Monday, December 16, 2013

Beall's Rant

Jeffrey Beall of Beall's list of predatory scholarly publishers recently made some strident arguments against Open Access (OA) in the journal tripleC (ironically, an OA journal). Beall's comments are part of a non-refereed section dedicated to a discussion on OA.

Michael Eisen takes down Beall's opinion piece paragraph by paragraph. Stevan Harnad responds to the highlights/lowlights. Roy Tennant has a short piece on Beall in The Digital Shift.

Beall's takes a distinctly political approach in his attack on OA:
“The OA movement is an anti-corporatist movement that wants to deny the freedom of the press to companies it disagrees with.”
“It is an anti-corporatist, oppressive and negative movement, [...]”
“[...] a neo-colonial attempt to cast scholarly communication policy according to the aspirations of a cliquish minority of European collectivists.”
“[...] mandates set and enforced by an onerous cadre of Soros-funded European autocrats.”
This is the rhetorical style of American extremist right-wing politics that casts every problem as a false choice between freedom and – take your pick – communism or totalitarianism or colonialism or slavery or... European collectivists like George Soros (who became a billionaire by being a free-market capitalist).

For those of us more comfortable with technocratic arguments, politics is not particularly welcome. Yet, we cannot avoid the fact that the OA movement is trying to reform a large socio-economic system. It would be naïve to think that that can be done without political ideology playing a role. But is it really too much to ask to avoid the lowest level of political debate, politics by name-calling?

The system of subscription journals has an internal free-market logic to it that no proposed or existing OA system has been able to replace. In a perfect world, the subscription system uses an economic market to assess the quality of editorial boards and the level of interest in a particular field. Economic viability acts as a referee of sorts, a market-based minimum standard. Some editorial boards deserve the axe for doing poor work. Some fields of study deserve to go out of business for lack of interest. New editorial boards and new fields of study deserve an opportunity to compete. Most of us prefer that these decisions are made by the collective and distributed wisdom of free-market mechanisms.

Unfortunately, the current scholarly-communication marketplace is far from a free market. Journals hardly compete directly with one another. Site licenses perpetuate a paper-era business model that forces universities to buy all content for 100% of the campus community, even those journals that are relevant only to a sliver of the community. Site licenses limit competition between journals, because end users never get to make the price/value trade-offs critical to a functional free market. The Big Deal exacerbates the problem. Far from providing a service, as Beall contends, the Big Deal gives big publishers a platform to launch new journals without competition. Consortial deals are not discounts; they introduce peer networks to make it more difficult to cancel existing subscriptions. [What if Libraries were the Problem?] [Libraries: Paper Tigers in a Digital World]

If Beall believes in the free market, he should support competition from new methods of dissemination, alternative assessment techniques, and new journal business models. Instead, he seems to be motivated more by a desire to hold onto his disrupted job description:
“Now the realm of scholarly communication is being removed from libraries, and a crisis has settled in. Money flows from authors to publishers rather than from libraries to publishers. We've disintermediated libraries and now find that scholarly system isn't working very well.”
In fact, it is the site-license model that reduced the academic library to the easy-to-disintermediate dead-end role of subscription manager. [Where the Puck won't Be] Most librarians are apprehensive about the changes taking place, but they also realize that they must re-interpret traditional library values in light of new technology to ensure long-term survival of their institution.

Thus far, scholarly publishing has been the only type of publishing not disrupted by the Internet. In his seminal work on disruption [The Innovator's Dilemma], Clayton Christensen characterizes the defenders of the status quo in disrupted industries. Like Beall, they are blinded by traditional quality measures, dismiss and/or denigrate innovations, and retreat into a defense of the status quo.

Students, researchers, and the general public deserve a high-quality scholarly-communication system that satisfies basic minimum technological requirements of the 21st century. [Peter Murray-Rust, Why does scholarly publishing give me so much technical grief?] In the last 20 years of the modern Internet, we have witnessed innovation after innovation. Yet, scholarly publishing is still tied to the paper-imitating PDF format and to paper-era business models.

