22 December 2010

Scientific publishing and tree-shaped frosted sugar cookies

1. Short and long term

“Short term” versus “long term” are locked in an unending battle in our heads.

Long term loses. A lot. Just look at this talk from Dan Ariely:

We discount the future. Even though I might be worried about my weight and health, it doesn’t help much when there’s a tree-shaped frosted sugar cookie in front of you right now. While I want to try to reduce my carbon footprint, I am still planning on going to scientific conferences.

2. Clouds are not solid

We are a society that likes to convince ourselves that we need to be mobile. That we need to be able to work and be in contact anywhere, even if we spend most of our time in a small number of physical locations: home, work, and the commute between them. This fascination with mobility has been fueled, and fuels, electronic devices: laptops, iPods, iPhones, and Kindles.

This interest is also driving a desire to move to cloud computing. Why store files locally when you can store them in online services that you can get to from anywhere? Dropbox has been nothing short of a revelation to my work habits for just that reason. It is absolutely brilliant in the short term.

But over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a weakness of cloud computing. Other people control your data. Not you. And they can take it away at any time. That Amazon stopped hosting Wikileaks is one interesting example.

As more people move to cloud services, there is every reason to think that a few private companies will control most of them, because they are the ones who can afford the infrastructure. We have seen over and over that these companies don’t always act in the best long-term interests of... well, anyone. Including themselves.

3. A tangent on romance

This reminds me of this post about dating profiles, and in this case, white women:

It's also amazing the extent to which their list shows a pastoral or rural self-mythology: bonfires, boating, horseback riding, thunderstorms. I remind you that OkCupid's user base is almost all in large cities, where to one degree or another, if you find yourself doing much of any of these things, civilization has come to an end.

I bring this up because it’s easy to poke fun at the idea of civilization coming to an end. In discussions about online publication, there is a strong undercurrent of, “This is the way things are done now. We have the internet, and we are never going back. Ever.”

Sean Connery can tell you that “Never” is a long time.

So maybe civilization doesn’t collapse. It wouldn’t take civilization collapsing to cause problems to a lot of people. There are several online services that, if they were to close today, could take a decent chunk of my scientific work with them.

If Blogger closed up shop, I would lose over eight years of writing spread across some 2,000 posts, and I don’t even want to think of how many words. And I’m vain enough to think that this would be a loss not just to me, but to other people.

4. Archival quality

Not enough researchers are thinking hard about archiving. I was thinking about this as I walked in to work this morning, and coincidentally enough, someone forwarded this article on Twitter. Here’s a sample:

You are a nanomolecular biologist who is attempting to find a cure for a new disease. You would love to get your hands on the computational research of those who worked on a similar strain of the disease back in 2010, but that data is no longer available. Although the computational power that is available to you is far greater than that which was used in 2010, much of the effort expended over the lifetimes of those scientists who committed their research to digital files is lost.

Ironically enough, you can, however, read Linnaeus’ hand-written field notes from nearly 500 years earlier.

As an example, I wanted to give some lectures on bat echolocation. I had seen Catherine Carr’s talk at the International Congress of Neuroethology on the subject, where she showed some brilliant videos of this. I went to her web page and found a list of movies. I particularly wanted to show the beam aiming movies. I was excited!

Until I tried to get them to play.

None of the ones I wanted worked. They had been encoded using Indeo codec, which was no longer supported by Windows or by QuickTime versions later than 7.5.5.

The web page had a 2005 date on it. So in about 5 years, this very interesting information had rotted into unusability.

This story had a happy ending. I emailed Dr. Carr, she had one of her students update the movies, and I was able to show them to my students.

As I’ve asked before, when was the last time you saw a floppy disc?

5. Acceleration

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that we should stay just with paper. The opportunities to learn and accelerate discovery are too tremendous if we adopt the new technologies. Chris Anderson talked about this (also in the January 2011 issue of Wired).

My short term brain – the one that has consumed way too many tree-shaped frosted sugar cookies this week – loves online journals, loves TED talks, loves all that he has been able to learn though this online technology.

My long term brain still has this niggling feeling that sooner or later, some online science publisher is going to go under, or some remote hard drive will crash, and take a lot of scientific research with it. My long term brain worries about making sure this information continues to enlighten, as it has enlightened me.

If you’ll excuse me, I have to send some reprints to the archivist at our library.

Right after I eat this tree-shaped frosted sugar cookie.

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