Aglitter in the Net: Golden Age of Serial Murder, Flatworms, etc.

Stuff I won’t get to at length:

Ian Leslie considers the decline of serial killing:

Trends in Serial Killing.

Christopher Beam, who also wrote the piece I linked to about cash and crime, investigates. My favourite quote:
“It does seem the golden age of serial murderers is probably past,” says Harold Schechter, a professor at Queens College of the City University of New York who studies crime.

Ed Yong covers The sexual battles of flatworms: barbed sperm, mating rings, traumatic insemination, and going down on yourself. Engrossing as always, and even weirder than usual

Newer antipsychotics overused, U.S. study suggests | Reuters Not surprising, but still important

Neuroskeptic: Antidepressants Still Don’t Work In Mild Depression Ditto

In which I tire of the old paradigms | Mind the Gap Jenny Rohn has had enough of Karl Popper, thank you.

Good, helpful Nature article by @patsycat21, On the science of a shot brain, via @brendanmaher & @jetjocko.

Mental illness expert: We should be asking whether political climate helped trigger shooting

The love-hate hormone, ingroup/outgroup wars, and the power of culture

Ed Yong, who among other things is an oxytocin-news watchdog of late, highlights yet another study showing that oxytocin, sometimes typecast as the “love hormone,” carries a dark side. In case, the study, by Carsten de Dreu at the University of Amsterdam, shows that oxytocin can increase a feeling of bias toward people who are in an “outgroup” — that is, those who are perceived as different from a group we heavily identify with.

Despite its misleading labels, oxytocin has a dark side. Just two months ago, Jennifer Bartz showed that it can make people remember their mothers as less caring and more distant if they themselves are anxious about social relationships. Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin makes people more cooperative in a social game, if they had met their partner beforehand. If they played with an anonymous partner who they knew nothing about, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative. “Oxytocin does not unconditionally support trust,” she says.

Now, Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam has found that sniffs of oxytocin make us more biased towards peers from our own ethnic or cultural group, versus those from other groups. Bartz commends the new study, saying, “Along with other recent reports, [the new study] suggests that although oxytocin clearly plays a role in prosociality and empathy, the way it does this is more nuanced than previously thought. This is not entirely surprising given the complexity of human relations.”

The study took 280 Dutch men, exposed them to three puffs of oxytocin nose-spray, and then, as Yong describes in a bit more detail, tested in several ways the Dutch men’s attitudes toward German, Arab, or other Dutch men. They found that the hormone increased the extent to which Dutch men thought poorly of German or Arab men and decreased the extent to which they thought me of those groups shared common emotions with them. Finally, they showed oxytocin increased the difference in how these Dutch men handled the so-called trolley problem — in which you’re faced with the prospect of sacrificing one person to save others — depending on whether the person to be sacrificed was in-group or out:

[De Dreu] presented [the Dutch] volunteers with a famous series of moral dilemmas. For example, a runaway rail trolley is hurtling towards five people who are about to be killed unless you flip a switch that diverts the trolley into the path of just one person. All of the dilemmas took the same form – you weigh the lives of one person against a group. And in all the cases, the lone person had either a Dutch, German or Arab name, while the group were nameless.

After a sniff of placebo, the Dutch volunteers were just as likely to sacrifice the single person, no matter what name they had. But after sniffing oxytocin, they were far less likely to sacrifice the Dutch loners than the German and Arab ones.

This last experiment clearly shows a trend that applied to the whole study: oxytocin boosted favouritism for people who belong to the same group. Only very rarely did it increase negative feelings towards people outside it. For example, in the moral dilemmas, oxytocin made the volunteers less likely to sacrifice members of their own group, but not more likely to sacrifice outsiders.

As Yong notes, oxytocin does not create this sense of in-group/outgroup difference; it merely increases it. The effect can be troubling to contemplate:

This sort of favouritism makes a degree of evolutionary sense. It could bolster trust and cooperation within a community, such that groups whose members stuck together more would out-compete those that did not. If that’s the case, you would expect the brain to have some way of sustaining racial biases and oxytocin could help with that.

It’s a clever, nicely conceived study and another solid, intelligent write-up by Yong. I’d add an important observation: This study highlights something vital to keep in mind when considering the effects of these hormones, and also of related polymorphisms that sometimes appear to influence their levels of activity: Though the mechanisms and traits these hormones and genes produce can seem quite specific and “hard-wired,” their actual expression — the behaviors, actions, and responses they help generate — usually depends heavily on context.

