A course about and for robots 
Two computer scientists at Stanford are going to be teaching a free on-line course in AI. As reported in the NY Times, there are now more than 58,000 students worldwide signed up for it. The course designers have set it up to be indefinitely extensible and have getten a lot of bandwidth, so they are undaunted. All interaction with students will be mediated. For example, student questions will be submitted to the collective and voted on by other students. The profs will give a public answer to whichever questions float to the top.

The Times mentions that one of the two instructors, Peter Norvig, is a coauthor of a standard AI textbook. The story doesn't mention whether students are encouraged to buy the book, but students are likely to buy it without encouragement. It should sell enough copies to earn Norvig some walking-around money.

Of course, these 58,000 are sign-ups on the internet. The Times does not ask the obvious question: How many of these are actual people taking the course?

There must be some number of duplicate enrollments, from people who had problems with the system. There must be some number of people who clicked through and enrolled just to see what this thing was. There must be some number of people who clicked through fully intending to take the course, but won't follow through on actually taking it.

Even counting the ones who start out in the course, the drop rate will likely be very high. And if following through on the course really does require linear algebra, many will quit in despair.

Moreover, we can't discount the possibility that some number of these are bogus registrations. Spammers don't actually stand to make money by enrolling zombie machines in an AI course, but it might amuse them.

Setting aside quibbles about the course and its 58K students, it did make me reflect for a moment on the economics of running a university. The course is not for credit, so there's no direct comparison here. But Andrew Ng, who is teaching another Stanford CS course on-line, suggests a bigger picture. He is quoted as saying, "I personally would like to see the equivalent of a Stanford computer science degree on the Web."

For courses which are taught in a giant lecture hall, there might not be much value added for the student to be in the same space as the instructor. Getting the content on-line could be roughly as good.

In smaller classes, where is more opportunity to interact with professors, there's more difference. Yet there are plenty of students who are content to sit in the back and listen, even in a 30 person class. It's not clear that they gain much by physical proximity.

What I got out of a college education came mostly from being able to ask questions and suggest ideas, to engage in the game of giving and asking for reasons. Video lecture and social network Q&A would not have had the same value for me.

Here's the economic point, though: For every student like me who jumped head first into college and interrogated everybody, there were a bunch of disengaged students in the back who were mostly just listening. Their tuition was required in order for me to have the opportunity to engage. A more efficient system for them would have been a failure for me. There is an argument to be made that I was exploiting them, and anonymized on-line courses would have be a better use of their resources.

As an aside, it is possible to have small classes on-line. So the opposition isn't really between meatspace and on-line courses. Rather, it's between indefinitely large, effectively anonymous courses and courses in which students and the teacher interact directly.

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The debacle in plain text [or] The editors' reply, redux 
Last month, I discussed the unprofessional and craven reply by the editors of Synthese to the petition protesting their unprofessional and craven behaviour. Their reply, if you'll recall, was in a grainy jpeg at synthpetition.info. Wesley Elsberry had transcribed the response, and I pointed to his blog.

Elsberry's blog is now down. The text below is cut and pasted from the Google cache, and I offer it because Google cached pages are ephemeral. This really ought to exist as plain text (a fit format for verbal content) rather than as a bitmap (the preferred format for porn).

The response

In response to the petition sent to Synthese:

We have considered the demands contained in this petition very seriously. We have implemented a moratorium on new special issues and we have begun planning appropriate changes to the editorial procedures of Synthese.

The petition asks for full disclosure of all legal threats. There have not been any communications received from Christian philosophers that constituted legal threats. There was a single email from a member of the public expressing the view that the entire special issue was ‘scurrilous and libelous’. We did not consider this email to be a legal threat. It is important to note that this email was received after our initial contacts with Professor Beckwith.

As far as meaningful legal action is concerned, we have received messages that we take seriously as legal threats but these have not come from Christian philosophers. Our ability to provide detailed responses in the blogs is constrained by these challenges.

Professor Beckwith requested an opportunity to respond to Professor Forrest's paper. We agreed that this was a fair course of action. As regards the inclusion of our editorial statement and the email correspondence with Professor Forrest, it is true that there was considerable discussion between the editors of all aspects of the special issue. We took these matters very seriously and as is often the case with serious deliberation there were some oscillations prior to our reaching a conclusion. Eventually the editors arrived at a shared position, in consultation with the publisher, based on what we judged to be the offending language in two papers.

