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Archive for November, 2009

Victorian science laboratory

John Quiggin links to a veritable open sandwich of reports and articles on scientific methodology, particularly in the context of climate change. One document in particular, by Ken Baldwin and entitled When is science valid?, is very much worth reading (it’s only three pages; as they say in the ads in Britain: go on, you deserve it). What it does well is give careful answers to questions that, while very simple, seem to require spelling out to some. For example,

Does a media debate between two scientists contribute to this process? Not really.

The reason is twofold. First, a debate does not allow the full scrutiny required of evidence-based expert examination. Second, the majority view of expert scientists cannot be reflected by a debate. In a debate, one adversary is pitted against another. This does not tell us if the majority of the scientific community are sitting on one side or the other.

Nice one. I suppose that talk of civilization going backward has its genesis in the observation that careful statements like this didn’t use to be necessary—that it was understood how a institution fostering dialogue between parties both claiming to be scientific, but asymmetrically committed to the scruples that entails, is making heat rather than light. Except I wouldn’t agree that this true statement was understood before—that we are having to make it so now is the result of the great changes in the opportunity and reward system for those making comment about social, political and scientific matters; changes that have only occured in the last few years.

For that reason, it’s important that the ideas Baldwin advances here be evaluated and understood by as wide a segment of the population as possible.

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Peter Coles has just written a post on what he terms the ‘academic journal racket’, and rather than add a lengthy comment, I’ll write something here.

The rational argument for electronic editing and publishing is certainly made very strongly in his post. I would like to hear a scientist at a later stage of their career than me expound a little more on how the inertia of our current system should be overcome. The arXiv++ path, though undoubtedly fraught with complications, certainly seems to have a lot of potential—but how could the community of scientists be galvanised around it? Would Peter consider discussing this with the arXiv administrators directly? At least one cosmology blogger has participated in the shaping of the arXiv previously. Online petitions are very twee, but if there is a earnest desire for change among those making decisions about journal subscriptions, perhaps a concensus can be quickly reached acknowledged.

Two further comments: the arXiv would need to be further decentralised for these ideas to be tenable—if it became the Hauptbahnhopf for astrophysics papers, Cornell University Library would feel obliged to ask for contributions to the maintainence costs, putting everyone roughly back where we started. The merit of Universities having their own preprint servers, which Peter correctly derides as being pointless compartmentalisation, is that there is no mechanism for some party to feel agrieved over the burden they bear. In this vein, I contend that: a cheap, effective and rigorous publication process for astrophysics papers can be achieved with a highly distributed network of continually updating arXiv mirrors, all acting as entry points for papers that are then directed to editors on the basis of subject, assigned to referees, and revised and updated through much the same process that exists at present.

Achieving this would require senior academics to stop their departments’ current academic journal subscriptions, to wrest some control of the arXiv from Cornell and to design and implement a functional editorial system. I don’t have much more to say about the lattermost here, though I don’t believe that blog-style comments or wiki-style modification are senisble at the present time—it’s too easy to act in a rash and unrestrained manner through those media.

Lastly, and quite topically for Luke and myself, acknowledging that we can get by just with electronic copies of papers should lead some universities to acknowledge that the archaic ritual of thesis binding can be done away with. The cost is high and are often borne entirely by the student. Having a bound copy of the work for oneself is ‘nice’, though it amounts to vanity publishing (not that this bothers me)—but university libraries can get along just fine with electronic copies; distributing them through the arXiv is an increasingly common practice.

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