Monday, December 29, 2014

Academics running OA journals - a new variety of academic self-exploitation?

An interesting phenomenon can currently be observed in the humanities - academics engaging in new forms of self-exploitation. It's linked to the OA hype gripping the academy. How does it work?

Well, in the old days for-profit publishers essentially took over the production and distribution of our peer reviewed content for us. We managed the academic side of the process (peer review etc), they managed the rest. They made (well, still make) a killing on our labour by virtue of being able to force university libraries to pay often exorbitant subscription fees so that we can access research that we produced in the first place.

Came OA, the idea that research paid for mostly by taxpayers should be made available free of charge to anyone anywhere. I call this the having-your-cake-and-eating-it model. Academics typically loves these sorts of models. Thing is, you can't actually have your cake and eat it. OA turned out to be - by and large - a model whereby costs were switched to the producers of the research. Academics suddenly had to pay huge amounts (typically these days about 3000  $ per pop) to be able to play (hence I coined these publishing models 'pay-to-play'). So, while in the not so great old days our libraries were bled dry by greedy publishers, under the new model the only academics capable of publishing their research outputs would be those with research funds able to cover those fees.

That can probably work for folks in the STEM subjects, but this can't work for humanities scholars. Most of us typically produce our research during term breaks, most of us don't sit on large quantities of research funding. In fact, most of us don't have research funding at all.

Here kicks the self-exploitation model in that I started of with. Some well-intentioned humanities scholars have since decided to set up their own OA journals, where neither readers pay, nor those who submit their content for review. Given that barriers to entry are fairly low these days (you need a webserver and publishing software), that is prima facie not a terrible idea. And yet, it does sound like yet another having-your-cake-and-eating-it model, doesn't it? It kind of is. Essentially, those who run those journals have embarked on a never-ending journey of self-exploitation. Nobody pays for anything, you volunteer your time (in return for your name on a journal website masthead), you rely probably to some extent on grad students and postdocs to keep your enterprise afloat, you divert research funding to keep the administrative side of your publishing operation ticking, universities provide the web-server, etc.

The reality here is that academics so volunteer to undertake the tasks publishers (be they OA or subscription based) typically undertake. Will these academics see a benefit from the institutions whose libraries would save large amounts of money if this model took hold (there would be no costs involved in subscribing to journals or in submitting content to them)? The long and short of it is that that is not the case. That funding will disappear elsewhere (a new soccer stadium anyone? new Principal's residence? ) So, really we see a case of academics exploiting themselves, no more, no less. They volunteer their time to undertake administrative (ie journal publishing) tasks that other professionals should undertake, and that these professionals should be paid to undertake, and that these professionals have been undertaken for a very long time.

Now, I'm the last to think that an argument from tradition is a good argument, but it is worth noting that the model whereby those who produce journals are paid for their labour has worked pretty well for us in the academy. You can have a legitimate argument about the cost side of things, about publishers' ever diminishing support services to academic journals, all of that, but fundamentally things work.  We get our content out in reputable academic journals, and the content is available ever more easily and at ever greater speed to other academics. On the other hand, the publishing landscape is littered with the corpses of journals that relied on volunteers to keep all aspects of their operations alive because they insisted on being 'free'. The truth is though, well-paid academics spend their time undertaking administrative tasks involved in producing these journals when they could be doing actual research, teach, or provide other services to their employers, ie the universities where they work.

There was a time when I was worried about what would happen to the published peer reviewed content after the failure of these kinds of publications. Would they also disappear into the rubbish bins of the internet? Thankfully that doesn't have to be the case. We have today numerous repositories where such outlets can store their articles after their demise. So, as long as that occurs, at least the content can survive the demise of the journals themselves.

Still, if I was a budding academic thinking about where to place my first or second peer reviewed journal article, would these kinds of journals be my first choice? Probably not.

