Thursday, April 30, 2009

A challenge to Goliath

Too big to fail Megapublishers obligate librarians to buy hundreds of journals they do not need in order to access the journals their constituents actually read. The time has come to challenge this business model, which is unsustainable for the libraries.
What can publishers do to help librarians in these financially difficult times? Smaller publishers who do not have multi-year subscription deals with librarians can help by keeping their subscription prices flat for 2010...
The largest financial burden on biomedical research librarians, however, comes from the megapublishers, who often bundle hundreds or even thousands of online journals into a multi-year contract. At The Rockefeller University library, the subscription packages from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Nature Publishing Group take up 69% of the total serials budget in 2009. The megapublishers should address the global financial crisis by forgiving contracted price increases and by unbundling the journals in their deals, allowing librarians to choose only the titles they want and can afford...
Will the unbundling of journals mean the demise of some niche journals, that is, specialized journals with small audiences? Perhaps, but this is what market economies are all about, and why monopolies are not supposed to exist! In addition, niche publishing can be sustained by open access publishers, whose business model is based on the number of articles published rather than the number of readers. This role is already fulfilled by major open access publishers such as BioMed Central and Hindawi. Even in years of economic boom, librarians have noted that the current subscription system for online content is unsustainable. The pressure on that system is even greater now that we are in a global recession, but it can be substantially relieved if publishers allow librarians greater freedom of choice.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


AJCann: Interesting that @MarcusduSautoy followers count dropped during his latest "Twittorial" - too noisy for twitter?

MarcusduSautoy: I guess @AJCann and @richardveryard are right though. Too many tweets gets "noisy". Just experimenting with how you can use this medium.

AJCann: @MarcusduSautoy The "Twittorial" is a great idea, but I guess Twitter is all about filtering, people dislike it being used as a push medium.

Alun: @AJCann @MarcusduSautoy I liked it. Perhaps more people like the idea following a Maths prof, than maths?

Alun: @MarcusduSautoy A blog post would be easier for followers to point people to, if they like it, rather than many tweets.

AJCann: @alun @MarcusduSautoy But Twitter may be better for promoting conversations (like this one) than a blog post?

PlanetChemistry: Bioscience students doing chemistry always ask for more tutorials. Maybe "Twittorials" is the way to go!?

AJCann: @PlanetChemistry "Twittorial" idea is worth further exploration: conversation (like this one) rather than push though?

PlanetChemistry: Absolutely. I think this is a great medium where peer learning could be nurtured.

AJCann: @PlanetChemistry Give students points for asking the best question in 140 characters? (then answer them) - semi-synchronous tutorial?

PlanetChemistry: Like that idea! Fits so well with the texting culture.

PlanetChemistry: I feel a project coming on...!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

EU net neutrality - the time to act is now (please reblog/retweet)

EU logo Under the proposed new EU rules, broadband providers will be legally able to limit the number of websites you can look at, and to tell you whether or not you are allowed to use particular services. It will be dressed up as "new consumer options" which people can choose from. People will be offered TV-like packages - with a limited number of options for you to access.

Sounds scary? If so, then you need to find out more about the proposed EU Telecoms Package that will destroy a key part of internet openness by allowing telecoms companies to discriminate in the way that they handle IP packets according to their type. This will be voted on on May 5th 2009.

Find your MEP now (other EU countries) and send them this suggested letter (or your own version). You might like to remind them that the European elections take place on 4th June 2009 and they'll be looking for your vote ;-)

You can also join the Blackout Europe Facebook group to stay up to date on the issue.

Monday, April 27, 2009

10 more things you should know about H1N1 (swineflu)

Influenza virus Swine flu (or A/H1N1/Mexico09 as we should start calling it) has been keeping me busy over the weekend. On Saturday I published 10 things you should know about swine flu and since then I've been keeping up a stream of filtered, referenced information about the outbreak on Twitter and via this RSS feed. I've had some flak from a few people along the lines of "You are irresponsible, you are causing panic", so I guess it's time for:

10 more things you should know about swine flu:

1. Why are you doing this?
Aside from my 30 years experience in virology (look me up on PubMed if you want to check my credentials), over the years I've received thousands of pounds of charity money to promote the public understanding of science. This is it folks.