This really just points out the difference between trait and behavior. Traits, in the evolutionary sense, are general and foundational; behaviors are specific, and generally shaped by context. In this study, for instance, the trait was in-group/outgroup sensitivity, while the behavior — the expression of the trait in the study — was an apparent prejudice toward German and Arab men.

Here as in other arenas and traits, culture heavily shapes the context in which these traits are expressed. In the case of in-groups and out-groups, for instance, culture can and usually does define who’s in and who’s out. It can readily move us beyond obvious group markers such as  skin color or nationality to focus instead on shared values or practices, such as language. This is why, to cite a simple example, two strangers who favor the sports team might more readily identify each other as part of the same in-group even though they are of different ethnic, racial, or even national heritages. Similarly, another recent study, if I remember correctly, found that children paid more attention to similarity of speech than they did differences in race.

This offers a lesson not just in evolution — in what genes and traits are, as opposed to behaviors — but in civics. When it comes to in- and out-groups, we can, as individuals and as cultures, choose how to define our groups. We can stress differences that are arbitrary and seek to divide, or we can stress commonalities and seek to include, so that our larger culture and society are more healthy. We can downplay differences such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasion and focus instead on more cental values, such as regard for civility, fairness, tolerance, intellectual honesty, and diversity of opinion.

Some of our basic human traits may be deeply rooted. But our behaviors and actions rise from how current context shapes those traits. And as we’ve seen a bit too vividly lately in my home country, exploiting and fanning our fears of outgroups in an arbitrary, divisive manner, one meant to bring out our prejudices, does not bring out our best. We can do better.

Open Science, eBooks, and the Bullshit Filter: My Panels at ScienceOnline

Carl Zimmer and David Dobbs
Waking up Carl Zimmer in a panel at last year's ScienceOnline

I’ll be on three panels at ScienceOnline this weekend — one on ebooks, one on open science, and one on “Keeping the Bullshit Filter” (i.e., watchdogging science and science journalism). The ScienceOnline program describes all these (go there and search for the title). For those attending, considering following the streamed sessions, or curious about the topics, I wanted to suggest some reading links.

I welcome more suggestions in the comments and will add them to the post as time allows. Also, if you have questions you’d like us to consider, add those to the comments or email them to me (link at top of page here). And if you follow the programs on twitter (see hashtags below), you can ask questions via twitter as long as you use the hashtag: We’ll be monitoring the twitter feeds as we go along and will try to respond to any incoming.

The line-up:

What’s keeping us from Open Science? Is it the powers the be, or is it … us?

with Melody Dye, Jan Reichelt, Kristi Holmes, John Timmer, Sara Wood

Twitter hashtag: #openscio11

This session explores why we’re not doing more of it (obstacles) and what people can do to make science more open given current tools, structures, and institutions. Some suggested reading:

My Guardian article on Publishing your science paper is only half the job lays out part of my perspective.

Science in the Open is Cameron Neylon’s extremely helpful page on open science. Prime reading there includes PLoS (and NPG) redefine the scholarly publishing landscape and a conversationNeylon had with another sharp open-science thinker, Michael Nielsen.

Nielsen’s website is also top-of-the list. I particularly like his essays on The mismeasurement of science and on Doing Science Online.

See too the efforts underway at Mendeley, whose Jan Reichalt is on the panel; VIVO, whose Kristi Holmes will be with us; and ORCID, an effort to create a unique-contributor-id system that will make it easier to credit researchers for doing things other than just publish papers.

Keeping the Bullshit Filter

with Steve Silberman, Ivan Oransky, Paul Raeburn and Maia Szalavitz

Twitter hashtag: #KBSF 

This is about watchdogging both science and science journalism, including one’s fellow watchdogs.


How to Set the Bullshit Filter When the Bullshit is Thick My own post on how to calibrate your BSF to account for the uncertainty in science.

In On cheerleaders and watchdogs – the role of science journalism …, and Cool/nifty versus funny-smelling/fishy stories: Why we need both …, Ed Yong and I, respectively, consider how to attend to two kinds of science stories.

Case study:

And what better case study than the arsenic mess? (We’ll talk about others, but this is a concise, heavily covered case for this sort of linkage.) See posts and round-ups on the Science paper on allegedly arsenicophilic life from biologist Rosie Redfield, me, Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and the NY Times. The blogosphere reacted far more quickly than the MSM did — though some of those reacting earliest and most strongly and sharply also write for the MSM.