Monday, December 08, 2014

National Post commentator makes up stuff about assisted dying

Andrew Coyne, well-known conservative part of Canada's commentariat, makes up stuff about assisted dying today. He deploys in his commentary pretty much every variety of slippery slope arguments that is known to humankind (they're usually all false, folks learn that in Logic101 classes). Bioethics students to the front. Whoever finds the most errors in Coyne's piece wins my last book :).  Inbox me with your findings.

This is in part what he writes:

"Udo Schuklenk, professor of bioethics at Queen’s University and chair of the Royal Society of Canada’s panel on “End of Life Decision Making,” recently published a paper advocating the euthanizing, with parents’ consent, of infants with severe deformities, a practice he likened to “post-natal abortion.” Eike-Henner Kluge, former director of ethics for the Canadian Medical Association, has made similar arguments for including the mentally incompetent among those eligible for euthanization. This is hardly a theoretical concern. In countries where assisted suicide/euthanasia has been legalized, it is increasingly the practice. Belgium, where euthanasia on the Quebec model has been legal since 2002, this year extended it to children, joining the Netherlands, where it has been lawful since the 1990s. In Switzerland it is permitted to euthanize the mentally ill. And the list continues to grow: prisoners serving life sentences are the latest addition. What begins in compassion, it seems, ends in eugenics."

Let me just note here that my contribution didn't once mention 'severe deformities', but hey.  I didn't even mention deformity by some other name as a relevant decision-making criterion. Making up stuff - steady as they write.

Coyne then claims that infanticide is increasingly the practice in countries where assisted suicide and/or euthanasia have been legalized. It turns that the published data cited in my paper show that the opposite is actually the case. Cases whereby the lives of newborns have been terminated whose continuing life-preserving treatment would have been futile have halved in the Netherlands (one of Coyne's straw men) since the mid 1990. Worth noting, virtually all of these life endings were not caused by acts of euthanasia, the act that excites Coyne so much. So, assisted dying does demonstrably not lead to a situation where infanticide is increasingly the practice, the opposite is the case actually.

Slippery slopes typically claim (as Coyne does) that as a result of the slippery slope more (rather than less) cases of something wrong occur. Coyne doesn't even engage the question of whether there might be good reason for why these newborns' lives were terminated by active means or by means of withholding life-preserving care. To him it's all bad. Nothing wrong with living life in a simple world unencumbered by facts. In this case, it's a world of make-belief, because these kinds of cases actually halved in number since the mid 1990.  Then Coyne moves seamlessly from infanticide to the mentally ill. Well, mental illness doesn't necessarily render you incompetent, legally or ethically.

Coyne's apocalyptic journey ends where it must end, in good ol eugenics. Case closed. Has he provided any evidence for this claim at least. Oops, no, that's where this rambling anti-euthanasia commentary abruptly ends.

Let me leave you with a bit more of Coyne's musings. He writes in the same piece, 'Advocates, impatient with such arbitrary distinctions as that between suicide and assisted suicide — of what use is the right to kill oneself, they ask, if you are physically incapable of carrying it out? — are nevertheless at pains to preserve the distinction between terminal illness and mere depression...' . I'm not a professional commentator, so let me just note with some bewilderment that I do indeed think that there's a different between what's commonly understood to be a terminal illness (say, late-stage cancer) and depression. They are simply different kinds of illnesses, one kills ya, the other one doesn't. Apparently, to a commentator on a roll it's all the same, kinda.

I'm always puzzled under what rocks major news organizations find these people. In the good old days they'd have had fact checkers at least that would have fixed (and re-written) Coyne's piece, today, they write and upload at manic speed. Oh well.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Conservative and Liberal Canadian Senators bring assisted dying bill on the way

Conservative Ontario Senator Nancy Ruth and Liberal British Columbia Senator Larry Campbell have introduced today an assisted dying bill in the Canadian Senate. They hope to have it voted on during the spring session of the House. From there it would proceed to the House of Commons for further deliberation and eventual vote.

