I'm at the Force 2016 conference in Portland, which is about the future of research communications and e-scholarship. Clear communication of research findings is imperative for many reasons -- from persuading funders to support a project to informing the public about how a new finding can improve their lives.
A major barrier to clear communication is the "curse of knowledge"-- once we know something it is very hard to realize that not everybody else knows it too. Getting outside our own heads is, and will always be, a challenge.
To illustrate this Christie Nicholson of the Alda Center presented the enclosed two sentence description of a Red Sox - Yankees game in 2010. There's so much implicit knowledge packed in these two sentences, which we realized by trying to explain it to people who are not familiar with basbeball.
You need to know all these things to understand this passage fully:
That the Yankees and Red Sox are fierce rivals
What rivalry means
That baseball is divided into divisions called "innings," which are themselves divided into a "top" and "bottom"
That the home team bats at the bottom of each inning
What a home team is
What the object of baseball is
How the field is arranged
How the game is played
What an "ace reliever" is
What a one-out walk accomplishes
What one out means
How many outs are needed to end the inning
What "strike out swinging" means
Why this ended the game
And many other things too, no doubt. Whew! No wonder people default to jargon and in-group talk.
Making something truly clear to someone who has no context for it is hard. But it's not impossible if we consciously and deliberately step outside yourselves.
Charles S. Hirsch, New York City's Chief Medical Examiner on September 11, 2001, passed away last Friday. He was 79.
In 2001 I was living in Evanston. I must confess that I was not aware that Hirsch immediately led the charge to identify victims of the attacks, breaking his own ribs at Ground Zero in his rush to the scene. By 2005 I was living in Manhattan. One day I found myself at Todaro's, the inimitable deli on 2nd Avenue that is near NYU Medical Center. (I worked in the library.) Hirsch was on the faculty at NYU, and his facility to inspect the victim's remains was at the southern tip of the medical center complex. There he was at Todaro's, and we briefly struck up a chat.
The humility and courtesy of the City's Chief Medical Examiner was wonderful. Hirsch offered the usual apologies for never entering the library anymore, I offered the usual assurances that this was ok as long as he had the information he needed.
Later I attended a talk by Hirsch at the Medical Center, where he gave an update on his progress and offered anew his promise to never ever give up in his quest to identify the remains. He kept it.
Geoffrey Stone is out with a tart Huff Post about how the Senate Republicans should address the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Stone, formerly the Dean of the University of Chicago Law School and still a professor there, knows whereof he speaks.
Stone's main contention is that the "advise-and-consent" function of the Senate requires confirmation of Supreme Court nominees who are qualified and within the mainstream of jurisprudence. Garland easily and gracefully passes both of these tests. Thus, says Stone, the Senate should expeditiously confirm Garland.
Of course, the GOP is still refusing to hold a hearing on Garland's nomination. In their telling, the next President should determine this nomination because we are in an election year. Of course, Presidential terms last for four years and Presidential responsibilities are in force for the entire length of that term.
The GOP's argument is laughably pathetic. The real reason for the stall, of course, is to preserve a conservative Supreme Court after the death of Antonin Scalia.
In Stone's view, such considerations should not matter. Garland is qualified, Garland is mainstream, Garland should be confirmed.
I'll grant the Senate GOP a little more slack. Hold the hearing, and then vote to deny Garland a seat on the court. If he's so objectionable, have the courage of your convictions.
Over the past two years I've become quite fond of listening to podcasts on afternoon walks or morning work-outs. "Radio for your ears" has been around much longer than that, but I caught the fever a few years ago and haven't looked back.
All of these are great. But none really ask people why they do what they do -- the drives and motivations behind their best work. It's more easy to find discussions of process and logistics than philosophy and motivations. Unpeeling the onion to get to the heart of things -- this is what I was looking for.
Mine is a more humble endeavor than the power-houses cited above. I recorded and edited the audio myself rather than relying on professional producers. There was a learning curve, for everything from how to use the editing software (Audacity) to figuring out where to store the files (SoundCloud and PodBean). I envisioned an ever-expanding list of guests, but given the time commitment I have concluded season 1 after 5 interviews.
I would love to get back to it someday, once I have production support lined up.
The last week has featured dueling tweetstorms about the article processing charges (APCs) assessed by leading open access publisher PLOS.
First up was population geneticist Andrew Kern, who argues that the APCs charged by PLOS ($2250 per article for him most recently) actually props up lavish executive salaries rather than furthering open access. Slash those salaries and severely reduce APCs, says Kern. In response more researchers would pay those charges so their work can be open access, even when they have to pay them out-of-pocket. In other words, "chop from the top."
Michael Eisen, biologist and one of the founders of PLOS, responded quickly. Eisen agrees that APCs are too high and wishes they were lower. But he also argues that the PLOS board has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure a healthy operating margin for the journals, to ensure that PLOS survives and can continue to build infrastructure to support open science (which is more than open access). The CEO salaries are the going rate, says Eisen. He wishes they were lower but if PLOS went below market they could not attract top talent. Publishing is a lot more expensive than people realize, notes Eisen, in perhaps the one instance in which he agrees with the claims of leading subscription-based publishers.