The rough sequences was a scientist blogging (Redfield) > blogs (Ed, me, many others) > online MSM (Carl’s Slate piece), and finally  >  MSM (the Times). Twitter helped drive things from one stage to another. Each stage was critical, providing more filtering. The most robust filtering, I’d have to say, occurred in the blogosphere and online. And the combined power of Zimmer’s Slate piece and then blog post on What the critics said was simply devastating.

This is a highly instructive case, and it shows the power of blogging’s quickness to drive a correction into the necessarily slower pages of the MSM.

Watchdogging the watchdogs:

Alison Bass, your Mayberg facts are wrong, wrong, wrong, in which I fact-check some accusations about failure to disclose interests and data. Long, because it had to be. In a way, the key point is at the end: “If we journalists are to have credibility when we call out conflicts of interest, we need to check our facts, and if we get them wrong, we need to acknowledge that when corrected.”

eBooks and the science community

with Carl Zimmer (organizer), Tom Levenson, and John Dupuis

Hashtag TBA

We’ll discuss ebooks and the promises and perils they bring.

eBooks we’ll specifically discuss include Carl Zimmer’s anthology Brain Cuttings (see Steve Silberman’s interview of Carl about that);  the iPad book The Elements, which most people love; some other eBooks we’re not so hot on; and my own embryonic plans for a killer ebook/app version of my The Orchid and the Dandelion when it comes out in two years.

My fellow panelist John Dupuis, a librarian, has put together a bunch of links that explore the implications of ebooks for libraries. Most expect that ebooks may hurt libraries pretty badly, perhaps even killing the small ones, especially since the publishing industry seems to be trying to figure out how to prevent libraries from sharing ebooks. A very tricky situation.

Scott Rosenberg, who will also be at the conference (and at this session, I hope), has been compiling links to eBook-related posts and articles for a while. Some good ones there, with quite a few posts about the Big Drawback: You can’t really share ebooks too well.

The Atlantic’s Rise, Harper’s Fall, and the Bookish Gutenbourgeois

From Paul Ford of ftrain:

I sometimes chat with people in the book- and magazine-publishing industries. They complain to me about the web. They worry about what is being lost. They can sound like this bookseller in Buffalo, New York:

Books are not product. Books are creative endeavors as individual and singular as any work of art. They cannot be tweaked as if they are idling wrong. They can’t have leaves pulled off as they rot like a cabbage or lettuce.

I call the people who say such things the Gutenbourgeois. They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good—even a bit superior—about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them.

I’d like to say he’s exaggerating, but he’s not. Here’s John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, which has fallen ever so far of late.

I have been radicalized, both as a publisher and a writer, and have instituted a “protectionist” policy in regard to the Internet and its free-content salesmen. In the long run, I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the advertising “model” has failed and readers are going to have to pay (in opposition to Google’s bias against paid sites) if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad or a sex act.

I am even more offended, however, by the online sensibility and its anti-democratic, anti-emotional affect. Partisans of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But most of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness.

Is it cruel to point out that MacArthur posted that free on the web? I can only guess he freed it from the paywall so more people could read it, because he felt it especially important.

Harper’s, which used to be one of my favorite magazines and a real player in the world of ideas, has fallen like a stone in every sense over the last 3 to 5 years. The Atlantic, meanwhile, has embraced the web, become more idea-rich (and ad-rich), and is turning a profit because of it.

Someone’s not paying attention.

Disclosure of interests: I’ve published (and been paid to) at the Atlantic, but not at Harper’s. This situation may have arisen at least partly because the Atlantic actually returned my emails, generating a conversation about my ideas, while Harper’s — to which I pitched perhaps the most important story I ever wrote — did not. Perhaps that’s because MacArthur, as he notes, has “never found e-mail exciting.”

HT Nieman Journalism Lab

UPDATE: Matthew Battles wrote about Ford’s post as well; an interesting take, in which I learn, among other things, that Paul Ford (aka ftrain) used to be an editor at Harper’s. Ouch. HT araqueltrubek.

An Athlete Discovers She’s a Badass

“Don’t defer to anybody.” That mantra turned out out to be the mental key for an athlete who came to running late but strong. Hat-tip to Kottke for posting this, and who is a must-follow (on twitter, too), and from whom — forgive me, Jason — I am lifting this whole:

Chrissie Wellington never really did sports growing up. Then, in her 20s, she started running and astonishingly soon after that, starting winning every Ironman triathlon she entered. Wellington’s body and mental focus turned out to be uniquely suited to endurance events.

