February 11, 2004

"Market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system"

Many academics who have editorial responsibilities in journals are taking action to counter the huge price increases over the last few years for journals published by commercial presses like Elsevier and Springer-Verlag. There has been an increase of approximately 250% in the price of journals over the last ten years. But that's not the only impact that commercial presses are having on the journals in university libraries.

There are many quality journals published by university presses. But these journals are in danger of being crowded out of the budgets allocated to university libraries. In the last few years, commercial presses like Elsevier are keen on selling contracts for online access to their entire collection. They want to move from the shipping of print journals to the libraries, to the subscription model where the university pays for access to the entire journal collection (back issues as well, for higher prices). Each year, the money has to keep coming in, otherwise access is cutoff. The key to higher profits for the commercial presses is that the entire collection is offered for online access; typically the library cannot pick and choose which journals to access online. The result is that departments have to vote on whether they want to have online access, but this might actually take up the entire budget allocated to the department as library funds leaving little or nothing for journals from university presses.

Academics, in many fields, are not passively accepting these changes in how they communicate their results to each other. There are several cases in which the entire editorial board has resigned from a journal published by a commercial press and in each case a new, open-access journal has been created that usually has the same set of editorial board members.

Here is a short list of some examples:

  • "Scientific Publishing: A mathematician's viewpoint" by Joan Birman of Columbia University, published in Notices of the AMS 47, 7 (August 2000). This article provides a distinction between various journal publishers and provides a case study of alternatives:

    1. Shop for a new publisher

      In November 1999 the complete editorial board (50 editors) of the Journal of Logic Programming (JLP), published by Elsevier Science, collectively resigned and founded a new journal Theory and Practice of Logic Programming (TPLP) published by Cambridge University Press (SFU faculty member Veronica Dahl is an area editor for TPLP). The price reduction for libraries was 55%.

    2. Start a new non-profit journal

      Birman documents the efforts of Warwick University professors in starting Geometry and Topology (G&T) as a free online journal.

  • "Towards free access to scientific literature," by Kryzystof Apt published in Niuw Archief voor Wiskunde 5, 2 (2001), 251-255.
  • Journal of Machine Learning Research was created in response to the pricing of the major journal in the field of machine learning: Machine Learning published by Kluwer. The current subscription rate for Machine Learning for institutions is USD 1148.00 plus 20% for the online version. In contrast, final versions of JMLR are published electronically (ISSN 1533-7928) and freely available on the web, and a paper volume (ISSN 1532-4435) is published 8 times annually and sold to libraries and individuals by the MIT Press. The print version of JMLR is available to libraries for USD 400 which includes the online version.
  • In 2003, the editorial board of Journal of Algorithms, published by Elsevier, resigned to form a new journal called ACM Transactions on Algorithms. The history of this move is documented in the following letters:

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) labels the contemporary trend towards overpriced journals and subscription-based pay-per-view journal publishing as "market dysfunctions in the scholarly communication system". Their web page lists the growing number of open-access journals, where the papers they choose to publish (based on the usual mechanisms of peer review) are freely available on the web.

It is important to note that in many cases, the original journal that was abandoned by the editorial board is taken over by other academics, and in some cases are still publishing vital results in the field. The key here is that in each of these cases, there is an alternative source of archival quality results for that field. The creation of new journals also does not address the price of access to older, seminal results in a field. In some cases, libraries are actually getting rid of older print copies of journals, since now there is online access to those journals (but now as a subscription service).

Update: Tue Aug 10th 11:05am. Fernando Pereira on Fresh Tracks has two posts on open access journals and journal pricing from big business publishers.

Posted by anoop at 03:34 PM

February 05, 2004

Y-chromosome diversity and Central Asia

A PNAS paper on Y-chromosome diversity in Central Asian populations includes the following tree:

It's filled with curious facts. For instance, check out the cluster that contains Sourashtran and Yadhava (both Indian populations) and the Tajik/Samarkhand or Arab/Bukhara populations.

This blog post by John McWhorter cites this paper in support of a particular theory of historical change from Avestan (Old Persian) to Modern Persian.

Posted by anoop at 06:01 PM

February 04, 2004

1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies

In case you are planning on picking up this book: 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies, you might want to read Bill Poser's blog post discussing 1421, in particular about some of the linguistic facts and dubious research methods used in this book.

