Pills n’ Thrills

There’s an election for the University board going on these days, and I’m running for representative for the temporarily employed, i.e. doctoral students and post docs. As part of this, I received an e-mail from the medical students’ association about my opinions about medical research and the problem of cost for the general public, and especially the developing world. Specifically, they asked me about “universities’ role in making sure new technology, knowledge and research benefits the general public, and especially, in a global perspective, how they can ensure that the possibly commercialized work of universities is offered developing countries at a reasonable price”.

I quickly jotted down a few lines as a reply, but the topic is far too broad for that to serve justice to it. But basically, I said that publicly funded research institutions have a responsibility to ensure that the results of their research is freely available, or at least at a no-profit basis for medical products. Similarly, cheaper generic medicine should be encouraged for the developing world.

When it comes to private institutions and the pharmaceutical industry developing products for commercial purposes, I still think that cheap copy medicine should be allowed, and not prosecuted as is the current situation. Patenting of life-preserving medicine should be severely limited, and any medical research institution should be required to allocate a certain percentage of their budget on medicine that is life-preserving, to ensure that at least some of their attention is guided towards actually saving lives and not just making rich people more beautiful. I understand that medical research is costly and time-consuming, but Big Pharma makes more than enough money to prioritize a little differently. Ideally, there should exist a list of serious illnesses (e.g. HIV/AIDS) in need of more research, and any company wishing to produce a medical product for something not on the list (e.g. “anti-aging” creams) would have to allocate a certain percentage of their budgeted spending to “serious” research. Of course, I’m not saying big pharmaceuticals aren’t researching important medicine, but there is definitely a huge industry in both creating cosmetics or anti-depressants and in creating the need for them. More of that should go to alleviating actual suffering.

Whether or not it’s possible for the university sector to do anything about this is a different question. I guess the best thing they can do is commit to something like these guidelines for themselves.


Counting beans

As a companion to my ramblings on scientific publishing (more to come soon, I swear!), I’ve found some interesting attempts at looking at how different fields of study are related, some by examining referencing and click-throughs from journal articles, others from looking at the amount of publishing in the various fields.

The first example is from PLoS ONE (found via Scatterplot), an online open-access journal trying to collect open, peer reviewed academic publishing. One article had analyzed 1 billion online article readings, and made a graphical representation of it:

Some scientific fields connected. Click for larger view

Some scientific fields connected. Click for larger view

One example of the second is a 2005 article in Scientometrics, which simply counts up the number of publications within a given field and tries to make a point regarding what the most active fields are, actually going a far as to calling it the “marrow” of science. Not surprisingly, fields such as biochemistry and other biological subfields dominate:

Numbers of thousand articles within different scientific fields. Click for larger view

Numbers of thousand articles within different scientific fields. Click for larger view

A lot can be said about the methodology (how do you define a field, what journals are counted and not, how do you measure relative importance and so on and so on), and there’s definitely a “so what?” aspect to all this counting, but I still think it’s fascinating stuff.


These days I’m transcribing the interviews from my trip to Bergen. Normally, I’d put that task out to someone else, because it’s so extremely time-consuming. However, I’ve[1] decided to do two interviews myself to get into the feel of the interviews. So I’m sitting there with the foot pedal and a Word document, going back and forth every four seconds or so. It’s a grueling thing. After half an hour, I check to see how far I’ve come in the interview: Exactly, on the second, five minutes. And it’s more than an hour of tape to transcribe.

But that isn’t the worst part of it. No, the worst is how ridiculous it sounds, listening to yourself stammering, backtracking, changing sentences mid-ways through and generally sounding like I hardly know how to speak. Luckily, so do my informants, and somehow, the conversation comes along nicely[2]. It’s still somehow both boring and embarrassing to listen to, so I’ll be glad when I’m done. From now on, only statistics or document analysis for me.

[1] Read: my adviser.

[2] Wittgenstein had something to say about how people manage to communicate orally despite hardly ever pronouncing a sentence where two words are correctly placed in relation to each other. It was thanks to thinking about these things he completely turned around in his view of language.

