The Dark Side of Open Access

January 18, 2013

Not Open_Access_logo2If you are an independent researcher as I am you will know the feeling of despair when you find a reference to a useful looking paper that is hidden behind a journal’s paywall with no free version available on the internet. Research institutions pay subscriptions that allow their members unfettered access but the rest of us have to pay a fee. For this reason I welcome the gradual move towards open access journals that will eventually mean that all research is available online with free access to everyone, but there is a darker side to this movement that I am a lot less keen on. Let’s take Philica as an example of an open access journal that I would certainly consider publishing as a show of support. It accepts submissions in any subject and I particularly like it because its peer-reviews are made public and allow for dynamic changes when subsequent research supports or refutes a published work. Unfortunately there is a catch for independent scientists. You can only register to publish in Philica if you are a full-time researcher employed by a  university, hospital and other research institution. Apparently open access does not mean open to submissions from all authors [update: 21/2/2014 The policy at philica has apparently changed a little and independent researchers can apply for membership if they can show that they are capable researchers].

In the traditional publication model it would be very unusual to find a journal that placed explicit limitation on who could publish in its pages. It is not something I had experienced before, but with open access journals this is becoming more common. For now there are still plenty of small open access journals that take submissions from anyone, but will they last? I sense that the thin edge of the wedge is in place and as it is driven in we will see unapproved researchers driven out in an effort to reduce the costs of publication. The result could have unexpected consequences for science and society.

Green, Gold or Diamond

Open access usually means that anyone can access papers for free. This comes in different forms sometimes termed green or gold open access. With green open access the journal allows authors to place a version of their paper on the internet where anyone can access it for free. Usually they do not allow the typeset version produced by the journal in this way but there is nothing to stop the online version being updated to reflect all changes made as a result of the peer-review. This works for the journals because university libraries cannot rely on authors to provide the open access copy and must therefore continue to pay the journal subscription.

With gold open access the journal itself provides a free copy of every paper online. Some long-standing journals experimented with this option but found very quickly that libraries would cancel subscriptions cutting off the journals revenue stream.  In some cases they have agreed to allow open access after a delay of a few years but new research is most relevant as soon as it appears so this is not a very satisfactory solution. Under pressure from funding agencies the new trend is for the journals to move towards payments from authors as an alternative to library subscriptions, but the payments can be several thousand dollars per publication which makes life particularly difficult for areas of theoretical science that can produce many papers with a low-budget. It is of course especially difficult for most independent scientists who may have no funding at all.

For professional scientists the ideal standard for open access is now being called platinum or diamond access meaning that it is free to publish and free to access. However, this does not mean that it is open for anyone to publish. There is no name available for that level of standard because professional researchers do not feel a need for it. Their only real concern is to reduce the cost of publishing which impacts research budgets. In order to make diamond open access possible it is necessary to reduce the cost of running a journal to virtually zero. This is perfectly feasible since the essential work of editors and reviewers is done for free by scientists out of a sense of duty and career promotion. If journals are published online only, the costs are reduced to whatever is required to run a website. This can also be reduced to essentially nil if there is a centrally run infrastructure.

This week Field medalist Sir Timothy Gowers has announced a new initiative funded in France that will provide just such as infrastructure. Scientists will be able to pull together and quickly set up epijournals in whatever area of science they choose at virtually no cost. Although they will be free to charge a publication fee if they wish, this is likely to be very low or zero and reader access will always be freely available because the system will run on the back of the HAL archive which is an arXiv mirror and open access to all readers. This is not the first project that has tried to change the way that science publishing runs but because it will be available to all areas of research and will have solid funding support it is likely to take over as the major platform for peer-review. The catch for independent research is that you will not be able to publish in epijournals unless you can submit to arXiv and that is not possible for everyone.

