12 April 2019

“Open access” is not synonymous with “author pays”

Wingfield and Millar have a well-meaning but misleading article, “The open access research model is hurting academics in poorer countries.” They say:

The open access model merely changes who pays. So rather than individuals or institutions paying to have access to publications, increasingly, academics are expected to pay for publishing their research in these “open access” journals. ... The bottom line is that payment has been transferred from institutions and individuals paying to have access to researchers having to pay to have their work published.

The first sentence is correct. The second is even correct. It is true that there are now more journals that require article processing charges than their used to be. Importantly, though, the phenomenon of authors paying is not new. “Pages charges” existed long before open access.

But they lose all nuance in the third sentence and commit a category error. They are confusing “freedom to read” with “business model.” These two things are not the same.

There are many counter examples to their central premise. SciELO journals are open access, but have no article processing fees. I could go on.

I am not saying that there is not a concern about the effects of article processing charges. It isn’t even restricted to scientists in “poorer countries.” Michael Hendricks, a biologist at one of Canada’s major research universities (hardly a “poorer country” by any measure, and not even a “poorer institution” by any measure) is concerned about the cost of article processing charges. He wrote:

US$2500 is 1% of an R01 modular budget. It is 2.5% of the average CIHR Project grant. It’s 10% of the average NSERC grant.

Add to that the vastly differing support across universities for article processing charges (ours is $0). There is no way around that fact that shifting publication costs from libraries to PIs imposes a massively different burden according to PI, field of science, nation, and institution.

The solution is that universities should pay article processing charges by cancelling subscriptions (with huge $ savings). But they generally aren’t. The only way I see to force the issue is for funders to make article processing charges ineligible, which will be seen as an attack on open access.

It’s real problem: library subscription costs are staying the same or going up. At the same time, more and more grant money is being spent on article processing charges. The public paying even more for science dissemination than they were is not what we want. Funders and/or universities have to stop this.

But looking back up to the counter-example, SciELO, shows something important. It shows that you can create open access journals with alternative business models that are not “author pays.” It’s unusual, maybe even difficult, but it’s not impossible.

That’s a line we should be pursuing. Not dumping on open access because people can’t distinguish between “common” and “necessary.”

External links

The open access research model is hurting academics in poorer countries

03 April 2019

Recommendation algorithms are the biggest problem in science communication today


Having been interested in science communication (and being a low-level practitioner) for a while, I recognized that there are a lot of old problems that recycle themselves. Like, “Should we have scientists or journalists communicating science to the public?” (Why not both?) “Is there value in debunking bad science, or does it make people dig in and turn off?” “Why can’t people name a living scientist?” “You have to tell a story...”

Having followed social controversies about science (particularly the efforts of creationists to discredit evolution) for a long time, I was almost getting bored seeing the same issues go ‘round and ‘round. But now I think we are truly facing something new.

Recommendation algorithms on social media.

You know these. These are the lines of computer code that tells you what books you might like on Amazon based on what you’ve bought in the past. It’s the way Facebook and Instagram deliver ads that you kind of like seeing in your feed. And it’s how Netflix and YouTube shows you want you might want to watch next.

I think recommendation algorithms may be the number one problem facing science communication today.

And of these, YouTube seems to be particularly bad. How bad is YouTube? Pretty bad, in that it is very effective at convincing people of false stuff.

Interviews with 30 attendees revealed a pattern in the stories people told about how they came to be convinced that the Earth was not a large round rock spinning through space but a large flat disc doing much the same thing.

Of the 30, all but one said they had not considered the Earth to be flat two years ago but changed their minds after watching videos promoting conspiracy theories on YouTube.

You watch one thing, and YouTube recommends something even a little crazier and more extreme. Because YouTube wants you to spend more time on YouTube. People are calling this “rabbit hole effect.”

It’s not just happening over scientific facts, either. Many have noted that YouTube is having a similar effect in politics, with many branding it a “radicalization machine.”

Reporter Brandy Zadrozny summarizes YouTube’s defense thus:

YouTube’s CPO says the rabbit hole effect argument isn’t really fair because while sure, they do recommend more extreme content, users could choose some of the less extreme offerings in the recommendation bar.

So we need humans need to fix the problem, right? Human content moderation is the answer! Well, maybe not, because repeated exposure to misinformation makes you question your world view.

