Archive June 2012

Finch report: Shift away from journal subscriptions Peter Griffin Jun 19


The UK Government-commissioned Finch Report, which looks at the state of scientific publishing, has called for a shift towards open access publishing which should be underwritten by public money to avoid destroying the well-established and powerful science publishing industry.

The report has just been published and coverage is filtering out from the UK.

The Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, former vice-chancellor of Keele University, was convened last yearby David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

According to Reuters, Finch reports that a more to open access publishing of scientific research is inevitable and should be supported with government funding – but would take some time as the current publishing model was complex and a major industry relied on journal subscriptions.

She said the pace at which the industry shifts depends what happens elsewhere in the world and one of her committee members, Adam Tickell from the University of Birmingham, says similar moves by other key players in the science world could tip the balance in favour of open access.

“If the EU and the United States are as serious about open access as we are, I would expect the rest of the world to follow very quickly,” he said.

Funders of scientific research, the report says, should incorporate the cost of publication into the grants they award, a recommendation that draws support from the Wellcome Trust.

“This will need the support of all of those that fund and support research, who will need to put into place effective and flexible arrangements to meet these costs, which we anticipate being only 1.0-1.5 percent of research costs,” said the trust’s director Sir Mark Walport.

The report predicts that over time the amount UK universities spend on subscriptions – estimated at about 150 million pounds a year – will come down as the money paying for publication in open access journals increases.

But during the transition period, which could last several years, any embargo rules that force scientists who publish in subscription journals to make their research more widely available within, say, six to 12 months of publication, should take into account the damage this could do to those top journals.

The report is quite ambitious in its aspirations for open access publishing and the greater access to scientific research the panel believes this would result in. What are the chances of it becoming a reality? Well, the UK is a major science publishing hub in the world, so if the government funding flows and pilot schemes trialled in the UK are successful, there may be scope to influence the science publishing industry worldwide. But a lot is at stake, not least of which, the fortunes of some of the world’s biggest publishers.

My colleagues at the Science Media Centre in London rounded up reaction from academics and scientific publishers in the UK. Here’s a sample of their responses…

A spokesperson from Elsevier said:

’Elsevier welcomes the Finch report on broadening access to academic research. We are pleased that so many members of the academic community – universities, funders, libraries, scholarly societies, and publishers – have been able to collaborate constructively to find a way forward. The recommendations identify real opportunities, as well as risks, and how they are implemented will be key in ensuring sustainable models for scholarly communications. We look forward to working with other stakeholders to encourage their successful implementation and to enable even wider dissemination of research in the future.’

Dr Mark Downs Chief Executive of the Society of Biology said,

’We welcome the comprehensive and balanced approach taken in the preparation of this report and recognise the need to make as much publicly funded research as possible available to as many people as possible. This can only be achieved with sustainable business and professional support systems in place.

The Society of Biology welcomes the recognition given to the publishing portfolios of the UK’s vibrant community of professional science bodies, who invest heavily in the production of high-quality publications, the support of professional researchers, and the development of information systems to help deliver their wider charitable objectives. These activities are crucial to the continued health of the research environment in the UK and ultimately to the economic and social benefits to be gained from the UK’s investment in science and engineering.’

David Hoole, Marketing Director, Nature Publishing Group, said:

’Nature Publishing Group welcomes the balanced approach of the Finch Working Group report, and its recognition of the need for a mixed economy, of licensing subscription content, self-archiving and open access publication. This is in line with NPG’s own views — as evidenced by our self-archiving policies, licensing terms and increasing offering of open access options and journals. We agree that a transition to open access will take time; will incur extra costs in the interim; and requires close collaboration between government, funders, universities and publishers. We are pleased to see acknowledged the challenges for highly selective journals such as Nature and the Nature research journals, and the key role of journals in the ’complex ecology of research’. The relatively small number of papers published in these highly selective journals will require higher article processing charges than is widely acknowledged. As the Finch Group states, submission fees do not provide a simple solution to this. We welcome calls for the UK government to set policy to fund article processing charges for open access publication, and that funds must be found to extend rationalise current licenses to enhance access in the UK. NPG agrees that any policy in the UK needs to be in the context of similar moves internationally — recognizing the international nature of research, and the publishing services that support its communication.’