2. Why is this happening now?
Influenza pandemics occur every 10-30 years. We're overdue for a pandemic - we've been waiting for one for the last 10 years.

3. So why wasn't this outbreak predicted?
In a way, it was, but not with this strain of influenza (we've been watching other strains such as H5N1 and H9N2 closely for years). Influenza virus is genetically unstable and inherently unpredictable. This just happened to be the strain that got the "lucky" genetic break. H1N1 influenza does seem to be rather good at human pandemics though.

4. What is going to happen with this outbreak?
We don't know. Influenza virus is genetically unstable and inherently unpredictable. It could be that the whole thing fizzles out in a few weeks. It's also possible that this virus mutates into a much more harmful strain, capable of causing the type of harm (a "cytokine storm") the 1918 H1N1 pandemic strain caused - possible, but unlikely. We simply don't have enough information to know at the present time. Fortunately, worldwide surveillance and tracking of influenza is highly sophisticated and goes on constantly. This will give us the answer in a few weeks time.

5. Can this strain of flu be treated?
At the present time, yes. This strain is sensitive to the newer anti-influenza drugs, of which developed countries have large stockpiles. This season's influenza vaccine also includes an H1N1 component, and which it's unlikely that this will prevent infection with the current strain, it may offer people who have been vaccinated (the most vulnerable groups such as the elderly and medical staff) some degree of protection.

6. What if the virus becomes resistant to drug treatment?
That's probably not such a big deal. To be effective, the drugs need to be started very early after infection, probably before most people have been properly diagnosed. Drug-resistant virus would pose more of a threat to very susceptible patients, but won't make too much difference to most people. A pandemic is a worldwide event and drug treatment will not be available anyway to most people in developing countries where the majority of cases will occur.

7. So what can we do about this outbreak?
Stay informed, get educated, follow professional advice. If you're told to wash your hands frequently, stay at home if you feel ill, or even not to go to that conference or cancel your foreign holiday (we're not there yet), do it.

8. So what are you personally doing to prepare?
Staying informed, seeing how the situation develops, not panicking. Thinking about what I would do in the event that the situation took a turn for the worse. The place you live in, your country and large organizations you may work for will have pandemic preparedness plans. Find out what they are (Google is your friend) and think about how you would mitigate the effects of a pandemic on your personal, social and professional life.

9. More Information:

10. Want to ask a question?
Ask away:

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The first realtime pandemic

Learning styles are b*llocks #438

Among further nails in the coffin of learning styles is this gem:

Baroness Greenfield (Greenfield, 2007) has said the 'Learning styles … are nonsense' because, it is inferred, 'that is not how the brain works', and Willingham agrees (Willingham, 2009). Baroness Greenfield is a neuro-scientist, hence the inferral, and refuses to answer why she says that they are 'nonsense'. What is her evidence? She leaves it to her PA to write to us saying that we should buy her books (Greenfield, 2009), which we did, (Greenfield, 2000a, 2000b, 20008) but they did not explain why she thinks learning styles are nonsense.

Friday, April 24, 2009

IT outsourcing starts at UoL?

I guess this is a freemium model - I can get free guest access to Blackboard/Athens if visitors use GMail/Goggle Docs? Suits me.

The Predictor

Try as hard as I might, I've found it difficult to be interested in the current series of The Apprentice. It's not just that Sir Alan's gagwriters seem to have been slid as low as his property portfolio, it's also the crew of monkey-brained hobgoblins that the BBC has assembled and persists in calling "candidates". Even a brief Tweetstorm during the first episode couldn't sustain my interest. But that changed this week when my son was playing with his newly Easy Peasy-powered eeePC, and fired up The Predictor during the show. The downside of The Predictor is that being Flash-based, it doesn't work on the iPod Touch, so you have to have the laptop out during the show. But The Predictor is still interesting for two reasons.

