Sunday, February 24, 2013



please refrain from commenting at this point in time please. Google hasn't figured out how to actually display comments that were posted. At this point in time their software displays below a given post the profile name of whoever posted a comment, but displays no actual comment. I hope they'll come to grips with this sooner rather than later, or else I shall change the template that I'm using. My apologies for any inconvenience caused.

udo schuklenk

Ps: Note added Mach 06: Google's dynamic blogs do not seem capable of displaying comments posted, so I decided to disable to much cleaner dynamic blog design I chose and revert back to an old-fashioned, static design.

The Dangers of Open Access Online Only

I know that I sound a bit like a broken record when I continue to go on and on and on about the problems associated with the current Open Access frenzy. The problems are all too obvious. For starters: low barriers to entry are an invite to fly-by-night operators. These days it is fair to say that dodgy Open Access outfits outnumber by far the very few decent Open Access publishers. Open Access as it is currently conceived constitutes also a direct threat to the ability of academics to publish their work in professional journals. If Open Access replaces subscription based models, an author's ability to pay the Open Access fees determines whether an academic is able to afford publishing her work. The fees in question range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per article. To be fair, a VERY limited number of universities has begun shelling out $$ for Open Access fees for their academic researchers. Say, if you were an academic working in one of those exceptional institutions and you decided to publish in an Open Access outlet you'd go to your university's research office or its library and ask that it transfer the cash required for getting your article published to the Open Access publisher. The more you publish the more expensive you become to your cash strapped employer. No doubt some such institutions will begin to love the old days again when academics didn't publish that much, simply because that would be cheaper. Or there might be a $$ limit on the number of papers you may publish, you might also find yourself suddenly strongly encouraged by the powers that are in your university to publish where it is cheapest. - Talking about cheaper, the true free riders in this system would, of course, be institutions the academics of which publish preciously little (think Phoenix and similar outfits). They're the true beneficiaries of OA. It is noteworthy though, that free riding is encouraged in this system. Whoever produces research pays for the luxury of seeing it published. Anyone else is in for a free ride. Yep, that is Open Access justice. - Most institutions, of course, have neither the money nor the inclination to spend $$ on the article processing fee the Open Access business model depends on. Hence the threat to academic researchers' ability to publish their academic content in an Open Access world.

Still, this is all old news, except, of course, to the having-your-cake-and-eating-it Open Access proponents. What is news is that one of my dire predictions has since come to pass. I warned on various occasions that these fly-by-night operators have no back-up systems in place for the point in time where they switch off their little web-servers and shut down their operations. Articles 'published' on their servers, I warned, would disappear into the internet's never-never-land. This danger is one reason for why I am such a Luddite with regard to the need for print versions of published peer reviewed content. It is the only guarantee that we have that  peer reviewed content can be easily traced via university libraries. It is the only watertight guarantee we have, in so far as protecting the integrity of the published academic outputs are concerned. If there's no print copy, we might sometimes be able to find individual article pdf's of authors who published on Open Access platforms that vanished over night, but there is no guarantee. This has all sorts of undesirable consequences for articles that have been cited (say by a doctoral student in her research thesis - how could a reviewer tasked with evaluating said thesis do that job if some of her cited articles don't exist any longer due to the collapse of the Open Access outfit that published them?)

Well, here's a link to a bona fide report about such an Open Access fly-by-night outfit having closed operations, with the complete loss of all its published contents. The virtual journals gone, it is not only the loss of articles published there that is of concern, it also means that crucial information about the journal is gone, too. Did it undertake peer review? Was there an editorial board? -

And yes, I told you so... -  QED as they say.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Canada's Conservative government delivers to religion

Canada's conservative PM Stephen Harper finally delivers on a promise made to his conservative religious constituency. He establishes today an Office of Religious Freedoms. Thankfully it seems to be a window dressing activity, soon to be forgotten, given its measly 5 mio C$ annual budget. There ain't much it can do with that amount of money.

What's wrong with a taxpayer funded outfit designed to protect religious freedoms in other parts of the world? Nothing in principle, but... there is no good reason to privilege people's interest in holding religious views (that are fundamentally ideological views about the world) over other ideological views of the world. Why not establish an office aimed at protecting moral views of the world, conscience views or whatnot, if one sees the urgent need to protect people's (however implausible) views about how the world came about, or if one sees the need to protect their medieval takes on sexual mores or any number of other issues.

Clearly this outfit serves to realize a promise the current Canadian government made to its religious hard core of voters. While its 5 bio C$ budget suggests that even this government doesn't quite see the point of putting a lot of money into protecting people's religious freedoms in other parts of the world, it is still money that could have gone to better causes (eg the protection of people's human rights, including their right to hold ideological views of the world).