You might recall that Conservative MP Stephen Fletcher introduced such a bill in the House of Commons, but it was killed there by procedural means by a government determined not to be associated with legislation that's broadly in sync with what more than 80% of Canadians want to see happen in the country.

We will see how this pans out. With a bit of luck it adds further momentum to the currently ongoing Supreme Court of Canada case. Certainly anything helping the momentum toward the decriminalization of assisted dying in the country is to be applauded.

Given that we are going into a federal election in 2015, I can't wait to see how the parties' head honchos and election strategists will try to wriggle their way out of this one. It's a topic that political parties and their parliamentary voting drones try to avoid as much as the plague, despite overwhelming societal support for such a change. - It goes without saying, the honourable exception was Bill 52 in Quebec, there introduced with cross-party support.

The Senate bill reportedly differs from MP Fletcher's bill in three respects:

  • It clarifies the roles of the assisting physician, the consulting physician, and who can be official witnesses.
  • It requires doctors to report to their provincial ministry that they have assisted with a death and provide a certificate with all relevant details
  • It requires a 14-day waiting period after a patient's first request to a physician for help with dying, followed by a second conversation to confirm the patient's wishes
 

Monday, December 01, 2014

Globe and Mail misleads about HIV/AIDS legal basics and vaccine research

Hmm, the Globe and Mail newspaper, Canada's only paper that comes reasonably close to being a national quality outlet, decided to contribute to today's World AIDS Day by offering a list of nine things we should know about HIV.  Good idea, questionable execution.

Under point five the paper informs us in the subheading going with point five (out of nine)

'5. In Canada, it’s is illegal for HIV-positive people to have sex without disclosing their status.'

Except... it isn't actually illegal for HIV-positive people to have sex without disclosing their status. As the journalist responsible for the list notes in the paragraph right under the subheading,
'A more recent Supreme Court ruling stated that a person living with HIV does not have to disclose their status before having vaginal sex if a condom is used and the person has a low viral load.'

That's actually the case. Canadians who happen to be HIV-positive, have an undetectable viral load and use condom during sexual intercourse are not under a legal obligation to disclose their HIV-status to their sex partners.

Important lesson. Make sure to scan more than just the subheadings of the Globe and Mail.

The journalist writing up the nine point list of random 'facts' made up another 'fact' altogether:

'8. The first and only preventative HIV vaccine is being developed in Ontario, but it still has a way to go.'

Reality check:  lots of preventative vaccine candidates are being tested in clinical trials. They pretty much all flamed out to date without doing much. The Globe and Mail journalist responsible for the nine point list links this particular 'fact' to a 2013 article in a business paper alerting readers to the fact that a team at Western University succeeded in testing their vaccine candidate in a phase 1 clinical trial. Phase 1 clinical trials only test for toxicity, no more. So, the long and short of it is that nothing much is being 'developed' on the preventative vaccine front in Ontario. Here's the Globe and Mail take on this: 'Preliminary clinical trial results appear positive but there are still many hurdles to overcome, including manufacturing and regulatory approval.' That's a funny way of looking at a vaccine candidate that has - according to the report the Globe and Mail article uses as reference - barely emanated from phase 1. If you think that manufacturing and regulatory approval are the relevant hurdles to take when it hasn't been established that the agent actually works as a preventative agent, you might want to reconsider your investment strategies as far as pharmaceutical companies are concerned.

This hyping of clinical research in the absence of firm evidence seems to become standard journalistic operating procedure in this country, ever since experimental agents were randomly promoted to Ebola vaccines by eager journalists across the country.

Check out the Globe and Mail piece, some of the other 'facts' seems suspicious, too, but I don't have the time to fact-check this particular list of 'facts' in detail.

In Saskatchewan, where the prevalence rate is three times the national average, a person is infected even more frequently.. A person is infected with HIV in Canada every three hours.

In Saskatchewan, where the prevalence rate is three times the national average, a person is infected even more frequently.