25 January 2013

Generating recycling

I know I'm not the only one who gets frustrated seeing people chuck huge amounts of cardboard or other recyclable stuff into bins.  What baffles me is that it almost always seems to be young people - my age and younger who I see doing this.  

The Council's new foodwaste recycling scheme brings this into even greater clarity, at least around my flat.  The two bins above are the only two that are regularly put out other than ours.  One of the households is a nonagenarian, and other is two octagenarians; they've all lived in the flats for over 50 years   

The rest of the flats around us are occupied by young professionals and students, of which one other household sometimes puts out red and blue bins.  Why is the uptake so low? 

21 January 2013

The p-word. No. Not that one. Potholes and Patching.

Is there an award for most pointless council expenditure of the year? If so, I'd like to nominate the pot-hole patching on North Meadow walk (NMW).

I don't know exactly when it was done, but one day last week, I suddenly noticed quite a lot of small blobs of asphalt, dabbed apparently at random on the pavement. (if they've been around longer and I've not noticed then mea culpa).

When I say random, I mean, as in there are still as many or more potholes, both bigger and smaller than the ones that were patched.

It was pretty clear that the patches weren't going to last long, but even this evening I discovered two that had already completely crumbled into pieces.

This was the worst one. Totally destroyed. 
On a purely pedestrian and cyclist path. But assuming I didn't suddenly imagine these patches, or somehow miss them for several months, the 'patching' didn't last more than a week before collapsing. Imagine how these hold up when cars, busses or lorries cross them.

This one was heading in the same direction. 
But the real stupidity of it all is that the entire path is due to be completely resurfaced within months, thanks to £500 000 from the Scottish Government via Sustrans.

Joined-up government?  We still have an awful long way to go.

18 January 2013

Quality Research and Real Access: confronting the myths of the OA Evangelists

Readers of the Guardian's science blog have been told that "Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral".  The writer, ,  makes an impassioned case for Open Access (OA),  but a number of his premises simply don't hold water in the fields of humanities and social sciences.  Indeed, they reveal a remarkable level of naivety about how academics 'sink or swim' in the gamble that is a modern career.  If the utopia that is described here really existed then we wouldn't need to worry.  Maybe it does in the sciences -- certainly they are more used to the idea of paying to publish -- but I'm afraid it's not like that for many scholars. 

A lot of the issues that I want to raise have already been discussed in the 'comments' section, so right now, I just want to focus on two inter-related points:  how to best promote scholarship and the role of learned societies.  A number of us have flagged concerns about the impact of Gold OA on the broader academic environment.  Mike says that "the purpose of a scholarly society is to promote scholarship, which is best done by making that scholarship available".  That's hard to disagree with. But is 'availability' really the best way of producing quality work?  To my mind, this is at best naive, and at worst, neo-liberal.  It presumes that every scholar has an equal opportunity to produce good work, and that all that 'good work' needs is to be published.  

But that may not bear much resemblance to the experience of early career researchers. Those of us lucky enough to be educated at top-notch research intensive institutions will have been nurtured in fertile environments -- invited speakers at research seminars, conferences held on site, or travel funded to them, networking with high-level scholars, and a stimulating environment full of other post-grads.  Hopefully, we also have supervisors who give unstintingly of themselves, provide us with support in designing our research, and feed their wisdom into our draft papers.  But for others, lacking this stimulating and supportive environment, the decisions about how to draft papers, where to submit, and how to develop a research portfolio seem like a very strange world indeed.  And this is where learned societies can and do play a fantastic role - through post-grad networks, workshops, and networking opportunities.  All of these contribute intangibly but very substantially to enabling students to navigate the murky waters of early career scholarship.  

One of the drivers of the OA evangelicals is the assumption that scholars are prevented from contributing to academic debate because of their inability to access journals. But, while access to the most recent journals is essential (and many commercial and not-for-profit publishers do enable this in developing countries), a focus on this over-simplifies the process whereby we are initiated into the arcane rituals of scholarship. 

