Archive for: June, 2015

Why are librarians hesitant to CANCEL ALL THE JOURNALS?

There's lots of discussion out there right now in the twitter and blog world concerning Bjorn Brembs' call to librarians to jumpstart the mass migration to Open Access by essentially unilaterally cancelling all the journals they subscribe to. This act would force the hands of all the various players in the ecosystem to immediately figure out how to make Open Access work.

Which is a great idea. I actually kind of mused about this sort of scenario a while back in a post called An Open Access thought experiment. Except what I wasn't smart enough or brave enough to do was imagine a scenario where it was librarians themselves who up and cancelled all the journals rather than it just happening.

Why would that be? Well, I think it's safe to say that librarians don't feel they have the power to unilaterally cancel all their institution's subscriptions without some fearsome retribution either from within the institution itself or from elements of the publishing world.

Recently the University of Montreal's library cancelled a big deal and seem to have gotten good support internally. So that's hopeful. By the same token, the SUNY Potsdam library's cancellation of the American Chemical Society a few years back seems to have had strong support internally. It was externally that the blowback happened. So that's both good news and bad news.

Most recently the situation at Brock University in Ontario is an interesting example of what librarians fear will be the outcome of any large-scale cancellation exercise. The Brock library cancelled the Wiley big deal package, with what they thought was internal support. But a firestorm ensued with ultimately the Brock Faculty Association filing an internal grievance to force the administration to fund the library at the level necessary to subscribe to the journals. The grievance has since been dropped, leaving it to the Senate to pick up the pieces, but the implication is clear.

Librarians: Act boldly at your own risk.

Of course, it's not that simple. As a species librarians are rather risk-averse. Institutionally, academic librarians are rarely the most powerful constituency on campus and maintaining the influence we do have is a tricky dance at best. This is not to mention that many librarians are quite happy with the subscription status quo as it more-or-less is. Handling journal subscriptions is a clearly defined role, one that makes us feel important. If that importance is often more in the cynical eyes of the publishers who flatter us than in the eyes of the local communities whom we actually build those collections for, well, that's nothing new.

Barbara Fister has much more on this issue here, Determining our Tech, and in the comments of the post:

Recently Björn Brems suggested that librarians should simply cancel all subscriptions to fix this problem. On Twitter Mike Taylor predicted that things would sort themselves out within three months of the mass die-off of subscription journals. Of course, that ignores the likely fallout: librarians would be fired and possibly arraigned on charges of collusion, the budgets they had devoted to subscriptions would not be reallocated to supporting institutional repositories or any other way of sharing information, and the many scholars who email colleagues for the PDFs they no longer could access would find out their colleagues couldn’t access them, either. Three months for the establishment of a new and better system seems a bit optimistic and based on some serious misconceptions, such as that the scholarly record Is safely preserved in LOCKSS and that somehow the copyrights publishers hold to that material will suddenly be irrelevant as publishers implode. Remember that the majority of books published in the 20th century live in copyright limbo? Yeah. Canceling subscriptions en masse won’t fix that problem.

The Library Loon suggests some ways those on the research/publishing side could perhaps better understand the pressures and constraints that librarians work under:

Kent Anderson works for a scholarly publisher. So does Peter Binfield.

Phil Davis is a researcher. So is Martin Eve.

Why is it so hard for certain portions of the open-access movement to assimilate that libraries and librarians are not monolithic with respect to open access (or, indeed, much of anything else) either?

To be sure, some of the answer to that question is “unconsidered privilege.” Librarianship is a feminized profession; that has profound social consequences vis-à-vis voice and silencing as well as political capital and lack of same. It is hardly coincidence that the loudest voices either spouting absolute nonsense about libraries and scholarly communication or erasing libraries’ contributions to open access altogether have been—universally, as best the Loon can tell—white men.

The Loon can name names if need be. Per her usual practice, she would vastly prefer not to.

Anyone can learn, however. To that end, some suggestions for places to learn about the complex world of libraries, electronic-resource management (as libraries term it), and open access.

Both Barbara and The Loon's posts are well worth reading in their entirety (The Loon refers to me as indefatigable in the post, BTW. I blush.). I couldn't agree with them more.

The paper The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era and Tim Gowers' Elsevier journals — some facts are also both good supplements to this conversation.

To end, I'll compile below as much of the documented history of the Brock case as I could find in a few quick searches online. Thanks to Ian Gibson of Brock University for some insight into their situation. Any misunderstandings remain mine, of course.

I welcome any additions or corrections from colleagues with respect to how I've described what's happened at Brock.

The Brock Library Open Access page is here.

