchers. I agree with Daniel Shanahan that the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow. The age of the academic journal is drawing to a close. Now to rethink the concept of “the paper”…

A Happy Hubble Coincidence

Posted in Biographical, Books, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 25, 2015 by telescoper

image

Preoccupied with getting ready for my talk in Bath  I forgot t post an item pointing out that yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Can it really be so long?

Anyway, many happy returns to Hubble. I did manage to preempt the celebrations however by choosing the above picture of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field as the background fo the poster advertising the talk.

Anyway it went reasonably well. There was a full house and questions went on quite a while. Thanks to Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution for the invitation!

Elsevier journals — some facts

Posted in Open Access with tags , , on April 24, 2014 by telescoper

Read this, and weep as you learn that Elsevier’s ruthless profiteering continues unabated…

Gowers's Weblog

A little over two years ago, the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier journals began. Initially, it seemed to be highly successful, with the number of signatories rapidly reaching 10,000 and including some very high-profile researchers, and Elsevier making a number of concessions, such as dropping support for the Research Works Act and making papers over four years old from several mathematics journals freely available online. It has also contributed to an increased awareness of the issues related to high journal prices and the locking up of articles behind paywalls.

However, it is possible to take a more pessimistic view. There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have…

View original post 10,674 more words