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Monday, 23 July 2012

Wait, what ?

I apologise for writing yet another post about science, but not a lot has happened lately it's either this or posts about Netflix. Anyway, recently I discovered that the British government is to make publicly-funded research freely available* to the public who paid for it. This should be a given. But alas, while the scientific world has reacted far more sensibly to the advent of the Internet than the music industry - and so we should, because the modern internet was invented at CERN - the publishing aspect of it is still a little bit Victorian gentleman scientist.

* Read this link, it's important.

Firstly, let's be clear - publicly-funded research isn't "freely available" at the moment, but only in the sense that you have to pay to read it - NOT that it's kept secret. The reason that you have to pay is because once upon a time, in a dark and fearful age of myth and mystery, there was no internet. People had to spend their entire lives making their own entertainment, which led to travesties like Music Hall, and we all know how that turned out.

Not only was there no internet, but there weren't any photocopiers either. The only way to copy a paper was to have your secretary make a woodcut of each page. Err, well, not quite, but with no long-range communications aside from carrier pigeons, the only way to find out what other people were doing was to either spend three days travelling by stagecoach to talk to them, or buy a physical copy of a journal.

Indians were a common hazard on the London - Manchester route.

Although paper does grow from trees, trees are quite precious, as evidenced from the existence of paper money. Paying for journals made sense - but no longer. I quote from American Scientist, which sums up the whole affair very well :

"The government takes tax revenue from citizens and uses it to fund university research groups and libraries. Researchers obtain government grants and use the money to conduct experiments. They write up the results in manuscripts that are destined to become published papers. Manuscripts are submitted to journals, where they are handled by other researchers acting as unpaid volunteer editors. They co-ordinate the process of peer-review, which is done by yet other researchers, also unpaid. All these roles—author, editor, reviewer—are considered normal responsibilities of researchers, funded by grants.

At this point, researchers have worked together to produce a publication-ready, peer-reviewed manuscript. But rather than posting it on the Web, where it can contribute to the world’s knowledge, form a basis for future work, and earn prestige for the author, the finished manuscript is then donated gratis to a publisher: the author signs away copyright. The publisher then formats the manuscript and places the result behind a paywall. Then it sells subscriptions back to the universities where the work originated. "

Scientists are neither as stupid nor as wealth-obsessed as those in the music publishing industry, and everyone agrees that the current journal model is a dead duck walking. Unfortunately, the duck is not quite buried yet, so things are going to get pretty ugly while we struggle against its feathery zombified corpse before it completes its ducky death-march. And that's why the British government is planning to make research freely available by paying the journals. With £50 million that would otherwise have been used to fund actual freakin' research instead.
NO, NO, NO !!!

This is the worst possible solution to something that isn't a problem. For starters, a lot of papers are already freely available - at least as pre-prints. More importantly, the general public aren't going to be remotely interested in reading the vast majority of scientific papers in any case. They're sure as hell not going to be capable of understanding them if they do.

Sounds patronising ? It isn't. The prime source of finding new reading material in astronomy is astro-ph, where about 50 new papers are posted each day. I wouldn't like to risk claiming that I'm capable of understanding more than 10% of them. Every so often I note down papers with particularly catchy titles and/or bizarre abstracts - here's a select few. Hopefully, this will give a flavour of the gripping bedtime reading that £50 million will buy you :

A note on unparticle in lower dimensions
Using the gauge-invariant but path-dependent variables formalism, we examine the effect of the space-time dimensionality on a physical observable in the unparticle scenario. We explicitly show that long-range forces between particles mediated by unparticles are still present whenever we go over into lower dimensions.

Dark Energy, Hyperbolic Cosecant Cardassian and Virial Collapse for Power-style Cardassian 
Tthe Cardassian dynamical equations are introduced generally and logically under GF fluid scenario, together with the flowing process of constructing phase space and differential dynamical systems from Friedmann equation. Hyperbolic cosecant Cardassian term is employed for concrete computing. The analysis proceeds in two cases, namely a unified description of matter and radiation energy density (case 1) and a separate description of matter and radiation terms (case 2).Formalism of case 2 is more exact at the expense of more complicatedness, and due to the mathematical symmetry of matter term and radiation term in hyperbolic cosecant function, the differential dynamical equations are considerably simplified. Phase space and dynamical systems for both cases are achieved. When we calculate the critical points for case 2, amazingly interesting behaviors of self-consistency and auto-normalization are exhibited, which is a strong support for the new model,along with a forever positive sound speed. The process of virial collapse in Cardassian cosmos is analyzed. Power-style Cardassian term is employed for its simplicity.Calculation declares that virial collapse of matter alone isforbidden. Yet Cardassian has excellent ability for virial collapse,after the virial collapse ending up with a stable sphere, the ratio of the ultimate radius to the original radius depends on the adjustable parameters in Cardassian term. And, the mixture of GF fluid and matter could conduct virial collapse, the ratio of the ultimate radius to the original radius depends on the adjustable parameters in Cardassian term, too. No singularity is generated. 

Holographic Cosmology from the First Law of Thermodynamics and the Generalized Uncertainty Principle
The cosmological Friedmann equation sourced by the trace anomaly of a conformal field theory that is dual to the five-dimensional Schwarzschild-AdS geometry can be derived from the first law of thermodynamics if the apparent horizon of the boundary spacetime acquires a logarithmically-corrected Bekenstein-Hawking entropy. It is shown that such a correction to the entropy can arise when the generalized uncertainty principle (GUP) is invoked. The necessary condition for such a thermodynamic derivation directly relates the GUP parameter to the conformal anomaly. It is consistent with the existence of a gravitational cutoff for a theory containing $n$ light species. The absolute minimum in position uncertainty can be identified with the scale at which gravity becomes effectively five-dimensional.

Does that mean anything to you ? Because it sure as hell doesn't to me. But just because I don't understand it doesn't mean I want to cut their funding just so a lot more people can fail to understand it as well. That just seems spiteful. For all I know, they could be doing something really useful ! Knowing what the coalface of science is like, I'm prepared to trust that they're not just spewing forth words in the hope that a coherent sentence will develop.

Although sometimes I wonder...

And here's an important disclaimer. Public outreach is a vital component of modern science. It's entirely possible that all of the above authors have some really awesome lectures or public demonstrations, where they explain Cardassian virial collapse in an engaging and interesting way. Yes, yes, they probably don't, but they might. The point is that scientific papers are not part of public outreach.

Which begs the question, "Is it necessary to allow free public access to scientific papers ?" Yes, of course it is, you dolt. The public paid for every part of it. What's more, while there are not that many people hanging about with an interest in gauge-invariant Cardassian unparticle power cosmology, or whatever it was, only a fool would claim that the only people who benefit from reading papers work in academic environments. But taking away public money to pay private institutions so that the public can see what they paid for in the first place is Bloody Daft.

Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel - and it's probably not an oncoming train. Already scientists are clumsily exploring the world of open-access publishing, and let's not forget that so much stuff is available for free anyway. If I had to guess, I'd say that within a few years someone will succeed in making this approach work really well, at which point the whole thing becomes moot and our wacky Tory government can find another excuse to cut public funding.

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