Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Germany vs Elsevier: a puzzling maneuver

In the tense negotiations between the German consortium DEAL and Elsevier, there is a new twist: on February 13th, Elsevier announced that it was restoring the access of the affected German institutions to its journals.

Elsevier’s two explanations for this maneuver fall short of being convincing. The first explanation, given to Nature, is that “it is customary [...] to retain access to content after a contracted period is concluded and as long as renewal discussions are ongoing”. Why then cut off access in January, and restore it in February?

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Germany vs Elsevier, and the race for legal open access

The debate about green versus gold open access leaves aside a more fundamental difference: that between legal open access and pirate open access. This difference is essential because, as Bjorn Brembs put it,
In terms of making the knowledge of the world available to the people who are the rightful owners, [pirate] Alexandra Elbakyan has single-handedly been more successful than all [legal] open access advocates and activists over the last 20 years combined.
With Sci-Hub, pirate open access is so successful that one might wonder whether legal open access is still needed. The obvious argument that pirate open access is parasitic and therefore unsustainable, because someone has to pay for scientific journals, is easily disposed of: with up-to-date tools, journals could cost orders of magnitude less than they currently do, and be financed by modest institutional subsidies. A better reason why pirate open access is not enough is that it is subject to technical and legal challenges. This makes it potentially precarious, and unsuited to uses such as content mining.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Why don't academics write in Wikipedia?

Since several years ago, Wikipedia is being widely used by academics. As a theoretical physicist, I often use it as a quick reference for mathematical terminology and results. Wikipedia is useful in spite of its many gaps and flaws: there was no general article on two-dimensional conformal field theory until I started one recently, the article on minimal models is itself minimal, and googling conformal blocks sends you to a discussion on StackExchange, since there is nothing on Wikipedia.

The paradox is that many academics see these gaps and flaws in the coverage of their own favourite subjects, yet do nothing to correct them. Let me discuss three possible reasons for this passivity: fear of Wikipedia, lack of time, and laziness.

The jungle outside the ivory tower


Attracting and retaining academic contributors has long been recognized as a challenge by Wikipedians, to the extent that there are guidelines on how to do it.