The scientists and mathematicians who are setting up the system do not seem to regard this as a problem. They believe that any serious researcher can easily find the endorser required to allow them access to arXiv, but as 1700 researchers who use viXra can testify this is not the case. At present about 15% of papers submitted to viXra are accepted in journals after peer-review, but this figure is likely to diminish to near zero if arXiv based journals take hold. To be fair Gowers has said that epijournals could allow linking to repositories other than arXiv. Whether they allow linking to viXra remains to be seen. My guess is that even if the epijournal infrastructure allows it, most individual journals will limit submissions to arXiv. In fact they may go further and only allow submissions from categories within arXiv that are related to the subject areas of the journal. This will reduce the overhead of having to reject too many papers that are off-topic and with near-zero budgets to work with this is going to be an attractive option. This could mean that even authors who find themselves limited to arXiv’s generic categories such as general maths and general physics may find themselves unable to submit to journals. I hope I will be proven too pessimistic but it seems to me that the writing is on the wall.

Why Does it Matter?

You may well ask why this matters. It is clear from the many discussions about open access on the internet that including publication access for all authors is not a concern for professional scientists. Much of the drive towards open access is being piloted by mathematicians and mathematics is rarely a controversial subject. Apart from a few rare cases such as the work of Godel or Cantor, mathematical progress is accepted very quickly. It is hard to argue with a proof. It is unlikely that any barrier could prevent a good work of mathematics from being recognized even if it came from an independent mathematician without the usual affiliations. But what about subjects more infested with the interference of politics? Take climate science as an example. Would it not be very tempting for the establishment to be able to undermine the work of climate skeptics simply by hindering their ability to publish? I suspect that journal editors will find it all too convenient that they can limit who can submit research by such artificial means. The wedge will be driven in further and it will become harder for scientists on the fringe to get the credibility they need from publication, or even to submit their work to someone who is at least required to read and criticize. Science is sleep walking into a Brave New World where anyone can speak but only the approved few can be heard. I think that those who are leading the fight for open access need to understand this now before it is too late. They must define open access to also mean openness for anyone to have access to the ability to submit for peer-review. At present their only concern is to remove the financial cost of access. Later they will see that such short-sightedness also has a cost.


Cabal fails to get Wikipedia article on viXra deleted

March 16, 2012

Last week computer scientist David Eppstein made a bid to have the wikipedia article about viXra deleted. He claimed that the article failed tests of notoriety, and verifiablilty and initially requested rapid deletion to avoid any discussion. This was rejected leading to a longer process requiring a concensus. In the event five people voted to keep it and only one other came out in support of deletion.

It was clear from the ensuing discussion that Eppstein’s real motivation for requesting the deletion was that he regards viXra as a “crank magnet”. During the AfD he selectively edited the article to remove references which showed that viXra contains articles that have been accepted for peer-review on the grounds that this was “original research by synthesis”, yet he kept in other statements of a more negative nature despite them being unsupported by references.

The request for deletion was rejected. An archived copy of the discussion can be read here.


Top Ten Bits of Ig Nobel Trivia

September 29, 2011

As a prelude to the official Nobel prizes that will be announced next week,  the less austere Ig Nobel prizes will be awarded at a ceremony today. The event will be webcast starting at  7:30pm Boston time. Here is a trailer and ten interesting facts