Brock University Senate Meetings & Minutes are here.

As usual, please let me know about any errors or omissions in the list.

Update 2015.06.29. Thanks to input from a colleague at Brock, I have struck out ", with what they thought was internal support".

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Reading Diary: Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire by Cédric Villani and Baudoin

Jun 22 2015 Published by under book review, science books, Uncategorized

A bit of a change of pace for me and my reviewing habits -- a book written in French!

Of course, books about science or scientists are pretty typical review fodder for me. And even more typically, graphic novels about science or scientists are incredibly common for me to review. But books in French? This is a first.

During my recent month-long stay in Paris (sabbatical life FTW!) one of the things I really enjoyed about the City of Light was the profusion of bookstores. Bookstores, record stores, bandes dessinées stores, every neighbourhood had a least a handful of good ones. Which is in stark contrast with north america where you're luck if your neighbourhood has any good bookstores or record stores. So I definitely enjoyed Paris.

Hanging out in a neighbourhood bande dessinée shop (bande dessinée, or BD, is the word French-speaking people use for graphic novels), of course I had to ask what the story is with science-themed BDs. It seems that there's not much happening overall yet, but the clerk did point me to one recently published book that perfectly fits the bill.

That would be Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire by Cédric Villani and artist Edmond Baudoin.

The name Cédric Villani might be familiar to my mathematically inclined readers. He's the flamboyant French mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2010 for his work on Landau damping and the Boltzmann equation. He's published a well-received memoir about his work in French which was recently translated and published in an English version as Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure. And apparently, he is also a huge BD fan!

Which brings us to Les Rêveurs lunaires (Lrl).

Lrl is a wonderful socio-politico-historical-biographical treatise on four very important figures in the intersection of science and society during World War Two: Werner Heisenberg, Alan Turing, Leo Szilard and Hugh Dowding. Three of those are scientific household names to some degree but the fourth, Hugh Dowding, was a British soldier, Air Chief Marshall during the Battle of Britain to be exact. Which makes him a bit of an odd selection among the other three. But as we shall see, Villani has a very specific reason for contrasting Dowding's story with the other three.

And in many ways, this book is very much the story of those four men and what roles they played in WWII, where the scientists and mathematicians of each side vied with each other to get an edge, whether it be through developing atomic weapons or creating better secret codes than the other side or better yet, breaking the other side's codes without them knowing. Which is very much what Villani wants to highlight -- the stories of how those men worked on serious scientific problems, Heisenberg on the bomb for the Nazis, Turing on codebreaking for the allies, Szilard on the bomb for the Allies. What were the social and ethical implications of that work? Did the scientists have a higher duty to humanity? How did the societies that these men word for treat them in reward for the work they did? All very interesting questions.

As for the soldier? Well, the practical considerations of waging war are not immune to higher considerations.

Narratively speaking, Villani and Baudoin use their own conversations about the project as a framing device as they tackle each man's story in turn, with the occasional extra little sidebar. For the most part, each biographical section is told if not in the words of the subject, at very least very much from his point of view, their framing device allows them to sharpen the focus of what they want to say about science in society rather than solely the viewpoint of subjects themselves. Heisenberg certainly would not necessarily be the most objective person about his role in the Nazi atomic bomb development program. Szilard by contrast seems to be the author's favourite both in terms of his moral and ethical stances and how he was able to predict so much of what went on during the war and immediately after. Szilard's section definitely has all the moral outrage at the injustice, tragedy and waste of war. It's also the section where the authors do the most musing on the role of scientists and whether or not they should share their research for the benefit of the warmongers. Szilard's mix of pacifism and outrage are really the moral and narrative centre of the book.

Turing's story gets a very sympathetic treatment, even if they do end up portraying his death as suicide (they do acknowledge the controversy in the Postface at the end). Dowding the soldier gets a rather different treatment. His section emphasizes the role of preparation in winning wars as well as the ability to make concrete, timely decisions on the best information available.

Of course, much of the technology base and information that goes into those preparations and that decision-making process would come from the scientists or codebreaker roles that are profiled earlier. Villani uses this contrast to great effect. If the opening sections are all about creating doubt and ethical conundrums, the final section on Dowding is more of a "There's a war going on here" cold shower. Villani ultimately sides with the Turings and Szilards, the men who most want a more moral face on science, but he is ultimately aware that all is not black and white, that there are abundant shades of grey.

