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December 28, 2018

Opening the source

Participants_at_Budapest_meeting,_December_1,_2001.jpegRecently, Michael Salmony, who has appeared here before appeared horrified to discover open access, the movement for publishing scientific research so it's freely accessible to the public (who usually paid for it) instead of closed to subscribers. In an email, he wrote, "...looks like the Internet is now going to destroy science as well".

This is not my view.

The idea about science that I grew up with was that scientists building on and reviewing each other's work is necessary for good science, a self-correcting process that depends on being able to critique and replicate each other's work. So the question we should ask is: does the business model of traditional publishing support that process? Are there other models that would support that process better? Science spawns businesses, serves businesses, and may even be a business itself, but good-quality science first serves the public interest.

There are three separate issues here. The first is the process of science itself: how best to fund, support, and nurture it. The second is the business model of scientific *publishing*. The third, which relates to both of those, is how to combat abuse. Obviously, they're interlinked.

The second of these is the one that resonates with copyright battles past. Salmony: "OA reminds me warmly of Napster disrupting music publishing, but in the end iTunes (another commercial, quality controlled) model has won."

iTunes and the music industry are not the right models. No one dies of lack of access to Lady Gaga's latest hit. People *have* died through being unable to afford access to published research.

Plus, the push is coming from an entirely different direction. Napster specifically and file-sharing generally were created by young, anti-establishment independents who coded copyright bypasses because they could. The open access movement began with a statement of principles codified by university research types - mavericks, sure, but representing the Public Library of Science, Open Society Institute, BioMed Central, and universities in Montreal, London, and Southampton. My first contact with the concept was circa 1993, when World Health Organization staffer Christopher Zielinski raised the deep injustice of pricing research access out of developing countries' reach.

Sci-Hub is a symptom, not a cause. Another symptom: several months ago, 60 German universities canceled their subscriptions to Elsevier journals to protest the high fees and restricted access. Many scientists are offended at the journals' expectation that they will write papers for free and donate their time for peer review while then charging them to read the published results. One way we know this is that Sci-Hub builds its giant cache via educational institution proxies that bypass the paywalls. At least some of these are donated by frustrated people inside those institutions. Many scientists use it.

As I understand it, publication costs are incorporated into research grants; there seems no reason why open access should impede peer review or indexing. Why shouldn't this become financially sustainable and assure assure quality control as before?

A more difficult issue is that one reason traditional journals still matter is that academic culture has internalized their importance in determining promotions and tenure. Building credibility takes time, and many universities have been slow to adapt. However, governments and research councils in Germany, the UK, and South Africa are all pushing open access policies via their grant-making conditions.

Plus, the old model is no longer logistically viable in many fields as the pace of change accelerates. Computer scientists were first to ignore it, relying instead on conference proceedings and trading papers and research online.

Back to Salmony: "Just replacing one bad model with another one that only allows authors who can afford to pay thousands of dollars (or is based on theft, like Sci Hub) and that threatens the quality (edited, peer review, indexed etc) sounds less than convincing." In this he's at odds with scientists such as Ben Goldacre, who in 2007 called open access "self-evidently right and good".

This is the first issue. In 1992, Marcel C. LaFollette's Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing documented many failures of traditional peer review. In 2010, the Greek researcher John Ioannidis established how often medical research is retracted. At Retraction Watch, science journalist Ivan Oransky finds remarkable endemic sloppiness and outright fraud. Admire the self-correction, but the reality is that journals have little interest in replication, preferring newsworthy new material - though not *too* new.

Ralph Merkle, the "third man", alongside Whit Diffie and Martin Hellman, inventing public key cryptography, has complained that journals favor safe, incremental steps. Merkle's cryptography idea was dismissed with: "There is nothing like this in the established literature." True. But it was crucial for enabling ecommerce.

Salmony's third point: "[Garbage] is the plague of the open Internet", adding a link to a Defon 26 talk. Sarah Jeong's Internet of Garbage applies.

Abuse and fakery are indeed rampant, but a lot is due to academic incentives. For several years, my 2014 article for IEEE Security & Privacy explaining the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (2014) attracted invitations to speak at (probably) fake conferences and publish papers in (probably) fake journals. Real researchers tell me this is par for the course. But this is a problem of human predators, not "the open Internet", and certainly not open access.


Illustrations: Participants in drafting the Budapest principles (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

August 24, 2017

The greatest show on Earth

parthenon-final-partial.jpg
"Oh, yeah, I'm going down Broadway."
"Working. I'm going to try to get a peek at it out the window."
"I'm going up to Centennial Park. I want to be real quiet and meditative."
"No."
"Our hotel's having a viewing party on the roof."
"Just going out in my backyard."
"I've seen one befo-er. They happen all the time. If it wasn't for my grandkids, I'd just stay home."

