Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Open Access Publishing Revolution

After a campaign championed by the Guardian, the UK research councils have announced a move towards open-access publishing. There's currently a huge amount of debate within the academic community about the best model for publishing.

Currently, academic publishing is dominated by the large publishing houses - Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, etc. When I write a paper with new and interesting scientific findings, it needs to be published to enable my fellow scientists to read about what I've done, enabling them to use my findings in their research. The typical business model for a journal is as follows: most journals do not charge me a fee to publish (some do, but it's usually not too onerous). They make their money by charging people to read them. University libraries will buy subscriptions to the journals (usually they will buy 'bundles' allowing subscriptions to an entire publisher's catalogue), allowing all academics at the university to read the article. Meanwhile, a company wanting to access the research is more likely to pay the upfront fee for an individual article, which is usually about £30. Similarly, private individuals wanting to access the research will have to pay the £30 fee per article.

The dissatisfaction with the current model stems from the fact that the majority of scientific research in this country is funded by the tax payer (including my own). How, then, can it be fair that tax-payers are paying once to fund the research (out of their tax money), and then have to pay again as individuals to read the research? Many in the academic community view this as a morally untenable position - the public should have free and unfettered access to the results of all taxpayer-funded research (and when you read the comments sections on various websites, you really do get a sense of moral outrage).

I disagree with this argument. There are many things that my tax-money pays for, yet I can't just access for free. Our taxes go to the BBC, but I still have to buy a license fee to watch it! Taxes fund the NHS, but I still have to pay a fee for my prescriptions. Let's face it, some of my tax money goes to the army to buy tanks - that doesn't mean I have a right to turn up at the gates of my nearest barracks and demand a ride on a Cheiftain!

But, under the pressure of the academic community, the government, via the UK funding bodies, has buckled to pressure and is now about to make things far worse. They are planning to mandate that we publish only in open access journals. The business model here is that, rather than a 'reader-pays' model, we switch to an 'author-pays' model. Journal articles are made available for free, so instead authors are charged a much larger amount (typically £2000 or so). As far as I am concerned, this is a very bad publishing model!

What are the benefits of a so called 'gold' open access publishing model, where the author pays? Well, the sole benefit is that anyone, anywhere, can read your article for free. The negative is that this could add an extra 5 to 10% to the costs of of UK research. For example, last year NERC (my funding body) spend £180 million on research, and about 5,000 papers we published as a result. With gold open access of £2000 per article, this would be an extra £10 million, so just over 5%. Of course, the funding councils are not being given any extra money, so that means they will be able to fund 5 to 10% less research. In a time where our science budgets are increasingly stretched, and grant money harder and harder to come by, can this really be a good thing?

Secondly, we must consider the pressures this will place on the publishing industry. Currently, in a 'reader pays' model it is in the publisher's interest to publish only the best and most relevant research. A journal cannot afford to waste money publishing work that will not get read. Therefore, the commercial pressure is on journal editors to accept only the best work. Under an 'author pays' system, the only commercial pressure on the journal is to publish as much as possible. Quality is no longer a driving factor, because it doesn't matter whether things get read, all that matters is that there's lots of papers. So an author-pays model will simply lead to a significant reduction in the quality of articles that journals are prepared to accept. Putting this as simply as possible, there would be no reason for a journal to ever reject any paper, ever. I don't want to spend my time wading through a ton of crap papers to find the one or two good ones that I need. I want a journal to have already taken editorial decisions to only bring the ones that are of the highest quality to my attention. 

What about the effects on libraries? Perhaps the libraries would be able to save money, because they wouldn't need to pay for so many journal subscriptions, and the money saved could be transferred over to cover author charges. However, this wouldn't cover all the back issues to which scientists need to access. Nor would it remove the need to subscribe to international journals to access work from people in other countries. Science is an international effort, so if the UK does something in isolation, it won't affect the need to pay subscription fees to read about work from every other country in the world.

Finally, what will be the impact on publishing academics. Obviously, the only barrier to publication will be money, so if you have money, you can publish, while if you don't, you can't. The model in mind is that university faculties will have central pots of money to pay for open access publication. So who will get the money for publication - the junior PhD student who has made a cool new finding, or the senior professor with his hand on the purse strings? At present, the quality of the paper is the sole deciding factor in where a paper is published. Under the proposed system, the deciding factor will be money. This would NOT be a fairer system, if would be significantly UNFAIR! I cannot understand how academics can be in favour of such a system.