Geoffrey Boulton, chair of the Royal Society working group whose report ‘Science as an open enterprise’ will be launched on Thursday, said:

“Open access is an important issue and the Finch Report recommendations are to be welcomed but open data is a much deeper issue that must also be addressed. People may see the two as interchangeable but they are not necessarily linked. The former is about a business model for scientific publishing, the latter goes to the heart of the way science is done. Ultimately we must focus attention on the bigger picture”

Richard Mollet, CEO of The Publisher’s Association, said:

’The Finch review has been a constructive exercise in terms of bringing a forensic analysis to a complicated area of public policy and achieving a consensus across different stakeholders as to a sustainable path to progress. Its recommendations present an opportunity not only to extend access to research outputs globally but also for stakeholders with different needs and perspectives to collaborate towards converging objectives.

’We are support the balanced recommendations for extending access to research outputs. For the Gold Open Access to be viable it will be important that sufficient funds be available via the research councils, the funding councils and the universities for UK researchers, and that workable systems are implemented to ensure these are delivered to publishers. Where funding for Gold Open Access is not provided, publishers need a commitment from the research funders not to demand embargo periods of less than 12 months for the manuscript to be openly available.

’We wish to extend our thanks to Dame Janet Finch, the review team, and of course all of the members of the Group for the positive and valuable engagement in the process.’

Stuart Taylor, Commercial Director of the Royal Society, said:

’The Royal Society supports open access publishing and welcomes the findings of the Finch Report. The peer review quality control system is the basis on which science moves forward and must remain independent. It is reassuring that the Finch Report recognises this and also the fact that supporting this system costs money. Any sustainable open access publishing model must ensure that these costs are met.

’The Royal Society already has an open access journal, Open Biology, and supports ‘Gold’ open access, as well as other open access routes, for our other journals. We welcome the Finch Report recommendation that this ‘gold’ route be funded through article processing charges paid by the author.

’Many not-for-profit learned societies, including the Royal Society, use income from publishing to support their scientific work and it is important that this point is not forgotten in moving towards a more open system of publishing.’

Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of the IOP, said:

’We fully support the goal of expanding access to research publications but it will be a significant challenge and we are grateful to the working group for conveying how complicated that challenge is.

’The recommendations in the report provide a clear policy direction for the UK and we hope to see a signal from Government that it agrees with the recommendations and that it is willing to fully fund the costs that will make the transition possible.

’The report clearly recognises the challenge the transition poses to learned societies. With more than two-thirds of the Institute’s charitable projects funded by the gift-aided profits from our publishing company, IOP Publishing, it’s crucial to us that the shift is managed carefully.

’For IOP Publishing and the Institute, publishing is not a purely commercial endeavor; it is part of our mission to successfully communicate research findings and help progress science. We take pride in providing a high-quality service to authors and readers.

’Expanding access to research outputs while ensuring the robustness of new publishing models is going to require a transition period, especially when the international nature of academic publishing is taken into consideration. The report’s recommendations, when taken together, will help make the transition possible.

’We will continue to innovate; building on our existing open access and hybrid journals — something IOP Publishing has long excelled in — to contribute to a more open access future.

’We are also delighted to see the recommendation to vigorously pursue the plan to introduce walk-in access to the majority of journals in public libraries. Initially a suggestion from publishers, this initiative can provide great benefit to small businesses and other readers, as well as creating a valuable new role for our public libraries.’

Dr Astrid Wissenburg, Chair of RCUK Impact Group and Director of Communications and Partnership at ESRC, (also RCUK rep on the Finch Group), said:

“Research Councils UK (RCUK) welcomes the report from the national Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. The report sets out an encouraging and challenging road map to improve open access to scholarly literature.

’RCUK is strongly committed to improving the access to the outputs of its research, for the benefit of researchers, as well as UK economy and society. We will carefully consider the recommendations from the report, with HEFCE and other stakeholders and, in addition, we will use it to inform the new RCUK Open Access policy, expected to be launched later this summer.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said:

’We are delighted that the Finch Report encourages the UK to embrace open access, something that we at the Wellcome Trust feel very strongly about. There is a real groundswell of opinion in support of open access in the UK, the US, Europe and beyond and this is a real opportunity for the UK to lead the way. Open access is the only way to ensure that important research is made freely accessible to all. It will help drive forward innovation and breakthroughs in medical research.

’We urge publishers to adopt the so-called ‘gold’ open access model, where the publication costs are met by the research funder, rather than the reader, and where articles are licensed in ways which allow others to re-use these works, subject to attribution. This will need the support of all of those that fund and support research, who will need to put into place effective and flexible arrangements to meet these costs, which we anticipate being only 1-1.5% of research costs.’

Timescapes – bliss for nature geeks Peter Griffin Jun 13

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There’s a long and healthy tradition of non-verbal, observational films that mesmerize audiences with breathtaking cinematography and fascinating glimpses of the world around us that remind us how much we take that world for granted.

