Universities Spend Millions on Accessing Results of Publicly Funded Research

Mark C. Wilson, a senior lecturer at Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, writing for The Conversation (h/t Slashdot):

University research is generally funded from the public purse. The results, however, are published in peer-reviewed academic journals, many of which charge subscription fees. I had to use freedom of information laws to determine how much universities in New Zealand spend on journal subscriptions to give researchers and students access to the latest research — and I found they paid almost US$15 million last year to just four publishers. There are additional costs, too. Paywalls on research hold up scientific progress and limit the public’s access to the latest information.

Even better is that one university was paying markedly more for the same access than the others.

It’s just four companies, doing this.  How long will this cartel be permitted to plunder us all?

A translation of Basil the Great’s commentary on Isaiah is online!

A kind correspondent drew my attention to the fact that there is an English translation of Basil the Great’s Commentary on Isaiah accessible on Academia.edu here.  This is the page of the translator, Nikolai Lipatov.  Grab your copy now!

Origen, Commentary on Matthew, book 16 now online and in English

A kind message informs me that David Gohl’s translation of the remaining books of Origen’s Commentary on Matthew (which I discussed here) has now reached book 16.  He has translated this, and uploaded it for comment to Academia.edu here.

Excellent news!  Grab your copy while it’s hot!

Cambridge Ancient History (3rd edition) now online at Archive.org

A delightful discovery this week.  Cambridge University Press have released the 3rd edition of the Cambridge Ancient  History online at Archive.org!  All 19 volumes!  It’s here.

Those red-clad volumes were £40 each back in 1979.  I used to save up birthday money to buy a volume.  I still have them.  They were never as exciting as I wished they would be.  The 3rd edition was still coming out then.

Via Guy Chamberland.

Why have less than 5% of Byzantine scientific works been published?

A few days ago, I noted that only 5% of all Byzantine scientific works have managed to make it out of the medieval manuscripts and into a printed edition of some sort.  For translations the figure is worse still.  The figure is an estimate by Byzantinist Maria Mavroudi, who works with the subject and certainly would know.

But why is this?  I wrote to Dr Mavroudi and enquired as follows:

As a member of the public, I wonder if I might ask … why is this the case?  Is it simply fewness of hands, or lack of an audience?  Or lack of funding?

She very kindly replied at once, with this interesting answer:

The reasons are everything that you mention: lack of interest on the part of modern scholars, based on the conviction that there is anything worth the while there (the “good” stuff is ancient science, while its Byzantine counterpart is a pale imitation lacking in “original” contributions). Fewness of hands is also a serious problem (there are very few people able and interested in editing texts on ancient science which is admittedly more mainstream, although not exactly mainstream). Editing technical texts requires not only knowing the language and editorial techniques, but also understanding the content of what one edits. Too many skills, all time consuming to acquire, are required of one and the same person. Funding can be a problem, but it is last in the priority list, and can manifest itself in various ways (e.g. scholars on an academic salary do not need to be paid for the specific work of editing; but publishing is expensive, the editions of such technical texts will never be best sellers, and frequently publishers shy away from producing such editions because they project little or no financial reward).

I attach an encyclopedia essay that outlines some reasons for the lack of interest in Byzantine science.

The attached article was M. Mavroudi, “Science, Byzantine”, in: Roger Bagnall &c (ed), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Blackwell (2013), pp. 6063-6065.  The volume is not easily accessible to normal people unfortunately, although if the articles are all of this quality, then that really is a nuisance.  The article is mainly about asserting that Byzantine science is worth studying for itself, and has been distinctly undervalued:

In summary, what is currently known about Byzantine science is significantly less than what remains to be uncovered. In order to be properly appreciated, Byzantine science must be understood as a coherent system of thought taken in its own terms. Modern divisions separating scientific disciplines were not perceived by the Byzantines in the same way (Mavroudi 2006), though they have been applied to the Byzantine material in valuable scholarly surveys (e.g., mathematics and astronomy as categories distinct from astrology in Hunger 1978, 1994; “high” and “low” science in Pingree 1991).

