Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade you’ll already have heard of on-line courses. Probably in the form of spam emails and banner ads. Until recently they’ve been relatively expensive and not very highly regarded.

Unis Are we about to witness the single biggest change in the way we learn since the printing press?Over the last few months a large number of heavyweight universities have entered the playing field in a big way. Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Edinburgh, U.Penn, U. Michigan, U. Virginia, U. Washington, Caltech and a host of other universities have all unveiled completely free offerings using the shared Coursera platform. HarvardMIT and now Berkeley have teamed up to unveil EDx, a suite of completely free top level courses that promise the added bonus of interactivity. The courses will obviously lack important elements for some disciplines such as lab time and one-to-one tuition however if these courses are able to capitalise on their interactive potential they could even prove to be more conducive to learning than traditional methods in many respects.

The giddying introductory video to MIT’s flagship computer science course set for launch in October:

The Edx project trailer (which the title from this piece was pinched from):

Continue reading »

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University libraries have for a long time struggled with the increasingly extortionate fees placed upon them by journal publishers. Many universities can no longer afford to pay journal publishers to access the content their students require. Sadly, until now this has been a closet issue, an issue of “prestige”. In what may prove to be a watershed moment, Harvard University have sent the following memo to all faculty members (emphasis mine), outlining the university’s strategy to deal with this problem which includes gently directing researchers towards open access publishers. This announcement sets a powerful precedent that could prove to be a defining moment in the “Academic Spring”.

harvard logo Harvard University To Boycott Extortionate Journal Publishers

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To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35% and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.

The Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds.

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership,  reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.

It is untenable for contracts with at least two major providers to continue on the basis identical with past agreements. Costs are now prohibitive. Moreover, some providers bundle many journals as one subscription, with major, high-use journals bundled in with journals consulted far less frequently. Since the Library now must change its subscriptions and since faculty and graduate students are chief users, please consider the following options open to faculty and students (F) and the Library (L), state other options you think viable, and communicate your views:

1. Make sure that all of your own papers are accessible by submitting them to DASH in accordance with the faculty-initiated open-access policies (F).

2. Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access (F).

3. If on the editorial board of a journal involved, determine if it can be published as open access material, or independently from publishers that practice pricing described above. If not, consider resigning (F).

4. Contact professional organizations to raise these issues (F).

5. Encourage professional associations to take control of scholarly literature in their field or shift the management of their e-journals to library-friendly organizations (F).

6. Encourage colleagues to consider and to discuss these or other options (F).

7. Sign contracts that unbundle subscriptions and concentrate on higher-use journals (L).

8. Move journals to a sustainable pay per use system, (L).

9. Insist on subscription contracts in which the terms can be made public (L).

The memo coyly avoids specifying exactly who the “major providers” to be abandoned are, but I think we can make an educated guess at one of them.

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If you are not currently studying at a world class institution, shibboleth is one of the paywalls you are typically confronted with when you try to read an academic article.

Shibboleth The Great Irony of Shibboleth

A typical Shibboleth login screen

In fact, even if you are at a good university, you probably regularly encounter journals which your university can not afford – or does not think worthy of subscribing to. The dictionary definition of the word reads:

shib·bo·leth  noun \ˈshi-bə-ləth also -ˌleth\


a: a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning <the old shibboleths come rolling off their lips — Joseph Epstein>

b: a widely held belief <today this book publishing shibboleth is a myth — L. A. Wood>

c:truismplatitude <some truth in the shibboleth that crime does not pay — Lee Rogow>


a: a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group <accent was … a shibboleth of social class — Vivian Ducat>

b: a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others <for most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind — Osbert Sitwell>

I found it quite amusing when the word shibboleth was used apparently unironically in a Nature blog post making the controversial argument that writers don’t necessarily have to understand the scientific papers that they write about. This blog post reiterated the shocking statement made by Nature’s online news editor Ananyo Bhattacharya that he doesn’t consider it necessary for journalists to even read a scientific paper before they report on it. The Guardian’s James Randerson makes an excellent case for why this argument is a steaming pile of erm, nonsense. Randerson does however identify one huge stumbling box for journalists – press releases often don’t come with the research attached and journalists often don’t have the time and resources to get access to the paper.