  1. The Ig Noble prizes were first awarded in 1991 and included three items of research that were just made up as well as a peace prize to Edward Teller for the H-bomb.
  2. The prices were originally described as being awarded for research that “cannot, or should not, be reproduced” but this was later changed to the more ingratiating slogan that it would “make people LAUGH, and then THINK”
  3. The name of the award should be pronounced IG-NO-BELL to emphasize its relation to the Nobel Prize, rather than the word ignoble.
  4. Two Ig Nobel prizes have been awarded for Homeopathy, one in 1991 and another in 1998
  5. It used to be a tradition to throw paper airplane onto the stage as prizes were awarded but this had to be stamped out for security reasons.
  6. In 1995 Robert May, Baron of Oxford, and the then chief scientific advisor to the British government requested that the organizers no longer award Ig Nobel prizes to British scientists. He said that the awards risked bringing genuine experiments into ridicule.
  7. Despite the air of ridicule that comes with the award of an Ig Nobel prize several winning lines of research have had practical value including the observation that mosquitoes are as much attracted to the smell of  Limburger cheese as they are to human feet.
  8. When Andre Geim won the Nobel prize last year for his work on graphene he became the first person to have won both the Nobel and the Ig Nobel. The latter was awarded to him 10 years earlier for levitating frogs.
  9. Despite the reputation for toilet humor the Ig Noble prize citations have only mentioned toilets, urine and pooh once each (Update: urine count has gone up to twice).
  10. The Ig Nobel blog at improbable.com has ridiculed viXra.org at least twice this year but we are still waiting for the award of a prize to a paper from our archive.

New anti-crackpot on the block

March 30, 2011

Just when I thought I’d managed to chase away the anti-crackpots by ridiculing them with the anti-crackpot index, a new one pops up! JBL is a maths graduate working on combinatorics.  His unusual tactic for criticizing viXra submissions is to quote their abstract with a link and no further comment. Most anti-crackpots at least manage some rhetoric but for JBL just saying nothing seems to be enough. It has to be said that this level of criticism makes it hard to respond with any kind of defense. It was not until yesterday when he started to explain his actions that he was identified as yet another anti-crackpot.

JBL admits that he does not understand much physics so he just looks at a few of the viXra articles, yet he claims to have shown that viXra is a failure. This is despite the fact that viXra has very modest aims to allow anyone to freely publish their work. I like to think that my series of article on “crackpots” who were right shows why this is needed. With over 1800 articles in under two years it can hardly be said to have failed. Of course not everything on viXra is the highest quality of research, but there is a lot here that is of value to science and the goal is to ensure that nothing that might be of value will be lost. The professional scientific community as a whole hates censorship and suppression, until they get to the work of amateur scientists. JBL is typical of a sector of the academic community who thinks that the work of outsiders without access to an endorser for arXiv.org should not be allowed to publish their work in any form. Happily there are others who support the role of viXra and other organisations such as FQXi where the work of independent scientists is allowed to feature along side that of professional researchers. By the way, six of the 35 authors who made the final round of the latest FQXi essay contest have used viXra to archive examples of their work in the past.

JBL’s poor level of scrutiny is indicated by his odd belief that viXra:0812.0004 was the first publication on viXra. He also claims in another post that the amount of citations used by authors on viXra is next to zero. Anybody who looks through a random sample will quickly find that only a small minority lack any references and most have a very reasonable number. It seems that he thinks he can just spout any rubbish without risk of anyone checking it.

Indeed, given his rather poor level of debate you might wonder why I even bother to point him out. The answer is that sadly some people will read what he says and believe it without checking any further. It also has to be mentioned that despite his serious accusations on his blog which at some points cross the line between nonsense and slander, he has not yet allowed my responses to appear there. I will just have to hope that people who read them will also find this. He hopes that viXra will die but I am happy to report that it is thriving and it is the anti-crackpot blogs like his that are fading away.

Update: JBL has since appologised for his postings by email and removed them from the blog.


The Anti-Crackpot Index

September 13, 2010

I am sure you are all familiar with the Crackpot Index devised by John Baez as a “fun” way to identify “crackpots”. Now there is also a growing phenomenon of the anti-crackpots, that is people who go to enormous trouble to try to debunk other people’s theories but instead of using solid arguments they produce a useless diatribe laced with rhetoric, sarcasm  and irrelevant ridicule. I think it is now time to redress the balance and produce the anti-crackpot index as a fun way to help  identify such people, so here it is:
The Anti-crackpot index

