Friday, July 29, 2011

What Information Does Jack Layton Owe to the Public - if any?

Jack Layton, for my international readers, is the official Leader of the Opposition in Canada. He has been battling prostate cancer for some time. This week he announced his temporary withdrawal from his post, because a further cancer had been detected and needed to be treated. This all is, of course, terrible news both for Mr Layton personally, as well as for his party. Since then Canadian media outlets have begun speculating how bad his condition really is, pointing to his 'raspy voice' and the fact that he participated in Toronto's gay pride parade from the back of a ricksha, stuff like that. The question arose what levels of health disclosure public officials owe us. 

The Globe and Mail in Toronto's writer suggests that nothing short of a detailed disclosure of their health problems will do. He holds the disclosure the US President provides as a matter of course up as the gold standard. Of course, why such a standard should apply to an opposition politician (who isn't exactly in charge of the military or much else for that matter) isn't addressed in that article. There's no explanation in for why Mr Layton would owe us a full disclosure of his ailments along the standards the US President has to live up to. Why should Mr Layton's right to privacy not count? According to the G&M writer, it's because by having chosen to be in the public eye Mr Layton doesn't deserve much privacy. Really? 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr Layton owes us nothing at all with regard to the state of his health beyond stepping down when he is unable top fulfill his duties as an elected official, temporarily if he has reason to believe he will recover, or permanently if he has reason to believe he won't recover. We might be curious, but that doesn't establish a right to know on our part. Of course, Mr Layton has not stepped down as the elected representatives of his riding, so his electorate might want to ask him questions about his prognosis. After all, he can't currently meaningfully represent them. In case he's likely to recover he should say so, in case he's unlikely to recover he should resign his seat. However, does that mean he owes us details of his health situation? Not at all, it's none of our business. Do we need to know what other cancer he suffers from? Not at all, it's none of our business.

Elected officials owe their constituents just enough information as to permit them to make a determination on whether they remain (or will be in the foreseeable future) fit for office. No more, no less. The G&M writer offers us this silly line in his defence of his aggressive intrusion in Mr Layton's private life: 'Mr. Layton is a big boy. He can take it. The last thing he needs is pity.'  - The less said, the better.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Greyhound vs Via Rail

Interesting experience I had this week. So, I needed to book a last minute trip from Ottawa to Kingston. Stupidly I listened to advice and booked on Greyhound as opposed to Via Rail, as I normally do. So, I book a ticket for a particular day and time on Greyhound from Ottawa to Kingston. The price was negligibly lower than Via's would have been. Bizarrely on their website Greyhound tells you that just because you have a ticket for a particular service does not mean you will actually get on that service. It's first come first served. In other words, they might sell the 100 seats on a particular bus 20,000 times and leave 19,900 people in the lurch, they'd find out at the bus station, and Greyhound would try to put them on a 'later service'. Suffice it to say, there was no later service on the day that I planned to travel.

Well, I decided to take my chances. Expecting disastrous service at that stage I wasn't too surprised that the ticket did not actually print when I clicked the relevant weblink (the link was 'broken'). I tried on and off throughout the day, it never worked. Eventually I called Greyound's call centre where some smartie pants told me that I must print off the ticket. I asked him to try himself. He tried (me patiently waiting on my mobile phone), and eventually advised that they had a 'technical problem' (sounds like Air Canada, doesn't it?).

Incredibly, he then told me that he had to cancel my booking. I asked what that meant and he enlightened me me by telling me that he would cancel the ticket and I would get my credit card reimbursed during the next 7-14 days (!!!!), and that I would have to go to the bus station and purchase a new ticket. I asked whether that would mean a higher price, he confirmed that that likely would be the case.

So, everything here is Greyhound's fault. Their technical fault, their ticket cancellation, their requirement to purchase a more expensive ticket while having to wait 7-14 days to get the money back for the ticket they never issued. Does that strike you as possibly a fraudulent business practice? You sell on-line tickets you don't actually have, you eventually cancel them last minute and force customers to purchase a higher-priced ticket. Herewith added to my 'no go' list: Greyhound.

Compare this to Via Rail. I called them and asked whether I could use my Via points (Preference) to book a complimentary ticket for the next train available from Ottawa to Kingston. A pleasant person picked up the phone next to instantly (not the useless 'pick 1 for', 'pick 2 for', 'pick 3 for' that Greyhound keeps you occupied with), confirmed my details, booked my ticket, voila I had a valid booking, all in less than 5 minutes. No hassles, delightfully competent service. Another excellent experience with Via Rail. Love these people!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

CMAJ Impact Factor and Impact on Authors

I got an interesting email from the Canadian Medical Association Journal today. The CMAJ informs me that its Impact Factor has increased from 7.3 to 9. So, in the average a paper gets cited 9 times per year during a two year window period right after publication. Congratulations to my colleagues at the CMAJ editing that paper. The journal I edit jointly with Ruth Chadwick, Bioethics, improved its Impact Factor sufficiently to jump into second places among journals publishing primarily bioethics content. We're currently standing at 1.64. This gives us about twice the impact of reportedly more 'prestigious' journals such for instance Ethics which languishes in the vicinity of 0.8 if I am not mistaken. Philosophers, no doubt, will point to the amazing 'quality' of what Ethics publishes, suffice it to say that that quality doesn't seem to result into a great deal of citations (ie use). Now, if a journal does great quality publishing but there's not much evidence of interest in that quality in terms of academics actually using it in their own published research,  how do those claiming 'quality' demonstrate quality? I'm not suggesting that impact equates quality either by the way, but at least impact points to utility, peer reviewed content is demonstrably being used by academics in their peer reviewed outputs. It's a reasonable start toward measuring a journal's relevance as an academic outlet.

Anyhow, I digress, I meant to write about the CMAJ email. Its marketing spiel (marked as 'this is not spam') is aimed at attracting authors to the journal based on its improved impact. Here's the offending line from said email: 'This is good news for authors who publish in CMAJ and hope to have their work cited.' This seems nonsense to me, to be honest. An improved Impact Factor as such is neither here nor there for authors who hope to see their work cited. Here is the reason: Most academics searching for research papers relevant to their own work will not look for particular journals. They will key in keywords in specialist databases (as well as google scholar possibly). Once they find relevant content they will download it via their library's on-line services. Nobody will go any longer into the library to browse a particular journal issue in the hope of finding relevant content there. It would be highly inefficient to do something like that. What determines whether someone cites your work, in this day and age, is whether the journal is widely available on-line, and whether the content of the journal is indexed widely in the relevant data-bases, whether you got the right title, keywords and abstract as well as the right content The Impact Factor as such has no impact on these crucial features that determine whether your paper will be cited. What it does tell us is that the editors of the journal made prudent choices aimed at increasing citations with regard to the papers they accepted, no more, no less. As any investment guru will tell you, current performance is no guarantee of future performance, so as an author you are on your own on this. There's no way you could ride (ie 'benefit') on the coat tails of the journal's improved Impact Factor. It's as simple as that. Let that not stop you at all from submitting relevant content to the CMAJ, just keep in mind that whether or not a paper they accept will be cited or not is up to factors other than their current (or future) Impact Factor. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

International Day Against Stoning

The barbaric Islamic Republic of Iran, among a few other medieval dictatorships, continues to practice the stoning to death of people. A number of brave activists in Europe, among them Mina Ahadi, Patty Debonitas, and Maryam Namazie  have started some time ago a campaign against this practice. I urge you to check out their website and support the campaign for the abolition of stoning as a form of punishment.