Posted by: mattburleigh | July 4, 2014

Invasion of the scarecrows


Tomorrow is the village fete, and the theme this year is a Scarecrow festival. This kind of thing isn’t normally my cup of tea, but when I went out for a bike ride earlier I noticed some rather creative creatures appearing. Makes me think we are about to be part of a very British comedy horror movie, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

I think my favourite is the yuppie banker outside the stockbrokers.

Posted by: mattburleigh | June 19, 2014

Watch astronomers blow up a mountain

Sometime after 17:30BST today, engineers and astronomers of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) will blow the top off a mountain in the Atacama desert in Chile in preparation for construction of the world’s largest telescope. The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will have a main mirror 39m in diameter. In contrast, the largest telescopes in use today have main mirrors of 8m and 11m in diameter. Those are big: the E-ELT will be a behemoth, collecting around 25 times as much light as a single one of the largest telescopes in use today, and more than all of them put together!
You can learn more about the E-ELT here, and watch the mountain exploding here from 17:30BST.

The E-ELT should see first light in a decade’s time, finance and construction timetables permitting. It’s funded by a consortium of countries including the UK through ESO, which is the organisation that runs Europe’s current telescopes in Chile. Not all funding is in place…. we are still waiting for Brazil to commit, but Spain recently joined, which was welcome news. The UK is currently leading the design and construction of one of the first instruments, and strongly involved in several others that are either approved or being proposed.

The E-ELT as it will hopefully look

I’ve been involved in the E-ELT project since virtually the start. Back in 2003 I attended a workshop in Marseilles in which we brainstormed on the science we could do with an enormous telescope. At that stage, a concept of a 100m wide “Overwhelmingly Large Telescope” (OWL) was being considered! I think I got a bit of a reputation for banging on about building something big enough to image an Earth around another star…… A year later, and we were further developing the science ideas with the help of Grappa in Florence (remember that @chrisinembra and @sarahkendrew?). When the E-ELT was officially launched in 2006 in Marseilles, it’s main mirror was to be 42m wide. A significant number?

I’ve contributed at various times to the science driving ideas for the E-ELT and its instruments, and have served in the UK E-ELT Steering Committee for quite a few years. Our job there is to oversee the UK’s budget (ie our government investment through the STFC research council) for technology and instrument development.

So today is an important and exciting milestone in the project. Once the mountain, Cerro Amazones, has been blasted and cleared, it’s ready for construction to begin….

Cerro Amazones is within sight of Cerro Paranal, home of ESO’s current four largest telescopes (the VLT), and our new transiting extra-solar planet survey, NGTS. Here’s the NGTS site with Cerro Amazones in the background:

Hopefully that’s far enough away…

And finally. That name. E-ELT. On radio 4 Today this morning John Humphries called it “boring”. He’s right, it is. But it’s also very European. Inoffensive. Precisely descriptive. Translates. Hell, after more than 20 years the Very Large Telescopes are still called the VLTs (they have individual names after local native gods, but that hasn’t really caught on). At the E-ELT launch in Marseilles in 2006 I suggested to the then ESO Director General that we call it the “Polo Telescope” on account of the large hole in the main mirror design. The joke didn’t go down well. Do they have polos in France? Perhaps it should have been the Douglas Adams Telescope. But then 42m was de-scoped to 39m. Mind you, I suspect Adams would probably have found that very amusing….

Posted by: mattburleigh | June 3, 2014


MCC Laws of cricket Law 41.15:

15. Bowler attempting to run out non-striker before delivery

The bowler is permitted, before entering his delivery stride, to attempt to run out the non-striker. Whether the attempt is successful or not, the ball shall not count as one of the over.
If the bowler fails in an attempt to run out the non-striker, the umpire shall call and signal Dead ball as soon as possible.

ICC Standard ODI Match Playing Conditions:

Law 42.15 shall be replaced by the following
The bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he
has not completed his usual delivery swing, to attempt to run out the
non-striker. Whether the attempt is successful or not, the ball shall not
count as one of the over.