Conspiracy theories were often well received on the production floor, six moderators told me. After the Parkland shooting last year, moderators were initially horrified by the attacks. But as more conspiracy content was posted to Facebook and Instagram, some of Chloe’s colleagues began expressing doubts.

“People really started to believe these posts they were supposed to be moderating,” she says. “They were saying, ‘Oh gosh, they weren’t really there. Look at this CNN video of David Hogg — he’s too old to be in school.’ People started Googling things instead of doing their jobs and looking into conspiracy theories about them. We were like, ‘Guys, no, this is the crazy stuff we’re supposed to be moderating. What are you doing?’”

Mike Caulfield noted:

I will say this until I am blue in the face – repeated exposure to disinformation doesn’t just confirm your priors. It warps your world and gets you to adopt beliefs that initially seemed ridiculous to you.

Propaganda works. Massive disinformation campaigns work. Of course, people with a point of view and resources have known this for a long time. Dana Nucitelli noted:

(T)he American Petroleum Institute alone spent $663 million on PR and advertising over the past decade - almost 7 times more than all renewable energy trade groups combined.

Meanwhile, scientists are still hoping that just presenting facts will win the say. I mean, the comments coming from the first day of a National Academy of Sciences colloquia feel much like the same old stuff, even though the title seems to hint at the scope of the problem (“Misinformation About Science in the Public Sphere”). It feels like the old arguments about the best way that individual scientists can personally present facts, ignoring the massive machinery that most people are connected to very deeply: the social, video, and commercial websites that are using recommendation algorithms to maximize time people spent on site.

The good news is that as I was writing this, the second day seems to be much more on target. And one speaker is saying that the biggest source of news is still television. Sure, but what about all the other information people get that is not news?

The algorithm problem requires a deep reorienting of thinking. I don’t quite know what that is yet. It is true that this is a technological problem, and technological fixes may be relevant. But I think Danah Boyd is right that we can’t just change the algorithms, although I think changing algorithms is necessary. We have to change people, too, beyond a “If they only knew the facts” kind of way. Because many do know the facts, and it don’t settle matters. But changing culture is hard.

I think combating the algorithm problem might require strong political action to regulate YouTube in the way television networks in the US were (and, in other countries, still are) regulated. But the big social technology companies are spending millions in lobbying efforts in the US.

External links

The trauma floor
Study blames YouTube for rise in number of Flat Earthers
Google and Facebook can’t just make fake news disappear

YouTube’s algorithms can drag you down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, researcher finds
Google, Facebook set 2018 lobbying records as tech scrutiny intensifies
Americans are smart about science

19 March 2019

The legality of legacy admission

In the light of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college scandal last week, a lot of people were complaining about university admissions generally. I learned that a lot of people:

  1. Think university admissions are hopelessly corrupt across the board, and that these cases were not “a few bad apples.”
  2. Are super grumpy about “legacy admission.” 

I knew about court cases  about affirmative action (including the current one at Harvard), but I got curious as to whether legacy admissions had ever faced a legal challenge, and if so, what was the basis for keeping it.

I found one case that concerned legacy admissions: Rosenstock v. The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina. This is the relevant bit about legacy admissions:

Plaintiff also attacks the policy of the University whereby children of out-of-state alumni are exempted from the stiffer academic requirements necessary for out-of-state admission. Again, since no suspect criteria or fundamental interests are involved, the State need only show a rational basis for the distinction. In unrebutted affidavits, defendants showed that the alumni provide monetary support for the University and that out-of-state alumni contribute close to one-half of the total given. To grant children of this latter group a preference then is a reasonable basis and is not constitutionally defective. Plaintiff's attack on this policy is, therefore, rejected.

The questions raised here are, in large part, attacks on administrative decision-making, an area where the federal courts have not and should not heavily tread. Plaintiff has not shown a constitutional reason for abandoning this judicial policy.

The court is saying legacy admissions are okay because the university can make money. And it’s not up to courts to change administrative decisions.

Regardless, I kind of suspect that legacy admissions are going to come under increasing pressure because they are, as the pundits say, “a bad look” for universities.