Overall, Cédric Villani and Edmond Baudoin's Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire is a terrific book, informative and thought-provoking. If it has any weaknesses, it is perhaps a little on the wordy side, being more of an illustrated book than really taking advantage of the dynamic nature of the graphic novel medium. It's "Frenchness" in some parts might be a bit jarring to non-European readers, but at least until it's translated into English that won't be too much of an issue. Baudoin's art is very good: claustrophobic, dark, moody and intense, the perfect tone for the serious subject matter. I do wish he'd had the chance to stretch out a little and show a more dynamic and narrative side of the story.

I recommend this book without hesitation to any public or academic library that collects French-language graphic novels, especially those with scientific or historical themes. Given the level of French, it would be suitable for high school libraries which support French immersion programs. It would also make a great gift for any science or history graphic novel fan with a decent French reading level.

Speaking of which, this would be a great book to translate into English. Hint hint.

And further speaking of science-themed French graphic novels, one series I spotted in Paris but didn't buy any copies of (luggage already full & BDs are heavy...) is the Tu mourras moins bête series by Marion Montaigne. The title translates as "You will die less stupid." They all cover scientific ideas with the first tackling science in the movies. I can't wait for a chance to get a hold of this series!

Villani, Cédric and Edmond Baudoin. Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire. Paris: Gallimard/Grasset, 2015. 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-2070665938


Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:

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Around the Web: BB King, Christopher Lee, Ornette Coleman, Joël Champetier

Jun 16 2015 Published by under around the web, friday fun, music

I'm just back from an extended sabbatical work/vacation trip to Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin -- yes, I did meet with some science publishers while I was in Europe! -- and while in Europe a couple of the true icons of my childhood died: BB King and Christopher Lee. As well, jazz icon Ornette Coleman also died while I was in Europe and while he wasn't an icon from my childhood years I do respect and understand the impact he had on the world of jazz. Quebec science fiction writer also passed away Joël Champetier.

I thought I'd use this post to remember a thing or two about each of these greats as well as collect a small selection of the various online remembrances of their impact.


BB King

It's hard to overstate the importance of BB King to my musical development. I learned to love the blues from BB King. He's the artist I've seen in concert the most times, at 5 or 6, the most recent being a double bill with George Benson at the Montreal Jazz Festival about 15 or so years ago. Every time he was awesome, the consummate blues singer and guitarist. And it all started way back in the 1970s. As it happens, my father was a huge Johnny Carson fan and would watch the Tonight Show most knights. As a youngster I often stayed up to watch it with him on Friday nights or during the summer. Of course, Carson was well known as a jazz fan so he would often have musical guests of a jazzy or bluesy nature. Probably most often, Mr. BB King. Who's music captivated me from the very first time I saw him.


Christopher Lee

If BB King taught me to love the blues, Christopher Lee taught me to love horror movies. Fortunately as a youngster my parents didn't seem to care what I watched on TV, so I tended to watch the weirdest and most extreme stuff available at the time. We're talking the early 1970s here. And at the time, we're talking the old Hammer horror flicks. Hard to believe they were such mainstays on the tube in that era, but to say the least, I loved them. And I especially loved the many Dracula films staring Lee in the title role. He was so intense and evil, yet somehow majestic and proud. I was hooked. And I followed he career over the decades, watching him in countless cheapo films and some very good ones as well, like The Wicker Man or The Man with the Golden Gun. Of course, the pinnacle of his career was staring in the twin roles that made him immortal for all generations, not just old horror movie fans. Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, of course. And Count Dooku in the last two Star Wars movies, where he was by far the best thing about the films. He's be missed. I read his memoirs Tall Dark and Gruesome and they give a wonderful picture of the man and the actor.


Ornette Coleman

Not too long ago I was listening to Ornette Coleman's calling card album Free Jazz and I thought to myself, "This is the music they should have used for the cantina scene in Star Wars." Bracing, bizarre, atonal, wild and free, yet strangely tuneful all the same, this landmark album from 1961 sounds as fresh today as it did in 1961. Not only that, it still sounds like it comes from the future, like it's music we're not quite ready for, that's just over the horizon. Hence my thought: how cool would it have been if the cantina band in Star Wars had been Ornette Coleman and his group playing some Free Jazz?

JazzTimes has a nice compilation of articles on Coleman here.


Joël Champetier

And finally, on a more personal note, the Quebec French-language science fiction writer Joël Champetier also died while we were away, on May 30th. I knew Joël a little bit -- and my wife translated one or two of his stories into English -- the Canadian SF world being a rather small place. I was always happy to run into him at an SF convention, usually a Canadian WorldCon or some such larger convention. It's been a while since I've been to any conventions and a while since I last say Joël. He was a good person and a great writer. He'll be missed.

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