Foxes keeping geese

Kudos to the American Medical Students Association for keeping a constantly updated scorecard detailing different higher education medical institutions’ attitude towards mixing profession and profit. Basically, they look at how the institutions teach students about conflicts of interest within the medical profession, and how they treat varying degrees of contact with the pharmaceutical industry. This was started after some of the association’s members found out their teachers were actively recommending certain drugs over others while being well-paid consultants for the pharmaceutical firms producing them. More of this, please! Have fun searching the scorecard for Ivy League institutions. Hint: Harvard gets an F…


Almost two weeks since the last post here. In my defence, I have been travelling. I went to Bergen to do some interviews, and am now going to start transcribing some of them. I’m sure it’ll be fun writing out all the ridiculous things you say when in conversation with even the sharpest mind. I’ll get back to that. I’ve also been working on the draft for my next installation in my post series on academic publishing, but it’s turning out to be another exercise in long-windedness. I’ll take this longish break as an incitement to do two things:

1. Vary the posts a little, so I don’t produce one 1000-word post every other week, but instead parse my thoughts a little.
2. Build up a post buffer that it’s easy to set to auto-publish at set times, or at least to pop in and update.

Let’s see how long we manage that, eh?

For now, let me talk about grading. I’ve finished reading through my first ever batch of student papers to grade (or rather, pass or fail), and it’s been a mixed experience. I’m not going to go into detail on the quality of the papers, but suffice it to say that there is a significant distance between your writing skills as a student fresh out of high school and after a few years of practice writing academic texts. It was a surprisingly emotional experience, ranging from utter despair on behalf of the human race (as demonstrated in this PhD comic) to very upbeat discoveries (hey, this one’s pretty good! There’s hope after all!). I actually enjoyed it, and will not decline next time someone asks me to help out.

60-second lecture test

I got inspired by this article sent to me by a co-worker (thanks, Finn Arne!). It describes what it would like us to believe is a new trend: academic courses where lectures are one-minute webcasts accompanied by reading suggestions and assignments.

The microlectures, which last from 60 seconds to three minutes, do little more than introduce key terms and concepts. In an online class on academic reading, for example, students learning about word construction listen to an 80-second microlecture that introduces word parts and explains that they have a bearing on the meaning of words, said Michelle Meeks, a reading instructor. Students then use an online dictionary to look up a list of 25 prefixes, suffixes, and word roots, writing up their findings and discussing them on a message board.

While I doubt that this can replace ordinary course work, it has some interesting sides to it. At least it forces word-happy academics to try and distill their thoughts and concepts. It also bears some similarities to something we discussed in a meeting this week, about how everyone should be prepared to give an elevator pitch on their project and research of about 45 seconds.

So I decided to give it a try, if only to test out the video embedding on the blog. Here’s me talking about the concept of cyborgs. Why that? Well, because today I got asked to grade some papers from the course on IT and cultural change that my office neighbour Vivian is teaching[1]. The assignment is simple: describe the term cyborg as it is used in the syllabus. This is my 60-second take:

1. It’s in English to keep it in tune with the rest of this blog, not because the actual course is in English. Please excuse crappy pronounciation.
2. This is the first time I’ve ever recorded something like this (I downloaded the software today), so please also excuse bad audio, bad lighting, the reading-from-a-text-expression and all other faults that will look better should I ever choose to keep doing this. Next time I’ll try out the screen capture option, so you don’t have to look at me while I’m presenting.
3. I had to go via spike.com, since I haven’t figured out how to upload video to WordPress yet. So this marks the loss of my online video-posting virginity as well. A momentous moment, to be sure.

Ok, so what would I add to this video to make it worthy a lecture? Here are some assignments for y’all:

1. Read Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century (find a gruesome html version here). It’s well written and interesting throughout, although maybe a little too 90s for my taste (you know, playful, ironic, “post-modern”).

2. Read the Prologue to Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. Think about the “extension of the sense organs”, and the concept of cyborg.

3. Read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, because it’s fun and gives insights. Discuss: techno-utopia or -dystopia? Where is the cyborg here?

There. That should keep you going for a little while. Maybe the department will get us to make more of these?

PS: Optional assignment (but worth a lot of extra credit!): Discuss the notion of cyborg in this Dinosaur Comics. If you haven’t read this comic before, you might not get it. Do some surfing in the archives to discover its greatness.

[1] This is the first I’ve ever graded something, so I might bring this up again later.

The scientific publishing deluge, part I

The theme of journal publishing, peer reviewing, open access and cost distribution is becoming increasingly important for the scientific community. As the academic field keeps growing and more people are active in research, so does the amount of reporting on the findings. This poses some serious challenges to Academia for the coming decades, with the most important being: how do we manage the ever-expanding amount of scientific publishing, both in terms of structure, manpower and attention?

WARNING: Long, serious post coming up. So long, in fact, that it must be broken into several posts. The first post will focus on performance-based models of funding and its connection to the (possible) fragmenting of scientific research reporting. I’ll divide this post into several smaller parts: new public management in science, recycling of material (or partial reporting), and the journal explosion. Then I’ll tell you what comes next.

