Is Nobel Laureate Randy Scheckman being a hypocrite? Bollocks.

Whoa. Some serious debate flying around after the newly minted Nobel Laureate and Editor-in-Chief of eLife wrote that journals like Nature, Cell, and Science are damaging science

On one side you find the supporters, such as co-founder of PLOS and UC Berkeley Professor Mike Eisen, who hopes Randy’s actions can inspire others. In the other corner are the haters shouting hypocrisy.

The way I see it, Randy had two options:

1. Say/do nothing at all, and thus inspire no one to take action.

2. Do what he did.

I’m on Randy’s side here. If we’re going to start making the changes that are needed within academia then someone must speak up, even it comes laden with ad hominem attacks of hypocrisy and conflicts of interest. And note my own COI as a co-founder of the Open Access journal PeerJ.

Let’s examine the fallacies of the naysayers’ arguments:

1. Sheckman’s words ring hollow because eLife, like CNS (Cell, Nature, Science), has a high rejection rate, even though it is Open Access. As editor-in-chief of eLife he has a conflict of interest and should not make such statements.

This argument is ignoring the actual message and its possible impact. Whether eLife is a luxury journal or not doesn’t change the message being told. Same with the conflict of interest. Those are all separate issues from the message and how people can act on it.

Additionally, it’s naive to think that everyone boycotting CNS would all of a sudden 1) start publishing with eLife and 2) that other publishing options (PeerJ, PLOS, small society journals, F1000Research, preprints, etc) wouldn’t grow.

2. Even if everyone boycotts CNS, it won’t change things because the next three highest impact factor journals will replace them.

This is a non sequitur argument and the silliest one of all. It ignores the fact that if CNS actually did go out of business, then Sheckman’s words will have achieved an f'ignly astounding result. Do these naysayers actually believe if everyone boycotted CNS that it wouldn’t have other knock-on effects within the overall academic debate on impact factor? 

What would really happen if everyone were to boycott CNS is that our funding bodies, governments, academic departments, etc would take notice. It will have meant that academics’ habits have actually changed. That will lead to other changes. It won’t just lead to the next three journals replacing CNS; that conclusion is unsupported as can be.

3. Sheckman can only say boycott CNS now that he has secured his Nobel prize after publishing more than 40 times in those journals. Younger scientists don’t have that option.

This is an ad hominem argument. Again, whether Sheckman is being a hypocrite or not has no bearing on the message that things must change in order to improve scientific research. Whether younger scientists have the luxuries that Sheckman has now or not has no bearing on the message. The message is “things must change.”

That we’re now debating the merits of Sheckman’s call means what he said is already having an impact. And let’s remember that most hearing his message are not academics, but the public who are unaware of the issues at hand, but still have the power to change things through their elected officials.

If a Nobel Laureate isn’t allowed to state these things, then who is allowed? Reality is that everyone’s allowed, but not everyone has the voice that Randy now has. He can choose to remain silent, or he can try to have an impact that perhaps may help eLife, but will undoubtedly help advance science and other publishing experiments that are sorely needed. A rising tide raises all ships.

Finally, whether his words will have any real results at the end of the day or not isn’t a reason to stay silent. When we’re trying to push the boundaries we go into action knowing full well that failure is a possibility. If success were guaranteed then we’d have no need for inspiration.

Kudos to Randy Sheckman for having the courage to do what he did, despite knowing the heat he’d take. That makes him more worthy of the Nobel than ever.


WTF is up with Apple of late?

This from the Guardian discussion how the new iOS7 animations are literally making people ill. And the Hacker news discussion. And I tend to agree.

Last year it was the iOS6 maps disaster (still one really). 

All in all, the design choices post-Jobs have been terrible. It’s as if Apple has stopped doing user testing prior to release (if they ever bothered with Jobs). 

This is Apple (and possibly Jony Ive) - fail.


Thoughts on ALPSP and future of society publishers

I returned yesterday from Birmingham, UK and the 2013 ALPSP international conference. It was great to listen, to present, and of course nice that PeerJ won an award for its publishing innovation (we’ll do a proper post about that on the PeerJ blog shortly). 

I spent some time talking with different society publishers and staff. This was new for me. My co-founder at PeerJ is much more seasoned in the publishing world than me - I’m the outsider coming from more of a quasi tech/academia/academic software background. Thus, my perspective on the current situation facing publishing is probably refreshing, naive, flat out wrong in some areas, but dead right in other areas. Yes, I’m qualifying what I’m about to say next :) …

If I had to choose one analogy to describe the state of publishing it would be a deer paralyzed in a beam of on-coming headlights. From numerous discussions at the annual ALPSP meeting, it became apparent that society publishers in particular are standing still in fear, unsure of which way to turn, or to make that risky move. From a high-level bit of questioning, it seemed many publishers didn’t have the right mix of people in their organizations for the digital world.

