Au revoir Berkeley

I will be leaving later this week after 2 months here. I will miss the lack of rain and the relaxed lifestyle and high education level off campus (not having to teach or listen to colleagues in meetings certainly helps – I suppose sabbaticals are supposed to be better than “real life”). Yesterday I saw two full large shelves of mathematics books, many very high level, in a used bookstore, something impossible to find at home. Not to mention a shop selling only dog collars, nurses on strike, the local street people, poor roads, compostable plates and forks.

Two interesting Berkeley institutions are worth mentioning. The Berkeley Math Circle has been running for over 15 years, modelled on East European practice and driven by dedicated people such as Zvezdelina Stankova. It is tempting to try to replicate something like this at home, starting small of course. The Simons Institute for Theory of Computing is up and running, and promises to be a great venue for collaboration.

Reverse liaison

As I understand it, many languages are pronounced “incorrectly” in such a way as to make it easier. Liaison in French is very common: saying “les amis” without pronouncing the final “s” of “les” would require a pause or glottal stop. I have just noticed that it is very common in American English to do the reverse in some situations, and I have absolutely no idea why. I have heard many people pronounce phrases like “get off” with a glottal stop instead of the “t” of “get”, and also words like “button” have a break between the two “t”s. This seems very weird – why pronounce words in a nonstandard way when that makes it harder to say, not to mention ugly-sounding? I first noticed it in an episode of Dora the Explorer several years ago, and assumed it was an idiosyncrasy of the voice actor in question. But it seems to be very common, and I even heard a reporter on National Public Radio doing it today.

What theory accounts for this illogical and inefficient behaviour? Wikipedia tells us that it is not confined to the US, which I had known for much longer, having as a child seen too many TV programmes involving Cockney characters.

Open access in 2013

There has been much news already this year, some of it disturbing. The Andrew Auernheimer case and the Aaron Swartz case (which ended tragically) show that there can be serious consequences to encouraging openness. Luckily, the scholarly community can fix the current problems with access itself, given enough will. Governments seem to be realizing how important the issue is, and the Australian Research Council is the latest funder to enact an OA mandate (albeit a flawed one). It will be interesting to see how long it takes New Zealand to follow suit.

I have been invited to participate in the Open Research conference in Auckland, 6-7 February and am looking forward to it. It’s hard to quantify, but I have a strong feeling that 2013 is the year in which open access is finally regarded as a problem that is essentially solved. We can then turn our attention to the more serious problem of filtering the huge amount of free information: “traditional” peer review is not working well, and this problem will persist independent of access. A radical rethinking of careerism and a reconnection with the true spirit of scholarship is needed: the demand side of publishing must be addressed.

New on arXiv.org is an excellent article by Bjoern Brembs and Marcus Munafo – Deep Impact: Unintended consequences of journal rank.

Quality of open access outlets

The “gold OA” (pay-to-publish) model of scientific publishing has an obvious downside – in a market driven by producers, not consumers, some pretty low quality stuff can be produced. There are many organizations that seemingly exist only to part foolish authors from their money, with very low quality control and a variety of unscrupulous practices. They often solicit submissions by email. For authors, it is essential to consult Beall’s list of predatory open access publishers (and his list of criteria for inclusion in this list) before getting involved with any such outlet.

Reinventing Discovery

I highly recommend the book (published in 2011, but I have only just read it – it’s hard to be on the cutting edge) Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen. He “wrote this book with the goal of lighting an almighty fire under the scientific community”. His overview of Open Science, of which Open Access to publications is just one component, is very compelling and optimistic, without losing sight of difficulties.