Notes in a New Year, 2010


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  • PLoS and Elsevier: On the Same Page?

    One of our favorite things, in the Obama era, is to see would be foes band together. So we look fondly upon the unlikely albeit fragile "alliance" that PLoS and Elsevier ended up in at a recent open access publishing roundtable. The occasion was a meeting around the report issued by the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable. The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) convened the meeting of a group of fourteen publishers, university leaders, librarians, and other experts at the round table, who drafted basic agreements about how public access to journal publications. They emphasized:

    "the need to preserve peer review, the necessity of adaptable publishing business models, the benefits of broader public access, the importance of archiving, and the interoperability of online content"

    However, the Elsevier and PLoS representatives refused to join the other 12 members in signing the consensus agreement, although both agreed that points of the agreement were "positive". PLoS and Elsevier apparently both have a lot a stake, since they each sent extra representatives to the panel. Elsevier sent their General Counsel/Senior Vice President, and PLoS sent their Managing Editor as well as their CEO.

    Predictably, YS Chi, speaking for Elsevier, stated that he couldn't sign the agreement because it "supports an overly expansive role of government and advocates approaches to the business of scholarly publishing that I believe are overly prescriptive." No question about where giant, monopolistic, Elsevier ever stands.

    PLoS representative Mark Patterson's statement was a little more difficult to unpack. He said that the agreement "stops far short of recognizing and endorsing the opportunities to unleash the full potential of online communication to transform access to and use of scholarly literature." What did he mean? He didn't include "the need to preserve peer review" as one of his "positive" points of agreement....But does PLoS want more Federal support for PLoS? Explicit endorsement of pay to publish? A more "expansive role for government"? Who knows.

    For more information on open access and this agreement in general, there's a great public access policy forum here at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the "ever-enthusiastic public access policy team" at OSTP has extended the comment period. So you can comment, and there's lots to read.

  • H1N1

    The World Health Organization (WHO), has hit back at accusers who say that the organization, along with pharma companies, created a "fake epidemic" in H1N1. WHO reiterated its role to balance urgency and expediency with the uncertain nature of the epidemic. In an editorial generally praising the organization's response, Nature wrote this week:

    "The danger now is that last year's relatively mild pandemic will create a false sense of security and complacency. The reality is that next time we might not be so lucky -- especially given that this time most of the world's population, living as they do in developing countries, had no access to either vaccines or antiviral drugs."

    It's apparently easy for otherwise smart people to be cynical about the H1N1 pandemic. It is truly a challenge to explain risks and uncertainty of pandemics and the fact that the scientists and public health organizations are actually doing a great job.

  • Judge Overrules FDA on Electronic Cigarettes, Whatever They Are

    Some people believe that a president's most lasting legacy is in the judges he appoints; George W. Bush appointed judge Richard Leon of the Federal District Court in Washington. Leon recently moved to stop the FDA from regulating e-cigarettes, on grounds that they aren't tobacco. In fact, e-cigarettes are battery-powered tubes that vaporize nicotine with tobacco flavoring, that simulate cigarette smoking for the user. I can't make that sound good. Seems like the next best thing to sex robots. But anyway, these devices deliver addictive nicotine to the body, but the judge says the FDA can't regulate e-cigarettes as devices anymore.

    In other tobacco regulation news, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) discusses opposition to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act on First Amendment grounds. Even the ACLU objects to the Act, which prohibits the use of certain words by cigarette advertisers, saying that

    "regulating commercial speech for lawful products only because those products are widely disliked -- even for cause -- sets us on the path of regulating such speech for other products that may only be disfavored by a select few in a position to impose their personal preferences."

    Instead advised the ACLU, "the antidote to harmful speech can be found in the wisdom of countervailing speech -- not in the outright ban of the speech perceived as harmful." But as the NEJM authors wrote:

    "How did we come to believe that the exchange of commercial appeals in the marketplace of goods and services should be equated with free exchange in the marketplace of ideas? Are our freedoms really secured by a constitutional doctrine that would limit our capacity to inhibit the promotion of toxic goods? This is an opportune moment to reflect on these questions and their implications for the relationship between public health goals and the rules that should be foundational in a democracy."
  • EPA's Updated Smog, Ozone Standard

    The EPA proposed new standards for smog last week, which would update the Bush Administration standards. The agency will set the "primary" standard, which protects public health, at a level between 0.060 and 0.070 parts per million (ppm), measured over eight hours, and will also propose a new secondary standard. These standards were recommended by scientists years ago to decrease deaths and smog levels dangerous to children, the elderly, and those with asthma and respiratory disease. As we wrote earlier, the Bush's EPA pushed the weaker standard of .075 ppm. We also wrote about the Obama EPA's stated intention to change the standard last fall.

