Follower

This post has nothing to do with science. Seamus Heany is dead.

I am only begining to process what that means to me. I claim no deep knowledge of his poetry but it has been with me for a long time. I studied his work at school in the late 1970s; I have a few of his books of poems and prose on my shelves; I saw The Cure at Troy at the Tricycle theatre in 1991; I heard him speak once — when I was a postdoc in Boston in 1994.

Several of his poems remain with me. Follower is one I particularly remember. You can hear me read it below (though I do not have Yeats’ talent for declamation). Now that I am a son and a father, the kick at the end is all the more haunting.

 

Posted in Science & Art | 1 Comment

Remembering Innisfree

I observed recently how the rise of the internet has eliminated letter writing and so caused some of the wells of correspondence that historians and biographers have relied on down through the ages to fall into disuse. But the internet is not all bad as far as reaching into the past is concerned. In fact, it can preserve and propagate memories in ways that are a huge improvement on what went before. We forget every day how lucky we are.

When I was twenty-one years old I visited my uncle in California. During my visit he gave me an audio cassette of W.B. Yeats reading some of his poems, including perhaps his most famous verse, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Yeats, who died in 1939, had made the scratchy recording for the BBC in 1932. The sound quality is rather poor but Yeats’ sonorous voice rises clearly enough above the rustling bed of noise. I treasured that cassette. It seemed a miracle that Yeats could be brought to life from so long ago.

And then, a few years later, I lost it. In a thoughtless moment I left the cassette on a plane and never saw it again. But thanks to the internet Yeats’ voice is back, and will always be here from now on. I hope the ready access of the web will not breed a contemptuous familiarity. I write this to remind myself of the loss that went before.

I remember studying The Lake Isle of Innisfree at school and it has stayed with me ever since. Not every day, of course, for life brings too many distractions, but every now and then, especially when I escape from London, it floats back to me accompanied by the music of Yeats’ own voice.

Why has it endured so well? I make no pretensions at literary analysis; my understanding of the form and function of poetry has barely advanced since I was at school, so students of English should look away now. For me, the appeal of Yeats’ poem lies partly in its simplicity; partly also in the fact that it was inspired by a memory of his Irish childhood evoked on the streets of London, and so resonates with the ache of the emigrant; and partly from Yeats’ insistence in his reading on the rhythm of the verse, which pulses with the rhythms of nature that are too easily forgotten in the city.

Yeats explains his reading style and choice of poem at the beginning of the recording:

“I am going to read my poems with great emphasis on their rhythm and that may seem strange if you are not used to it. I remember the great English poet William Morris coming in a rage out of some lecture hall, where somebody had recited a passage out of his Sigurd the Volsung. ‘It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble,’ said Morris, ‘to get that thing into verse!’ It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”

“I am going to begin with a poem of mine called The Lake Isle of Innisfree because if you know anything about me, you will expect me to begin with it. It is the only poem of mine which is very widely known. When I was a young lad in the town of Sligo I read Thoreau’s essays and wanted to live in a hut on an island in Lough Gill called Innisfree, which means ‘heather island’. I wrote the poem in London when I was about twenty-three. One day in the Strand I heard a little tinkle of water and saw in a in a shop window a little jet of water balancing a ball on the top. It was an advertisement I think for cooling drinks but it set me thinking of Sligo and the lake water. I think there is only one obscurity in the poem — I speak of noon as a ‘purple glow’; I must have meant by that the reflection of heather in the water.”

 

 

Here is the poem itself, though please take the time to listen to Yeats’ reading:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand by the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The poem has come back to me recently because I managed to quit London for a couple of weeks during the summer and spend time at the coast, in places where Nature still asserts herself. It’s not that I am ignorant of the natural rhythms of the planet when in London. I see the dawn and the dusk. And we are lucky enough to have a small garden. But the sunrise and sunset are washed out by street-lights and our garden is hemmed in by trees which, though they shield us from our crowding neighbours, truncate the horizon severely.

I know of no better place than the coast for opening your eyes and cupping your ear to the murmur in the ‘deep heart’s core’. The distant horizon divides a canvas of sea and sky seemingly made for the play of light that accompanies the rise and fall of the sun. Closer to shore the pull and push of the tide speak of celestial forces that are not easily tamed. Closer still I found myself attending to the toil of insects (including the honeybee) and the swell of summer blackberries. My gaze followed gulls sailing on the air spilled upwards as the wind from the sea blundered into the cliffs.

Bee on a flower

The rhythm of nature soothes, as does the rhythm in Yeats’ recitation of his poem about retiring from the world to Innisfree. The notion is romantic, of course. Hopeless. There is work to be done. And yet, his words and the sounds of nature have a gravitational pull, weak but insistent, that draws us back to an essential truth: we are part of this world, not separate from it. Our grandiose cities and technologies might distract, but the rhythms of the planet have endured a long time and, momentary perturbations such as pollution and climate change aside, are likely to outlast us.

 

Posted in Science | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Scholarly publishing: time for a regulator?

“…price rises coupled with high profits, mis-selling scandals […] and a lack of transparency over bills have destroyed consumers’ trust […], a committee of MPs has said in a report that also criticises the sector’s watchdog for failing to take effective action.

The […] committee said consumer fears that price rises were out of step with the underlying costs […] were valid, and the regulator was not doing enough to ensure companies were open and transparent.”

So ran the opening lines of Fiona Harvey’s recent piece in the Guardian about the UK’s energy suppliers and Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets), the arms-length body set up by government to regulate them. As I read her report I found myself wondering: why isn’t there an equivalent organisation — an Ofpub — to oversee the ‘market’ in scholarly publishing?

Ofgem operates completely independently of the supply companies and has a duty to represent the interests of consumers:

“Our priority is protecting and making a positive difference for all energy consumers through promotion of value for money, security of supply and sustainability, for present and future generations. We do this through the supervision and development of markets, regulation and the delivery of government schemes.

There’s a similar body — Ofwat – to regulate the water supply industry, whose job is “to make sure that your water company provides you with a good quality service at a fair price”.

And Ofcom oversees telecommunications and broadcasting services. It regulates “TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate” and is required to “make sure that people in the UK get the best from their communications services and are protected from scams and sharp practices, while ensuring that competition can thrive.”

Together these organisations are charged by the government with ensuring that citizens in the UK have good and affordable access to services that are considered to be basic necessities in a modern society. Their existence embodies government recognition of the unusual features of the markets in the provision of water, gas, electricity and communications. The markets are effectively ‘captive’ since our society agrees that everyone should have reasonable access to these services. Moreover, several of the major providers were previously nationalised industries and part of the role of the regulators is to ensure that, following privatisation, they should be actively inhibited from monopolising the markets in which they operate.