There was an interesting plenary session with Ziyad Marar (SAGE), Timo Hannay (Digital Science), Victor Henning (Mendeley/Elsevier), and Louise Russell (a publishing consultant). Ziyad and Timo seemed to have opposing perspectives on what a publisher today should be composed of or targeting. Ziyad was on the side of focusing on content, while TImo more on the side of focusing on the tech. That’s a simplification, and both of them probably value and implement both in their orgs, but the extreme views are the two sides of what I see in publishers today. Those who do not have people in place, either through empowerment or directly though titled positions, to make technology a center piece of their organization risk being stuck in the headlights.  

I’ll be even more specific than technology, it’s user experience. We can all blame Apple for this one too. It may not be dominant over content just yet, but it’s coming, and those who do not have the tools and people in place will be left behind. This was missing in the organizations of many who I spoke with at ALPSP. And to do user experience right, you need to be focusing on the right technologies and the right product strategies,  with the right people. I gave a high-level talk on cloud computing and many commented how they just didn’t have the people within the society to make it possible. That’s a mistake, not because cloud computing is the answer, but because you can’t then focus on building the tools needed to please the future reader, author, reviewer, etc.

What’s also interesting is that user experience isn’t something new to publishing, it’s been going on for 300 years. We think of publishers as just delivering content, but they’ve been tweaking the layout and typography of that content for centuries to make it more legible, more comprehensible, etc. That’s user experience. To make that happen today though requires people with different skill-sets than even a decade ago, and those people are either avoiding careers in publishing, not given priority, not empowered enough, or not even considered.

Before Pete (PeerJ co-founder) and I announced PeerJ in 2012 I related to him a little research that I had done on PLOS and lack of technology focus. This came about because we wanted people to know how PeerJ would be different than what had come before. I went through the WayBackMachine on the Internet Archive to look at PLOS’s website history. One thing stood out to me - it took several years before any tech-related people started to appear in the staff list and even today (like other publishers) tech empowered employees are not in positions of business strategy. I wanted PeerJ to make engineers equal to the editorial positions, and that’s how we’re different. That’s what’s needed if society publishers are going to continue. 

Really, it isn’t tech versus content. They support each other, the only problem is that there are a lack of people in the position to make it happen today. Yesterday’s typographers are today’s user experience engineers, today’s human-computer interaction experts, today’s software engineers. That’s what scared me the most in all of my conversations at ALPSP, the missing people. 


Can someone fire this Pax brogrammer already?

Business Insider’s CTO, Sheesh. Meanwhile I’ll no longer be reading BI.


Why aren’t we doing more about the surveillance revelations?

That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for myself over the last few months. One would think that without the UK’s Guardian newspaper slowly publishing new information on a weekly basis that we’d have already forgotten about the domestic spying, encryption disabling, etc from the NSA and GCHQ. It would have been news for a week and then turned over in a new cycle with more important headlines such as Mylie Cyrus and such. 

For sure, the revelations from Snowden have caused more debate and action in the U.S. congress (both House and Senate) than Manning’s ever has (and in the UK’s parliament). And that’s something. But the amount of apathy from the general public is baffling. People are outraged, I know, but at the same time, we don’t seem to be doing much about it either - hence apathy. A lot of shouting, but little action. It’s really odd. Why aren’t we doing more? That’s the question I’ve been struggling to understand.

Lately I’ve been thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in relation to this question (diagram above).  There are a few caveats with the Maslow hierarchy (usually represented as a pyramid). The main caveat is that the needs can be fluid, i.e. some at the top may be at the bottom and vice versa depending on the location, culture, time, age, etc of the person. And to make this easier, I am categorizing all of the revelations that have come out from Snowden as privacy.

As best as I can tell, Maslow would have placed privacy into the highest need or “self-actualization.” The highest need, shown at the top of the pyramid in blue, represents only 2% of the general population according to Maslow (remember too the caveats above). Interestingly, Maslow also considered “self-actualization” to be the future of humanity, i.e. the best that we could become. Those at the top have a need for privacy, not because you’re hiding any thing in particular, but because you value it as an equal attribute to your creativity, your pursuit of intellect, and personal morality. In the strictest interpretation, those who don’t believe in privacy don’t believe in creativity, intellect, morality, ethics, etc either. 

It’s a curious thing when someone says “innocent people don’t need to hide anything.” Or similarly, “the innocent have nothing to fear [about the privacy invasions].” Such statements come from people who actually haven’t achieved self-actualization for themselves yet. They’re further down the hierarchy is one interpretation. Another interpretation is that they believe all people should be held to a lower level of that pyramid; i.e. you should only be as high as the weakest link. What’s curious is that this is nothing new. We’ve been subjected to this for thousands of years from leadership in republics, monarchies, totalitarian regimes, all of them. No large populous government has truly sought to bring about the highest level of that pyramid. 

