Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Valuable refereeing

The work of reviewers is essential for the peer-reviewing system, but is sometimes somewhat underestimated. It takes time, no matter how well written a paper is. And we receive more and more papers to review each time (e.g. this year I received ca. 40 manuscripts, not counting revisions). There are who call for payments, given that it takes up valuable time, which could have been spent on research, education, or (most likely) free time with the family.

One possible way of achieving this would be through a discount on journal rates. Being a computational chemistry software developer gives also discount on these programs, so applying the same reasoning would make sense. The question would be how to do this. Peer reviewing is anonymous (and should be so), so only the reviewer and the editor (journal) know about it. Of course, the journals themselves should be able to produce a list of numbers at the end of the year, indicating that e.g. Univ. of Girona (UdG) has provided 100 referee reports for 2011. This could then be used to generate a discount for the UdG on the price for that journal.
But I see a number of problems:
1) much depends on the journals, with few controlling mechanisms for the universities
2) should the reports be weighted according to the impact factor of the journal?
3) most importantly, in the end it won't matter.

The reason for point 3 is that the scientific journals are mainly bought by universities (I think), e.g. by the same researchers that act as reviewer. Therefore, in the end the journals may give e.g. a 50% discount. BUT, the costs of printing the journals remains the same, and which has to be paid (mainly) by the same universities, and therefore the baseline rate will simply go up. In the fictitious example of a 50% discount, the baseline rate would go up by a factor 2, over which a 50% discount would simply give the same costs as before. Therefore, this system would probably not matter very much.

An alternative would be to pay the reviewers for their time, but this would be an enormous hassle, from which probably the banks would benefit mainly (and the scientific journals themselves, who would have to hire extra administrative personnel, whose costs would have to be fitted into the journal charges). The only viable solution I see is that the journals give the reviewers credits, with which the reviewers can buy scientific journals etc. Given that several journal publishers have in house book departments, this would be simple and straightforward to implement.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The strangest man (P.A.M. Dirac)

I just finished reading the biography of Paul Dirac, "The strangest man: The hidden life of a quantum genius". And the title does justice to the content, he seemed indeed to be a very strange man. Emotionally crippled, socially handicapped, he was not easy to work or live with. Talking to him often involved a question followed by either "Yes", "No" or a long pause. Many times he even did not respond at all. In the book is mentioned one typical example, about a discussion/fight between his wife and him, in which she asked him: "What would you do if I left you?". After a pause of half a minute, his response was: "I'd say: 'Goodbye dear'".

After from his contributions to science, the book deals with the possible origin of his strangeness (autism), describes his background (family life), digestive problems (only solved at the end of his life), and his many friends/colleagues (e.g. Bohr, Kapitza, Einstein). Many are the "Dirac quotes", which can be found online at several places (e.g. here), including quotes about him ("There is no God, and Dirac is his prophet"). All in all, it is an interesting read, sometimes it is obvious that the writer (Graham Farmelo) is really a big fan, but overall an objective picture about the man and his work.
(it was also interesting to read about the Cavendish etc. and see returning many of the names, such as Bernal and Rutherford, that were also present in the biography of Rosalind Franklin; note this previous entry)

Robin, Talent of the year?

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