So Joss Butler was out under the playing conditions for this match, since Senanayake was into his delivery stride but had not rotated his bowling arm.

But if some opposition idiot tries it next saturday, it’s not out since club matches are played under MCC Laws of Cricket (and any league regulations), not ICC ODI playing conditions.




Posted by: mattburleigh | April 6, 2014

Was it really 20 years ago?

Kurt Cobain killed himself 20 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long. In 1994 I was in the first year of my PhD, and was visiting the USA for the first time. I had a conference in Berkeley discussing results from NASA’s Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer satellite, and on the way I visited friends in Florida and at CalTech in Pasadena. I have vivid memories of driving the long road to the Florida Keys, visiting Cape Canaveral, sampling my first American microbrewed beers in the CalTech bar, and in many more around San Francisco and Berkeley. I tend to remember the fun bits: the conference meal on a boat under the Golden Gate (a free bar if I recall, Pete Wheatley?), talking the hind legs off a donkey in a jazz club somewhere in SF ’til lord knows what time,  eating in an enormous Dim Sum restaurant in LA with CalTech PhD students including Ben Oppenheimer & Angela Putney. Then that summer we went on cricket tour to Bath, played a legendary fixture at Bath CC (caught at gulley for bugger all, smashed into the Avon for six, but Steve Orchard and Richard Gatehouse showed their class and gave us a score), failed to set light to Marcus Baines’ only pair of socks, and generally misbehaved myself in the bars and clubs. I still have the photos somewhere (not including the misbehaviour).

But back to Cobain. I still remember the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Keith Sohl came bounding out of the side room of Beaumont Hall bar where we tended to have a cheap disco every saturday, and grabbed me: “You’ve got to listen to this!” He was right. I’m not sure I ever again had quite that experience of hearing a completely new and novel piece of music, and being utterly blown away. Radiohead? Oasis? Arcade Fire? All fantastic the first time I heard them (in Oasis’ case, the interesting stuff before they became white van man favourites), but not quite the same effect.

I suspect it’s an age thing. No doubt every teenager or young adult has their “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment. Cobain’s suicide was sad, but I’m not one for a hysterical over-reaction (see also Michael Jackson, Diana, etc). Frankly, it seemed inevitable. So the anniversary doesn’t stir in me feelings of loss. Instead, it evokes an uncomfortable emotion about the passage of time. It was 20 years ago, FFS! In the 80s, when my parents’ generation celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s (and it seemed, every other bloody even that happened in the sixties), I thought it was ancient history. And if you are much less than 30, Cobain and Nirvana are ancient history.

Now that thought makes me sad. What have I done in those 20 years? What have I achieved? Where did I leave that enthusiasm that drove me as a PhD student? What if I had made other choices, where would I be today? How did my career get so stuck? And if I look in the other direction, the one time takes, well, there’s the reminder that there’s going to be less and less of it in which to achieve my ambitions, and simply to enjoy…..

Here’s Nirvana’s first UK TV appearance, on The Word. Back when Channel 4 wasn’t stuffed full of reality TV garbage.

Posted by: mattburleigh | April 4, 2014

Thinking of my family today

Today is the funeral for my eldest cousin, Denise. She had been ill for many years, but her passing was a shock. Denise was kind, humble, and wonderful with children. When I was little, she was naturally the cousin I looked up to the most. And so I really would prefer to be there today to support my cousins that I grew up with, my Aunt and Uncle, Kay and Gary, and Denise’s own children. Instead, I’m taking a moment to look up at the stars outside, reflect and remember. My father has posted on facebook a lovely collection of photos of Denise and my cousins as children. Kay, Gary and our grandmother are there too. Here it is:

Posted by: mattburleigh | March 21, 2014

Gearing up for the Next Generation Transit Survey

ngts_logo I’m in Geneva at the moment, visiting the Observatoire de Geneve with my colleague Mike Goad and our PhD students Andy Grange and Alex Chaushev, to learn how to put together, set-up and commission the telescopes for our new exoplanet project, the Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS). In a few months time we’ll be travelling to ESO’s primary observatory at Paranal in Chile to install the 12 telescopes that will carry out the most sensitive ground-based survey for transiting extra-solar planets yet. As its name suggests, NGTS is a successor to the highly successful SuperWASP survey, which has found over 100 Jupiter and Saturn sized worlds since 2004. With NGTS, we aim to find Neptune-sized worlds around stars that are bright enough so that detailed follow-up studies can be made of them: radial velocity measurements to get the planets’ masses, and transmission spectroscopy and other techniques to study the planets’ atmospheres. If we’re lucky, we may even detect smaller “super-Earths” around red dwarf stars. Although NASA’s Kepler mission has found thousands of candidate exoplanets, many of them Neptune-sized and smaller, including candidate rocky planets, most of these worlds orbit stars that are too faint for such follow-up work. NGTS will fill a gap between Kepler and two newly approved space missions designed to try and find genuine, potentially habitable rocky worlds around nearby bright stars, NASA’s TESS and ESA’s PLATO .


The radius of exoplanets discovered by various projects (in Earth radii) versus the brightness of the star (remember, bigger number means fainter!).
NGTS is sensitive to finding transiting planets in the orange zone. The purple dots are Kepler’s planets, and are mostly found around faint stars. The SuperWASP planets are the pink dots, and the named planets are the most famous and well studied transiting ones. We want more of those!

NGTS has been funded by a consortium of British universities (Leicester, Warwick, Cambridge and Queen’s Belfast), together with DLR Berlin (who lead the PLATO mission) and the Observatoire de Geneve. Our major contribution at Leicester is to test and characterise the CCD detectors in the labs in our Space Research Centre . In essence we’re treating the detectors as we would those for a space mission, by trying to understand their behaviour at the most detailed level before they go on sky. This will help us to achieve the milli-mag precision photometry we are aiming for to detect small exoplanets. Indeed, the work has been very successful so far, and led to strong improvements in the detector performance with the aid of their supplier, Andor. This lab work is mainly being done by Andy Grange as part of his PhD thesis studies.


Rendering (by Richard West) of the suite of NGTS telescopes in their shed at Paranal, Chile

NGTS will consist of a suite of a dozen 20cm F/2.8 telescopes  manufactured by Astrosysteme Austria (ASA) simultaneously observing the sky from ESO’s Paranal observatory, the home of the four 8m Very Large Telescopes.      


One of the NGTS telescopes in its mount on the roof of the Observatoire de Geneve. The CCD detector is the light grey box on the side of the telescope.

For the last year we’ve had one of these units running  on the roof of the Observatoire de Geneve to test and develop all of the hardware and software systems. Meanwhile, in Chile, the land has been levelled and the concrete laid ready for the arrival of the telescope building, which is currently being shipped from its manufacturer in Devon. The current timetable is to begin installing each mount and telescope from July, but in order to do that we need to learn and practice not only putting the hardware together, but the procedures for aligning all of the optics and the detector, perfecting the telescope pointing on sky, and taking the first data. Which is why we’re here in Geneva this week! It’s been a real pleasure to get out of the office and the lecture theatre, away from the stress even if just for a couple of days, get a spanner in my hand and actually do something constructive. And it’s great to see my colleagues so enthusiastic. We had a lot of fun yesterday, and capped it by spending a few hours on sky in the evening testing some of the pointing and calibrating procedures. Followed by a cheese fondue and some crisp local white wine!


Mike trying hard to mount the CCD without breaking it.


Andy Grange, Mike Goad, Matt Burleigh, Alex Chaushev in Geneva, 21st March 2014.

Posted by: mattburleigh | November 26, 2013

The past revisited

I guess it’s been a rather extraordinary week. And one that’s brought back both good and bad memories.

I’m currently in South Africa, at the observatory at Sutherland, collecting data for one of my white dwarf projects.