The complex relation between tradition and innovation in the transmission and creation of new knowledge was neither experienced nor articulated by the Byzantines in our modern terms. Byzantine philosophical, cosmological, and scientific thought developed in dialogue with Christian theology and sometimes influenced the articulation of Christian doctrine (Magdalino 2006).

It is interesting to learn that funding is not the worst problem facing the discipline.  I understand that domain knowledge can be acquired by intensive short courses, e.g. in alchemy.  The cost of publishing may cease to be an issue with online publishing.  The link to patristic studies particularly catches the eye.

Perhaps some of the PhD students now frantically casting around for a teaching post should consider whether there is a career in Byzantine science?  Hardly anything has been done.  The challenge may seem daunting, but surely it is far better to use your Greek and patristics knowledge, than go and sell insurance?

I have been collecting materials, and I will write a post on the bibliography of Byzantine science next.

A portrait of Constantius II from 354, via two intermediaries

As manuscripts of the Vatican come online, it becomes possible to look at items previously known to us only from poor-quality photographs.  This is a good thing.

Years ago I made an online edition of the Chronography of 354, an illustrated luxury manuscript made for a Roman aristocrat in 354 AD, and transmitted to us by copies.  The pictures exist in various versions, mostly derived from a Carolingian copy now lost.  The best set, in monochrome, are preserved in Vatican Ms. Barberini lat.2154 B.  Sadly the full colours of the ancient original are not preserved; but the renaissance artist did his best to copy the Carolingian original.

Here’s one of the illustrations, on folio 13, depicting Constantius II, in the uncharacteristic pose of money falling from his hand.  Somehow one suspects that this charmless man did look rather like this.  (It is a pity that, as with other Italian stuff put online, the image is defaced with a watermark screaming “mine! mine! mine!!”)

Less than 5% of Byzantine scientific texts have been published?

Today I came across a statistic which really shocked me.  It seems that less than 5% of Byzantine “scientific texts” have been printed, never mind translated.

The phrase “scientific texts” would include technical texts which give practical instruction, but also the philosophical texts that discuss what would today be scientific theories.  It would be interesting to know how the ancients, and indeed the Byzantines, related the two.  We are often told of the gap between philosophy and technology in antiquity; yet we have writers like Hero of Alexandria doing both.

The statistic is by Maria Mavroudi, who writes:

The treatment of Byzantine science has fared equally poorly in modern scholarship… It is much more important to investigate the pertinent primary sources. In the case of Byzantium, this would require a major editorial effort because less than 5 percent of its surviving scientific and philosophical production has been published.[43]

43. There is no “official” statistic on this; 5 percent represents my estimate through acquaintance with important manuscript catalogs and published texts (surveyed in Mavroudi, “Occult Science and Society in Byzantium,” 39–46) as well as Byzantine manuscripts. It would be possible to recover Byzantine philosophy and science (as well as their Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew counterparts) by publishing not only treatises composed during the Byzantine period but also the marginal annotations made by Byzantine readers in important manuscripts of ancient philosophical and scientific texts.[1]

Obviously the figure of 5% is an estimate only.  But I’m sure Dr M. knows better than most people.

Why is the figure so low?  I would guess that there is a lack of scholars capable of doing the work – it requires getting familiar with the scientific area of knowledge, and specialist vocabulary, as well as having excellent Byzantine Greek.  But I am told that it is possible to cram in such information in a few sessions.[2]  If so, it is a pity that our universities do not encourage students to do so, rather than fruitlessly retranslating the same few Greek texts.

Regular readers will be aware that I have written a little about ancient alchemical texts, like those by Stephen of Alexandria.  Apparently Matteo Martelli, Gerasmios Marianos, Olivier Dufault, and Michèle Mertens are the scholars doing good work on Byzantine alchemy these days.  It is good that work is being done.  But limited access to primary sources must mean limited work.

