Mendeley versus Papers: research software smackdown

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Regular readers of my blog may already know of the struggles I’ve had with Papers, the bibliographic database and research tool. That last link goes to what is by far (a huge margin) my single most popular blog page. That is because the Wikipedia entry for Papers links to it. But if you need verification of my negative appraisal of Papers in those posts, or in this one, just have a look at the comments. Anyway, I took the decision a couple of weeks ago to stop trying to make Papers work for me at all and try another tool in its place. Ditching it and moving over to Mendeley was relatively straightforward for me.

Mendeley web application.

The Mendeley web application interface

Mendeley comes in three major components.

The first part is the web application, where you sign up for an account. The account is free, and you get up to 2 gigabytes of storage space for your research database. If you need more you can purchase a plan to get more space. I’ve got several hundred papers in my database and it uses 600 megabytes, less than half the allocated free space. Technically, all you actually need is the web application. The Mendeley web app also has this social networking aspect, but I think these features are actually rubbish in a general sense.

The continual focus by Papers on extending its ‘social networking’, rather than fixing the serious data reliability issues and extending its core research and citation features was one of the reasons I decided to cut it loose in the end. On this account I don’t care for similar features in Mendeley. If I want to get a social network of academic research interests, there’s always academia.edu. That is, besides regular networking at conferences, and participating on relevant mailing lists. Mendeley uses the social network to retrieve articles off those which other people upload into their databases. Yet the usefulness of this feature is going to depend how many Mendeley users there are in your research area.

The second part of Mendeley is “Mendeley Desktop”, a free download from the site. It’s your local application that you run as a native app on your Mac or PC. It downloads your research database from your online account. It uploads any new papers that you add to the desktop app to the database in the web application. There are Desktop versions for Windows (XP and later) and Linux as well as Mac OSX. The Desktop app can also import your Papers library into Mendeley if you are converting. It directly imports your Papers2 database. I am not sure if it can import a Papers3 database. Papers3 does its darnedest to hide the database from you: you may have to export your Papers3 database to a .bib file and allow Mendeley to import that. Mendeley Desktop also has some neat features and some drawbacks compared to Papers (see below).

The third part of Mendeley is an iOS app. The Mendeley iOS app is free, unlike the Papers iOS app. For Papers, you have to buy the iOS app as a separate item to the Mac or Windows app. The Mendeley iOS app, just like the Desktop program and basic levels of web storage, is completely free. Like the Desktop app, the Mendeley iOS app syncs to the central web-based data repository. Papers2 tries to cross-sync its iOS app to the desktop via your wifi network, an inferior solution. The Papers3 iOS app syncs to your desktop via Dropbox, or iCloud. The Mendeley iOS app lets you carry around your research database on your iPhone or iPad or both. This is great for reading research articles on the train or bus, during lunch, or just sitting around under a shady tree in beautiful Queensland weather (did I mention I go to the University with the most beautiful campus in all Australia?). The Papers iOS apps have this functionality too of course, but at a cost. There is also the matter of the two different iOS apps depending whether you use Papers2 or Papers3.

There are some nice features that you gain from switching from Papers over to Mendeley:

  1. Mendeley automatically syncs its database to a nominated .bib file for BibTeX or BibLaTeX so you can always have one up to date with your research data. This is important for people like me who use plain-text tools like Pandoc and LaTeX to create and edit their articles. Having to remember when I last performed a manual export of the .bib file from Papers was a pain in the neck.

  2. Mendeley generates citation keys in much nicer format. The default is a straight author-date format (Mcphee2014). This way you don’t have to remember those awful random appendices that Papers tacked onto the end of its cite keys. And Mendeley doesn’t generate the colon between the author and the year (Mcphee:2014zkwel). To convert from the Papers format to the one used by Mendeley, I had to do a bulk ‘regular expressions’ search and replace on documents. I had already created. But that didn’t take long (because I use simple marked-up plain text as my main document format). Now it’s much nicer to insert references into my documents, as it’s easy to recall the citation key.

  3. It’s free if you have less than 2GB of PDFs (I mentioned this already but it bears repeating).

  4. I feel that Mendeley’s duplicate paper detection and merge is superior to Paper’s. But, Papers has an author merge and journal merge feature that Mendeley doesn’t. This is pretty neat when you get several variants of Author or Journal names, and Mendeley doesn’t have this feature. Instead you have to edit the offending documents one by one so all the relevant authors and journals match. This is not as nice as Papers’ superior method of dealing with duplicate authors and journals.

