Category: philosophy (page 1 of 2)

Speaking Up Against Commercial Scientific Journals

My interview with Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) on scientific publishing:

Commercial Science Journals: A Luxury Market?

Publicação: 10 de September de 2021

Most of the research produced in the world is still accessible to a few, while rivers of money drain from public safes to large publishing corporations

An article published in the science section in the blog The Wire, entitled “Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals”  exposed the issues related to conflicts in the scientific articles market, which creates a [prestige] economy, allowing major journals to charge what they want, in addition to getting free labor from scientists eager to associate themselves with their brands as reviewers or editors. It is a market in which the taxpayer pays to have science produced, pays to have it published, and pays to subscribe to the journals that publish it. The system could easily be reformed if it weren’t for those scientists who insist on laying down rules so attached to the high-impact publications that have led them to the elite, and the new ones so obsessed with following the same path.

To learn more about the subject, the Communication Office of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) interviewed Dr. TR Shankar Raman (also known as Sridhar), a writer that became a wildlife scientist. As a writer, he writes creative nonfiction and reflective essays on nature and conservation for newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as occasional book reviews and opinion or featured articles.

Scientific journals on a university library shelf (Courtesy Vmenkov, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Full interview:

SBMT: In your article, you mention racism, sexism and patronizing. What is your opinion about the ethics of peer review?

TRSR: Peer review is considered an essential part of science. It serves a gate-keeping function in scientific publication. Yet, principles, good practices, and ethics of peer reviewing are not often taught to researchers as an essential part of their academic training. Many of us first get to see peer reviews as comments on our first manuscripts and do our first peer reviews when invited by a journal or editor. Partly because of this and partly because scientists are humans who can be subject to the same biases and prejudices as other people, peer review often falls short of being the totally objective appraisal it is touted to be. Journals do provide generic guidelines to reviewers, but nevertheless, racist, sexist, or patronising reviews do get past editors. I have linked to articles about this on my blog post. Researchers and scientists, especially non English-speaking, from less developed countries and less well known institutions are often at the receiving end of such peer reviews. For examples, I know cases where reviewers have asked the author to include as co-author an experienced scientist from a western institution for their paper to be competitive or good enough; told authors from India who are native English speakers to get their paper read and vetted by a native English speaker (without pointing out any problems with English in their manuscript); and so on. Double-blind peer review tries to address some of those issues, but has its own problems. I personally think that transparent, signed peer reviews are the way forward as a norm.

SBMT: Are there ethical principles in peer reviewing scientific articles?

TRSR: Certainly. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines could be taken as a benchmark of the kind of professionalism, integrity, honesty, and courtesy expected in peer reviews. Also, declaring competing interests and conflicts of interest is vital. Confidentiality during the review process is another important principle—no one wants their ideas stolen or plagiarised from an unpublished manuscript by an unscrupulous and anonymous reviewer.

SBMT: Do you believe there is corruption in the peer review process? If so, would this process be corrupting the scientific ethics of neutrality?

TRSR: As far as I know, fortunately, I myself have not suffered so far from corruption in the peer review process. From my limited experience, I would not be able to state how widespread it is and whether reviews and publication are used either as a form of patronage or to discriminate against rivals. To some extent, both probably occurs. But you mention neutrality. I feel that neutrality can be an aspiration for each of us when we do reviews, but it is probably more realistic to accept that none of us are truly neutral or unbiased. It is equally vital that as a reviewer, we reflect on and understand what our own biases or prejudices could be and how they may have affected our impressions of a paper and our reviews. Journals rarely ask reviewers to consider this or to provide an explicit statement based on reflection on their neutrality or prejudices—the focus is on the reviewed, rarely on the reviewer, although the latter is important, too.

SBMT: In your opinion, why are the most reputable journals all too expensive to publish or to access?

TRSR: First off, I want to contest the notion of what is a reputed journal. Too often it is based on Journal Impact Factor (JIF). There is now sufficient evidence to show that JIF is a very poor metric of quality in science. JIF is not some magic number: it’s just an index negotiated between journals and the company that provides the analytics calculated as a mean rather than a median and subject to all sorts of problems and biases. Besides its the quality of a paper that we are interested in and not some artificial metric of the journal itself. The JIF of a journal tells you nothing about the quality of any particular paper in that journal. In fact, there are more retractions, falsified data, and errors in these so-called high impact journals (for studies on this, see this recent post). Unfortunately, a false connection is drawn between quality and successful publication in such journals, and that is then used to decide on jobs and promotions in academia. As a result, a rush to publish in these journals has been induced, which is exploited by commercial scientific publishing companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature and a few others who have cornered the market, so to speak, and charge exorbitant article processing charges. Based on the estimates from one recent study, it appears that these publishers are charging anywhere from 5 to more than 10 times the actual cost of publication of a typical scientific article. It is the prime irony of our times: scientists who pride themselves on their objectivity have been hoodwinked by a very subjective and flawed system into publishing in so-called reputed journals, while the commercial publishers laugh their way to the bank with their huge profits.

SBMT: Why are the “diamond/platinum” journals the least valued by editorial metrics and funding agencies?

TRSR: I have no idea why this should be so. It feels like the academic community has just painted itself into a corner. There are lots of excellent diamond open access journals. The journals published by Indian Academy of Sciences  are a good example (although they have a weird co-publishing arrangement with Springer Nature, the journals and papers can be freely accessed via the Academy website and there are no charges for authors to publish either). Of course, the number of papers that a diamond open access journal may be able to publish may be lower and many are in niche areas of science rather than multi-disciplinary in scope and hence their reach may be lower than what big-budget commercial journals can achieve with their resources. But this only means that diamond open access journals should be supported more to achieve better reach, not shift to commercial publishers. All public and philanthropic funding for science has everything to gain by supporting and mandating publication in diamond open access journals.

SBMT: How to design a policy in defense of Southern science through the promotion of “diamond/platinum” journals?

TRSR: As individuals, we can each take a stand, as I have tried to in my post—that I will not review for or publish in commercial journals, but will especially do so for diamond open access journals. Particularly, senior scientists and leaders in their fields must set an example by publishing, reviewing for, or accepting to be on the boards of diamond open access journals. But this will not go far unless we also collectively work to change overall policy. As a community, we must petition our academies, funders, and science administrators to change policies to give greater recognition to papers published in diamond open access journals. This can trigger a big change: especially if it begins to count towards jobs and promotions in academia. Impact factor should be trashed as outdated, harmful, and retrogressive. Recipients of public funds should be mandated to publish in diamond open access journals published by nonprofit scientific societies as this is the most cost-effective way to spend the available (limited) funds to achieve publication that is freely, openly, and widely accessible, while supporting and advancing science. Other initiatives such as Gold Open Access, self-archiving of submitted final versions, or pay-to-publish APC models are all half measures or discriminate and exclude large numbers of scientists around the world, who cannot pay the large fees involved. Policies should support membership fee support for scholars and new and tenured faculty to join learned academic societies that publish diamond open access journals so that the funds are kept within the community and to advance science rather than feed the profits of commercial companies.

SBMT: Would you like to explore further the concept of predatory science publishing?

TRSR: Predatory science publishing, I feel, is just a perversion of the normalisation of pay-to-publish models that we have allowed to happen and which most so-called reputed journals are using today. If money is taken out of the equation by recognising pay-to-publish models as disreputable for science, and by mandating publication in diamond open access journals, most predatory journals will disappear. I also have a different take on the idea of predation in scientific publishing. As I write in my post:

With exorbitant subscriptions, steep open access publication fees or paywalls for each article, companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are profiteering from an enterprise that generates knowledge which really belongs to all and which should be truly open and free for anyone in the world to access. To me, this is also a form of predatory publishing: unbridled corporate predation on captive academic prey.

SBMT: Is it correct to say that today science is better evaluated by the continent (the journal) than by the content (the article itself)?

TRSR: Yes. I often wonder whether scientists sitting in powerful positions, during proposal appraisals and job interviews, read the articles to assess a candidate and the quality of their work or just go by the fame and JIF of the journals their papers were published in. If as scientists we believe that it is the peer review process that is important, why not keep peer review and dispense with journals altogether? Find ways to have papers reviewed and accepted by peers, organise them by subject or theme, published with just a DOI and findable via a global database search? Some interesting new publishing models are already being implemented. The Peer Community In  model—where scientists come together in communities to openly review and recommend preprints that are freely and openly accessible—can be taken as equivalent to diamond open-access journal publication.

SBMT: Do you believe that there is a planned effort by rich countries to keep developing countries scientifically backward?

