Publishers, E-Books, and DRM

2012-02-18: Updated the post with translations from the original letter.

I’m an Addison-Wesley author and just received a letter from Pearson, the owner of Addison-Wesley, informing me about their thoughts and steps towards e-books and the digital age. The letter is written as an open letter with no apparent secrets, so I’m making it available here for anyone interested to read and to comment on it.

In general, I have sympathies with companies trying to sustain their revenue streams. I do expect them, however, to understand that change is inevitable and to flexibly react to and to lead that change for their customers’ sake and not just their shareholders’ sake. As an author, I’m naturally in a similar or at least related situation.

The PDF is marked up with numbers. The following list relates to what the (German) letter says on the respective issues:

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Do Engineering Researchers Care About Truth?

So ICSE, the top software engineering conference, rejected our paper, again. The reviewers were actually quite positive: high-quality work, little or no flaws, interesting. One of the reviewers found the paper’s results surprising, asked for more details, and suggested new research directions. The final conclusion of both reviews, however, was the same: The work has no merit because it only explains the world, it does not improve it.

Our paper provides a high-quality model of a key aspect of programming behavior in open source, basically the modeling behind this earlier empirical paper. As such, it is a descriptive empirical paper. It takes a large amount of data and provides an analytically closed model of the data so that we can explain or predict the future (better). That’s pretty standard operating procedure in most of natural and social sciences.

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The Case for German University Outreach to China

On my research group’s blog I make the case for German University Outreach to China. I argue that my employer, the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-N├╝rnberg, is well-positioned (and well-advised) to tap into the Chinese education market. In a nutshell, German engineering universities provide excellent education almost across the board while being comparatively cheap (no or only token tuition). Most U.S.-based universities can’t beat that. Moreover, it is a great opportunity for suburban universities who aren’t located in a major cities like Berlin or Munich to attract students.

Read more on my research group’s blog.

Definition of Write-Only Journal

I thought it is a common term by now but apparently it is not. Here is my definition of “write-only (research) journal”:

A write-only research journal is a research journal that publishes papers but is never read (hence write/publish-only). Its purpose is twofold: to (a) give a researcher some reputation return on their work by having it pass (some form of) peer review and to (b) make money for publishers.

David Rosenthal explains the economics of write-only journals. Basically, by increasing the mass of their offering through easily produced write-only journals, publishers appear bigger in bundling deals with libraries and can charge more for the access to their overall offering. Rosenthal then goes on to discuss other problems with peer review, the academic system, etc. but these are other topics.

Obviously, “write-only journal” is a derogatory term. Good research should be published in outlets that are read, not just written to. However, with the abundance of research results, I think even write-only journals serve the small purpose of validating the research results and hence the work of the researcher. However, the implication of write-only is that the results are not worth much and hence that validation should not count as much either. Which is why some say these journals should be done away with anyway.

Plagiarism on the Rise?

I recently reviewed a paper where, a few paragraphs into the introduction, the words seemed strangely familiar. After some cross-checking, I realised that the author of the paper had copied about two paragraphs verbatim from one of my papers. After a bit more digging, I found other places in the paper where the author had copied from other researchers’ work as well. In all cases, no quotation marks had been used nor any reference had been provided. The papers the author had copied from were listed in the reference section though.

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Rigor vs. Relevance, or: What is the Size of a Dissertation?

While listening to a colleague’s talk the other day, I got an idea for a Ph.D. thesis (grant proposal). I wrote up a short summary and sent it to him. He thought it was fine but commented that it might be a bit “thin”. This made me wonder: How do we determine sufficient size of a dissertation, to stay with the metaphor of thin, so that we can conclude some research work is worth a Ph.D. title? Most university regulations require “significant” (read: non-trivial) scientific progress and then leave it to the advisor and the reading committee to determine whether a submitted dissertation fits the bill.

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Why I’m Interested In Computer Games Research

Just before my inaugural lecture at University of Erlangen, a broad panel of scientists was debating the merits of computer games. Except for a computer games researcher and a games professional, all participants thought that computer games are of no particular interest. When I asked: “But isn’t there anything to learn from computer games?” I got a full rebuke by the M.D. on the panel: “No, there is no recognizable value whatsoever.”

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Open Access and Open Source

This morning, I read that the main Swedish research funding agency has decided to enforce open access to research results of projects it funds. This is a big deal for Swedish researchers relying on these funds: The status of a researcher is determined by the prestige of the journals in which they publish (and how much they publish). Many of these journals are not open access but rather require hefty fees to give you access. Hence, researchers might not be getting some of the expected reputation for their work.

Such a requirement is likely to come down the pipe in many other countries as well. Its impact on the academic publishing industry is not to be underestimated, it is nothing short of Schumpeterian. Economics is aligning itself against the publishers of high-priced journals. As open access journals as well as professional organizations like the ACM show, it is possible to have a publishing process at a much cheaper price tag than those of the likes of Elsevier and Springer.

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A License Agnostic ACM Digital Library?

Most authors transfer their copyright to the ACM when having their papers published and archived in the ACM Digital Library. While the ACM allows authors to provide their papers on personal servers for non-commercial purposes, the goal recognizably is to make the DL not only the primary source of such material, but also the only source.

A second less well-known option for authors is to sign the “permission release” form, granting the ACM the right to publish the work, but without loosing the copyright to it. Authors keep the rights to their work while still having the paper published and archived in the DL. Then, the DL becomes one source of the paper, but not the only one. This option is typically made available only under special circumstances, for example, if you are working for the Canadian government.

The recent publication of the Proceedings of the 2006 Conference on Pattern Languages of Programming may signify an important change in this regiment.

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