The other proposed model is so called 'green' open access. This model takes the money out of the system entirely. Academics post their own content on their own websites (or possibly on a university-wide archive) or on archive sites such as the arXiv. To a certain extent, this system is already active, because many authors do post their work onto arXiv, and do post their papers on their own websites. Many academics see this as the model to which we should evolve. However, I think this is somewhat misguided, because the currently green open access exists off of the back of the mainstream publication industry, it cannot exist without it. Firstly, note that many green open access sites are heavily subsidised (as arXiv is by Cornell, for example, to the tune of about $500,000 per year).

More importantly, if I publish a paper in arXiv, it is not peer reviewed. Peer review as a process is vital to science, it makes sure only reliable results are published, and removes all the dross. I know it's not perfect, but it's the best system we have. The only way to get things peer reviewed is to submit them to journals, where they will undergo the full editorial process. Currently, journals are happy to provide this service, and publish the paper as their content, while allowing re-prints to be republished on author's websites, because it's not done widely enough to effect their margins. Just because a certain number of authors have put their papers on other websites, libraries are still forking out for subscriptions. If green open access became so widespread that it began to impact on the bottom line, I expect journals would begin to clamp down.

I guess this all comes down to whether publishers provide a useful service, or can we do without them. If they provide a necessary service, we should be prepared to pay for that service accordingly. If they do not, or if we believe we can achieve the same effects more cheaply, we should attempt to do so. Paraphrased from a comment on this blog, we need journals to provide (1) a decent and enforced peer review system, (2) an editorial system which can reject (or grade) papers (which provides quality control and therefore acts as a marketing tool) (3) a publishing system and (4) a citing system. The need for peer review is obvious, as is the need for a publishing system. Both cost money to administer. It is not free to put things on the internet - arXiv needs half a million dollars a year to function.

The need for a citing system is a key problem for green open access. Say I publish my paper, and put it on my website. Will it still be there in 15 years time when I have long moved on, or will a searcher simply find a broken link? It's vital that researchers can access older papers - journals provide the means of archiving them and an easy means to index and access them. This would not be possible with authors sticking their papers wherever under a green open-access system. The editorial and grading system is also vital, for both author and reader. Rightly or wrongly, as academics we are graded on the quality of papers we produce. When we can post whatever we like in an open-access mega-journal, it becomes very difficult to assess the quality of a academic's output (perhaps this is why so many favour this system). More importantly as a reader of papers, I much prefer to be able to look at the monthly output of my favourite journals, scroll through the list of papers that they have (which is a manageable list), rather than dive into a mega-journal and have to sift through all the dross to find some good papers. I'd rather pay an editor to do that for me.

Given these needs, how much will all these things cost? Let's imagine a typical medium-sized journal. They'll probably have about 5 staff: a senior editor to lead the editorial direction of the journal; two publishers to facilitate the peer review process - selecting the reviewers for each paper (or rejecting the really rubbish papers without review; an admin; and a guy to do the publication side of things. Plus within the publishing house they have the IT support and the rest. Let's say it costs £500,000 a year to cover everyone's salary, pension, computing costs, web archiving costs and the rest. This is a complete guess, but it doesn't seem like an exorbitant amount, right? In fact, this is probably on the low side. Well, for a medium-size journal publishing 500 papers a year, that's a cost per paper of £1000. So this must be paid either by the author, or through subscription. I don't see green open access as long term sustainable except on the back of a healthy publishing industry to bear most of the costs. As a commentor on the Guardian website put things rather well of the problems we'd face if we abandoned journals:
The real problem with getting rid of journals is that it means that there is no chance of anyone reading your work if you are a junior research at a non-high tier institution, which means there is very little chance of getting any recognition or promotion.
If you are already a big name in your field, or you are a young researcher at a place like Harvard/MIT then you could wipe your bum on a bit of paper and put a photo of it on your website, and people would download it to look. But if you are a postdoc at a place outside the top 50 (or so) then noone is going to read anything you write unless it is published in a good journal; does anyone really think that academics are regularly checking the website of Podunk State University to see what their guys are doing?
The main role of the journal system is to filter papers based on their quality, so that the ones that are worth reading on average end up in good journals, while the ones that arent worth reading end up either unpublished or published in so low a venue that noone willl find them. This is a good system because it means that academics can just follow a handful of general interest journals along with the websites of those they know are good in their field, without having to wade through the tens of thousands bad papers that are produced every year. It also means that any academic will get their work widely read as long as they can get it into a decent journal; which would absolutely not be the case if we abolished journals.
So, we come back to the question at hand, if we have to pay for a quality publishing industry, who should pay? For the reasons listed above, I think it should be the reader, not the author.