TRSR: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But there is certainly a blindness or an obtuseness towards the plight of scientists in developing countries and all lower and middle-income economies. A recent paper highlights the colonial roots of many of our present academic practices and issues a call for decolonising science. Decolonising access to scientific literature is a crucial part of that. Scientists in the west, in richer countries and in elite, well-endowed institutions in all countries, need to decolonise their minds and scientific practices to enable science to flourish globally and equitably.

SBMT: Would you nominate Alexandra Elbakyan, from Sci-Hub for the Nobel Prize. If so, how to start a global movement for this?

TRSR: I am not a fan of the Nobel Prizes, given they have their own biases and have failed to adequately acknowledge scientific contributions of women, for example. But given that its stated purpose is to award those who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind, Alexandra Elbakyan certainly qualifies. I stand by what I wrote in my post:

Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and computer programmer who created and runs Sci-Hub, is probably the one person who has contributed more to global dissemination of science and access to scientific literature than any other person in human history.

Science academies from Brazil, India, and other countries, including western nations, could get together and nominate her, perhaps!

SBMT: Intellectual recognition of authors from tropical/poor countries in collaboration with authors from large institutions in rich countries is a big problem. Who has more value in a North-South collaborative scientific publication: one who conceived it, one who collected the data, one who analyzes it, or one who conducts the sophisticated experiments inaccessible to scientists from the Global South?

TRSR: This is again an issue that the paper I mentioned on decolonising science  goes into in better detail. I would simply urge everyone to read it. It sets out the problem and proposes changes in the way we do science: such as going past ‘parachute’ science to actively involve collaborators from the poorer countries as equal or better knowledge partners (not as tokenism), have reciprocal exchanges rather than one-way travel of students and scholars, and so on. Some journals have adopted policies that publications should include authors from the countries where the work was carried out in and so on, which is welcome, but there is more to do.

SBMT: Are science agencies in the Global South repeating the model of evaluating science based on editorial metrics and harming their own countries’ science and scientists?

TRSR: I don’t know about other countries, but in India, certainly. Journal Impact Factor is routinely used as a metric in assessments of scientists and their work. The Science and Engineering Research Board of India privileges publication in international journals over national journals and asks for journal impact factor to be provided as well. The UGC norms for academic performance of faculty actually scales their index by journal impact factor. This is very retrograde and harmful. Other aspects such as publication in diamond open access journals, making datasets also openly available, other forms of public engagement for science are all ignored in this system of evaluation. Instead of these flawed metrics, we need to move to new systems of evaluation that consider other aspects such as mentorship, diversity and inclusion, quality of work and so on. Alternative ways in which this can be accomplished have been proposed.

SBMT: Do you believe that the Global South remains colonized from a scientific and cultural point of view? Why do you think so?

TRSR: I think I have already answered this above with reference to the decolonising science paper.

SBMT: Aren’t scientists from the South themselves biased?

TRSR: As I mentioned before, all scientists are human and are likely to have their own biases. However, there is a huge asymmetry in power, privilege, and influence when compared to scientists in the Global North. The South is disadvantaged on many counts and that needs to be recognised and offset through thoughtful policies and actions.

SBMT: How can scientific journals from the Global South acquire international respectability?

TRSR: I don’t think I have the experience to offer an answer to that one. Perhaps it is something for all of us to deliberate on as a community. Bring editorial boards of different diamond open access journals published from the Global South together to start off the conversation. Good and practical ideas may emerge.

SBMT: How to increase South-South scientific collaboration? India and Brazil have a significant scientific production. Wouldn’t it be time to start an alliance between southern countries?

TRSR: Yes, certainly. As I mentioned above we have not done this as much as we perhaps can or should. For instance, by conducting joint conferences on tropical ecology, medicine, and conservation, for instance. Those conducted today tend to have few voices of scientists who are actually based in tropical countries. Famous names from institutions in the Global North predominate in the line-up of speakers: that should change, too.

SBMT: Tropical forests are very dangerously threatened. What is the role of scientists from the Global South?

TRSR: I think not just scientists, but people and communities from the Global South need to step forward to lead conservation efforts. Scientists should also acknowledge the traditional knowledge systems of indigenous people, recognise the roles they have played as stewards of their lands and forests in effecting conservation. The biggest threats are often from large-scale destructive development projects such as mining, roads, powerlines, large-scale green or renewable energy projects, dams and so on. Scientists have a key role not just to study these and document the wide-ranging impacts on ecology and society, indigenous people and their culture, but to share their findings widely with the public in all local languages to foster widespread public awareness and engagement with conservation. This can help combat the loss of tropical forests and also create enough momentum among citizens to push for political changes with the urgency and at the scale at which they are needed.

SBMT: Would you like to add anything?

TRSR: I think I’ve already said too much. There’s a lot to do and we should act as individuals, as part of our local scientific communities or societies, and also as larger collectives that push for changes in policy and practice globally.

Original Blog Post at View from Elephant Hills:

Why I will not review or write for Elsevier, Wiley, and other commercial scientific journals

Republished in The Wire—Science

Why I Won’t Review or Write for Elsevier and Other Commercial Scientific Journals

The Passing of the Endlings

Two bullets passed through three brothers and killed them as they sat side by side.

The secretary wrote, “The first bullet killed one and… the second bullet after having gone through one struck the other, which was behind it, and killed it also.”

Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo pulled the trigger in 1947. In Surguja District in central India, he shot them by night from a vehicle. It was his private secretary who later chronicled the passing of the last cheetahs shot in India.

The last cheetahs shot in India (Photograph courtesy: Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Vol 47, 1948)

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When the three men arrived by boat at the island of Eldey in Iceland on June 3, 1844, they found the Great Auk pair standing side by side tending to the last egg.

Jón Brandsson “crept up with his arms open” to the female who moved to a corner. Sigurður Ísleifsson followed the other, who walked to the edge of a cliff. He said, “I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”

Ketill Ketilsson found the egg on a lava slab. He picked up the egg, saw it was broken, and put it back. Some say he crushed the egg under his boot. It would have made a squelching sound.

The sound would have been drowned by the waves battering the cliffs, as the ocean currents passed the desolate cliffs of Eldey.

Great auk from Birds of America by John James Audubon (via Wikimedia Commons).

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The epitaph for the last male reads: “Male near Baghownie… 21st June 1935”. Charles McFarlane Inglis, the Englishman who had shot the bird in Darbhanga, Bihar, in India, does not say more in his journal article. He does not say whether the last bird was rushing overhead, wings gusting the air, or pedalling glassy waters among reeds and swamp, swimming quietly and alone, when the bullet struck. The article was published five years later. Scientists now know this was the last confirmed record from the wild of the Pink-headed Duck.

The Englishman himself died on February 13, 1954, aged 84. Months later, someone wrote in the pages of another journal, like an epitaph at the end of his obituary: Molliter ossa cubent. May his bones rest softly.

People still look for the duck. Their bones and feathers rest softly in museums around the world.

Pink-headed Duck by Henrik Grönvold (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The last Carolina parakeet, Incas, died on February 21, 1918, a year after his mate Lady Jane’s passing. They both died in the same cage in Cincinnati Zoo. The writer J Drew Lanham imagined an epitaph for Incas. He thought it would serve as the “final rites for the passage of one of the most unique birds ever to sweep across the skies of the American psyche.”

John James Audubon’s “Carolina Parakeets” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, too, had died in the same cage on September 1, 1914.

A century had passed since 1810, when Alexander Wilson had observed during his own passage between Frankfort and the Indiana Territory, a single flight of migrating pigeons that he estimated to number two billion two hundred and thirty million two hundred and seventy two thousand birds. In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a bronze monument to the passenger pigeon in Wyalusing State Park. Aldo Leopold said, “But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon, will have no wings.”

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon (via Wikimedia Commons).

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But another stone is inscribed and mounted in the Bronx Zoo, New York, on a memorial wall to many species that have passed for ever. I recall the words carved in stone, which said that the Jerdon’s Courser, a “quiet bird” that “stretched up on tiptoes to look for predators”, went extinct after 1900.

Memorial to the Jerdon’s Courser in the Bronx Zoo (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Nearly a century had passed when the bird was found in Andhra Pradesh in 1986, with the help of bird trappers. The Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a refuge and a canal partly rerouted to save their habitat. The biologist, P Jeganathan, saw the bird in 2008 and caught images in a field camera. He once heard three birds calling by night. A two note call, neither cackle nor lament, just one urgent note following another, ringing through the long night.

The Isha Upanishad proclaims,

Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

The Upanishads, by Eknath Easwaran (2nd edition, 2007)

I think of all the species in all their unique perfection and voices irredeemably gone and lost to the screaming bullets and machines and pillage but thrill to know that the night can yet carry the clear, poignant, plaintive, astonishing, exhilarating voice of one quiet bird.