All this sort of material could, in principle, give us more knowledge of antiquity – although I found that astrological texts seldom did so, when I obtained a few translations.

But … it is part of the heritage of mankind.  Our first duty to the future is to transmit what we have received.  Can’t someone find a rich Greek shipowner to fund the printing of all this stuff?  How much could it cost, to type it up and put it online?  It is, after all, Greek heritage.  Would the excellent Stavros Niarchos be interested?

  1. [1]Maria Mavroudi, “Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition”, Speculum 90 (2015), 38.  The whole article deserves attention.
  2. [2]I owe my knowledge of the Mavroudi paper, and indeed much else in this post, to tweets this evening by a rather unstable female PhD student studying Byzantine alchemy.  Sadly I was only able to obtain a very limited amount of information from her.  This was rather a pity, for I was very interested in this niche of academia, and how the problem of accessing technical literature might be overcome.  It is best that I do not name her, of course.  She also told me that existing editions and translations are not very good.

String ’em up! How middle managers destroy the value of institutional websites

Few things are quite as infuriating as an institutional website designed by somebody who will never ever have to use the service in question.  The designer is usually some group of bureaucrats, with a checklist of things that the service “must” contain.  Not infrequently a real user finds that the wasters have actually torpedoed any useful utility the site might have.

This reflection comes to me, courtesy of a site that shall be nameless, which has cost me the best part of two days useful work.  Around ten years ago, the institution discovered that it had access to a translation of a late Roman text in manuscript.  The translator was dead.  It decided – properly – to make this available online.

But you can see the fingers of the bureaucrats all over it.  Instead of creating a PDF with the book in it, they split it up into a PDF for every section.  It comes in 15 books.  Each book has around 60 or more sections.

This means that to consult the whole text involves opening NINE HUNDRED PDF files.  This in turn makes it impossible to use the translation, other than for odd references where you happen to know the exact reference.

No sane person would seek to make something accessible while making it inaccessible.  Only a committee could achieve this.  We can easily imagine how.

Chief Executive: “Do it!”

Sycophants: “Oh you are so forward-looking, Sir!”

(Later) Middle Manager: “Oh but what if people took copies and it appeared all over the web!!!!  Oh! Oh! Wouldn’t that be DREADFUL!!!!”

Junior sycophant: “How well you put that, ma’am!  So let’s make sure nobody can do that without spending a huge amount of effort.  We’ll divide it up into 900 pieces, accessible in a maze of menus.  That way it will inconvenience researchers, but not Chinese pirates with armies of cheap labour.”

And so it came to be, and the text remained online in theory but useless in practice.  Nobody ever cared about it much anyway; those who did were frustrated by the useless interface.

But that isn’t all.  Because a few years ago, another bureaucrat had his turn.  Someone revised the translation and produced a printed copy.

Another middle manager: “Now we’re selling a version of this, we might lose sales if we have the original online!!!  Woe!!  Woe!!”

Timid underling: “How much money are we talking about?”

All:  “THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!!”

Sycophant: “Clearly it must be taken offline to protect any profits.”

And it was so.

I have therefore wasted an enormous amount of time in locating an archived copy of the site, and downloading the files, with a great deal of manual intervention in order to circumvent the robots.txt file.  For I know better than to suppose that it will remain even at the archived site indefinitely.

Let’s keep our bureaucrats under control.  The best way to do so is to keep them as few as possible, and to watch the remainder like hawks.

Otherwise, one day, you too will have this experience!

Let’s not shout at the Vatican library for digitising microfilms

The Vatican library digitisation has made a bit of a left turn lately, and I’ve certainly complained about it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Instead of the high quality brand new full colour photographs, they’ve started to digitise vast numbers of rather rubbish quality microfilms.

Today a correspondent from the library gently took me to task for this, and I admit that I accept the reproof.

