Archive for September, 2014

The referendum: the same dilemma on both sides

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

So, the referendum is well into the final stretch. With the polls pretty much neck-and-neck (and switching around!), the No camp has formally announced what’s been kicked around for a long time: vote No to independence, get much more devolution. (It’s not really a secret that this is what most people would have voted for all along if given a three way fight, but it’s odd to think that there’s no status quo in the middle any more.)

The Yes campaign’s response is, not unreasonably, best approximated by “yeah, right, sure you will”.

This has the strange effect of inverting the dynamic of the campaign, or at least inverting the dynamic of the campaign I get to see, which is people arguing online. (Thanks to a chain of what were at-the-time seemingly minor decisions, I ended up living in Cambridge and so don’t have a vote)

Last week, the No camp were saying “look, Salmond is winging it; he’s promising all these things he’ll negotiate for, and he’s confident he’ll get them, but… really? He still has to negotiate.”

This week, the Yes camp are saying “look, Westminster are winging it; they’re promising all these things they’ll do, and they’re swearing blind they will, but… really? They still have to actually do it.”

It’s all a bit cyclic.

We’re left with a strange impasse. The vote has to be made without knowing what the outcome of post-referendum negotiations are going to be – we know that Salmond will follow through with what he says he plans to negotiate for, we just don’t know whether he’ll achieve much of it. But it also has to be made without knowing whether the other side will honour their promises for devolution – there’s no question that a joint position of the three parties can deliver almost any program, if they actually follow through.

So one side dearly want to push through their program, but may not have the power to do so; the other side undoubtedly have the power to carry out theirs, but may not really want to. We’ll find out the answer to one (and only one) after the vote. But if either win and don’t get what they’re saying now, it’ll be a mess. Two pigs, two pokes.

In some ways, it comes down to which bit of the British establishment you are more cynical about: if you think the civil service are going to be exceptionally hard-headed negotiators and Salmond won’t get far, then voting No makes sense; if you think the three party leaders are going to turn around and pull the rug out as soon as they get the chance, then voting Yes might seem safer.

Laws on Wikidata

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

So, I had the day off, and decided to fiddle a little with Wikidata. After some experimenting, it now knows about:

  • 1516 Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (1801-present)
  • 194 Acts of the Parliament of Great Britain (1707-1800)
  • 329 Acts of the Parliament of England (to 1707)
  • 20 Acts of the Parliament of Scotland (to 1707)
  • 19 Acts of the Parliament of Ireland (to 1800)

(Acts of the modern devolved parliaments for NI, Scotland, and Wales will follow.)

Each has a specific “instance of” property – Q18009569, for example, is “act of the Parliament of Scotland” – and is set up as a subclass of the general “act of parliament”. At the moment, there’s detailed subclasses for the UK and Canada (which has a seperate class for each province’s legislation) but nowhere else. Yet…

These numbers are slightly fuzzy – it’s mainly based on Wikipedia articles and so there are a small handful of cases where the entry represents a particular clause (eg Q7444697, s.4 and s.10 of the Human Rights Act 1998), or cases hwere multiple statutes are treated in the same article (eg Q1133144, the Corn Laws), but these are relatively rare and, mostly, it’s a good direct correspondence. (I’ve been fairly careful to keep out oddities, but of course, some will creep in…)

So where next? At the moment, these almost all reflect Wikipedia articles. Only 34 have a link to (English) Wikisource, though I’d guess there’s about 200-250 statutes currently on there. Matching those up will definitely be valuable; for legislation currently in force and on the Statute Law Database, it would be good to be able to crosslink to there as well.

Conservation science: open access might not be endangered after all

Friday, September 5th, 2014

I was very struck to see this paper this morning: Fuller, R. A., J. R. Lee, and J. E. M. Watson. 2014. “Achieving open access to conservation science“. Conservation Biology 28. doi:10.1111/cobi.12346.

Conservation science is a crisis discipline in which the results of scientific enquiry must be made available quickly to those implementing management. We assessed the extent to which scientific research published since the year 2000 in 20 conservation science journals is publicly available. Of the 19,207 papers published, 1,667 (8.68%) are freely downloadable from an official repository. Moreover, only 938 papers (4.88%) meet the standard definition of open access in which material can be freely reused providing attribution to the authors is given. This compares poorly with a comparable set of 20 evolutionary biology journals, where 31.93% of papers are freely downloadable and 7.49% are open access.

These headline numbers seemed very disappointing – but, after some examination, it seems that the real figure may be substantially higher. Open access isn’t dead yet.

The authors’ definition of “open access” is given as “full” BOAI open-access – that is to say, the final published version made available with minimal restrictions on reuse, usually marked with the CC-BY license or something functionally equivalent. This is not my preference, but fairly reasonable given that “free access” is also considered.

However, their definition of “free access” is substantially more restrictive than the usual “green open access” (free to read but with limited reuse rights). It only covers articles made freely available as the version of record “from the journal’s official archive”:

If we were able to download a paper freely from the journal’s official archive from a private computer not linked to a university network but it did not conform to our definition of open access, we classified it as freely available. Such papers either had additional restrictions attached to them (e.g., excluding commercial reuse or the production of derivatives) or retained all rights and had simply been made freely available online temporarily or permanently by the license holder. We classified all remaining articles as subscription access.

This is a fairly specific requirement. Everything else was deemed unavailable, with an acknowledgement that some might be found in preprint servers:

We did not include access to journal articles via pre-print servers because these do not represent the final published version of the manuscript and can be hard for nonspecialists to navigate, although it is worth noting that preprint servers such as are major repositories of information in several disciplines including physics and mathematics and could play a role in access to conservation science if conservation articles reached a critical mass in such repositories.

Treating this as a divide between “journal archives” and “pre-print servers” entirely omits institutional repositories, which provide a significant amount of green open access material – in most disciplines, substantially more than is available through preprint servers. It will inevitably lead to a significant undercount of the amount of material available to the reader. Unfortunately, the paper’s abstract uses the phrase “freely downloadable from an official repository” – implying that repositories are covered by the scope of the study. (I had to read the paper twice to check they weren’t).

The concern about desiring the “final published version” is fair, but a) most people are satisfied with some form of the text, and b) many copies available from repositories are in fact the final published version of the text. This varies by publisher and title, but I have dealt with papers in both Oryx and Environmental Conservation, both on their shortlist, and know that Cambridge permits posting of the version of record in both subject and institutional repositories.

Finally, a substantial amount of “informal open access” exists with copies available through the author’s own websites, research group sites, semi-public networks such as ResearchGate, etc. While these may not always be entirely legitimate, they represent a very substantial amount of papers. A study found that around 48% of 2008 published papers had become available on a “free to read somewhere online” basis by 2012, if such informal sources were included.

Put together, it is clear that the 8.68% of “freely downloadable” papers omits a substantial amount of material which could be available to the non-subscribed reader through various means. How much? I don’t know, but I strongly suspect it’s at least as many again…