El Naschie works on entanglement now

El Naschie (top), shown photoshopped in with three Nobel laureates.

The Journal of Quantum Information Science will not be getting any of my papers starting today, because today is when I learned that they recently published the following gemA Resolution of Cosmic Dark Energy via a Quantum Entanglement Relativity Theory, by M. El Naschie.
Upon closer inspection, it isn’t hard to see why they published this paper. It’s because  “El Naschie is very highly regarded in the community” and is “always spoken of as a possible Nobel prize candidate”. And as the great man himself has said, “Senior people are above this childish, vain practice of peer review”, so there was no need for that.
Oh, but despite the apparent lack of peer review, they do have a $600 article processing charge for open access. I wonder what costs these charges are meant to offset if the “submit” button just puts the article straight into the publication? Hmmm, I hope that the journal didn’t simply accept money in exchange for publishing the paper under the pretense of “open access”! Golly, that would be unethical.

Funding boost for the arXiv

This is fantastic news: starting this January, the Simons Foundation will provide the Cornell University Library with up to US $300k per year (for the next five years) of matching funds to help ensure the continued sustainability of arXiv.org. The funds are matched to donations by about 120 institutions in a dozen countries that are well funded and are heavy downloaders of articles from the arXiv. It is also providing an unconditional gift of $50k per year. Here’s the press release from the CUL.
I think it is pretty remarkable how an institution like the arXiv, which every reader of this blog will agree is absolutely indispensable for research, has struggled to make ends meet. This is especially true given that the amount of money it takes to keep it going is really just a drop in the bucket compared to other spending. Look at some of the numbers: in the last year alone, there were more than  50 million downloads worldwide and more than 76,000 articles submitted. To have open access to that kind of information for a total cost of about $1m per year? Priceless.

Quantitative journalism with open data

This is the best news article I’ve seen in a while:

It’s the political cure-all for high gas prices: Drill here, drill now. But more U.S. drilling has not changed how deeply the gas pump drills into your wallet, math and history show.
A statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production by The Associated Press shows no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump.

Emphasis added. It’s a great example of quantitative journalism. They took the simple and oft-repeated statement that increased US oil production reduces domestic gas prices (known colloquially as “drill baby drill”), and they subjected it to a few simple statistical tests for correlation and causality. The result is that there is no correlation, or at least not one that is statistically significant. They tested for causality using the notion of Granger causality, and they found that if anything, higher prices Granger-causes more drilling, not the other way around!
And here’s the very best part of this article. They published the data and the analysis so that you can check the numbers yourself or reach your own conclusion. From the data, here is a scatter plot between relative change in price per gallon (inflation adjusted) and the relative change in production:

What’s more, they asked several independent experts, namely three statistics professors and a statistician at an energy consulting firm, and they all backed and corroborated the analysis.
Kudos to Jack Gillum and Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press for this wonderful article. I hope we can see more examples of quantitative journalism like this in the future, especially with open data.

A Federal Mandate for Open Science

Witness the birth of the Federal Research Public Access Act:

“The Federal Research Public Access Act will encourage broader collaboration among scholars in the scientific community by permitting widespread dissemination of research findings.  Promoting greater collaboration will inevitably lead to more innovative research outcomes and more effective solutions in the fields of biomedicine, energy, education, quantum information theory and health care.”

[Correction: it didn’t really mention quantum information theory—SF.]

You can read the full text of FRPAA here.
The bill states that any federal agency which budgets more than $100 million per year for funding external research must make that research available in a public online repository for free download now later than 6 months after the research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
This looks to me like a big step in the right direction for open science. Of course, it’s still just a bill, and needs to successfully navigate the Straights of the Republican-controlled House, through the Labyrinth of Committees and the Forest of Filibuster, and run the Gauntlet of Presidential Vetos. How can you help it survive this harrowing journey? Write your senators and your congresscritter today, and tell them that you support FRPAA and open science!
Hat tip to Robin Blume-Kohout.

Why boycott Elsevier?

Everyone has their own reasons for doing this. There is an interesting debate at Gower’s blog, including a response from an Elsevier employee. Some people dislike Elsevier’s high prices, their bundling practices, their fake medical journals, their parent company’s (now-former) involvement in the global arms trade, their lobbying for SOPA/PIPA/RWA, or other aspects of their business practice. Indeed, for those who want to reform Elsevier, this is one limitation of the boycott, in that it doesn’t clearly target a particular practice of the company that we want changed. On the other hand, others think Elsevier isn’t evil, but just has a communications problem.
In this post, I want to defend a more radical position, which is that we should try not to reform Elsevier or other publishers of academic journals, but to eliminate them. Until the debate over SOPA, I thought this position was too extreme. I thought we could tolerate a status quo in which journals are used for credentialing, and although it is a little unjust and absurd, the only real cost is bleeding the library budgets a little bit.
But the status quo isn’t stable. Open access and self-archiving are expanding. Soon, someone will successfully mirror JSTOR. Libraries are increasingly complaining about subscription costs.
In the long run, the future looks more like arxiv.org. Their front page boasts (as of this writing):

Open access to 731,335 e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics.

