Buying PDFs: Commentary

This post was originally a comment on Andy’s post “Buying PDFs: Truth and Consequences” at The Open Paleontologist blog. The text grew too long, so I’m devoting a full post to it, even though it’s a bit rough. The topic is how much we pay for PDFs of published articles, and why this is so disproportionate to physical copies.

People who know me already know what my suggested “solution” is, which is to share as many PDFs with as many people as possible in order to help the publishers reevaluate their prices, however…legality prevents me from supporting taking such action. This is modeled after the philosophy of Downhill Battle: in order to get radio stations to play music beyond the mainstream (paid for by the record companies), we need to bankrupt the record companies, essentially by quitting buying music, or at least music produced by the largest companies who pay the biggest bucks toward keeping their music on the air.

I’m not sure if Andy has a citation for his observation that publishers like Elsevier that continue “to post profits in the midst of the recession”? Having someone play with those numbers a bit would be interesting to do.

This ends up being like gas prices. I get that as a business you get to set your prices as the market will bear, but the strategy of moving more merchandise rather than more expensive merchandise should always be something to consider. How much research do these publishers do as far as sub-fields go? As you say, hospitals can pay top dollar for a single article, but more paleontologists will buy an article if it’s cheaper (especially if they are unaffiliated), will be able to do the research they want, and will be looking for a place to publish.

On that note, I hope people continue to vote with their feet when it comes to open-access vs. closed-access, or even if some journals have slightly lower per-PDF fees. I’ve had the discussion recently about what “high impact” means anymore: nothing. It used to mean that the physical journal was available in more libraries and hence better-read and better-cited, but since everything goes to PDF now, everything (new) is equally available to someone who can do a halfway decent job of searching. This gives us all the freedom to publish in journals with whose practices we agree, rather than who has a wider physical distribution.

Things I wish I had time to write more about

Good news.

Related news, from one of the owners of Small Dog Electronics:

Start Soapbox


Fossil Fuel Free by 2018?
By Don,

I read with great interest about the challenge that former VP and current Apple board member Al Gore tossed out yesterday. He challenged the USA to completely shift its entire electricity production to renewable energy sources and eliminate the dependence upon oil and coal. Challenging the auto industry to have all electric cars in 10 years and power those vehicles with electricity powered by hydro, wind, solar and geothermal energy is not only a very ambitious plan, but it is an achievable plan that will provide immense benefits to our country. Oilman T. Boone Pickens (don’t you love that name!) also proposed a far-reaching plan to build massive wind energy capacity and has launched a big advertising campaign.

I have some experience in the wind industry as I started a wind energy company in the seventies and did a comprehensive study of the wind industry in the USA in the ’30s and ’40s while I was at Goddard College. Probably a bit ahead of the times, I worked in that industry for fifteen years and know first-hand that the potential for electrical generation by wind energy is simply HUGE. There is no technological barrier to Al Gore’s plan, the technology to harness renewable energy exists now, the technology to produce electric cars exists now and it really does only take a massive commitment on the part of the people to get it done.

The benefits are significant. We are now importing 70% of the oil we utilize and the world’s oil supplies are rapidly diminishing, prices are escalating (and they are not EVER going to come down) and the competition for this scarce resource is and will continue to be the source of conflict around the world. The escalating price of fossil fuels is hurting our economy, it is making it more expensive to commute to work, it is making home heating this winter an emergency situation and is causing the loss of jobs. Contrast that with the massive effort to completely convert to renewable energy. We would be creating thousands of new jobs, new industries and would be buying energy security for our country. Not only that, but we will be significantly reducing the carbon being emitted into the atmosphere. No longer will the USA be the barrier in the battle against global warming, but instead, we will be the leader.

I was pleased that both presidential candidates supported this goal. Now we have to get into the details of how this can be done. This must be a much higher priority than an erroneous war in Iraq that is consuming our resources, both human and financial! The country currently relies on coal for about half of its electric power (49 percent), followed by natural gas (22 percent), nuclear (19 percent) and hydropower (6 percent), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Renewable power accounts for 2.5 percent, although it’s growing rapidly in many states, especially California.