First, it's one of the best demonstrations of crowdsourcing I have seen. In the semi-random, designed to shock decision-making process of the boardroom, the crowd normally get the right answer. Web 3.0? You're watching it.

Second, The Predictor is a synchronous event, and it represents the best chance broadcast media have to save itself from oblivion. Asynchronous online multimedia cannot justify the megabudgets the broadcast industry has been used to. Industry becomes cottage industry. But in making programs synchronous events once more, we are dragged back to a central location which the channel owns.

So what? Today it's the decline in traditional media - newspapers and broadcast. Tomorrow it's education. Sit up and pay attention.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Create a word cloud from Twitter hashtag feed - the JISCRI experience



At last it can be told #jiscriSMaLL

JISC Science Mashup at Leicester Library (SM@LL)

The SM@LL project will create a science information environment providing enhanced accessibility to resources for researchers in the sciences. This project seeks to improve academic scientific workflow through improving access to and awareness of suitable information resources, incorporating academically motivated workflows and intuitive design concepts. It will build upon the significant experience of the team in building Subject Rooms using Sirsi Dynix at Leicester, as well as public environments such as Pageflakes resources we have previously developed to support teaching and learning. We will also develop an evidenced based solution adaptable for other disciplines.

Clay Shirky has recently suggested that information overload is really filter failure. In the sciences, the perceived problem of information overload is particularly acute. Currently the only feasible solution seems to be to build better tools allowing them to filter information. This is precisely what the SM@LL project seeks to achieve, taking a dashboard approach to visualizing and accessing research data. From a single top-level page, users will see an attractive overview of topics which will allow them to quickly drill down into specialized data.

You can follow our progress on our project blog (ScienceLeicester) and via the Twitter hashtag #jiscriSMaLL.

We were disappointed but not surprised that apart from Joss and Tony, no-one heeded the JISC call for an open approach and sharing of ideas during the writing of the JISC Information Environment (IE) Rapid Innovation (JISCRI) bids. This left us in an invidious situation - a prisoner's dilemma. If we were open about all the details of our planned project, would we jeopardize the possibility of funding? The prisoner's dilemma is a non-zero-sum game, so the answer to this was: yes.

Instead, we took a middle line, describing a brief outline of what we are planning to do, talking to the IE demonstrator project and blogging and Twittering as much as we felt we were able to. If JISCRI were an ongoing program of funding, it would become an iterated prisoner's dilemma, where the the bidding game is played repeatedly. Each development team would have the opportunity to punish the other teams for previous non-cooperative behavior. Only when the players play an indefinite or random number of times can sharing be an economic equilibrium. While JISCRI remains a one-shot, win or lose deal, sharing is the loser.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Oral sex causes cancer

Throat Yesterday I published a post on MicrobiologyBytes titled Oral sex causes throat cancer. It described a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University which suggests that Human Papillomavirus (HPV) poses a greater risk in contracting cancer than smoking or alcohol. The study of 300 people also found that that those with more than six partners were almost nine times at greater risk of contracting the disease. And those who had already experienced a previous oral HPV infection were 32 times more likely to develop cancer. HPV is the cause of roughly 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Researchers believed oral sex was the main mode of transmission of HPV but could not rule out that it could also be passed through kissing. During the study, men and women who had been recently diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer had blood and saliva samples taken and were also asked about their sexual practices and family history. They found HPV16 - one of the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus - was present in the tumours of 72 per cent of cancer patients. The scientists said the majority of HPV infections had no symptoms and often did not require treatment, but a small percentage of those who contracted high-risk strains may go on to develop cancer.

A commenter took me to task because although the study showed a statistical association between oral sex and throat cancer, it did not prove causation. And of course, they were quite right. However, the purpose of MicrobiologyBytes is to promote interest in microbiology, and to do that in the cacophony which is the internet, the site needs to attract attention. I thought very carefully before choosing that title, and it may be that many people agree with the commenter's viewpoint that the title is too sensational.

Did I cross the line?