  1. A -5 point starting credit
  2. 1 point for claiming a point is “vacuous” or “specious” without saying why.
  3. 2 points for referring to other people as “the public” or “laymen” without having any relevant qualifications beyond highschool themselves.
  4. 3 points for dismissing an extensive theory because of one minor error.
  5. 5 points for each statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.
  6. 5 points for suggesting someone is not a real scientist because they did not use TeX.
  7. 5 points for each use of the word falsifiable.
  8. 5 points for gratuitously pointing out that a person they are attacking is Female.
  9. 10 points for saying that someone is taking mathematics too literally.
  10. 10 points for telling a scientist or mathematician that they should leave philosophy to the philosophers.
  11. 10 points for claiming that any correct idea can easily be published in a peer-reviewed journal or the arXiv.
  12. 10 points for invoking a strawman argument.
  13. 10 points for believing that any good idea will instantly be recognised as such by the scientific community.
  14. 10 points for claiming that someone is a crackpot because they will not listen to reason, when in fact the position is mutual.
  15. 10 points for seamlessly switching to a new argument when an old one is found wanting.
  16. 10 points for quoting something and implying the reader should see how ridiculous it is without actually saying why.
  17. 10 points for jumping from a reasonable but irrelevant set of sociological arguments to a sudden unwarranted conclusion that a theory has therefore failed.
  18. 10 points for saying an idea is wrong because it violates a scientific principle that has not been tested in the context of the theory.
  19. 10 points for using a wrong argument to attack a possibly correct argument.
  20. 20 points for using technical jargon to try to make themselves appear knowledgable.
  21. 20 points for mentioning the Ignobel prize.
  22. 20 points for pointing out spelling or grammar errors as part of their critique (double points for making similar errors at the same time).
  23. 20 points for citing Feynman’s cargo cult science speech.
  24. 20 points for using a blog, wiki or forum that is specifically created for debunking “crackpot” theories.
  25. 20 points if the said website deploys adverts that promote pseudoscience (double points if its Google Adwords)
  26. 20 points for showing a picture of themselves that reveals a ponytail.
  27. 20 points for using an anonymous pseudonym when your opponent is using their real name.
  28. 20 points for saying they always own up to their errors because they were forced to do it once.
  29. 30 points for citing a comic strip such as xkcd or Abstruce Goose.
  30. 30 points for labelling themselves as a “skeptic” without associating this to a specific claim that they are skeptical about.
  31. 30 points for extending an analogy beyond its intended scope in order to break it.
  32. 30 points for saying something is “not even wrong”.
  33. 40 points for saying “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing”.
  34. 40 points for implying they are a science expert when they are really a software engineer with a blog (double points if they are employed by Google).
  35. 40 points for taking the Baez crackpot index too seriously.
  36. 40 points for suggesting additions to the crackpot index.
  37. 50 points for saying a paper makes no testable predictions and failing noticing that very few genuine scientific papers make any testable predictions.

They call me a crank now LOL

July 11, 2010

You may recall how I had to refute the claims by Mark Chu-Carroll on his blog “Good Math Bad math” that everyone who posts on viXra.org is a crank. When I was asked for a counterexample I pointed to my own contributions. He failed to find any fault in my work but never admitted his error either. Since then he tried to take my advice to concentrate more on the “good math” but he has recently stopped the blog altogether citing dissatisfaction with the policies of scienceblogs.com

Mark Chu-Carroll is a computer scientist working for Google. Somebody pointed out that it always seems to be computer scientists who think they can debunk “crank science” even though they have little expertise in the subjects under question. Another example of this has now surfaced over a rationalwiki.org, a whole wiki site dedicated to debunking bad science and criticising religion.

