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The Networked Era: An Interview with Michael Nielsen

Lindsey Gilbert, Boston Review
The Internet may well have its downsides, but it also has the potential to make us collectively smarter, according to open-science advocate Michael Nielsen. In Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, Nielsen argues that networked digital tools, such as discussion boards and online marketplaces, can make it easier for scientists to pool their data, share methodologies, and find far-flung collaborators. Even non-scientists are participating in large-scale citizen science projects. In Nielsen’s view, however, public policy has yet to catch up to technology. The digital environment will amplify our collective intelligence, but only if there are incentives for people to share. Editorial assistant Lindsey Gilbert asks Nielsen about what science looks like now, the changing role of academia, and whether collective intelligence might also transform politics.

Lindsey Gilbert: In Reinventing Discovery, you talk about two distinct eras: the era of pre-networked science and the era of networked science. What separates the two eras? Is it only the Internet, or are there other things?

Michael Nielsen: There are many other things. The Internet is a piece of technology that started to be deployed back in the ’70s and obviously has been gradually improved ever since. (I’m talking about TCP/IP, the protocol.) The point about networked science is that what is required for it to come to fruition is actually a whole set of cultural changes within science. And that has got nothing to do with the technology directly. It’s about what our expectations are, about how scientists behave, about what they are rewarded for, and about what they see as doing their jobs. And that’s something that is only gradually changing. Year to year, it looks like it is only changing very slightly. But I think that over just a few decades, in fact, it will be completely transformed.

LG: You propose that when people use online tools to collaborate, they can become collectively smarter. What is collective intelligence, and how is it different from plain old intelligence?

MN: It’s a very old concept, of course. Everybody knows that sometimes, at least, when you’re in a group with a bunch of other people, it can become easy to solve problems that you might have thought were extremely challenging or maybe beyond your capabilities at all. What’s new, and what’s interesting, is the possibility that actually we can go much further than before. We can use online, networked tools to enable groups to work together—sometimes better, and sometimes on a scale that was formerly unimaginable.
(5 January 2012)

New Bill Would Put Taxpayer-Funded Science Behind Pay Walls

Lena Groeger, ProPublica
Right now, if you want to read the published results of the biomedical research that your own tax dollars paid for, all you have to do is visit the digital archive of the National Institutes of Health. There you’ll find thousands of articles on the latest discoveries in medicine and disease, all free of charge.

A new bill in Congress wants to make you pay for that, thank you very much. The Research Works Act would prohibit the NIH from requiring scientists to submit their articles to the online database. Taxpayers would have to shell out $15 to $35 to get behind a publisher’s paid site to read the full research results. A Scientific American blog said it amounts topaying twice.

Two members of Congress — Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. — introduced the bill. Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic finds it curious that Issa, a well-known champion of the open Internet whose own website displays the words “keep the web #OPEN,” would back a bill that appears to be the polar opposite of open access.

As Michael Eisen, a University of California, Berkeley, biologist and open access supporter, notes, Maloney’s support seems no less mystifying since she represents “a liberal Democratic district in New York City that is home to many research institutions.”

Both Issa and Maloney have received campaign contributions from the Dutch company Elsevier, which calls itself the world’s leading publisher of scientific and medical information. According to MapLight, a website that tracks political cash, Elsevier and its senior executives last year made 31 contributions to House members totaling $29,500. Twelve contributions totaling $8,500 went to Maloney; Issa received two for a total of $2,000.

This isn’t the first effort by publishers to push Congress to roll back the NIH’s public access policy, which was enacted in 2008 and applauded by doctors, patients, librarians, teachers and students. Under the policy, all research funded by the NIH was required to be made freely available to the public one year after publication on PubMed Central. (The NIH also runs PubMed, a biomedical research database that includes articles that aren’t federally funded and cost money to access.)

In 2009, as Eisen notes, the Association of American Publishers backed the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act. That bill never left committee, but this new bill is essentially a shorter version of the same thing (and was similarly praised by the AAP for forbidding “federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles”).
(12 January 2012)

The writer who made millions by self-publishing online

Ed Pilkington, Guardian
A couple of years ago, Amanda Hocking needed to raise a few hundred dollars so, in desperation, made her unpublished novel available on the Kindle. She has since sold over 1.5m books and, in the process, changed publishing forever

… Let’s jump to October 2010. In those six months, Hocking has raised not only the $300 she needed, but an additional $20,000 selling 150,000 copies of her books. Over the past 20 months Hocking has sold 1.5m books and made $2.5m. All by her lonesome self. Not a single book agent or publishing house or sales force or marketing manager or bookshop anywhere in sight.

… In internet-savvy circles she has been embraced as a figurehead of the digital publishing revolution that is seen as blowing up the traditional book world – or “legacy publishing” as its detractors call it – and replacing it with the ebook, where direct contact between author and reader, free of the mediation of agent and publishing house, is but a few clicks away. There is certainly something to that argument. The arrival of Hocking onto the Kindle bestseller lists in barely over a year is symptomatic of a profound shift in the book world that has happened contiguously. Her rise has occurred at precisely the moment that self-publishing itself turned from poor second cousin of the printed book into a serious multi-million dollar industry. Two years ago self-publishing was itself denigrated as “vanity publishing” – the last resort of the talentless. Not any more.

A survey carried out last year by the book blog Novelr found that of the top 25 bestselling indie authors on Kindle, only six had ever previously enjoyed print deals with major book publishers.

… She also resents how her abrupt success has been interpreted as a sign that digital self-publishing is a new way to get rich quick. Sure, Hocking has got rich, quickly. But what about the nine years before she began posting her books when she wrote 17 novels and had every one rejected? And what about the hours and hours that she’s spent since April 2010 dealing with technical glitches on Kindle, creating her own book covers, editing her own copy, writing a blog, going on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, responding to emails and tweets from her army of readers? Just the editing process alone has been a source of deep frustration, because although she has employed own freelance editors and invited her readers to alert her to spelling and grammatical errors, she thinks her ebooks are riddled with mistakes. “It drove me nuts, because I tried really hard to get things right and I just couldn’t. It’s exhausting, and hard to do. And it starts to wear on you emotionally. I know that sounds weird and whiny, but it’s true.”

In the end, Hocking became so burned out by the stress of solo publishing that she has turned for help to the same traditional book world that previously rejected her and which she was seen as attacking.
(12 January 2012)
Why is it important how books are published? Because it means that non-mainstream voices can bypass the publishing industry and get their ideas across directly to the public. Contrary to what I would expect, I’ve been hearing that soe authors may get better returns by self-publishing. Kurt Cobb, for example, is self-publishing his peak oil novel, Prelude. He’s told me some fascinating things about the process. I hope he writes up his findings one day. -BA