Then at around 130km into the bike ride, with Sutton’s words “Don’t defer to anybody” ringing in her ears, she started moving up the pack. “I came up to the lead group of girls and instead of thinking: ‘These are the champions and the best in the world’, I just went straight past them.” Even so, Wellington never believed she would hold on. “Halfway through the marathon I still never thought I would win,” she says. “You know they are behind you and you never know what they are capable of. I was running scared the whole way, thinking: ‘They’ll catch me, they’ll catch me.’ But they just didn’t.”

This reminds me of an overperforming pair of rowers who figured heavily in David Halberstam’s splendid book The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal. These two raced together as a boat of two, and while I don’t remember the details from my reading several years back, I recall they were older than most rowers, came later to the sport than many, and had not raced together before. Amid those trying to make the team, they were the outsiders and long shots. But like Wellington they adopted a fierce, simple mantra: In their case, Nobody beats us.

Did it work? Read the book. You won’t be sorry. And go to Kottke and read some other of his great posts, so I’m feeding instead of stealing.

Aglitter in the Net, Jan 6 2010

Photo: Garry Mcleod; origami: Robert Lang

As always, a lot of interesting stuff I won’t get to deal with at length:

Wired has a great story on the DSM-V, psychiatry’s main diagnostic manual, taking us Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness. I’m not sucking up to management here (especially since the magazine and are different entities); this is an ongoing interest for me, and this story gets inside it nicely.

Deborah Blum has a wonderful piece on drinks and other scary mixtures available At the Prohibition Bar.

The original 1998 study linking autism to vaccines was fraudulent, says the BMJ. Also echoed by CNN. If you’ve ever wondered why a few journalists press the need to call bullshit when bullshit is published, this is your answer.

Ball squeezing and creativity Not quite what you think, but, uh, worth exploring

Bored birds, busy brains: Habituation to song initiates significant molecular changes in auditory forebrain of zebra finch This one I hope to get to later. It looks at the genetic dynamics behind ‘habituation,’ which is when we adjust to a new stimulus and turn down its volume so it doesn’t keep striking us as novel. For brain geeks.

Biophemera draws attention to Alexis Gambis’ science films: fruit flies, surrealism and sex


Neuron Culture’s Best of Year

I resist best-of-year roundups when I see the heads — but then find I usually like reading them, and lo and behold, find it instructive to do my own. While most of my attention last year went into pitching and then beginning work on The Orchid and the Dandelion, I spent a lot of time in Neuron Culture exploring other issues as well. A look back reveals some abiding interests amid my distractability: behavioral genetics; reading and writing; calling bullshit on bad media; how depression works and what it is; and the big transition in the science blogosphere sparked by Pepsigate.

I’ve pulled my own choice of Top 10 up top here, for those who want the short list approach. Same entries are also embedded in the chrono list further down.Continue reading →

On Not Finishing Books, and a Blog Worth Following

Is it ok to give up on a book you’re reading? Ian Leslie, a wonderful writer who has got a book coming next year on lying, considers this question at his wonderful blog, Marbury:

In my view the answer to this perennial question is a resounding Yes. The reason is simple: there are too many books worth reading, and too little life, to waste time on a book that isn’t satisfying.

I’m glad to say this view now has the imprimatur of the Paris Review:

There’s nothing wrong with not finishing a book. Samuel Johnson, surely one of the great readers of all time, claimed to feel guilty because he almost never read a book to the end—but still, he didn’t. Finish them, I mean. Why should you read a book just because it’s there, or (worse) because you read it yesterday? Completism is the bugbear of actual reading. There are books even by some of my favorite authors that I have never looked at and never plan to… I say, enjoy your promiscuity and keep reading new things.


Now, rather tediously, I must qualify this opinion. Of course, it’s good to persevere with a book beyond the first moments of boredom or distraction. Some books take time to tune or sink into; some have longeurs but are on the whole well worth a dose of drudgery.

There comes a point, however, in a book as in a relationship, where you just know this isn’t going to work out. That is surely the time to say, it’s not you, it’s me (or vice versa). Actually that raises an interesting question in itself: I can divide the books on which I’ve given up into those where it was the author’s fault and those where it was my fault. For my inability to read Crime and Punishment, for instance, I blame myself, not Dosty.

I used to agonize over this myself. I’ve found life once I adopted a rule once offered by a college writing teacher: Give a book 50 to 100 pages, max, if it’s not doing it for you. Life’s too short to read stuff that’s not working. This makes sense: Think of all the great books you’re going to die without having read. I don’t want to expire not having read War and Peace because I chose to suffer Gravity’s Rainbow.