For those who have 'made it' it is perhaps hard to imagine just how puzzling our little world seems to outsiders, or those just peeking in.  But having run workshops for students and recently completed doctoral candidates as well as many 'meet the editors' events at conferences, I can assure you that the rumours and innuendo and half-truths that circulate about how journals really work are manifold.   

In a reply to one of my comments, Mike says " who ploughs three to five years of their life into a research project, but doesn't bother to take three to five hours to investigate the journal they're thinking of sending the paper to?"  It's not that people don't look into these things, but that 'we' pick up on many many clues that we can 'read' because we've been circulating around, chatting with other PGs and that we 'know' the names in the field.  That comes from familiarity with a certain discourse, which is only achieved by access and inclusion to it - and that's more than just reading the journals on-line (although that sure helps).

So, if we really want journals to publish the best research, and stimulate the best debates, that means enabling everyone to participate in it - and that 'participation' starts way before the paper is submitted to the journal.  As a journal editor everyday I would receive papers by bright, motivated students and young academics which were often not even fit to be sent for peer review, much less published.  This is not a reflection on the ability of those students, nor simply a result of their limited access to recent academic work.  For the most part, the problems were much more fundamental and related to the research design, the understanding of how to engage in an academic debate -- the sorts of things that are picked up through circulating in an academic milieu. 

My experience as a journal editor convinced me that the best scholarship comes from supporting a diverse mix of scholars from as wide a background as possible to make their contributions, Learned societies play a crucial role in this, and disregarding it, as the Finch report did, risks making scholarship less inclusive, in the name of 'openess'.  

OA is coming.  Learned societies will adapt, and we can only hope that some funding will come through so that networking sessions, workshops, conference travel grants etc continue to enable a wide range of new scholars to join our ranks. But let's stop pretending that Open Access will  miraculously solve the problems of publishing, library budgets, and access, because - in the real world - access is about more than just being able to read what someone has written. 

10 January 2013

Save Pippy Park? We should have called it Save Paradise


With anti-road campaigns back on the media agenda this week, it seems a good time for this post....

When I was in my final years of secondary school and then uni, I got involved in an anti-road campaign in Canada. It was so long ago that there's not even anything on the web about it.*

The provincial government had reached a deal with the federal government to close down our railway and build roads instead.  So, they decided to build a partial by-pass of St.John's, that would cut through the middle of Canada's largest urban park, a semi-wilderness area that also included the city's water supply.  The new road not only allowed civil servants to get directly to the main government buildings (House of Assembly + government offices), but it also 'opened up' huge areas of land that were then developed for sprawling mega-shops and business parks, which meant that property developers and the construction industry were keen on it too.    

Well, despite a lot of campaigning and legal battles, we were massively outflanked and lost our case. The road was built, and while the park has basically survived being dissected and there have not yet been any water poisoning scandals, there are many deaths (including of cyclists) on the road.

As we predicted, traffic in town is even worse, and worst of all - 'commuter-belt' areas that mainly used to be fishing communities - are now swamped under unbelievable scales of subdivision building, because more and more people live outside town, given how 'easy' it is to get into town on the new ring road, and that real estate prices and taxes are lower and planning seems less stringent.  One of the most affected is called 'Paradise'.  Looking it up on wikipedia reveals that the population has grown by 41% in the 5 years to 2011 - the fastest growing municipality in Atlantic Canada.  

This experience was dispiriting enough that it took me nearly 20 years to get hooked into another campaign.  But increasingly I look back on it and think 'we were right all along', even if on some level we mis-directed. The real victim of the road was not my ski trails, or green space in the town, but the surrounding areas, crushed under urban sprawl, and the intensification of car-dependent households.

*Ironically, the only on-line reference I can find is to to someone else looking back at it, who now thinks the road is fabulous.