With respect to the claim that the guest editors were given assurances that no editorial statement would appear, it is true that the guest editors were privy to internal discussions between the editors-in-chief at earlier stages. We were unable to properly communicate later stages of our decision-making process to the guest editors.

We are ultimately responsible for what appears in the journal and we decided to publish the special issue without amendment to any of its papers. We wish to emphasize that our editorial statement should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement of 'intelligent design'.

At this point, we have a duty to help create procedures to prevent situations of the sort we saw here from recurring. Thus, in consultation with the publisher, we have begun planning a transition to improved editorial procedures and improved oversight which will be in place in 2012. We will work closely with our board or area editors and our advisory board to make this happen.

Johan van Benthem

Vincent Hendricks

John Symons

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What journals do 
There's an interesting roundtable discussion in Theoria about journal publishing. The editors of several journals discuss the role that journals play in professional philosophy, including the evaluation of philosophers and funding decisions. They also discuss the possibilities of open access publishing.

Social responsibility of editors

Late in the discussion, someone from the audience asks "Why should the editor of a philosophical journal think so much about how the academic system appoints people to their jobs?" The alternative, one of the panelists suggests, is to just "produce good journals."

Sven Ove Hansson resists this suggestion, saying that "journals are part of, and very much integrated in, the academic system." And he's right. Whether journal editors face up to it or not, what and who gets published has real consequences for what and who gets attention and funding. There are institutional consequences of running a journal one way rather than another; that is to say, running a journal has political consequences. So editting a journal is (among other things) a political act.

More than that, there no such thing as a good journal simpliciter. What it is to be a good journal depends on how the journal will be used. The standards for how things should be written, how much citation is required, and so on all depend on the audience. For a journal with no intended audience at all, there is no difference between a good journal and a bad journal. To consider the most extreme possibility, imagine philosophers who toil to produce a journal which is immediately dropped into a black hole.*

So part of an editor's responsibility is to consider who the audience of the journal is and how they are going to use it. Given the academic system, evaluators and administrators are among the audience and the appointment and promotions system is part of how it is used. So producing good journals requires thinking about the academic systems in which the journals exist.

In the first place, journals are aimed at scholars interested in advancing the discussion about such-and-so. So, to more charitably read the original question, one can worry that editors are concerned too much about the academic system. The political reality means that editors should think a lot about it, though.

Open access

The fact that journal articles are part of an ongoing discussion underscores the value of open access publishing. Simply put, a more accesible article is more likely to be available and be read in places where it can make a difference. To their credit, most of the editors in the roundtable voice support for open access. Theoria itself is an OA journal.

One strange dissent is from Vincent Hendricks. Discussing the case in his own country, he says:
[The Danes] are introducing an interesting angle on open access. The idea is to have all Danish research articles included in a database, which is basically an open access database belonging to the state. Since the money for the research is paid by the state, everybody should have access to the database. Of course, there is a potential clash here between the state on one hand and, say, the journals on the other. There's no way Springer is going to publish papers that have already been published on a state-controlled website. If researchers have to put up their publications on a state-owned database, then nobody is going to publish their papers anyway. I doubt that those who decided this have any idea what they are getting their hands into.

I call this 'strange' because it describes open access in some bizarro universe. There are already funding agencies that require open access publishing (e.g. the Wellcome Trust circa 2004) and it's not a novel Danish innovation. Contra Hendricks' insistence, a requirement to put papers in a central database is compatible with later publishing in a journal. In physics, almost every new paper is placed in a public archive (the arXiv) even when it later appears in a traditional journal. Somehow physics journals survive at publishers including Springer.

The most charitable interpretation is that Hendricks just doesn't know any of this. He coedits Synthese, a philosophy journal, so perhaps developments in physics and biomedicine just haven't shown up on his radar. Yet, for reasons I suggested above, part of his responsibility as editor is to think about the broader context.**

The less charitable interpretation is that he does know about the developments in physics and biomedicine but conveniently overlooks them. Commercial publishers do this when they argue that open access would destroy academic publishing. Paranoia about open access is probably the narrative encouraged by Springer itself.*** Even though Springer could survive in an open access world, there is more money to be made if they can go on exploiting free labour and a captive market.