Eisen also points out the rich irony: when PLOS began everyone said open access was a crazy idea, with no way to make money. Now PLOS is dinged for making too much money. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
When open access entered common parlance in 2003 -- thanks in large part to PLOS -- I echoed many librarian colleagues in hoping that this development would lead to much reduced prices for accessing the scholarly literature. Obviously the costs ended completely for end users. But hopefully they were also going to drop dramatically for institutions such as academic libraries, which have the mandate to collect and preserve this literature.
This was our naive hope back then. More sagacious observers could see that open access would not necessarily be a cost saver for academic libraries -- rather, the costs would shift from paying for subscriptions and licenses to paying for article processing charges. Indeed, for very prolific research institutions costs could rise dramatically in an APC regime. Because for all the good open access achieves, it does not end the "publish or perish" mindset. And if anyone else pays APCs, the authors of scholarly works remain shielded from the actual costs of production.
So over the years I abandoned the hope that "gold" open access would save money for institutions. This was never the goal, ultimately -- the goal was much better access to the literature, with fewer restrictions on re-use and re-purposing that content. If this cost the same amount as the subscription model -- even if it cost more -- there was a salutary and undeniable public good. Not only would everyone have access to the scholarly record as it is being created. Librarians would no longer have to erect elaborate authentication systems and lock-out mechanisms to keep the unanointed away from our networks.
And yet. And yet....
In all these years of advocating for open access, I have never had a good explanation for why APC charges vary as widely as they do. Nor do I actually know what the money goes for, down at the article-by-article level.
This is similar to receiving an undifferentiated bill for services at the hospital. You see the grand total but not the line items that produce that total. As Steven Brill reminded us with Bitter Pill (2013), this lack of transparency leads to grossly distorted health care prices in which the cost of service bears little relation to the services provided.
It is hard not to believe that the same thing occurs with APC amounts.
A few authors are motivated by altruism, many others are motivated the fact that their funders insist on open access (often with embargos at the moment, but that feels like a transitional stage toward immediate open access.) Those funders generally pay very handsome APC charges, as a recent Harvard Office of Scholarly Communication report demonstrates. In the context of a funder's overall grant portfolio, even a very high APC is pocket change. Motivated authors are connected to flush funders, who pay non-itemized bills for article processing charges.
In such conditions there must be some level of APC inflation.
This does not mean PLOS is nefarious, or is not genuinely committed to open access. But as a business entity too, the perceived need to ratchet up APCS beyond what would strictly be necessary (even granting the need for healthy operating margins) must be irresistible.
Or to put it another way: If Ubiquity Press can charge $400, and many journals on the DOAJ charge nothing, why was Andrew Kern's bill $2250?
Today we "sprang forward," that now late winter ritual (it used to be in early spring) of moving the clock ahead by one hour.
Yes, this is absolutely an agrarian holdover -- most people aren't farmers these days and thus in need of "daylight saving." Yes, it points to the arbitrary nature of time. There is no objective reason why our days are partitioned into hours, minutes and seconds.
I don't care about any of that. It was great to have a later sunset. For a while the sunrise will be eerily late, but before too long that problem will solve itself.
Although today's later sunset was wonderful, it rained all day long. In other words -- it was a perfect day to make soup. I pulled together a farro and cannellini bean soup (following a recipe, of course). Yum. And ample. It will last for days.
I was prepared to listen to some podcasts while the cooking was underway. I've built up a backlog and who does not benefit from snappy conversation? But then I realized that the A's and Giants were playing simultaneous spring training games. Podcasts can wait, you know. It was time for some baseball radio.
45 Years is a brilliant and beautiful film. Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are a long-married couple, suddenly forced to come to terms with the fact that Geoff had been engaged before they met. Both performances are amazing, and Rampling has been nominated for an Oscar. [Note: Rampling's recent comments about diversity on screen have been much criticized. On this score she is living in the world as it should be rather than the world as it is. Here I will focus on her acting and not her politics.]
The shock of the film comes early. We learn that Geoff's former lover Katya's body, missing after a hiking accident 50 years ago, has been found in Switzerland. Geoff tells Kate that he must have told her about Katya, but he almost certainly did not. Geoff and Kate did not know each other when the incident happened, there was nothing for him to hide. Nonetheless a secret kept is now a secret exposed.
I must admit that I still don't get what all the fuss is about, even though I love 45 Years. Pi Wen knew on our first date that I had been married and divorced before. Maintaining the pretense that life did not exist prior to meeting the person you spend your life with makes no sense to me. But apparently it's a thing people do.
Kate first plays it cool, but as the week continues she's looking surreptitiously for old pictures in the attic. Geoff claims that it was ever so long ago, but he takes the bus to the town travel agent in order to inquire a flight to Switzerland (which he does not take). Meanwhile their 45th anniversary party, to be attended by a large swath of friends and family, looms that weekend.
It's a tense, emotionally exhausting week. Kate and Geoff make it through, but are not unchanged. The glory of the film lies in particular moments; an impromptu living room dance, a sharp glance after an unwelcome remark. All of these are quotidian experiences freighted with meaning, of the kind that we experience everyday while demanding that the screen gives us ACTION. The action in 45 Years lies in the head and the heart, sweeping us along in its empathetic embrace.