Open Access may not be the only answer [Open Access Doubts], but it may very well be the opportunity that this crisis has to offer. [Annealing the Library] In American political terms, Green Open Access is a public option. It provides free access to author-formatted versions of papers. Thereby, it serves the general public and the scholarly poor. It also serves researchers by providing a platform for experimentation without having to go through onerous access negotiations (for text mining, for example). It also serves as an additional disruptive trigger for free-market reform of the scholarly market. Gold Open Access in all its forms (from PLOS to PEERJ) is a set of business models that deserve a chance to compete on price and quality.

The choice is not between one free-market option and a plot of European collectivists. The real choice is whether to protect a functionally inadequate system or whether to foster an environment of innovation.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Amazon Floods the Information Commons

Amazon is bringing cloud computing to the masses. Any individual with access to a browser now has access to almost unlimited computing power and storage. This may be the moment that marks the official beginning of the end of the desktop computer, which was already on a downward slide because of the rise of notebooks, netbooks, tablets, and smartphones.

For managers of computer labs, this technology eliminates a slew of nitty gritty management problems without good solutions. When a shared computer is idle, do you take action after 5, 10, or 15 minutes? If you wait too long, you annoy users who are waiting for their turn, and you invite unauthorized users to sneak into someone else's session. If you act too soon, you ruin the experience for the current user. Should you immediately log off an idle user or do you lock the screen for a while before logging off? Again, you balance the interests of the current user against those of the next user. Which software do you install where? Installing all software on every computer is usually too expensive. But if each computer in the lab has its own configuration, how do you communicate those differences to the users? The ultimate challenge of the shared computer is how to let students install software that they themselves are developing while keeping the computer relatively secure, usable to others, and free from pirated software.

Amazon has solved all of this and more. With cloud-based computers, there is no such thing as an idle computer, only idle screens. Shutting down a screen and turning it over to another user does not ruin a session in progress. It is more like turning over a printer. The cloud-based personal computer is configured for one user according to his or her requirements. Students and faculty can install whatever software they need, including their own research software. As to the usual suite of standard applications, cloud services like Adobe Creative Cloud, Google Apps, and Windows Azure have eliminated software installation and maintenance entirely.

The potential of cloud computing in the Information Commons is more than substituting one technology with another. Students and faculty suddenly have their own custom computing laboratory with an unlimited number of computers over which they have complete control. One can imagine projects in which cloud-based computers harvest measurements from sensors across the globe (weather-related, for example), read and analyze the news, and data mine social networks. All of this data can then be fed to high-performance servers running research software for analysis and visualization.

Currently, retail pricing for a cloud-based personal computer starts at $35 per month. This is already a very good price point, considering that it eliminates the hardware replacement cycle, software maintenance, security issues, etc. One can also add and drop computers as needed. Moreover, this is a price point established before competitors have even entered the market. 

When computing and storage become relatively inexpensive on-demand commodity services, computing labs are no longer in the business of sharing computing devices, storage, and software; they are in the business of sharing visualization devices. Currently, Information Commons provide large-screen high-resolution monitors attached to a computer. As large-scale, high-performance, big-data projects grow in popularity across many disciplines, there will be increasing demand for more advanced equipment to visualize and render the results. Today's computing labs will morph into advanced visualization labs. They will provide the capacity to use multiple large high-resolution screens. They may provide access to CAVEs (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) and/or additive-manufacturing equipment (which includes 3-D printing). The support requirements for such equipment are radically different from those for current computer labs. CAVEs need large rooms with no windows, multiple projectors, and a sound system. Additive manufacturing may be loud and may require specialized venting systems.

For managers of Information Commons, it is not too early to start planning for this transition. They may look forward to getting rid of the nitty-gritty unsolvable problems mentioned above, but integrating these technologies into the real estate currently used for computing labs and libraries will require all of the organizational and management skills they can muster.