Gas station without pumps

2013 August 3

University of California faculty commit to open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:06
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According to the press release, The University of California faculty have just endorsed an open-access publication policy.  The policy does not require publication in open-access journals, but deposit of articles in  eScholarship (UC’s open access repository).  There are supposedly opt-out mechanisms, which will undoubtedly see heavy use, both because many major journal still don’t allow deposit in university repositories, and because depositing in the UC repository will probably be a bureaucratic hassle that is easier to opt out of than to comply with.

Of course, I haven’t seen the details of the policy—it has not been distributed to the faculty yet.  Once again, I find out UC changes of policies first from the news media, not from any internal communication with the faculty.

I’m basically in favor of open-access publishing, but not in favor of author-pays funding of it (as an unfunded researcher, I can’t afford $2000–3000 per article).  Having a UC-based respository is basically a good idea, as long as it isn’t as much hassle to deal with as the NIH repository was (and maybe still is—I’ve not had NIH funding for a while).  I don’t know how good the indexing is going to be, either—whether people will be able to go from a standard journal citation to the UC copy of the article easily, without having to go to the eScholarship site explicitly looking for the article.

2013 July 6

Disseminating the applied circuits labs

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:41
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The post I just published about academic conferences lead me to thinking (again) about how I should disseminate my course design (or individual lab designs) for the Applied Circuits course.  I suppose I should write up a paper and submit it to a conference or some journal like the Journal of Engineering Education.

One problem is that my course designs are not education research—they are attempts to solve particular curricular problems by taking advantage of my strengths as a teacher.  Some of the course design generalizes to other teachers and other institutions with somewhat different curricular needs, but there is no controlled experiment to say that my course design is “better” than another is some predefined, measurable way.

I’m not sure where this sort of here-are-some-good-ideas-you-may-be-able-to-use course design work fits in academic publishing.  If I were teaching physics, I would probably submit to The Physics Teacher, but I don’t know what the closest equivalent is in engineering—particularly interdisciplinary stuff like teaching circuits to bioengineers.  There don’t seem to be good journals intended for disseminating instructional labs and curricular design. Maybe Advances in Engineering Education would be a better fit than Journal of Engineering Education, even if I don’t feel that my course design contains “significant, proven innovations in engineering education practice, especially those that are best presented through the creative use of multimedia.”

Of course, distilling down the 200–400 pages of notes on my circuits course that I’ve collected on this blog to a conference presentation or a journal article is a daunting task—one that I’ll probably keep putting off until it is so stale that even I’m not interested in it any more.  It might even be easier to turn the notes into a book than into an article, since I would not have to do 100-to-1 compression.

I’m not sure who the right audience for such a book would be—instructors trying to create a new course, students taking my course, hobbyists wanting to learn the material at home, … ? That is, should I be writing about a case study in course design, should I be trying to create a textbook for the course, or should I be trying to put together a self-study book that could accompany a kit of parts for people to learn electronics at home?

Again, the book project is big enough that I’d probably keep putting off indefinitely.  If I was sure there was an audience, I’d be more inclined to put in the effort to disseminate the material beyond this blog, though.

Another approach for disseminating the course materials would be to put together stand-alone kits for each lab (with detailed tutorials) that could be sold independently.  Releasing one lab at a time would be a more incremental effort than doing all 10 labs in one package, but would require some redesign, both for reduced expectations of lab equipment and to make the kits more modular.

I suspect that one could do most of the experiments of the circuits course for about $360 in lab equipment and tools, using something like the Velleman Lab2U unit (which PartsExpress sells for $210), a $40 multimeter,  a $17 soldering station, an Arduino, and the $66 bag of tools and parts I put together for the course.  The Lab2U is only a single power supply, so some of the projects that used a multiple supply would need to be redesigned—most notably the class-D power amp.  Unfortunately, $360 is too big a chunk of money for anyone but a dedicated hobbyist, who quite likely already has most of the needed equipment.