The comparison is not perfect but arguably there are strong parallels between the markets in basic utilities and scholarly publishing, which researchers would regard as an amenity that is fundamental to their work and livelihoods. The case for regulation is strengthened by the fact that the publishing market is currently dominated by a small number of large companies and that the major consumers of academic journals —universities and research institutions — are publicly funded. There is also the unusual consideration that in this market, these same publicly funded consumers are also the primary, though largely unpaid, producers of the goods that publishers sell, as authors, reviewers and editors.

So why is there not an Ofpub? It is easy to think up duties for such a body, which of course should operate independently of publishing companies.

It could be tasked with ensuring that the UK get value for money for the millions that it spends annually on journal subscriptions, and so avoiding the serials crisis; with reining in the excessive profit margins of publishing companies (whether toll or open access)*; with fostering an innovative and efficient market in open access publishing (to promote government policy); with enforcing green open access deposition mandates; with requiring publishers to display ‘health warnings’ on adverts for their highly questionable impact factors and, better yet, links to full and appropriately statistical reports on the performance of all the articles in their journals; with applying penalties to companies that attempt to game the system by publishing fake journals or by artificially inflating citation counts.

That seems to me a reasonable wish list for such a body though I appreciate  the matter is not entirely straight-forward. Academic research is very often an international affair so regulatory mechanisms based on models to govern the provision of services on a national basis may not be the most appropriate. Complications may also arise from different approaches to regulation across the globe. However, there are enough ongoing experiments in international coordination of markets and regulatory frameworks, from the EU to the World Trade Organisation, to suggest that the international dimension of the problem may be surmountable.

But to return finally and briefly to the UK, the absence of an Ofpub highlights a fundamental problem in present government policy on open access scholarly publishing, as defined in the Finch report and its subsequent interpretation by RCUK: it has failed to resolve the conflicting interests of the companies that provide publishing services and the communities they are supposed to serve, the most important ones being the academic consumer-producers and the much larger group of taxpayer-citizens.

It is not hard to see how this happened since the composition of the Finch working group included publishers’ representatives and Dame Janet Finch has acknowledged publicly that part of her working group’s remit was to not damage the publishing industry. It is clear from the report — now just over a year old — and from the very mixed reaction to it from scholars, that the publishing representatives did a very good job of protecting their interests.

The government’s approach to scholarly publishing contrasts markedly with its attitude to the regulation of other public utilities. Ofgem, Ofwat and Ofcom operate independently of industry interests on behalf of the nation and its citizens. Is it not time to establish a similarly robust and independent regulator for scholarly publishing?

 

*Earlier this year, Ofgem revealed that some suppliers were earning profit margins of 24% and above on energy generation, but some major publishers are reckoned to extract margins closer to 40% (see reports in Nature and The Economist).

Posted in Open Access | Tagged , , , | 33 Comments

Richard Poynder asks: where are we with open access?

This post has been written simply to point you to an interesting series of interviews that Richard Poynder has published on his blog with a range of stakeholders in the open access arena. So far he has mostly interviewed advocates, but as anyone knows who has spent more than twenty minutes on this topic, open access is a broad church.

As a taster to tempt you to read the interviews in full for yourself, I’ve listed the participants and pulled out a couple of key quotations for each. The contributors are presented in reverse chronological order and I’ll update this post as more are added (holiday breaks permitting).

Update (31 July 2013): Richard has been busy and has posted four more interviews so I have added tasters to the original set. I recommend that you follow the links to the original interviews, especially since they now include Peter Suber and significantly expand the geographical reach of this project by incorporating contributions from Portugal, Australia and Argentina. On the particular question of hybrid OA, there seems to be a theme emerging.

Update (29 Aug 2013): And then there were two more (numbers 10 and 11). I can particularly recommend No. 11, the interview with Alexander Grossmann, a former publisher who is now looking to push open access in new directions.

Update (01 Oct 2013): I have run out of steam on maintaining this post (something to do with the start of another academic year…) but Richard Poynder is still going strong! His latest interviews are with Sven Fund from the publisher De Gruyter and a very different take from OA ‘radical’ Björn Brembs.

Keep up with the series at the OA story rumbles on via this summary page on Poynder’s blog.

 

11. Alexander Grossmann — Professor of Publishing Management at the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences; founder of ScienceOpen

On publishers: “One lesson I learned after more than a decade in scholarly publishing is that fewer and fewer scientists regard publishing houses as their partners.”

On OA: “One thing that would push authors to make the level of access to their paper a central consideration would be for funding bodies and universities to change their assessment standards to focus on article-level metrics rather than journal impact factors.”

On hybrid OA: “I cannot see why we should continue to formulate new models which attempt to combine the classical subscription model with OA publishing. For a certain period of time it was legitimate to use hybrid models in order to immediately react to the demand for OA. Today the transition process has moved on and both publishers and funding organizations should by now have had enough time to develop a new concept.”

10. Anthony Durniak — Staff Executive for Publications at IEEE (The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)

On OA: ”OA publishing will probably not be much less expensive as some hope. Right now some say OA “is an order of magnitude less expensive” than traditional publishing. But as the experience of the Public Library of Science has demonstrated, OA publishing is in the same range as traditional publishing.”

On hybrid OA: “IEEE’s policy is that we will provide all options as long as the author community uses them.”

9. Dominique Babini — Open Access Advocacy leader at the Latin American Council on Social Sciences

On OA: ”We owe ourselves a global discussion about the future of scholarly communication. Now that OA is here to stay we really need to sit down and think carefully about what kind of international system we want to create for communicating research, and what kind of evaluation systems we need, and we need to establish how we are going to share the costs of building these systems.”

On hybrid OA: “I worry about this alternative approach. It is based on the needs of commerce, not researchers, and makes very little sense in the context of developing regions — where the average research salary and the average research budget simply cannot afford APC rates that are fixed at international levels.”

8. Peter Suber — Director of Harvard’s Office of Scholarly Communication

On RCUK policy: ”I’m disappointed with the RCUK policy. I’m disappointed that the UK government put more publishers than researchers on the Finch Group. I’m disappointed that the group gave a higher priority to insuring publishers against risk than assuring public access to publicly-funded research. I’m disappointed that the government accepted this recommendation as fulfilling its responsibility to serve the public interest.”

