Thursday 7 March 2019

UC dumps Elsevier

Word on the Vox street is that U.California has just broken off negotiations with Elsevier to save themselves a) being gouged b) $10,000,000.  UC is BIG: employing 180K staff and educating 240K students who all need access to the latest research if they are to stay in the University Rankings. Elsevier is the, originally Dutch now SolarSystem, academic publisher which everyone loves to hate. Commentary from MeFi. Thoughtful and measured bloborant from last October. Earlier musings on the process of academic publishing - reprints - getting paid to publish - nostalgia for current contents.

If you're not afraid of weeping check out this documentary on Aaron Swartz [who he?] the tragic hero of Free The Literature. If We-the-Academics could park the competition and engage in some collective bargaining then it should be possible to put these barky and demanding publishers back in their kennels [that's a riff on the tail wagging the dog metaphor]

Part of the problem is the drive for accountability, The Man can't just let academics off to beaver away at what they think is interesting. There has to be some sort of deliverable at the end of it. Ideally a well-honed mind which can inculcate thinking skills in younger men and women. It didn't used to matter what the Prof studied, so long as it was not obvious to all thinking people:
it's the process: assembling data; appropriate analysis; useful summary; dissemination of results. That process inspired as it was transmitted to students sitting at the feet of the Master (it used to be almost exclusively blokes). If something tangible came from the process - a new vaccine; a new communication medium; a new variety of rice - that was a bonus.

In my lifetime it's come down using money as the metric. My PhD generated a bunch data and analysed it all and cost . . . maybe $2,000 in consumables - mostly shoe-string travel. About 90% of that was covered by me and The Gaffer. I skilled up through the project:
  • taught myself how to program a mainframe computer
  • mastered the tools of multivariate statistics
  • read a lot of books and papers
  • dug deep in the history of colonial New England
  • developed a critical appreciation of meat-loaf and American diners
That sort of project would have little credibility now because the institution expects their cut of the grant money - to keep the lights on, the toilets cleaned and the lawns mowed. I'm sure that's one of the reasons why molecular biology has experienced a relentless rise and rise. It's so expensive to run a modern molecular laboratory so you need grant money - BIG grant money - to make any sort of progress. We got through €1million+ investigating the immune response of chickens Gallus gallus to Campylobacter jejuni. Those expensive baby-steps still left us a long way from preventing Campylobacter-induced food-poisoning from dodgy chicken goujons. But UCD was delighted because they got 20% 'overheads'. When a new lectureship was floated in the Genetics Department in 1993, the key selection criterion was not who is the smartest, the best teacher, or the most interesting public intellectual but "who will bring in the biggest tranche of grant money?"  Pathetic really.

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