External links


Six of the top 10 universities in the world no longer consider legacy when evaluating applicants—here’s why

What we know so far in the college admissions cheating scandal

18 March 2019

The Zen of Presentations, Part 72: Hasan Minhaj is one of the best presenters today

At any given moment in time, there are people who are well known for giving good presentations.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, many people pointed to Steve Jobs as an example of what a great presenter could do. In her book Resonate Nancy Duarte says, “Jobs had the uncanny ability to make audience engagement appear simple and natural.” She points to the iPhone launch in 2007 as one of the best product launches of all time.

I often pointed to Hans Rosling, who leapt into people’s awareness with some of the first TED talks in 2006. Indeed, Rosling practically provided the templatefor what a TED talk was. Others followed in his footsteps for years to come.

But we lost Jobs in 2011, and Rosling in 2017.

But now I would like to nominate the person who is, I think, one of the best presenters of this time.


Hasan Minhaj.

You might object that Minhaj is a stand-up comedian, and stand up isn’t really a presentation in the usual sense. That’s certainly what I might have thought when I had only seen him on The Daily Show. Funny, yes. But a great presenter?

But then I saw his special Homecoming King. It’s stand up, but like many one person shows, there’s a strong narrative running though it. It mostly revolves around a prom date gone wrong.


But it’s not just Minhaj on a stage. He has a screen that shows a lot of images that are relevant to what he is describing. In other words, his Peabody Award winning special is a PowerPoint presentation. A high end and heavily disguised PowerPoint presentation, but it’s not such a different beast than many.

His Netflix series Patriot Act is less personal but more topical, and Minhaj pushes his presentation skills even further. In each episode, Minhaj does a deep explanation of one or two subjects. In science communication terms, Minhaj is making “explainers.”



And these are data driven episodes on somewhat esoteric subjects. You don’t see a lot of coverage of the Indian general elections in the news on North America.



Chinese censors, street wear hype, drug pricing, and affirmative action all come under the microscope. (In light of the university admissions scandal that broke last week, the first episode about university admissions is worth a watch, too, as Minaj lays out the the background for the lawsuit against Harvard about admissions that is being backed by white guys trying to destroy affirmative action.)

Patriot Act the only show I can think of that wouldn’t surprise me if it did an entire episode about Plan S and academic publishing.

Why I think Minhaj’s presentation is the best around right now?

Obviously, Minhaj is legit funny. But he isn’t afraid to tell niche joke. In one episode, he says something like, “I tell jokes for four people at a time.”

Minhaj’s show is committed to evidence and data. Minhaj says he has a team of researchers that help him look smart, but most shows wouldn’t bother. Most comedy shows would just be content to have their comedian mouth off whatever thoughts they have, maybe with some light fact checking. But Minhaj is not just expressing opinions. He’s building arguments.

Minhaj is concise, and has the ability to sum up complicated backstory in a few short, well-chosen sentence. Almost accidentally, this makes him fast. I sometimes think an episode of his show would almost be one of the best “Intro to political science”lectures on any campus, but then I realize that it would be too quick for students to take notes. But you’re not taking notes, so it doesn’t matter. You can just enjoy the delivery and flow.

And Patriot Act is filmed in front of an audience. While his monologues are obviously incredibly tightly scripted, Minhaj still pays attention to his audience. He goes off script for a few seconds to responds to them and interact with them.

While I said Minhaj’s lectures wouldn’t be too effective for students trying to take notes, I will be taking notes: not on the content, but to figure out what makes his presentations so good.

11 March 2019

“Crustacean Compassion” advocacy group gives one-sided view of evidence

This morning I learned of the UK advocacy group “Crustacean Compassion”, which wants to change laws around the handling of crustaceans in the United Kingdom. They are currently engaged in a campaign to recognize the decapod crustaceans as having “sentience.”

They claim to be an “an evidence-based campaign group,” but when I went to their tab on whether crustaceans feel pain, I was presented with a one-sided view. Not lopsided. One-sided.

All the evidence comes from one lab, that of Professor Robert Elwood.
Weirdly, the page is so singularly built from Elwood’s work that it even omits research from other labs that could be viewed as supporting their premise that decapod crustaceans might feel pain.

They present experiments that have not been independently replicated as though they were unquestioned. They discuss none of the interpretive problems behind those experiments. They act as though there is a clear consensus within the scientific community when there is not (review in Diggles 2018).

