Thursday, 31 May 2007

Journal madness

A recent survey shows a remarkable disconnect between what scientists think the system of journal publication should do, and how the scientists act in practice. The survey, entitled "New journal publishing models: an international survey of senior researchers", asked 5,513 senior journal authors their opinions of the current system of scholarly communication. In one part of the survey, participants were asked a series of paired questions relating to journal publications. For me two findings particularly stood out. Firstly, on journal subscription costs. Participants were asked how much they agreed with the statements 'high prices make it difficult to access the journals literature' and 'I publish in affordable journals'. Only 20.7% agreed with both statements.

Of course, how much of a problem high journal prices are to you depends on who you are. As a researcher at the University of Manchester, a large institution with a library that can afford high journal subscription fees, this is not a problem for me at all. If I were working at a less wealthy institution, perhaps in Asia or Africa, access to journal articles would be a significant problem. And as a member of the general public, I would be unlikely to be able to afford to subscribe to a large number of journals. If you wanted to look at my own article on salt deposits in New Brunswick in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, it would cost you £16.85 to download it. This seems crazy, as the journals pay nothing for content and much of the reviewing and editing is done on a voluntary basis. Surely research work that is done at universities should be freely available to the public. After all, they have (in most cases) paid for the work to be done. If the point of doing research is to serve society, then what purpose is served by not making research findings freely available? While journal authors recognise there is a problem here, they generally do not act to mitigate the problem by publishing in affordable (or open access) journals.

Secondly, participants were asked how much they agreed with the statements 'too much research is being published' and 'I publish more than I ought to'. Although the growth in published literature was a major concern, only 8.5% agreed with both statements! So again, while a problem is recognised, journal authors themselves refuse to act in ways that might help solve the problem (i.e. by publishing less).

So why the disconnect? To put it simply, the system is broken. Careers in academia depend on publishing as many papers as possible, and in journals that have high 'impact factors' or high levels of citations by other journal papers. This inevitably leads to an elevation of quantity over quality, and researchers tweaking research findings to publish in journals with high impact factors, rather than considering the most appropriate journal for the paper.

There is surely an urgent need to create a more sensible system of scholarly communication. In the meantime, perhaps those of us who write journal articles can put more thought into whether we are contributing to the madness.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Recognition at last

It transpires that my PhD thesis (labouring under the title 'Structural geology, tectonic history and fault zone microstructures of the Upper Palaeozoic Maritimes Basin, southern New Brunswick) has won the Jack Henderson award. This is an award given out by the Structural Geology and Tectonics Division of the Geological Association of Canada. They give out two awards a year, one for a MSc thesis and one for a PhD thesis.

This is an honour, and I'm very happy about it, especially as it's really the only award I've won during my academic career (at least so far). Naturally, I'm also inclined to minimise it somewhat. I doubt they get that many theses to read in an average year, for one thing. I reckon it's a good job that I finished it last year, as this year there's already Stef's thesis to think about, and Paul McNeill and Andy Parmenter must be coming soon. On the other hand, it might the first time in living memory that a soft-rock thesis has won. And it is a prize that in the past has been won by such luminaries as Yvette Kuiper.

Apparently, the award will be anounced officially at the GAC conference later in the month. I've caught myself wishing I could make it to the conference (oh vanity), but this year it's in Yellowknife, which would be a long way to go even if I still lived in Fredericton. And do you really want to go to Yellowknife in May? It's no doubt still dead winter there.

So, I'm resting on my laurels a bit today, and might have one or two pints of mild later on...

Friday, 4 May 2007

Creationism in schools (again...)

Poor useless David 'Dave' Cameron showed up in the press being 'ambiguous' about whether creationism ought to be taught in science class. To be fair, what Cameron said doesn't seem horribly unreasonable: he said "Personally I don't support the teaching of creationism," but he added, "I'm a great believer that we need to trust schools and governors of schools to get these things right and I think that's the right approach." He said he advocated a "more devolved system" for deciding what schools were allowed to teach.

What worries me about this is that we would be likely to end up with the same miserable culture wars that periodically afflict the US, when some local school board in the bible belt decides that creationism ought to be taught in science class, as a competing 'theory' to evolution. We can probably all do without that, I reckon, having enough on with the endless attacks on civil liberties and ongoing foreign policy disasters. The problem is that the alternative to 'a more devolved system' is imposing a top-down curriculum, which is not exactly a comfortable option. But perhaps it's the only way of safeguarding our children from the cranks.

I also think that the scientific community is in danger of a massive PR defeat on this. I think that a lot of people fail to see why creationism should not be taught in science class. After all, what is wrong with teaching the merits/de-merits of competing theories? Now, scientists know the answer to this: creationism is not a scientific theory. The clue is in the name: any system of thought that has a ready-made answer for the questions it asks (in this case, God) is not science, whatever else it might be. In that sense, comparing evolution and creationism is just a category mistake. However, I think the message that gets out is the one propagated by those who shout the loudest (I'm thinking of Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists). I don't think it's a particularly brilliant idea for science to be seen as telling people that they're bonkers for believing in God. Now, I'm an atheist myself, but to me this issue has nothing to do with whether there is a god or not, and everything to do with what science is and is not.