My thoughts on this are formed partly by my experiences while working as an intern at Shell. During my 3 months there, I must have downloaded at least 20-30 papers, paying the upfront costs each time. That comes to about £600-£900. Shell have a library system where you request a paper and they go off and get it for you, and they don't even (appear to) worry about the costs. I've no idea how much the average Shell employee downloads papers, but these are science-intensive companies, so I bet it's quite a lot. Whenever I meet employees, they all seem fully up-to-date with the latest research, so they must be reading it. This is money that goes back into the academic system, helping to contribute to a healthy publishing system that is necessary for research. And Shell are going on to use this research to make money. Under an author-pays model, they wouldn't have to contribute anything.

So what about the poor UK 'citizen-scientists', working independently, who want to read the latest research papers. These people are usually all over the Guardian comment pages complaining that they can't access research without paying. My first opinion is that they can't be that keen to read it - if you want to read a paper but can't find a non-paywall copy, your first port of call should be to email the author, who will likely be more than happy to furnish you with a copy. If you can't be bothered emailing the author, then frankly you can bugger off and stop moaning. Secondly, accept that the changes you require to the academic publishing industry would be seismic, causing immense disruption. I'm not allowed to pop over to my nearest air-force base to have a go on a Eurofighter. It would be immensely disruptive, even though it was paid for with my tax. Similarly, you don't have the right to cause immense disruption to academics just to fuel your hobby.

However, I think there should be a much more simple solution. We should develop a system where independent people are capable of registering with their local university library. Perhaps for a small admin fee, this would give them an online library log-in, giving access to all the journals they want to read. I can't imagine this would be taken up by more than a tiny fraction of the population anyway. This seems like a far more simple system to set up, rather than insisting that we either destroy the publishing industry or spend 10% of the UK's science budget on publishing fees that we have no need to pay.

And if you have a problem with Elsevier coining it on the back of your research, don't publish with them. There are loads of journals that are run by various learned bodies (in my field, for example, GJI is published by the RAS, GRL by AGU, Geophysical Prospecting by EAGE, ERL by IoP). Any money made by these journals is pumped back into the subject by the learned bodies, funding conferences, research fellowships and the rest. So if you don't like the big publishers, find a journal run by a subject and publish in there instead.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Fracking on trial: the verdict

Update: The judge has delivered sentences of 1 to 2 year conditional discharges and £750 fines: seems reasonable (being not-very-legally-minded, I'm not sure what the maximum and minimum sentences available were, but presumably this is towards the lenient end)

Update 2: Links to news coverage: here, here, here and here

Today sees the verdict of the trial of the 'fractivists' who stormed a drilling rig in Lancashire last year. The defendants have been found guilty of trespass and disrupting lawful activity. The defense was that they were preventing an unlawful activity from happening, which is a permissible reason do take an otherwise illegal action.

In the statement from the judge, he ruled that "It is clear to me that Cuadrilla is not committing an offence on the land". Clearly, Cuadrilla has undertaken every action required of it by local councils, and regulatory bodies. And bear in mind here that so far Cuadrilla have undertaken exploratory drilling and testing only. I'm sure that if Cuadrilla does find gas and decides to roll out production wells across Lancashire, then further planning permission and regulation will presumably be required. So the defense is perhaps misguided in arguing that action had to be taken to avoid the widespread despoilation of the Fylde peninsular, because Cuadrilla have not yet received permission to do so. They are currently testing the water, to see whether fracking is capable of releasing the reserves under Blackpool (it may be that they can't, in which case this would be a real much-ado-about-nothing).

What this case really highlights are questions over the fitness-for-purpose of the regulatory regime. Fracking has been used in many wells in the UK in the last 20 years. However, the scale of these fracks is much smaller than those envisaged for most shale gas applications. Clearly, the smaller scale fracks are covered by existing law (the law which renders Cuadrilla's activities lawful). However, do the existing regulations need amending to deal with the larger-scale fracking? I suspect that they do, and will be (we are already seeing this happen informally as Cuadrilla take on various obligations, such as the seismic monitoring of this and future sites, which, by current law at least, I'm not sure they are mandated to do).