  • Airport Screening to Double as Healthcare?

    "We are headed toward the moment when screeners will watch watch-listers sashay through while we have to come to the airport in hospital gowns, flapping open in the back", wrote Maureen Dowd recently, commenting on holes in airport security processes. But I think she's seeing a cup half empty. We may well be headed for a moment when airport screening, reviled as a breach of privacy to some, is the closest thing to healthcare people can get.

    The public option has fallen "off the table" again, by now "fallen off the table" so many times that even when it intermittently appears back "on the table", it's obviously shopworn, if not smashed to bits.

    But the glass could still be half full. Think of the savings, if airport screening could double as healthcare screening : "You're cleared for flight sir, and don't worry about that lump..."

  • What to Call It? Science Terminology

    For various reasons, political, scientific, logical (or not) or historical, people refer to the same thing using different terms. Here are two examples.

    Canada does not call the tar sands "tar sands", anymore, they're "oil sands". Of course "tar sands" is more descriptive of the energy-intensive process, of extracting oil, but "oil sands" sounds like something that you would naturally siphon some oil out of, it sounds better.

    In 2005, physicist Lisa Randall urged that "global climate change" was the appropriate phrase to use, because "global warming" would lead people to argue that their winter was actually very cold. Others argued that "climate change" sounded less dangerous, so therefore would be used to manipulate people who would be fearful enough about "global warming" to urge policy changes, whereas "climate change" seemed benign. But it gets even more complicated for some agencies. NASA differentiates between "global warming", which is surface climate change, and "climate change", and "global change", and "global climate change", which deems the most accurate term. I think everyone pretty much knows what everyone's talking about now, though I dare not make conclusions about that.

  • Oh, and Happy Not-So-New Year

    Did you travel over your break? Have fun?

    In the US, marketing aimed at tourists is off the rails. Perhaps marketers have learned that people who travel in a heightened state of orange level stress will sooth themselves by buying absurd products. You may argue that it's a global trend, and indeed, the badminton set peddled to me by a man on the muddy backroad of a major city in Asia seemed ridiculous, until I flipped through Sky Mall Magazine and spied the "King Tut Life Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet" that can be "delivered curbside" (to impress your neighbors). Personally, I would rather pay to bat around a little white badminton birdie in a mud puddle, while talking baksheesh with kids who speak, at will, touristica French, German, English or Japanese. By comparison, traveler oriented products in the US seem conceived by desperate marketing departments who've lost their wits. Case in point -- the sarcophagus cabinet. Or:

    • If you were assigned to seating group 2 or above recently, on my least favorite airline I still fly on, you heard this announcement: "Board now. Enter via aisle closest to the wall, NOT THE RED CARPET." Because "the red carpet", actually a two foot doormat, is reserved for first class customers.

      Some people bemoan the lot of the economy passenger, the so-called "poverty parade", and the herd animal like treatment. But as a first class customer you pay an extra few thousand dollars to traipse across a red mat with bars on each side to keep you in bounds. Sure the legroom's nice, I won't argue, but you have to walk "the red carpet" to get there, and once there in that bigger, comfier seat, you're subjected to complimentary cheesefood snacks. Supposedly smart people actually buy this privilege.

    • At your hotel, you will be sold the usual-- rooms, room service, laundry services, shoe shines and upgrades, not to mention the mini-bar. But what if the five dollar peanuts in the mini-bar are too devilish a temptation for you and your New Year's resolutions? No worries, there's a market-based solution. Pay $50 to have the mini-bar hauled away at one hotel I was recently at.

    • Want to use the hotel refrigerator for your water? $50 fine at another hotel. And the same people who stay at these hotels complain that the EPA's bureaucracy confines their business style.

    • Maybe you actually love business travel and want to bring home a bit of the experience, like the "pulsating" showerhead that your can actually buy from one hotel's glossy catalogue. The catalogue carried other mundane household hardware and dog cushions stamped with the hotel's logo. Pretty special.

    Couldn't we just travel unsolicited sometimes? Definitely not in 2010. Happy New Year.

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