Making the kits more modular might be difficult. For example, many of the labs require students to choose resistors and capacitors from a large set of possibilities, since their lab kit contained 10 each of 112 different resistors and 10 each of 25 different ceramic capacitors.  It is easy to justify the cost of those parts spread over 10 labs, but harder to provide that much selection for a single lab.  Perhaps one would have to sell a core kit (with breadboard, resistors, capacitors, …) to use with the Arduino and add-on kits for each lab.  The core kit would need to have some fundamental experiments (like RC time constants), so that it would be instructional even without add-ons.

I wonder if there is a market for such lab kits, and how I would find out if there were a market (without sinking months of my time and thousands of dollars). I wouldn’t want to assemble or market the resulting lab kits either, but would want to distribute them through a company like Sparkfun electronics, Adafruit Industries, or Seeedstudio, who have already set up the necessary business infrastructure.

I also wonder whether I’m capable of writing the tutorials at an introductory enough level to work for hobbyists, while still covering enough of the theory.  I’ve never cared for kits that have great assembly instructions, but treat the way the things works as too difficult for the purchaser of the kit.

Writing instructions that included the use of an oscilloscope or multimeter, when there are many different ones that the person may be trying to use, would be a very challenging task.  Oscilloscopes in particular have evolved to have many radically different user interfaces, some of which are very complicated.

Also, all my writing has been for well-educated people: college professors, university students chosen from the top 10% of high school students, my loyal blog readers, … .  Can I make my writing intelligible for an average, or slightly above average, high school student, without sounding condescending or patronizing?  From the rather unsuccessful attempts I’ve seen in kit instructions in the past, that is not an easy task.

Do academics need to travel?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:29
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In a comment on the Academic Jungle blog, a commenter identified only as “Alex” wrote

This is an important point. Bloggers talk a lot about the tradeoff between work and life outside of work, but what about the tradeoff between work and work? How does one effectively mentor students or stay engaged in the intellectual work of the project, or (gasp!) teach effectively (we are, after all, professors) if you’re always on the road? I know it works for some people, but I just don’t get how.

Or, to really walk on the wild side, how does one effectively serve their institution if you’re always on the road? I mean, nobody wants to be the bore who gossips about the minutiae of the Academic Senate, but I’m proud that I spent a year working on a change to a policy that was getting in the way of opportunities for students. Service, if done right and in moderation, can be rewarding.

I’ve often wondered about the need some faculty see to be traveling all the time.

I used to go to 2–3 conferences a year, and I found them fairly stimulating intellectually.  After a while, I dropped down to about 1.5 conferences a year, in part because funding was tight, and in part because I wasn’t getting as much intellectual stimulation at the conferences. There were few new ideas that gripped me and a lot of rehashing of old ideas, often by people who hadn’t even done their homework to read stuff from outside their own institutions.  It was good to see friends that I only ever saw at conferences, but I had trouble justifying the expense of cross-country or international travel for what was becoming a purely social event. For the past few years I’ve not been to any conferences, and sometimes I wonder whether I ought to take the $2000–3000 out of savings to go to one of the bigger ones in my field, just to find out if there is anything new going on.

I used to justify conferences as places to present my work to the world (particularly when I was in computer engineering, where conferences were the main archival publications—journal turnaround was way too slow to be of much use).  Nowadays, most of my work is in collaborations where I am not first author, and journal publication in biology and bioinformatics is faster than conference publication, so conferences are rarely important for disseminating the actual work—in this field they are for advertising the work published in journals and for informal schmoozing.

I suppose that if I were a job hopper, jumping from school to school in an attempt to maximize my salary and fame, I would want to be a major player on the conference circuit.  But I’m not that excited by moving—I’ve been at the same university now for 27 years and expect to retire from it in another decade. But some of the other faculty at our university are probably just as settled in their jobs, but see the need to travel dozens of times a year, so it isn’t just the job hoppers populating the conference circuit.