This is really the answer to $4 gasoline today and $10 gasoline tomorrow. We need to shift the prevailing paradigm and realize that with a united effort and an intelligent goal we can once again claim true independence. Al Gore’s plan is more than a remedy for global warming and diminishing fossil fuels, it is a blueprint for a massive economic development program for our country.


End Soapbox

Something I agree with wholeheartedly.

Something depressing.

Something expensive, but worthwhile (especially since we supposedly can’t spend any money on domestic issues until we get a new president, according to my AAAS updates).




This is actually something that I posted as a comment on another blog, but I thought it was worthwhile to post again:

My personal opinion is that we’re not going to destroy the world with what we do, but we should probably try not to (by curtailing ourselves from being overly destructive, etc.).

There is supposedly a paper that explains Kilimanjaro’s loss of glaciers as a result of deforestation. The loss of humid air rising up from the wooded slopes causes less condensation and deposition of ice on the cap of the mountain.

A paper in Nature is often (from what I’ve seen in my searches today) cited as the one that explains all this, but the Nature paper is actually a news summary of the work of Bill Ruddiman. I can’t pull up the references right now because UND doesn’t electronically subscribe to the journals in question.

I think this is probably a good answer to the question of Kilimanjaro, not because I’m skeptical of climate change but because the deforestation theory describes a discrete mechanism by which the ice cap would get smaller. It’s a lot easier to figure out whether a specific theory is correct or incorrect than to argue for or against such ill-defined terms as “climate change” that do not in themselves describe a mechanism.


I’ve been reading the comments to this blog post by an inner-city teacher for the last few days. The major discussion is about whether or not it is right to separate students who care about their education from those who do not want to be in school. Good points have been made on both sides, but the excerpt below (from comment 126) really makes sense to me.

Charter Schools aren’t always the answer. Children who have experienced gun violence, house fires, abusive parents, gangs, hunger – are not going to be able to learn whether they are in a charter school or public school.

We need to declare war on the inner city – not Iraq. We need to make our children safe, warm and nourished if they are to succeed in school.

The first step towards having an educated populace is making that populace feel that they can get an education safely. This is an American freedom: are the kids and adults in the inner city able to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or are they limited by the devastation they see around them every day? If you don’t see anyone around you achieving anything, it makes you think nothing can be achieved.

We should declare war on the inner city. We should make the entire country safe for our children. I can’t see any argument against this–when we have problems like this in our own country (people losing faith in the economy, people losing faith in the public schools, people losing faith in themselves, people losing faith in students because of how they act), we should act to fix them. This means eliminating gang violence. This means eliminating any sort of criminal activity.

It also means more investment in education. It means offering courses (with childcare) for people who never finished high school. It means engaging the youth before they decide that hanging out on the street corner is more exciting than Edgar Allen Poe, mitochondria, or astronomy.

Destroying the inner city means making people proud of where they live, not because it makes them tough but because it’s their home. It means enforcing building codes and keeping street lights prepared [In good repair?  2014-02-07]. It means making sure that our police force is synonymous with honesty and integrity, not with power and corruption.

This will take time, and it will take money. I for one am willing to donate that time (by volunteering and teaching) and money (yes, even if it means a tax increase) if we can build a country where everyone is free, everyone can feel safe, and everyone can get an education regardless of their circumstance.

UPDATE: Thomas Friedman is saying the same thing.


a brief answer to a comment

Anonymous says:

In order to expect data sharing, you have to be open to collaboration, yes? Just wanted to point that out. Science is ruthless in its own way, or at least, the scientists and publishers make it that way.

I can be completely opposed to collaboration and still expect data sharing. This does not necessarily mean that I will get it. It also doesn’t mean that I won’t. Now to address what you think you said: it depends on what data you want to share, and how open everyone is with it, depending on what the value of the information is to each person. If I found some interesting new metamorphic structure somewhere, there is no way that I would be able to publish on it or even collaborate, simply because I don’t have the background to deal with the technical side of things past an elementary level. But someone else could. There is no need to sit on something you find out of jealousy if NO ONE is ever going to get a paper out of it because of you.


