Harvard Business Review’s underhanded game

For our first-year seminar, we wanted to get the students to read some the hyperbolic articles on data science. A classic example is the Harvard Business Review’s Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century. However, when we downloaded the PDF version through the library proxy, we were informed:

Harvard Business Review and Harvard Business Publishing Newsletter content on EBSCOhost is licensed for the private individual use of authorized EBSCOhost users. It is not intended for use as assigned course material in academic institutions nor as corporate learning or training materials in businesses. Academic licensees may not use this content in electronic reserves, electronic course packs, persistent linking from syllabi or by any other means of incorporating the content into course resources

Harvard Business Publishing will be pleased to grant permission to make this content available through such means. For rates and permission, contact permissions@harvardbusiness.org.

So it seems that for a single article we’d have to pay extra, and since “any other means of incorporating the content” is also a violation, we couldn’t tell the students that they can go to the library website and look up an article in a publication whose name sounds like “Schmarbard Fizzness Enqueue” on sexy data science.

My first thought on seeing this restriction is that it would definitely not pass the fair use test, but then the fine folks at the American Library Association say that it’s a little murky:

Is There a Fair Use Issue? Despite any stated restrictions, fair use should apply to the print journal subscriptions. With the database however, libraries have signed a license that stipulates conditions of use, so legally are bound by the license terms. What hasn’t really been fully tested is whether federal law (i.e. copyright law) preempts a license like this. While librarians may like to think it does, there is very little case law. Also, it is possible that if Harvard could prove that course packs and article permission fees are a major revenue source for them, it would be harder to declare fair use as an issue and fail the market effect factor. In other cases as in Georgia State, the publishers could not prove their permissions business was that significant which worked against them. Remember that if Harvard could prove that schools were abusing the restrictions on use, they could sue.

Part of the ALA’s advice is to use “alternate articles to the HBR 500 supplied by other vendors that do not have these restrictions.” Luckily for us, there is no absence of hype on data science, so we could avoid it.

Given Harvard’s well-publicized open access policy and general commitment to sharing scholarly materials, the educational restriction on using materials strikes me as rank hypocrisy. Of course, maybe HBR is not really a venue for scholarly articles. Regardless, I would urge anyone considering including HBR material in their class to think twice before playing their game. Or to indulge in some civil disobedience, but this might end up hurting the libraries and not HBR, so it’s hard to figure out what to do.

Ethical questions in research funding: the case of ethics centers

I read a piece in Inside Higher Ed today on the ethics of accepting funds from different sources. In engineering, this is certainly an important issue, but the article focused Cynthia Jones, an ethics professor at UT-Pan American who directs the PACE ethics center. Jones had this stunningly ignorant thing to say about Department of Defense funding:

“What the hell are we going to use lasers for except to kill people?” Jones said. “But scientists get cut the slack.”

I’m flabbergasted that someone who works on philosophy applied to a technological field, namely biomedical ethics, believes that the only use of lasers is to kill people. Perhaps she thinks that using lasers in surgery is unethical. Or, more likely, she is unaware of how basic research in science is actually funded in this country.

Certainly, there’s been a definite shift over time in how defense-related agencies have targeted their funds — they fund much less basic research (or basic applied research) and have focused more on deliverables and technologies that more directly support combat, future warriors, and the like. This presents important ethical questions for researchers who may oppose the use of military force (or how it has been used recently) but who are interested in problems that could be “spun” towards satisfying these new objectives from DARPA, ARO, ONR, and AFOSR. Likewise, there are difficult questions about the line between independent research and consulting work for companies who may fund your graduate students. Drawing sharp distinctions in these situations is hard — everybody has their own comfort zone.

Jones wrote an article on “Dirty Money” that tries to develop rules for when money is tainted and when it is not. She comes up with a checklist at the end of the article that says funds should not be accepted if they

1- are illegal or that operate illegally in one’s country, or when the funding violates a generally accepted doctrine signed by one’s country (keeping in mind there is sometimes a distinction between legally acceptable and morally acceptable); or
2- originate from a donor who adds controls that would conflict with the explicit or implicit goals of the project to be funded or that would conflict with the proper functioning of the project or the profession’s ethical guidelines.