I first came here in January 1994, three months into my PhD and, of course, at a momentous time in South Africa’s history, just before the first free election. I flew out with my supervisor, Martin Barstow, amid some trepidation as there was a fair amount of violence in the country ahead of the elections. For a young man who had vehemently opposed the apartheid regime in the 1980s (and the right wing support for it in the UK), this was an adventure into the unknown. I needn’t have worried. I fell in love with Cape Town, and I made new friends and colleagues that I work with to this day. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many times since, and the South African Astronomical Observatory have been very generous over the years in allocating me a lot of time with their facilities. So, if you like, this is my “20th anniversary observing run”, and it’s rather apt that local astronomer Francois van Wyk, who was our telescope operator in 1994, is working on the telescope next to mine tonight.

This last week has also seen the First Ashes Test Match from Brisbane. After a good start, England were thrashed by a resurgent Australia, accompanied by some of the usual histrionics, bragging and bravado from sections of their media and players. And again, for me, there was some poignancy.

Yours truly at the WACA, Perth, Dec 2010

At the WACA, Perth, Dec 2010

Three years ago I was in Australia following the latter half of England’s triumphant Ashes tour. I arrived in time to watch the 3rd Test in Perth, followed by Christmas and the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, and New Year’s Eve and the final triumphant match in Sydney. At the end of the series, I swore that I would return for the 2013/14 Ashes, and in particular I would try and attend the matches at Brisbane and Adelaide, that I missed in 2010/11. Sadly, the Australian dollar remains very strong against the pound, I’m still paying my debts from 2010/11, and my teaching commitments at Leicester prevent me taking the time off work. I’ve really missed the thrill and excitement of watching cricket in the vast Australian grounds, the songs of the Barmy Army, the heat, and that brilliant light that somehow uniquely distinguishes  Australia. I’ve also missed the after-play beers with fellow England fans, often complete strangers travelling alone or with a few friends, like myself, and seeking companionship. That, of course, is one of the reasons the Barmy Army is so successful. I even got to open the batting for them at St Kilda in Melbourne against the Aussie Fanatics, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to play a game of cricket in Australia.

And then this morning came the news that Jonathon Trott has returned home with a “stress related illness”. It transpires he’s been suffering with and managing depression throughout his entire international career, but sadly he felt he could no longer cope at this time. My heart goes out to him, and not just because he’s a fine player who I want back in the side as soon as, if that is ever possible.

You see, the reason I was in Australia in 2010/11 was because I was enduring, and trying to escape, my own battle with depression. At the end of August 2010 I had a nervous breakdown. The reasons are complex and remain extremely difficult for me to discuss, not least because others were involved in the events that led to my breakdown. Suffice to say a combination and accumulation of unaddressed pressures, stresses, incidents and disappointments over a long period led to increasingly erratic behaviour on my part, until finally my mind could no longer cope, and I collapsed.

I owe my wonderful parents a huge debt for caring for me over the following three months. I couldn’t face work; I could barely face getting out of bed. But with their help and support, and that of a psychologist who took me through a course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, plus, of course, medication, I gradually climbed a little out of the pit I found myself in. Indeed, I travelled to South Africa for an observing run with my then PhD student Katherine Lawrie, who was extremely kind, supportive and patient. After that we agreed that it might be beneficial to spend a few weeks doing something that might bring me immense pleasure, following the Ashes down under.

David Fleckney and yours truly enjoying the Sydney Test Jan 2011

David Fleckney and yours truly enjoying the Sydney Test Jan 2011

As it happened, a friend from my cricket club, David Fleckney, and his now wife Lisa were undertaking a 6 month round the world trip and planning to take in the Ashes matches. So I had company when I arrived in Singapore and then Perth. To be honest, I have no idea how black or otherwise my moods were during this time, but they always appeared happy to see me, for which I was hugely grateful. And there were plenty of other friends to meet, old and new, Barmy and local, as we travelled around Australia. The whole trip was incredibly therapeutic, and going down under at that moment was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Unfortunately, when I returned to England and work, I was dealt a hammer blow almost immediately on the research front, which tore apart what remained of my self confidence in my research. And the fact is that, three years down the line, I still struggle with depression. Some days, weeks and months are better than others, some periods are relatively free from anxiety, some tasks I can undertake without stress and with pleasure (for example, lecturing, which some may consider nerve-wracking, I find rewarding and cathartic). But other times are utterly black, often, I’m afraid, coinciding with extremes of pressure and stress at work or in life. It is, I know, difficult for friends and colleagues to contemplate, but there are tasks I sometimes cannot cope with or face. I can have anxiety and panic attacks that prevent me undertaking a job, not just say writer’s block, but a complete inability to face a certain task. I am convinced this is a hang up from events that led to my original breakdown, events which also cause me to suffer periods of paranoia, when my behaviour may seem somewhat irrational, though it might make perfect sense to me! Then there are simply the random “black dog” days of inexplicable bad moods, anger, and resentment, that even with the knowledge provided by CBT I struggle to lift myself from.