The Jerdon’s Courser (Photo: P Jeganathan, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

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Now India aims to bring back the cheetah. A rewilding project plans to bring new life to the grasslands and savannas where the cheetah once roamed and coursed behind antelope. And yet, in the grasslands and savannas lives another tall, stately bird, the Great Indian Bustard, in great peril. Down to the last hundred or so, the birds continue to lose their habitat to solar and wind farms, concrete and road, their lives colliding with the power lines humming with the currents now passing through their landscape. One great effort trying to bring back a species driven extinct. And one great power driving another to the edge of extinction.

If we can find it in us to offer remembrance, epitaph, memorial, and long for what we have lost, we can find it in us to cherish what we have and keep it from passing from this earth. And we can stand for it side by side and our thoughts can once again have wings.

Great Indian Bustards against wind turbines in the Desert National Park, Rajasthan (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman).

This essay was inspired by Brian Doyle’s essay “Leap” (2001). It appeared in the Indian Express Sunday Magazine Eye on 22 August 2021.

Freedom in the Time of Covid

Wild and free: in one sense of each word, to be wild is to be free. In nature, each life form is free to grow and flourish, free to confront every peril, with the wisdom of survival encoded in genes, volitions guided by intelligence, thwarting vagaries of contingence. But to an ecologist, such freedom remains axiomatically entangled in a web of relationships. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote John Muir famously.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought this home: humans are a part of nature, even if as people—imbued with culture, cloaked by modernity, amped by technology—we imagine we rise apart from nature. It just took a tiny virion, 100 nanometres in diameter, a hundredth the size of a pollen grain, to shake the planet. No Trump, no Bolsanaro, no Modi, no Putin comes even close—in a tenebrous way that is strangely reassuring, too. Our freedoms remain vulnerable to intersecting crises worldwide: the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, the sixth extinction, and the assault on democracy. Each breath we take is our own, but the air we breathe is from a shared atmosphere. Individual freedoms depend irrevocably on collective actions.

For me, the forced distancing from parents, relatives, and friends, and inability to travel have been the most unbearable curbs on freedom. It deepened how I valued my relationships and my travel. Being alive, I also realised I am among the fortunate ones.

This short piece appeared in the Economic Times today, 15 August 2021, on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day.

Why I will not review or write for Elsevier, Wiley, and other commercial scientific journals

A few weeks ago, a message pinged into my inbox asking if I would peer-review a manuscript submitted to a reputed scientific journal published by Elsevier. I was tempted. The topic of the manuscript was related to my own research on what happens to wild plants and animals when previously forested landscapes are transformed into large plantations of a single crop species. A quick look at the journal website showed that the journal published quality research and a bunch of academic grandees sat on the editorial board. Their request to me indicated a recognition of my expertise in the field. By accepting to review the paper, I could learn something new, share my expertise and comments with the authors and editors, and add a notch on my academic belt, so to speak.

And yet, I refused.

Scientists track their credentials and calibre by how many papers they manage to publish in such peer-reviewed journals and how often they are called upon to review manuscripts for them. In brief, here’s the good, the bad, the ugly of it. The good: the process of independent and anonymous peer review serves as a crucial quality-check and enables authors to hone and rectify their work before it is published. The bad: peer review can be a flaming hoop you are forced to jump through, more difficult if you are not a native English speaker, if you are from a less-privileged background, if you are from a relatively unknown institution in the Third World. The ugly: the process can degenerate into a situation where jealous peers and conniving editors disparage your work and obstruct publication, or simply display how racist, sexist, and patronizing they can be from their positions of power or anonymity. If I did the review, I would not be paid for it—that’s how scientific peer review works—but I could include the journal in a section in my CV listing all the national and international scientific journals that I had reviewed for. I could even register on a commercial website where academics track and showcase their journal peer review and editorial contributions. Still, it was not my skepticism over the peer review process, nor my lack of interest in counting review-coup that brought me to refuse.

Instead, here’s what I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief, copied to all members of the editorial board:

Dear Dr _____ and other members of the _____ editorial board,

Greetings for 2021 from India! I trust the year has begun well and you will all have a productive, healthy, and peaceful year ahead. I recently received an invitation… to review a paper for [_____ journal]… I am writing to you to explain why I am declining to review (or submit for consideration) any paper to [_____ journal]. At the outset, I would like to state that I have great respect for the work that the journal publishes and for all of you on the Editorial Board. My decision is based on the fact that the journal is published by Elsevier.

You are doubtless aware of the concerns already raised by many in the academic community and the media on the business of scientific publishing, particularly the role of companies like Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature. You may recall that many editors have resigned en masse from these journals as well in the past to protest against their practices.

Recently, Elsevier along with others (including Wiley) filed a lawsuit in an Indian court against Sci-Hub and Libgen. Leading Indian scientists and researchers (and a group of over 2000 signatories) have protested this highlighting how Sci-Hub has greatly enabled access to scientific research in India and other countries. Sci-hub struck at the heart of the oligopoly of purely commercial publishers, which includes Elsevier and Wiley, who run scientific publishing like a fiefdom, charging exorbitant subscriptions or publishing fees, making exponential profits, and treating the intellectual output of scientists and institutions as if it was all their personal property. This is the case although the research published in these journals is funded by public agencies or other funders, and the papers are written, reviewed, and edited by scientists who seek no compensation for their intellectual inputs and time. With exorbitant subscriptions, steep open access publication fees or paywalls for each article, companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are profiteering from an enterprise that generates knowledge which really belongs to all and which should be truly open and free for anyone in the world to access. To me, this is also a form of predatory publishing: unbridled corporate predation on captive academic prey.

To the argument that shunning such journals will compromise science, I can only point out to many journals of repute published by scientific societies and academies worldwide (such as the Indian Academy of Sciences) that make all their published papers free (diamond/platinum open access) and are able to run their journals with modest subscriptions and advertisements. There have also been initiatives like Amelica and Coalition-S. The alternatives are there for us to adopt as scientists and scholars if we wish.

I realise that, for early-career scientists, publishing in some of these journals is still important because of the undue importance still given to them by academic institutions in their scientific recruitment and recognition policies. I, too, have published in these journals and realise I am implicated in the perpetuation of this system. I will respect the views and needs of students and others I collaborate with on where they seek to publish in or review for. But as a token of protest, I declare that where it concerns my own work I will not submit a paper to these journals or review a paper for them, until such corporate predatory practices end. I do realise that my action is a mere token and not enough. There is more I myself need to do to make science universal, free, and accessible.

I hope you do not see this as an attack on your or the journal’s credibility but consider it in a more progressive spirit. If you have read this far, I thank you for taking the time. Kindly accept my regrets once again.

Best regards,
Shankar

It was a rant, a polite one, but a rant, nonetheless. As you can imagine, the Editor-in-Chief was not too happy about it.

§

Before the Editor-in-Chief wrote back, another member of the Editorial Board—the person handling the manuscript—wrote me appreciating my email and agreeing that scientific publishing had a lot of room to evolve, but personally preferred, as an editor, to engender small and positive changes from within. (Another member of the editorial board, a leading woman scientist from India, wrote saying she was not on the board as far as she knew. It turned out she had been invited a while back and had agreed to be on the board, but the journal had never involved her in its work, so she wrote again indicating that she would prefer her name to be removed. Why a woman scientist from India was on the editorial board but never involved in it is another story perhaps.)

With the Editor-in-Chief himself, a back-and-forth exchange of emails ensued, which I will paraphrase here. [I have tried my best not to misrepresent anything and have chosen to leave out names of the concerned people and journal as I have no issue with them individually and prefer to keep the focus on the issue of commercial scientific publishing rather than any individuals or particular journal. I have rearranged the discussion slightly for clarity and placed my interjections and asides, like this one, in square brackets.]

He started off by partly agreeing with me. He then said that Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature are no more predatory than many other businesses that one has to deal with these days. He said that as academics we clearly have a duty to try to find alternative models, and emphasized that his journal was an open access journal, for which the authors had to pay USD 1650 to publish in, unless they were from a World Bank low-income country where they could ask for a waiver. [Actually, the current rate is USD 1820 for a paper of 12-15 published pages, which is about as much as a Masters student would need for a 5-6 month field research project in India.] He wrote about how they receive a large volume of papers and how many scientists they approach to provide their peer review. They needed over 1000 volunteer reviewers he said in one email, changing the figure in a later email to indicate they had more than 1000 authors and over 2500 reviewers each year.