Class rank and Admissions

Two articles here: the first is from NYT, the second from USA Today. They are totally unrelated. My comments appear before the article in question.

I think this is ludicrous–especially those high schools who are claiming that a low class-rank will hurt kids chances of getting in. People are not equal–students, especially, are not equal. Maybe I’m biased, since I got through high school and college just fine, but we need to accept this.

A point made further down in the article is a good one–that it lets the college see how the GPA stacks up in the school as a whole, because a 4.00 might be damn good at one school while sucking tailpipe at another. The belief that having no rank because of having a small class is idiotic–don’t you realize that you can never even begin to describe where a student falls in his/her class without knowing the size (and hopefully the range of GPAs as well) of the class? Yes, a class of 45 has a “top 10%” of 4 students–but if any admissions officer is focusing only on the percentile rank of a student, they should be fired. My class was 116 or so (anybody remember?), the size of which could have been the top 20% at a larger school.

Finally, if you want to make choices on based upon things other than grades, then do it! Just because the rank exists doesn’t mean you need to use it in the analysis!


Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges
Josh Anderson for the New York Times

Published: March 5, 2006

Application files are piled high this month in colleges across the country. Admissions officers are poring over essays and recommendation letters, scouring transcripts and standardized test scores.

But something is missing from many applications: a class ranking, once a major component in admissions decisions.

In the cat-and-mouse maneuvering over admission to prestigious colleges and universities, thousands of high schools have simply stopped providing that information, concluding it could harm the chances of their very good, but not best, students.

Canny college officials, in turn, have found a tactical way to respond. Using broad data that high schools often provide, like a distribution of grade averages for an entire senior class, they essentially recreate an applicant’s class rank.

The process has left them exasperated.

“If we’re looking at your son or daughter and you want us to know that they are among the best in their school, without a rank we don’t necessarily know that,” said Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College.

William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, said, “There’s a movement these days to not let anybody know that a kid has done better than other kids.”

Admissions directors say the strategy can backfire. When high schools do not provide enough general information to recreate the class rank calculation, many admissions directors say they have little choice but to do something virtually no one wants them to do: give more weight to scores on the SAT and other standardized exams.

But high schools persist. The Miami-Dade County School Board decided last month to discontinue class rankings. Jeanne Friedman, the principal of Miami Beach High School and chairwoman of a committee of principals that lobbied to end ranking, said principals thought it would cut down on competition in schools and force college admissions officials to look more closely at each applicant.

“When you don’t rank, then they have to look at the total child,” Dr. Friedman said.

The shift away from class rank began with private schools making calculations that admissions officers might not look favorably on a student with an A-minus average and strong SAT scores who ranked 25th or 35th in a talented class of 150 students.

But the movement has accelerated over the past five years or so, many deans of admissions say. Now nearly 40 percent of all high schools have either stopped ranking their students or have ceased giving that information to colleges, according to a survey released last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents high school guidance counselors and college admissions officers.

At Kenyon College in Ohio, 60 percent of the students who enrolled last fall as freshmen did not apply with a class ranking. At Vanderbilt, 57 percent of those who applied for admission this year did not have a class rank. Last year, 51 percent of the applicants at Swarthmore and at the University of Massachusetts had no class rank, as did 42 percent of applicants to the University of Oregon.

Many college deans deplore the trend, saying it forces them to either recreate class rank, make less informed decisions or overemphasize results on standardized tests.

That is because when a high school provides a student’s grade point average without giving class rank or other information that puts the grade in context, it significantly diminishes the meaning of the grade, Mr. Shain and a dozen other admissions directors said.

“If a kid has a B-plus record, what does that mean?” said Jim Miller, the dean of admissions at Brown University. “If a school doesn’t give any A’s, it could be a very good record. You’ve got to position the kids in some relative environment.”

Mr. Shain said the lack of information could result in judging the student more on standardized test results, something he said was counterproductive.

“The less information a school gives you, the more whimsical our decisions will be,” he said. “And I don’t know why a school would do that.”

While admissions officials emphasize the need for class rankings to view a student in context, the impulse to do away with rankings came from parents and high school administrators who thought colleges were failing to view students in their full context when they used shortcuts like class rank.

