30 January 2012

Apple's textbook dream a false dream?

There's a very interesting exploration of Apple's ideas for a textbook revolution over at ZD-Net, which draws attention to some of the real problems associated with the idea of handing out iPads to all kids in the US school system.  Most of the discussion that follows doesn't really take issue with the basic arguments, other than to suggest that the suggested cost of $27.5 billion for the hardware is pretty insignificant given that the total cost of K-12 education in the US is $536 billion - forgetting the crucial question, What do you stop doing in order to spend $27.5 billion.  Personally, I think the arguments against using the iPad are pretty strong and I suspect that the real market for books created with iBooks Author is going to lie in higher education, business and industry.  The typical book in these areas is not going to sell as many copies as, say, a new algebra text, but it will be a very quick way for authors to get their books into the market place.

24 January 2012

iBooks Author

I see that there's a view that books prepared with Apple's iBooks Author software are not taking full advantage of the possibilities for interactivity.  In fact, it is easy to understand why that might be the case - it is simply extremely expensive and time-consuming to take advantage of the features.  For years now, publishers have been loading a good part of the production process on to authors by demanding photo-ready copy in computer files and cutting down on in-house staff to increase profits.  No doubt many readers will have noticed one effect of this - a significant rise in uncorrected errors and typos in texts. Most publisher will simply not have the kind of multidisciplinary (and multimedia) team to take advantage quickly of Apple's new offering.

I can see the use of interactivity in school textbooks - and probably also at undergraduate level - but there will be many kinds of book for which interactivity would probably be a time-consuming and little used add-on to the text. Trying to squeeze in multimedia and interactivity when all the reader needs to do is to read, would be a waste of time.

20 January 2012

OA again

A couple of weeks ago Heather Morrison had an entry in her blog on the economics of peer-reviewed repositories vs. subscription-based publishing.  As many have noted before, the economics of the situation are obvious: the former approach would be much cheaper for institutions than the latter.  However, I don't see it happening.  Sixteen years ago, when I started Information Research it was so blindingly obvious that academics could create and publish their own journals at relatively modest cost that I assumed that in ten to fifteen years, open access would be the norm.  It isn't, because a number of things get in the way.

First, few (and increasingly fewer) academics have the motivation and the time to start up new journals - and yet new journals are being created continually and edited by the same academics, with contributions reviewed by the same academics.  In other words, they have time and motivation to work for publishers, but no time or motivation to work for their academic community. I don't see this changing since, before all else, humans are driven primarily by self-interest.

Secondly, it has so far proved impossible to get the message across to university administrators that the present system costs them money that could be redirected to better use.  Essentially, the idea is too radical and if vice-chancellors, rectors, etc. are any one thing, it is not radical.  They'll happily shuffle around departments and create new faculties or disband them, but ask them to take a really critical look at the present system of scholarly communication and its alternatives and they'll shuffle back into their holes.

Thirdly, governments everywhere are at the beck and call of business.  If a business sector tells the minister that a move of OA will cause the loss of n thousand jobs, the minister will rapidly back off, whether the business proposition is true or not.  Faced by a determined business lobby, ministers are wimps.  In any event, certainly in the UK, none of them has any knowledge of the academic research process and scholarly communication.

So there we have it: no drive from below, no support in the middle, and apathy and capitulation to the forces of the market at the top.

The situation is not helped, of course, by the recent crop of dodgy 'publishers', relying on the desperation of those who cannot get their work published in the established journals to pay for inclusion in a new international journal of this and that.  The number of OA journals as recorded in DOAJ may be ever increasing (standing at 7,431 today), but a significant proportion of those are author charging journals, and not 'open publishing' or 'platinum' model, and I doubt whether 10% of the remainder will be around in another ten years.

Ultimately, I believe, the present subscription/author charging model will collapse, but, sadly, it is unlikely to do so as a result of the actions of academics.

18 January 2012

Guide to resources on research methods

I've maintained for some years a set of pages pointing to resources on research methods. However, updating and link-checking has now ceased for some time and I think it is time to remove it from the site. However, if there is anyone out there who would like to pick it up and continue to provide it, I'll be happy to pass on the files. Alternatively, since it does get listed in other places, I'd be happy to have someone take over as Editor and ensure that it is up to date. Anyone interested?

The word is "corruption" I think

An interesting item on how Elsevier and other publishers are trying to kill the USA's PubMed Central appears in a blog from evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen.  The story is of a bill introduced by a Democrat congresswoman who just happens to get her campaign money from Elsevier: so, naturally, when the boys come along and say, "Let's have a bill to kill off the means whereby US citizens can access scientific medical knowledge", she's only too happy to oblige.   In any truly civilized country such activity would be deemed criminal but, sadly, this is just one example of how politicians in the US (and increasingly in the UK) can be bought by business interests.   I'm not a US voter, but I'd urge any reader who is to do their best to see that this bill is killed off and, if you happen to live and vote in the congresswoman's district, well, you know who not to vote for next time around!