Addendum: Turns out my suspicions about this outfit were well justified. It is headed by a Catholic 'Dean' of a religious college graduating reportedly some 16 or so students. The college reportedly praises itself as an institution celebrating a model of 'education' that was in operation prior to the enlightenment age. I can't help but wonder whether Mr Harper was keen on discrediting his religious freedom operation before it even got into action. If that's what he aimed for, he certainly succeeded.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

ToC Bioethics 2013; 27(3)

Cover image for Vol. 27 Issue 3Volume 27, Issue 3 Pages ii - ii, 117 - 174, March 2013
The latest issue of Bioethics is available on Wiley Online Library









50 Great Myths About Atheism

Ha, and there it is, in all its glory, the cover of our upcoming 50 Great Myths About Atheism! You can't say that folks could easily overlook it in their local bookstore (where they still exist)!

The publisher is currently producing the page pdf's, so it'll be a few more months before it'll actually be out!

Lancet background series on NCD and human development

For those interested in global and/or public health issues, you might want to check out the The Lancet. The journal has published two days ago (on-line early) a series of excellent background papers on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and their threat to human development in low- and middle-income countries. This is a very important issue, because for decades political activism and much of bioethical scholarship) has been focusing on issues of infectious disease control (think about HIV/AIDS, drug resistant TB etc) and/or the brain drain. More or less completely neglected by bioethics scholars (yes, there are a few exceptions) have been NCD. This background series is looking among other issues at the producers of food products (if you want to call cigarettes, soft drinks, and other such goodies food products). Noteworthy is the conclusion found in one of these review papers. It should give the current UK government and its calls for self-regulation and public-private partnerships pause for thought:  'Despite the common reliance on industry self-regulation and public—private partnerships, there is no evidence of their effectiveness or safety. Public regulation and market intervention are the only evidence-based mechanisms to prevent harm caused by the unhealthy commodity industries.' Other papers look at strategies developed by STI activists to get essential medicines to those in need and apply them to the NCD issue.

The papers mentioned are available at the time of writing as Open Access documents, but you might have to register with The Lancet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wow! 9 Volume Ethics Encyclopedia finally out!

You can't but help think 'wow' when you actually hold the 9 beautiful volumes comprising the Wiley-Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Ethics in your hands. It simply is an amazing feat accomplished by an experienced hand at producing top-quality edited works, Hugh LaFollette. So, to get the disclaimers out of the way, I have three entries in this encyclopedia. I also edit journals for this publisher and I am contracted to produce a couple of books for Wiley-Blackwell.

Conflict of interest or no, you can't help but feel in awe of this reference work. The list of authors truly reads like a list of the Who is Who in academic ethics, ranging from David Archard, Marcia Baron, Roger Crisp, Norman Daniels over Dale Jamieson, Margaret Moore and Rosalind Hoursthouse to the likes of Philip Pettit, C. L. Ten, Rosemarie Tong and Michael Tooley and hundreds of others. It is not the case, by the way, that authors could just send their stuff in and after a cursory review they'd be accepted. I truly battled it out over one entry with Hugh and kind of lost, at last any consequentialist would see it that way. When I refused to add particular content that Hugh wanted referenced and that I genuinely thought wasn't worth citing, we found a way out of this impasse (classic stand-off between editor and author, I've been there on both sides more often than I care to remember).  A co-author was added, said co-author added the content Hugh was keen on, and everyone moved on with their lives. As I said, consequentialists would rightly note that I 'lost' this one.

As you would expect of such a work, it provides a comprehensive index both organized in alphabetical order as well as broader subject areas, as well as further readings following each entry. There is even a limited number of entries on 'Non-Western Ethics', the emphasis here being on limited. I was a bit surprised that no dedicated entries were to be found on secular approaches to ethics and their relationship to religious approaches to ethics. I should not pretend, of course, that I read all or even most of the entries, but at least the available indices didn't point me to anything dedicated to this complicated issue. There are a few entries on religion, but nothing on atheism, secularism or indeed humanism. To be fair, many entirely secular approaches to ethics (eg utilitarianism) are featuring prominently in the encyclopedia, so perhaps this isn't such a big deal after all. In any case, it's all too easy, with a work of this scope, to squibble over 'missing' content, or individual authors' take on a particular issue. Only small-minded reviewers would ponder for too long on such omissions or individual authors' takes on particular subject matters.

Researchers and students in my own field of specialization, Bioethics, will find as contributors the names of many leading academics as well as those of many junior scholars. Hugh LaFollette and his team deserve the highest praise for this astounding product. I have no doubt that this encyclopedia will serve as the reference work both for established researchers as well as for students trying to get a quick overview of particular subjects for many years to come.

