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Open Access: Access to knowledge

24 Oct

“Access to knowledge is a basic human right.” Yet sadly as scientists we are often forced to operate in a framework in which this is not always the case. This week sees the celebration of the eighth Open Access Week, and whilst there have undoubtedly been many achievements by the Open Access (OA) movement since 2009, there is still a long way to go before mankind’s basic human right to knowledge is restored.

Open for business: The Open Access logo (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Open for business: The Open Access logo (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

So why all the big fuss about OA in the first instance? If you are reading this as a layperson or as a scientist at the outset of their scientific career, then you may be surprised to find out that it costs (often large sums of) money to read online research articles. Even if these fees are not being charged to you personally, the chances are that it is costing your research institution or library thousands of pounds/euros/dollars that could otherwise be spent on research, resources, jobs, or infrastructure (as an example, in 2009, Clemson University in the US, an institute with less than 17,000 students, spent an astonishing $1.3 million on journal subscriptions to the publishing magnate Elsevier alone).

Over the past 30 years, journal prices have out priced inflation by over 250%; but it wasn’t always like this. In the past journals existed for two reasons: as an affordable option for scientists to publish their work in (as opposed to the more expensive option of personally-published books), and as a place where members of the general public and the wider scientific community could find out about the advances in science that their taxes were helping to fund. Sadly, in recent times many journals seem to have lost their way on both counts, hence the need to open it up again.

Climbing Higher: The cost of journal articles continues to rise completely out of proportion to inflation (Photo credit: Association of Research libraries)

Climbing Higher: The cost of journal articles continues to rise completely out of proportion to inflation (Photo credit: Jorge Cham/PHD Comics)

The beginning of the modern OA movement can be traced back to the 4th July 1971, when Michael Hart launched Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works for free. However, it wasn’t until 1989 (and with the advent of the Internet) that the first digital-only, free journals were launched, amongst them Psycoloquy by Stevan Harnad and The Public-Access Computer Systems Review by Charles W. Bailey Jr.

Since then, the OA movement has grown considerably, although it is important to note that publishing articles so that they are free for all is itself not without expense. Despite the lack of print and mailing costs, there are still large infrastructure and staffing overheads that need to be taken into consideration, and so rather than make the reader pay, alternatives have to be found.

One alternative, known as the Gold route to OA, is to make the author(s) of the article pay for the right to have their research accessible by all. Many journals already require an Article Processing Charge (APC) to be paid before publication, and so some journals have simply elected to add an additional charge if the author wants to make their journal open to the general public.

The other main alternative is the Green route to OA, which involves the author placing their journal in a central repository, which is then made available to all. The journal in which the article was originally published will usually enforce an embargo period of a number of months or years that must pass before the published articles can be placed in these repositories, although this can often be circumnavigated by uploading final, ‘accepted for publication’, drafts of the article. You can read more about OA subject repositories in this article.

A sea of golden green: the availability of gold and green OA journal articles by scientific discipline in 2009 (Source: Björk, et al.).

A sea of golden green: the availability of gold and green OA journal articles by scientific discipline in 2009 (Source: Björk, et al.).

Both of these approaches to OA have their respective advantages and disadvantages, and normally research intuitions and/or funding bodies guide the route that researchers choose. The Research Councils UK (RCUK), for example, has a policy (which can be found here) that supports both the Gold and the Green routes to OA, though it has a preference for immediate access with the maximum opportunity for reuse. It is worth noting at this point that another key aim of the OA movement is that published research is free to reuse in future studies. This might seem like a fairly trivial point, but currently for any articles published in closed access journals, express permission is needed from the publishers if the results are to be used in any future studies.

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Top of the food chain: the top 10 UK universities in terms of APC funding distribution (Source: RCUK).

The major barrier that still needs to be overcome with regards to OA is determining who pays for the right to free access. At the moment many governments have a centralised pot, which they allocate to their different research institutes. However, issues arise when one considers the limitations that this imposes on poorer countries, institutes, research disciplines, and independent researchers. There is also the minefield of determining who gets how much and why; my own institute, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has only been allocated enough funds to pay for 7 academic papers a year via the Gold route to OA. When you consider that some researchers would hope to publish that many papers themselves on a yearly basis, there is clearly a disconnect. It is for these reasons that many are pushing for ‘OA 2.0’, an initiative in which articles are, in the words of EGU’s former executive secretary Arne Richter, “Free to Read, Free to Download and Free to Publish.” However, such an approach will require a major change in the modus operandi of almost all publishing companies. It is worth noting that Copernicus, who are responsible for publishing the majority of EGU’s affiliated journals are very strong proponents of the Open Access movement, and have been one of the leading lights in an otherwise murky world.