Rationalwiki now has a section about viXra on their arXiv entry page that currently reads as follows:

“The cranks, not wishing to put up with this sort of thing, started a competitor: viXra, “founded by scientists who find they are unable to submit their articles to arXiv.org because of Cornell University’s policy of endorsements and moderation designed to filter out e-prints that they consider inappropriate.”[1] Given some of the lunacy available on arXiv, we’d like you to just pause for a moment and contemplate what sort of content viXra accumulates. The scientific world is mostly amused.[2]

The second reference to “the scientific world” is linked to some anonymous posts on scienceforums.net. This is typical of the quality of citation used by rationalwiki to back up its claims.

Since I am the guy who started viXra, this means that I am being called a crank again, sigh. For the record I have a first class degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in physics from the University of Glasgow. I was a double silver medal winner at the International Mathematical Olympiads of 1977/1978. I have authored a number of articles in the Usenet Physics FAQ. I was also a Senior Vice President in the Fixed Income Analytics department of a major investment bank up until my retirement. Despite my relatively short time in academia I have 10 publications in peer-reviewed journals, 4 of them were published while working as an independent scientist. Two of my physics papers are listed in the TOPCITE 50+ section of SPIRES. One of them was published in 1986 yet it is still read and had its 50th citation this year. A number theory paper I published independently in 2006 has 36 citations. I also had 14 submissions accepted into arXiv.org before they introduced their endorsement policy that prevents me from using it further. One of my physics papers in arXiv.org has 47 citations according to Google Scholar, despite never being published elsewhere. OK, these things are nothing outstanding, but they are not the hallmarks of a crank either and I had never been called a crank before starting viXra.

So who is the genius who has identified me as a crank now? Apparently it’s some guy called David Gerard who works as a sysadmin in London. I wonder if such idiocy will ever cease.


Good Math, Bad … Logic

June 9, 2010

Mark C. Chu-Carroll is a computer scientist who runs a blog “Good Math, Bad Math”. The tag line is “Finding the fun in math, Squashing bad math and the fools who promote it”. A quick browse through his recent posts show that he is not finding much fun for us and spends most of his time trying to debunk people he regards as fools.

In his latest post Gravity, Shmavity. It’s the heat, dammit! he goes all out to declare every submitter to viXra.org a crank. This is what he says:

“I have to point out that it’s on “viXra.org”. viXra is “ViXra.org is an e-print archive set up as an alternative to the popular arXiv.org service owned by Cornell University. It has been founded by scientists who find they are unable to submit their articles to arXiv.org because of Cornell University’s policy of endorsements and moderation designed to filter out e-prints that they consider inappropriate.”. In other words, it’s a site for cranks who can’t even post their stuff on arXiv. Considering some of the dreck that’s been posted an arXiv, that’s pretty damned sad.)”

In the comments he goes on to confirm his view:

“There are plenty of people in the world who aren’t interested in understanding why they’re wrong. They’re absolutely sure that they’re right, and there’s absolutely nothing in the world that’s going to convince them otherwise. Anyone who posts to viXra is almost, by definition, guaranteed to part of that group. The reason that people post things to viXra is because they don’t want to deal with the standards of arXiv.”

There have been a few anonymous comments on other blogs and forums promoting this view with very similar language so I am glad that he has finally put his name to them, giving us a chance to debunk the debunker. Clearly he has not read what I have written about why viXra.org was formed and how it operates, or perhaps he just does not understand anything beyond his blinkered worldview. His statements are  utterly misleading and as bad as the examples of bad math that this blog attempts to debunk.

The ability to post on arXiv is mostly dependent on working for an accepted institution or having the backing of someone who does. This is only indirectly correlated to the quality of what is being submitted. That is why a significant amount of “dreck” can be posted on arXiv. It also means that some people who do good science cannot submit there and use viXra instead. A lot of papers submitted to viXra.org have been accepted in peer-reviewed journals.

viXra operates by accepting all papers to ensure that everyone has a chance to archive their work regardless of who they are or who they know. Only a fool with no sense of logic would pick out a few examples of bad papers and conclude that this then applies to the whole lot.

