Archive | January, 2013

Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (II. Problems)

27 Jan

(This is part II of a three-part series on open access. Read Part I here.)

Last time I wrote about the difficulties many scientists and I face almost everyday when we try to access scientific research articles blocked behind paywalls by journal publishers. For me, there are two major problems with the current model of publishing scientific papers in a closed system, where the access of scientific knowledge is restricted by the publishers.

First of all, financially speaking, this system is extremely unfair to scientists. I am not great with financial analyses, but this was written about on the SV-POW post “The obscene profits of commercial scholarly publishers.” Yes, the company needs to profit. Except, while other companies invest in inventory, technology, and creative ideas paid for by the companies, journal publishers don’t pay any of the scientists who review the articles and contribute to the quality of the journals are paid by the publishers. The publishers (particularly commercial publishers) ripped all the benefits without giving any compensation to the scientists and the public that support them (1).

As more journals offer digital subscriptions, the cost of physically printing and mailing journals to subscribers should have dropped. While I understand there are now costs to maintain servers and websites, I don’t believe that justifies the significant increase in subscription fees. What made the situation worse is that some commercial publishers sell “bundled” subscription packages to universities (also called the “big deal”). This means that in order to gain access to a prestigious journal, a library can be forced to subscribe to other unnecessary journals, raising the overall expenses.

The end result of this is that research information becomes extremely inaccessible to scientists, and universities scramble to pay subscription fees in order to afford their students and researchers access to journals.

Second, this “lockdown” of scientific knowledge means that we miss out on many incredible opportunities for better knowledge exchange, innovation, communication, and outreach. Here are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head:

For further reading, here is a great summary about who can benefit from open access on the The Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) website. And, Jorge Cham, the creator of PhD Comics, made this animation, which covers the problems with the current publication model quite well.

More and more scientists have started pushing for open access. What is the progress? What are the potential solutions? What can we all do to help? I will continue on with this topic in my next post.

Read Part III. Solutions?

Postscript: By the way, I was going to quote a reference suggesting that, while in a similar industry, medical journal publishers have profit margins much greater than those of book and periodical publishers. Except, well, that paper is blocked behind a paywall by Elsevier right now…isn’t that funny…But reference #25 was used by Dorsey in his paper analyzing the finances of top US Medical Journals – and this one is open access published by a professional association, not by a commercial publisher.

Postscript2: There are some discussions/debates regarding whether to allow commercial reuse of open access research. To be honest I am still working out the benefits and disadvantages in my head. For further reading of this see Cameron Neylon’s article Science publishing: Open access must enable open use. You can be the judge and let me know what you think of it.


Water Balloons, Fire Balloons, and Some Science to Go with Them [videos]

26 Jan

A few weeks ago we ran a really awesome science show on the phenomenal science of fluids! I got inspired to write a little bit about fluids.

In Wikipedia a fluid is defined as “a substance that continually deforms under an applied shear stress.” Translation? A fluid is something that takes the shape of its container. Think about pouring water from a mug to a fish bowl. The shape of the water changes to conform to the shape of the fish bowl.

Now, for a water balloon, what shape does the water in the balloon take? (think about this for a few seconds…) Our outreach coop student Alice took the following slow-motion video of her popping a water balloon.

Did you get it right? So the water actually took the shake of the balloon, suspended in the air for a little bit when the balloon broke, and then dropped down all over (Slow motion videos are so cool, I can watch this for the whole day).

Although when we think of “fluids” we usually think of liquids (water, juice, coffee, and more coffee…), gases are also fluids. When we fill a container with a gas, it conforms to the shape of the container.

Now, what happens when we pop a balloon that is fill with a gas? More specifically, what happens when we light a balloon filled with hydrogen gas on fire?!

This happens really fast! Here is a video taken when my colleague Tamara from UBC Chemistry Outreach lit a balloon filled with hydrogen gas (highly flammable, don’t do this at home!).

So fast that we actually cannot see what really happened without using a high-speed camera to take a slow-motion video. Here is a video about hydrogen-filled balloons from the Period Table of Videos (with additional explanation!).

You can even see a little bit of the outline of the balloon in the hydrogen only balloon video. And it is also very nice to see a scientist talking about the mistake he made in thinking what might have happened and how he went about to test a viewer’s suggestion 😀

Hope you enjoyed them!

16 Jan

I rarely reblog something but this got me really excited! The original paper was written by Dr. Lorne Whitehead in my department. We actually have the exact demo built by him, and we used it in our science shows! I saw the demo a few times – usually we get a little kid to come up and blow the dominoes down. Pretty awesome. One of my favourites.