Their full briefing for politicians is similarly one-sided.

In science, single studies are not definitive. Studies all arising from a single lab are not definitive.

If you claim to be all about the evidence, you have to present all the evidence, not just the evidence that supports your position. Some of the individuals behind the group have academic and scientific backgrounds, but judging from their bios, none have training working with invertebrates. None have training in neurobiology.

While I have reservations about the information provided by their group, the part of me that loves graphic design gives them full points for their clever logo (shown above).

References

Diggles BK. 2018. Review of some scientific issues related to crustacean welfare. ICES Journal of Marine Science: fsy058. https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy058

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2015. Can crayfish take the heat? Procambarus clarkii show nociceptive behaviour to high temperature stimuli, but not low temperature or chemical stimuli. Biology Open 4(4): 441-448. https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.20149654

Related posts

Crustacean pain is still a complicated issue, despite the headlines

What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy
 

28 February 2019

When the internet fails, you feel gaslighted by the world

One of the downsides of living in a world where you can verify so many things with a single search in Google is that when you can’t do that, you seriously start to wonder if you’re right in the head.

For years, I remembered a song I heard when I was young. Because I was young, I don’t think I ever knew the name of the artist, but I remembered the chorus. Every now and then, I would go to Google and search for lyrics I remembered from the chorus.

I’d like to ride a big white horse
‘Cause I can’t ride with the damned
Or maybe drive a racing car
And steer it with one hand
I’d live a life of danger
Most any way that I can
‘Cause that’s the kind of man
That I am
‘Cause that’s the kind of man
That I am

And every time: nothing. I was back at it again today after an NPR interview with Michael Murphy reminded me of another song I remembered but could never track down (“Wildfire”). And try googling those lyrics, and I'd get songs from the wrong decade, sometimes the wrong century. But somehow, I finally found the right combination of search terms to find a top 40 Canadian hit:


“That’s the Kind of Man That I Am” by The Good Brothers! Even knowing the artist and title of the song, and Even though it was a top 40 hit on Canadian country radio stations, there does not appear to be lyrics entered in any lyric database anywhere.

Now, if I could just find a song from around the same time called “Shotgun Rider.” (And no, I don’t mean the BTO song. There are a lot of songs titled “Shotgun Rider.” Marty Robbins, Blue Jug, Tim McGraw...)

11 February 2019

The weekly science news cycle

In politics, there is constant referencing to the “news cycle”, which is generally considered to be 24 hours. The next day is not quite a blank slate, but things older than that are not “news.”

In science, there is also a news cycle, it’s not a daily cycle. It’s a weekly one.

The scientific news cycle starts on Wednesdays, with the release of that week’s issue of Nature. It continues Thursday, with the releasee of that week’s issue of Science. Love them or hate them, the papers dropped by these two journals in mid-week drive much of the media coverage for science – whether newspapers, television, radio, or something else – for the rest of the week.

These journals are well tied into the traditional news ecosphere. Journalists often have advance notice of the big stories dropping by embargoed press releases, so the most connected media outlets are often dropping headline stories about Nature and Science papers in the middle of the week.

Social media discussions are also heavily influenced by these two glamour magazines. You often see early reaction on science Twitter the day of release, and longer reactions (blog posts, for instance) before the weekend is out.

Friday and Saturday are days for continuing, slightly longer and more in-depth coverage. Many science radio shows (also available as podcasts) air on Friday or Saturday, and they almost invariably feature interviews with authors who had a publication in Nature or Science that week. I’m thinking of NPR’s Science Friday, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, and ABC Radio National’s The Science Show on (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the US TV network).

These are also days where websites and media companies that don’t have their own science reporters learn about stories from other reporters. A large amount of media coverage of science says, “As reportedimn The New York Times...”, not “A new paper in Nature...”.

Sunday is the day for deep dives and long reads about science. Newspapers and magazines often put out their long form feature articles or investigative pieces. It’s the day for things that “not news, but still important.”

Monday and Tuesday are reaction days from the some in the scientific community, particularly those who are low-key users of social media. They are the catch-up points for people who heard about some story that broke last week, but they maybe heard about it by listening to a radio show or reading a New York Times article. But they didn’t really tweet or comment about it because they weren’t at their desk until Monday.