Reblogged: Time for Elsexit?

Earlier this week, Timothy Gowers posted “Time for Elsexit?” about the new Elsevier deal negotiated with Jisc.  It’s not often that I can cater for my readers interested in Brexit and scholarly publishing simultaneously (enjoy!).  I found the parallels with Brexit interesting, and it’s an excellent summary of the problems that persist in the new deal.

Here is some background to the situation

  • Elsevier is one of the world’s major providers of scientific, technical, and medical information.
  • ScienceDirect is their main platform (website), which provides subscription-based access to a large database of articles and other research. Despite the name, it covers a wide range of subject areas.
  • Jisc Collections is the negotiation and licensing service that supports the procurement of digital content for higher education and research institutions in the UK.
  • A Big Deal is a subscription to most of a publisher’s content as a package, rather than having subscriptions to individual journals.  Publishers often swap titles in and out of the package.
  • Historic spend refers to a figure for each university, established at the point when Big Deals were launched (circa 1997).  Elsevier’s contract requires each subscribing university to match or exceed their historic spend, thus controlling cancellations, as cancellations of individual title subscriptions do not result in lower subscription fees.
  • Why the secrecy? Mike Taylor explains: “when negotiating contracts with libraries, publishers often insist on confidentiality clauses — so that librarians are not allowed to disclose how much they are paying. The result is an opaque market with no downward pressure on prices, hence the current outrageously high prices, which are rising much more quickly than inflation even as publishers’ costs shrink due to the transition to electronic publishing.”

Further reading

  • Serials crisis – the chronic subscription cost increases of many serial publications such as scholarly journals
  • The Cost of Knowledge – a protest by academics against the business practices of academic journal publisher Elsevier
  • Elsevier journals — some facts – including the following questions: How willing would researchers be to do without the services provided by Elsevier?  How easy is it on average to find on the web copies of Elsevier articles that can be read legally and free of charge?  To what extent are libraries actually suffering as a result of high journal prices?  What effect are Elsevier’s Gold Open Access articles having on their subscription prices?  How much are our universities paying for Elsevier journals?

Megajournals and how to spot them in the wild

The first megajournal, PLOS One, launched in 2006.  Since then, the presence of megajournals in the Open Access (OA) landscape is growing, and it’s increasingly important to know how megajournals differ from traditional journals:

  • when considering a paper for publication, peer-reviewers consider only whether it is technically sound, whereas traditional peer-review also has requirements for novelty, importance, or interest to a particular community
  • megajournals accept papers from a broad range of subjects (look out for “full spectrum”, “all areas”, “multidisciplinary”)
  • many megajournals’ funding model is to charge fees for publication – article processing charges (APCs) – and they typically charge lower APCs than traditional (hybrid) journals (average APC for full OA journal £1,354 compared with £1,882 for hybrid – Jisc data from 2014-15)

These factors lower the bar for publication and may make these journals more attractive places for researchers to publish.  You can imagine the types of arguments that ensue about whether this sets the bar too low, or helps researchers with less funding to get published; and whether the different requirements at the peer review stage allow megajournals to be flooded with poorer-quality/lower-value articles or whether it breaks the stranglehold of academic hierarchies on what counts as valid research…

If megajournals don’t limit the number of articles in each issue, there is also the potential conflict of interest arising from money to be made from every article accepted for publication.  Traditional journals usually have a limit, which (hopefully) means their APC income generated from each issue published is constant, and papers submitted are judged purely on their own merits (but what happens if the supply of high-quality papers is greater than the journal can publish?).

Some things to consider:

  • The platform (or publisher’s name) has long been considered a proxy for the quality of the research it publishes.  To what extent is this still the case?
  • How are new publications to prove their worth?  To what extent are predatory publishing practices found?
  • How are we to assess the trustworthiness of a journal?  The reputation of the peer reviewers is often the best guide, and this requires good knowledge of the field and the people involved.  This is where discussions with academics in each department are essential in establishing the value of a megajournal to a given subject area.

Think.Check.Submit. is a campaign to help researchers identify trusted journals for their research – it’s a checklist researchers can use to assess the credentials of a journal or publisher.  It has some useful questions to use as a starting point for discussions with academics about judging journal quality.

Further reading

Consumer democracy?

I have recently discovered the documentary films of Adam Curtis and can highly recommend “The Century of the Self” (2002) – it’s available on YouTube and the four 1-hour episodes are:

  1. Happiness Machines
  2. The Engineering of Consent
  3. There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed
  4. Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering

The last 10 minutes gives an excellent summary of how politicians adopt methods used by business (e.g. focus groups) to give voters what they said they wanted, but this consumerism allows people only the illusion of control.  Rather than people being in charge,  their desires are.  They exercise no decision-making power, and democracy demands no acts of citzenry but treats the public as passive consumers.  Responding to a mass of ever-changing and out-of-context individual opinions is very different from having a leader with a coherent plan.

This made me think of the way student feedback may be treated in universities, and whether it is used to inform or guide planning.  I’m all for a higher education sector which responds to student feedback, but I think consumer-driven universities risk focusing on students’ short-term desires at the expense of delivering the kind of challenging and transformative experience that produces confident graduates with useful skills.

See also last Friday’s episode of The Now Show, in particular Andy Zaltzman’s segment (begins at 17:45) about improv politics, and Pippa Evans’ song (26:42) “I’ve got an opinion, everybody listen to me…”

Curtis’ more recent films Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation are currently available on BBC iPlayer.