Seminal to the genre are three films – Baraka, Koyannisqatsi and Powaqqatsi – painstakingly put together documentaries that have no dialogue, no plot and little in the way of narrative, but leave a lasting impression. Godfrey Reggio is responsible for the latter two films and continues to make mind-blowing documentaries that deliver silent commentary on the world around us.

Screen Shot 2012-06-13 at 11.34.44 AMAdding to the canon is Timescapes, an impressive documentary by cinematographer Tom Lowe that consists entirely of timelapse and slow motion photography taken in America’s South West over a two year period. The film has a New Zealand connection – it is produced by Nigel Stanford, who was a shareholder in TradeMe and helped run the company with Sam Morgan.

Following the TradeMe sale, Nigel set up Rubber Monkey, the Wellington-based movie production company which has been involved in several local productions – most recently, the excellent documentary Shihad: Beautiful Machine which looks at the enduring hard rock band Shihad. This Idealog piece I did on Rubber Monkey a few years back gives you some background.

Nigel is also an accomplished music composer and Timescapes’ amazing imagery is accompanied beautifully by Nigel’s score.

Lowe takes advantage of the clarity of the night sky above the American desert to serve up some spectacular visuals of the cosmos, often framed by unusually-shaped wind-carved desert rock or giant trees. Like some of the films mentioned above, the film also takes in humanity’s impact on the landscape, with luxurious shots of satellite stations scanning the night sky, wind turbines, hot air balloons, a rock concert underway in the desert – and the beautiful closing shot of a young girl walking through a field of flowers.

The overriding theme, evoked by the timelapse is of motion, the cycle of nature, the transition from night to day and back again, shadow and light across the landscape. Everything is beautifully shot to emphasize the wonder of the landscape.

Timescapes looked great in high-definition on the Blu-ray edition I bought, but the film is notable also for being one of the first to be released to the public for download as a so-called “4K” production. 4K refers to the resolution of the image and is around four times the resolution of a 1080p HD flat screen TV. Unfortunately, you’ll need to see Timescapes in a theatre with a 4K projector to take advantage of the extremely high resolution – and few New Zealand cinemas are equipped with them. But this is the future of not only cinema, but home theatre and regular TV viewing as well – and given the advances in HD programming in the last few years and the rapidly declining cost of flatscreen TVs, the 4K world may be closer than you think. Multiple hi-def formats of the film are available for download.

Timescapes is hopefully the first of a series of films. Time-lapse photography seems to be experiencing a bit of a resurgence and the technology is better than ever allowing filmmakers to capture and edit truly stunning footage. Still, such filmmaking is incredibly time-consuming and difficult to get right as the producers note:

Production involved many hardships. Tom slept outdoors for 250 nights, sleeping on cots (without tents) under the stars next to his camera, while timelapse was being captured. During the middle of principle photography on ’TimeScapes’, Lowe won the Astronomy Photographer of the year award in 2011, with the image, ‘Blazing Bristlecone’ – featuring a 4,000-year-old bristlecone pine tree against the Milky Way. Unbeknownst to the judges, the photo was actually just one frame of a time-lapse movie, which is featured in ’TimeScapes’.

With so many productions these days that cram in so much in the way of plot, action and special effects to feed our attention-deficient brains, it is refreshing, relaxing even, to just sit back and just watch simple, powerful visuals accompanied by a decent score.

If you are interested in films like Timescapes and Baraka, check out this great blog maintained by a fan of such films.

When Brockie goes rogue Peter Griffin Jun 11


Bob Brockie has been writing for the Dominion Post for years as the paper’s science columnist and regularly delivers up entertaining comment on the state of science and what is filtering out of the peer-reviewed literature.

He also creates his own cartoons which adds a nice personal touch. Bob is a biologist, one of a small handful of columnists writing for the mainstream media who do in fact have a science background. But Bob’s Dom Post column today goes seriously off track. Have a read yourself… (its not online, but I’ve excerpted it below).

Screen Shot 2012-06-11 at 4.14.04 PM

Bob may well be right in his claim that we have not lost a single native plant or animal species since 1992. There may well have been an overall increase in the number of known and identified species in New Zealand’s territory – an expedition to the Kermadec Islands last year uncovered some fish species that are thought to be novel – and further international examination will determine so.

But this really is a simplistic way of looking at the state of biodiversity in New Zealand. Surely the health of our various species is as important  as the number of them and on that count, there is plenty of evidence to suggest many are under threat and in the case of some, such as Maui’s dolphin, populations are at critically low levels. Bob completely misses the point that overall, the health of our biodiversity is in decline and further pressure on the environment exacerbates this issue. It’s not like it is a disputed trend – countries the world over are struggling with this!