Finally, a word on the fracktivists themselves, because what I've seen has surprised me. They have their own, very professional-looking website, where you can find out more. But the professionalism of the protestors is quite striking. I imagined the opposition to fracking to be a loose band of concerned locals (think of the people interviewed during the Gasland film, for example), the classic little guy fighting the big nasty corporations. However, among others the defense we able to call as witnesses an MP, a Cornell professor, environmental consultants, and scientists from the Tyndall Centre and more academics. Add on to this the fact that the protestors are not from Lancashire, but made the trip from Brighton specially, which kind-of devalues the protest a little - where are the people from around the affected area? Are they less upset about it than professional protestors making the trip from the other end of the country? This is certainly a common theme seen in the US, with Pennsylvania locals a lot more accepting of shale gas than New Yorkers coming through for a nice weekend before heading back to the big city.

Anyway, we are still awaiting sentencing at this point. I'd hope that the judge passes lenient sentences (I have absolutely no idea what the minimum and maximum proscribed sentences are), because any law that effects peaceful protest (even if it has a high nuisance value) does make me rather uncomfortable (even if I am in favour of well-regulated shale gas extraction in the UK).   

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Fracking activists on trial

Today is the 3rd day of the trial for the fracking activists who stormed Cuardilla's drilling site in Lancashire, climbing the rig and dropping banners. They have been charged with trespass and assault, and are being tried in Preston Magistrates Court.

You can follow updates on twitter with #frackingontrial. Also, the trial appears to have its own website.

The defense for the case relies on the 'necessity of action to prevent damage to property'. This was the defense used by protesters who stormed the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station a few years back. The argument went that turning the power plant on would release large amounts of CO2, causing global warming that would damage property. The defense for this case is that allowing the fracking to go ahead would have caused damage, so performing an illegal activity (i.e. trespass) to stop it becomes legal.

I'm no legal-beagle, so the question for me is, where does the burden of proof lie? Do the protestors have to show beyond doubt that the activity they prevented would certainly have caused damage? Do they have to show a likelihood of damage based on the balance of probabilities? Because over a million wells have been fracked in the US, while contamination issues are limited to about 10 extremely localised sites, and it's only the Cuadrilla site in Blackpool that have experienced felt seismicity. So the balance of probabilities would suggest that fracking does not cause problems unless something (usually poor well cementing) goes wrong (10 in a million is a 1 in 100,000 chance).

Similarly, on the wider global warming issue, we are seeing US green-house gas emissions falling dramatically as a result of shale gas production. I know we all like to think of Americans as gas-guzzling climate-destroyers, but the USA has seen the largest CO2 emissions reductions of any country on the planet since 2006. The reason: electricity from coal generation is down from ~50% to ~30%, with shale gas filling most of that gap. Because gas produces half as much CO2 as coal when burned, making that switch reduces CO2 emissions a lot. It's getting to the point when coal companies are going out of business. Meanwhile, in the UK, coal-fired power is booming as gas prices keep rising, seeing our CO2 emissions. It's becoming clearer and clearer that boosting gas production, using shale gas, reduces gas prices and takes coal off the market, reducing CO2 emissions.

For those who like to talk of Howath's methane leakage rates, it's been taken apart again (for the umpteenth time). I'm aware that a statement from Howarth has been included in the case, I wonder if any of the rebuttals have?

Or is the level of evidence required lower than that? Is it a question of acting in good faith? I've no doubt that the fracktivists have a genuine belief that fracking is certain to cause damage. Is a genuine belief (regardless of evidence) sufficient to justify action? As I say, the whole legal edifice confuses and nauseates me in equal measure, so I've no idea what the requirements for this case will be. The verdict is due tomorrow I believe, so I guess we'll get to find out soon.

I'll finish by saying that, whatever the outcome of this particular trial, I am in general concerned by the gradual erosion of our civil liberties. I don't want to see any decisions taken that curtail a person's right to (non-violent) protest, regardless of the fact that I am in favour of (strongly-regulated) fracking in the UK, so I would like to see these guys acquitted.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Bit of an ooooppps!!!

Just quick post this time, but an incident I found worth sharing, mainly for it sheer hilarity. Or at least, it's the kind of thing that you'd find hilarious if it wasn't at the same time highlighting the sheer ineptitude or our political classes!

In this story from last week, a veto banning fracking in North Carolina was overturned after a democrat representative accidentally voted to overturn the veto, when she intended to vote to keep it. The overturning of the veto passed by one vote, so this poor woman's confusion was the deciding factor. You can kind of see how such a mistake could be made - it sound's like a bit of a double negative: do you want to vote to remove the ban on fracking? However, it's not surely that difficult really?