Then he wrote that if every paper had to be reviewed by 2-3 scientists, every scientist who wants to publish in these commercial journals are also obliged to review 2-3 papers for every paper they intend to publish, otherwise the system would not work. He said that if I did not want to publish in such journals, I should then also not read these journals or allow my students to do so.

That last bit got my goat. I wrote back respectfully disagreeing with him. I said readers have a right to access the research (which is publicly funded or funded by other agencies) irrespective of whether they personally support commercial publishers. I did not need to stress the importance of enabling wide access in the case of socially relevant studies or conservation research as the editor himself was doubtless aware of it. It also struck me later that the published research itself would have referred to other earlier research in various journals. In papers related to my field of work that may have included my own work or those of colleagues. Saying I cannot read a paper in this journal was just as absurd as saying the authors have no right to refer to my work or any other research published in non-commercial journals. Science simply cannot work that way.

The Editor-in-Chief raised a number of other valid points. He said that there was a suite of publishing options available for authors these days and another member of the editorial board was planning to launch a new conservation journal that addressed some of these issues. He named one journal that offered a reader-pays alternative for authors who cannot pay the Article Processing Charge (APC), and another that was open access and “provides competition” to his journal. So if you don’t like a journal for its policies you can find another one that better suits you. But, someone has to pay, he emphasised. Non-profit publishers don’t have to take a large cut for shareholders but, according to him, they did not achieve the same efficiencies as the large commercial publishers. He noted how most society-owned journals, earlier published on a non-profit basis, have shifted to Wiley and other commercial publishers and been forced to charge huge fees because it costs too much to publish a journal. As far as the journal he edits was concerned, he pointed out that authors retain copyright alongside scholarly usage rights and Elsevier is granted publishing and distribution rights. Authors are paying Elsevier for publication and distribution only, which to him was reasonable. Furthermore, the articles were released under a Creative Commons license so people could use and re-use them in different ways (with attribution), so what was I complaining about? I should be reviewing for them since they are not doing any of the terrible things I was accusing them of.

There was stuff I agreed with and yet, much I still disagreed with. If someone has to pay and the authors are forced to pay to publish it is still an absurd payment in some ways, if you think of it, I wrote back. Companies like Elsevier rake in profits of 30-40% every year through a business model that appears unique to scientific publishing. Based on the figures the editor gave me, just this one journal he edited had more than 3000 highly-qualified scientists voluntarily contributing each year to Elsevier’s extraordinary profits. Imagine that! As a 2017 article in The Guardian puts it:

Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup.

Then there is the question of the APC that is levied by commercial journals that use an author-pays model (in journals that are not fully open access, an extra charge has to be paid to make it open access.) The APC is typically imposed without any transparency as to the real costs incurred by the publisher. Studies indicate that commercial publishers charge nearly 3 times more than similar non-profit publishers of reputed standalone journals. One can ask whether the huge profits made by the publishers under the guise of “efficiency” or “scale” are not better ploughed back into scientific societies (and nonprofits that support science) rather than to the pockets of wealthy companies and their shareholders. The commercial publishers appear to call all the shots. As Brian Nosek, a Professor at the University of Virginia and Director of the Center for Open Science, said in an interview to Nasdaq, academic publishing is

the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs.”

Even where learned societies had failed to run the journals on their own and had succumbed to handing it over to a commercial publisher to handle, as the editor pointed out was increasingly the case, most fail to disclose the terms of the arrangement with the scientific society. For instance, one of the leading societies in the field of nature conservation is the Society for Conservation Biology, whose flagship journal Conservation Biology is (unfortunately) published by Wiley, which levies a charge of USD 3000 for publication as open access. Fortunately, the society enables authors to publish their work at a reduced rate or ask for a waiver if they cannot afford the page charges: although such articles would be held by Wiley behind a paywall (about USD 42 per article, at present rates, for online access and PDF download). The journal website hosted by Wiley claims that “payment of article publication costs furthers the work of the society and conservation worldwide” but gives no indication as to what their deal is or what fraction of the profits are actually shared with the society.

For almost every commercial journal, I retorted in an email to the Editor-in-Chief, there is a non-profit equivalent that achieves the same quality at a significantly lower cost. They also make all papers available free for readers after a period of 6 months or a year (for instance, the journal Science published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science versus Nature produced by Springer; the Royal Society journals and PNAS, say, versus some sub-journals in the Nature crop). Further, any profits made from the academy or society journals contribute to a scientific rather than a business enterprise like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, or other big commercial publishers.

Take, for example, the journal Human Ecology, a Springer journal that paywalls its articles or publishes as open access after you cough up a cool USD 2780, every dollar of profit going to Springer’s coffers. Contrast that with a superb journal in a similar field, published from the global South, like Conservation and Society published by the Indian non-profit and think-tank ATREE. This fully open-access journal, which recently was forced to go from diamond open-access to an author-pays model, has a transparent ownership and publication policy and levies an APC (only on authors from higher middle-income and high-income countries) of USD 600—just one-fifth of Springer’s rates. Another Indian journal, Ecology, Economy, and Society-The INSEE Journal charges nothing to authors and readers for open access. For a comparable non-profit or society journal published from the West, the Resilience Alliance publishes a fully open access journal Ecology and Society levying an APC of USD 975, or just 35% of Springer rates.

In the Indian context, there is also this absurd situation where Springer republishes many diamond open access journals, such as through their republishing agreement for the journals of the Indian Academy of Sciences. The journals are entirely edited, printed, published, and distributed by the society or academy imposing no page charges on authors and making the publication freely available to readers on the academy’s journal websites. Springer does zero editorial or publishing work but still charges the academy (for what? hosting on their online platform) and then paywalls the same papers at >USD 30 per paper. Just for parking it on their website! [Correction: Springer paywalls the papers, yes, but apparently does not charge the Academy.]

Another example is the journal Tropical Ecology published by the International Society for Tropical Ecology, which was diamond open access with no page charges until 2019, when they unfortunately succumbed to the ‘efficiencies’ and enticements of Springer. They now levy an APC of USD 2780 to authors who wish to make their paper open access, failing which they impose a paywall to each reader of ~USD 42 per paper.

Still, on the charges levied by commercial journals, the editor I was corresponding with had a different take. Like many things in life, you get [what] you pay for, he wrote. Journals like Nature have open access publishing charges that seem outrageous, but they were justified by the editing services of full-time professionals and unmatched quality they provided, and the citations the papers generated. If he had the money and his students produced something worthy of such attention, he would scrape it together to pay up.

This left me stupefied. If the publishing charges seem outrageous, it is perhaps because they are outrageous. Instead of figuring out a better way to make their work openly and freely accessible and appear on global databases and platforms, if leading scientists and academies worldwide subscribe to the costly vision of payment and efficiency and impact sold by commercial publishers, there is definitely something broken in the system. As a scientist from a non-profit organisation in a lower middle-income country like India I somehow could not countenance such sums of money being shelled out ostensibly to advance science. Have these journals come to command such power and clout that top scientists in the world will simply pay up unquestioningly? Do we still believe that counting citations is the way to build reputation in science? Can scientists who are so meticulous in preparing their papers and so generous with their time in reviewing them for free, in order to contribute to scientific growth and the growth of their community, not find better ways to advance science, academia, and community than relying on profiteering journals? Could we not invest more as a community in society-run, non-profit, open access journals and enhancing the list and quality of free journals, of which, as one can see from the Free Journals Network and the Directory of Open Access Journals, there are many?

According to a 2021 survey, at least 29,000 diamond open access journals are published around the world. While diamond open-access journals face many operational challenges, 70% of them manage to produce the journal at an annual operational cost of under USD 10,000. In other words, the amount of money a scientist pays as APC to Elsevier/Wiley/Springer or similar publishers for just 3 or 4 journal articles can be more than enough to support an entire journal for a year and produce science that is freely accessible worldwide. Even now, about 356,000 diamond open access papers are published per year compared to approximately 453,000 papers where the scientists have shelled out the APC (453,000 x average APC of USD 2000 implies ~1 billion USD). Imagine if those funds can be routed to support scientific societies and their journals, produce free and better academic community resources and databases (rather than the tyranny of science citation indices and Clarivate Analytics, for instance). Imagine if that money could be used to provide free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications!

§

Free, open, and easy access to all scientific publications is what Sci-Hub provides. In our email back-and-forth, the editor and I never discussed Sci-Hub, which was why I started off on my rant in the first place. And yet, the exchange had made me acutely conscious of my debt to Sci-Hub and of my own failings as a scientist.