On hybrid OA: “Hybrid is a risk-free way for TA publishers to experiment with OA, and many conventional publishers are offering it. However, they aren’t offering it because they support OA, but because it’s risk-free and a growing number of funders are willing to pay for it. The uptake from authors is very low, and because hybrid journals can always fall back on subscriptions, publishers have no incentive to increase author uptake.”

7. Danny Kingsley — Executive Officer of the Australian Open Access Support Group (AOASG)

On OA incentives: “The real game changer will be altering the reward system. The publishers have been able to maintain the status quo because the reward system backs the outdated and inappropriate Journal Impact Factor as a measure of quality. Apart from measuring the vessel (journal) rather than the content (article), it is becoming clear that this type of measure is being ‘gamed’, rendering this kind of assessment even less useful.”

On hybrid OA: “I do not support Hybrid Open Access in any way. It is from my perspective indefensible. If the publisher of a subscription journal feels that it would be good to have certain research available Open Access then they should permit deposit of and immediate access to the Accepted Version in a repository. Despite the repetition of the claim by publishers about threats to their ‘sustainability’, there is no evidence that this affects subscriptions.”

6. Eloy Rodrigues — Director of Documentation Services, University of Minho, Portugal

On RCUK policy: “I have been particularly disappointed over the last year to see how a move (the new RCUK OA policy) that was intended to foster OA, has contributed to a more confused landscape, and could have some very dangerous consequences — e.g. the wasting of research resources by diverting even more money into a currently very well (if not over) financed publishing industry, the downgrading of green OA, the lengthening of embargoes etc., etc.).”

On hybrid OA: “I understand that Hybrid OA could, theoretically, be a good way of transitioning to Open Access. But I fear that, in practice, Hybrid OA is not providing a valid and fair strategy for the transitional period. In fact, despite a few examples of genuine commitment from publishers, the truth is that for most of the “big players” Hybrid OA seems to be essentially an opportunity to increase revenues by ‘double dipping’”

5. Joseph Esposito — Publishing Consultant

On OA:“My view of OA […] is that it is a useful, marginal activity that opens up a new class of customers through the author-pays model and that it would be subject to the laws of market economics like any other thing. And that’s what has happened. It is additive, not substitutive. And it’s a great development. It’s just not a revolution.”

On hybrid OA: “I don’t have any evangelical feelings about any aspect of publishing, not traditional publishing, not OA, not hybrid OA. If people find it useful (as evidenced by their willingness to pay for it), that’s fine. If they don’t find it useful, it goes away, at least in theory, though many services lacking in demand get supported indefinitely in some settings.”    

4. Heather Joseph - Executive Director of SPARC 

On incentives:“The second is to more aggressively align the incentive system for scholars to reward the adoption of OA practices. Funders, research evaluators, administrators need to be educated about the potential benefits that can accrue to individuals and institutions when OA is supported as the norm, and rewarded accordingly. “

On hybrid OA: “while some publishers who have implemented hybrid models have done a terrific job of clearly reporting the uptake of OA by authors, and lowering subscription fees, many have not — especially in the cases where publishers require bundled subscription purchases.”  

3. Fred Friend - Retired Librarian, Consultant 

On OA: “The story of BOAI can be a source of encouragement to any who feel depressed by the power of vested interests to block changes needed to release the power of human endeavour.”

On hybrid OA: “In principle hybrid journals could have assisted in a transition to an individual-article publishing model, but the continuing publisher accounting model by journal title rather than by individual article has rendered hybrid journals ineffective as a mechanism for change.”  

2. Stevan Harnad - Professor of Cognitive Science and self-styled archivangelist 

On OA: “I have to remind everyone that OA means Open Access. It is about refereed research access, not about journal affordability. The accessibility problem and the affordability problem, though not entirely unconnected, are not the same problem. So once we reach 100% Green OA, my OA work is done.”

On hybrid OA: “Hybrid Gold is double-paid, over-priced, unnecessary and potentially also double-dipped Fools-Gold. It delays reaching 100% OA by holding it hostage to publishers’ current revenue streams.”  

1. Mike Taylor - Palaeontologist, computer programmer and indefatigable OA advocate.

On the future: ”The great barrier to universal open access is not opposition but inertia. It’s true that there is a whole industry doing its best to preserve ignorance of, and promote falsehood about, open access. But this deliberate damage is insignificant compared with the sheer weight of tradition.”

On hybrid OA: “There are two very fundamental problems with hybrid OA. First, new born-digital publishers like Hindawi, PeerJ and Ubiquity have shown that open-access papers can be published at literally an order of magnitude less than the $3000 APCs that are typical of legacy publishers offering a hybrid option. […] The second problem is that, while most publishers offering hybrid promise a “no double dipping” policy, it’s plainly impossible for anyone to verify whether this is true — and probably impossible for the publishers themselves to know.” There’s plenty more where those quotations came from — please take the time to explore further.

 

Posted in Open Access | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Open access on the conference circuit

Having devoted a fair number of the words on this blog to open access over the past year and a half, I have found myself invited to an increasing number of meetings on the topic. Whether run by RLUK, the Royal Society or the LSE, these meetings have invariably been interesting, but they often seem to bring together many of the same people, mostly from libraries, funders, publishers and learned societies.

And when we get together at some point one or the other of us bemoans that fact that despite holding all these meetings, the word on OA and the policy developments in the wake of the Finch report, appear to be diffusing only slowly into the world of academia. I have little doubt that there are many librarians around the country working hard to bring their faculty members up to date — and the British Academy has recently done some sterling work. Nevertheless I sense that progress is on the slow side.

On a couple of occasions I have suggested that funders might usefully support sessions on open access at regular conferences — to catch scholars unawares, as it were — but confess that I haven’t done enough to follow up the suggestion. But when I was turning my mind last month to an upcoming conference, I decided to get off my backside and have a go at some direct action. I contacted the organisers who kindly gave me space for a poster on open access and a short spot in the program in which to advertise it.

And so, last Thursday, at the end of the first session of Translation UK 2013 (devoted mainly to the regulation of the initiation of protein synthesis from messenger RNA — lovely talk by Marvin Wickens, by the way), I stood up to tell the assembled researchers about open access. I told them that, if they hadn’t heard so already, the UK policy on open access had undergone a significant shift on April 1st 2013, that the Wellcome Trust was getting tough on compliance, that HEFCE was considering its position, and that, while the notion of open access seemed to have broad support in the research community, the issue was complex, contentious and, for some, a little bit scary. I directed them to my poster where I had tried to summarise the key developments and challenges.

