Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Open Access

There's be quite some talk about Open Access across the internet recently, largely thanks to the acceptance of the Finch Report, making it a requirement that the results of publicly-funded research be freely available to the public.  This seems like such a obviously correct thing that it might come as a surprise to many that it is not already the case.  On the other hand, it often seems like much science research is just a scheme to turn public money into private enterprise, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

On top of this, European grant funders are doing the same, as I tweeted recently from the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin last week, during a talk from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

In a way, though, it's all a bit disappointing.  Currently publicly-funded scientists perform research, write it up in the form of a paper and send it off to an academic journal.  The journal editor, or editorial team, will arrange for peer-review (done at (usually) public expense, as an unpaid favour by other scientists), and if the peer-review is successful the journal will publish it.  Then they will charge the scientist's (or scientists') institute thousands of pounds to buy the article back in the form of a journal subscription.  It's this subscription cost that the new policy will seek to change in some form or other, and they have done it not by challenging the whole system, but by encouraging, or mandating that authors pay to have their articles made open access (which many journals allow).  Typically, most journals currently charge of the order of a couple of thousand pounds to do this.  Many of the blog posts and twitter comments worrying about the new announcement have concentrated on this part - that pushing the cost to the author rather than the reader is no help.  Those comments are probably right.

To my mind, the better solution would be to dispense with traditional journals and do something along the lines of Peter Coles's suggestion for an electronic open-access journal that would be rather cheap to run.  There are already other examples around, such as the wonderful Journal of Integer Sequences, and the major stumbling block, judging by comments I've seen, is that employers and potential employers currently put much stock in the impact factor of where a scientist has published, and people not already somewhere high up the ladder will want to do what gets them jobs.  Clearly, in a sane world the employers would judge the merits of the science, rather than just look up the impact factor of the journal.  If the UK government wants to be bold and iconoclastic in its support of open access, it should rather ask for all REF outputs to be presented to the panels scrubbed of their publication details and outlaw the use of bibliometrics as a proxy for judging scientific merit.  It make make the REF more expensive to run, but changing the open access model would overall make science cheaper to fund.

Of all that's been written or spoken about this issue (and I attended a couple of sessions at ESOF2012 about this) the only one that really makes me think twice is the fact that many learned societies depend somewhat on income from journal publishing.  In my area, the UK Institute of Physics and the US American Physical Society publish good journals, to which I send most of my papers at present.  They are generally good guys in my mind;  their journals are priced pretty reasonably, and the IoP even make all their articles free to read for a month on publication, and I do appreciate that the current model for publishing is somewhat expensive.  I slightly worry for these good institutions if the traditional journal is on the way out, but it's not a strong enough argument to retain the old model, for me.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Tax avoidance

I just had the pleasure of talking to an estate agent, who was trying to put me in touch with a company that lets one avoid stamp duty, using a scheme something like this one.  Frankly, I'd rather Mr Osborne had the money than a bunch of shysters *sigh*

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Time management

[plovdiv mosque]
In principle, when attending a conference, it would always be nice to prepare the talk carefully, long in advance, preferably before travelling.  I have been accused of having bad time management for not (always) doing so. With so many things I want to do, I find it optimises my time best to use the journey to prepare my talk, though it doesn't always work out as swimmingly as I plan.  It seems that things have never been much different.  I am sitting having lunch in Plovdiv, reading George Gamow's Thirty Years that Shook Physics, about the early history of Quantum Physics, and I came across the following anectode:
[I was] asked to deliver a lecture in the institute of Henri Poincaré, of which he [de Broglie] was a director. I decided to come well prepared. I planned to write the lecture down in my (still) poor French on board the liner crossing the Atlantic, have somebody in Paris correct the text, and use it as notes at the lecture. But, as everyone knows, all good resolutions collapse on an ocean voyage offering many distractions, and I had to face the audience in the Sorbonne completely unprepared.
If it's good enough for Gamow...

P.S. I am writing this sitting in a café in Plovdiv, next to the ruins of the Roman hippodrome. From my seat, I can't take such a great picture of it (since it's basically underground), so the picture attached to the post is of the square, with the Djumaya mosque to the right). The sundial on the corner of the mosque is about an hour out, but I guess it doesn't cope with summer time very well.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Rila Mountain Workshop & Chaos

Last week, I was in the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria for a nuclear physics workshop.  Like ever, I find myself newly-invigorated with the fun of doing research, talking about it, and finding out what other people are getting up to.  The picture in the post is the view from the conference room, on those rare occasions when my attention was not fixed on the speaker.

There were two talks about the link between quantum chaos and nuclear spectra.  Quantum chaos is nothing but the quantum analogue of classical chaos, in which, for example, two trajectories in a dynamical system with very similar starting points will diverge in behaviour in later times, no mater how similar the starting positions.  This makes the future behaviour of such systems hard to predict, as even though the equations are deterministic, the ability to measure the starting point with infinite accuracy is not possible.  This is one reason why weather forecasting is so hard.

In quantum mechanics, most systems are not quite like this.  We don't necessarily talk of trajectories, and starting positions may not necessarily be allowed to be close together thanks to quantisation.  In nuclear physics, the normal language of quantum chaos is in terms of the statistical spacing of energy levels and not much to do with trajectories.  In nuclei, this energy level spacing agrees with the predictions of random matrix theory, suggesting some chaos in the underlying nuclear force.  A few years ago I tried to do some work on the link between chaotic motion in nuclei using a kind of quantum theory which had a semiclassical aspect to it, which showed both classical chaos in its semiclassical trajectory and quantum chaos in its spectrum.  I thought I had at least hinted, in making this link, at something profound, but the referees didn't think so.  I ended up including it in a lightly-refereed conference proceeding, which has been lightly-cited since, but listening to the talks made me think I should pick up the subject again.

Since the conference has finished, I've been having a holiday in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city.  I'm going home tomorrow, but I'll be a bit sad to leave.  The weather is nice, it's a nice city and the beer is cheap.  But all good things must come to an end...