Alexandra Elbakyan (cropped)
Alexandra Elbakyan at Harvard University (Photo: Apneet Jolly, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandra Elbakyan, a scholar and computer programmer who created and runs Sci-Hub, is probably the one person who has contributed more to global dissemination of science and access to scientific literature than any other person in human history. Sci-Hub offered a way to access scientific publications, including those behind paywalls. One just had to put in the link to the paper or the DOI and Sci-Hub delivered it online (in PDF) almost instantly for free. In recent years, it has been invaluable for scientists in countries like India who have no other access to these journals.

Before Sci-Hub, if I wanted to read more than just the abstracts of pay-walled papers (or more than just the titles of papers that had no abstracts), I would have to ask friends in some (usually foreign) university to download it via their library access and send it over, or write emails directly to author after author and wait for them to respond with PDF soft copies. Neither did that work all the time nor was it even remotely an ideal way to do research.

It should hardly come as a surprise then that open access papers are more likely to be read and cited. In fact, a 2021 study published in a Springer journal (some poetic justice there), found that papers downloaded via Sci-Hub were cited 172% more often than those that were not. I am no fan of citation counting, but irrespective of whether scientists want greater readership, open access, or more citations, they must acknowledge Sci-Hub does a service. There are other points of view about Sci-Hub, but after the last few years as an admirer of both Sci-Hub and Alexandra Elbakyan, I know on which side of the fence I will stay.

Sci-Hub is not just for scientists. It provides access to everyone. It is also particularly valuable to journalists and science communicators who often have no direct access to journals and find scientists both difficult to reach and reticent to communicate with journalists on a deadline. Take what the journalist and writer, George Monbiot, had to say, for instance:

After definitively disrupting the status quo, Elbakyan soldiers on, while commercial publishers who feel threatened by her keep filing lawsuits. The recent case filed in a Delhi court by Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) brings charges of copyright infringement and asks for a dynamic injunction to block internet access to Sci-Hub nationwide. These three are among the top scientific publishers in the world, with ACS, despite being a scientific society and one of the wealthiest in the world at that, being opposed to or a laggard in supporting open access. The Delhi case —a David versus Trio-of-Goliaths case, if ever there was one—is still in court. Legal experts indicate a strong basis in law, ethics, and equity, going for Sci-Hub. One prays the court rules likewise.

§

It is easy enough to point a finger at greedy Goliaths, but what about the other fingers curled inward, biting into my fist, pointing to me? What had I done, as an individual scientist or as part of the scientific community, to make science free, open, and accessible? The floodgates opened. My thoughts and mortification came pouring out. I could barely keep track of the list of personal failures and all that I myself needed to do. I made a list.

  1. Many of my own scientific papers were in pay-walled journals. I had shared them as much as I could earlier, but I could do more to ensure that every one of them was accessible.
  2. A boycott of journals published by companies like Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Sage was one thing, but there were positive contributions I needed to make. I could do more reviews for diamond open access journals and also serve on their editorial boards, if invited. My record in this remains miserable. After turning down two such invitations in the past, I had served on the editorial board of one diamond open access journal (Current Science), only to resign after about three years giving workload as an excuse. I am one of the editors of a new diamond open access journal, Hornbill Natural History and Conservation, but I have done almost nothing for the journal so far. A society-run journal invited me to their editorial board and after the Editor-in-Chief assured me they were planning to make it open access and also bring a diverse editorial board with better gender representation, I have agreed to join, but am yet to contribute anything of significance.
  3. Instead of paying outrageous sums to journals, I could donate instead modestly to Sci-Hub itself or other individuals and non-profits supporting open science (such as the Center for Open Science, for instance). I could become a member of one or two scholarly societies relevant to my work, which publish open access journals.
  4. Even if scientific papers are accessible, they are rarely intelligible to the wider audience, beyond our peers, that we are often interested in reaching: journalists, science communicators, policy makers, and interested citizens. I could put more time into sharing relevant research in more accessible avenues, especially Wikipedia, where my contributions have been minuscule so far. An encyclopedic review on a bird species, could be contributed to something like the online Birds of the World (which has made all species accounts open and freely accessible in India, although requiring a sign-up), rather than to any pay-walled journal, however reputed.
  5. As a naturalist and biologist, I only have contributed a small fraction of my species observations to citizen science portals like eBird, iNaturalist, and India Biodiversity Portal. I have stockpiled thousands of useful and educational photos and other media, but shared only a tiny fraction so far where it can be used by the wider community, such as on Wikimedia Commons. There was a lot more I could do.
  6. As for my scientific datasets, I have sat on most of them for years. I could easily share them on open repositories like OSF and Data Dryad, with CC-BY or Public Domain licenses, so other scientists have access to the data and could do more with it than I myself can by clutching onto it as personal intellectual property. Technical reports (grey literature that academics typically consider less worthy than journal publications), too, often contain valuable information and material unavailable elsewhere and I could upload mine to public archives like Archive.org with free licenses. I can make academic presentations and talks available, too, through suitable repositories.
  7. I could re-do my CV to highlight public contributions to science and open access rather than try to pad it with an impressive list of publications in so-called high-impact-factor journals. For instance, the following summary of my contributions to Wikipedia should be in my CV. Although it only catalogues how little I have done so far, it should be at least as important to chronicle this as any other scientific work and publications of mine. (A bonus: as a regular editor I can gain access to scientific publications and digital libraries like JSTOR through the Wikipedia Library.)
A summary of my Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons contributions (2007 to 2021).

8. Finally, I can ensure that in our own hiring and assessment practices, we do not privilege publication in the so-called high-impact-factor journals of these commercial publishers. If the scientific community does not privilege these journals, it will take the wind out of their sails and curtail the power commercial publishers currently wield. For an academic appointment, if publications are an aspect to consider, then the quality of the person’s work, motivation, and aptitude should matter more than any journal they have published in (or are yet to publish in). We have applied this rationale as far as possible in our research and it has paid rich dividends by attracting people with excellent capabilities in basic and applied conservation science.

§

Even if one accepts that the system of scientific publishing is unjust and broken, the responses to this so far (besides Sci-Hub, of course) seem like half measures. Boycotts like mine remain little more than tokenism. Deals arrived at by universities with publishers like Elsevier remain riddled with holes. Even the proposed “one nation, one subscription” policy that the Government of India proposes to negotiate where, in return for a centrally-negotiated payment to journals, all individuals in India will have access to journal articles, avoids the question of whether such huge payments should be made to benefit commercial publishers. As a nation, India’s science budget (R&D) is only 0.7%, much lower than most nations in our position, and a large part of that budget goes to the private sector (42%), defence and space (29%).

In a way, each of the above half-measures is a lost opportunity to shake the system loose of its existing anchors to sail on new voyages in the sea of science. We need a far deeper commitment to and more active engagement with free and open access to science and scientific knowledge in all its various stages and shapes. If science itself has the innate capacity to shake free of old paradigms and shift to new realities, perhaps it can happen in the system of scientific publication, too. And the time for that is now.

Citizens of the Earth

The scarlet dome erupts over the rainforest canopy. On this cool, clear January morning in the mountains, the tree emerges like a flaming island in an ocean of green. The leafless branches hold fiery red blooms on twigs lined with thousands of thorns, like flowers strung on razor wires. In resplendent minority, the deciduous tree stands flamboyant over the evergreens, whose flowers, if there are any, remain modestly concealed among millions of leaves. The splayed branches of the great emergent twitches with movement and pulses with song like the flicker and crackle of sparks in a fire. The silk cotton tree, Bombax ceiba, under which I stand, is alive and alight. I sense a portent of something unexpected.

Bombax ceiba flowering in the Anamalai Hills (Photo: Srinivasan Kasinathan & Ganesh Raghunathan)

Across the backwaters of the Lower Sholayar or Ambalappara dam in neighbouring Kerala, across an imaginary border drawn on the waters of a river named for the rainforests, from the midst of a vast forest tract, looms the red dome of another silk cotton tree. From the Tamil Nadu side, peering through binoculars, I see life flickering on that far tree’s branches. Called ilavu or elavan by people—including Kadar forest dwellers—on either side of the border, the trees seem rooted to place. And yet they are linked by tendrils of language and life that I barely begin to discern.

Red silk cotton tree

Shrill squeals pierce the morning air and I look up. A dozen jet black birds with golden leathery wattles on their heads frolic among the flowers, dipping their orange beaks into the red corollas. Hill mynas. Sated after a swig of sugary nectar or disappointed that someone got there before them, the birds fly from flower to flower in a squeaky, whirring beat of wings. They are not alone.