OA poster - Translation UK 2013

I spoke for a minute, maybe two, but that was enough. I’m not sure how many saw the poster — the sessions were crowded and busy — but practically everyone I spoke to in the breaks wanted to talk about open access. Many of the questions were ones that have been rehearsed at length in the blogosphere but it’s worth bearing in mind that such discussions don’t touch the majority of researchers.

There were concerns about the sustainability of learned societies following the shift to OA (the meeting had generous sponsorship from the Biochemical Society, which runs a stable of journals), about how universities would formulate mechanisms for allocating their OA funds and, of course, about whether OA would prevent them from publishing in journals with the ‘right’ impact factors (one person even told me they had been given a list of recommended journals in which to publish!).

And there were questions about the details; I was surprised — though I guess I shouldn’t have been — to encounter several people who were not aware of the new funding arrangements or of the Wellcome Trust’s tightening of its compliance policy. I would hope also that by simply raising the issue at the conference, conversations were sparked that didn’t involve me.

It’s too early to say for sure but I think the experiment was at least a modest success. I would certainly do it again. With a longer lead time, I might aim to propose a short session of talks or Q&A which would allow the topic to be aired with even more people. If anyone would like to do the same as they head out on the conference circuit this summer, they are welcome to use or adapt my poster: I have deposited it (as a PowerPoint file) on figshare under a CC-BY licence.

Go on — let’s get the message out there.

 

Posted in Open Access | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Debating Open Access

Twelve months after the publication of the Finch Report, during which the new RCUK policy on open access has been published, dissected, debated (including by committees in both Houses of Parliament), revised and implemented, it seems an apposite moment to step back and take stock.

Debating Open Access

A collection of essays published today under the title Debating Open Access presents one attempt to do just that. Given that the essays have been produced under the imprimatur of the British Academy there is an emphasis on the perspective from the humanities and social sciences — I am the only natural scientist among the eight contributors. This is healthy in my view, since the open access debate often appears to be dominated by scientific interests. That domination may simply be due to the fact that money talks — the natural sciences take the lion’s share of funding from the UK Research Councils — but, as Rita Gardner points out in her essay, around half of all UK academics are from the humanities and social sciences.

I have read most of the essays in the collection and so far they seem to me to provide measured and meditative contributions from different stakeholders in the open access debate, even though it is clear that major tensions remain. The essays usefully dissect various aspects of the issue, including the challenges faced by learned societies (Rita Garder), opportunities to take a fresh look at peer review (Martin Paul Eve) and the pertinent differences between disciplines (Ziyad Marar). I particularly appreciated Stuart Shieber’s forensic analysis of scholarly publishing and his identification of support for hybrid journals as a key weakness in current UK policy.

I don’t by any means agree with all that I have read — I confess I struggled to see the world from historian Robin Osborne’s point of view — but am pleased nevertheless to have the arguments and counter arguments laid out in such thoughtful terms. I hope the slender volume will find a wide readership. That should be achieved easily since there are no barriers to access — the essays are available as free PDF downloads, either singly or as a complete collection.

 

Posted in Open Access, Science & Politics | Tagged , | 46 Comments

Tripped up by the light fantastic

Yesterday I went to Mars. I stood on the surface and gazed at the dusty red ground, illuminated as far as the pink horizon by sunlight weakened from a journey that is a 100 million kilometres longer than the distance to planet Earth.

Surface of Mars

The surface of Mars as seen by NASA’s Spirit rover

I didn’t really go to Mars of course but the panoramic vistas on show as part of the Visions of the Universe exhibition at London’s National Maritime Museum give a powerful sense of how it might feel to stand on the surface of the planet. The high-resolution photographs, taken variously by NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are a centre piece of the exhibition. Displayed on a projection screen that is high and wide, they give an immersive experience that cannot be reproduced in a book or on a computer monitor. You have to be there.

Nothing else in the exhibition can compare with the Martian images in terms of sheer scale but there are plenty of other riches of variety and wonder: the moon, the sun, the planets and their satellites, galaxies galore, nebulae and clusters, and star-fields without end. The presentation, mostly as high-resolution photographs with annotation kept to a well-judged minimum, is standard museum fare but the cumulative effect impresses.

Spirial Galaxy M101

It is clear that humankind’s ability to scan the heavens has made huge leaps since telescopes enabled Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilei to sketch the moon and sunspots in the early 1600s and John Draper to take the first black-and-white photograph of the moon in the mid-nineteenth century.

The latest and most astonishing images of the solar system and deep space come from the Hubble Space Telescope. Some will be familiar — the Horse Head Nebula or the Pillars of Creation — but there is a surfeit of variety and detail on show here. After a while it is almost too much to take in. I began to feel gorged on astronomical achievement and the many splendours it has served up.

But I got over that feeling and a kind of humility settled in. However far we have advanced since those earliest sketches and photographs, and however much detail we can now see of the fibrous clouds of swirling matter spread through the universe or of the scarred and sometimes scorched surfaces of our neighbouring planets, we still have such a long way to travel. The visions on display are but a taste of what is out there.

It was good to spend time just looking. To pull out of the daily rush for a few moments and gaze beyond the normal confines of life on Earth. As I sat watching the languorous big-screen slideshow toward the end of the exhibition, soaking in the light and colour and strangeness of the universe in which we find ourselves, I felt again that vertiginous, heart-skipping shudder as my mind turned to wonder where all this stuff comes from, to ponder the frightening mystery of why there is not nothing.

 

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The Hunters

I had never heard of James Salter till I read a profile of him in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, his first in a long time. Salter is 87 and has produced only six novels, two collections of short stories and a memoir in a writing career that has spanned six decades.

He wrote his first novel following his time as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. The Hunters is based on that experience. I got it last week and have been reading since, gripped by the spare narrative. I stayed in bed this morning to finish it and already sense that it is a book that will remain with me for a long time. I’m in no position to do a full review but I wanted to write something.

http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2849/8814038053_664107b708.jpg

The Hunters tells the story of Cleve Connell a fighter pilot who takes charge of a flight, a small group of airmen who fly sorties in jets – ‘ships’ in the unexpected parlance of the airmen – from a base in southern Korea, intermittently encountering enemy MIGs. It is set in a world of men; the female characters are mostly waitresses or escort girls. I’m not sure how much the book will appeal to women but hope it may. The men, being fighters, are by turns gregarious – full of braggadocio – and taciturn, but Cleve observes them clearly.

The story hinges on Cleve’s internal battle with his frustrated aspirations. Arriving at the base as a pilot of reputed skill, he struggles to make his mark as around him lesser men notch up the kills that are the only currency of achievement. Salter’s unadorned prose belies the subtlety of his insight. With quiet proficiency he captures the tensions that run within any team or organisation: the bittersweet mingling of esprit de corps and individual ambition; the smoky trails of careers gone awry. The novel is about airmen but will resonate with those who have never left the ground.