This, she says, is “the moral minimum.” This framing (and the problem in general of funding centers) that she addresses sidesteps the ethical questions around research that is funded by writing proposals, and indeed the question of soliciting funds. Even in the world of charitable giving, the idea that funders wander through the desert with bags of money searching for fundees seems odd. I think the more difficult ethical quandary is that of solicitation. At a “moral minimum” the fundee has to think about these questions, but I think point 2 needs a lot more unpacking because of the chicken-and-egg question of matching proposed research to program goals.

I don’t want to sound so super-negative! I think it’s great that someone is looking at the ethics of the economics of how we fund research. It’s just that there’s a whole murkier lake beyond the murky pond of funding centers, and the moral issues of science/engineering funding are not nearly as simple as Jones’s remark indicates.

ResearchGate: spam scam, or…?

I’ve been getting fairly regular automated emails lately from ResearchGate, which has pull-quotes from Forbes and NPR saying it’s changing the way we do research blah blah blah. However, all empirical reports I have heard indicate that once you join, it repeatedly spams all of your co-authors with requests to join, which makes it feel a bit more like Heaven’s Gate.

On a less grim note, the site’s promise to make your research “more visible” sounds a bit like SEO spam. Given the existence of Google Scholar, which is run by the SE that one would like to O, it seems slightly implausible.

Any readers want to weigh in on whether ResearchGate has been useful to them? Or is this mostly for people who don’t know how to make their own homepage with their papers on it (which is probably most faculty).

Some LaTeX hacks for writing proposals

I just submitted my CAREER proposal on Monday, and now that the endless revision process is over, I wanted to write a post about what I learned about proposal writing. But that seems like hubris, since I have no idea if the thing will get funded, so what do I know? Besides, everything I learned was from the valuable feedback I got from those who very kindly read my previous drafts. So instead of writing about How To Sell Your Idea, I figured I would write about some cute LaTeX hacks that I came across, most of them via the very useful TeX-LaTeX Stack Exchange.

If anyone else has some useful hacks, feel free to leave them in the comments!

Saving Space

One of the big problems in NSF proposal writing is that there’s a hard limit on the number of pages (not the number of words), so if you’re at the edge, there’s a lot of “oops, two lines over” hacking to be done towards the end.

  • \usepackage{times} \usepackage{mathptmx}: The typeface for your proposal makes a big difference in space. Computer Modern is a bit easier to read since there’s more whitespace, but Times shaved a whole page off of my proposal. The NSF Grant Proposal Guidelines has the list of approved formatting. It seems standard for NIH proposals to use 11pt Arial but that makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Know thy reviewers, is what I would say: keep in mind what’s standard for the solicitation and don’t make the proposal so dense as to be unreadable. NB: Apparently the times package is deprecated (see comments).
  • \usepackage{titlesec}. This package lets you control the spacing around your titles and subtitles like this:

    \titlespacing\section{0pt}{10pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}{2pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}
    \titlespacing\subsection{0pt}{8pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}{2pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}

    See this post for more details, but basically it’s \titlespacing{command}{left spacing}{before spacing}{after spacing}. This is handy because there’s a lot of empty space around titles/subtitles and it’s an easy way to trim a few lines while making sure things don’t get too cramped/ugly.

  • \usepackage{enumitem}: This package lets you control the spacing around your enumerate lists. The package has a lot of options but one that may be handy is \setlist{nosep} which removes the space around the list items. This actually makes things a little ugly, I think, but bulleted lists are helpful to the reviewer and they also take a little more space, so this lets you control the tradeoff. Another thing that is handy to control is the left margin: \setlist[itemize,1]{leftmargin=20pt}.
  • \usepackage{savetrees}: Prasad says it’s great, but I didn’t really use it. YMMV.


