Archive for category: Writing

When your users tell you ‘you are not adding value’: Boycott against Elsevier

January 29th, 2012 by

Scott Aaronson uses an analogy to the game industry to describe the predicament academics are in:

I have an ingenious idea for a company. My company will be in the business of selling computer games.

But, unlike other computer game companies, mine will never have to hire a single programmer, game designer, or graphic artist. Instead I’ll simply find people who know how to make games, and ask them to donate their games to me. Naturally, anyone generous enough to donate a game will immediately relinquish all further rights to it. From then on, I alone will be the copyright-holder, distributor, and collector of royalties.

This is not to say, however, that I’ll provide no “value-added.” My company will be the one that packages the games in 25-cent cardboard boxes, then resells the boxes for up to $300 apiece.

But why would developers donate their games to me? Because they’ll need my seal of approval. I’ll convince developers that, if a game isn’t distributed by my company, then the game doesn’t “count”—indeed, barely even exists—and all their labor on it has been in vain.

As crazy as it sounds, this is exactly the situation with academic publishers. The ‘status quo’ is such that young researchers must publish on established journals (to gain the “seal of approval”). For older researchers, switching to open access publishing doesn’t pay off either: it’d show they don’t believe in the value the journals bring, and they are often editors of those (!).

And this is how the current academic publishing industry survives without adding much value. Survival is not the right word, because the leading firms still carry themselves around with arrogance. At the 2010 Semantic Web conference in Shanghai Jay Katzen, a keynote speaker from Elsevier, announced a big project on using the data on papers to create widgets. The API would allow people to do mashups with scientific data, that could be displayed on the publisher’s page. It was sold as “a new paradigm in the way research information is discovered, used, shared and re-used to accelerate science.” The reaction from the audience was instantaneous: “are you telling us that, not happy with monetizing the data and content we freely give you, you want us to build applications using that content for you to sell?”. The answer was honest: “… huh… yes.”

Today, many journal articles are online. In fact, the papers are often on the author’s homepage, and a simple query on google scholar or MS research search will find them. It is hard to imagine what value a publisher adds here.

However, the alternative is not clear. Open access publishing finds it difficult to obtain sustainable sources of financing. PLoS, the Public Library of Science, is financially sustainable, but ArXiv is struggling.

“Now it’s up to the rest of us to supply the anger.” Says Scott. Now more than 800 researchers have declared a boycott against Elsevier, up from 500 yesterday afternoon. Looks like the anger is there.

(An apology for the lack of posting. Dario has moved on to a position as senior researcher at Wikimedia, and I will be working on my startup full-time in a month. Often, I’ve seen blogpost-worthy issues, but I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to follow up).

Knuth announces iTeX

July 3rd, 2010 by

Donald Knuth announced he would make an earthshaking announcement at TUG 2010. The breaking news is the plan to release the next-generation TeX engine. Read the comments and a brief summary of the announcement in perfect Stevenote style from Slashdot.

Detexify2 – LaTeX symbol classifier

June 12th, 2010 by

Using HTML5 features, this is the kind of obvious tool that makes symbol lookup faster than doing it by hand.

Just draw the symbol in the box and up comes the LaTeX code, and the package name that contains it.

Share your views on Open Access

May 13th, 2010 by

Project SOAP (Study of Open Access Publishing) is a two-year project, funded by the European Commission under FP7. The project is currently running a survey to understand the perception of Open Access publishing in the academic/research community. You can participate in the survey by following this link. Participants sharing their email address for further collaboration with the project automatically enter a prize draw for an Apple iPad.

New paths to “research productivity”

May 7th, 2010 by

“Incrementing productivity” is oftentimes framed in terms of incentives. The simpler incentives are, of course, monetary incentives. Academia is in this respect not so different from the business world – or so think many university managers and administrators. Some well endowed universities pay a premium to productive researchers: for instance, €3,000 for an article in an A+ journal, or maybe a lighter teaching load. The intrinsic value of discovery, and the thrills of fame, are no longer or not only the principal movers for scientific production. Not everyone agrees.