Saturday, January 12, 2013

Academic journals are an obsolete historical appendage of academia

I don't know if it's in my best interest to write this, but it's been a sad day and I feel like it needs to be said, again and again, by everyone who's been affected.

Historically, when information was spread exclusively via ink on paper, academic journals provided a crucial service to the academic community: distribution.

Over the past few decades, the advent of the internet has fundamentally changed the way we use and share information, but traditional journals remain a staple of academia - not because they continue to contribute unique value, but because they're entrenched in the system and careers still depend on publishing in them.

The internet makes publication of information easy and efficient. Modern academic journals don't provide any additional value that could not be easily and cheaply replicated, and because of their history as a physical medium they have been slow to realize the full potential of the publication of information via the internet. Journals still publish discrete issues, enforce page limits, and sometimes charge to print color figures. In the digital age, all of these practices are unnecessary - laughably so. They also charge exorbitant amounts for access to articles by anyone who isn't affiliated with a subscribing university.

What services do modern journals provide?

  1. Peer review. Journals don't provide this; volunteer academics do, for free. Journals simply organize it and then profit from it. Any impartial third party could serve the same function and provide their stamp of approval to a paper. There are also numerous alternatives to the current model of peer review employed by journals. One is to use post-publication review and encourage public dialogue on research publication websites. This is already done on journal websites and others like arxiv.

    Peer review and some degree of expert filtering is important, but many are frustrated with the current system for good reason. Peer review should have a well-defined and limited scope. Reviewers should check research for soundness and rigor and, where possible, replicate results. This is one of the pillars of the scientific method. Yet, modern peer review typically fails to attempt any sort of replication. It is also subjective and can be driven by political or ideological conflicts instead of validity. Given a medium such as the internet with practically unlimited storage space, reviewers should not be questioning the potential impact of work; they should reject bad science, and nothing else.

  2. Name recognition. You score more points for publishing in some journals than others. Is this a good thing? Papers should be judged by their measurable impact and the ensuing discussion, not which company deemed them worthy of publication. The current system makes it easy to scan someone's list of publications and instantly judge their quality as a researcher. Maybe it shouldn't be so easy.

  3. Topical organization. I love reading a few specific journals, like Global Ecology and Biogeography - it's a topic that interests me and so I find most of the papers within it interesting. But publishing separate journals for different subjects is hardly necessary. The internet already knows how to categorize and organize information. Wikipedia, Google, and Reddit are three very different examples of how this has been done successfully.

  4. Formatting and typesetting. This is not a concern with content published online - just use markdown or HTML. Even if a physical printout is required, thanks to tools like LaTeX, these tasks are simpler than ever.
Academic journals provide marginal, replaceable value to the dissemination of research, and by doing so they somehow earn the right to profit from and control access to the results of research (often publicly funded research) they had no part in. This is astonishingly unethical, and more people need to start challenging the status quo like Aaron did.

The rising generation that grew up in the age of the internet believes strongly that information should be free and available, not guarded for profit. Something needs to be done to disrupt academic publishers. The results of scientific research should be freely available to everyone, and private publishers should not act as gatekeepers to knowledge.

I reject the idea that any corporation can profit by publishing publicly funded research that should inherently be free. I want to see widespread rejection of this idea. Share your PDFs. They can't arrest all of us.

Aaron Swartz's Open Access Manifesto

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2013 resolutions

Inspired by this list of 12 resolutions for grad students, I'm making the following goals for the next year:

  • Map out the year.
    • Use Google Calendar to make weekly and monthly goals.
    • Plan out weekly time use in blocks the week before.
  • Improve productivity.
    • Always have an active side project that can substitute for surfing the internet when taking a break.
    • Spend one day a week (Friday) working without an internet connection or cell phone.
  • Embrace the uncomfortable.
    • I've already moved from Ubuntu to Arch Linux on my laptop, and am using a very minimal desktop setup geared toward programming productivity. I'll be installing Arch on my work machine as well.
    • Learn vim or emacs (but which one?)
    • My research mostly involves data analysis; I'd like to try a simulation for a change.
  • Upgrade your tools.
    • I hate reading PDFs on a computer screen, and being at a computer is distracting. For Christmas I got an e-reader which I'll use with Zotero to keep my reading list with me at all times.
  • Stay healthy.
    • I've been following a ketogenic diet (low carb, high fat) for the past few months, and am feeling great, so I plan to continue. I lost 20 pounds this last semester; the goal is to lose another 15 over the next semester, at which point I will have hit my target weight (and a minimum since my high school wrestling days ended.)
  • Update your CV and website.
    • I think I do a pretty good job at this, but I'm going a step further by managing my CV in plain LaTeX (instead of LyX, which is kind of a black box to me) and putting it in a public Github repository. (And it now features a snazzy blue theme!)
  • Keep an eye on the job market.
    • I signed up for job alerts on for keywords like "ecoinformatics" and "macroecology." These keywords don't seem to have a lot of openings each year, so a few e-mails every now and then shouldn't be too distracting.
  • Network.
    • I have a few good networking opportunities coming up this year, including the Phylotastic hackathon, the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, and two Software Carpentry workshops I'm helping out with (at NESCent and UVA).
  • Say thanks.
    • (Nothing specific that I'm listing here.)
  • Volunteer for a talk.
    • I'm part of an ESA Ignite proposal being organized by Sandra Chung of NEON, so hopefully will have a chance to give a 5-minute talk in Minneapolis this summer.
  • Practice writing.
    • I'm pretty inconsistent with blogging, so I'm going to shoot for a thoughtful blog post at least biweekly.
    • Additionally, I'll try to space projects so that there's always something in the pipeline that can be written up.
  • Check with your committee.
    • I don't actually have one yet, so the first step will be to form one.

Additionally, from 12 resolutions for programmers (there's a lot of overlap with the grad school list, but a few additional goals):

  • Learn a new programming language.
    • I typically learn one new language a year; this year, I'd like to learn Smalltalk Perl. Perl is ubiquitous, so it seems like a better language to learn; I'll get around to Smalltalk if I find the time.
  • Learn more mathematics.
    • I'm taking a course on probability, which I didn't have a chance to take as an undergraduate. (At least, I think I am - it's over capacity, so I'm waitlisted.)
  • Engage in the arts and humanities.
    • Over the break, I've been trying to improve my drawing ability. As a side effect, I'm learning to engage the underutilized right side of my brain a little more. What effect this has on my work remains to be seen.
  • Complete a personal project.
    • If anything, I probably do this too much; I'll set aside specific blocks of time to work on specific personal projects, and continue my Hour Challenges as long as they're productive.