Archive for Institute of Physics

Widening Participation in Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on September 9, 2015 by telescoper

Following on from a provocative post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on this blog (which was subsequently reblogged by the Times Higher), I was contacted by Paul Crowther who sent me a copy of the slides used by Peter Main of the Institute of Physics in a talk in May 2015 on the subject of Widening Participation in Physics. With Peter Main’s permission I’m sharing those slides here as a service to the Physics community. There’s a lot of interesting information in these slides, which I think many UK physicists would be interested in.

The Critical Shortage of UK Physics Teachers

Posted in Education with tags , , on May 1, 2015 by telescoper

I came across this little video at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation website and thought I would share it here.

The video (or “motion graphic”) makes the point that the impact of innovative thinking and interventions resulted in an increase in the supply of physics teachers until 2012 but since then it has subsequently declined, with serious implications not only for physics but for the country as a whole.

I quote:

Modelling by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Institute of Physics (IoP) suggests that we need to recruit around 1,000 new physics teachers every year for at least the next decade in order to meet demand. This year, just 661 teachers started physics teacher training, down from a peak of 900 in 2012. The stark reality is that, if we are to meet the demand for physics teachers and ensure that all pupils have access to well-qualified, specialist teachers, we must look at new ways to recruit, train and retain physics teachers.

Indeed. We’re planning a bit initiative here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, of which more anon..

It seems to me that the basic problem is threefold: (a) that there aren’t enough physics students at University in the first place; (b) that good physics graduates are very employable and get snapped up quickly by employers; (c) that teaching doesn’t seem an attractive career option compared to the many others available. Many efforts focus on (c) but the root cause of the problem is actually (a)…

..nevertheless, I will use this opportunity to point out that bursaries of £25K are available to excellent physics graduates wanting to become physics teachers, courtesy of the Institute of Physics. The deadline for the latest round of applications is this Monday (4th May). Here’s a promotional video:

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…


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