The history of science is littered with stories of researchers whose work was ridiculed or ignored for years before being recognised as a breakthrough. Many Nobel Prizes have been awarded to work that started that way. You can follow our series of posts at http://blog.vixra.org/category/crackpots-who-were-right/ for some examples. If you are going to set yourself up as someone who debunks bad maths and science you had better make sure you apply the highest standards of logic otherwise you may go down in history as someone who ridiculed good science. By calling everyone on viXra a crank Mark  C. Chu-Carroll has virtually guaranteed that fate for himself.

What of the paper that Mark attempts to debunk? Well it possibly has some errors, but if it also has some worthwhile observations it would not be the first paper containing good science that was ridiculed for its mistakes. Famous examples include Georg Ohm’s work on resistance which was rejected because of its failed attempt to explain his experimental law theoretically, or the  popular book by Robert Chambers that prepared the public for the theory of evolution before Darwin, while scientists just picked holes in his terminology. If you are going to debunk something you should make sure that you are not missing the point of it. The idea that gravity may be linked to thermodynamics is currently a hot topic in physics so to ridicule a paper that works on that idea may not be very timely, even if the overall standard of the work is not the highest.

Let’s look at a few of the things that Mark says as he tries to debunk this paper:

“As evidence of this, the author claims to show how heating a copper sphere changes its apparent mass!”

Of course every student of relativity knows that heating an object does increase its mass according to the most well-known equation in science E= mc2. The amount in this case is about 4 nanograms, not the 20 grams suggested in the paper, but Mark is not just quibbling about the amount, he is ridiculing the whole idea that an objects gravitational mass changes as it is heated, yet it does. If you are going to debunk something it is important to debunk it correctly.

Another phrase Mark uses is “Mass, which at non-relativistic speeds is effectively constant …” This makes it clear that Mark’s knowledge of relativity comes from popular books where increasing mass with speed is often used as a cheap way to explain why objects cannot be accelerated to light speed. In professional scientific papers physicists always regard mass as an invariant of velocity. If you think I am being hard on him you can check what he admits in a previous post:

“I’ve read a couple of books on relativity, and I don’t pretend to really fully understand it. I can’t quite wrap my head around all of the math. That’s after reading several entire books aimed at a popular audience.”

With all due respect Mark, if your knowledge of physics and your command of maths is so poor then you are not the right person to be debunking any scientific work.

As Mark observes about himself

“There is the danger of screwing up ourselves. I’ve demonstrated this plenty of times. I’m not an expert in all of the things that I’ve tried to write about, and I’ve made some pretty glaring errors. I do my best to acknowledge and correct those errors, but it’s all too easy to deceive myself into thinking that I understand something better than I actually do. I’m embarrassed every time that I do that.”

Well Mark, if you are having so much difficulty it may be better to stop the negative posts and try to do a few more of the “fun” ones about good maths.

This kind of thing would be less sad were it not for the fact that Mark’s comments around the blogosphere have a serious impact on people’s willingness to use viXra. The meme that viXra.org is for cranks discourages many scientists and mathematicians from using it when they do not have access to arXiv.org. A quick check through our database reveals 143 out of 1065 submissions to viXra.org have comments indicating that they are published in peer review journals. That is not a bad rate considering we have been going for less than a year and it can take many months to get a paper published. Most people do not update the comments when a paper is finally accepted.

I notice that Mark works for Google as a computer scientist which makes me wonder how many other people there are under the illusion that they understand the scientific process despite such a poor grasp of science themselves. It is no longer a surprise to me that Google do not index viXra.org in Google Scholar despite having more than a 1000 articles. That puts it in the second largest category you can select on their submission page. They claim that if you are a publisher of scholarly works and would like to have your content included in Google Scholar, then your content is welcome. viXra.org was submitted as a site some months ago but they still only include articles that are cited from other sources. Clearly their welcome is not for all. Now we get an idea why that is.


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