Sadly, I have also learnt that many people, even close friends and family, sometimes do not know how to deal with, approach or understand these moods and behaviours. Consequently it can feel very lonely, trying and failing to articulate how I’m feeling. Or not even trying, because actually it’s too much effort and I don’t have the energy, sorry. I can understand why some people just give up.

Next week I’ll be back in Leicester, with a very heavy workload before the end of term. I’ll be doing my best to achieve all my tasks, but there are only so many hours in a day. My priority will be my undergraduate students, who will only have two weeks left to complete projects etc.
Already tonight I’ve felt compelled to cancel a research seminar I was scheduled to give at another university, because something has to give and I am trying to avoid an overload that might lead to a black episode. So if I fail to complete a task to your deadline, please forgive me.

Sometimes I just can’t cope.


Posted by: mattburleigh | January 16, 2013

A little meeting about planets around dying stars…..

Last Friday (13th Jan) we hosted a meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society on “Planetary Systems of Evolved Stars”; that is, planets around dying stars like white dwarfs. By “we”, I mean myself, my Leicester colleague Sarah Casewell (@astronomerslc25) and Prof Boris Gaensicke from Warwick. I should add that most of the organisation was done by Sarah, for which Boris and I are most grateful. The meeting was part of the series of monthly “Specialist Discussion Meetings” the RAS holds at its HQ at Burlington House on Piccadilly in London. In fact, we were allocated the lecture theatre in the Geological Society , which is an excellent and historic venue. This is where the infamous Piltdown Man “discovery” was announced in 1912. I hope the centenary of that unfortunate event is just a coincidence…..Anyway, the RAS not only hosted the meeting, providing refreshments in the lovely Geological Soc library, but also kindly allowed us to invite some key speakers, expenses paid, from Europe. I didn’t take a head count, but across the day I guess we had between 30-40 people attending, including a few early arrivals for the monthly RAS ordinary meeting which followed, which gave an opportunity to advertise our field to some who may be unfamiliar with it. We were pretty pleased overall.

So what did we discuss? Basically, what happens to solar systems after their host stars evolve away from the main sequence into first Red Giants and finally, white dwarfs. I first wrote a paper discussing the possibility of finding planets around white dwarfs and how those systems might have evolved back in 2002, and since then we’ve hunted for such planets from the ground with 8m telescopes and from space with HST and Spitzer. In recent years there’s been a lot of activity in the theory community modelling what happens to solar systems and the planets themselves as stars evolve to the white dwarf stage. Since around 2005 there’s also been many more discoveries of dust disks around white dwarfs which are widely accepted to be the remains of asteroids and small planets that have been ripped apart by the white dwarf’s strong gravity. Indeed, these dust disks not only tell us the fraction of white dwarf progenitors (that’s 90% of stars) that form rocky planets, but also what they are made of. Way better than Kepler 🙂

Oh look, a star and its planets evolves to the white dwarf stage. And there’s a dust disk formed from a rocky planet that got a bit too close. (image by Mark Garlick / Warwick Uni).