I don't think so. MicrobiologyBytes is not trying to be a scientific journal, but I always link to the original research findings I am discussing so readers can make up their own minds. I frequently read stories in the media I would be interested in discussing, but for one reason or another I can't access the original research, so I don't discuss them. If because of the title one person read the article who would not otherwise have done so, or one person became aware of the oncogenic potential of human papillomaviruses, or a single person developed an interest in microbiology as a result, I feel fully justified.

Am I?


I was reading Why Don't We Share Data? on The Scientist website when I followed one of the related article links to Open Access 2.0:


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Not Beyond Distance

Top 10 universities for offshore students:
University of London 36,425
Open University 26,715
University of Wales 11,335
University of Leicester 11,110
Heriot-Watt University 8,570
Middlesex University 7,050
University of Bradford 6,575
University of Nottingham 5,635
University of Derby 4,770
Staffordshire University 4690
University of Northumbria at Newcastle 4685
University of Sunderland 3985
University of Greenwich 3745
University of Central Lancashire 3550
London Metropolitan University 3310
University of Hertfordshire 2820
University of Manchester 2770
University of Strathclyde 2630
University of Portsmouth 2380
Liverpool John Moores University 2265
British universities have long relied on the roughly £2.5bn that overseas students bring when they come to the UK to study, but the new figures reveal for the first time the extent to which students are taking UK higher education qualifications overseas. With student numbers at home restricted by the government, many British universities are looking to expand their offshore operations to reach a potentially enormous market of students seeking the prestige of a UK degree but without the means to travel abroad.

So much more

Martin Fenner wrote an interesting blog post recently in which he used to compare the recent popularity of what he referred to as "online reference managers":

Long and the short of it: CiteULike is winning. I've discussed CiteULike here before, but by referring to these sites as reference managers, Martin is very revealing. The potential of these sites goes way beyond "reference managers" such as EndNote and RefWorks to include the social element of serendipitous resource discovery, powered by a personal learning network. By referring to them as "reference managers", Martin illustrates why scientists have not adopted web 2.0 technologies.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The last thing we need

Unconference For several years, The University of Leicester Student Learning Centre has run a very successful Learning and Teaching in the Sciences conference. In this context, successful means not an expensive international meeting at a plush venue (the "conference dinner", as I recall, was a glass of cheap wine and a bowl of crisps ;-) with all the usual hangers-on, but a grass roots meeting with an excellent external speaker who really enthused the locals. This year, for various reasons, it seems that this is not going to happen.

My response to this is - good! Not that I haven't enjoyed and benefited from the previous events, but it seems to me that the last thing anyone needs is - another conference!

But just because there isn't going to be a meeting in the traditional format doesn't mean that we have to discard the rationale for past sessions - a grass roots meeting which attracts participants beyond "the usual suspects". Why don't we organize something local, lightweight ("agile", if you prefer) and cheap, a sort of "flashmob meets unconference"?

To be successful, it would have to:
  • Attract staff who don't normally attend on-campus teaching-themed events
  • Be simple and cheap to organize
  • Leave a lasting benefit in terms of changing and improving teaching practices at UoL
How about a moderated fishbowl?

A year is a long time in blogging

UoL Blog Network Do you remember the University of Leicester blog network? No, I didn't think you would. Just over a year on, most of us are still there, although a few blogs have moved location and a few titles have changed. More interestingly, the number of UoL blogs has more than doubled:
not to mention various Posterous, Tumblr, etc spinoffs, and not including project blogs that we now seem to throw up as a matter of course:
Yes folks, we really like our WordPress here at UoL :-)

Although the UoL Blog Network died a death, blogging is flourishing at UoL. Can you impose organizational structures on bloggers from above? Seemingly not. So how do you grow a blog network? In the way that we have over the past year, by talking to each other, online and offline. We meet and talk. We eat cake. We write grants. And the institutional culture slowly starts to change.

Is Twitter a barrier to blogging? Not in our case. All these bloggers are also active Twitters. I'm not sure if that argues that Twitter supports and is complementary to blogging, or if these self-selected individuals (OK, I bullied a few of them ;-) just can't help themselves, writing on whatever medium is available.