Just like the walled gardens of Compuserve and AOL would never grow into the Internet, no commercial publisher will ever be able to match the scope and ease of access of arxiv.org. Nor can they match the price. In 2010, there were about 70,000 new papers added to arxiv.org and there were 30 million articles downloaded, while their annual budget was $420,000. This comes to $6 per article uploaded (or 1.4 cents per download). Publishers talk about how much their business costs and how even “open access” isn’t free, but thanks to arxiv.org, we know how low the costs can go.
By contrast, if you want your article published open access with Springer, it costs $3000. This seems like something we might be able to protest, and convince them to change. We can’t. Elsevier’s outgoing CEO left with a golden parachute worth two million pounds. They’re not going to make that kind of money while running with the efficiency of arxiv.org. So while scientists and the public see the internet as a way of sharing knowledge and driving down costs, publishers like Elsevier see it as a threat. For them, $6/article is a nightmare scenario that has to be stopped.
Some of you might think I’m overreacting. After all, publishers have tolerated self-archiving, citeseer, arxiv.org, etc. so far. This is partly to avoid backlash, and partly because for historical reasons editors of journals like Science and Nature have personally supported the advance of science even over the profits of the companies they work for. But in the long run, we can’t both have everything available for free, and journals continuing to charge extortionate prices. I suspect that a conflict is inevitable, and when it happens, we’ll regret the fact that journals hold all of the copyrights. SOPA was the first sign that publishers are not on the side of advancing knowledge, and if a journal ever goes bankrupt and sells its portfolio of intellectual property, we’ll find out what they’re capable of when they no longer are run by people who place any value on science.
So what can we do about it? A boycott of Elsevier is a good first step. But really we need to change the system so that publishers no longer hold copyright. Their role (and rate of profits) would be like that of the local Kinko’s when they prepare course packs. This would also improve the academic societies, like ACM and APS, by removing the terrible incentive that their publishing gives them to support organizations like the AAP that in turn support SOPA. Instead, they could simply represent communities of scientists, like they were originally designed to do.
I’m not idealistic enough to imagine that arxiv.org is enough. The issue is not so much that it lacks refereeing (which could be remedied easily enough), but that it lacks scarcity. To see what I mean, imagine starting a free online-only virtual journal that simply selects papers from the arxiv. The entire journal archives could be a single html file of less than a megabyte. But without space constraints, it would need to credibly signal that papers accepted into it were high quality. This is nontrivial, and involves convincing authors, readers, referees and hiring committees, all more or less simultaneously. As a community, we need to figure out a way to do this, so that the internet can finally do what it was designed for, and disrupt scientific publishing.
Update: Via John Baez, I came across a proposal for replacing academic journals with overlay boards that seems promising.

The cost of knowledge

Tim Gowers has put up a new pledge website against Elsevier.

For many years, academics have protested against the business practices of Elsevier. If you would like to declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate, then you can do so by filling in your details in the box below.

Why should we boycott Elsevier? We’ve blogged before about Elsevier and highlighted their support of SOPA. They’ve also supported and lobbied for PIPA and the Research Works Act. As Aram commented on Lance Fortnow’s blog, support for one or more of these is a very direct assertion that you oppose open research and the advancement of knowledge in favor of keeping it behind paywalls and protecting profits. That alone is reason enough, but if you want a few more reasons, go read Tim Gowers’ discussion of their heinous practice of “bundling” a few high-quality journals together with a bunch of low quality journals and forcing libraries to buy the whole package at exorbitant prices.
While you may disagree with choosing such a specific target as Elsevier when many of the problems are endemic to scientific publishing, this is as good a place as any to start, and it can serve as a wake up call to other publishers like Springer that also bundle or to other publishers that supported SOPA et al.
If you are interested in supporting the boycott, then we’ve helpfully compiled a list of every Elsevier journal in computer science, physics and mathematics to help you stick to your pledge. Fortunately in our field there are many strong alternatives, so we don’t have to put our academic careers at risk by publishing in inferior journals while adhering to the boycott.