The question, posed to random strangers around Nashville, was, "Do you have plans to see the eclipse?"

The last speaker, a woman at a bus stop, is of course right. Eclipses do happen all the time. But the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was the first total solar eclipse to hit Nashville since 1478, and it's 99 years since one cut such a long and wide swath across the US - a path 70 miles wide and 2,500 miles long, stretching from the west coast of Oregon to the east coast of South Carolina.
solar-eclipse-t-shirts-tiedye.jpgThis is the also the first one with 24-hour channels to provide major event packaging. I don't remember hearing a thing about the eclipse of February 1979, even though totality covered almost the entire giant state of Montana. The Weather Channel unearthed the ABC News report, which newscaster Frank Reynolds concluded by hoping that in 38 years, "May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace". (Ouch.) For hundreds of small towns, the path provided a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza of visitors. T-shirts for all! (A few places, like Carbondale, Illinois, will get a second bite in 2024.

An estimated 1 million people descended on Nashville. Kids got a day off school. Opryland hosted three days of special events. The baseball team invited 10,000 people into the stadium for a viewing party, then kicked everyone out to readmit ticket holders for the (big? hah!) game. The many, many rooftop viewing parties included one at the famed music bar Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, which reportedly charged $500 per person (including free drinks). The even more famous Bluebird café seemed unimpressed; for Monday's open mic night you still had to reserve online at noon. (As if.) They had nonetheless sold out at 2:30pm.

900px-SolarEclipseDiamondRing-corvallisOR-2017-08-21.jpgAfterwards, everyone had seen at least some part of "it". The most frustrated folks were the 8,000 people who had assembled at the Science Center. After clear skies all through the partial phases, a big, dark cloud occluded the show right before totality. "We didn't see the diamond ring, we didn't see the corona, we didn't see Baily's Beads," the on-site Weather Channel reporter lamented.

The bus stop woman was right - but she was also wrong. She'd probably only seen a partial eclipse. I now know that hardly anyone who has experienced totality - the seconds or minutes when the moon fully covers the sun - says "They happen all the time." They say, "Where and when?"

solar-eclipse-discarding-images.jpgIn 1999, when totality passed over Cornwall on its way to northern Europe, I was surprised to hear the astronomy writer Ian Ridpath say he'd been awaiting it since childhood. But in southwest London, even at 90ish% the dimming light had a glassy, almost sepia tone, and the atavistic thought, "What if it doesn't come back?" was unavoidable. Seeing just that much created an immediate sense of direct emotional connection to our ancestors, from medieval peasants to the ancient Sumerians, and their terror at not knowing what was happening. Legends from the earliest recorded solar eclipse, in China around 2000 B.C., have the emperor ordering the astronomers executed.

Here in 2017, we know. In Centennial Park, I recruited Pete, a passing retired Ohio journalist, to watch with me because I liked his eclipse T-shirt. He noted the absurdity of newscasters who cautiously said "expected at", as if the eclipse were a murder suspect whose mention required "alleged". Totality would arrive at 13:27. Were they suggesting there was mathematical doubt about this?

A few minutes after noon a cheer went up: the first chip in the sun was visible.

pete-shirt-cropped.jpgThe changes in the light are slow and subtle at first, as is the temperature drop, later reported as 6 degrees (Fahrenheit). In modern life, the first clear signs are often street lights coming on, as did those behind the Parthenon's columns. Having seen it once, the 90% level was instantly recognizable. The final phases happen fast. We saw all the things the Science Center folks missed, despite the late-arriving distraction of four people with a small dog who set up nearby with 15 minutes to go. They lit incense, and produced a large, native-looking drum, and proceeded to beat it throughout totality. Did they think their activity was crucial in ensuring that the sun re-emerged at full strength? Neither moon nor sun nor annoyance intervened to prevent the sun's return to normal, on time and under budget.

The agnostics, atheists, and skeptics among us may see all this as a persuasive display of science: it happened when and where scientists predicted, with flawless accuracy. But...

"Did you see it?" Replied one last accosted stranger: "It's amazing what God can do."

Illustrations: The waiting audience by the Nashville Parthenon; Solar eclipse (Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France ca. 1290; Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 320, fol. 196v, via Discarding Images); eclipse T-shirts; the diamond ring effect (via Wikimedia from Tuanna2010 in Corvallis, Oregon; Nashville eclipse T-shirt.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.