Sometimes students are separated in class rankings by a few hundredths of a point in a four-point grading system, in which an A is worth four points and a B three points. In the most competitive private and public high schools, the gap between a student ranked second and one ranked 14th can be minuscule.

Private schools in particular make this argument.

“Especially in schools that are smaller, ranking is something that could hurt applicants,” said Myronee A. Simpson, associate director of college guidance at the Ranney School, a private school in Tinton Falls, N.J. “Our top 10 percent of the class here, since we have 46 seniors, would be four or five students.”

Some high schools have other motivations for eliminating class ranking: to restrain cutthroat competition among students and to encourage them to take challenging courses without worrying about their grades.

“The day that we handed out numerical rank was one of the worst days in my professional life,” said Margaret Loonam, a co-principal and director of guidance at Ridgewood High School, a public school in northern New Jersey that stopped telling students and colleges about class rank a decade ago. “They were sobbing. Only one person is happy when you hand out rank: the person who is No. 1.”

“In a school like this, where the top 30 percent of the class is strong academically, it was unfair to all of those students who are in that elite group,” Mrs. Loonam said.

At some schools, including Ridgewood, officials continue to maintain class rankings in secret, disclosing them only when absolutely necessary, like when a student is applying to military academies, which require class rank, or when they are competing for merit scholarships that require the information.

When high schools do not provide rankings, the broad information they sometimes include about grades can come in many forms: a bar graph showing how many students in a class had grade averages of A-minus to A or B-plus to B; a table listing grade averages by deciles (which averages fell in the top 10 percent of a class, for example); and even a graphic device called a scattergram, which shows the distribution of grades by plotting a dot for each grade average in a graduating class.

That allows colleges to estimate where a student ranks.

Still, some institutions, especially larger universities, may not have the time for that.

“If we’re looking at a particular student’s file and we can’t find a proxy for class rank, then we move on and we make a decision without it,” said Martha F. Pitts, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Oregon. “The question is, how good is that decision? Have we made a decision that is not as well informed as it could have been?”

For some, the decline of class rankings represents an opportunity. “I think it kind of frees us in some ways; it enables us to take the kids who are a joy to teach,” said Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. “It allows you to tailor your admission process to what your institution strives for.”

But that is a distinctly minority view. Mr. Shain of Vanderbilt said an internal review showed that the admission rate at Vanderbilt was highest for students with a class rank and lowest for those whose schools provided neither a rank nor general data about grades.

“You’re saying your grades don’t matter and that you won’t tell us what they mean,” Mr. Shain said. “I think it’s an abdication of educational responsibility.”

Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges – New York Times

or some reason our supposed “advanced” society wants to make everyone equal when that isn’t possible–you just may not be as smart as the student sitting next to you. Wait. Back up. What should be said is, you just are not as good as school as they are. There may be a wide variety of reasons for this. I’ll even give the benefit of the doubt to those who had poor grades that they are good (or could be good) at something else.

For once, blame the student
By Patrick Welsh
Failure in the classroom is often tied to lack offunding, poor teachersor other ills. Here’s athought: Maybe it’s thefailed work ethic of todays kids. That’s what I’m seeing in my school. Until reformers see thisreality, little will change.

Last month, as I averaged the second-quarter grades for my senior English classes at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the same familiar pattern leapt out at me.

Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries — such as Shewit Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and Edgar Awumey from Ghana — often aced every test, while many of their U.S.-born classmates from upper-class homes with highly educated parents had a string of C’s and D’s.

As one would expect, the middle-class American kids usually had higher SAT verbal scores than did their immigrant classmates, many of whom had only been speaking English for a few years.

What many of the American kids I taught did not have was the motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the foreign-born kids.

Politicians and education bureaucrats can talk all they want about reform, but until the work ethic of U.S. students changes, until they are willing to put in the time and effort to master their subjects, little will change.

A study released in December by University of Pennsylvania researchers Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggests that the reason so many U.S. students are “falling short of their intellectual potential” is not “inadequate teachers, boring textbooks and large class sizes” and the rest of the usual litany cited by the so-called reformers — but “their failure to exercise self-discipline.”

