Registering to vote

You have until the end of today (20 April) to register to vote for the 2015 General Election. Go and do it now.

Really.

To vote in UK elections, you must be over 18 and on what is called ‘the electoral register’. And even if you decide in the end not to vote on the 7 May, if you don’t register today you lose the option of doing so.

You never know what a local candidate or political party may do or say in the next few weeks. Even if you are normally politically apathetic, there is a chance someone will say something so incredible or outrageous that you feel obliged to go make a mark on polling day. Or you may just want the chance to spoil your ballot and scrawl all over your piece of paper, to stick it to the man.

But if you don’t register today you won’t get that opportunity.

I’ll be honest, it’s very unlikely your vote in the general election will do much. Even in this close election, many seats in the country are safe seats, where a party holds a significant majority.

On the 7 May, there will also be local elections – where you get to choose local councilors. And this is likely to have a much more significant impact on your local area than the national elections. If you aren’t on the electoral register, you won’t get an opportunity to vote in the local elections either.

There are all sorts of other ways you can get involved in the election if you so desire – contact your parliamentary candidates in the run up to the election to tell them about the issues that you care about, and asking them what their views are on these things. When they are busy trying to get your vote is one of the best times to convince a politician that they should care about the same things you do.

Or you could go to a hustings and meet the candidates for your area.

But all this may be far too much to think about right now, seems far too much like getting involved. And doesn’t have a deadline of just a few hours away.

So go and register now. Because you should go and mark a paper on election day – even if you just scrawl across it that the entire system is broken and politicians are all corrupt bastards. Which they aren’t. Not all of them, anyway.

And there is a lot more we can all do to be actively involved in the politics of our country, but making sure you are at least able to vote just in case you may want to in 3 weeks time is the least of those things!

So register. Now

MPs and second jobs

I’ve seen quite a lot of calls for MPs to be banned from having a second job over the last few days.

And I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, and would be strongly opposed to any parliamentary representative of mine not working hard to represent the constituency, or deal with issues they said they would work on if elected.

But what actually is a second job? If we are to ban them, we need to come up with some kind of agreed definition. And I’m not sure I know what one is.

Does an MP have a second job if they are a doctor during periods of Parliamentary recess? How about if said MP has no family/child care responsibilities and writes articles or a book during late evenings, having been in Parliament or working on either parliamentary or constituency business for 10 hours or so that day?

Does an MP have a ‘second job’ if they are a Minister? In many ways, surely this is worse than having an outside part time job that takes place during recess, as said MP is no longer able to vote against the Government party line, as well as having a (very) significant portion of their working time taken up with Government business rather than constituency business.

While there clearly are examples of MPs who take the mick – before we can talk about banning anything, we need a much clear idea of the shades of grey that might or might not be considered acceptable.

Collecting a list of learned societies

Happy Open Data Day 2015!

To celebrate, I’m going to spend the day curating a list of UK based learned societies, and scientific organisations to release later today/tomorrow as an openly licensed data set. I’ll then hopefully update the Wikipedia page – which is woefully incomplete.

It would be great to have some help if you’re interested. At present I’m looking just to gather names of organisations and websites.

I’ve merged a number of lists of learned societies and scientific organisations together, into a Google spreadsheet, and shall spend the next few hours tidying it up, making notes, and hunting down other organisations to include.

Scientific organisations and learned societies are not defined terms, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are professional with paid staff, others entirely voluntary, and they may caryy out a wide range of activities from publishing through to arranging meetings or networking events. They may provide grants and bursaries, get involved in public engagement and outreach, or get involved in political lobbying.

The criteria for inclusion on the list:

  1. The organisation or group should be a learned society or scientific organisation. Although these aren’t defined terms, often an organisation claims to be one or looks a lot like other organisations which claim to be one. The key things to look for are that it must be a membership organisation that is in some way linked to an area of research. I don’t want to include organisations who are solely professional bodies – although some learned societies also act in this way. There are lots of grey areas though and I’m very keen to explore them in the future – so if you aren’t sure, please do add it!
  2. Based in the UK. This means the main physical base or contact address should be in the UK and/or the organisation specifically states that it is an organisation for either the whole UK or part of the UK.