Some things I toss at the first page, even the first sentence. Others I set aside after deciding to return to them later, when we’re reading for each other. One Hundred Years of Solitude: doesn’t work right now, but it will someday. (Though I did read the whole thing once.)

An even tougher question is whether to bail on a book you’re writing. Now that would be brutal, and for the same reason it’s stupid to read books you don’t like: Because life is so short.

Yours will be a bit richer, by the way, if you make Marbury a regular stop. Leslie is a former ad man/mad man who now writes about politics and behavior, and he does so with the same amiable, understated intelligence and humor he brings to the table in person, and nice insights right and left, and he wanders around nicely, but always with a sharp focus, in a way that makes me think of Andrew Sullivan, only more left and less caffeinated. He’s like an urbane mashup of Sullivan and Jonah Lehrer, two of other favorite bloggers.

A Funny Arsenic Smell Upstream — What questions is it fair to ask about squishy science?

Are we squeezing everything we should out of the arsenic story? Some would say so. I’m not so sure.

In a quick post-mortem yesterday on the Lake Mono bacterium, Brian Reid neatly ticks off how the “arsenic soap opera,” as he put it, “illustrates five trends in health and science communication that are likely to grow even more pronounced over time.”

He lists

  • a longer lifespan for media discussion of research
  • the spread of scientific commentary to more channels
  • increasing scrutiny of embargoes and their use
  • a hit to the trust people have in “gatekeepers” such as peer reviewers

Along with these (on which I think he’s right), Reid calls out one more that has gone mostly overlooked:

  • Upstream” Stories Are Becoming More Attractive: Earlier this year, I wrote a piece arguing that the future of medical/science journalism lies, in part, with more stories that are focused less on final results — which are never as definitive as they seem — and more about the process by which researchers do their work. The arsenic story, with its disputed conclusions, illustrates the risk of looking only at results, rather than the broader context of the overall research.

Alice Bell has been calling for just this sort of upstream story, and along with observers like Martin Fenner and Wired UK’s David Rowan, I agree we need to pay more attention to what’s upstream of scientific results. That’s one reason I like writing long features about science: It gives you room to  examine not just product but process. Looking inside the factory helps you better understand what comes out. It’s also fascinating; you get to watch people struggle to overcome all sorts of obstacles, including themselves, to do good work.

In this case, the upstream material includes not only the work done by Wolfe-Simon and colleagues but the peer review process. And the latter remains quite opaque. Yesterday at the American Geophysical Union, a panel hosted by journalist David Harris examined the whole arsenic bug, and Alexandra Witze, in rapidfire live-tweet coverage of the session, indicated that Charlie Petit, a smart, seasoned science journalist who now runs the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, said that peer review worked fine in this case.

Given the room for error in contemporaneous live-tweet reporting, Petit may have said something more nuanced. But my own reporting on peer-review and on this paper* leaves me thinking that Science slipped up in its review of this paper. Many people who know the field have told me and others that they felt Science should have asked for a mass spectrometry assay of the bug’s DNA.  Such an assay would have been valuable, for (so I’m told) it could have shown for certain if the DNA did not contain arsenic or, alternatively, if the DNA had used arsenic, the assay would have provided strong but not definitive evidence that it did. That is, it could have definitively proven the researchers wrong in their assertion that the DNA included arsnenic, but could not have proven them absolutely right. (This, I’m told, because there’s essentially room for a false positive result for the arsenic but not not a false negative.)

A mass spec, in short, was a critical test that was doable within a week to a month and that would have answered many questions that raise doubt about an extraordinary claim. To request or demand it would not be extraordinary; in fact, it would apparently be asking for ordinary but decisive evidence about an extraordinary claim — just the sort of thing you’d want to prevent all this kerfuffle.

And why not ask? It’s not as if the authors would take the paper elsewhere. They wanted a top journal — and no way is NASA going across the pond to Nature with this paper. (Neither would they pull it from Science and go elsewhere if Science had insisted; but even if the researcher suggested they would have, that’d be no reason for Science to give in.) Perhaps there’s some good reason, or even a bad reason that looked good at the time, that Science didn’t ask for a mass spec. But as yet we’ve heard no reason at all. We just know that something fell out of the canoe upstream, and the only people who saw it aren’t talking. I’d love to hear a good explanation, and if I do, I’ll shut up about the peer review. Till then I’ll consider publishing this paper without more evidence a mystifyingly bad decision, and one that should be explained so we all understand what went amiss.