  5. I far prefer the central-server sync scheme used by Mendeley to the Dropbox or iCloud style database file sharing, or inter-device wi-fi sync that Papers uses. The Papers developers clearly have struggled with these latter mechanisms (and cross-sync can be hellish to do successfully at the best of times). Furthermore, Mendeley Desktop’s local configuration and data store is sqlite, a standard lightweight application storage database. This means that standard tools exist which allow a geek like me to hack into my local Mendeley database if needs be. I have found this feature useful to clean up the horrible citation keys that Mendeley imported from my Papers database. But if this last point sounds like gobbledegook to you, just remember that Mendeley’s storage of your precious research data is more reliable than Papers.

What you do lose when you switch from Papers to Mendeley is the internal search hook into the online article databases (e.g. JSTOR, Web of Science, Pub Med, ArXiv, etc). With Mendeley, you have to go to each database that you use one at a time and use their various web search facilities. Then you have to import each result into Mendeley with the supplied browser bookmarklet. This is an ugly throwback to go about searching for people used to Papers’ integrated search. Papers itself can search research databases and import the selected results directly. Mendeley does not have this feature. Yet the Mendeley website lists “Search across external databases” in the feature comparison matrix as “Almost there!” With luck, this is an important feature that Mendeley won’t lack for too long.

Mendeley can auto-import PDFs that you save into a configurable directory. When I last checked this feature out a few years ago, it didn’t read JSTOR metadata in the PDFs in a correct manner. You had to do a tedious clean up of the resultant data by hand in the Desktop app. If this applied to you, it negates the feature and creates dispiriting extra manual work. Later version may have fixed this defect, but I have not yet tried it with the current version yet.

Mendeley does have a search tool for searching papers that other users have imported into Mendeley. This is helpful if you are in a field that has a lot of Mendeley users. But if you are not not, then you won’t find many results. I tried searching for something obvious in my field and got only two pages of results. Most of which I already had in my library. Any one of the relevant online databases would have given back hundreds of results. So you need a large pool of researchers in your field for this to be a great feature.

There are also some other minor drawbacks to using Mendeley.

  1. In the desktop application, online, and in the iOS app the columns you can view and sort in your research database is limited. They are not at all flexible or in anyway configurable. For example, you can’t view and sort by citation key. You can filter by publication or by Author name using a side-bar on the left. You can search you own collection though and that’s pretty flexible.

  2. The reference manager, which inserts citations into documents and builds your bibliography automatically, is only available for Word. Also the documentation implies that Open Office and LaTeX options are available also. Although Word was the only option on the menu that I saw. I don’t use Word or Open Office for my research publications (and you should not either, word processors suck!). I use Pandoc so I guess I’m plumb out of luck. You can insert citations in several different portable flavours with Papers’ Citation.app. These include Pandoc and Multimarkdown, as well as Papers’ own format. Papers has more options for citations — if only I could have gotten it to be reliable. Both products use the CSL format for citation formatting (as does, for example, the citeproc tool which Pandoc relies on). Mendeley needs to add Pandoc and Multimarkdown citation insertion support. But, Mendeley’s sensible citation key generation, combined with Pandoc’s simple reference style, makes manual insertion of citations pretty easy: @Mcphee2014 p. 1.

In Mendeley, author names that have apostrophes in them, such as “O’Dwyer”, generate invalid citation keys in the .bib file (e.g. “O’Dwyer1999″). You have to perform a manual edit of the citation key in the desktop app to fix it to something valid, e.g. “ODwyer1998″. This is a known bug in Mendeley, let’s hope they fix it soon.

However, putting up with those drawbacks beats losing research data to database corruptions! If Papers didn’t have such a large range of very fatal data reliability bugs it would have many more interesting features than Mendeley. Trust in your research database’s reliability has to be absolute for any researcher. The Papers team have left their users in the lurch on this score. Promising to fix it in future updates just doesn’t cut it. Such fatal bugs should never be in a public release. And once detected post-release, an emergency path should be available within hours. It shows fundamental misunderstanding of software engineering principles. Mendeley, is not as flashy or as feature-rich as Papers, and lacks many advanced features, but gets the basics right. Also, the Papers developers shut down public threads on their support site, to keep negative comments being visible. This is a terrible, non-open way to approach support issues! Without a public forum, users can’t solve each other’s problems. They have to rely on official support channels only, which can take weeks to answer the simplest of queries. Or they use unreliable unofficial channels. Without public forums, critical bug reports, generated by their hasty release of a poor-quality beta version of Papers3 (that they had the gall to charge money for), overwhelmed the support staff. The desire to control what their users were saying about their product resulted in a major loss of reputation.

