cognitive science
and more

Earlier this year, David Barner (UC San Diego) and Jesse Snedeker (Harvard) launched a petition to ask the editors of the psychology journal Cognition to move their journal to 'fair' open access: All articles should be made freely available for anyone to read, and publishing fees should be far lower than the current $2150 per-article option (authors can currently choose to pay this to make their article open access).

If Elsevier, the publisher of Cognition, would refuse to cooperate, the entire editorial board should resign and relaunch the journal under a different name and with a fair open-access model; this bold move would not be unprecedented: the editorial board of Lingua—reborn Glossa—did just that.

This petition was signed by 1660 people, many of which are prominent academics. I signed it as well.

Image adapted from Michael Eisen (license: CC-by)

The editorial board of Cognition responded with an editorial in which they suggested the following 'compromise': Things stay as they are, but authors can request a discounted publishing fee. How much of a discount? And by which criteria? They don't say.

This is typical Elsevier maneuvering: Whenever academics revolt, Elsevier respond with a counterproposal. This gives the impression that they are open to negotiation. But they are really not: The counterproposal is not an acceptable compromise at all—just a rhetoric trick to smother the conversation.

Like this:

  • Scientist: There are two apples on the table. You always have both, but I don't think that's fair ...
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How to get over academic writer's block

Do you know the feeling of staring at an empty page? Cursor blinking. Coffee getting cold (but still drinking it). You kind of know what you want to write: you have an experiment, some data, and you have a fairly good idea of how your data relates to previous studies. But somehow the words don't appear.

It feels awful, that's how. And if you're a researcher struggling with a manuscript, you probably know the feeling.

Below are a few tips to just write. There's no magic bullet; but a few common-sense tips can help you to get over the worst of your writer's block. And for what it's worth: they work for me.

Here's a truth: everyone who writes occasionally gets stuck. As I was about to delete the previous sentence because it's ambiguous, I realized that it's doubly true. Because [ everyone who writes | occasionally gets stuck ]; that is, even writers who normally write easily sometimes have trouble getting their words on paper.

But [ everyone who writes occasionally | gets stuck ]; that is, if you don't write often, you'll get stuck for sure, and get stuck properly. A writer is like an engine that needs to keep running; otherwise she gets cold and rusty. Many researchers write only a few short papers a year, and that's not enough to keep the engine warm. Clearly, the best remedy is therefore to write more: more papers, blog posts, love letters—anything ...

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What is the passive voice (good for)?

In sentences with an active voice, the person or thing that performs the action (the doer) is the grammatical subject of the sentence; and the recipient of the action (the doee? ) is the object:

The researcher conducted an experiment

In sentences with a passive voice, it's the other way around: the recipient is the grammatical subject, and the doer is specified by a preposition (usually 'by'):

The experiment was conducted by the researcher

The passive voice is bad, mkay. Or least it tends to lack force and to take the speed out of a sentence. That's why most authorities caution against it:

An especially perverse passive voice arises when an active sentence without a recipient (i.e. if nothing is done to anyone) is made passive. In that case, 'it' needs to stand in for the missing recipient ('it is …'). This also happens when there strictly speaking is a recipient, but the recipient is not the subject of the passive sentence. Are you still following? Example! You often see this in academic writing, where authors happily commit crimes against humanity such as:

In the present article, it is investigated whether […]

Instead of:

Here we investigate whether […]

But what is the passive voice exactly? The examples above are clear: they are either clearly passive or clearly active. But things aren't always as clear. Consider:

I was excited by the idea of going out with her

Is this passive or active? If, like Wikipedia, you consider 'excited' to be ...

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Ugly sentences and nice buts

I have something against the word 'however.' It's not used all that much in everyday language, only about 45 times for every million words (according to Subtlex). If that low frequency surprises you, you've been reading too much academic literature, in which 'however' is rampant. I don't have any reliable data on this, but based on a few randomly selected papers, I estimate that the frequency of 'however' in academic language is around 2000 per million. To put this into context: A frequency of 2000 per million would make 'however' one of the most commonly used words in academic English.

But 'however' is just the cumbersome cousin of the delicious, nimble, and flexible 'but' (frequency in everyday language: 4400 per million). Look:

1) It's an ugly sentence, but it has a nice 'but.'

Sounds good, right? If you like your prose staccato, you could even use a period instead of a comma:

2) It's an ugly sentence. But it has a nice 'but.'

The difference in meaning (if any) between 1 and 2 is subtle, but my reading is something like this: In 1, the nice 'but' makes the sentence less ugly; it almost says: The sentence would have been ugly, if it weren't for its nice 'but.' But in 2, the ugliness and nice 'but' of the sentence are two cold facts; an ugly sentence is an ugly sentence is an ugly sentence—nice 'but' or no.

You could even use neither a ...

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3 poorly designed everyday things

Most things around us are designed; they have been created by other people to serve some purpose. Few things are designed perfectly: Door handles turn the wrong way; chairs are uncomfortable; tables are too high or too low; etcetera. It happens. No-one nor thing is perfect.

But occasionally you come across something that has been designed so poorly that you wonder what, if anything, went through the designer's mind. These are precious gems of stupidity that not only violate principles of good design (which is excusable, because good design is difficult), but seem to have been constructed without any common sense at all.

Here are three random examples of poor design that I came across in the past week.

The first is a brand-new bathroom at the University of Lyon II. New and clean bathrooms are rare in France, so coming across a bathroom like this is, in itself, a happy occasion. But do you notice the toilet-paper dispenser? Do you notice where it is? Exactly. (You may be thinking: Surely there are also toilet-paper dispensers inside the actual toilets? There aren't.)

Apparently there was a designer who felt that it was a good idea to put the toilet-paper dispenser outside of the toilets. We can only guess what went through his or her mind, but we can be sure that it wasn't common sense.

I hope there haven't been any casualties yet: People who underestimated before going in. But there will be. Oh yes, there ...

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