And in time (and a year is a long time in blogging), the institutional culture slowly starts to change. Project blogs with public discussion as a matter of course. The UoL Library Blog. And people come up to you at meetings and comment on the "culture of openness at Leicester". At Leicester? I thought we were just bloggers. And again last week "you certainly know how to market yourselves at Leicester". Marketing? Us? We're just blogging. And the institutional culture slowly starts to change. I don't think we are campaigning, and I'm pretty sure we're not trying to big up UoL. We're doing this for us, and to a lesser extent, for each other. But the rest of you are welcome to come along for the ride. In fact, we couldn't do it without you.


Sunday, April 19, 2009


budget On Friday night, our "tame" (he's going to love that ;-) Leicester City Councillor Ross Grant was Twittering about Gordon Brown's forthcoming budget. I expressed the opinion that with the pressure that public spending will be under, education should be a priority. Understandably, Ross suggested I was playing devils-advocate and asked what the priories were within education - in higher education is it quality or quantity?

I didn't answer Ross on Friday night, because after a long hard day at the keyboard, at that time I had a date with Gardener's World and a cheeky little single malt. But I did spend the next few hours pondering his question. And the answer is:

It doesn't matter.

What matters is time. Education doesn't fit into the familiar political or economic cycles. At the end of one economic boom you know there'll be another one along in a decade. One government falls, another rises. Who cares? The education cycle doesn't work on that timescale. Screw up one generation, and it'll take another two or three generations to repair the damage. In higher education, both quality and quantity are important for the national economy. But what matters more is money.

Education costs money.
Ignorance costs more.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

We don't want no stinkin' reflection in science

UMaine You want the good news or the bad news?

If you're an academic at the University of Maine, their new guidelines for tenure and promotion now allow credit for contributing to social media, such as blogging.

The bad news: only if you're in their New Media program: media research departs from traditional academic scholarship, with the aim of providing a rationale for specific criteria for promotion and tenure...

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Cost of peer review exceeds the cost of giving every researcher a grant

Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant). This means the Canadian Federal Government could institute direct grants for 100% of qualified applicants for the same money. We anticipate that the net result would be more and better research since more research would be conducted at the critical idea or discovery stage. Control of quality is assured through university hiring, promotion and tenure proceedings, journal reviews of submitted work, and the patent process, whose collective scrutiny far exceeds that of grant peer review. The greater efficiency in use of grant funds and increased innovation with baseline funding would provide a means of achieving the goals of the recent Canadian Value for Money and Accountability Review. We suggest that developing countries could leapfrog ahead by adopting from the start science grant systems that encourage innovation.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

If you ain't got nothing to hide

MI5 From yesterday, all UK ISPs began keeping records of emails and online phone calls as an EU directive on data retention that already applied to telecoms providers was extended to ISPs. ISPs are now legally obliged to store details of emails and internet telephony for 12 months as a potential tool to aid criminal investigations. The content of emails and calls will not be held, but ISPs will record the date, time, duration and recipients of online communications.

It may not be very trendy to say so, but my reaction to this news is: good!

Although it's possible to imagine circumstances in which this information could be abused, anyone who wanted to do this already could (if you seriously think the Security Service - MI5 to you - couldn't get this information if it wanted to, you're deluding yourself). I'm far more concerned about the effect this will have on perceptions of the internet, and as far as I'm concerned, they're positive. When we all lived in small rural communities, we were subjected to this level of scrutiny all the time - it's called social cohesion. The idea that the internet is a complete free for all where anything goes is dying. Good.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Ariadne A librarian's advice on how to cope with information overload: Being Wired or Being Tired: 10 Ways to Cope with Information Overload.
Make an Inventory of Information Received:
Make a list of every item you receive, broken into a work category and a personal category. Note two details for each item on the list: the subject or type of data and the method of transmission. Use this inventory to think about what you receive, how it reaches you, and whether or not each one is working as well as it could for you. If it is not, think about other ways you could receive the same information that would work better for you, and make that change.
Make an Inventory of Your Devices:
Not only do we need to consider the data, and the mechanism for their input, but the devices we use to access that data. I have a choice about accessing my work email; I can use any of three different computers or my smart phone. I have a choice about what device I use to talk to my parents; do I use my home phone or my smart phone? Consider all of the devices you use, and add a third detail for each of the items listed in your inventory: what device do you use, and whether or not you should use a different one.
Read Up:
There are many books about information overload and dealing with information generally. Here are some of my recommendations: Information Anxiety and Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman, Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organised and Stay Organised by Sally McGhee, Techno Stress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution by Craig Brod, and TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @ Work @ Home @ Play.