I will sum up with an analogy. Mendeley is like a basic model car that is unremarkable in features and gizmos and only only comes in one color. But it gets you from A to B with pretty good fuel economy and in a reliable fashion too (imagine a 1980s Japanese sedan). In contrast, Papers is like a nice-looking car with tons of nice styling and loads of gizmos and advanced features as standard. But every third morning it won’t start without a complete oil change and full service. Once a year it tends to dump its gearbox on the freeway while you are in the middle of driving it (imagine a 1970s Fiat, Rover or Leyland). Thus, while I’d love to have a beautiful, stylish car, with all the bells and whistles, the tow truck and mechanic’s bills (and the time wasted) is killing me. And preventing me from getting to work on time, and sometimes not at all, so … no. Mendeley it is.

Athenian Democracy and War

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Dr. David Pritchard, Senior Lecturer in Greek History in my department at the University of Queensland, talks to Dr Anastasia Bakogianni of Open University about his research dealing with the Athenian Democracy and its relationship with Athenian war-making, for Classics Confidential’s very worthwhile video series. Visit Classics Confidential – The Dark Side of Democracy, with David Pritchard

Obscurity and Livy 25.1 – some research notes.

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Livy's book 25 opens with a most remarkable sequence of non-events. Almost the entirety of 25,1 seems to deal with 'unimportant' details, right from the start. For example, at the beginning we learn that Hannibal was campaigning in the Sallentine region as part of his goal to capture the city of Tarentum, and:

Ipsorum interum Sallentinorum ignobiles urbes ad eum defecerunt (Livy 25.1.1)

In the interim, obscure (i.e. unimportant, undistinguished) cities of the Sallentines themselves defected to him.

These unworthy towns are left unnamed.

But then, a certain Titus Pomponius Veientanus accidentally managed to gather the appearance of a general on account of some random actions and had apparently dashed together a disordered army (which probably should be considered a rabble, but Livy uses the proper term for 'army' i.e. exercitus, but qualified with 'irregular': tumultuarius). He promptly lost a battle with Hanno, somewhere in Bruttium, probably:

et plures redissent, ni T. Pomponius Veientanus, praefectus socium, prosperis aliquot populationibus in agro Bruttio iusti ducis speciem nactus tumultuario exercitu coacto cum Hannone conflixisset (Livy 25.1.3)

and more (cities) would have returned (to the Roman side), if T. Pomponius Veientanus, a prefect of the allies, accidentally gathering the appearance of a legitimate general by favorably plundering Bruttian territory several times, had not fought Hanno with an irregularly assembled army.

Of course this army, a disordered lumpen mass of agricultural labourers and slaves (inconditae turbae agrestium servorumque), was defeated by Hanno with great loss of life, but the least notable thing about this military disaster was the capture of its leader (i.e. Pomponius), who was an unimportant waste of space:

minimum iacturae fuit quod praefectus inter ceteros est captus, et tum temerariae pugnae auctor et ante publicanus omnibus malis artibus et rei publicae et societatibus infidus damnosusque (Livy 25.1.4)

The least of the damage was that, along with the others, the prefect was captured, who at that time was the author of a imprudent battle, and who before that was a tax-collector skilled in every wrong-doing, and was treacherous and pernicious to both the republic and to societies.

This obscurity, unimportant and unmemorable history extends even to Sempronius the consul, who fights many puny battles (multa proelia parva, 25.1.5) and forcibly subdued a range of 'unimportant' Lucanian towns (ignobilia oppida Lucanorum aliquot expugnavit, 25.1.5).

All of these obscure and unworthy people, towns and events, aren't worth mentioning, really. Except of course, they are! Livy even names one of the unimportant people and expends a sentence telling us about his terrible life and what thoroughgoing rotter he really was. He's even mentioned again, by name, later in connection with another tax-collector at 25.3.9, relating to a species of ancient insurance fraud involving 'pretend shipwrecks' (falsa naufragia). This last event leads to a state crisis all through 25.4.

Then, immediately following these repeatedly obscure and un-note-worthy, yet briefly noted, events, at 25.1.6, we're now told that at Rome, due to the uncertain nature of events with wins and losses on both sides, men are now grasped by superstition, and proper Roman rites are abandoned, not just in the home, but in public too. In the forum and on the Capitoline, a crowd of women gathered and obeyed the customs of the fathers in neither sacrifices nor in prayers to the gods. 'Sacrificers and soothsayers' captured the minds of men (sacrificuli et vates ceperant hominum mentes), and rustics crowded the city abandoning their farms and profiting from ignorance. All this badness naturally led to civil disorder, and so the Senate ordered the city praetor to take the task in hand.

A contione was held and the praetor read the senate's decree, and order that books of prophesies and prayers or sacrificial guidelines written down must be surendered to him by April, and that no foreign or novel ritual was allowed to be performed in any public or consecrated place.

And straight after this we are given a list of state priests that died that year, at 25.2.1-2. Surely an ill omen.