The sad fact is that in the USA, hard work on the part of students is no longer seen as a key factor in academic success. The groundbreaking work of Harold Stevenson and a multinational team at the University of Michigan comparing attitudes of Asian and American students sounded the alarm more than a decade ago.

Asian vs. U.S. students

When asked to identify the most important factors in their performance in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese students who answered “studying hard” was twice that of American students.

American students named native intelligence, and some said the home environment. But a clear majority of U.S. students put the responsibility on their teachers. A good teacher, they said, was the determining factor in how well they did in math.

“Kids have convinced parents that it is the teacher or the system that is the problem, not their own lack of effort,” says Dave Roscher, a chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams in this Washington suburb. “In my day, parents didn’t listen when kids complained about teachers. We are supposed to miraculously make kids learn even though they are not working.”

As my colleague Ed Cannon puts it: “Today, the teacher is supposed to be responsible for motivating the kid. If they don’t learn it is supposed to be our problem, not theirs.”

And, of course, busy parents guilt-ridden over the little time they spend with their kids are big subscribers to this theory.

Maybe every generation of kids has wanted to take it easy, but until the past few decades students were not allowed to get away with it. “Nowadays, it’s the kids who have the power. When they don’t do the work and get lower grades, they scream and yell. Parents side with the kids who pressure teachers to lower standards,” says Joel Kaplan, another chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams.

Every year, I have had parents come in to argue about the grades I have given in my AP English classes. To me, my grades are far too generous; to middle-class parents, they are often an affront to their sense of entitlement. If their kids do a modicum of work, many parents expect them to get at least a B. When I have given C’s or D’s to bright middle-class kids who have done poor or mediocre work, some parents have accused me of destroying their children’s futures.

It is not only parents, however, who are siding with students in their attempts to get out of hard work.

Blame schools, too

“Schools play into it,” says psychiatrist Lawrence Brain, who counsels affluent teenagers throughout the Washington metropolitan area. “I’ve been amazed to see how easy it is for kids in public schools to manipulate guidance counselors to get them out of classes they don’t like. They have been sent a message that they don’t have to struggle to achieve if things are not perfect.”

Neither the high-stakes state exams, such as Virginia’s Standards of Learning, nor the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act have succeeded in changing that message; both have turned into minimum-competency requirements aimed at the lowest in our school.

Colleges keep complaining that students are coming to them unprepared. Instead of raising admissions standards, however, they keep accepting mediocre students lest cuts have to be made in faculty and administration.

As a teacher, I don’t object to the heightened standards required of educators in the No Child Left Behind law. Who among us would say we couldn’t do a little better? Nonetheless, teachers have no control over student motivation and ambition, which have to come from the home — and from within each student.

Perhaps the best lesson I can pass along to my upper- and middle-class students is to merely point them in the direction of their foreign-born classmates, who can remind us all that education in America is still more a privilege than a right.

Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.




Classroom etiquette

I don’t claim to know the right thing to do all the time, but at least I try. Most of the time. The times I go against the grain are the times that matter, at least to me.

In a classroom situation, what is the proper etiquette? Is it set by the teacher (professor), or by the students? We (at least in the US) are taught at a young age to raise our hands and wait politely to be called on, not to have side conversations while class is in session (interesting to think of class as either a court or congress, isn’t it?), and to look like we are paying attention. These are not bad standards to go by, at least in a formal lecture.

I think of “formal lectures” as those classes that are taught in large lecture halls and covering basic material. While having a great discussion of the topic is difficult under these conditions, I have seen it done in the past. The common denominator was that it was one of those rare semesters where a) the students all enjoy the subject (difficult at the intro level) or b) there was a very energetic teacher. In these cases, it is very possible for the rules of formality to be relaxed and those students who wish to be engaged in discussion allowed to speak without raising their hands, refer to topics outside the range of the course material, and occasionally curse at the professor. These exceptional courses aside, I think I will stick to general lower-level class etiquette.