When the WWF released its report looking at how well New Zealand had done in honouring its original Rio pledges, we approached a wide range of scientists to run their ruler over it and see if its conclusions were supported by the science. On the issue of biodiversity, there was little dispute:

Assoc Prof John Craig, School of Environment, University of Auckland:

’New Zealand has a real biodiversity crisis as the Report states and as a country there is a need for serious debate about policies and mechanisms that leads to effective change if there is going to be a more positive WWF Report after the next Earth Summit.’

Assoc. Prof Dianne Brunton, Ecology & Conservation Group, Massey University:

The Department of Conservation (DoC) 2011 annual report from which these findings originate states that ’Most changes result from improved coverage of groups previously not assessed, and improved knowledge and changes in definitions of categories’ the DoC report goes on to state that ’57 species have declined sufficiently to trigger a change to a more severely threatened category, and 7 species have recovered under management sufficiently to move to a less severely threatened category. i.e. 50 worsened.’

Prof David Hamilton, Professor in Lake Restoration at Waikato University:

‘Beyond Rio’ leaves us with no doubt that NZ must urgently rectify its broken promises from the 1992 Earth Summit or else become a case study for some of the highest rates of biodiversity loss on the planet in recent times.

Ironically, Bob’s column is published two pages away from a write-up on the Pure Advantage report “Green Growth for Greater Wealth” which argues, among other things, that our biodiversity is under threat and needs preserving, which use of greener energy sources would go some way to help achieving.

Bob is right in that the Department of Conservation should be commended for the work it has done in bringing back several species from the brink of extinction and sheltering many others from pests and disease. But to suggest that biodiversity in New Zealand is in better health than ever goes against the science. The number of species in an ecosystem gives you no accurate indication of the health of those species and those who work in the field suggest the overall state of biodiversity is deteriorating. Come on Bob, you should know better!

Transit of Venus: A sight for sore eyes Peter Griffin Jun 07

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Those of us in Gisborne yesterday were among the lucky few in New Zealand who got to observe the Transit of Venus yesterday. It was a very special day out at Tolaga Bay where the locals treated us to amazing hospitality. Here are some photos…

Look carefully at about 5o’clock on the image of the sun for the small dot that is Venus…

The Transit of Venus shot through my blacked-out glasses

The Transit of Venus shot through my blacked-out glasses

Sciblogger Dr Siouxsie Wiles observing the Transit of Venus at Tolaga Bay

Sciblogger Dr Siouxsie Wiles observing the Transit of Venus at Tolaga Bay

Amateur astronomers set up at Tolaga Bay

Amateur astronomers set up at Tolaga Bay


RNZ Rotoiti off Tolaga Bay

Transit of Venus: Live from Gisborne Peter Griffin Jun 05


I’m in Gisborne and all set to observe the Transit of Venus tomorrow and take part in the Transit of Venus forum that is taking place on Thursday and Friday.

pounamuWhy Gisborne? Mainly for cultural rather than scientific reasons – Tolaga Bay was where Captain Cook came ashore in 1769 and apparently had the first meaningful and peaceful interaction with Maori.  He had previously observed the Transit of Venus from Tahiti.

Gisborne is overcast and mild, which is probably the best we can hope for tomorrow as the weather moves in and which will likely preclude us from seeing Venus cross the face of the sun. Still, we are all hopeful that the clouds will part at least some time during the day – as I’m sure you will be, wherever you are.

Obviously, observing the Transit of Venus is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most of us here in New Zealand – here’s what Alan Gilmore, Superintendent at the University of Canterbury’s Mt John University Observatory at Lake Tekapo had to say about it.

’For New Zealand there is the historical association of Venus transits with Captain Cook and European discovery and mapping of our country. Australia shares some of this historical interest as well.

’The significance of the event is in the astronomical history. It was an important phenomenon in gauging the scale of the solar system in Cook’s time. But even by the 1874-82 transits there was scepticism as to the scientific value of this method. More consistent results were being obtained from other measures of planetary parallax.’

I’m looking forward to heading out to Tolaga Bay tomorrow to meet the locals, enjoy a hangi lunch and hopefully see Venus against the sun! But I’m equally looking forward to the forum which Sir Paul Callaghan formulated as a chance to look at the big-picture issues the country is facing and the potential roll of science in tackling them.

I’ll be tweeting throughout events over the next few days under the twitter handle @smcnz

Also check out the Pounamu game that will be running through the forum and which is designed to stimulate discussion of issues raised in the forum – and those following it online via the live stream.

I’ll be blogging throughout the week and chairing a panel on “Connectivity” on Friday morning, 8.30am.

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