Thanks for the help – and if nothing else, please just make sure you add your learned society or organisation on to the sheet!

Wrapping up January

I know… 2 personal blog posts in a row. I shall try not to make it a habit…

The month as a whole:

It was odd – but in a (very) good way. I spent most of 2013 dealing with illness and recovering, and January was the first month I felt back to something like myself. I went to lots of social events, continued working part time and did some additional freelance work looking at open data policies in/around academia, and took a few trips down to London. I’ve even started to look around for new freelance work and jobs. (My current job has a hard deadline in a few months, and my boss knows I’m looking for something else before then). It may be a cliché, but I certainly feel that January has set me off on the right track for the year.

Things I did:

As well as the stuff above, there has been lots of cooking, getting back into running/walking (all of which have helped me lose some weight), and meditating. There have also been a few events – such as helping to run/attend London Open Drinks, and dropping into others including the ICT4DLondon MeetUp.

There are a couple of research projects on the go at present around open access and universities and learned societies. I hope to release some data around these soon – but they’ve been quite a time drain.

Things I didn’t do
  • I wanted to do much more on an Arduino project I have in mind. I’m trying to build a mini weather station from scratch – but I ordered the wrong bits which I didn’t realize until they arrived (taking forever).
  • Jazz dancing – I was going to start jazz dancing, but couldn’t find a good class. I tried a few different places, but they were all not quite right. If you have any suggestions please let me know!
Things I watched
  • I saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. And wow – that’s quite the experience. I am disappointed it took me so long to get around to watching it!
  • Roman Holiday. What a perfect lazy, wet, weekend film. I’ve been on something of an old film kick over the winter so may be biased – but it had me giggling much of the way through it. If only more films realized that a fairytale happy ending isn’t necessary…
  • I tried to watch The Fifth Estate – but I got about 20 minutes in and decided I couldn’t take anymore and had far better uses of my time.
Things I read
  • Hackers, Hoaxers, Whistleblower, Spy – by Gabriella Coleman. It’s an excellent and easy to read exploration of Anonymous that’s certainly worth a few hours of anyones time – even if you are less interested in Anonymous itself and more interested in digital activism; and I hope to write a book review up properly at some stage. Perhaps at times her sympathies are slightly too aligned with the group she’s writing about, but I much prefer that than an author who pretends to be totally detached.
  • The Last Continent – Terry Prattchett. I felt ill, I needed a warm and comfortable book to slip in to… and one which I knew very well.
  • There are a couple of others on the go at present but as I’ve not finished them, I’ll omit them for now…
I’ve been thinking about:
  • Citizen science – I’ve had a blog post in the back of my mind for a long time about how citizen science has potential to be much greater than academics using citizens to measure/record data – and how open hardware and citizen labs opens up some really interesting ideas. I really need to get these thoughts down somewhere, rather than just talk at friends.
  • Data privacy and ownership in citizen science/crowd-sourced projects – This is as issue I rarely see come up – and something that I think needs to be discussed more. This well-meaning and potentially valuable project from the Guardian started this line of thinking
  • Citizens engaging politicians – I’d like to see a lot more of it – rather than people just complaining that their MP doesn’t listen to them. With an election coming up there are some great opportunities for this…
  • That we need much more PR/media/politician friendly comms work on tech and Internet issues. A lot more.
  • The Green Party – How will the Party change and evolve as its membership grows and expands beyond an ideological core? They’ve had such a recent expansion.. and it will be fascinating to see what happens next.
  • Digital democracy – whatever that means
  • Academic publishing, institutional repositories and the politics that lie within universities…
And Februrary?