The sad truth of the matter is that many of the more traditional journals are now run as big-business, moneymaking machines, safe in the knowledge that they can get away with charging large fees, because scientists are still desperate to publish in places with a ‘high-impact’. However, if enough scientists rise up and move away from these restrictive journals, and migrate towards those with an OA policy, then the impact factors will soon follow suit (in fact, there is already strong evidence that publishing in an OA journal will result in more citations for your research). Only then can we begin to reinstate knowledge as a basic human right available to all, rather than as an expensive luxury dolled out to the privileged few who can afford it.

 

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

GeoEd: Under review

26 Sep

In this month’s GeoEd column, Sam Illingworth tells us about how teaching undergraduate students about peer review can help eliminate bad practice.

To anybody other than a researcher, the words peer review might seem like a fancy new age management technique, but to scientists it is either the last bastion of defence against the dark arts or an unnecessary evil that purports to ruin our greatest and most significant works.

According to Wikipedia (itself a fine proponent), peer review is defined as “the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field.”

Peer review itself is not a new concept; the first documented description of a peer-review process, being found in the ‘Ethics of the Physician’ by Ishap bin Ali Al Rahwi (854–931), states that the notes of physicians were examined by their contemporaries to assess if treatment had been performed according to the expected standards (you can read more on the history of the peer-review process in this article).

Even the great Carl Sagan found the critique of his work difficult to stomach (Photo credit: NASA JPL, via Wikimedia Commons).

Even the great Carl Sagan found the critique of his work difficult to stomach (Photo credit: NASA JPL, via Wikimedia Commons).

“Why do we put up with it? Do we like to be criticized? No, no scientist enjoys it.” So sayeth American cosmologist and author Carl Sagan about the ‘joys’ of peer review, in his book ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.’ He goes on to say that “Every scientist feels a proprietary affection for his or her ideas and findings. Even so… the hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away.”

Just reading these words brings me out in the kind of cold sweat that I normally associate with seeing the bill from mechanic, after having your car serviced. You know that you are going to have to bite the bullet, but in your heart of hearts you just wish that it weren’t so.

Love it or loathe it the peer-review system is an integral part of being a researcher, and given its prevalence it is strange that for many scientists the whole notion of it is a completely alien concept until they first encounter the publication process during their postgraduate studies.

During the first year of my PhD I remember being aghast at the notion that two, or possibly three, strangers would be wholly responsible for deciding whether or not my research was deemed ‘suitable’ for publication, and despite my otherwise excellent undergraduate education I had nothing to prepare me for the whole ordeal. Thankfully I had a very experienced supervisor who was able to guide me through the whole process and teach me a few tricks of the trade (always respond politely, compliment the reviewer for their suggestions, avoid the urge to break down into tears and instead break the comments down into manageable chunks), but even now I still feel a sense of dread when an email notification appears in my inbox telling me that “the reviewer’s comments have been posted.”

Is this how reviewers are perceived? (Photo credit: deviantArt)

Is this how reviewers are perceived? (Photo credit: deviantArt)

By nature I am quite a defensive person, and have been known to take criticism (fair or otherwise) rather to heart, but my experiences of the peer review system have certainly helped me take a more level–headed and professional approach to the critique of my work. Crucially it has also helped me to become a better reviewer myself.

Constructive criticism is essential in order to help one develop as a researcher, and indeed as an individual, but some of the peer reviews that I have seen (and sadly been subjected to) are nothing more than mean-spirited attempts by the reviewer to assert their own supposed authority on a subject. This kind of analysis is beneficial to absolutely no one, and it should be the responsibility of the editors and administrative staff of the journals and e-zines to help eradicate it. There is always something positive to be said about any piece of research (unless it is utterly nonsensical, in which case again the editor should have stopped it from ever being submitted to a reviewer), and being totally negative in your comments will only serve as fuel for a vicious cycle in which young researchers believe that the purpose of peer review is to find fault in the work of others. Instead, good peer review should be a helpful critique of a fellow colleagues work, which politely points out any shortcomings, makes suggestions for improvements, and praises what is good.

I will now be teaching my own university students about the peer-review system, and will be asking them to mark one another’s work throughout the unit that I teach on Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University. I think that most undergraduate courses would benefit from a similar approach, not only to prepare future scientists, but also to help students learn how to respond to criticism and how to critique the work of others in a productive and conducive manner. By educating and encouraging young scientists in this way we can hope to potentially avoid these kinds of reactions in the future.