In case you are too lazy to click on the above link, I am quoting below from Bill Poser's post about 1421 the parts I found to be the most entertaining (maybe reading this will encourage you to read the entire post that is linked above):

The first linguistic point raised in the book (p. 104) concerns an inscription found in the Cape Verde islands off the West coast of Africa, which Menzies attributes to Zheng He. Unable to identify the writing system, he wonders whether it is an Indian writing system and faxes a query to the Bank of India, which informs him that it is Malayalam. Unfamiliar with Malayalam, he asks where it was spoken and whether it was in use in the 15th century. According to Menzies, the Bank of India responded as follows:

Yes, it had been in common use since the ninth century. It has largely ceased to be spoken today, though it is still used in a few outlying coastal districts on the Malabar coast.

In fact, Malayalam is spoken by over 35 million people. It doesn't seem likely that the Bank of India was unaware of the principal language of Kerala State, one of the national languages specified in Schedule Eight of the Constitution of India. Maybe they were pulling Menzies' leg, or maybe he just can't get his facts straight.

Assuming that there is an inscription in Malayalam in the Cape Verde Islands, what does this tell us about Zheng He's voyage? Is there evidence that it dates to the 1420s? Whenever it was made, isn't the most likely hypothesis that an Indian made it? The content of the inscription might shed light on this, but although much is made of the writing system, we never find out what it says!


Menzies continues:

There is also linguistic evidence of Chinese visits to South America. A sailing ship is chamban in Colombia, sampan in China; a raft, balsa in South America and palso in China; a log raft, jangada in Brazil, ziangada in Tamil.

We aren't told which of the 98 languages of Colombia, the 234 languages of Brazil, or the roughly 700 of South America as a whole, these words come from. In any case, isolated similarities like these are meaningless; it is easy to find a few words similar in sound and meaning in any two languages. At least two of the three examples here are wrong. You'd think that a Royal Navy man would know that a sampan is not a sailing ship; it is a small boat usually propelled by two oars. There is no Chinese word palso meaning "raft"; no Chinese syllable ends in /l/. And even if the pair of words for "log raft" are correct and their resemblance is not accidental, how would this prove contact between China and Brazil? Menzies is apparently assuming that the only way a Tamil word could get to Brazil is via Zheng He's fleet, and that it is likely that Brazilians would borrow a word for something with which they were no doubt already familiar from the tiny minority of Tamil speakers who might have accompanied the Chinese fleet.


Menzies gives further evidence of contact between China and the New World on p. 414:

Like the Waldseemüller chart, another map of Vancouver Island, called `colonie chinois' by its Venetian cartographer, Antonio Zatta, was published before Vancouver or Cook `discovered' the island. The Squamish Indians there have more than forty words in common with Chinese, including tsil (wet), also tsil in Chinese; chi (wood), which is chin in Chinese; and tsu (grandmother), which is etsu.

Menzies does not give the other 37 putatively similar words in Chinese and Squamish, nor does he cite sources for the Chinese and Squamish words. The fact that he is wrong about where the Squamish live (their territory is on the mainland of British Columbia, just north of the city of Vancouver, not on Vancouver Island) does not give confidence in his data. In any case, the examples that he does provide are dubious. Not one of the three words claimed to be Chinese is identifiable as Chinese.

Good stuff. For more read Bill's original post.

Posted by anoop at 04:31 PM

Luminous by Greg Egan

A collection of short stories by one of the best science fiction authors of the 1990s. I found the following stories in this collection to be particularly interesting:

  • "Mister Volition", which brings to life (literally) a theory of consciousness attributed in parts to Marvin Minsky and Daniel Dennett;
  • "Luminous", which deals with industrial espionage and number theory(!);
  • "Reasons to be Cheerful", a neuroscience fable about the control of your own emotions and what that entails.

The short stories published by authors in various rags are the hidden store of ideas for the larger and more onerous novels that germinate from them, mostly for the lucrative rewards. Only a fraction of the interesting ideas that Greg Egan explores in his short fiction have made it into his novels. It's time to get in on the ground floor ...

%T Luminous %A Greg Egan %I Millennium %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1857985516 %P 288 %K science-fiction

Review written: circa 1999

Posted by anoop at 04:00 PM