Of course, this is the 21st century, so the first hint that this project had come to fruition and that my entries were 'around' came with a google scholar alert telling me that something with my name on it had been published. The link embedded in said alert sent me straight to Wiley's website where an on-line version of the entry was available for download. That's a wonderful thing, of course, and something other encyclopedias offer, too. Wiley plans to up-date the individual on-line entries more frequently than it plans to publish future editions of the print copy. I must say that I am a tad bit puzzled about this. To me this seems to suggest that there could (well, that there will) be distinctly different entries on the same subject matter in the same encyclopedia, except that one will be in the print version, and another in the on-line version. In some ways this won't matter, because you can still choose which one to cite for your purposes. On the other hand, once the first set of revisions is filtering thru into the on-line version, there will be different products out there, under the same name. I'm not too keen on this, but I cannot see how this can be avoided. On the bright sight, as authors we will be able to boycott revisions of our on-line content if the publisher behaves sufficiently badly as to draw the wrath of the academic community on itself (just ask Elsevier). I, for instance, have not updated various entries in two Elsevier owned encyclopedias since the academic boycott of Elsevier got off the ground. It goes without saying that at that point in time things would get even more confusing as the print edition would have an entry from one author, while the on-line edition could well have an entry on the same topic from someone different. It'll be fun to watch how Wiley and its team of editors will deal with such an eventuality.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Korean edition of 50 Voices of Disbelief

And here it is, the cover page of the Korean edition of 50 Voices of Disbelief, it's coming in at a whopping 550 pages, no less. After the Polish edition of the volume, this is the second foreign language edition, it'll soon be followed by a Spanish translation. I am pleased to report that the Polish rights for our up-coming 50 Great Myths about Atheism (Wiley-Blackwell 2013) have been sold already. Fingers crossed there will be more international editions of that work!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Enhancement Horror in Germany? Not Quite.

Pharmacology reports in its current issue the results of a survey of about 2600 German university students. The study's objective was to find out to what extent German students use cognitive-enhancing drugs. Turns out, German students find themselves in good company. A survey [doi:10.1038/452674a] of readers of Nature reported that about 20% of readers of that journal take performance enhancing drugs. German students come in at roughly that level. Compare that to office workers (5%). Makes you wonder whether the scientist readers of Nature know something that the rest of us don't know - after all, one reason for people arguing against the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs is that 'we dunno whether they actually work.' It seems those in the know are voting with their feet on this little detail. 

The survey (anonymous as it was) was cristal clear with regard to what it was that they were after. Here's their definition of brain doping, as they call it, 'Substances for brain doping are pharmaceuticals or illegal drugs that you cannot buy in a drugstore and that were not prescribed to you to treat a disease. The only reason why you use this substance is to improve cognitive performance, such as attention, alertness, and mood. Examples are stimulant drugs (amphetamines), caffeine tablets, cocaine, methylphenidate, and mephedrone.' That excluded then academia's traditional brain doping means, caffeine from the coffee maker, those revolting energy drinks and other above-the-counter stuff like that. It also excluded students who would be taking ADHD medication because of a clinical condition they were suffering from. One oddity perhaps, caffeine tables were included in their list, because they're only available in limited quantities in pharmacies in Germany, while here in Northamerica we can, of course, get em at the local 7/11. Of course, the articles also offers standard ruminations about caffein tablets being 'may be' gateway drugs. Bit like the good ol marijuana wars. Oh, did I mention that this research was partially funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency? So, naturally it's all really terrible. Really!

The survey team had a very high response rate (German students, ha!), 2834 surveys were distributed, 2569 were returned. That's a >90% rate of return. The sex distribution was roughly 60% female to 40% male. Here's what the survey unearthed with regard to illicit drug taking for the purpose of cognition enhancement. Of all students about 23% took such drugs. By field of study it looks like this:

  • Economics or law  25.0%
  • Languages or education 17.6%
  • Culture sciences 27.8%
  • Sports science 31.6%
  • Medicine, psychology,
  • or natural sciences 23.9%

By sex it looks like this:

  • Female 20.4%
  • Male 27.9%

In terms of semester distribution, it seems first semester students are the most likely takers. 

First 28.6%
Other 20.0% 

The main conclusion of the study: 'Drug prevention models need to be established.' Amen to that! - Just kidding. Presumably the same drug prevention models that have been such overwhelming failures on all other fronts are being recycled here. 

Like many other bioethicists I am - in principle - in favour of permitting students (and others) to take cognition enhancing drugs, provided certain conditions of voluntariness are met, and provided the students are informed about the known risks and benefits. However, there are drugs and drugs, of course. Some cognition enhancing medicines are addictive, others are not. I would be worried about folks taking addictive enhancing drugs, because I have some doubts about the cost-benefit ratio here. However, in case of cognition enhancing drugs that have no significant harmful side-effects and that are not addictive, it is arguably time to change regulations prohibiting the use of such drugs. Just going by the numbers cited above, it is clear that draconian measures are bound to fail, just like any drugs related prohibition has failed. It is equally clear that many medical professionals are happily prescribing cognition enhancing drugs to their 'patients', given that this is currently the only legal way of obtaining them. Assuming that their 'patients' quality of life improves as a result of their willingness to prescribe these drugs, all the - ethical - power to them. Universities also need to decide how to handle this. One would really want to see research testing whether those students who take such drugs actually perform better (I suspect they would), and whether that is a result of their drug taking. If it turned out to be the case that they had an advantage over students not taking such drugs, there would have to be institutional responses ensuring a kind of a level playing field in terms of exams, grades and such matters. 

Ps: cannot vouch for the veracity of the image used in the top left-hand corner... :).