* I am here setting aside any value that writing the journal might have for the writers and editors themselves. Although they may derive some benefit from the process, it's incidental to academic publishing.
** Hendricks would disagree with the argument above, I think. He says in response to the question from the floor: "We have to produce good journals. That's all I really have to say about that."
*** There is some reason to suspect that the editors of Synthese are corporate toadies. I don't want this to be another post about the Synthese debacle, though... oops.

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Unprofessional, unresponsive, and unacceptable [or] Synthese, again and still 
*sigh* The editors responded to the Synthese petition. It happened almost two weeks ago, while I was in Toronto talking about anglerfish.

The editors' reply was posted to the domain syntpetition.info. The domain was created just for this purpose, and it hosts only a low-res jpg scan of a letter in which the editors pooh pooh the entire affair. Wesley Elsberry has transcribed the response in actual text.

When I first read the reply, I wondered whether it actually was from the editors at all. Given subsequent non-denial, it seems that it is. However, I find the format of the response to be... well... unprofessional. 470ish sign a petition in protest, but the editors do the digital equivalent of mumbling their response before sprinting out the back door. They went out of their way to make the response indirect and inaccessible.

The way that the response was delivered compounds their original offenses. If they weren't out of line before, they are now. Even if the hundreds of signatories were entirely off base, the response ought to have been direct rather than maddeningly roundabout.

On top of all that, the content of the response is... well... unresponsive. They say that the disclaimer is or at least might have been a response to messages they received which they "take seriously as legal threats." This is just the worry - that they knuckled under to legal threats from creationists.

The letter goes on to say that the threats were not from "Christian philosophers." This careful wording allows that the threats were from other creationists; i.e., Christian non-philosophers. The dodginess almost even suggests that it was so.

It is possible, of course, that the evaluation of the legal situation was made by Springer's corporate lawyers rather than by the editors themselves. If so, they acting the part of coroporate toadies - worse, bad corporate toadies. If you aren't going to talk about it, a clear public statement of no comment would be both more honest and legally more secure. A grainy scan of an evasive letter posted at an obscure novel domain is a disasterous half-measure.

Also: There's been coverage of the Synthese debacle in the NY Times and the Guardian. Although the URL shifted, John Wilkins is still keeping up an aggregate of related links.

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Petition repetition [or] Synthesiana ad infinitum 
It seems that April has become Blog About the Synthese Debacle month here. The debacle, a recap: There was a recent guest-edited issue of Synthese. The usual editors added a disclaimer to the printed version of the issue, distancing themselves from it and saying that some of the papers in it were insulting rubbish.

There are now three different on-line petitions, all directed at the editors of Synthese: Eric Schliesser has started two petitions.

Schliesser's first petition calls for the editors to allow Barbara Forrest the write a response to Francis Beckwith's response to her original paper. Her paper, recall, is the one that led the editors to apologize for the guest-edited issue of their own journal in the first place. In Beckwith's reply, he uses the editors' disclaimer as evidence that the original paper was incompetent!

Schliesser's second petition calls for the editors to explain how and why they allowed Beckwith to publish such a brazen reply.

The third petition, organized by Brian Leiter, demands that the editors retract the the disclaimer and apologize. Ingo Brigandt and Mohan Matthen provide strong arguments for signing it.

I have signed all three, although I worry that the grand buffet of petitions will dilute the appropriate outrage. One might object to Schliesser's first petition for procedural reasons, on the grounds that allowing Forrest a reponse would be the wrong form of redress, even if one thought that the editors well and truly cocked this up. Yet a weak showing for that petition might be taken as somehow vindicating the editors and Beckwith's response. Bleah.

I am still prepared to give mitigated support to a boycott of the journal, so petitions now are weak sauce. I'll sign them, though, and so should you.*

* Obviously, you shouldn't just sign them because I said you should. Follow some links. Read up on it. Then sign.

Update, 3May

Leiter's petition, which I think was the most important, has now closed. It will be delivered to the editors with roughly 470 signatures. Leiter provides a summary of signatories and comments.

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