Are these matters like the lists of prodigies which often open important sections of Livy? What to make of them? Why do these obscure events lead to an outbreak of public superstition? (Proximity in Livy is often a good indicator of 'causation'). Bear in mind the large, early losses of the Romans against the Carthaginians, such as at Trasimene and Cannae, three years before, are starting to fade into the background of Hannibal's campaign in the south of Italy, and an increasing focus on Spain and Sicily. It's not really until 25.6 that the focus starts to move off internal politics and the dangerous instability engendered by the clash of the tax-famers and the plebs at 25.4. But even 25.6 is about the disgraced veterans of Cannae and their pleading to Marcellus to be allowed to recover their honour. At 25.7.7-8 there is the list of the usual types of prodigies which must be then expiated at 25.9. It's a very confused and muddled beginning, for Livy's third decade at least, like we are leading up to a major military disaster.

But in this book, one of the greatest military triumphs ever accomplished by a Roman – the capture of Syracuse ('the most beautiful of the Greek cities') by Marcellus – is about to be recorded from 25.24 onwards.

I wonder if the connection between these 'facts of obscurity', corrupt tax-farmers, political instability, and the capture of Syracuse is the fact that the booty that Marcellus stripped from Syracuse (which is no longer visible in the city of Rome, in Livy's day, i.e. obscure), is also connected, via Livy's preface,to the blame he places on luxuria for 'modern' Rome's moral downfall? More research required.

Pandoc referencing for Sublime Text 3: a plugin

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I have been writing my thesis using the Pandoc markup format which is a flavour of Markdown. Recently I also switched to using the Sublime Text plain text editor for this purpose. As Sublime Text is fantastically extensible with easy-to-write Python 3.3. plugins, thus on week nights I’ve also been building some tools that help me with some of the basic Pandoc/Markdown mark up text. In particular that bane of all those who write theses of any sort: footnotes and references.

I wrote the plugin PandocReferencr. It’s available in the Package Control system for Sublime Text (to install, type CMD-SHIFT-P (CTRL-SHIFT-P on Windows and Linux), type “Package” select “Package Control: Install” from the drop down menu, wait until it fetches the package list, then type “Pandoc Ref” and select the package to install).

There are two main commands: one (check_footnotes) scans the current file and makes sure every footnote that has been inserted has a corresponding entry somewhere else in the file. It also checks if every footnote text entry also has a footnote insert to match.

This block of footnoted Pandoc/Markdown has two errors and one successful footnote. 
This text has a successful footnote.[^footnote1] This bit of text has a footnote 
that's broken because it doesn't have the matching text entry.[^notexist0]

[^footnote1]: this is the text of the successful footnote number 1.

[^missing1]: there is nowhere that inserts the 'missing1' footnote.

The other useful command (insert_footnote) asks for a footnote id (if you have selected any text, it uses the selection as the default), and then inserts it at the end of the selection (if nothing is selected it acts as expected – inserts at the current cursor position). Then it asks for the footnote text data, and when that’s completed (i.e. you press enter) it puts the footnote text at the end of the current buffer (i.e. at the end of the file).

I’ve got some other ideas for functionality to add in the near future, like:

  • default key bindings installed with the package

  • stop the crazy big warning dialogue for files with many (>15 or so) footnote referencing errors :oops:

  • manual-fix and auto-fix broken footnote refs found

  • ability to put footnote text after each paragraph the footnote insert appears in rather than the end of the entire file, by configuration.

  • footnote clean up, i.e. move footnotes to paragraphs or all to end of file according to user preference of footnote placement (above).

  • footnote auto-renumbering, with automatic prefixing.

  • restrict to working with only relevant markdown and pandoc contexts (currently doesn’t care what sort of file it’s invoked in).

Papers App – Junk that corrupts your research database

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My latest support email to the Mekentosj Papers support – who rarely answer support emails anyway. They don’t dare have a public forum like nearly every other software company because it would be flooded with complaints. This particular complaint applies to Papers version 2, which I had to go back to after I found Papers 3 to be unusable junk. Turns out the same thing applies to the Papers 2 version. I wonder how much other research articles it has managed to disappear? I’m sick of it. I want my money back. I’m going to sick a lawyer onto them for the 70 euro refund just from the principle of the thing.

If your data integrity is shite then it doesn’t matter diddly squat how many dancing gizmos and nice icons your so-called beautiful interface has. I want a research database that doesn’t lose articles then insists the article is still in its database when it’s plainly not.

I found today a citekey reference for [an] item in an oldish article using a cite key, that clearly I [once] had [in my papers database]. I even found the article title in a manually list of references in the article.

I looked for the article in the Papers 2 database. Nothing.