Optimistic pessimism

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Especially not “Unapologetic” by Francis Spufford, which has a hideous cover

Ye Gods... remove dust jacket, that's better

Ye Gods… remove dust jacket, that’s better

If you are interested in religion, read this book.

If the mere word religion makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it instead as culture, and then read this book.

It’s a sweary book, and it makes you think.

Spufford writes about the “outrages inherent in the entire operation of the domain of life” – how natural selection works through variation, and most organisms die before they can reproduce.  “The moral scandal of evolution… [is] that it works by, works through, would not work without, continuous suffering.”

I found a strange comfort in the perspective that the world is an inherently violent place.  The default setting is not peace, but conflict (see Kwame Anthony Appiah on identities for more on how humans compete for scarce resources).  History is not a progressive journey to a perfect future, every gain is hard fought-for, and impermanent.  See Professor Hanson‘s post on The Myth of Progress, questioning among other things “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

Spufford writes about the universal human propensity to f*ck things up.  As we all do this repeatedly, we are all guilty.  But because we all do it, it is perhaps the most important thing we have in common.

Optimistic pessimism knows that people will falter and fail, but doesn’t hate them for it.  Hanlon’s razor states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity [or neglect and misunderstanding]” and this is a useful first step in not taking unfair or violent events personally, but to reset our expectations and consider the smallest act of kindness a rebellious act of peace-making.

Reith Lectures 2016 – Kwame Anthony Appiah on identities

This year’s Reith Lectures by Kwame Anthony Appiah on “Mistaken Identities” feel very timely, given the state of the world in 2016.  Here they are, in listening order, with links to hear them via the BBC website:

  1. Creed – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says we overestimate scripture in our view of faith
  2. Country – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues against a mythical and romantic view of nationhood
  3. Colour – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues for a world free of racial fixations
  4. Culture – Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asks us to give up the idea of western civilisation

For me, there’s a missing element from this series – gender – but still, these four 1-hour episodes are well worth a listen, and they take you on a gallop through a lot of ideas in a (relatively) short time.

Identity politics has long been part of my life, way before I knew it had a name.  Here are some thoughts about the differences between identities and labels:

  • Chosen by me / applied by others
  • Describing / defining
  • Empowering / limiting
  • One among multiple dimensions of identity / single attribute excludes other dimensions of a person
  • Co-exist with other attributes (but see also intersectionality) / conflict or compete
  • Flexible and dynamic / static and confining

Who decides the extent and meaning of the identities or labels applied to oneself or others?  For example, who decides who counts as a Muslim, or a feminist, and speaks for them?  And how did something so individual and personal seem to be suddenly so public and political?

It’s lovely to know that the world can’t interfere with the inside of your head.

– Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

And it’s even better to know that you can expand your experience of the world, try on ideas, and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before shouting at strangers on the internet by reading loads and loads of books from a library…

Two paths in a wood: caring too much or caring too little?

I started using Twitter in 2009.  In the years since then, I have built relationships with lots of people on that platform, many of them librarians. Back in the day, many of us were “new professionals” (within the first 5 years or so of our careers after library school).

Perhaps it’s partly a cohort effect, that many of us are reaching early middle age (sorry), or at least the achieving some of the main milestones of adulthood at around the same time, but there’s a growing feeling that spending too much time checking in on the state of the world is all getting a bit much.

Just this evening, a friend has written of how Twitter has been her main adult company during her maternity leave this year, but the variety & depth of the world’s problems echoing in her head has caused her great anxiety and suffering. She says “I’m not going to forget, or give up.”  But cutting down on the frequency of checking in, and more time spent doing other things, will hopefully help to restore some perspective (alongside action where chosen). Note: this post has been published with her consent.

As we reach this time of our lives, in these times, it seems that our convictions, vocations, and politics are being sharply challenged. Maybe part of it is realising that we (probably) can’t save the world through libraries and education, and then deciding which battles to keep fighting.

Think global, act local.

I think the important thing is choosing to do something positive, no matter how small, rather than deciding it’s all too difficult and giving up altogether.

It is difficult to do good without unintended negative consequences. I took part in a discussion last weekend about the annual Christmas shoebox appeal, which I feel uncomfortable about because its religious evangelical dimension is often not made known. But as my friend pointed out, it’s an act of giving that many people can do, and do so generously. The recent safety pin débâcle, which started out as a call to wear a safety pin to show solidarity with persons experiencing a range of exclusions was swiftly appropriated by some who wished harm to these people, or denounced by others as being a shallow, meaningless gesture.

It’s hard to know where to begin. But please don’t stop thinking about it, and do what you can.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

And then [s]he practised being thanked by the grateful miller…

And then he practised being thanked by the grateful miller. Illustration by Quentin Blake, from "Mouse Trouble" by John Yeoman

And then he practised being thanked by the grateful miller. From “Mouse Trouble” by John Yeoman, illustrated by Quentin Blake

If this sounds familiar, here’s some helpful advice from Oliver Burkeman.  “Strategic incompetence is the art of avoiding undesirable tasks by pretending to be unable to do them” he writes, and while not advocating that we all do likewise,  he suggests that “[t]raining our bosses, partners or children not to expect a “yes” in response to every single request might be crucial for preserving sanity.”  Read his full article here.

This story reminded me of a hopeful tendency among librarians to expect that our users, colleagues, and bosses will all notice and reward us when we perform at a consistently high level, rather than shout about our successes.  And it’s a great excuse to post that lovely picture of the miller’s cat.  Every home* should have a copy of Mouse Trouble.

*or library. Fit in into your collections policy any way you can…