I need and want to do more writing. I always say that, but this month I shall succeed. There is also a science/tech hustings to organize in Cambridge, and already a few trips around the country on the to do list, as well as some stuff I can’t yet talk about.

My main aim for February is to be completely confident by the end of the month that I’ve recovered – which is totally doable I think.

So onward to February….!

Screen-free Sunday

I forgot how much I like it. How freeing I find closing my laptop on Saturday evening, putting my phone aside, and drifting off to sleep, knowing I shall not look at either again until Monday morning.

You see – as much as I like being part of a huge connected world – I like time to myself. Time to think, reflect, and feel. I find the time that I’m actively disconnected is peaceful; much more peaceful than the time when I just happen not to be online. I think better and bigger. I seem to have more space in my mind for thoughts, and being offline helps me concentrate on the world around me more, because I don’t have a thought process running in the back of my head wondering about the latest news story, or what someone has said in response to an online conversation.

I love the excuse Screen-free Sunday gives me to put down tasks and distracting thoughts. I’m half thinking about that email I need to write? Well, I can’t do it today, so I just dismiss the thoughts – and I find it much easier to do that than if there is no real impediment to me responding. There’s a research project in the back of my mind? Well I’ll just make a note of what I want to look up, and leave it until tomorrow.

This leaves me more energy to throw into the offline world. I spend time reading, walking, and seeing friends. Or thinking. Or doing little tasks that I mean to do daily – before I get pulled into a world of links and ever incoming thoughts from others. Because I turn off the radio as well (and don’t have a TV), I find that Screen-free Sunday gives me time when I’m not being inundated with other peoples opinions; giving me better opportunity to make my own.

When I wake up on the Sunday, I find the first few hours oddly empty but soothing, and it’s not until mid morning that I find myself feeling ever so slightly anxious. Luckily, as long as I’ve prepared a bit the night before (such as making sure I have pulled any recipes from the Internet) – this unease disappears quickly, leaving my time to lose myself somewhere.

And this Sunday I lost myself in a book. It’s been a long time since I gave myself enough time to read a book in an entire sitting. And I enjoyed having the opportunity to do so with something so wonderfully written as ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.

I also took the time to write a letter by hand – something I hadn’t done for years. But with a grandmother who doesn’t use technology, it’s something I ought to do more often.

The day passed at a seemingly much slower rate than my online days. There seemed so much time and space. And when I went to bed, I was peaceful in a way that I rarely am: my brain an odd mix of totally relaxed and fully alert.

And 24 hours later I still feel reasonably refreshed after the break I took. I’ve been reminded of the choice to be online, rather than seeing it as an expectation or requirement. And for that I’m grateful. It’s something I find very easy to forget.

And I’m also grateful to Doug Belshaw for reminding me (ironically via a tweet) of my love for Screen-free Sunday. And I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Journal subscriptions – Wiley, Oxford University Press, Springer

Following on from Tim Gowers work exploring the amount Russell Group universities pay Elsevier for access to journals, I started submitting freedom of information requests to the same universities, asking what they spent on journal subscriptions to Oxford University Press, Wiley and Springer over the previous 5 years[1]. During this time a number of funders have brought in mandatory open access policies, and I wondered if there had been any change in subscription costs during this time period.

£54.5 million was spent in total spent by 17 Universities on subscriptions to these 3 publishers over the 5 years; £31 million of which being spent on journals published by Wiley. Over the period of time, subscription costs increased in most instances, and increased faster than the rate of VAT.

Although the figures are interesting, there is only limited value comparing across universities.

There is a lot of secrecy around the cost of journals; which is why I’ve had to use FOI to get data that really ought to be in the public domain. However, what isn’t known is what access is being purchased in each instance. It is (very, very) likely that different universities are purchasing access to different journals – but I’ve not yet found a university who publishes a list of which journals they subscribe to.

I don’t know if a university would release a list in response to an FOI request, although I am tempted to try. There must be a computational way to work this out, however?

