This week I found several interesting online articles that I’d like to share here.
The first relates to SOPA and PIPA, the two legislative acts about fighting online copyright infringement. I personally don’t know too much about them but in an effort to learn about these pieces of legislation, I found a report published by the ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, that has a decent amount of influence, especially with scientists and technical people. The article is a bit technical, but the thesis is that the costs associated with blocking traffic (i.e. blocking DNS lookups and search engine hits) is quite high and it cannot be done simply by tampering with US-based DNS servers. Therefore the article proposes that anyone (or entity) that requests a court order under these acts needs to financially compensate the other party for carrying out the court order. This would mean that anyone who would like to censor a website would need to pay for that website to remove itself from DNS servers and search engines. The ACM article states that this is a non-trivial task, meaning that the prosecuting party would have to pay a substantial amount. If these bills were to pass, I hope this would mean that corporations would not be willing to actually carry out these court orders.
In somewhat related news, this NY Times article about academic publishing looks at alternatives to the traditional (read: antiquated) publishing system. This relates also to this article I wrote earlier but is not only better written but also better informed. There are several attempts to circumvent traditional academic journals; one mentioned in the article is ResearchGate, which is more or less an academic social network. I’m really happy to see that people are working on this and I hope that some of these catch one, despite the fact that academia is fairly conservative at adopting change. Another interesting facet of the NY Times article is that they managed to talk to spokespeople of Elsevier and Science, who gracefully toe-d the party line saying that the costs for maintaining curated records of publication motivates the exorbitant prices for journal subscriptions.
Cathy O’Neil, mentioned this article and wrote about one of her own horror stories of dealing with publishers. In fact her experience with publishers partly contributed to her leaving academia. In a nutshell, the publication process is atrociously slow, and this really slows innovation and also makes impatient people incredibly annoyed. Alternative form of publication and recognition could almost certainly speed up the dissemination of knowledge and foster more rapid innovation. I can see how this would really annoy me, but since machine learning is a field where top publication venues are mostly conferences, I haven’t noticed this much. Conferences are a great way to spread ideas quickly and efficiently, but in many fields they are regarded as second or third tier publication venues, so technical content is often lower quality. Maybe one quick fix in other fields is to convince people that conferences are a reasonable way to publish, thereby increasing their impact factor while simultaneously promoting more rapid innovation.
Timothy Gowers, a famous mathematician (a Fields Medalist) and blogger, also wrote here specifically about the bad practices of Elsevier, one of the big academic publishing companies. In his article he publicly declared that he would boycott Elsevier in every way, refusing to peer-review for, publish in, or in any other way serve for Elsevier journals. He also considers both top-down and bottom-up approaches for changing how these companies operate, and his boycott is a step in the bottom-up direction, an individual act rather than a more coordinated effort from academics. Either way, I’m glad to see that academics are taking a starting to take a stand against publishers.