Rupert Murdoch is a Socialist?

Well, compared to academic publishers, according to this story from the Guardian. (Fuller version here. )

“Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a Keep Out sign on the gates.
You might resent Murdoch’s paywall policy, in which he charges £1 for 24 hours of access to the Times and Sunday Times. But at least in that period you can read and download as many articles as you like. Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50″
Monbiot goes on:
“Of course, you could go into the library (if it still exists). But they too have been hit by cosmic fees. The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792(5). Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I’ve seen, Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930(6). Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets(7), which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities’ costs, which are being passed to their students.
Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.
The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating-profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2 billion)(8). They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles(9).”
What I wonder is how much this cost is really being transmitted to students? Is this actually a factor in driving up tuition costs? My guess is no, as from what I understand college tuition prices are mostly speaking to people’s desire for luxury items – by increasing the price tag, your college becomes more desirable to attend. Extra funds go to endless building projects, fancy gyms, and the like. (Unfortunately, this means some students will be pampered for four years but then be faced with crippling loans.) In short, I don’t think the academic publishers are to blame for this issue. 
The greater crime to me seems to be putting publicly-funded research behind a paywall. I wouldn’t say that the academic publishers are “evil,” more that they are taking advantage of the economics. They certainly share part of the blame for making the research out of reach, but no one is keeping them from doing so. 
Some open-access journals and websites are expanding. Scientist could choose to take action and only publish their work in these, perhaps inspiring others to leave the publishers. This would eventually increase the prestige of the open journals, create demand for new ones, and weaken the publishers’ grips. But currently in the natural sciences, there are several thousand journals compared to the paltry handful of open sites. Unfortunately, most scientists simply have to publish in the journals for sheer mathematical reasons. It seems a top-down solution is needed, since the economic drivers are not there yet. How about publicly-funded journals to complement the publicly-funded research? 

Good Science Explaining =/= Good Science Writing

“The general public is pretty intimidated by science since it sounds like homework. It’s not fun. The biggest reason science isn’t accessible is that it’s boring. Not inherently boring, but people want stories. We’re a storytelling species. This is a book about a family, losing a mother, scientists doing research. There are characters. It takes work to read science, but when there’s a story you don’t care. It’s like taking medicine with something that tastes good. Storytelling shows people why it’s relevant to them—everyone out there has benefited from the research done with HeLa cells.”

This is the mantra I repeat to myself when I’m teaching, and have been working on getting better at this in technical and popular science writing as well. The good explanation is not good enough to excite the reader to read, unless the reader already so deep down the rabbit hole of the discipline he or she can appreciate it. 

Political Scientists

I’m going to be catching up on responding to articles I’ve had a chance to read in the last year, but haven’t had a chance to properly digest. This article by one of my instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, Cory Dean, is spot on:

“In a telephone interview, Dr. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who retired this year, said he thinks a kind of “reverse snobbery” keeps researchers out of public life. “You have these professors struggling to write their $30,000 grant applications at the same time there are people they would never accept in their research groups making $100-million decisions in the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy,” he said. He said it was “shortsighted” of the science and engineering community not to encourage “some of their best and brightest” into public life.”

All too true. And scientists have other gifts, aside from technical expertise, sorely lacking in the political sphere: patience. Scientists have the ability to see nuance in arguments – an argument is not necessarily wrong because it comes from the other side of the aisle. Further arguments are multi-faceted, and one part of an argument could be wrong, part could be right, and part live in the “we don’t have evidence” land. Speaking of evidence, scientists love finding the facts, and are patient in getting to the bottom of them. The oft-true stereotype of a political campaign: truthiness.

“Alan I. Leshner, a psychologist who heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agreed. He recalled learning as a young scientist in the 1960s that people who engaged in issues outside the lab “were wasting time and a sellout.” Young researchers today want their work to be “relevant, useful and used,” he said, but “they still get that message from their mentors.”

In other words, as long as your doing your fair share in the lab, do what you want! Just realize your advisor might grumble a bit. But it doesn’t mean they will ruin your career or even give you a lukewarm recommendation. If you keep up with your passions outside of research, some might even begin to admire it.

And on a similar note:

“Some researchers are concerned that if they leave the lab, even briefly, they will never be able to pick up the thread of their technical careers. But Dr. Foster said he had had no shortage of interesting job opportunities in science after his two years in Congress. And, he added, such risks were built into public service.”