“What is your ambition?” she asked after a while.
Cleve closed his eyes. There had been many ambitions, all of them true at the time. They were scattered behind him like the ashes of old campfires, though he had warmed himself at every one of them.

We are all hunters in a way.

Posted in Book Review, Scientific Life | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Impact factors declared unfit for duty

Regulars at this blog will be familiar with the dim view that I have of impact factors, in particular their mis-appropriation for the evaluation of individual researchers and their work. I have argued for their elimination, in part because they act as a brake on the roll-out of open access publishing but mostly because of the corrosive effect they have on science and scientists.

I came across a particularly dispiriting example of this recently when I was asked by a well-known university in North America to help assess the promotion application of one of their junior faculty. This was someone whose work I knew — and thought well of — so I was happy to agree. However, when the paperwork arrived I was disappointed to read the following statement the description of their evaluation procedures:

“Some faculty prefer to publish less frequently and publish in higher impact journals. For this reason, the Adjudicating Committee will consider the quality of the journals in which the Candidate has published and give greater weight to papers published in first rate journals.”

Which means of course that they put significant weight on impact factors when assessing their staff. Given the position I had developed in public (and at some length) I felt that this would make it difficult for me to participate. I wrote to the institution to express my reservations:

“…I think basing a judgement on the name or impact factor of the journal rather that the work that the scientist in question has reported is profoundly misguided. I am therefore not willing to participate in an assessment mechanism that perpetuates the corrosive effects of assessing individuals by considering what journals they have published in. I would like to be able to provide support for Dr X’s application but feel I can only do so if I can have the assurance of your head of department that the Committee will work under amended criteria and seek to evaluate the applicant’s science, rather than placing undue weight on where he has published.”

The reply was curt — they respected my decision for declining. And that was it.

I feel bad that I was unable to participate. I certainly wouldn’t want my actions to harm the career opportunities of another but could no longer bring myself to play the game. Others may feel differently. It was frustrating that the university in question did not want to talk about it.

But perhaps things are about to take a turn for the better? Today sees the publication of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, a document initiated by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) and pulled together with a group of editors and publishers.

Logo of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment

The declaration, which has already been signed by over 75 institutions and 150 senior figures in science and scientific publishing, specifically addresses the problem of evaluating the output of scientific research, highlights the mis-use of impact factors as the central problem in this process and explicitly disavows the use of impact factors. I can hardly believe it. This is the research community, in its broadest sense, taking proper responsibility for how we conduct our affairs. I sincerely hope the declaration becomes a landmark document.

All signatories, whether they be funding agencies, institutions, publishers, organisations that supply metrics or individual researchers, commit themselves to avoiding the use of impact factors as a measure of the quality of published work and to finding alternative and transparent means of assessment that are fit for purpose.

The declaration has 18 recommendations — targeted at the different constituencies. The first one establishes its over-riding objective:

“Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions.”

The remainder go into more detail about what each of the different players in the business of science might do to escape the deadening traction of impact factors and develop fairer and more accurate processes of assessment. By no means does this spell the end of ardent competition between scientists for resources and glory. But it might just be a step towards means of evaluation that are not — how shall I put it? — statistically illiterate.

I urge you to download this document (available as a PDF) read it and circulate it to your colleagues, your peers, your superiors and those junior to you. Tell everyone.

And of course, you should sign it.

 

Update 17th May, 18:28 — I have been discussing my decision — mentioned above — not to participate in the review of a promotion candidate over at Drug Monkey’s blog. He is very critical of my stance and I think may have a point (see his comment thread for details). As a result, while I have not changed my view of the reliance that the selection procedure at the institution involved places on the journal names,  I emailed them this morning to offer my services as a reviewer (their deadline has not yet passed). I also pointed out this blogpost and Drug Monkey’s reply by way of explanation but also with a view to pursuing a discussion about their selection process. If they take me up on my offer, I think I can provide a review and incorporate into it my concerns about the implicit reliance on journal impact factors.

Posted in Open Access, Science | Tagged , , | 41 Comments

Reinventing Excel

In Reinventing Discovery Michael Nielsen says that one of the great things about the Internet is the way it can connect problems with problem-solvers. Well, let’s see if that’s true.

I have a problem with Excel, or rather, with a particular spreadsheet that I would like someone to solve elegantly.

You can download a version of my spreadsheet here. The image below shows the contents. The ‘real life’ spreadsheet will be much bigger but I would like to email it to every person named as a Supervisor, Examiner1 or Examiner2. In principle, each recipient’s name could appear in any of these three columns. I’ve highlighted my own surname to illustrate this.

Image of the Excel spreadsheet

What I want is a text box at the top of the spreadsheet where each recipient could type their name, an action that would at a stroke reduce the spreadsheet to just those rows that contain their name. I’m guessing this could be done with a macro of some sort. I don’t know. Excel baffles me.

Care to have a try? As an incentive I will send a £10 Amazon voucher to the first person to send me a copy of the spreadsheet that has this function. I promise. You can find me at s dot curry at imperial dot ac dot uk.

OK Internet — go!

 

Results time — 16th May, 09:00 

Thanks to all the wonderful people who sent in solutions — what an industrious and inventive lot you are. I got solutions from fifteen different people which I wanted to summarise and share. I’m presenting them more or less in order of receipt (with links to the files), which seemed also to track the level of sophistication. At the end, I’ll announce the winner.

Once of the first entries, from Matthew Russell, hit on a solution that I had implemented crudely myself. The trick is to create an additional column that contains a flag (0/1 or yes/no) to indicate whether the name being searched for occurs in any column:

MRussell_Excel_Soln

Having typed in the name you are searching for, you click on the down-arrow attached to the flag column and use the filter function that appears to filter (on ’1′ in this instance) and so reduce the display to only rows containing that name. Job done. Several others — Dorothy Bishop, Thomas Phillips, Steve Black and Pierre Clavel — came up with similar solutions.

Alan Henness produced a variant on this approach which involves generating a concatenated list of the contents of the columns being searched in a separate column which can then be filtered in the same way as above to find the name you are looking for:

AHenness_Excel_Soln

In this case you click on the down-arrow attached to the Concatenated column and filter on the name you are looking for. Peter Binfield also produced a solution like this. It works well but probably would be rather tricky to implement if you had a large number of columns to search.