It’s also likely that different universities will be paying different amounts for the same or similar journal access, based upon the strengths of different institutions and organisations to negotiate deals.

Without knowing what universities are purchasing access to, it’s impossible to make statements about why there are price increases over the 5 years (and in some cases very significant price increases). It may be that the universities are purchasing more journals from the publishers, or it may be that publishers have put their prices up.

A catalog of journal subscriptions from institutions would be very useful for all manner of reasons (including enabling academics and students to easily see if there is access to something on a reading list), and it may well start a discussion between academics and librarians about what journals are accessible. I don’t see a reason to keep this information hidden away.

It would also be useful for useage statistics to be made available – even just the number of times an item is downloaded. I’m not sure why these figures are deemed ‘sensitive data’ and why publishers are not keen for this information to be made available. Perhaps if academics and students were aware how rarely some journals were accessed, they might be less willing to allow libraries to continue paying such large subscription fees.

Despite these caveats, the data from the Russell Group universities on journal subscriptions to Wiley, Oxford University Press and Springer make for interesting reading.

I’ve made the data available on Figshare here.

Why these publishers?

People often use Elsevier as a proxy for all the woes in the traditional scholarly publishing market, but I wanted to explore some of the other publishers. It’s very easy to forget other publishers given the focus many devote to just the one company:

  • Oxford University Press – the different roles of OUP interest me. It is a publisher, but is also considered a department of the University of Oxford, and the University receives income from the press (see pages 34 and 35 of this pdf.
  • Springer – recently purchased the open access publisher, Biomed Central, so I was very interested to see what/if anything had been changing here.
  • Wiley – one of the big learned society publishers, and have been involved significantly in many of the discussions at a policy level around publishing, including in the Finch Group.
Of the Russell Group
  • Oxford and Leeds never responded
  • Birmingham – refused point blank to give me the figures.[2]
  • Edinburgh wanted me to pay £10 per FOI – which I refused to do. I still am not sure why – as this wasn’t something I’ve ever previously been asked to do in response to an FOI. After speaking directly to a librarian there, I got some figures but nothing specifically accurate, so I made the choice not to include them in the data.
  • Durham, Exeter and Queen Mary’s weren’t approached. There was no specific reason for this.
Universities – columns AE to AK
  • £54.4 million was spent by 17 Universities on subscriptions to 3 publishers over the 5 years.
  • Over the 5 years, University of Cambridge spent £5 million on subscriptions to journals from the three publishers, paying more in each of the years 2010 to 2014, and spending significantly more than any other university on Springer journals. UCL and the University of Manchester were also big spenders, each paying over £4 million in the same period of time.
  • London School of Economics paid the least of those who responded – paying £1.1 million over the 5 years (just over £200,000 a year).
  • As column AK shows, most universities have experienced a significant increase over the 5 years, with the University of Southampton having the greatest increase at 36 %. All increases are in the double figures, although 2 universities did have a very slight decrease (York – 3.03 % and Cardiff – 1.15%).
  • Only Imperial gave me figures that excluded VAT. I didn’t want to add the VAT from their figures as VAT has varied across the period 2010 to 2014. Without knowing when amounts were paid, there was a strong risk I may remove the wrong amount.
Oxford University Press
  • The most interesting thing about OUP is the very large percentage increases over the time period. Every library experienced at least a double figure percentage increase, and some, such as Imperial, receiving a triple figure increase. Increases in VAT are not anywhere near sufficient justification for these price increases.
  • The sums of money involved are relatively small numbers (compared to other journal subscription costs) – with only £4.36 million spent over 5 years by the 17 universities.
  • The 2 Universities paying the most to OUP are Southampton (£393,276 over 5 years)  and Manchester (£367,083 over 5 years).
  • The LSE spent the least over 5 years – £136,573.
  • I was interested to see if Oxford University received a subsidy on OUP journals, or if they pay for them at all (due to OUP being department of the University of Oxford). I’m sadly unable to answer this – but will be resubmitting the FOI.
Springer (Columns Q -> V)
  • University of Cambridge spends far more on Springer subscriptions than any other Russell Group University who responded – spending over £500,000 a year on average, and £2.65 million over the 5 years. UCL is the next highest spender, with a cost of £1.94 million over the 5 years
  • LSE paid the least over the 5 years – £ 327,779.75.
  • A few Universities managed a reduction in costs over the 5 years, although Glasgow, Nottingham and Southampton all had large percentage increases. Southampton was the highest at 45.4%.
  • Many of the responses came back with figures in Euros. In each instance, I converted the figures to pounds using the exchange rate on the 1st Aug of the relevant year. However, rates fluctuate across a year, so as we do not know when invoices were paid, it is very difficult to give exact figures.
Wiley (Columns X -> AD)
  • £31 million was spent by the 17 universities on Wiley subscriptions over the 5 year period, Only LSE and York paid less than £1 million.
  • Many universities spent around £2 million across the period – but Imperial paid the most spending more excluding VAT than any other university did including VAT.
  • Only York University saw a decrease in subscription costs across the 5 years – dropping 8.1%.
What is next?