It’s not that I’m stuck in a rut—I do look for novelty from time to time, both in research fields and in teaching.

I made a major change from VLSI design and logic minimization to protein structure prediction about 18 years ago, and I’m currently looking for a niche in DNA sequencing or assembly where I can be a productive contributor (the collaboration with the UCSC nanopore lab is going well, but the collaborations using PacBio data have not produced anything I think is publishable yet, despite a lot of effort spent and some interesting preliminary results).

In teaching, I’ve created a lot of different courses over the years, and I expect to create a few more before I retire.  I find creating a really good course more stimulating these days than most of the research projects I’ve been working on, which puts me somewhat out of step with most of my faculty colleagues, who would be only too glad to shed all teaching responsibilities to be full-time researchers.

I’ve wondered whether I should go to some teaching conferences—perhaps presenting the design of the Applied Circuits course, for example.  But I’d have to be convinced that there was really an audience interested in hearing what I had to say—spending $2000–3000 of my own money to talk to 50–100 people who didn’t care would be really a bummer.

This blog costs me nothing to produce (except time), and I reach about 300 people with each post, without the huge carbon footprint of traveling by jet. So conferences are seeming a less and less efficient use of resources all the time.

2013 June 27

Bad journal outreach

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:43
Tags: , ,

I just got an e-mail message saying

Greetings from the Journal of Tissue Science & Engineering

We feel glad to find you as the repute in this field of work. We are pleased to inform you that the Journal of Tissue Science & Engineering is under process of accepting the articles from the experts like you. So we would like to invite you as an author for the journal to submit the articles towards the success of the journal.

Normally, I would dismiss such badly written e-mail as poorly translated Chinese from a vanity open-source journal in China, but this one claims to be from an editor in Los Angeles.

Would you allow an editor with so little control over the English language to publish your work?

Incidentally, I don’t do anything even close to tissue science and engineering, so their targeting of their spam is also very badly done.

2012 November 29

PeerJ, open-access done reasonably

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:28
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There is a new open-access journal—what could be less newsworthy than that?  I get dozens of spam messages a week from open-access vanity journals eager to take my money.  Most of them get discarded quickly, as being not worth the time it takes to figure out what the scam is for this one.  As an unfunded researcher who has gotten tired of chasing after grants, I can’t afford the $2000–3000 an article cost of publishing in open-access journals like PLoS Computational Biology.

So why am I writing about yet another open-access journal? One with a crummy name like PeerJ, at that?

Well, it seems that the creators of PeerJ have recognized that publishing an online academic journal need not be expensive, and that the lower costs of production can be turned into lower costs for the authors (rather than into high profits for the nameless owners of the journal).  Their model is a subscription model, but it is a subscription for authors, not for readers. For a one-time fee of $99 you can publish one paper a year; for $199, two papers a year; and for $299 an unlimited number of papers per year.  (They charge a little more if you wait until your first paper is accepted before publishing.)

There are a few gotchas: every author must pay (well, only a dozen for papers with more than 12 authors), and every author must do a review each year in order to retain their membership (they can restart a membership for $99 if it lapses for lack of reviews).  There are institutional discounts, which might be useful for a company or university, if they are reasonably priced (institutional pricing is not on their web page, just an email address to discuss it with them).

This looks to me like a reasonable model for open-access publishing, if they can make it work.  Note that unlike high-fee open-access journals, there is little incentive for them to become a bottom-fishing vanity press. They have the same sort of incentive that a subscription journal has to keep the number of papers down, as they don’t make a lot more money by publishing a lot of papers.  This leads me to hope that their editorial policies will concentrate on publishing quality papers.  They do have substantial incentive to seek out new authors, though, so they won’t fall into the trap of only publishing papers from an old-boy network, the way some traditional journals do (I’m looking at you, PNAS).

I’m even considering finishing up one of my long-neglected drafts, just so I have something to try submitting to them.

Thanks to Iddo Friedberg, whose blog post on PeerJ alerted me to its existence.

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