Teaching about peer review at university can help to eliminate bad practice (Photo credit: Gideon Burton).

Teaching about peer review at university can help to eliminate bad practice (Photo credit: Gideon Burton).

For those of you who are currently reviewing a paper, I set you the challenge of explicitly writing at least one compliment to the author. This could be in regards to the excellence or originality of their research, the structure or fluidity of the article, or indeed the clarity with which they express their ideas. To those of you who are not reviewing a paper, try and find at least one positive thing to say (the colour really brings out your eyes, it’s certainly an affordable mode of transport, these scones are delicious!) the next time that your opinion is required; I guarantee that it will leave everyone feeling just a little bit more capable of themselves and what they can achieve.

 By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Apply now to take part in the 2015 GIFT workshop!

24 Sep

The General Assembly is not only for researchers but for teachers and educators with an interest in the geosciences also. Every year the Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) is organised by the EGU Committee on Education to bring first class science closer to primary and high school teachers. The topic of the 2015 edition of GIFT is mineral resources and will be taking place on April 13–15 at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.

The workshop will explore one of the most important challenges faced by modern society: access to raw materials, including base and strategic minerals, in a rapidly developing and growing world.

Mineral resources, the theme for this years GIFT workshop at the General Assembly

Mineral resources, the theme for this year’s GIFT workshop at the General Assembly

Teachers from Europe and around the world can apply to participate in the 2015 edition of GIFT, and to receive a travel and accommodation stipend to attend the workshop, by November 28. Application information is available for download in PDF format, a document which also includes the preliminary programme of the workshop.

Not sure what to expect? More information about GIFT workshops can be found in the GIFT section of the EGU website. You can also take a look at the post about the 2014 workshop at the GA and at some videos of the workshop videos from 2013.

GeoTalk: Meet Anna Rabitti, winner of I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here!

22 Aug

Earlier this year we ran the first ever I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here! event, an online chat-based game show in which school kids vote for their favourite geoscience communicators. In this week’s GeoTalk, Sara Mynott  talks to Anna Rabitti, an oceanography PhD student and winner of this year’s I’m a Geoscientist…

 

Meet Anna. (Credit: Anna Rabitti)

Meet Anna. (Credit: Anna Rabitti)

First, for those who haven’t been following I’m a Geoscientist, can you tell us a little about yourself and what made you decide to take part in the competition?

My name is Anna, I am Italian, and I moved to a tiny Dutch Island in the North Sea almost five years ago (after getting my masters in Physics) to work on my PhD project in physical oceanography at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ.

My PhD project is about internal waves in the equatorial ocean, and how they may interact with the peculiar ocean dynamics at the equator. I use observations of current speed, temperature and salinity from the deep equatorial Atlantic, as well as other analytical tools to find out more about internal waves in confined basins. In the last year I have been also involved in a big European project called MIDAS, helping to characterise the oceanographic conditions of sites that could suitable for deep-sea mining.

I have always liked to share the things I learn and work with people who are not directly involved in science – I see it as compelling responsibility to society. However in the last few years it has been very difficult for me to fulfil this desire as I live in a foreign country whose language I do not really master.

That is why, when I saw the I’m a Geoscientist initiative advertised by the EGU, I did not hesitate to apply for it. It is in English, you can do it from your office, and it gives you the opportunity to be in contact with many kids and teachers from different countries. It is really a great educational experience, for all sides.

Have you done any geoscience outreach before?

In the past, I have been involved in initiatives to promote scientific thinking as a tool that every citizen can use to make conscious social and economic choices. However, I have never really focused only on geoscience before. So far, my experience has been limited to classic public debates and workshops and I’m a Geoscientist was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to interact with so many people through online chats and forums.

What was your toughest question during the competition and how did you respond?

Any of the questions that involved ethical or moral choices. For example this one: “Don’t you think that if a person was to cut a whole tree off, then they have to plant 10 more trees so that the levels of global warming can decrease?”

I am sure that this was asked with the best intentions, and that the student asking this was really willing to positively act to mitigate human induced climate change. However, I found it hard to explain the importance of reconsidering our attitude towards the exploitation of natural resources.

Why, first of all, did the person cut that tree? We are experiencing a very difficult time in human history, when access to resources like fossil fuels and water are the causes of social and economic tension. By the time those ten trees have grown, it might be too late to change our habits. These are very delicate and important issues. Explaining them is crucial, since the actual situation is definitely asking for immediate action, but is also very challenging – especially when you do not have your audience in front of you and you cannot appreciate their reaction immediately. I really hope I succeeded in communicating the urgency of the issue, without scaring the students too much.