  • Sometimes it’s handy to have a new theorem environment for Specific Aims or Open Problems or what-have-you. The problem is (as usual) that the theorem environment by itself puts in extra space and isn’t particularly customizable. So one option is to define a new theorem style:

    \newtheoremstyle{mystyle}% name
    {5pt}%Space above
    {5pt}%Space below
    {\itshape}% Body font
    {5pt}%Indent amount
    {\bfseries}% Theorem head font
    {:}%Punctuation after theorem head
    {4pt}%Space after theorem head 2
    {}%Theorem head spec (can be left empty, meaning ‘normal’)

    \newtheorem{specaim}{Specific Aim}

  • Another handy hack is to make a different citation command to use for your own work that will then appear in a different color than normal citations if you use \usepackage[colorlinks]{hyperref}. I learned how to do this by asking a question on the stack exchange.


  • The hyperref package also creates internal links to equations and Figures (if you label them) and so on, but the link is usually just the number of the label, so you have to click on “1” instead of “Figure 1″ being the link. One way to improve this is to make a custom reference command:

    \newcommand{\fref}[2]{\hyperref[#2]{#1 \ref*{#2}}}

    So now you can write \fref{Figure}{fig:myfig} to get “Figure 1″ to be clickable.

  • You can also customize the colors for hyperlinks:


  • Depending on your SRO, they may ask you to deactivate URLs in the references section. I had to ask to figure this out, but basically putting \let\url\nolinkurl before the bibliography seemed to work…

ICML 2014: thoughts on the format

This is my first time at ICML, and every paper here has a talk and a poster. It’s a lot of work to prepare, but one nice benefit is that because my poster had to be done before I left, the talk was also pretty much done at the same time, modulo minor tweaks. Having to be ready early means less last-minute preparations and lower-stress at the conference overall. Another plus is that some talks are probably better as posters and some posters are probably better as talks, so the two modes of presentation gives a diversity to the delivery process. Some people also prefer talks to posters or vice-versa, so that’s good for them as well. Finally, the conference has 6 parallel tracks, so knowing that there’s a poster takes some of the stress out of deciding which session to attend — you can always catch the poster if you missed the talk.

The major minus is time. Sessions run from 8:30 to 6 and then posters run from 7 to 11 PM — it’s overwhelming! You can easily spend the entire conference at talks and then at posters, resulting in a brain overload. This also leaves less time for chatting and catching up with colleagues over dinner, starting up new research ideas or continuing ongoing projects in person, and the informal communication that happens at conferences. People do make time for that, but the format less conducive to it, or so it appeared to me. I ended up taking time off a bit during the sessions to take a walk around the Olympic park and have a chat, and I saw others leaving to do some sightseeing, so perhaps I am adhering to the schedule too much.

It’s interesting how different the modes of conference/social research communication are across research disciplines. I’ve yet to go to ICASSP or ICC, and while I have been to a medical informatics conference once, I haven’t gone to a Big Science conference or the joint meetings for mathematics or statistics. I imagine the whole purpose and format of those is completely different, and it makes me wonder if the particular formats of machine learning conferences are intentional: since there is rarely an extended/journal version of the paper, the conference is the only opportunity for attendees to really buttonhole the author and ask questions about details that are missing from the paper. Perhaps maximizing author exposure is a means to an end.

Line-item cost of one student-year on a grant?

I am in the process of writing some proposals and am encountering the fun task of generating budgets for those proposals. Rutgers, like many cash-strapped schools, imposes a hefty “overhead” charge on federal grants (the so-called indirect costs) amounting to something like more than 50% of the value of the grant. Since I’m primarily a theory guy, the largest line item on any grant I write is generally a graduate students. With stipend, tuition, fees, and benefits, a calendar-year appointment for a graduate student costs around $90k, factoring indirect costs. Given that an NSF Small award caps out at $500k, it’s quite difficult to support more than one student for a small grant. This in turn limits the scope of research one can propose — it’s all fine and well to say there are 15 journal papers’ worth of results stemming from your great ideas, but 3-4 student years is probably not enough to make that happen.

I know some schools offer a tuition break for RAs/GSRs, but I am not sure how prevalent this practice is. So I put it to the readers of the blog: what is the line-item cost to support a graduate student for one year (without travel etc.) at your institution?