If we were to measure government in terms of Maslow’s needs, it would fall into the second to lowest category of “safety.” In thousands of years of human civilization we haven’t really moved beyond that, which is another huge array of “whys” waiting to be answered. I think we see a glimpse of progression in the 4th amendment to the US Constitution (emphasis mine). 

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

For many people, metadata, phone calls, Skype chats, email, Facebook messages, etc are an extension of their persons. If you are not free to do these things securely then you are unable to attain “self-actualization.” You are being deprived of achieving more. But still, why are we, as a populace, not more angry? Why are we not doing more to ensure this security of our persons? I think an answer, and there probably isn’t just one answer, is extremely complex.

In part, we can go back to Maslow’s assertion that only 2% of the population have reached self-actualization. If this is true, then only 2% of the population is concerned about privacy. Put another way, that means privacy is not the primary concern of the population. Remember again the caveats from above, that the needs are fluid and not binary. Everyone, to some degree, is probably concerned about privacy, but it’s not the primary need that they have. Looking at the list of needs in the pyramid above, things like food, shelter, jobs, love, friendship and others all come before privacy, intellectual pursuits, lack of prejudice, and creativity. And in fact, if you’re in power and want to change the debate, the easiest thing to do is to tell people (and remind them) that they need to go to war (Syria), that the economy still needs recovery, that marriage straight or gay (love in the hierarchy) is a more important debate than privacy. It keeps privacy out of the debate, and with limited privacy you have more power.

In effect, if 98% of the population doesn’t consider privacy amongst their primary needs then action will be limited. I actually think more than 2% of us are in the “self-actualization” part of the hierarchy. However, I think we’ve been deceiving ourselves about how filled those needs actually are. Once you fill the first two levels, it becomes more difficult to discern what the important things are (and again to each person there is fluidity in the needs). We are probably deceiving ourselves that access to Facebook, Google, television, etc are filling our needs higher up the hierarchy  And if we’re deceived into thinking we’re filled, then a small thing like the removal of privacy becomes less of a concern. Or focusing the debate on any thing but a “self-actualization” need will mitigate that concern.

Imagine the reverse, where all you had were the first two levels filled, and only one thing at the top (the next three levels). How would you then feel if that one thing, for example privacy, were stripped away? You’d certainly notice it more than if you had basically every other need filled. Perhaps this is why people from countries that are worse off than the US/UK/Canada/Australia/etc, seem to take more action in the news. They’re barely at the second level of needs, sometimes at just the first level, and then they have things like democracy, freedom of expression, privacy (Zimbabwe, Syria, East Germany pre-1989, Somalia, etc) taken away. You had one thing available to you that represented the highest that humanity could achieve and it is taken away from you.

Right now we are being deprived of the highest that humanity has to offer. We should not be merely satisfied that in the West we’ve achieved the first two levels (and yes individuals in the West are suffering on levels 1-2 still). We shouldn’t be satisfied that this is the best our governments have to offer. We shouldn’t believe that we’re still needing to go to war after 10,000 years of civilization (a level-2 need). We shouldn’t be confusing comforts such as prime-time television and iPhones with our higher needs. I believe we can expect more and offer more to ourselves.


If it is less expensive, does that mean quality goes down?

“You can’t have high quality and inexpensive (affordable) open access fees” - usually said in context of PeerJ.

I keep hearing variations of this from stakeholders in the publishing industry. Typically it’s coming from people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, i.e. high margin subscription sales or high cost hybrid Open Access options. 

Is this true some of time? Yes. Is it true all of the time? Not at all. One needs to look no further than the Japanese auto industry as evidence of this. Honda, Toyota, etc. All cheaper, and near universally better products than their American counterparts. 

Being less expensive does not necessarily mean lower quality. It does suggest less greed, however. Value has nothing to do with cost. 


Science funding is borked: Part II

Previously I had argued in “Science funding is borked” that we should be giving out many more and smaller grants, similar to the 500 startups approach. 

Now in a new paper published in PLOS ONE and reported in Times Higher Education, it seems that this argument is starting to gain some data-driven support. 

Here’s the PLOS ONE paper Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding


ResearchGate to nowhere?

I’m a little baffled by the recent $35M funding round, which included Bill Gates, for social network for scientists ResearchGate. And of course the media baiting quote from RG that it wants to win a Nobel Prize for its efforts.

One look at the traffic stats tells you all you need to know as a potential investor. The graph below is from Alexa, which is known to undercount traffic, but it can be used to reliably compare competitors relative to each other. The redline is Academia.edu and the blue is ResearchGate over the past six months. Alexa ranks RG at the 5,433 most visited site, with Academia.edu at 2,686 most visited.