Then I searched for the article in JSTOR using Papers. It didn’t find it. Papers search is unreliable, terribly unreliable, so I went manually to JSTOR and found the article. Pasted the JSTOR URL into a new browser window of Papers. Imported OK. Then I decided the easiest thing would be to assign the original citekey to the item. Edited the article’s details.

Changed the citekey. Papers warns me there is an item with the same citekey in the database already!

Looked at the list of every item in the papers2 database sorted by citekey. The citekey is not to be found in the database. Conclusion: Papers database corrupted again.

I just paid for an “upgrade” to Papers3 and that was unusable for other reasons (Citations busted). I’ve paid for your product (Papers2) twice. I want my money back. Every time I open it, there’s some new random problem with it. You don’t answer your support calls. Everything about your product is is either junk or corrupt or broken or a black hole which you never answer questions about serious problems.

I want my money back. Give me my money back or talk to my lawyers.

Fragments of the Roman Historians

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What do we know about the works that have been lost? From the evidence of surviving texts we can recover the names of over one hundred Roman historians who lived and worked in the centuries between around 200 BC and AD 250 (that is, roughly, from the time of Hannibal’s defeat to the start of the barbarian invasions). Some are little more than names, but in most cases we can recover something about their lives and the scope and content of their historical works; the evidence consists of quotations, references and allusions in the works of later authors whose texts do happen to survive. By collecting these fragments (as they are conventionally called) we can attempt to reconstruct at least a vague outline of the lost works, and gain some idea of the history and development of Roman historical writing, as well as extracting crucially important pieces of evidence for Roman history itself.

A new Fragments of the Roman Historians has been published … I can’t wait until its available in my University Library, but I’ll have to wait until they get it. It’s £275.00 to buy in it three-volume hardcover binding. No electronic edition.

Write your thesis in Plain Text!

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I really don't understand why most people in the Humanities insist on using Microsoft Word to write their material. Universities habituate their undergraduate humanities students to Word and they really ought to stop it. I recently got a shock to my anti-Word stance when I wrote an article and was looking to submit it to a journal that only takes MS Word format articles. The journal also had a really nasty custom citation format, which complicated it even further.

In the past I've written about using LaTeX and other tools to write my PhD. I start in Scrivener, and export to LaTeX for layout. LaTeX of course won't export to Word's .docx format without a lot of rigmarole. I needed another tool.

On the other hand Scrivener has excellent abilities to work with snippets of text, which are presented as index cards which you can rearrange – excellent for organising your thoughts and notes. Its only major defect is that it uses RTF underneath the hood to store your text. They suggest using Multimarkdown format (and have some built in tools to support it) but the underlying data is still saved in RTF replete with WYSIWYG markup. You have to fiddle with it in order to force it look like a plain text editor (e.g. set the font to Courier). The developers should just create a "plain text mode" which not only behaves like a plain text editor – it also stores the content as plain text. This one flaw prevents me from fully embracing Scrivener. Nowadays for me it's just an organisation tool I use when my writing needs to be extensively re-organised.

Instead I've fully embraced Markdown syntax in plain text files via a tool called Pandoc. This is a command-line tool that converts to and from many formats. It can convert Markdown to RTF, DOCX, HTML, LaTeX, or PDF (via LaTeX) among many others. Pandoc has saved my bacon! It also has some excellent markup extensions that support things like citations, and it can integrate with bibliography data like .bib files, via bibLaTeX coupled with custom-styled CSL citation formats that allow me to produce the desired citation style in all target formats. So I write in this Pandoc-extended Markdown format and export to LaTeX/PDF or Word or RTF as necessary. The plain text files that make up my thesis and article writing as version-controlled via git on github – not that you'll see my thesis there, as it's in a private repository, sorry!

My editor of choice is Sublime Text. It was BBEdit, which still sometimes gets used for some things. Sublime Text is easily extensible via Packages, and it's easy to program your own. I wouldn't fully recommend Sublime Text to a non-programmer though – even the preferences are just stored as files with JSON objects! I'm still running Pandoc on the command line at the moment rather than using one of the Pandoc integration packages in Sublime Text.

I also had a look at [Ullysses III]. However it doesn't really fully support academically-styled Markdown – it doesn't know how to do Pandoc's citations for example. Also it tends to default to write its files into Apple's iCloud, which means you can't get at them on the command line. Although you can import 'external' folders into it, it's much more of a tool for 'creative' writers who just need simple formatting in plain text rather than academics who need to do complex things with citations and maybe tables, diagrams, and LaTeX math snippets, which are important to people in physics, maths and computer science.