In a move that will undoubtedly bring the US Senate to its knees, the Quantum Pontiff is going dark from 8am to 8pm EST on Jan 18 to protest SOPA, PIPA, the Research Works Act and other proposed acts of censorship.
We suggest you use this time to contact your representatives, read a book (or 1201.3387), or go outside.

Could Elsevier shut down arxiv.org?

They haven’t yet, but they are supporting SOPA, a bill that attempts to roll back Web 2.0 by making it easy to shut down entire sites like wikipedia and craigslist if they contain any user-submitted infringing material. (Here is a hypothetical airline-oriented version of SOPA, with only a little hyperbole about planes in the air.)
I think that appealing to Elsevier’s love of open scientific discourse is misguided. Individual employees there might be civic-minded, but ultimately they have $10 billion worth of reasons not to let the internet drive the costs of scientific publishing down to zero. Fortunately, their business model relies on the help of governments and academics. We can do our part to stop them by not publishing in, or refereeing for, their journals (the link describes other unethical Elsevier practices). Of course, this is easy to say in physics, harder in computer science, and a lot harder in fields like medicine.
There is another concrete way to stand up for open access. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has requested comments on the question of public access to federally-funded scientific research. Comments should be from “non-Federal stakeholders, including the public, universities, nonprofit and for-profit publishers, libraries, federally funded and non-federally funded research scientists, and other organizations and institutions with a stake in long-term preservation and access to the results of federally funded research.” That’s us!
But don’t procrastinate. The deadline for comments is January 2.
Here is more information, with instructions on how to comment.
Here is also the official government Request For Information with more details.

Open Science and the Quantumista Condensate

A rare event occurred today here in Seattle. And I’m not just talking about the 20 minutes of partly sunny skies we got at lunchtime. No, this was something rarer still: a quantumista condensate.
What precipitated this joint gathering of the decohered and the coherent? Michael Nielsen was visiting the University of Washington to deliver a distinguished lecture on the topic of his new book: open science. Having seen Michael talk about this subject 3 years ago at QIP Santa Fe, I can say that he has significantly focused his ideas and his message. He makes a very compelling case for open science and in particular open data. He has thought very hard about what makes online collaborative science projects successful at focusing and amplifying our collective intelligence, why such projects sometimes fail, and which steps we need to take to get to the promised land from where we are currently.
The talk was recorded, and as soon as the video becomes available I’ll put a link here. I highly recommend watching it.
Update (12/12): Here is the link to Michael’s talk.
You might be wondering, what is the optimizer doing there? He is in town to give the colloquium to the computer science department. And given all the excitement, Dave Bacon, aka Pontiff++, couldn’t help but sneak over from Google to check things out. He is the one you can blame for coining the horrible phrase “quantumista condensate”, but you probably already guessed that.

Why medicine needs scirate.com

Defenders of the traditional publishing model for medicine say that health-related claims need to be vetted by a referee process. But there are heavy costs. In quantum information, one might know the proof of a theorem (e.g. the Quantum Reverse Shannon Theorem) for years without publishing it. But one would rarely publish using data that is itself secret. Unfortunately, this is the norm in public health. It’s ironic that the solution to the 100-year-old Poincaré conjecture was posted on arxiv.org and rapidly verified, while research on fast-moving epidemics like H5N1 (bird flu) is
delayed so that scientists who control grants can establish priority.
All this is old news. But what I hadn’t realized is that the rest of science needs not only arxiv.org, but also scirate.com. Here is a recent and amazing, but disturbingly common, example of scientific fraud. A series of papers were published with seemingly impressive results, huge and expensive clinical trials were planned based on these papers, while other researchers were privately having trouble replicating the results, or even making sense of the plots. But when they raised their concerns, here’s what happened (emphasis added):

In light of all this, the NCI expressed its concern about what was going on to Duke University’s administrators. In October 2009, officials from the university arranged for an external review of the work of Dr Potti and Dr Nevins, and temporarily halted the three trials. The review committee, however, had access only to material supplied by the researchers themselves, and was not presented with either the NCI’s exact concerns or the problems discovered by the team at the Anderson centre. The committee found no problems, and the three trials began enrolling patients again in February 2010.

As with the Schön affair, there were almost comically many lies, including a fake “Rhodes scholarship in Australia” (which you haven’t heard of because it doesn’t exist) on one of the researcher’s CVs. But what if they lied only slightly more cautiously?
By contrast, with scirate.com, refutations of mistaken papers can be quickly crowdsourced. If you know non-quantum scientists, go forth and spread the open-science gospel!