Thanks Dave for sharing this on his blog!

– – –

“A domino can knock over another domino about 1.5x larger than itself. A chain of dominos of increasing size makes a kind of mechanical chain reaction that starts with a tiny push and knocks down an impressively large domino.
See for a sophisticated discussion of the physics.”

First presented by Lorne Whitehead, American Journal of Physics, Vol. 51, page 182 (1983). – pdf


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Quick note – about my page

14 Jan

I currently have a page where I curate online content from elsewhere. However, it is starting to get really difficult to maintain both my WordPress blog and my page. In addition, WordPress provides better analytics for me to track where the traffic came from.

So starting now I will only maintain my WordPress blog. This means that you will see more diverse posts covered here (links, photos, videos, etc). Regardless, the scope will continue to be about science outreach, communications, our society, and hopefully more fun stuff!

(I have been writing mostly about serious science issues these days eh??)

Thanks for reading!

Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (I. The Issue)

14 Jan

jan14featuredimageA few days ago Aaron Swartz (co-founder of reddit, co-author of RSS standards, who also helped developed creative commons license) took his own life. Many associated his death to the alleged case against him – because he “stole” millions of academic research papers from JSTOR through a computer connected to the MIT network.

The news of his death saddens many, particularly those of us in the research community. Why, you might be wondering – didn’t he steal all those academic papers? Shouldn’t we be mad that they were stolen?

I have been wanting to write something about open access for a long time – but it is really, really hard to find an angle that would get people  interested in reading about it (particularly those not familiar with the process of academic research). Perhaps this is the time. And here is my attempt.

Scientists share the discoveries with the world first-hand by publishing accounts of their work in scientific journals. The papers written by scientists go through a process called peer review: Very generally, a scientist submits a research paper to a journal, and the journal publisher will pass on this paper to a few other scientists to read and provide feedback (the scientists read them without being paid). If these scientists agree that the findings seem valid and significant, the article will then go through a few rounds of editing and refinement. Eventually the article is published to be read by scientists around the world. Most of these research projects are funded through government agencies using tax dollars.

So when an interesting scientific discovery becomes public, I (or any interested scientist) would  follow the paper trail to find the original publication. We will then get to see whether the study is reliable (what kind of experiments were done, is it from a reputable researcher, with a sufficient number of participants enrolled/samples tested, etc), with a conclusion that can be logically drawn from the results, if the conclusion has any significant implications, and if there are other relevant readings we can continue with.

So, you can imagine my frustration when I hit a pay wall, basically telling me that in order to read a paper based on research funded by public money,  reviewed by scientists who offered their service to the publisher for free, I will need to pay $45 dollars.

It feels like there is a bully standing in my way to the public library, asking me for my lunch money.

According to the Association of Research Libraries, the expenditures associated with journal subscriptions of North American research libraries increased by an incredible 381% between 1986 and 2009 (The overall inflation rate in Canada during this period of time was 72.71% and 95.7% in US – nowhere near the 381% increase). This is mostly due to subscriptions to journals published by commercial publishers — whose journals are typically 5 times the cost of those published by professional societies or associations. Working for a university, I can access articles through my university library (I will need to use a computer on campus, or connect to the university network, and this only works for journals my university has subscriptions for). This is not free – a university can be spending $5-10 million dollars each year in subscribing to hundreds and thousands of scientific journals for its students and researchers. For some libraries, journal subscription fees eat up more than half of the their budgets.

And if my library doesn’t have a subscription for the journal that I need access to? It will cost me $10-50 to purchase one article. To avoid this,  when I was in graduate school, I spent hours filling out library request forms to have the articles sent to me from other libraries with subscriptions (the librarians would photocopy the articles on paper…I don’t even want to think about how many trees I helped kill), or begged friends at another university with the subscription to send the paper to me. And from time to time there would be one that nobody seems to have access to, and I simply gave up or looked for alternatives.

This situation is bothersome for many, many reasons. I hope you are curious now – Why is it so expensive to access academic journals? Perhaps the publishers are not earning enough money to support their operations? How does this situation affect scientific discoveries? Why do we care so much about open access? I will continue with this in my next post.

Read Part II. Problems & Part III. Solutions?

Postscript – By the way, just to give you an idea, I had 194 references in my MSc thesis, most of which are journal articles. Luckily I was able to access them through my university subscriptions or through interlibrary transfers. Otherwise it would have cost me about $1940 – $9700 in journal accessing fees to finish my thesis.

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