Bell-like clangs announce the arrival of a pair of racket-tailed drongos, dressed in glossy black and sporting audacious tails tipped with wires and black spatulae. I barely glance at them before a buzzing see-see-see draws my eyes to a little green blur whizzing onto a neighbouring twig. The vernal hanging parrot perches, pulls his tiny matchstick leg over his wing to scratch the side of his face, his wings falling partly open to reveal a red rump set against his parrot green. After his scratch, he sidles over to the nearest flower. Below him, on a stout branch, a thrumming mass of rock bees covers a large U-shaped pendent hive. On a nearby branch, a jungle-striped squirrel walks gingerly over the thorns nosing and nibbling at flowers en route. And there’s more. A flourish of black and yellow arriving with a screech: golden oriole. A flutter of reds and olives: common rosefinches, males and females, migrants from the Himalaya and further north now here to make the best of winter blooms and seeds. A tree top violinist fiddling fast and high pitched: a tiny purple sunbird singing his heart out, the energy of his notes falling like rain around the tree. A party of birds winging back and forth: Malabar starlings, leafbirds, and bulbuls. Darting about, chattering, diving for a drink from deep red cups, they even look like they are having a party.

It’s a party thrown by the silk cotton trees. Come, partake of this prolific nectar, they seem to say—a generosity hiding an agenda of its own. For when the birds and bees, and, too, the bats by night, visit the flowers, they are dusted with golden pollen to carry onto flowers of other silk cotton trees, ensuring cross-pollination. Each flower produces over eight million pollen grains from its ring of about eighty to hundred anthers, but pollen falling on the stigma of the same flower or of another flower on the same tree will fail to result in fruits. For reproduction, cross-pollination is vital. With crimson cup offerings, the trees entice animal vectors to do the job for them.

Red silk cotton in full bloom

Weeks later, by April, many of the cross-pollinated flowers—those not eaten by macaques or dropped onto the forest floor to be munched by muntjacs—form oblong capsule-like fruits that are silk-stuffed cocoons of seeds. The capsules burst open in the hot, dry weather, letting the seeds, each with its little wispy parachute, fly with the winds. Silky white carpets form in the forest floor in the vicinity of silk cotton trees just as the pre-monsoon thunderstorms arrive to trigger the germination of the lucky seeds downed in the right spots. On the branches, new leaves sprout and splay their fingers to catch the light as the trees flush green again in sync with the rains, as if following a ticking clock of the spinning earth.

My thoughts swing to other flowering silk cotton trees that I had stood under across India in years past. I recalled the stately semal trees in Teen Murti Bhavan, New Delhi, welcoming birds of astonishing diversity in the national capital. I thought of the trees in the far northeastern forests of Dampa in Mizoram, bordering Tripura and Bangladesh. There, one January, I had watched birds feasting on nectar on a tree spiring over bamboo forests. Across another river and another border, this one not just imagined in maps but sliced on land by ugly fence and razor wire, were other silk cotton trees, whose pollen would be carried by birds and bats and bees and whose seeds would fly with the wind across states and nations. There, the tree was called bochou by the Bru, sinigaih by the Chakma, and phunchawng by the Mizos at that territorial trijunction.

It struck me then how absurd it is to affix territorial tags to these trees: could the silk cotton trees be Tamilian or Keralite when all that separated them were seamless river and air? Could the tree in Mizoram have sprouted from a seed blown from Tripura by the winds of time, growing over decades to stand tall and free? Would we deprive it a record in our national registry of trees because it was spawned by a pollen grain winged over from Bangladesh by an unwitting myna or starling? The trees remain rooted but are not isolated, immobile individuals. They are active, mobile, and complex living beings connected to hundreds or thousands of other plants and animals, in what the novelist John Fowles once described as a ‘togetherness of beings’.

At the turn of every new year, as silk cotton trees erupt in red across India’s forests, they signify neither flags of territory nor salutes to freedom. They celebrate a togetherness of beings who know how to live as citizens of the earth.

On 8 March 2020, while the citizenship protests in New Delhi were ongoing, an edited version of this article appeared under a different title in the Indian Express Sunday Eye.

The Idea of Justice: A review

This post just pulls in my review of Amartya Sen’s 2010 book The Idea of Justice, which I had originally posted on Goodreads in 2011 soon after I finished reading the book. It had picked up a few ‘likes’ but little discussion, so I thought I’d post it here again. I’ve added a few links for context.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When an author as distinguished as Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics and acclaimed polymath and thinker, writes on the issue of justice, one expects great insight into an aspect central to human life and democracy. With more than 400 dense pages of text and footnotes, over 30 pages of notes, and a long preface, Sen’s book tries to take the reader through a labyrinth of ideas and literature from ancient times to modern days. Indeed, in proposing an approach that is philosophically and morally relevant to human freedom and capability, and that integrates well with modern views on democracy and openness, Sen makes a stalwart contribution to the literature of our times.

Sen’s essential thesis is simple. He sets up a contrast between two views of justice. The more paradigmatic traditional view, which Sen calls transcendental institutionalism, based on John Rawls‘s A Theory of Justice is set against a more realization-focused comparative approach developed by many thinkers and espoused by Sen himself. The former depends on a social contract among individuals that will ostensibly evolve in a hypothetical ‘original condition’ of impartiality where everyone is free of their vested interests due to a ‘veil of ignorance‘ that separates them from what they will be in the real world. This is then supposed to lead to two fundamental principles of justice (liberty, equality and equity) and determine the right institutions and rules governing justice, after which we are home and free on the road to perfect justice. In the latter view, Sen questions whether perfect justice is either attainable or required, and if creating institutions and rules are sufficient to see that justice is actually achieved in the real world. The answer, rather obviously, is no. We are mostly not interested in what perfect or ideal justice is in a given situation; mostly, what we have are two or more options that we need to assess to see which would be more just. Such assessment, should be based on reasoning, preferably public reasoning that is open, impartial, and democratic and leads to the best social choices and actual realization of justice among people in the real world. The contrast between the two concepts is also presented by Sen as the distinction between the concepts of niti and nyaya in Indian thought.

This overarching message of the book and the additional weight provided by someone like Sen in pushing it, is a valuable one. It suggests that in a world rife with problems and conflicts, citizens and the media have a more central role in engaging with issues, learning about them, reasoning publicly over diverse choices, and arriving at rational and better courses of action.

In the end, however, the book disappoints more than it edifies, it frustrates more than it clarifies. To be fair, this is not because Sen’s reasoning is defective or that the approach to justice he espouses in the book is vague or poorly reasoned. It fails partly because Sen is not really saying anything new in this book that he and others have not already said earlier. More important, Sen buries his simple and highly relevant thinking and his effort to pull ideas together under a cloud of pedantry and repetition. Only a diehard reader willing to suffer some poor, laboured writing in order to grasp some really rich ideas can plough through this book.

Does a man who knows so much about the economy of the world, know so little about the economy of words?

Early on, Sen describes the essential features of Rawls’s theory briefly, with the apology that

…every summary is ultimately an act of barbarism…

and his counter-view and reasoning. This, along with other related ideas on the importance of reason and impartiality, is then repeated many times (easily over a dozen times, but one loses count) throughout the book. Not only does Sen repeat the basic idea of justice (often in more or less the same words) in the text, he repeats himself in the extensive footnotes, and just in case you haven’t caught on, he obligingly marks in numerous additional footnotes that this same point was already made by him in an earlier chapter. It becomes rather more than a passing annoyance when he repeats his expression of what Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ means thrice in two paragraphs (pg. 197-8). If summaries are an act of barbarism, then how does one describe such verbiage: vandalism? To quote Sen himself (pg. 73):

Words have their significance but we must not become too imprisoned by them.

Or even better, if only Sen had heeded the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein quoted in the first sentence of the first chapter of his book:

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

Reading Sen’s repetitive work, one feels for his editor, Stuart Profitt, who Sen says in the Acknowledgements made “invaluable comments and suggestions… almost on every page of every chapter”, mentioning his “relief” at the end of this book, which we come to understand well. Still, one wishes Sen could have ‘Profitted’ more from the editing. Sorely tempted, at the end of the 400+ page book to commit a barbaric act myself, I summarised his tome into a single sentence:

John Rawls’s theory that perfect justice can be derived by creating the right institutions and rules based on principled social contracts among people in a hypothetical original condition where everyone is ignorant of what they will be in the real world, is untenable; instead, the idea of justice requires open, impartial, and public reasoning to arrive at more just and democratic solutions through social choices made by comparing actual available alternatives, while being mindful of process and outcome on people in the real world.

Three other aspects I found wanting in this book are (a) the lack of discussion of real cases and choices on burning issues of justice, (b) the paucity of discussion on how his idea of justice naturally translates into important consequences for debates on global environment (e.g., climate change, wildlife conservation issues), and (c) his rather limited use of Asian philosophy, literature, and ideas. A few lines about each of these below.