LOL - catalogue everything and read lots of books. I guess librarians have a different sort of information overload :-)

Hannah Whaley on the Blackboard Peer Assessment Tool


Thanks Hannah, I need to get my head around this for next session.

Perceptions of Feedback

Bioscience Education Perceptions of Feedback One Year On: A Comparative Study of the Views of First and Second Year Biological Sciences Students
Jon Scott, Jo Badge and Alan Cann.
School of Biological Sciences and Dept of Biology, University of Leicester.
Bioscience Education vol 13, 2009.

The results are presented of a survey comparing the perceptions of first and second year bioscience students regarding their experience of feedback on coursework. The two cohorts displayed similar levels of satisfaction regarding the quantity and timing of feedback, even though changes in assessment format entailed different actual experiences. By contrast, the second year students expressed markedly lower levels of satisfaction regarding the guidance received in using feedback and the utility and transferability of the feedback received. These findings are discussed in the context of changes made to the first year of teaching aimed at facilitating the transition to study at university.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Compare and Contrast


Answer ONE question, at least ONE question from each section.
Use a separate answer book for each question.


Question 1:
Compare and contrast Crotty's "Magical Thinking" response to open content with Ellis' attitudes to "(Selling) content in a networked age". From the perspective of a contemporary observer, use these examples to illustrate the "content wars" of the early 21st century and explain how our present concept of ownership emerged.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

What a bloody mess

Arsehole I look at the mess Formula 1 gets itself into and I think:
It's not that hard. Be the fastest over a certain distance, and you've won.
But then I look at the mess education gets itself into and I think:
It's not that hard. Just learn a few skills and apply them to the circumstances you find yourself in.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

University Challenge

SGM logo This week I'm at the SGM Spring 2009 Meeting, Harrogate, 30 March-2 April 2009. One of the sessions I'll attended yesterday was University challenge: managing the transition between school and higher education, organized by the SGM Education Division:

  • Tony Cook: Overview of general issues affecting successful transition to university. Tony suggested that the transition to HE was more like metaphophosis rather than growth. The majority of students were "surprised" by their degree courses when they actually experienced them - not what they expected. How do we manage expectations?

  • Sue Assinder, Lynne Lawrance & Emma James: Knowing what they know: Microbiology in the new A level curricula. Microbiology is no longer an option subject at A level - now more distributed throughout the curriculum, but still with big variation between the exam boards.

  • Jon Scott: Why do first year bioscience students fail? (and what can we do about it?) Jon discussed some of the outcomes of the UoL Student Experience Project.

  • James White, Stefan Trimble: The student perspective. James and Stefan are undergraduate microbiology students at Leeds. The discussion centred around facilitating staff-student communications.

  • Mark Huxham: Good practice in induction for bioscience students. A diagnostic questionnaire is used to determine student risk factors (from known predictors - student profiling), and the results used to focus resources in support tutorials. 50% attendance rate at tutorials, non-attenders still at risk. Non-assessed Bonus Questions to prevent disenfranchisement of high achievers - 14% participation. Peer support for note-taking (identified as an issue in our student ePortfolios) and as an antidote to large class sizes.

  • Maggy Fostier: PASS (Peer Assisted Study Sessions), a versatile and adaptable peer support scheme that helps 1st year bioscience students settle down at University. Voluntary peer support scheme at Manchester, 40-50% attendance in semester 1, 10-20% semester 2.

  • Sheryl Meskin: Sheryl described the (rebranded) UK Centre for Bioscience support of bioscience lecturers with student transition.

The dominant themes to emerge were class sizes and peer support, with the latter proposed as the main solution to the former.