1. New Public Management
Putting the tag of NPM on things is pretty cheap, I know, but I really think there is something there. Let me explain: in most countries, there is an increasing resistance to expanding public spending within most policy areas (notable exception: military spending). Very few countries are increasing their tax rates, and the trend is rather the opposite. Yet most areas relying on public spending are growing, for different reasons: the health sector is meeting demands for better service while paying for ever better but more expensive treatments, pension payments are increasing while payments to the pension system are fixed or decreasing, and higher education enrollment is constantly growing, just to name a few.

This leads to a pressure for cost control and fiscal accountability. How does one achieve this? One solution is to tie funding to performance; the better you perform, the more money you get. This, when applied to the public sector, is (very, very roughly) referred to as New Public Management. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not without its problems. Let’s look at how this works out in higher education.

In higher education, there are basically two forms of “performing”, namely teaching and researching. The first is pretty straight forward. If you hold courses, correct papers and advise students, your output can be measured and rated, and thus rewarded. For research, it also seems straight forward: your output is measured when you report on your research at conferences, through journal papers or book publishing. As a result, a complex system of awarding publishing points and other credits has been designed in order to manage performance-based funding.

To take an example, let’s look at my own Ph.D. It is awarded on the basis of publication points, I think it is 4 points total. A chapter in a book nets me 0.8 publication points, an article in a tier 1 journal gives me 1 point, and publication in a tier 2 journal gives me 3 points. Or something like that. In addition, there is some evaluation of my public presentations and other kinds of publications. For more information, read NTNU’s strategy document.

Of course, criticism of NPM is nothing new. For a great account of how NPM affects education, read Martin Carnoy’s Globalization and Educational Reform: What Planners Need to Know (find it here). Although, this being written during the 90s, he calls it “globalization”, it’s all the same. Some of the things he examines are:

* The changes in labour markets and education systems due to the emerging demand for workforces capable of the production of high value-added consumer goods.

* The ensuing demand for additional resources for education in a policy environment hostile to the expansion of the role of the public sector.

* The consequences of increased decentralization and privatization, which are often considered as the most effective strategy for ensuring quality and flexibility in a globalized economy.

* The multiplication of cross-national measurement of education systems

It’s all very interesting.

2. Recycling of material
Now, there are mainly two problems with this kind of system: it doesn’t discern between different fields of study, and it rewards quantity. The result of this, something that should have been anticipated by the designers of the system, is that people publish more than before. A lot more. An article detailing one specific journal finds that there has been a five-fold increase in both number of articles and journal pages published the last 20 years, and suggests that the same is true for other areas of research.

Does this mean that more science is being produced, or simply that reporting has been increased? Well, since more people than ever are working in research, it’s probable that more science, to a certain extent, is being produced. But to me it’s fairly obvious that the funding model is an incentive to write more papers on the same amount of research as before. This would not pose that much of a problem if it didn’t mean that so much noise came with it.

Consider the average journal paper. It has a standard setup (well, at least in the social science fields I work within), with introduction, some theoretical considerations, a description of methodology, reporting on findings, discussion of the implications of these and a conclusion. Now, most of this will have to be there, regardless of how long the “findings” section is. This means that when someone produces three smaller articles to report on findings that would previously be reported in one, they are not three times shorter. Instead, they are more or less the same length, meaning that the overall information value of the article is lowered.

3. The journal explosion
This leads us to the next point. As publishing increases, competition for funding intensifies and recycling multiplies, more journals are needed to publish and report findings. Similarly, many fields of study find it necessary to fund their own journals to compete for attention and possible funding. A journal of one’s own adds weight to claims for importance. A journal article (what else?) from way back in 1999 finds that there is a 7 % annual increase in the number of journals. This means that the number of journals double every 10-15 years or so. Clearly, this growth is not sustainable, both from an ease-of-access and a signal-to-noise ratio point of view. Finding relevant stuff gets harder and harder.

This again means that there is a risk of literature reviews consisting more of sorting for relevance rather than spending real time with the arguments in the literature, endangering the overall value of the article. This might lead to more important findings being lost in the jungle, and strategies for getting one’s own findings to stand out from the crowd. See, for example, this quick literature search for the words “counter-intuitive findings”, which have skyrocketed, since the 70s. The study stops in 2000, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t have continued since then

So what next?
That’s it for this post. I’m not even going to touch the process of proposal writing for grant funding, because that would merit another marathon post. Maybe some other time. Next up, discussing the possibility of cutting the ever increasing costs, both in terms of money and manpower, of maintaining the peer-review system through Open Access publishing and post-publishing peer reviewing.

Also, good boy/girl for staying with me for the whole post. Here’s your treat: Nerd kids’ toys. Also, check out a similar idea: Reactables.