In short, I am quite happily using plain text files and Pandoc to organise all my writing needs. Plain text being plain text, I can easily switch tools to handle specific tasks which that tool is particularly better at. I can write my thesis on my iPad (and I frequently do, using a bluetooth keyboard, which makes a fantastic portable writing toolkit). I can reproduce any journal's custom citation format easily (and switch between them), and target whatever document format they prefer. I can still use LaTeX for its fantastic layout abilities which creates far nicer looking PDFs than Word ever can. And if anyone still requires it in Word format, I can send them that too. You'll find yourself having less nightmares than you will with Word doing weird things to your formatting, and more to the point, when you need to just write using plain text allows you get all those jumping Microsoft distractions and hideous "ribbon" menus out of the way and concentrate on just the thing you need to say.

Update: If this sound terribly technical, this is a sample of how to write in Pandoc/Markdown:

#The header of this text is easily readable#

Writing in Pandoc is super-easy. Fire up your plain text editor 
(e.g. Notepad or TextEdit) and start writing now! A guide - this 
is in *italics*, this is **bold** and this has a footnote.[^footnote] 
Blank lines separate paragraphs.^[this is a pandoc-only inline 
footnote]

[^footnote]: the 'footnote' reference text must be unique. Pandoc will 
auto-number it. The footnote text can be at the end of the document or 
after the paragraph, it doesn't matter. You can also create references 
as follows: [@ACitationReference1999 p. 1] says so. Pandoc will invoke 
your chosen bibliographic software to extract the reference and format 
the citation according to your chosen citation format.

Academic publishing. Broken but not for these reasons.

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I think this article by Erica Price about academic publishing is highly problematic, but nowhere near as problematic as some of the back and forth which she had with people from the writering community which can be found here.

erikadprice:

strange-radio:

erikadprice:
In order to succeed in academia, you must succeed in academic publishing. The length of the published works section of your CV (the academic equivalent of a resume) determines your job offers, promotions, pay scale, whether you get grants, and whether you get tenure. If you do not publish, you…

This is (bitterly) fucking hilarious, because in fiction publishing, all of the things she’s talking about here are giant red flags that signal “fake vanity publisher scam DO NOT USE DO NOT USE.” Not that fiction publishers don’t have their own set of major issues, but there is at least the understanding that everyone involved in the process is doing work that they should get paid for, even if it’s a lot of work for shitty, risky, or long-delayed pay. Like, something went wrong if nobody made any money.

THIS. Academic publishing functions the way mainstream publishing SCAMS function.

So, to make my objections specific. What the original poster is actually complaining about is the academic jobs market not the publishing market. All the movement to Open Access (OA) publishing (which is in itself a good thing, to make knowledge open) are only going to make all those original poster's complaints actually worse.

If you want "vanity publishing" just wait until you see the "Gold OA" model. Academics are increasingly required to publish their articles in a format that anyone can access (which I think is unequivocally a good thing). However the so-called "Gold" model which is preferred by many of the funding agencies and the journal publishers (especially in the UK where there is a big shit-fight over this),1 requires the Author to pay the Journal to get all the peer reviewing, editing, etcetera, done (and of course the peer reviewing work is still unpaid labour). Only rich authors or those from rich institutions will be able to publish extensively in this model.

Now that is really much more like "vanity" publishing, and it's already been reported some slimy commercial journal outfits are scanning through conference programmes and emailing likely presenters with offers to publish their work in their shitty little journal, for a fee, in the name of Open Access – and that is actual vanity publishing. This sort of thing has happened to PhD theses for years. Plus look what happens to scholarly monograph publishing in the world of pay-for-play open access. The "Gold" model will likely destroy or deeply cripple academic publishing in the Humanities (as opposed to the "Green" model which means placing articles after a short period of embargo, into freely accessible institutional repositories).

I have some additional objections to some of the points raised in the original article. The situations described in that piece are potentially different for different fields (the author's field is social psychology if I read the 'about' page correctly). It is a huge error of misattribution to assume that experience in one field is mirrored in all the others. Also it seems the author may also be involved with creative writing, which already has a commercial market for the primary output of creative writing (magazines, books, novels, New York Times bestseller list, etc).2

In areas like Ancient History and Classics (I can't really speak for any other areas), the journals are nearly all published by scholarly societies and the journal is usually included in the price of society membership (it not usually "a few hundred dollars" but more often in the range of about a hundred dollars or less). The journal itself is actually the paramount "good" the society produces.3 The comparison of the New Yorker to e.g. the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies is a category error.

However, and to extend my objection further, I do think that article refereeing – this is the "peer review" process which is what makes academic journals, actually academic journals – does necessarily need to be "unpaid" labour. I am not convinced that putting any sort of economic motivation in the peer review process is anything like an excellent idea. The point is that you are supposed to be paid for your time by your employing institution. The problem is therefore, the academic employment market, in this regard.