It begs the question - how are we expecting these people, who are apparently incapable of working out which button is for yes and which button is for no, to decide on an issue as complex as fracking?

However, I also think it's completely shitty (so therefore entirely in character) for the Republicans in the NC state legislature to prevent her from being allowed to change her vote. I'm all in favour of governments allowing fracking to go ahead (with appropriate regulation), and not being swayed by a vocal but poorly informed minority. However, I wouldn't want it to go ahead on a technicality. That only stores up trouble and anger further down the line.

As an aside: as far as I'm aware the fracking issue kind of divides along party lines in the US - the Republicans are all for it: drill baby drill! while the Democrats opinion is mixed - some pro and some against. Obama himself is in favour though.

My main concern is that my opinions on fracking seem to place me in agreement with the Republicans. Not a position I'm accustomed to, and it's something that worries me - I mean, what's next? Am I about to start thinking that Sarah Palin would make a capable and effective leader? Capable enough to push the right voting button?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Academia in the social media age

As an academic, how in tune should we be with the latest developments in technology? I find myself asking this question after reading this article in Times Higher Educational Supplement. I stumbled across it mainly because it was written by an old uni friend of mine, but I found that it raised some important questions. The article discusses a report by the British Library and JISC into the electronic habits of today's early career researchers. The report finds that, despite being technology savvy (Ahthankyouverymuch) early career researchers know little about the range of electronic research aids available, and fail to make use of the latest advancements in online networking (by using twitter, wikis, blogs and the like) to improve their research.

I would tend to say that I agree with the above assessment. Obviously I'm completely tech-savvy, I tweet, I blog, our group has a wiki, I would publish in open-access journals if (a) there were decent ones in my field and (b) my funding grant had money set aside to do so. However, I'm aware that the majority of my peers probably do not. They may tweet or have a blog, but if they do, they are rarely work-related. It would be presumptive for me to comment about how well my colleagues make use of online research resources, but for the sake of this post, lets assume that we could do better.

But this all gets me thinking - to what extent is it necessary, as a researcher, to be up-to-the-minute with every new online tool? Are we, as early career academics, missing a trick? What advantages have I gained from them?

I have a twitter account, and this blog. Obviously, as I'm sure you'll agree, they're amazing!!! But what have I, or the research community, or the general public, gained from my tweeting and blogging - have I been wasting my time? For me personally, I think I have gained something from doing this. It may be hard to believe, but I do usually put in some research before I post. At least 15 minutes sometimes. Writing this blog has forced me to think a lot about how the wider public might perceive the work I do. This has forced my to think in a new way about my work, which has been really useful, It also forces me to keep up to date with current affairs a little more. Shale gas and fracking is a really fast moving topic at the moment, with learned reports appearing from all corners at a rapid rate. It might be surprising, but I think without my blog and twitter feed, it'd be quite easy for me to miss them as I'm head down in the minutiae of fracture propagation mechanics. So I think I have benefited intellectually from blogging and tweeting, although it's not actually lead to any new scientific insights or publications or anything concrete, tangible or useful.

I don't know what other researcher (if there are any geophysicists out there reading this) have gained from my blog. Hopefully you might have had a similar experience to me, where you start thinking a little more about how your work fits in with the wider world. But I've not discussed technical stuff on this blog, so it's unlikely you've gained anything science-wise. According to my stats page, I have about 500 visitors a month. But I suspect many of those are wanderers of the internet who have got lost, stumbled in here and stumbled right out again. So I don't think this blog is having much influence on the general public (much as my ego might try to persuade me otherwise).

It would be nice if the geophysics community were able to build up a bit more of a community via social media such as twitter. There are plenty of geophysical tweeters and bloggers out there, but it all seems rather disparate, not well connected, and therefore of limited use. But again, the majority of the community is well connected by other means, conferences probably being the most important. I know the majority of the big names in my field because I've seen them talk at conferences. If I want to ask them a question, I can email them. Admittedly, what then develops is a conversation between two parties only, rather than a multi-party, round-table type discussion that might sometimes be more beneficial. But again, these tend to develop in the discussion sessions of conferences, so it's not completely clear that twitter would add to this (although it's something I'd like to see).

