The Wheel Turns

In the old days, academic journals would typically give you 25 or more free reprints of any article you published. They were exact replicas of your article as it appeared in print, complete with volume and page numbers, and could be sent to interested colleagues as a “post-print” advertising option, or given to family and friends (because your loved ones deserve  a boring, jargon-filled derivative piece of research material they can’t understand for Christmas!)

This practise has long since disappeared for most or perhaps all journals covering subjects with large overlap with the arxiv (one of the few downsides of the arxiv, as I will argue below). Reprints ceased to make sense: the free immediacy of the arxiv changed how people felt about preprints. The diets of researcher’s rapidly changed from a staple of hard-copy published articles to electronic preprints from the arxiv which could trivially be emailed to researchers who might be interested (but actually aren’t). Reprints and old-school printed preprints simply piled up on desks and filing cabinets only to thrown out en masse when people moved office (the dreaded clear-out!)

I remember very clearly how my PhD my supervisor, the wonderful late Dennis Sciama, would come into my office in the morning with a hard copy of a pre-print. By then I was reading the arxiv in the morning far more regularly than I ate breakfast, so I had almost always seen the preprint and had either printed my own copy or saved it to file, so didn’t want another copy. After a couple of months Dennis simply stopped bringing them to me and so, sadly, I lost a channel of chatting to him. Fortunately there was always lunch. Let’s hope Soylent doesn’t kill this avenue for chatting between academics!

Anyway, fast forward to 2013. Now if you want an official copy of your paper, you have to download it from the journal webpage. If your institution doesn’t subscribe then you have to pay, typically $25-$35 for a paper – even if you are the author, which I think is disgraceful. Now you might think this is irrelevant – typically the arxiv version has all the info. That is true, but in the last few years we have seen the rise of funding linked closely to bibliometrics and in South Africa at least, the government is now demanding hard copies of journal articles as a cheap way (for them) to be sure of the validity of authorship claims, to circumvent bibliometric fraud. Hence the arxiv version is not good enough.

Ironically now those free journal reprints would come in really handy. In the case of a book, the funding agency wants a copy of the book (for free)! In some cases, the online version of a journal is one or two years behind the print edition to encourage libraries to subscribe to the excessively expensive hard-copy version, and if your university library doesn’t subscribe to the hard copy, then you may have no option but to buy a copy of your own paper, just to prove you wrote it!

This was the amazing time-wasting rabbit hole into I went down a year or so ago when I tried to get a copy of our paper on Fisher4cast, our Fisher matrix code, which we published in IJMP since there are very journals that accept papers about codes. Not only did none of my three institutions have the print version, neither apparently did anyone else. Eventually our librarian, through some quantum process which appeared to involve tunneling briefly into a parallel universe in which someone actually subscribed to the print version, was able to get a copy. But it was tortuous in the extreme and I came very close to simply buying the article, which would have killed me inside.

What is the alternative? Well, journals could give authors a pdf of the final journal article with some legal proviso that it is to be used only for personal use, a bit like what happens when you buy a song or e-book online. As usual the complex issues around this, set within a much broader context of creativity and the impact of the internet, are encapsulated in a wonderful TED talk by Larry Lessig,  which I highly recommend you watch. When most people are breaking the law, its time to change the law…

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The Nobel Prize Randomness

This morning they announced the award of the 2013 Nobel prize in physics to François Englert and Peter Higgs for the theoretical work on the Higgs boson and mass-generation mechanism. My first reaction was one of sadness. The Nobel committee are restricted to awarding the prize to at most three people and in this case, perhaps much more clearly than in most other cases, this forced them to exclude deserving people.

On the theory side there were at least seven other strong theoretical contenders, namely Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble, who wrote an important paper independently of the others. Then there were the early achievements of Phillip Anderson and Jeffrey Goldstone, whose work was very relevant and the two Russians Sacha Migdal and Sacha Polyakov, whose paper appeared later after having being initially rejected. Finally, Robert Brout (who died the year before the discovery of the Higgs) co-wrote the paper with Englert, but the Nobel cannot be made posthumously.

On the observational side there were the thousands of scientists who built, ran and analysed the data from the two detectors: ATLAS and CMS,  who actually made the discovery of the Higgs at the LHC. They get no love from the Nobel committee. It isn’t hard to figure out why. They had only one slot left. Who should get it? There are many interesting discussions of who should get credit, e.g. herehere and here. Many would argue that Tom Kibble should have got it, but in the end the committee chose the conservative route.

My sadness comes from thinking of those who have been excluded from recognition, but much more I think this highlights an unfortunate aspect of the way we anoint with royal jelly certain people as “being worthy” and leave out others, in Nobel prizes and much more broadly when credit is given in physics.

The difficulties in awarding a prize and the randomness involved in who did the original research is beautifully described in the Nobel lecture of David Politzer who shared the 2004 Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of asymptotic freedom. The main theme of his entire lecture is the dilemma of attribution and I highly recommend it, especially to young physicists.

Tom Kibble himself commented that the work just didn’t seem that important at the time. This same idea is reflected beautifully in Politzer’s lecture were he says:

           “A key first step was to know the Yang-Mills beta function…By the way, Erick Weinberg was supposed to compute it for an appendix of his thesis, to carry out a generalization of a renormalization group flow argument that appears in the Coleman-Weinberg paper, except for a realistic, non-Abelian weak interaction theory. But, in the end, I guess he figured he had enough stuff to get his degree, and it was time for him to move on to something new. I had actually hoped we’d compare notes, but he never attempted the calculation.”

Yes, the Nobel prize for asymptotic freedom ending up going to something that was originally going to be an appendix in someone else’s thesis.

In this regard I like this parody that came out a week or so before the announcement of the prize in which it was “announced” that the Nobel prize had instead been awarded to the Higgs Boson itself. In many ways that seems fitting because we are marking a step forward in human knowledge, not who happened to submit their paper first.

You can read the original Nobel prize-winning papers by here.