These solutions require the user to invoke the filter command but I was really looking for a simpler solution (not trusting to the Excel capabilities of myself or my users). Siobhan Clibbens came up with a nice button-driven implementation that relies on macros. Here, you type in the name you are searching for and click on the easy-to-spot ‘Filter’ button to show only those rows with the search string. Clicking the ‘Clear Filter’ button resets the spreadsheet to its original form.

SClibbens_Excel_Soln

Others sent variants of this button approach including Stephen Royle, Kevin Marshall, and @BenMMiles house mate (still nameless!) but to my eye Siobhan’s had the neatest user interface.

Stuart Cantrill sent a slightly modified version of this approach which, rather than relying on buttons, presented instructions on keystroke combinations to control the filtering of the spreadsheet.

SCantrill_Excel_Soln

Matthew Russell produced a second entry (keen!) that streamlines this approach even further. There are no buttons to press, you simply enter the name you are searching for and hit return. The filtering occurs automatically. To reset, you clear the text entry box and hit return again. Nice.

MRussell_Excel_Soln2

The most radical solution was sent in by Christian Cole who argued strongly on Twitter that Excel is not the tool to be using for this sort of data handling and sent in a web-based solution (zipped file) that relies on HTML and javascript. It works beautifully – the rows of the table (database?) collapse as you type:

CCole_Excel_Soln

I realise I am a lowly Excel neophyte so my commentary on this is almost worthless but I was very impressed by the technical skill on show here. Equally splendid was the willingness of so many people to rise to the challenge. Several commented that they weren’t interested in the £10 prize money, but had simply been driven by the challenge. That’s great news because next time I may not have to offer any reward! ;-)

But there has to be a winner and so the prize goes to Siobhan Clibbens for the combination of the particular elegance of her solution and her speed of submission (Update: see below for modifications suggested by Tom Grant that will make it scalable). Honourable mentions to everyone else.

Ultimately, which solution I implement to solve my real-life problem with depend on how easy it is to adapt to the bigger spreadsheets that I have to handle, but I feel I have made some important steps along the learning curve and that a great deal of help is readily available.

Thanks again to everyone who participated. Internet FTW, as I believe people like to say.

 

Update 18th May, 11:13 — Tom Grant emailed to provide a method for adapting the winning solution to make it work for any length of spreadsheet:

‘Open the VBA editor in Excel (Tools > Macro > Visual Basic Editor) and then select “Module 1″ from the Project bar on the right, the code should show as follows:

——————————

Sub Filter() ‘ ‘Filter Macro ‘Advanced filter across columns B, C and D so that only rows where the name in cell B1 appears in one of these columns are shown.

‘ Keyboard Shortcut: Ctrl+f ‘ Range(“C10″).Select Range(“A8:D21″).AdvancedFilter Action:=xlFilterInPlace, CriteriaRange:= _ Range(“A3:D6″), Unique:=False End Sub Sub Clear() ‘ ‘Clear Macro ‘ ‘ Keyboard Shortcut: Ctrl+Shift+C ‘ ActiveSheet.ShowAllData End Sub

——————————If you replace the line

Range(“A8:D21″).AdvancedFilter Action:=xlFilterInPlace, CriteriaRange:= _

with

Range(“A8″, Range(“A8″).End(xlToRight).End(xlDown)).AdvancedFilter Action:=xlFilterInPlace, CriteriaRange:= _

this will make it good to go for all list lengths.’

Thanks Tom!

 

Update 19th May, 13:45 — Some people just can’t stop themselves. Steve Black has re-worked Matthew Russell’s second solution (mentioned towards the end of the blogpost) to make it work for any size of table. If I have understood correctly, Steve’s solution is an ‘Excel Binary Workbook’ (hence the .xlsb extension on the filename) and relies of some Visual Basic code, which you can access from the menu Tools > Macro > Visual Basic Editor.

SBlack_Excel_Soln

I’ve tweaked it slightly, to add a spacing row at the top and a short instruction on how to reset. Adding the spacing row necessitated a small edit of the code. My changes are in bold below – I set the ActiveSheet.Range (the area highlighted in pale yellow) to start at cell a4 and subtracted 3 from the UsedRange.Rows.Countin the same line to take account of the fact that there are now 3 rows in the spreadsheet before you get to the data that are to be analysed:

Private Sub Worksheet_Change(ByVal Target As Range) If Not Intersect(Target, Target.Worksheet.Range(“b1″)) Is Nothing Then Call HideRows(Target) End Sub

Sub HideRows(TargetName As Range)
Dim cell As Range, rTable As Range

‘set rTable to be active range of table
Set rTable = ActiveSheet.Range(“a4“).Resize(UsedRange.Rows.Count – 3, UsedRange.Columns.Count)

‘unhide all if no name supplied
If ActiveSheet.Range(“b1″).Text = “” Then
rTable.Rows.Hidden = False
Exit Sub
End If

‘hide all
rTable.Rows.Hidden = True

‘only unhide if match found
For Each cell In rTable.Cells
‘test whether cell contains required (ucase ensures capitalisation doesn’t matter); NB also checks student row for simplicity–this might have side effects
If UCase(cell.Value) = UCase(TargetName.Value) Then
cell.EntireRow.Hidden = False
End If

Next

End Sub

Steve recommends cutting and pasting your real-life data into a copy of this spreadsheet to replace the dummy data. To ensure the above version works, you will need to have the data start in cell a4 and have only 3 rows above for your text and headers. Otherwise, you’ll need to edit the code as I have above.

 

Update 25th May, 13:18 — Steve Black has made a further tweak to his spreadsheet, to allow you to search with strings containing wild cards. Previously it only found exact matches. In the new version a search for *Curry* will return every row that contains Curry (e.g. Curry, Stephen Curry, Beef Curry). The search is not sensitive to case.

SBlack_Excel_Soln.v3

 

 

 

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Science: better messy than messed up

I am fascinated by the psychology of scientific fraudsters. What drives these people? If you are smart enough to fake results, surely you have the ability to do research properly? You should also be clever enough to realise that one day you will get caught. And you should know that fabricating results is a worthless exercise that runs completely counter to the spirit of enquiry. Why would anyone pervert their science with fakery?

The reasons why some scientists succumb to corruption have no doubt also intrigued psychologists but of late you could be forgiven for suspecting them of being more preoccupied with committing fraud than analysing it. Psychology is not the only field of inquiry tarnished by incidents of dishonesty — let’s not forget physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk or crystallographer HM Krishna Murthy — but its practitioners may be better placed than most to analyse the origins of the problem.