Shibboleth paywall The Great Irony of Shibboleth

Taken from the Access Management Federation advert

We are therefore in the ridiculous situation that much of what is printed in the science news columns of the main-stream press is wholly uninformed speculation about research that neither the public nor journalists can access. No wonder so many people are so turned off to science.

One solution to this problem is that researchers and funding organisations can insist on their research being published in open-access journals. In real terms there is nothing to lose and everything to gain, PLoS will waive all charges no questions asked. In cases where your copyright has already been transferred to a pay-walling publisher you can often gain permission for your work to be posted on your blog, once this is done, people will be able to track down your work using Google. I typically Google the title of a paper to see if this is the case because downloading a paper straight from the scientist’s site is a great deal faster than fumbling around with paywalls. Secondly, journalists must insist on full access to any journals they are expected to write about. If journalists make it common practice to write back to senders of press releases stating that they can not report a paper without a copy of the paper then with any luck the message will get through that this practice is unacceptable.

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Via the brand spanking new LOLsevier tumblr.

BotcottElsevier The Elsevier scandal in two minutes

Image courtesy of thecostofknowledge.com (where you can sign the petition)

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rb editors selection BioNot: The Internets Answer to the Principle of FalsifiabilityA wise man named Karl Popper once disagreed with the orthodox view that scientific activity starts with observation noting that “observation is always selective”. It is often possible to propose a theory and find results that support or verify it but Popper proposed that it is the negative results that are of crucial value. He used the following simple thought experiment to prove it.

black and white swans BioNot: The Internets Answer to the Principle of Falsifiability

A black swan disproves the theory that all swans are white

Europeans for thousands of years had observed millions of white swans. Using inductive evidence, we could come up with the theory that all swans are white.

However exploration of Australasia introduced Europeans to black swans. No matter how many observations are made which confirm the theory that swans are white there is always the possibility that a future observation could refute it. Induction cannot yield certainty.

This simple principle revolutionised science and the world lived happily ever after.
…Of course that was not how the story ended. Today there is still massive pressure on scientists by industry, funding bodies, the media and universities to chase after verifying positive findings and in effect supporting established knowledge. This is all very well but when a negative finding is discovered it is all too often brushed under the carpet, almost as if it is an embarrassed (an ugly duckling perhaps). For example consider for a second how truly horrifying the following statistic actually is:

Only 5.9% of industry sponsored cancer trials are ever published

Of that 5.9%, an astounding 75% give positive results – suggesting negative findings are simply not published. This is not the only problem for academics searching for negative results to support a proposition. Because of the way boolean search algorithms work you have to have a little bit of boolean-know-how to actually search for a negative result. Simply adding “not” in to an english language proposition will still yield positive findings. Now a group of scientists have created a database called BioNot that uses data mining and intelligent machine learning methods to systematically search for negative results in Pubmed and Elsevier.

BioNot BioNot: The Internets Answer to the Principle of FalsifiabilityYou may wish to write down the URL http://snake.ims.uwm.edu/bionot/ because in an ironic twist the boolean wizards who created this programme have made the URL a little trixy for google to find, presumably because this website is google’s arch nemesis. Perhaps not, but either way if you hit “BioNot” in to google you end up with something to do with nuts.

Not BioNot BioNot: The Internets Answer to the Principle of Falsifiability

Anyway, I’m off to have a play with it, if you need some search ideas, check out the fabulous results of my very first search!

Full Text (Open Access PDF) on Pubmed

Via Neuroskeptic (where you can pop on over and read a little more explanation of the potential applications of this tool)

Agarwal S, Yu H, & Kohane I (2011). BioNOT: A searchable database of biomedical negated sentences. BMC bioinformatics, 12 (1) PMID: 22032181

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