While RG claims to have 2.9M users, only a very tiny fraction of those are actives. Other traffic analytics stats confirm these numbers. My guess is roughly <5% at most are active each month (active meaning visit the site at least once). Then there is roughly the same amount of non-registered users visting the site per month. Are at most 145K registered users (+150K non users) visiting the site per month, with no revenue other than a small jobs board, worth $35M in funding? This probably values RG north of $150-200M. I must be missing something, or else Academia.edu should ask for $70M in its next funding round.

Then there is the value proposition. I fail to see any with RG. Academia.edu doesn’t have a lot either, but certainly more than RG. A lot of scientists have also compared Mendeley to RG and Academia.edu, which definitely has value proposition to users, and never raised such a round. One could also throw in FigShare, which has some overlapping functionality and more value add, yet it has never achieved anywhere near such funding to date. 

Probably the biggest strike against such a large round however is researcher sentiment. I’ve yet to meet anyone exclaiming RG as beneficial to their work (quite the opposite in fact with many reports of spamming and site scraping). On the other hand, I hear plenty of scientists talking about the value of FigShare, Mendeley, Papers, and even Academia.edu to their work. One has to wonder what kind of due diligence was done by the investors here.


CHORUS: It’s actually spelled C-A-B-A-L

CHORUS is another attempt by subscription publishers to defeat Open Access. Probably no better writeup than Michael Eisen’s of how deceptive the intent and logic of this plan is.

CHORUS claims that it will save the US govt money if implemented, as part of the plan calls for the shuttling of PubMedCentral. The fallacy of course, is that costs to the govt (i.e. taxpayers) will actually INCREASE as publishers now have control of the “Open Access” content via a CrossRef like dispatching service. To maintain this dispatch service requires passing on the costs to their journal subscriptions — that ultimately means the libraries and agencies foot the bill.

If this is really going to save taxpayers money, then why have the publishers that are part of CHORUS not provided a cost break down? Let’s see the expected operating costs, charges to publishers to join this new organization, and the details of the API restrictions and practicality of retrieving the full-text for data mining. Then let’s compare that spreadsheet to the cost of running PubMedCentral. But that’s just the financial cost; more concerning is the cost of giving control of Open Access content to organizations whose business model is counter to the principles of OA.

Are these APIs truly open? What happens if I decide to build an aggregator with this content that is supposed to be Open Access? Will I be restricted or charged for high volume access, because publishers are now losing eyeballs as researchers go to my aggregator search engine? Do we really want publishers in charge of the key to the only source of all embargoed Open Access content? How gullible do they think the Obama Administration is? 

CHORUS is a patronizing plan to researchers, libraries, and the American taxpayer. It’s a coordinated effort to sustain subscription-based publisher revenue streams and falsely paint PubMedCentral as a waste of taxpayer money. It is not about innovating on Open Access content and expanding its accessibility.


Academic publishing costs & the blind man’s bluff

Just one more feather in the hat that the “serials crisis is NOT over.”

There’s an article on WIRED from last October outlining the similarities between 1950s auto prices and the private US health care business. In essence, the similarity is that consumers have no way of knowing what the goods and services they are paying for actually cost. For auto purchases, this was resolved in the 1950s when US Congress passed a law requiring auto dealers to place the manufacturer’s suggested retail price on the sticker. WIRED is now pointing to advocates who want the same for health care. Giant health care providers are charging wildly different costs for the same services to patients who have no way of knowing what the true costs are.

One cannot help but notice a similar “blind man’s bluff” happening in academic publishing. A recent Nature News feature tried to pin down some of those unknown publishing costs. And in an Oxford debate held a few weeks ago, Stephen Curry (Imperial College) pointed out that his own library was bound by an NDA to not disclose Elsevier’s contract details with other libraries. That of course is big publishing’s questionably legal practice to maintain the blind man’s bluff across universities. Prevent libraries from knowing what others pay (and thus estimating true costs) and you can continue to charge more.

As noted in the Nature News feature, the big 4 publishers partly justify this based on the complexity of their businesses that span more than just academic publishing. They say accounting for overheads that span multiple disparate business units is too complex to figure out how much is being spent on STM publishing alone. One finds this hard to believe and should probably give shareholders in those organizations a pause for concern. Either they truly don’t know their costs to publish, and thus can’t reliably run a sustainable business; or they just have never been pushed to release those numbers (as it would potentially lower revenues). Either way, it is fishy business that is arguably harming the consumer, just as it was prior to the 1950s auto sticker law.

Perhaps it is time that government demands publishers over a certain revenue threshold start revealing their true costs. Is it time for academic publishing to have its own “auto sticker?” The alternative is that we continue the blind walk in the dark.