Wednesday 5 July 2017

Making money from science

Up until about 1953, science could be considered a past-time for gentleman. Of course there were women in science, and of course there were bitter rivalries - think Liebnitz vs Newton on The Calculus - but the pace was less frenetic and there was space for other things. There is a famous (so famous I can find no reference to it aNNywhere on the interweb) anecdote about Ernest Rutherford dropping back to his office after hours and seeing a young researcher still working in the lab: "Go out and play a game of tennis, young man" he ordered. While I was writing, but before I posted, one two recent pieces on the scientific literature, two separate people sent me a link to a long essay in the Guardian Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? which suggests that something was rotten in the state of science. That essay is worth reading as a history of the transition from science as a leisurely pursuit by chaps who had a job for life (or lived on their estates polishing a really massive telescope) to today when life in science is a more relentless and unforgiving mill driven by money and published results. The key figure in the transition was a serial entrepreneur called Robert Maxwell who recognised, in a post-WWII devastated Europe, that a scientific journal was a licence to print money. His publishing empire Pergamon Press wittily adopted a head of Athena Goddess of Wisdom [R above] taken from a coin discovered in Asia Minor. Wisdom makes money, geddit?

The business model is a "triple pay": the government funds the research that needs to be published; they also pay the salaries of those who validate those results through peer-review and then they pay the subscriptions to make the journals available in academic libraries. Somewhere in the middle of this Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell are charging whatever they like to put the peer-approved scientific papers into coherent bundles and ship them to the World's libraries.  It is a terrible wasteful business because nearly half of all the papers published are not cited at all. Thus a mammoth publication like the Journal of Biological Chemistry might take up 2 meters of shelving for the 24 volumes published each year and some volumes in a given library may never be taken down to be read. Most of the 50,000 pages just serve as a fire-hazard and would be more useful as a nest for mice.

The thing about this business model is that the humble workers at the coal-face of science get nothing at all financially for creating the literature upon which the whole edifice floats. Indeed, they are usually required to pay a fee or page-charges for the privilege of publishing. For a brief period in the mid-1980s I bucked this trend and in one year period made an additional month's salary - about $1,000 all told - for writing two papers explaining my science to a general audience. I thought I would soon be able to retire on my money and polish my telescope forever but I never got a seat on the gravy-train again, because my subsequent research didn't involve kittens.

I spent the 1980s tooling around the Atlantic looking at domestic cats, noting their colours, calculating gene frequencies and testing hypotheses to account for the differences among populations. The cats of St Pierre et Miquelon, for example, look far more like the cats of Bordeaux than they resemble the cats of nearby St John Newfoundland. My PhD thesis analysed the cat gene frequencies of New England, Qu├ębec and the Canadian Maritime Provinces and used these data as a test of the historical migration hypothesis. That theory hinged on the primacy of founder effect - the first cats to step ashore in a previously cat-free continent got their genes firstest with the mostest and established the gene frequency profile for the rest of time. Hence the observation about SP&M and its mothership at the mouth of the Gironde. The story was a bit woollier but the cats of New Amsterdam York seemed to have a Netherlandish signature different from those of Connecticut or Massachusetts. I worked long and hard on the data and their analysis and wrote up a dry summary of the key findings from my thesis for the Journal of Biogeography. It has been cited 10 times, achieving a certain minimal - but way above average - utility for the progress of science. By the time the paper was published I was working in Newcastle upon Tyne in NE England.

Sometime in 1986 I got a letter from a popular science glossy called Natural History offering to pay me $750 if I would write 3,500 words about my research in cats.  One of the researchers at NatHist had read my paper in J.Biogeography!  I was flattered to get the call because that was where Stephen J Gould [multibloboprevs] published his monthly column This View of Life, the universe and whatever was floating his boat that week. I had an e-mail address back then, but such things were an academic rarity and the editor at Natural History definitely didn't. The WWW wasn't released until 1991 and Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers. Accordingly we communicated by transatlantic telephone and FedEx. I wrote my 3,500 words; a super-qualified copy-editor blue-pencilled it and took it apart; reassembled it in a much more direct and engaging form . . . and sent it back to me. I corrected the editor's science and sent it back to her.
They got some stock photos of cats on docksides [less creepy / threatening than the cats on Aoshima Island L] and kittens-in-baskets tortoiseshell cats and drew some swoopy maps showing emigrants from France to the St Lawrence and Spain to Mexico. I objected to their title Pussy cat pussy cat where have you been? because it seemed to trivialise the science but they won that argument. When it was finally published they sent me a cheque for a little more than $750 because I'd incurred FedEx charges. I was delighted.

A few weeks later I had an enquiry from Endeavour, who asked if I'd like to write something similar for them for £200. Less money gave me more editorial control and I chose the title Cats from history and history from cats. Endeavour was then owned by Pergamon Press, Robert Maxwell's going-exponential academic publishing house. It was an exception to the triple-pay business model in that they gave their authors a small slice of the pie.  My research paper in J.Biogeog. or these two secondary sources was picked up and reported by Forskning och Framsteg in Sweden and Scienza e Tecnica in Italy but I didn't get any money for those articles . . . because I didn't write them!

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