Sen makes passing mention of some real cases: a line about the Iraq war and the role of the US (which he calls “this country”, on pg. 71, giving away the readership he seems to be writing for), mentions of famines, the French Revolution, and rights of women and slavery. There is some empirical data and discussion on famine in Chapter 16, but again based on old material he has covered in his 1981 book Poverty and famines. When Sen does discuss a case in greater depth, it is rather frivolous invented examples, about personal freedom and choices when sitting on seats in airplanes, or three children and a flute. These are alright to introduce the nuances of choice in justice, but in all this mad, chaotic world could Sen really find no real cases where the same dilemma for justice is present? He talks so much about realization and consequence in the real world, but the real world of cases is strangely absent in his own book. Real injustice and the failure of institutions could be well illustrated and discussed in many cases: for example, the Bhopal tragedy, the Holocaust, or the case of global climate change.

My greatest disappointment with the book was, however, more personal. As someone interested in the environment conservation movement—including issues of global justice, social choices and sustainability, and the expansion of human ethical horizons to include nature and the interests of animals—I expected more from this book than I perhaps should have, given that it is, ultimately, written by a Harvard economist. Sen deals with sustainable development and the environment in a little over 4 pages (pg. 248-252), bringing mainly two points to the fore. One, that development should not be seen as antagonistic to environment as it could lead to benefits, for instance through empowerment, female education and reduction in fertility rates. Second, that conservation can be based on our sense of values and our freedom and capability to hold and pursue those values is sufficient substantive reason to pursue conservation goals: a sort of freedom to conserve, indeed.

When Sen speaks of social choices, rationality, and other aspects of people such as sympathy and sharing, he seems oblivious, at least in this book, about the rich literature in anthropology and biology (including evolution and animal behaviour and psychology), and ethics (including environmental ethics and animal rights). Arguably, these have more contemporary relevance to the issue than Adam Smith‘s early and other economists’s recent speculations, uninformed by biology and anthropology, on these matters. The ideas of various thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Nagel, Adam Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, have been discussed extensively in the light of recent scientific research on human and primate behaviour, and moral philosophers have extended the ethical principles underlying human rights to issues of animal welfare and rights and environmental conservation. These are relevant, but missing, in the otherwise valuable chapters ‘Rationality and Other People’, ‘Human Rights and Global Imperatives’, and ‘Justice and the World’. This may seem harsh, but until Sen can integrate these views of economics and justice with the stellar advances in fields of biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and moral philosophy, he remains, not a polymath as some have called him, but like most other economists, mostly a ‘math’.

Finally, Sen brings Asian philosophy to bear rather sparingly in the book. This includes, besides the niti-nyaya gradient, description of some essential ideas from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna on duty and consequence in the Bhagavad Gita episode of the Mahabharata, about Akbar and Ashoka, and sound bytes from the Buddhist sutta nipata. That’s it? That’s all that thousands of years and billions of people have to contribute to the idea of justice? Or is this a deliberate choice by the author to keep the focus on the John Rawls and Kenneth Arrows of this world? I can’t really tell.

In sum, this is an important book for the core idea it contains. For those who don’t wish to wade through the whole book, four chapters are still worth reading that present the essentials: the Introduction, Chapter 4 on ‘Voice and Social Choice’, Chapter 11 on ‘Lives, Freedoms, and Capabilities’, and Chapter 15 on ‘Democracy as Public Reason’. There are some interesting books and literature cited in the bibliography that can lead one to a wider reading (e.g., Jonathan Glover, Barry Holden, Jon Elster). One wishes, however, that Sen will enlarge his view and shrink his text in his next offering.

So it goes.

Being with dolphins

There is a dark sea above and a dark sea below. With one I am transfixed, with the other forever moving. Above, the arched firmament is smeared with galactic grey and sprinkled with silver brilliance of stars uncounted. Below, a fathomless depth hides under a smooth lustre, crested with white ribbons of surf and the luminescent wake of our passage.

And there is, with the wind, the gentle wind, tugging at my t-shirt, sifting through my hair, my eyes, eyelashes, over my hands and my legs, sighing in my ears, a light swell on which the boat rises, and a moment poised on a vertex of consciousness, filled with being.

In boundless seas, I am transfixed, I am moving, I am.

Spinner dolphins (Video: NCF)
Spinner dolphins video by Kalyan Varma

… This post first appeared under the title ‘Dancing with Dolphins’ in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on 13 March 2012 and on the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 20 April 2012. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.

In the interest of other animals

How should we as humans value and relate to other animals? When we use animals in research, in zoos and aquaria, as food items or body parts, as specimens or experimental models, as pets, as machismo-inflating trophies to be bagged, or just as objects for entertainment, do we fully understand their needs, their welfare, their interests? Do we also comprehend our own underlying values, overt or covert, that are revealed in the way we deal with other animals? Is it right to speak of animal interests, pain, and suffering? The implications of the knowledge we have gained in recent times from scientific research on animal societies, behaviour, and cognition on the way we view animals is profound. This year, I was fortunate to read two very different and remarkable books, both compelling and thought-provoking, which bring these issues to the fore. Taken together with the leading primatologist Frans de Waal’s book The Age of Empathy, that I have referred to in an earlier post, these books are a valuable read for wildlife scientists and all those who have the interests of animals at heart.

My first reaction to these two astounding books, as a practicing wildlife scientist with a claim to be involved in animal research and conservation over the last two decades was: “Why were these profoundly important issues never a formal and thorough part of my academic training or practice?” Is it because issues of human values, morals and ethics are considered outside the pale of training to be a wildlife scientist or ecologist? Is it because they are considered wishy-washy or vague, or, devil-take-you, too subjective? Or is it simply because most present-day wildlife scientists actually do not have a deep understanding or appreciation of the central issues, or if they do, they prefer to keep it to themselves? But why not? We use animals in research. We make claim to efforts to understand them. We make conservation appeals, ostensibly, on their behalf. We probe, we peer, we collect, we tag, we trap, we handle, we follow, we even sometimes kill animals for scientific study. Do we really do all this on the basis of a comprehensive ethical and moral foundation? Or do we shy away from these issues because of being tagged an animal-rights activist even if we are not really speaking of rights? In the context of conservation, can we achieve our goals if we lack a foundational conservation ethic? These books give plenty of food for thought.

The Lives of Animals

The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant work by a Nobel laureate in literature and a wonderful book to start the year with. A superb form of academic novel (a novel genre, I could say, if the pun may be forgiven), this is top-notch writing on a theme of profound and enduring significance for anyone concerned with human values and connections with other animals.

J. M. Coetzee, invited to Princeton to deliver the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values, presents the lectures as a fictional story with debate and dialogue crafted into the form of this book. Within it is the story of Elizabeth Costello, herself an academic, invited to deliver lectures at a University, and the lectures she delivers and the ensuing responses. Reading it as a sort of literary dialectic, one is swept by Coetzee’s tight and engaging prose into central moral, philosophical and ethical issues related to the lives of animals. The four commentaries that accompany the central work by Coetzee are excellent, too. The book’s introduction by political philosopher Amy Gutmann, and accompanying essay commentaries by Wendy Doniger (religion scholar), Barbara Smuts (primatologist), Marjorie Garber (literary theorist ), and Peter Singer (moral philosopher and author of Animal Liberation reviewed below) are worth reading and add great value to this book.

Coetzee touches on vital issues that relate to whether we perceive other animals as beings with interests or as objects for our manipulation. Cruelty, sentience, sympathy, empathy, and the morality of our actions towards other sentient beings is the undercurrent of Coetzee’s words, of Costello’s debate. Vegetarianism, animal intelligence and how we perceive it even as trained scientists, pain and suffering, animal slaughter or ‘sacrifice’, these are all themes seamlessly woven into a gripping narrative thread. Coetzee brings sudden and scathing clarity and depth to the work of a litany of earlier writers, scientists, and philosophers: of Thomas Aquinas and Jeremy Bentham, Franz Kafka and Tom Regan, Wolfgang Köhler and Mary Midgely, and many others.

And yet, the implications are not thrust on you as absolutes, as dogma. It comes in measured words, prompting a dawning awareness. To do this Coetzee draws brilliantly on Kafka’s Red Peter, the ape presenting A Report to An Academy, and Costello’s words only seem to echo his own hidden voice:

I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.

A phenomenal work, worth reading and re-reading, even if only to be touched by Coetzee’s prose, or perhaps for introspective and outwardly illumination.

Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement (P.S.)

Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement by Peter Singer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compelling and well-written, Peter Singer’s book is a classic that should be required reading for anyone concerned with the interests of animals. Without taking recourse to the issue of the rights of animals, Singer explains how moral and ethical positions we can take and understand become inadequate if restricted only to humans. Trying to separate humans as a species as somehow distinct and above beings of all other species (speciesism), if pursued logically and through all its implications, only leads to moral, ethical, and philosophical positions that are untenable.