Indeed one of the most prominent recent transgressors has provided some useful insights. In 2011 Diederik Stapel, a professor of social psychology, was suspended from his job at Tilburg University because of suspected fraud; a subsequent investigation found that he had fabricated data over a number of years that affected over 55 of his publications. Interviewed in the New York Times by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, the disgraced psychologist was candid about where he had gone wrong:

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high.

There’s a fair bit to unpack in those few lines. In part the problem is systemic. Stapel’s allusion to journals’ demands for ‘sexy results’ is a nod to one of the corrosive effects on researchers of the construction of journal hierarchies on the shifting and unreliable sands of impact factors. Stapel elaborates later on in the interview:

What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman.”

Competition for finite resources is no bad thing, helping to ensure that grants and promotions are awarded to the applicants doing the highest quality science, but the process has been undermined by over-reliance on journal impact factors as a measure of achievement. A paper in a ‘top’ journal is now often seen as a more important goal than the publication of the very best science because busy reviewers rely too readily on the name of the journals the applicants’ papers are published in rather than the work that they report. Although ‘many normal people go to the edge’, it is clear that Stapel went well beyond it. At some point the self-promoting salesman overtook the discoverer of truth.

Unfortunately the issue of publication pressures leading to poor scientific practice is hardly news. A decade ago Peter Lawrence — always worth reading on the conduct of science and scientists — analysed the ‘politics of publication‘ and lamented that “when we give the journal priority over the science, we turn ourselves into philistines in our own world.” Lawrence’s gloomy prognosis has been borne out by Fang and Casadevall’s revelation that retraction rates are strongly correlated with impact factors. Stapel’s unmasking continues that sorry trend, one that will not be reversed until we can break our dependency on statistically dubious methods of assessment.

Problems of dubious practice (of varying degrees of severity) are more widespread than most realise but It is still true that most scientists live with the stress of competition without relinquishing their ethics. So what pushed Stapel over the edge? Good mentorship of junior scientists is recognised as a valuable corrective but the Dutch researcher’s training is not discussed in detail in the New York Times interview. He himself seems to think that it was the interaction of his personality traits with the highly tensioned system of publication and reward that led to impropriety. His “lifelong obsession with elegance and order” appears to have been at the root of his frustration with “the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions”.

Stapel is hardly alone in his desire for elegance. Many scientists will have felt the deep satisfaction of conceiving a theory that brings a graceful simplicity to unruly data or of executing experiment that confirms a new hypothesis. There is an almost visceral pleasure in such instances of congruence, and aggravation in equal measure when experiment and theory collide abortively. Thomas Henry Huxley identified the tragedy of science more than a century ago — “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” — but it was for him something you simply had to live with.

However, Huxley’s aphorism belies a more complex truth because science is a messy business and it is not always clear when a fact is truly ugly enough to bring down a hypothesis. The judgement can be a fine one and observations are sometimes set aside quite properly as part of plotting an intuitive path to a new insight; but the process is clouded by the degree of conviction that the scientist has in their cherished hypothesis, so the handling of inconvenient truths can shade into malpractice.

Crick and Watson were up-front about the need to discount some of the data that they worked with en route the structure of DNA — ‘some data was bound to be misleading if not plain wrong’, wrote Watson — but others have dissembled*. Mendel, Millikan and Eddington, for example, all discarded observations that famously conflicted with their respective conclusions on heredity, the charge on the electron and the veracity of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (but see update below with regard to Eddington). As Michael Brooks has pointed out in Free Radicals, his entertaining book on rule-breaking researchers, these renowned scientists may have been vindicated by history but their shady practices were hardly justifiable at the time. Stapel’s misdemeanours of fabricating data to support his hypotheses are more extreme — he also loses out also because his theories of psychological priming have been undermined by his unmasking — but nevertheless lie on a continuum of fraudulent practice with his scientific forebears. They all share the belief that they were right.

Even so, I can’t quite get the measure of Stapel’s behaviour. Perhaps the success that flowed from his synthetic results, given the seal of approval by peer reviewers and editors when published in prestigious journals, validated an approach that he must have known was scientifically dubious. The New York Times interview conveys a sense of regret now that he has been found out — a regret sharpened by the reaction of his wife, children and parents, forced to look anew at a man they knew so well — but why did he never question himself during the years of fabrication?

In my mind I keep returning to Stapel’s dissatisfaction with the untidiness of experimental data. I think that might be because I have just published one of the messiest papers ever to come out of my lab and am rather pleased with it for precisely that reason. I offer this story as a counter-anecdote to the case of the errant psychologist, not as a holier-than-thou pose, but simply to give a sense of what it feels like to wrestle with real data.

Our paper reports the structure of a norovirus protein called VPg. Though long supposed to be ‘intrinsically disordered’, our work shows that the central portion of VPg’s chain of amino acids folds up into a compact structure consisting of two helices packed tightly against one another; the two ends of the protein remain flexible. It’s nice to confound the prevailing viewpoint on VPg but that’s not the interesting bit about our new results.

Murine Norovirus VPg
The VPg protein — a pair of nicely packed helices

The interesting bit is that our structure doesn’t make sense. Not yet at any rate. Usually, working out the structure of a protein is an enormously helpful step towards figuring out how it works but that’s not the case with VPg. Our structure is a bit baffling.

The protein plays a key role in the virus replication, the process of reprogramming infected cells to make the components — proteins and copies of the viral RNA genome — needed to assemble thousands of new virus particles. That’s what infection is all about, at least as far as the virus is concerned (though the infected host often has a different perspective).

VPg acts as seed point for the initiation of the synthesis of new viral RNA genomes. To do this it is bound by the viral polymerase, an enzyme or nanomachine that catalyses the chemical attachment of an RNA base to a specific point — a tyrosine side chain — on the surface of protein. In turn this RNA base becomes the point of attachment for the next one and so on until the whole RNA chain — all 7500 bases — is complete.

From our structure we can see that the tyrosine anchor point on VPg lies on the first helix of the core structure but the problem is that the core is too big to fit into the cavity within the polymerase where the chemistry of RNA attachment occurs. So at first sight, VPg appears to have a structure that interferes with one of its most important functions. To solve this apparent contradiction, we came up with what I thought was a rather lovely hypothesis: we guessed that the VPg structure has to unfold to interact properly with the polymerase, supposing there might be just enough room for a single helix to get into the active site but not a tightly associated pair.

Norovirus polymerase and Vpg

VPg: too bloody big to fit in the polymerase active site!