I’m really pleased that we’ve got more of the subscription data out into the public domain. I hope that in the future, releasing this data becomes the ‘standard’ thing to do for all universities. I would love to see UK academic libraries commit to publish their journal spend in 2015. I’m sure it will be cheaper than responding to another set of FOIs next year.

As for what’s next? Well, I will be merging my data with the work recently published by Stuart Lawson and Ben Meghreblian, and I’m going to continue talking about publishing models with academics. I’m also going to start thinking about how to develop a catalog of journals that institution subscribes to. If you have any bright ideas on that, please do let me know!

 

 

[1] Yes, I’m writing this up *much* later than I’d hoped. I’ve been very ill over much of 2014 – although am better now!

[2] Some of the documents have been made unavailable after I left Open Knowledge Foundation at the end of the summer. I’m hoping to regain access to them soon, so I can provide the explanation that Birmingham University gave me.

Samaritans Radar – What happens next

At 6pm (GMT) on Friday 7 November, the Samaritans announced they were suspending the Samaritans Radar. I’m not going to go into how they suspended it or why they suspended it.

Instead, I want to look at what happens next. The statement made by the Samaritans on suspending the tool included the line:

We will use the time we have now to engage in further dialogue with a range of partners, including in the mental health sector and beyond in order to evaluate the feedback and get further input. We will also be testing a number of potential changes and adaptations to the app to make it as safe and effective as possible for both subscribers and their followers.

One of the mechanisms by which they hope to capture feedback is by a survey which was released in a footnote of the suspension notice. This survey has not been promoted by the Samaritans in any other way, as far as I know. Although a number of individuals on the #SamaritansRadar hashtag have been talking about it.

There have been some concerns expressed about the methodological limitations of the survey – which is likely due to it being written in a bit of a panic last week. However, I want to make these limitations clear, so that the Samaritans can fully understand the restrictions on the input they gain from the survey, and I want to ensure that those who have been expressing concern about the Samaritans Radar have the opportunity to provide some critique.

Therefore, I have set up a Google Document (found here) that anyone should be able to view, edit and comment upon anonymously. If for any reason, this Google doc isn’t suitable for you – let me know via twitter (@MLBrook) or send me an email (on michelle@michellebrook.org), and I will send you a .doc copy with existing comments. You can then make your comments, and send a copy back, and I’ll add them to the Google Document – which acts as the canonical version.

If you are concerned about anonymity, feel free to set up a temporary email address somewhere which we can use to exchange email documents.

I’ll the write up the comments into a blog post, and from that write a letter to the CEO of the Samaritans. Anyone who wishes to be may be credited for their input – or may remain as anonymous as they like.