Embargoes and the process of science

Last week I attended the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Conference on Collective Behavior, which was really a huge amount of fun. I learned a ton of science (and that I basically know nothing about science — or rather, there is soooo much science to know), and had some very interesting discussion about… stuff. Why am I so cagey? Because the details of discussions at the conference are officially embargoed until the report is issued by the National Academies in spring.

This embargo concept is not entirely new to me, but coming as I do from a tribe that tries to post things on ArXiV as fast as possible, the idea that one should keep mum for a few months feels a bit strange. It makes a lot of sense — people presented posters on work in progress or partial results that they were still working on, and without an embargo there is a potential danger of getting scooped, which could inhibit the free and open sharing of ideas. I certainly felt more comfortable talking about (possibly half-baked) future research ideas, although that was primarily because I didn’t think the ecologist I was conversing with would care as much about stochastic gradient methods.

Embargoes seem to be the norm in Science because of… Science… and Nature… and PNAS. If you have a high-profile article to appear in one of those fancy journals, they want the credit for having chosen it/are the venue in which it appeared. Slapping up your preprint on ArXiV is not on, since it bursts the balloon (although Nature says “[n]either conference presentations nor posting on recognized preprint servers constitute prior publication”). This is newsworthy science, and there’s a relationship between the press, the academic press, and the research community that has been discussed at length.

I came across a blog called Embargo Watch that looks to see how the media/reporters breach the embargoes imposed by the publisher. Indeed, if you look at various embargo policies (even PLoS has one!) show that the embargo thing is really about controlling the news media’s description of the article prior to publication. There’s been a longstanding (un?)healthy debate about the value of embargoes. Personally, I’d prefer to see a someone who studies communication and science studies (like Marisa) do a more critical evaluation of the role of embargoes in enforcing particular constructions and interpretations of the scientific process, the role of power and control, and how researchers propagate and resist the tensions inherent in publishing in high-impact journals.

Regardless, I am following the embargo and keeping quiet while trying to process everything I learned last week. I guess I am glad the ArXiV is there for me — it’s a little more my speed. Actually, it may be a bit too speedy, but it works for now. I think people working in engineering, computer science, and mathematics might find the notion of an embargo somewhat puzzling, as I did. Does this concept even make sense in those fields?


Some old links I meant to post a while back but still may be of interest to some…

I prefer my okra less slimy, but to each their own.

Via Erin, A tour of the old homes of the Mission.

Also via Erin, Women and Crosswords and Autofill.

A statistician rails against computer science’s intellectual practices.

Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman is boycotting Nature, Science, and Cell. Retraction Watch is skeptical.


Quicksort as a dance. Via James Fallows.

I have a subscription to Harper’s and try to solve the cryptic crossword each month in the vain hope that I will win a free year’s subscription. The puzzles back to 1976 have been posted online.

Tesla and the lone inventor myth.

My friend (and ex-fellow actor) Stephen Larson‘s project OpenWorm was written up in Wired UK.

Max has an important reminder about stochastic kernels and conditional probabilities.


A rather pretty video of an L-system made by my friend Steve.

LACMA, which I finally saw with a friend in February, has decided to offer high-resolution downloads of many of the items in its collection. This Ganesha has a pretty impressive belly. Via MeFi.

This may answer David Bowie’s question.

This slideshow makes me want to go to Slurping Turtle again.

Sometimes I wish we could just name p-values something else that is more descriptive. There’s been a fair bit of misunderstanding about them going on lately.


An initiative to prevent irreproducible science.

A video about Graham’s number.

I don’t tweet, but all of this debate seems ridiculous to me. I think the real issue is who follows twitter? I know Sergio is on Twitter, but is anyone else?

Food : An Atlas is a book project on kickstarter by people who do “guerrilla cartography.” It is about food, broadly construed. $25 gets you a copy of the book, and it looks awesome, especially if you like maps. And who doesn’t like maps?

I remember reading about the demise of the American Chestnut tree, but apparently it may make a comeback!


Did I mention I love the Chicago Public Library? It can be frustrating at times, but the main branch is right on my way to and from work.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman) — The sequel to The Magicians, sometimes described as Hipsters in Narnia. This book is actually darker, if such a thing as possible. I think it’s interesting to look at it plotted in terms of the lives of likely readers. The first book is for college kids. The second is for post-college working kids who have nice jobs and realize that their lives feel a bit empty.

Odd and The Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman) — I’ve been on a children’s book kick. A lovely little tale set in Viking mythos.

The Alchemyst, The Magician, The Sorceress (Michael Scott) — Children’s/YA fantasy series. I had mixed feelings about it but it featured John Dee as a villain, and having read so much of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, I was interested in Dee as a character. Very different here — he’s a supervillain.

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum) — A fascinating tale about the rise of the medical examiner’s office and forensic medicine. The descriptions of how to detect various poisons in the tissues of the deceased is not for the squeamish!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) — This book tells the story of the cell line HeLa, taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American patient in the 50s who died of cancer. Her cells were able to multiply on their own in the lab and ushered in a new era of research, but the way she and her family were treated epitomizes the ethical void at the heart of many scientists’ view of human subjects research. Despite this being an important story to tell, Skloot manages to make a lot of the story about herself — there’s a rather vigorous critique here.

1Q84 (Haruki Murakami) — Pretty classic Murakami, but a little more focused in content if expansive in scope. Investigates in fictional form some of the cult phenomena that seem to have captured his imagination lately. Critical opinion has been pretty divided, but I’d recommend it if you like Murakami, but not as an intro to his oeuvre.

The Atrocity Archive (Charles Stross) — sysadmins battle Cthulhu-eqsue horrors from the beyond. This is the first book in the Laundry series, and while the narrator is entertaining, I’ll probably give the rest of the series a pass.

Halting State (Charles Stross) — a near-future in which massive fraud/theft in an online game threatens to undermine the real economy. Takes gold farming and selling of WoW stuff on eBay to its extreme and then looks at what happens. Stross is good at extrapolating economic scenarios, and this was certainly more fun to read.