Biweekly links for 03/09/2009

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  1. The article on “Fogbank” displays a charmingly naive faith that knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon can be written down.

    This is not true, of course. As the Wikipedia article on Tacit Knowledge correctly asserts: “One example of tacit knowledge is the skill of riding a bike – there is no manual of how to do so; you have to be taught by someone who already can. The skills required to build nuclear weapons can also be seen as tacit knowledge. The explicit knowledge of how to do do are freely available but it requires tacit knowledge to actually produce a usable weapon.”

    In medical education the reality of tacit knowledge is indisputable. Indeed, almost all of a surgical residency, and the majority of any residency, is spent acquiring not explicit knowledge, but tacit knowledge.

    Those far-right free-market zealots who advocate “Let GM go bankrupt” are effectively valuing the tacit knowledge of how to build automobiles at zero … thus providing us with yet another vivid example of the intellectual bankruptcy of naive free-market economics.

    How good is the Internet at communicating tacit knowledge? Probably not very good. Maybe this is why tacit knowledge is infrequently discussed on the Internet?

  2. Regarding the Business of Academic Publishing, what is often ignored by researchers looking at this topic is that library budgets have not kept pace with the increasing amount of article production from academics. Price increases in journals are over inflation, and yes some publishers make good profits. However, the model is unsustainable because funders are happy for more research to be carried out and written, but library budgets are not then increased to keep pace. Librarians rarely look at the amount of articles published by the journals they subscribe to. The model work well from the librarian point of view as they are not the end users, the end users, who get the value from the articles published don’t make the purchasing decision.

    It is interesting to note that the profit margins quoted for Elsevier are from 1998 to 2000. Why weren’t more recent figures used? In 2008 Reed Elsevier’s net profits were 9%. That changes the perspective of the paper a bit doesn’t it! Looks like a classic misuse of statistics to me to make a political point.

  3. MJ: Elsevier is only a part of Reed-Elsevier, which does many things beside publish scientific journals. In 2007, the last year for which I found figures (admittedly, I looked a few months ago, and maybe 2008 figures are now available), Elsevier’s profit margin was approximately 30% of revenue, which is extraordinary. Prospects were so good that Reed-Elsevier was selling Harcourt educational publishers, in part for the stated purposed of financing expansion of their scientific journal business.

    On your first point: I’ve wondered about this. Librarians talk about the “serials pricing crisis”, and refer to the fact that journal prices have increased four times faster than inflation. However, as you say, it’s not clear this factors in the expansion in the size of some journals. I’d be interested to know what happens when that is done. Hard to do convincingly, since journal costs don’t scale exactly with size.

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