Another objection I take is to the characterisation of the "conference" market. The simple fact of the matter is the author thinks an academic conference presentation is a "TED-worthy" talk. If I went to an academic Classics conference and got a TED talk I'd be incensed. I don't want a popularised dumbing down for a generalised audience who each paid many thousands of dollars to attend. I want to see the cutting edge of research in my academic field.4 And a $300 registration fee? What sort of conferences is this person attending? Again I think the case is they are assuming their own field's experience is extended to every other field and generalising their own feelings about that to the "academic" area in general. The range for conference fees I find is more typically $100 to $200 but I will concede it does vary somewhat,5 so it might be up at $300 for some conferences. Anyway every single one of these conferences take a lot of hard work by volunteer labour (I know as I was just involved in organising one) and they are rarely run "for profit".

In short, I think this becomes part of a generalised grumbling about academic publishing, which is surely full of various inequities. But it's damned if you do, and damned if you don't. The real inequity in academic publishing is the exorbitant fees charged to access knowledge in the form of academic articles. But the solutions to that problem only make the specific complaints of the post even worse than they are now. The specific complaints in the post are about the academic job market, and the value of academic labour and how it is compensated (for it is labour). But I can't see how paying authors for academic articles or paying for people to peer-review those articles, is going to be solve either of these issues, when I think they will make it much worse. This is on top of what is already happening in academic publishing, in order to solve one group of problems, will likely make existing successful and currently viable publishing models (by Societies) far worse than they are now. But instead of working to a solution to address those set of new problems, what happens is then a lot of non-specialists misinterpret the undifferentiated pile of complaints as "academic publishing is shit" and all you've achieved is denigrating all of us in everyone else's eyes without ever having a specific set of addressable issues that can be overcome in specific ways. So the entire beautiful project of knowledge accumulation which has been underway these last 250 years will just be torn down by a baying mob and replaced with … what exactly?


  1. I have to point out the Robin Osbourne's arguments in the linked article really do seem to make him out to be an out of touch harrumphing Oxbridge Classics Don of the first order and therefore do our discipline a great disservice. However, he does make some valid points, and I do agree as you can see with the general thrust of the idea that "Gold OA" is a disaster for publishing in many Humanities disciplines. 

  2. No-one apart from an academic publisher in Classics wants to publish my highly technical philological/narratological arguments about Livy's representation of Hannibal as basically a divinely-controlled agent of the natural landscape! The audience for my work is optimistically in the hundreds, at most, and the people interested in it, who don't already have a degree in Classics, I would guess would be countable on my fingers. It is highly specialised, and it needs to be highly specialised (it also needs to be finished, lol procrastination with publishing meta-issues on my blog!). 

  3. The societies do generally make a lot of money from "institutional" subscribers (e.g. libraries) and this money is used to fund other society activities. The societies are going to have to find a new way to fund those activities – what I guess will probably happen is that the membership fees will rise slightly to cover the journal production costs and then the "cream" from the institutional subs will have to be made up elsewhere. But societies may also have to scale back their activities if they can't get an economic model to fund them, which would be a terrible harm to come from the Open Access model.  

  4. Also I not only want to see the math (to use a Americanism) I would like you lay bare your working, and then ask you questions about it if I don't understand something you've said. 

  5. Including varying downwards to free

Barbarians at the gates

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Poor fellow, my country.

This is pretty indicative of the type of ignorant twits in charge of my country now.

In the linked blog post, Orlando makes a pretty good case for the study of the arts in economic terms for our very export-orientated tertiary education sector. I would like to point out the intrinsic value of the arts in Australian society in general. Where people spend their leisure time, and money, is perhaps indicative of what they truly value. And of course, entertainment industries, including TV, books, and films, and even self-education, are generally big on people’s discretionary budgets (where they have any).

But these fools* that now run the country don’t even see that all those accountants and doctors and lawyers and mining engineers often use their spare income to do things like … install home cinemas to watch movies (for instance, movies like Gladiator – a very popular bloke’s movie); and they get cable TV subscriptions for the endless (and very poor quality) History Channel documentaries on Romans, Hitler, and Stalin (throw in the Egyptians and you have 99% of the History Channel content). But since all of those things are obviously of no interest to anybody (especially the unimaginative Craig Kelly MP), why would anyone study any of things in any depth or subtlety?

I would like to remind these education-hating barbarians now in charge of our country that no-one takes up accountancy as a hobby.

To illustrate my point, just this year a medical doctor (gasp) recently donated several million dollars to our department at my university so we could create a prestigious chair in Classics! This is a man who saves the lives of cancer patients, and what does he think about research into the Humanities? Well, this:

It is not just one faculty that makes a university. They are all important, but to forget about where you came from is bizarre.