How else might we go upstream here? We could  learn more about the research itself, and I’d hope someone is working on that. (If I were a freelancer in the US with time on my hands right now, I’d be pitching that story ferociously.) I find it intriguing — both disturbing and sort of charming — that despite the numerous problems raised about this paper, most critics, especially among journalists, have so far been pretty gentle about pressing for details about how, for instance, the researchers’ theoretical assumptions may have created faults in methods (Possibly I’ve missed such speculation; if so, give a shout in the comments or at davidadobbs AT gmailDOTcom.) I understand and respect the calls to not get personal. And indeed there’s no reason to get personal in the sense of questioning character.But it does make sense to look at how assumptions and beliefs and theoretical frameworks can create mistakes or lapses, because seeing how that happens helps others avoid similar mistakes. It’s like learning to rinse your beakers thoroughly because failing to do so once embarrassed you; it’s a teachable moment.

As I said in the Guardian podcast the other day, it’s fine to have hunches or even to want to see a certain result — as long as your work looks like that of someone who doesn’t share your assumptions. You should in fact look like you’re trying to disprove your point — because only by trying and failing to falsify it can you show it is true.

This doesn’t look like that sort of work, and it’s perfectly legitimate to ask why: to ask what went wrong, to ask why assumptions or hubris or haste or just plain bad luck may have led to error or premature publication, or not. (Note I am NOT talking about fraud or even its faintest whiff here; I’m talking about the good old human fallibility that we’re all prey to.)  It was, after all, our money being spent. But more important, asking what went funny here  can teach everyone valuable lessons. It can be hard to paddle upstream. You’re sure to meet resistance. But sometimes you just need to go there.

*For a feature I’m writing on open science and science publishing, I’ve had many conversations with journal editors and others about scientific publishing and peer review over the past few months; and I’ve had quite a few conversations and done much reading on this paper over the last couple weeks.

Image: Big Muddy River, Murphysboro, Illinois. Courtesy National Weather Service

The Head of the Harvard Library System is Pissed

Robert Darnton rips into the journal system:

In 2007 I became director of the Harvard University Library, a strategic position from which to take the full measure of the business constraints on academic life. Although economic conditions had worsened, the faculty’s understanding of them had not improved.

How many professors in chemistry can give you even a ballpark estimate of the cost of a year’s subscription to Tetrahedron (currently $39,082)? Who in medical schools has the foggiest notion of the price of The Journal of Comparative Neurology ($27,465)? What physicist can come up with a reasonable guess about the average price of a journal in physics ($3,368), and who in the humanities can compare that with the average price of a journal in language and literature ($275) or philosophy and religion ($300)?

Librarians who buy these subscriptions for the use of faculty and students can shower you with statistics. In 2009, Elsevier, the giant publisher of scholarly journals based in the Netherlands, made a $1.1 billion profit in its publishing division, yet 2009 was a disastrous year for library budgets. Harvard’s seventy-three libraries cut their expenditures by more than 10 percent, and other libraries suffered even greater reductions, but the journal publishers were not impressed. Many of them raised their prices by 5 percent and sometimes more. This year, the publishers of the several Nature journals announced that they were increasing the cost of subscriptions for libraries in the University of California by 400 percent. Profit margins of journal publishers in the fields of science, technology, and medicine recently ran to 30–40 percent; yet those publishers add very little value to the research process, and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.

I’ve a feature coming up in a few weeks about this, among other things, and in my research for it, I discovered that the ire of the librarians about high journal pricing is hard to overstate. This essay in the New York Review of Books (a truly, deeply valuable publication, long may it run) is one of the few prominent pieces I’ve seen expressing that. I’ve a feeling this will get more attention and become a growing issue.

Darnton, by the way, has some harsh things to say about Google, too.

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free.*

This is wonderfully librarianish bile: measured, informed, pointed.


*I’m not sure what Harvard’s fee structure is now, but the library is “free,” of course, only to Harvard community members. When I was working on Reef Madness and had to draw heavily from the holdings there, I had to pay $750/year for borrowing rights, and they weren’t full. I was quite grateful to snag a research associate position — thank you once again, History of Science Department — that gave me full faculty access.

Other disclosures: I sometimes write for journals (and happily cash the checks), including Nature. OTOH, I chafe mightily at paywalls. The COI math is way beyond me.