What was the question you appreciated the most?

We received so many good questions from the students, some of them very challenging, from life on our (and other) planets to what it is like to travel at the speed of light; from the role of waves in the ocean to the mitigation of earthquake hazards. However, if I have to pick one, I guess I will vote for “How do you know what it is inside of our planet, if no one has ever been there? Suppositions?”.

I find it a very direct and honest question, driven by pure scientific curiosity – I see a brilliant scientific mind behind it!

Among the non-scientific questions we received, I would definitely go for the question asking if Atlantis ever existed. There’s been no scientific proof of Atlantis so far, but my advice is to keep an eye open when sailing on the Atlantic Ocean… you never know what you might find! Students need to know that scientists are allowed to have dreams too.

The ferry between Den Helder and the island of Texel, where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ, is located. The ferry is equipped with scientific instruments measuring, at each crossing, several properties of the water: temperature and salinity via the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth sensor), velocity via the two ADCPs (Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers) and colour of the sea and sky via the on-board radiometers. Data are then displayed in real time to all passengers thanks to two screens on the main deck. (Credit: Eric Wagemaakers)

The ferry between Den Helder and the island of Texel, where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ, is located. The ferry is equipped with scientific instruments measuring, at each crossing, several properties of the water: temperature and salinity via the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth sensor), velocity via the two ADCPs (Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers) and colour of the sea and sky via the on-board radiometers. Data are then displayed in real time to all passengers thanks to two screens on the main deck. (Credit: Eric Wagemaakers)

You’re the lucky winner of 500 euros, how do you hope to spend it?

The island where my research institute (NIOZ) is located and the mainland are connected with a ferry service that sails every half hour. Since 1998 the ferry has been equipped with scientific instruments that take measurements of current velocity, temperature, salinity and other parameters of the water, such as suspended matter and chlorophyll content, every time the ship crosses the channel. These data are used by my colleagues here at the institute to monitor and understand the delicate ecosystem of the Dutch Wadden Sea, but they are also displayed in real time to passengers on two huge screens.

The institute’s other scientific activities are also shown, as well as pictures taken during research cruises or laboratory or field experiments – I think this is a very effective outreach activity, since it shows citizens, locals and tourists that someone is studying the sea right there, and right then, and that they can be proud of having such an institute on this tiny island.

Highlights of scientific findings are shown to the public with simple pictures: once on dry land, they will perhaps think about the science behind waves, seals, local fish and seaweed, and about the delicate balance that links all these elements together.

Back to the prize. In late 2015 a new ship will start sailing along with the old one. Building a big ship, as you can imagine, takes a lot of time, and we are already planning which instruments, display screens and facilities will be put on board, continuing and improving this precious time series. I thought to add the prize to the money already invested for the scientific equipment on the upcoming new ferry. Unfortunately, no oceanographic instrument can be purchased with 500 euros (they are expensive!), but a new, possibly interactive way to display the measurements to the passengers (an extra screen? An interactive tablet to surf the real time data?) could work.

What’s your top tip for aspiring geoscientists?

Being at the beginning of my career, I consider myself an aspiring geoscientist too, therefore a tip, but also a reminder to myself, could be: being a (geo)scientist is a job like many others, so be professional and make sure you are treated professionally. Being passionate about what you do as a job is sometimes dangerous, because the line between hobby and job gets blurred, and you are likely to give up some work rights with the excuse of “doing what you like”.

It is important then to remember that being a good scientist is a challenging task, it requires time, imagination and discipline (and, often, money). It follows that good working conditions and at least some job security are at the base of good science, but these things are aren’t always available in the academic system. It is the responsibility of the whole scientific community to improve this situation, not only for the scientists of today, but also for those aspiring (geo)scientists that will make up the community tomorrow.

Would you recommend taking part to I’m a Geoscientist to your colleagues?

Sure, no doubt about it! If you are interested in scientific outreach and in the interaction between science and society, I think I’m a Geoscientist can be a very good starting point: it asks you for only two weeks of your time, and a few hours per day, and you do not have to move from your office.

In turn, it gives you the opportunity to interact with many students and teachers from all over the world, as well as with the other scientists taking part to the initiative, and helps you to form opinions about so many different topics that you will surely learn a lot yourself. I would definitely recommend it to scientists of all ages: I think students would also largely benefit from the interaction with scientists at different stages of their careers.

By Sara Mynott, former EGU Communications Officer, as of September Phd student in marine biology at the University of Exeter.

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