We tested this idea by mutating our VPg to introduce amino acids changes that would destabilise its core structure, reasoning that this would make it easier for the polymerase to grab on to the protein, so increasing the rate at which it could add RNA bases. But although the changes made disrupted the protein structure, they almost invariably also reduced the efficiency of the polymerase reaction. The experiment succeeded only in generating an ugly fact to disfigure our hypothesis.

Except it’s not dead yet — not to me. I can make excuses. The method we used to measure the rate of addition of RNA to VPg by the polymerase was less than optimal. We couldn’t work with purified components in a test tube, and so had to monitor the reaction inside living cells using an indirect readout for elongation of the RNA chain. It remains possible that this assay is confounded by the effects of other molecules in the cell. Plus, we haven’t yet been able to analyse the structure of the viral polymerase with VPg bound to it — caught in the act of adding RNA bases. Like Thomas, until I can really see evidence that conflicts with my supposition, I’m not ready to give up on the hypothesis that VPg has to unfold to interact properly with the polymerase.

But it could take quite a while to develop the reagents and the techniques to do these more probing experiments and since we had already spent quite a number of years getting to this point, we wanted to publish the results. The story we had to tell in the paper in unfinished. To some eyes it might look like a bit of a mess and I was certainly concerned that the reviewers of the Journal of Virology, where we eventually submitted the manuscript for publication, might insist that we go back to the lab to get the data to fill in the gaps. We had an interesting new structure to report but our experimental analyses had only managed to confirm that we don’t yet know what the structure is for. We were asked some searching questions and the manuscript was improved by the subsequent editing but happily the reviewers — and the editor — still understood that progress in science is more often made in small steps than in giant leaps.

We haven’t tied off the whole story of how VPg in norovirus RNA replication but that’s OK. Now that we have given an honest account of our puzzling structure, others can also apply their minds to the problem. Indeed the publication has already sparked a couple of interesting email exchanges. The situation might still be messy but it’s far from messed up.

Update, May 12: As pointed out by Cormac in two comments below and by Peter Coles on twitter (see my reply below), there appear to be strong arguments for not including Eddington in this list of dissemblers. It is ironic perhaps that a blog on messiness in science should itself become rather messy but I prefer to think it merely shows the value of open discussion.

*Of course, Crick and Watson famously benefitted from not entirely proper access to Franklin’s and Gosling’s X-ray diffraction images of DNA.

Posted in Scientific Life | Tagged , , , , | 32 Comments

Libel Reform – smells like victory

For those few resilient readers who have weathered the year-long storm of open access posts at Reciprocal Space and still look in here occasionally for reports of the libel reform campaign, there is good news.

Libel Reform Campaign logo

Within days I should be able to remove the Libel Reform Campaign button from my web-site because late yesterday afternoon the Defamation Bill had its final reading in the House of Lords. It should pass back to the Commons today for approval (but see updates below!) and then proceed to the statute book.

House of Lords Libel Reform Debate
Lord McNally leading the final Lords debate on the Defamation Bill

 

What a long and rocky road it has been since the campaign started in 2009. Even at the end, it looked as if the bill might be derailed. First, by an amendment introduced by Lord David Puttnam which added provisions on privacy in order to provoke the Government into addressing the legislative challenges to press freedom raised by the Leveson report. That move, which lacked cross-party support and seemed likely at one point to prevent the Defamation Bill being reintroduced to Parliament, was eventually resolved after long night of political horse-trading.

Then on Tuesday last week amendments approved by the Lords which sought to oblige companies to demonstrate real financial damages before suing for libel and to prevent firms contracted to provide public services from using libel law to stymie criticism (echoing a principle established for public bodies) were undone in the House of Commons by a Government-supported amendment introduced by Sir Edward Garnier MP.

It was all getting very complicated — opinions varied on whether the battle was lost or won; see, for example, the blogposts published following the Commons debate by David Allen Green and Prateek Buch.

And then on Monday came news of a government U-turn on the question of enacting a stricter financial test on companies to demonstrate real damage before they could bring a libel action. That volte-face duly transpired in the debate in the Lords yesterday where a government amendment providing for such a test was approved. Why the government changed its mind in the past week remains a mystery to me, as do many aspects of parliamentary language and procedure.

Nevertheless the upshot is that we are on the verge of having significantly reformed libel laws in England and Wales. Not everything the campaign wanted has been won but there is little doubt that the law will change for the better. With enactment of the bill we will have a stronger public interest defence, protection for peer-reviewed academic publications, a test for real financial damages to prevent libel chill and reduce the power imbalance between powerful organisations and private individuals, and a legal framework that is updated for the internet age.

I cannot pretend to understand the exact nature and implications of all the provisions of the final bill — I hope that the legal bloggers will soon weigh in with analysis of what exactly has changed (see final update below*) — but yesterday was most definitely a good day for free debate.

Having observed from near and far over the past few years, it has been an interesting and remarkable journey — a heady mix of social media, chiropracticcelebrity endorsement and courtroom drama, not to mention the unseen hours and hours of dogged campaigning. Special gratitude must go Simon Singh for having the courage to face down the libel threat from the now discredited British Chiropractic Association, a move that was key to igniting the campaign, but particularly also to the folks at Sense About Science, English PEN and Index on Censorship for gathering public support for a campaign that has changed the law. It feels like… democracy.

 


Update (09:51, 24-4-13): Perhaps I wrote too soon because just moments after publishing this post this morning came news of another 11th hour amendment from Sir Edward Garnier MP that aims to reverse the government-backed change made to the Defamation Bill in the Lords yesterday. It is to be hoped that the government will secure support for its own amendment in the Commons this afternoon but we shall have to wait and see…

Update (14:50, 24-4-13): …fortunately, Garnier could read the writing on the wall and, in the end, did not press for a vote on his amendment. Immediately thereafter, and just a few moments ago, the Commons voted to approve the final amendment agreed yesterday in the Lords. And so ends the Parliamentary journey of the Defamation Bill. It should soon reappear as the Defamation Act, 2013. 

Sir Edward Garnier and Peter Bottomley

Bottomley is amused to be defamed (under Parliamentary privilege) by Sir Edward Garnier

*Update (21:06, 24-4-13): The Libel Reform Campaign has broadly welcomed the new legislation while also pointing out some of the missed opportunities. For more detail, see the useful summary (PDF) of the strengths and weakness of the bill that has been passed. Some things will depend on the nature of the procedures to be introduced by government. Dr Evan Harris, who has been involved in the campaign from the start, scored the bill at 19/33 but thought that might rise to 26/33 depending on how new rules and regulations are implemented) 

Posted in Libel Reform | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments