Trying to catch up on what’s been happening since Feb. 6 has been a job. I have had to scour through a number of sites and and try to pick out the most interesting and most to the point of our forum here. One thing on The Scholarly Kitchen did jump out at me. A new version of something called E-PUB 3 has been released. This is a format in which digital materials can be composed and released. Prepared by the International Digital Publishing Forum ((IDPF), EPUB 3 was launched as a platform for digital books, some 16 months ago. But the version 3 release has features which may prompt some journal publishers to consider this specification for distributing scholarly articles. If the new format gains any following, it will be at the expense of the venerable PDF format, which has pretty much owned the place for a while and was viewed as some kind of ultimate, at least by some people. Alas, the twenty years we have just rocketed through have certainly proved that ‘ultimates’ of any kind don’t last very long. All early days yet. But it’s worth keeping an eye on this newcomer.
Elsevier is in the view of some that ‘roaring lion, seeking whom he devour; as the Scripture puts it. The tender gazelle being stalked is Mendeley, described as a science sharing social network. A number of these have sprung up over the years, but some of the earlier offerings are being wound up or incorporated into other packages. CONNOTEA and UNIphy have already shuttered or are about to. One of the hottest tickets in this market is a package called Mendeley, which claims to have a very large number of associated scientist members, and its representatives have been very active in calling on scientists to join up. All these scientific social networks offer the opportunity to ‘share’ materials with others. In some cases, publishers have watching with slitted eyes as this sharing seems to have skated close to the line of unauthorized distribution of copyrighted documents. A scribe for The Scholarly Kitchen notes these and other points about science social networks in general and Mendeley in particular as part of a longer post on what has come as a kind of mini bombshell, if you can have one of those. Earlier in the week, there was an announcement that Elsevier and Mendeley were deep in discussion about an acquisition. Elsevier was said to be offering 100 million USD for the company, which would become part of the publishing giant’s stable of products and services. It’s not entirely clear how the announcement came about and even whether it’s accurate. Some comments in the Kitchen post express doubts about the price, for one thing, which is considered much too high by some, but not so very high by others. More interesting is the series of observations about what could happen afterwards. If Mendeley is acquired by a billion dollar company, possible legal actions for infringement look more enticing. Then too, the service, once absorbed into the corporate umbrella becomes JAC Just Another Company, and loses its edgy, outsider image. Way too soon to pontificate, but as is usually the case, a post on the Kitchen is worth reading and thinking about.
I’m going at this rear-end on, so to speak, in that I’m inverting the order in which the pieces I’m talking about originally appeared. The Scholarly Kitchen features among its contributing staff a number of very savvy people who have been in the STM biz for a couple of centuries, when you lump their experience together. The Kitchen started with a long post on what the industry is doing wrong, and more on that later. That seemed a little unfair, so I waited until the companion piece, about what’s going right, appeared and figured I would launch that one out first. The cooks, as they call themselves (or maybe it’s chefs) came up with a goodly list of things that the industry is doing well. And there was a fair degree of overlap. One of the elements commented on quite frequently was the fact that STM publishing had switched to a digital ‘economy’ swiftly and well. A number of industries have not. Photography, the recording industry, newspaper and magazine publication are examples of industries that have not weathered the shift to digital production and distribution at all well. But, STM did,after some initial hesitation. Other factors include: the existence of standards, a certain enthusiasm and even dedication to the task of scholarly publication, flexibility in dealing with developing sciences, a well-educated work force and so on. One person commented that the best thing about STM publication is that it exists at all. “In a world” as the guy in the movie trailer voice overs used to say, where STM did not exist, how would the work of validating and disseminating scientific knowledge get done? OK, there is certainly room for improvement and no room for preening or complacency. But, the cooks want to ask the whole STM industry to “stand up now and take a bow”. As I was reading the contributions, I found myself nodding and saying ‘yes’. I hadn’t come up with much beyond the ‘standards’ part, which is the result of a couple centuries of people trying to figure out things: are there to be references? If yes, where should they go? What should they look like? Units of measure? Spelling? Language of submission(any? English? German?) None of this stuff is immediately obvious and a lot of it can be argued in more than one way. Today when you send your manuscript off to PNAS, you know that it will appear very nicely, with everything just so. We don’t even advert to this rather wonderful thing, so accustomed to it are we now. And the shift to a digital basis was a triumph. OK, OK, next week we’ll look at the other side.
Don’t dig the grave of the printed book. At least,don’t dig it yet. An item in the Wall St Journal reviews the recent sales figures of ebooks and finds that the initial enthusiasms may have run their course. Muti-purpose table type devices seem to be cutting into the sales of e-readers, and the sales of printed books are still pretty good, especially for a medium that was supposed to be on its last legs. One perhaps more sensible prediction than the “all or nothing” cry of the enthusiasts is a rather prosaic wisdom dollop: the two forms will continue to exist, in parallel, for a while, perhaps a long while, to come. Ebooks may become the preferred format for “things I read on the Subway or the El to distract me from the depressing, gritty scenes surrounding me on my ride to work/home”. Printed books may continue as the preferred format for serious works of exposition on difficult topics. That sounds snobbish,on re-reading, but, just as people have different ‘linguistic registers’ in their speech, depending on whether they’re at dinner with four Nobel laureates and an Archbishop or yelling at their kids, so they may have different format registers, depending on whether they’re reading a Regency Romance or a history of the Crusades.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper analyzed a body of user comments on the articles published there, and the results were rather disappointing. In the first place, the number of commentators was very, very small compared to the number of subscribers. Then, it seems that a very large potion of the people who do comment are ‘habituals’. That is, they have time and leisure sufficient to write lots and lots of comments. Some wrote hundreds. So it seems that at least for the Guardian, most of the material it publishes remains uncommented on, and that a large slice of the comments are traceable to very few people. Why is this important here? It’s important because one of the elements that the altmetrics proponents have suggested for inclusion in new methods of estimating an article’s scientific influence is comments by the readership. Now the Guardian is a general interest newspaper, and the altmetrics people are concerned about scholarly materials, so beware apples and the other thing, maybe. But these results should make us aware of the need to be cautious.
The year just concluded was a very hot time for the growing indoor sport of retracting articles published in various scientific journals for various reasons. These reason include, but are not limited to: making up data, stealing other people’s data, faking images, duplicate publication, using colleagues’ names as co-authors without knowledge and permission, and common or garden plagiarism. While a number of the cases resulted from the action of lower-ranked personnel in the food chain, a number too were the work of PI’s who got caught faking, duping, etc. Our good friends at Retraction Watch have been keep an eye on this for a while now, and they have a year’s end tally:
Read through the whole post, but don’t forget to go back to the RW web site and check out some of the items published after the item above. Some well-established fish have been shown to have just made up data used in grant applications and publications. It’s much easier to do it that way.
Troubled by that infamous ‘third reviewer’? Well, silly, just do it yourself. A clever guy in Korea submitted the email addresses of what he claimed were knowledgeable experts to review his submission. The addresses were dummies, and any traffic to them wound up in the author’s in-box, so he could provide the editors with the necessary incisive and objective review hisownself. In an interesting development, it seems that Elsevier’s editorial system was hacked, and some third party submitted a pretty good review in support of a manuscript under someone else’s name. Nobody caught on and the paper was published. One thing led to another and it came out that clinching review came from an established researcher who didn’t know anything about the manuscript. Elsevier is pretty ticked and has withdrawn the paper which was published in violation of its policy guidelines, with an offer to the authors to re-submit for a legit review. Red faces all around. This seems an interesting but rather pointless hacking exercise. Why, for God’s sake? If you’re clever enough to do this, why both with article reviewing systems? Go steal some real money! It’s like breaking into the Salvation Army old clothing store.
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) maintains PubMed Central, an archive of free electronic journal content deposited there by publishers under various conditions ranging from completely open access to time-embargoed materials. Now the Library has devised and released a new feature which will allow users of smaller devices such as tablets and hand-helds to access and read PMC content in a more convenient format. The program is ‘browser-agnostic’ and although designed for small-screen units, can work effectively with laptop and desktop machines. Key-driven screen features allow the reader to go forward, backward, enlarge illustrations from thumbnails, etc. Not every item in the PMC collection will be accessible via PubReader. Only those represented by full HTML coding can be retrieved. ‘Flat’ images such as PDF file formats cannot be recovered with this version of the product.
NLM encourages users of PMC to experiment with PubReader and to share advice and comments on their experience with product developers.
What can happen when you and Amazon disagree about something in the so called User Agreement? Well, Amazon can wipe out all your downloaded material, remotely. And you have nothing to say about it. You don’t own all the books you clicked the button for, even though the site encourages you to think so….like “Buy It Now” or something. But it’s not a sale: it’s a lease. All this is called Digital Rights Management or DRM, and the success of online books and the proliferation of e-readers has obscured the fact that the rights picture is exactly the same as it was 10 years ago. If Amazon, or any other content provider, thinks you have violated the terms of service, it can in a click erase everything you may have paid money for. So, walk carefully. And don’t talk about your rights because you don’t have any.
Google did a back flip and settled an outstanding legal action against the company for copyright infringement. The suit dates from 2005 and accuses the G of copyright violation for its practice of digitizing books in libraries and then making up to 20% (or so) of them available on its service. Regrettably, this happy conclusion does not remove all of Google’s legal troubles. But, you have to start someplace, and the company is now free to either fight the battle with the Authors’ Guild, or try another settlement.