It’s easy for us to forget that the Vatican state has no tax base.  The whole enterprise relies upon the generosity of people who do not live there.  We are accustomed to thinking of the mighty Roman Catholic Church as a rich institution, and so it is; but mostly in things like the roof of the Sistine chapel, which are actually a responsibility and a drain on resources, rather than a source of profit.

Among this, the digitisation of the Vatican manuscripts is a mighty expense.  It has been paid for by donations, notably from the Polonsky Foundation, to whom the world now owes a huge debt.  But the digitisation can only go forward with the support of donations.

What the Vatican library has chosen to do, in the meantime, is to make as much of its manuscript collection available as possible.  They may not be able to afford to rephotograph everything just yet.  But they can afford to scan the microfilms, for which they used to charge a pretty sum – so they are being generous here – and make these available online for free to us all.

To their credit, this is what they have chosen to do.  I think we should applaud, not criticise.  Would that other libraries, like the British Library, or the Bodleian, would do the same.  It does give us some access to the manuscripts right now.

Well done, the Vatican Library.  They have lost a revenue stream, in order to benefit us all.  We should be grateful.

If you, reading this, are a wealthy man, please consider whether you could do anything so easily beneficial to scholarship as to sponsor the digitisation of the Vatican library.  If you are an ordinary mortal, like myself, please consider donating at the link here.

Viewing Cailliaud’s engravings of the pyramids of Meroe at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

The first modern visitor to the pyramids of the black pharaohs at Meroe was the 18th century Scotsman, James Bruce.  In 1821 the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, sent a huge army up the Nile and occupied the Sudan.

The next visitor, therefore, was the Frenchman Frédéric Cailliaud, who marched with the army.  Cailliaud wrote an account in 4 volumes, with a larger 2 volume Atlas of engravings. I was unable to access the latter when I wrote about him here.

But a kind correspondent has drawn my attention to the fact that the two volumes of the Atlas are indeed online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, here and here.

I find that a PDF can be downloaded of each.  Unfortunately these are locked; but it is still vastly easier to scan through the volumes this way, than online.  JPGs of the pages are also available, but it is a 3Gb download, served at a miserable 400kbs.  My rather nice 60mbs broadband is therefore effectively throttled; and IE says it will take two and half hours to download.

However you can select pages online, and request a PDF of them be created, for you to download.  This I did, for 30-odd pages, and … the generated PDF is not locked!  That means that we can view some of them together.

The original image sizes are good, high resolution, which means that on-screen the engravings are, quite frankly, imposing.  The ones in the PDF that is generated are much lower, but still usable.

The Meroe pyramids are not listed under that name, but rather under the name of the nearby town of Assour.  They begin at plate 31, with a map of the whole area, with the pyramid fields – “Pyramides principales” at the lower right.  Plate 32 is a map of the ruined pyramids close to the Nile – these presumably are the western cemetery, and plate 33 is a depiction of the view.  Plate 34 is plans and elevations of these pyramids.

Plate 35 is a map of the main pyramid fields, north and south.  Here it is:

Plate 35: the principal pyramids of Meroe. 1821. Frederic Cailliaud.

Plate 36 is an imposing view of the north pyramids from the north-east:

Plate 36. F. Cailliaud. The North Pyramids at Meroe, from the NE

Plate 37 is the same prospect from the South East.  The pyramids at this time still had their tops, not yet blown off by gunpowder.

Plate 37. F. Caillaud. The north pyramids of Meroe, from the SE. 1821.

But there are very many further engravings, plans and elevations, as far as plate 46; and then engravings of the pyramids of Nuri, ancient Napata, where is the pyramid of the Black Pharaoh Taharqa, once ruler of Egypt and Nubia; and then more at Gebel Barkal.

I won’t reproduce them all.  But I will attach a PDF of the Meroe ones here:

I’ve rotated the pages so that you can view them easier on screen.  Well worth downloading – enjoy!