Our research group did set up a wiki - the idea was that we'd put up descriptions of all the code we had developed, so that we could do a better job of sharing, and avoid reinventing the wheel. Noone used it - turned out a quick email round the group was the best way of seeing if anyone had FORTRAN code for multi-variant interpolation (noone did, so if you do, please get in touch). So our wiki now sits forlorn and unused.

However, there are some other cool developments from publishers that I really like. My girlfriend (don't look so surprised - yes I have a girlfriend, I know it seems unlikely....) works for an open-access physics journal. Part of her job is in developing new social media approaches, and also things like video abstracts. I really admire the way they are trying to build a community around the journal, including twitter, and YouTube channel. I wish earth science journals would take note and do the same, but sometimes in Earth Sciences, well, things tend to happen on geological timescales (sorry, couldn't help myself).

I should also mention LinkedIn here. This may only be relevant for someone like myself who works in a very applied, industry-focused area. But in joining various LinkedIn groups you do tend to pick up on the latest industry chatter, which helps identify what they see as the most important topics (although it must be said that you do also tend to pick up on a fair few idiots there as well). I guess this most closely resembles the multi-party type discussion I referred to above.

However, now we come to the second issue - online research tools like RSS feeds, online databases and the like. The report in question comes from the British Library, and you can almost feel the anguish as the efforts they've gone to with various online gadgets, feeds, databases and the like, are ignored by young researchers. But the truth is, libraries are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the modern day scientist. The last time I went into the Bristol Earth Science Library, was during my induction day at the start of my PhD 7 years ago. I kid you not, and I know the majority of my colleagues would say the same. The only role that libraries have for me is that they pay subscription fees for all the non-open-access journals I need to access. Actually the two main journals I read and cite the most, Geophysics and Geophysical Prospecting, are not part of the University's bundle, and I get access to them by being a member of SEG and EAGE respectively. If my research grant provided me with my own money for journal subscriptions I'd have no need for the library at all. The only advantage I see is that the library, because it's dealing in bulk, is probably able to get some sort of discount (although judging by typical public sector records on procurement, I wouldn't bet on it).

This is because our researching habits have changed dramatically in the last 10 years, with the internet revolution. Libraries were once the repositories of all the information needed to pursue our research. Before the internet, we were unable to locate, store, index, inventory and generally deal with these resources for ourselves. So we had libraries to do this for us. The role of the library was to harvest, index and present information for us in a way we could easily use. This role is no longer necessary. I can search for and access any research I want online.  I don't need help with ejournals and e-repositories, or rss feeds. I know what the key journals in my field are, and once or twice a month I take an hour or two to search through their latest issues to see if they have any papers relevant to my work. If I need an older paper, it's right there for me on google scholar. I know who the key names and research groups are in my field, so in particular I will look for their papers. At worst, if I'm asleep at the wheel (it does happen) and miss some key development, by the time I'm at the next conference a couple of months down the line, I'll get to find out all about it. And I guess that's part of the issue here - research moves at a slightly slower pace. All these online gizmos are great for when you need to be right up to the minute - when yesterday's news is tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrapper. But in academic research, things don't work like that. Typically, I might publish 2 or 3 papers a year (and that's considered pretty good going by many of my peers). So that's one paper every 4 to 6 months. So whether I find out about some new development right now, or in a month's time, it doesn't really affect what I do.

Finally, I want to address the comment about the "striking dependence" of PhD students on secondary sources (other publications) rather than primary sources (raw data). As far as I'm concerned, this seems like a good thing to me. Going back and re-analysing someone else's data is generally only considered worthwhile science if (a) you suspect an error, (b) you have a new framework/theory/method to try out on an established dataset, or (c) you're just a little bit pedantic with a little too much time on your hands. If someone has already done a good job on a dataset, then great, take their conclusions and move on to the bit where you develop something new either with a new dataset that you've collected yourself, or using a new method or testing a new idea. If all a student has done during the 3 (or more) years of their PhD is re-analysed old datasets with no new insights, then they probably won't pass their viva.

I should add one caveat before I finish this post (where would science be without caveats?). I speak based on my experiences in Earth Sciences. The BL/JISC report covers (I believe) all areas. Perhaps people's experiences in other fields are different, in which case I look forward to your comments (please. pretty please. I got a few comments a while back, which was quite exciting. I've not had any for a while now. It helps me feel that I'm not just talking to a desolate emptiness......)

Update: Reading this back to myself, I realise I have written a very long and rambling post that doesn't even mention fracking. I blame the G&T. So I apologise, and if you've made it to the end, thank you and kudos. FRACKING!!! There, got it in!