Friday, March 14, 2008

Thoughtful comments

I spent a huge part of the last ten days in Chennai; while I managed a bit of blog reading during that time, I didn't get a chance to respond to comments here on my blog. I have been very lucky in getting some thoughtful comments, and I say to all the commenters: Thank you!

Here are some comments that I want to highlight:

In the comments thread following a new twist to the Kundu case, an anonymous commenter tried to use this case to justify closed access publishing. This comment received a fitting reply from Rahul:

Open access is refereed just as stringently as closed access, or more so. Take a look at PLoS and BMC, the two most prominent open-access publishers. In addition many publishers -- OUP, etc -- have optional open-access systems in place.

And I don't know what conclusions you draw from Kundu and Chiranjeevi's cases. Kundu's 2005 paper was published in a respected, non-open-access journal (though his paper seems to be accessible from my home machine too -- perhaps JBC has country-wide access for India, as PNAS does). His 2006 paper is published in an entirely obscure non-open-access journal that epitomises everything that is wrong with closed-access (namely, very few people can read the paper -- few institutions subscribe to the journal, because of its obscurity -- so the duplication is less likely to be caught). Chiranjeevi's papers were mostly in tier 2 or tier 3 closed-access journals.

If you really want to make a point, please highlight a case of fraud that has happened in an open-access journal and then say why it couldn't happen with a closed-access journal.

Staying with the broad theme of misconduct in science, Gautam responded to the post on IGCAR's verdict on the Anna University case with the following comment, which I fully agree with (especially the second paragraph):

I think this is a reasonable, though possibly somewhat strong recommendation. (It wasn't clear, on the evidence placed in the public domain, that Mathews had actually seen the paper submitted with his name on it.) On the other hand, Selladurai, I would think, got off with what seems like a mere slap on the wrist - no enquiry committee whose findings were made public but just a prohibition on taking students. This despite the fact that the paper was submitted from his email ID and he must have acceded to the transfer of copyright.

The transparent and careful procedures of IGCAR deserve to be commended, as well as their decision to place the report in the public domain. I do hope similar high profile cases are treated with the same care and transparency by the respective institutions involved.

Moving on, an anonymous commenter responded to Feynman's views on worthwhile problems with a link to Richard Hamming's lecture titled You and Your Research. This is indeed a great talk, and Hamming does devote a section to describing what kind of problems one should try to work on. Needless to say, there's an interesting contrast:

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, ``Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, ``but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, ``Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, ``What are the important problems in my field?''

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.

Finally, the post about our President's wish for an IIT exclusively for women, received the following comment from Manasi:

gender-segregated educational institutions as a rule are not a great idea, but I think it is important not to be dogmatic about this principle. Given that IITs predominantly attract mofussil, non-progressive Indian males who use it as a tool for social mobility, it would be an interesting experiment to see what effect such an institution would have on the imagination of the aspirational classes. In terms of real access, precious little will be achieved but then that is another battle. Evidence institutions such as Morehouse, Spellman, Smith, etc. that have thrived in separate but equal situations and have essentially been refuges for folks that would otherwise not have had the same opportunities.

I agree with her that "it's important not to be dogmatic about this principle." First, there is considerable evidence that women are better off studying in all women colleges; heck, there's even evidence to prove that boys do ruin schools for girls! Second, given that our IITs have a long history -- over half a century! -- of being almost exclusively male, an all women IIT is nothing to be sneered at. I found the concept 'amazing' simply because (a) our President's suggestion goes against the trend of setting up co-educational institutions, and (b) it gives preference to a single sex institution over other institutional mechanisms -- such as giving some weight to students' high school marks during the admissions process -- that would allow a greater number of women to enter our top institutions (including IITs and NITs).


  1. wanderlust said...

    abi, I don't understand why a suggestion is amazing simply because it goes against the tide.
    an all-women IIT is not practical, not even as an experiment. the costs are simply too much, and i'm not talking about just money here.
    it has been noticed that women do better in tests and exams, but very few even aspire for an IIT that they bother taking the exam up.
    further, a trend i've noticed is women in engineering colleges normally tend to end up at IIMs. this shows that the problem is not with the number of seats or anything... there are simply not enough women interested in engineering sciences.
    establishing a high-end college is too costly a way to get women interested in engineering, especially when there are a large number of people fighting tooth and nail for seats.
    a better way would be to organize something like where women engineers go to schools and colleges and getting young girls interested in engineering and sciences.
    that way you don't even compromise on quality.

    i don't think pratibha patil put so much thought as you or i have when she made this statement. I guess it's just an eyewash, something that shows the gen public that there's some point of her being a woman in power. either that, or she's on LSD again, like the other time she had hallucinations about seeing dead people.

  2. Ashutosh said...

    About working on important problems, there is another comment by Daniel Koshland (deceased, former editor of Science for 10 years) where he says that you are probably going to spend equal amount of time working on important and unimportant problems, so might as well work on important problems.

  3. Dilip said...

    The link to the study showing women do better than men is in the liberal arts colleges whereas the IITs, being engineering institutions, are preferentially skewed in favor of mathematical sciences. In that case, how relevant would those findings be?
    Apart from the empirical evidence of women's failure to get into IIT, I have not seen a whole lot of evidence to suggest a similarity of abilities or otherwise, not even after the Larry Summers controversy.
    Also, a recent item on the gender gap in performance titled 'The New Gender Gap in Education' dealing with the oft-noted superiority of female performance has been posted by Gary Becker on the Becker-Posner blog with some speculative insight into the issue.