The main drawback to having a large intro class is that the teacher has no feedback, generally, during lecture. In intro courses this is counter to the idea that you want to make sure everyone understands the material being presented–few underclass students feel comfortable asking what they feel are dumb questions in a crowded hall, so the professor has only his/her past experience to draw upon when deciding how quickly to move through material. Granted that this is outlined well before the class enters the room for the first time and printed in black and white on the syllabus, but going ahead (as long as everyone understands) is usually beneficial, as it accords more time for review between the end of a section and the next examination. As a student, I also have to say that those professors who stick to the syllabus tend to let class out early more frequently than those who do not.

So what is there to do? The professor, having no immediate direct feedback as to whether his/her teaching is effective, has to go slow enough (and repeat things enough) so that even the “slowest” learners in the class can at least have time to copy down what is written on the board (a pet peeve of mine, that very few people in my classes can take notes from pure lecture, but then again, I am a graduate student taking freshman courses, so I think I have little say in the matter).

What does this have to do with classroom etiquette? There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the old saying goes, but I, having never attempted to skin such feline, couldn’t tell you what the various methods are. The general feeling of each class is initiated by the instructor, and amplified by the students. I have had courses where we sat around for half the time and talked about life, before learning about stratigraphy. My current physics class is dry as a bone, since the professor tends to be very chalkboard oriented and sticks to his notes and his syllabus like glue. The point is, there are some classes in which you cna chat it up, and some in which you can’t. As a note to the girls who sit behind me in chemistry, it seems to me (and this is only my personal opinion) that you should stop talking once the professor has started, and not destroy my eardrums with your constant loud whining about how you can’t see the board to copy down exactly what he said only seconds ago.

you are the wild monkey of my dreams

[EDIT: This post is interesting to me, not least because my opinion on religion has subtly changed over the years. There’s no need to rag on people for being religious, but I do still see the need to rag on people who claim that religion equals science. 2014-02-05]

Yay! The retort to Darwinism (or is it evolution in general?) is best summarized as “I can’t think of a real theory, but someone must have done it.” This is from the same people who claim we can never know God because he/she/it is beyond our capacity to understand. Now, if you admit one thing is beyond your capacity to understand, doesn’t that open up the door to a lot of other things that just may be over your head?
Trial begins today

Of course, they obviously do not say ‘God’: they say ‘Deity.’ Which is okay as long as you don’t try to teach anything in particular, wink wink nudge nudge, say no more. If an Islamic group were pushing for this sort of thing it would have no chance of happening, or even a Jewish group.

Silly Christians. I get to talk about them because I suppose I qualify as one. Even if you aren’t you get to talk about them because (some of them) are just silly at times.

Anyway, I make my point that this is stupid and unconstitutional–claiming that an unknown Deity may have created everything is just as religious as claiming that God or Yahweh or Allah or Odin may have created it. Once you make a statement about a Deity, you remove the impetus to question the world around you and find out how it works, and instead cause people to start asking, ‘now what are the characteristics of this Deity, and what shall we call it?’

corn syrup drips down his chest, the color off

This NYT editorial almost has it right–but right now we don’t need to blame anyone. Let’s get the job done. Put a moratorium on blaming people, and fix NO [New Orleans, 2014-02-05] and everywhere else that got messed up by Katrina (hurray for my first Katrina-related post that has nothing to do with a stripper in Montreal). I don’t care whose fault it is. It could be Bush, it could be the NO government, it could be the friggin Democratic party for all I care. It could be the hippies or the glaciers, or even the elves. But pointing my finger at someone and saying “He did it!” never fixed whatever it was I had just broken.

On an aside, it’s really no one’s fault. We don’t need to blame people, we need to help people. 300 years of building your city below sea level on a coast that is repeatedly subjected to hurricanes, and nobody sees this as a bad idea in the first place? (this is what I like to call “blaming people who don’t care anymore). Seriously, to paraphrase what my mum said tonight, if Mother Nature doesn’t want a city there that night, then you had better believe it won’t be there in the morning.

[EDIT: Regarding the title, it probably refers to a movie we made for AP English at the end of my senior year of high school.  We used dyed corn syrup as blood (yes, that kind of movie).  Carry on. 2014-02-05]