A considerable portion of the book is devoted to detailed and balanced consideration of two major issues affecting the interests and welfare of animals: (a) the millions upon millions of animals used in research and vivisection, and (b) the billions and billions of animals ‘reared’ (=imprisoned) in factory farms and other facilities in cruel conditions and inefficiently (from social and ecological perspectives) only to be ultimately slaughtered, often painfully, for use as food for humans. This is not to overlook the (ab)use of animals for other reasons, such as for fur or other animal products such as leather, but just that the number of animals cruelly treated for vivisectional research/animal testing and for food is enormous. According to Singer, the greatest impact on the largest number of animals will result from immediate changes in these two areas: by avoiding and finding alternatives to animal testing and vivisection, and by going vegetarian, vegan, or being far more circumspect and choosy about where the animal flesh or produce you eat comes from and how the animals were raised and treated.

Besides bringing these issues forward and in-your-face for serious consideration, Singer’s major contributions in this book are a lucid articulation of some central issues. First, the issue of what equality involves (not assuming that everyone is equal as there is undeniable variation, but the ethical imperative of equal treatment). Second, bringing consideration of the interests of animals to the forefront (without need to draw on or call for animal ‘rights’). Separating issues related to preventing pain and suffering, from issues related to the actual killing of animals is another distinction that leads to nuances in treatment of animals and animal welfare in various contexts.

The book is perhaps titled Animal Liberation to raise analogies with other liberation movements, for instance against slavery, racism, and sexism. In fact, many ethical and moral issues raised are consistent across these various movements. The way these are highlighted by the author and the analogies that he draws are very useful both to understand issues and to strengthen reasoned debate. One can ponder on the ideas Singer presents. One can grasp practical suggestions he gives for more ethical personal choices. And one can act.

Worth reading, absolutely.

This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 21 October 2011.

The Great Rift

Like a deep gash from shoulder to chest, the Great Rift Valley plunges into the heart of Africa. In the landscape to the west, below a clouded sky, a Marabou soars above everything—vast plateaux with weaving rivers, steep-sided valleys spotted with shimmering soda lakes, and a landscape peppered with cities and settlements, farms and savanna. Standing on a little promontory, we do not feel disadvantaged by the Marabou; from horizon to horizon the sweeping view is nearly as much as the soaring stork may see.

There is the endless tawny gold of dry grass, flecked with emerging green, and studded with Balanites trees like dark poster-pins on a golden velvet. Extending to the grey-blue of distant hills is the grey-brown fuzz of thorny acacia and candelabra trees alternating with stream-side ribbons of deep green forest.

There is the ringed boma, from where clusters of cattle radiate, bells ringing, watched by red-cloaked Masai. By the muddied river is the tinsel tourist town with large-wheeled vehicles and workshops, decrepit streets and shanty houses, signboards of luxurious resorts pointing beguilingly away from the squalor where blank-eyed youth stare impassively at wide-eyed visitors who have traveled far to be here. And there, in the distance, is the long, dark line of several thousand wildebeest.

Great migration

The wildebeest are hunkered down on the long walk. The rough grass is knee-high to the front-runner. As thousands of hoofs pass, press, push apart and down, tear and crush, the grass is flattened, shredded, crushed into the earth or dusted aside, until, at the end of the line, one can see hoof marks on the thin strip of naked earth winding through the grassland. The trail of the wildebeest will stay for a few days or weeks until the grass covers it again—a soft mark on the landscape, unlike the road-scars made for vehicles and the traveling people.

By all accounts, this is an old, old human landscape. Humans evolved, as a species, from other primate forebears, not far from here. In the last two million years, and in the geological blink of the last ten thousand, the species spawned by this land has spread out, transforming themselves and the Earth. Today, the new peoples return to the land where others of their ilk like the Masai still live. They arrive as spectators of the great migration of wildebeest.

Across over 30,000 square kilometres of the Serengeti – Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya, over a million wildebeest join over half a million zebra, gazelle, and other ungulates on the annual migration. Early in the year, the journey of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest begins, too, with their birth near the ‘cradle of humanity’ in the grasslands near Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti and in Ngorongoro. Then, as the dry season arrives and grasses begin to dry, the herds move, past feeding and mating grounds, to the north and north-east, to arrive, by June and July, in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

And there they find both profusion in the grass and peril at the jaws of lions.

Drama of renewal

At the Mara River in Kenya, the wildebeest throng at the water’s edge, bleating and pulsing with purpose at the perilous crossing, eyes alert for the wraith-like crocodiles in the swift current.

In their great journey, the perils of the crossing appear momentary, but many do not make it across. Those that do, spend the next four months in the Mara landscape, feeding in long grass woodland and savanna.

Still, the real drama is not merely in the pulse and throng of the Mara crossing. The flecks of green in humble grass, energised by sun and rain, are the markers of a greater drama played out across vast space and time.

Low clouds streaking grey shafts of rain are visible from many kilometres away in the open savanna, but the migration is provoked by changes across even longer distances. The wildebeest, incredibly, seem to track that vast sweep of rainfall and grass production. For, as rains bring lush growth to the short grass plains to the south, the ensuing pulse of nutritional profusion propels the wildebeest to loop back to the Serengeti plains.

And so, the wildebeest move. And with their bodies, their feeding, and their dung, they transform the grasslands in their passing. Scripted by evolution and directed by ecology, and spanning hundreds of kilometres every year, the annual migration of these hoofed engineers of a great landscape is one of nature’s most remarkable phenomena.

Spectator or spawn?

And so the people watch, at the Mara River, crowded in four-wheel drive safari vehicles, vans, and trucks. Here, nature is placed on display for the tourist. Vehicles rev and vie for the best spot for their customer to take that perfect photograph.

Later, they will discuss their ‘take’ at the river’s edge, over tables set with white sheets, served French-press coffee and fresh croissants by white-gloved waiters from the resort. The hippos and crocodiles pursue ancient custom in the river, as the riverside tourist, a human whose journey originated in the great landscape of Africa, is back to ogle or ignore at will, and return to the power-fenced resorts beautified with manicured lawns and ornamental plants from faraway lands.

This is the human domain, it all proclaims, and nature is out there.

And when the people depart, taking photographs and memories, nature is left behind, as are the leavings of their visit. As just another species born of this landscape, the human does not seem out of place here, but his new presence and manner betrays a different sensibility.

Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

The journey of the human, set against the journey of the wildebeest in the land of Marabou and Masai, then evokes another sense. A sense, paraphrasing the poet Gary Snyder, that nature is not a place to visit—it is home. And of this land, we are the spawn not the spectator. That what is needed to replace people within nature is not the bringing of more people and vehicles into trackless wilderness, but a realisation, espoused by thinkers such as Aldo Leopold, that nature is the land and community to which we belong. In the absence of such a sense of place, the great rift then appears not just a gash in the earth in Africa, but a rift that threatens to sunder human from nature in our hearts and minds.

(Photographs by Divya Mudappa and T. R. Shankar Raman)

An edited version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald supplement Spectrum Environment on 9 August 2011 (p 4). http://www.deccanherald.com/content/182250/rift.html

The deaths of Osama and a lesson for humanity

Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, say the news reports. Really?! Or should I say—not again?! He’s been killed twice in India already! Once in 2006 and again in 2008. Yes, it made news splashes even then, although not as large a splash as his most recent death. Osama’s first death occurred in December 2006 in a tea estate in Assam in north-east India, at the hands of a hunter, a hired gun tasked with taking out the terrifying serial killer. And as if that was not enough, he was killed again in May 2008, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, at the hands of an empowered mob of government authority—the Forest Department and the Police. The second death was not easy. It took 20 bullets to silence Osama. And from the recent news, it seems even that did not work, after all.

The painful truth is that the first two deaths of Osama referred, not to the terrorist mastermind and leader of al-Qaeda, but to two separate individual Asian elephants Elephas maximus, Asia’s largest land mammal, with the contrasting reputation of being the gentle giants of its forests. These individuals were named after a feared human, on the most-wanted list of a distant superpower. They were labeled serial killers and raging bulls, as rogues and as terrorisers. And yet, when people came to see the prostrate corpse of the killed elephant, they placed flowers on its body, even as many asked whether the right animal was killed or it was just another innocent elephant victim.

… This post first appeared in the NCF blog, EcoLogic, on 13 May 2011 and in Deccan Herald. Read more in The Wild Heart of India: Nature and Conservation in the City, the Country, and the Wild.