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September 24, 2006

Things to read while the simulator runs; part 2

In my frenetic drive to get a paper revised and resubmitted to a journal, and a parallel project writing a lengthy solo-paper on complex systems methodolodogy, I now have a backlog of interesting tid-bits to share. So, rather than blog about each individually, I'm collecting them together in the second of our multi-part series of things to read while you wait for the simulator to finish.

The Dwight H. Terry Lectures (at Yale) on Science and Religion. These are a series of six videos of lectures by prominent thinkers on the subject. Notables include Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss and Dr. Kenneth R. Miller. Well worth the time, with Ken Miller's talk being highly enjoyable. (tip to Carl Zimmer)

As if this topic is on many people's minds of late, Cosma blogs about Ginsparg's excellent perspective piece in The Journal of Neuroscience entitled As We May Read (which is a riff on Vannevar Bush's 1945 piece in The Atlantic entitled As We May Think, about the obligation of post-war scientists to make more accessible the store of human knowledge). Ginsparg, the creator of the arxiv and a recipient of a MacArthur award in 2002, has a lot to say about the future of academic publishing and the role that journals have in disseminating information. On a related point, hunch.net has some perspective on the development of collaborative research, and, for instance, the impact of Wikipedia on Vannevar Bush's dream.

Bernard Chazelle, professor of Computer Science at Princeton (who has graced this blog before), has penned a new version of his perspective piece on computers, and the significance of the algorithm to modern science. (tip to Suresh)

Many of you may recall Larry H. Summer, former president of Harvard, commenting on the reason that women make up less than a parity of scientists in this country. The National Academy of Sciences has finally weighed in on the subject with a comprehensive report in which they completely dismantle the Summer's claim, showing that women are under-represented because of systemic biases in the institutions of the academy. Corneila Dean writes on this for the New York Times. Bitch Ph.D. writes "I, personally, am expecting the apologies from Larry Summer's apologists to start pouring in any day now." Hear, hear. (tip to Cosmic Variance)

Liberal arts colleges have a special place in the constellation of academic training, although most Americans would be hard-pressed to name any of them. Writing in a 1999 special issue of Daedalus on liberal arts colleges, Thomas R. Cech (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1989; current President of the HHMI; graduated from Grinell College in 1970) writes on the disproportionately large number of liberal arts graduates who make up the nation's top scientists, why liberal arts colleges can give a better science education than large universities, and the importance of protecting the contributions these institutions make to science.

posted September 24, 2006 02:24 PM in Things to Read | permalink | Comments (0)

September 08, 2006

Academic publishing, tomorrow

Imagine a world where academic publishing is handled purely by academics, rather than ruthless, greedy corporate entities. [1] Imagine a world where hiring decisions were made on the techincal merit of your work, rather than the coterie of journals associated with your c.v. Imagine a world where papers are living documents, actively discussed and modified (wikified?) by the relevant community of interested intellectuals. This, and a bit more, is the future, according to Adam Rogers, a senior associate editor at "Wired" magazine. (tip to The Geomblog)

The gist of Rogers' argument is that the Web will change academic publishing into this utopian paradise of open information. I seriously doubt things will be like he predicts, but he does raise some excellent points about how the Web is facilitating new ways of communicating technical results. For instance, he mentions a couple of on-going experiments in this area:

In other quarters, traditional peer review has already been abandoned. Physicists and mathematicians today mainly communicate via a Web site called arXiv. (The X is supposed to be the Greek letter chi; it's pronounced "archive." If you were a physicist, you'd find that hilarious.) Since 1991, arXiv has been allowing researchers to post prepublication papers for their colleagues to read. The online journal Biology Direct publishes any article for which the author can find three members of its editorial board to write reviews. (The journal also posts the reviews – author names attached.) And when PLoS ONE launches later this year, the papers on its site will have been evaluated only for technical merit – do the work right and acceptance is guaranteed.

It's a bit hasty to claim that peer review has been "abandoned", but the arxiv has certainly almost completely supplanted some journals in their role of disseminating new research [2]. This is probably most true for physicists, since they're the ones who started the arxiv; other fields, like biology, don't have a pre-print archive (that I know of), but they seem to be moving toward open access journals for the same purpose. In computer science, we already have something like this, since the primary venue for publication is in conferences (which are peer reviewed, unlike conference in just about every other discipline), and whose papers are typically picked up by CiteSeer.

It seems that a lot of people are thinking or talking about open access this week. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece on the momentum for greater open access journals. It's main message is the new letter, signed by 53 presidents of liberal arts colleges (including my own Haverford College) in support of the bill currently in Congress (although unlikely to pass this year) that would mandate that all federally funded research be eventually made publicly available. The comments from the publishing industry are unsurprisingly self-interested and uninspiring, but they also betray a great deal of arrogance and greed. I wholeheartedly support more open access to articles - publicly funded research should be free to the public, just like public roads are free for everyone to use.

But, the bigger question here is, Could any these various alternatives to the pay-for-access model really replace journals? I'm less sure of the future here, as journals also serve a couple of other roles that things like the arxiv were never intended to fill. That is, journals run the peer review process, which, at its best, prevents erroneous research from getting a stamp of "community approval" and thereby distracting researchers for a while as they a) figure out that it's mistaken, and b) write new papers to correct it. This is why, I think, there is a lot of crap on the arxiv. A lot of authors self-police themselves quite well, and end up submitting nearly error-free and highly competent work to journals, but the error-checking process is crucial, I think. Sure, peer review does miss a lot of errors (and frauds), but, to paraphrase Mason Porter paraphrasing Churchill on democracy, peer review is the worst form of quality control for research, except for all the others. The real point here is that until something comes along that can replace journals as being the "community approved" body of work, I doubt they'll disappear. I do hope, though, that they'll morph into more benign organizations. PNAS and PLoS are excellent role models for the future, I think. And, they also happen to publish really great research.

Another point Rogers makes about the changes the Web is encouraging is a social one.

[...] Today’s undergrads have ... never functioned without IM and Wikipedia and arXiv, and they’re going to demand different kinds of review for different kinds of papers.

It's certainly true that I conduct my research very differently because I have access to Wikipedia, arxiv, email, etc. In fact, I would say that the real change these technologies will have on the world of research will be to decentralize it a little. It's now much easier to be a productive, contributing member of a research community without being down the hall from your colleagues and collaborators than it was 20 years ago. These electronic modes of communication just make it easier for information to flow freely, and I think that ultimately has a very positive effect on research itself. Taking that role away from the journals suggests that they will become more about getting that stamp of approval, than anything else. With its increased relative importance, who knows, perhaps journals will do a better job at running the peer review process (they could certainly use the Web, etc. to do a better job at picking reviewers...).

(For some more thoughts on this, see a recent discussion of mine with Mason Porter.)

Update Sept. 9: Suresh points to a recent post of his own about the arxiv and the issue of time-stamping.

[1] Actually, computer science conferences, impressively, are a reasonable approximation to this, although they have their own fair share of issues.

[2] A side effect of the arXiv is that it presents tricky issues regarding citation, timing and proper attribution. For instance, if a research article becomes a "living" documents, proper citation becomes rather problematic. For instance, which version of an article do you cite? (Surely not all of them!) And, if you revise your article after someone posts a derivative work, are you obligated to cite it in your revision?

posted September 8, 2006 05:23 PM in Simply Academic | permalink | Comments (3)

September 06, 2006

When politics gets you down...

This is one of twelve "finalists" of a competition for political cartoons about science being run by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Personally, I've always liked Fafblog!'s take on the issue.

posted September 6, 2006 08:35 PM in Humor | permalink | Comments (0)