Read Dr Eliadis’ comments and compare and contrast them to the attitude of the oleaginous Craig Kelly MP. As this is a Classics blog, a sample of the sorts of Classics and Ancient History and related topics the galahs now in charge of my Government think are wastes of money (you can read the entire odious speech here, if you can stomach it):

A cool $150,000 went into a study of the impact of locally mined silver to make coins in Athens between the years 550 BC and 480 BC

Let us not forget the $85,000 that was given to a researcher for the study of Renaissance garden statues.

This is a little bewdy, too: $164,000 for a study of magical spells and rituals from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD to achieve success in personal relations—a most important expenditure!

It goes on: $265,000 for a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD.

Under the previous Labor government $253,000 of taxpayers’ money also went to study archaeology in the Central Caucuses.

This last one I include because it betrays the Government’s real agenda:

It goes on: $112,000 of taxpayers’ money spent on a study on rural communities in South Australia and how they will adapt to health challenges from climate change. The only problem is that according to our bureau’s records the hottest day ever recorded in South Australia was back in January 1960.

In other words, if he doesn’t already agree with it, or if he doesn’t already understand the issue and have a pre-determined position on it, Kelly’s not interested in it. Science and the Humanities must serve his narrow ideological interests. The man, and yes in fact most of the Government, are essentially intellectually incurious people. They are, in other words, dullards. I would say the real waste of money here is the money spent paying, and feeding, Kelly and his ilk.

A pox on this Government.

* In private I use much stronger language than that to describe them. Armando Iannucci style language. They thoroughly deserve it.

Barrington Atlas for iPad: Review

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This is a superb resource particularly if you think that the full atlas costs many hundreds of dollars. The maps are extraordinary to look at on an iPad Air. For a first effort, highly commendable.

I’ve got one or two observations for improvement, however. They are all in the main about the navigation of the maps.

  • The navigation buttons, etc, are still IOS 6 style.
  • The page curling animation in the “introduction” section is cheesy.
  • Over half of the pages in the “introduction” are credits and preface. Perhaps split into separate documents?
  • The way it opens with two logos and stops at the second one is actually not a great iOS interface practice. It should open with the menu on the left open and ready to go. The app opens first with a Princeton Uni Press logo, and after this first logo splash screen, that you get another logo splash screen (the “Barrington Atlas Logo”). This second logo you have to tap or slide in order to reveal mere navigation (which would be zero cost to show first up!). This is doubly wrong. So far I’ve seen two logos and no functionality. When I tap on this second logo (and it’s a nice bit of art) all what happens is that the logo slides right a bit and reveals a menu on the left. That menu, with the lovely bit of Barrington Atlas artwork on the right, should be right there when it starts up, not the third screen visible.
  • By far, the most annoying thing about the app is, every time it starts, you have to go through the navigation of the logos all over again. If I background the app and then reload it, I have to navigate all over again to find the map I was looking at. So if I was reading some a text online with my iPad, and I wanted to consult the map, I have to start from the beginning (find the right map, zoom in to the map I was looking at) every time I open the app. When I switch back to reading, and want to look at the map again, I would have to find the entire map all over again. Which is a major interface failure.
  • When you go to the “maps” section with the “Cover Flow” style view, it’s slow, and not terribly responsive (on an iPad Air! I’d hate to try it on my old iPad2). Also, this is the area that seems to cause instability (it just crashed then I was verifying the behaviour as I wrote this paragraph). The app has crashed twice on me in this part of the navigation.
  • It’s not entirely obvious that up in the right hand corner there is a list icon which gives a simple list view of the maps, with a regional overview (not a tape target, annoyingly). To be honest, I find this view preferable to the “Cover Flow” view. But when I select a map, then go “back” to the Maps, I’m back at the “Cover Flow” view of the maps, not the list view I started from.
  • The best view of all though is the big overview map! However, can this be please made conventionally zoomable? If you wanted the ‘Attica’ Map (No. 59) there’s no way you could accurately select its tiny square in that view. There is a loupe device which appears when tap-and-hold but once it appears I could not work out how to accurately control it and better than just trying to tap the tiny targets. Just make this map zoomable with a pinch gesture please.
  • I wish the topographical measurements on the map were in metres – the international standard – not in feet. A minor quibble.

Once they clear up the stability and navigational issues with the app, my additional feature wish list is pretty simple, although fiendishly complex to implement: Vector based maps with selectable period layers. I realise that would mean all-new cartography though and probably make the price a lot more than $20.

My thanks to the team who developed and assembled this.

Links

Barrington Atlas for iPad from Princeton University Press

Barrington Atlas for iPad – direct iTunes link