Of course, you may not have heard about this stuff, which is one of the reasons we wanted to have the meeting at the RAS. Indeed, the most disappointing aspect of the day was the non-attendance and interest from many “mainstream” extra-solar planet investigators, but that’s not new. I’ve long been used to feeling that what I’m doing is somehow “left field”, even within my own department. The better news is that view is slowly changing, and at least some UK groups are getting more funding for this field. Sadly, my team at Leicester isn’t one of them, having lost our PDRA support recently. That’s a gripe for another blog really. Partly it can be attributed to the “Mason cuts” in astronomy funding in the UK finally catching up with Leicester, although I have issues with how STFC are currently distributing some of their PDRA awards……

Anyway, I tweeted some of the science highlighted by our speakers during the meeting and collected these with Storify (below). To summarize:
– The survival of planets to the white dwarf stage is a battle between engulfment by the Red Giant, tidal forces, and mass loss from the host star (Eva Villaver, Madrid).
– Terrestrial bodies as large as Pluto seem to be being disrupted and then accreted onto white dwarfs (Boris Gaensicke).
– Anomalous eclipse timing measurements from close white dwarf / red dwarf binaries (including interacting cataclysmic variables) suggests some may be orbited by circumbinary giant planets (Tom Marsh and Madelon Bours, Warwick). Tom urges caution: other effects may mimic planets, but is “70% sure” in the case of NN Ser and 50% sure in 4 or 5 other systems. These things were found before the Kepler circumbinary planets by the way.
– Instabilities set up in two-planet systems at the white dwarf stage can scatter planets and planetesimals into the inner solar system where they can be disrupted to form the observed dust disks (Dmitri Veras, Cambridge).
– At least 3% of hot subdwarf stars have close, brown dwarf companions (Stefan Geier, ESO, Munich) which may have assisted the formation of those objects through common envelope evolution.
– Close brown dwarf companions to white dwarfs can be irradiated and display extraordinary variability at wavelengths from the optical to mid-infrared (Sarah Casewell, Leicester).
– The number of brown dwarf companions to white dwarfs continues to slowly grow and such objects can be used as “benchmarks” to test evolutionary models, since the white dwarf ages are relatively simple to determine (Avril Day-Jones, Santiago, Chile).
– A very widely orbiting 6-9 Jupiter mass companion to a white dwarf has been found in our Spitzer survey data, but it’s difficult to tell whether it is a a bona fide planet or should be regarded as a brown dwarf (the key is formation mechanism). Planets in orbits equivalent to our solar system and other exoplanet systems have not yet been found around white dwarfs (me).
– But there is a habitable zone. And white dwarfs are so small you can find Earth sized and smaller planets around white dwarfs by the transit method……

The full programme from the meeting is here.


Stefan Geier, Eva Villaver and myself enjoying a post-meeting pint or three in Jeffry Barnard and Private Eye’s favourite Soho watering hole, the Coach and Horses






[View the story “RAS meeting on Planetary Systems of Evolved Stars” on Storify]


Posted by: mattburleigh | July 24, 2012

A Squiffy Telescope

This week I am at the observatory on the Canary island of la Palma, helping to commission a new telescope. The telescope has a main mirror 1m across – that’s small compared to most of the telescopes professionals use, but much bigger than most amateurs have. It’s perfect for the job we want it to do, and more importantly we could afford it (“we” means a consortium of various universities clubbing together. My university, Leicester, kindly gave us a substantial contribution from one of the last government’s infrastructure funds, which sadly don’t exist any more). We’ve christened the telescope the “SuperWasp-Qatar Follow-up Telescope” or SQFT, which in my warped mind reads “Squiffy-T”. Its job will be to take light curves of candidate transiting extra-solar planets discovered by the SuperWasp and Qatar surveys, so we can confirm which are real, and study them in further detail. Our goal is to make it fully robotic, but this week we have been installing the CCD cameras, testing software and cleaning lots of dust that has accumulated on every surface. Here’s the telescope, looking a bit like a doomsday machine from a sub-James Bond movie:


I’m here with Don Pollacco, shortly of Warwick University, and his ex-PhD student James McCormac who now works for the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes on la Palma. Here’s James struggling to tighten a crucial bolt on the main camera we’ve just mounted at the Cassegrain focus:


It’s now two years since we built the platform and the dome – various reasons for that, not least people’s time….. but it’s great to make good progress and see the project coming to fruition. Hopefully we may get on sky later this week and I’ll be in the dome running it. No comfy control room! Fortunately it shouldn’t be too cold. As with the rest of the northern hemisphere, la Palma is having freak weather. It’s 30 degrees during the day up here at over 8000 feet. Huge clouds of dust from the nearby Sahara are sitting over the island trapping the heat. The local astronomers say the heat is very unusual. Anyway, here’s the view of sunset through the “calima” (dust) from the Squiffy-T platform:


That’s the William Herschel Telescope in the background. For those who know the observatory on la Palma, SQFT is located by the side of the road up to the JKT and the solar observatory, opposite SuperWasp and just after the Nitrogen plant building.

Posted by: mattburleigh | July 16, 2012

Open Access Publishing – misguided & unimplementable

This morning, our “enlightened” Government had a bright idea. From April 1st 2013, all science research papers produced using UK taxpayer funding must be published in what’s called “open access” journals. That is, journals that anyone can access, where papers can be downloaded and read for free.

Sounds great. After all, in a democracy and meritocracy like our own, it seems absolutely right that taxpayers should be able to access all the papers we write.
Indeed, we astronomers have been doing this for years. In addition to publishing in refereed, “high impact” journals, we place almost all those papers on a preprint server, which anyone can access, called astro-ph. And we’ve been doing this since the early 1990s. After all, our cousins, the particle physicists, did invent the World Wide Web.

So this Government diktat is to be welcomed. At least, until you think it through. And then you realise that this is in fact opens a magnificent can of worms with potentially severely impacts on research budgets, and could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences, some damaging to careers, especially of young people. It is also a very handy way to transfer money from government science budgets directly to publishers, money which otherwise would be used to do, err, research. A number of these issues have been highlighted by Peter Coles (@telescoper) and his commentors on his blog.

Reading the various blogs and newspaper articles today, there is also clearly a large degree of misunderstanding occurring, and of course the usual malicious misinformation being spread around. So let’s clear up a few things first:

– UK scientists aren’t about to stop publishing in established journals. All that is happening is that the journals will agree to make our papers freely available to everyone, in return for us paying them for each paper they publish (instead of buying a subscription). That way, the publishing industry is completely safe. We could ignore the journals and publish online ourselves. We could even come up with ingenious ways to referee those papers. But the Government will almost certainly not allow them to be included in submissions for its league tables. They have to be in established high impact journals you see, otherwise how can we possibly be sure they are of sufficient quality? In any case, the Government have decreed “all research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access”.
What a wonderful bonus for the publishing industry!

– This researcher is absolutely in favour of open access to all journal articles. But not via the model proposed today.

– The journals astronomers publish in do not spend large amounts of money refereeing, typesetting and proof-reading our papers. They get us to do that. For free.

Right, now we’ve covered some of the more obvious bits of bullsh!t I’ve seen today, I’ll highlight a few, largely astronomy specific, concerns I have here.

If we are forced to publish in open access journals, does the British government expect the leading non-UK astronomy journals to become “open access” too? If not, does that mean UK astronomers cannot publish in ApJ, A&A, and indeed, Nature and Science? What if you are a co-author of a paper being sent by your foreign collaborator to a non-open access journal? Will we have to withdraw our names?

The UK Government are, in true ConDem style, making no new money available to pay the expected journal publication charges. Which will be on average £2000 per paper. Currently, our library buys subscription to the journals. That money will not be transferred to us. So we will have to use money that would otherwise pay for other activities. The only sources of cash I have access to are through my group. Budgets that are normally used to pay for conference travel, computers, and employing people. Budgets that are shrinking every year. So will my Head of Group
decide whether I can publish a paper? Will it be a choice between that and a conference (at which I would publicize the work)? Will the research councils provide additional funding so students can publish? What is their limit? What if the student is exceptional?

Maybe an internal committee would decide which papers produced in the dept will be published, since the budget will not be infinite. How would they decide? One can already see the potential for bias, incompetence, and nepotism…. My paper or the boss’s? Young temporary postdoc’s paper or that led by aging Professor in need of a submission for the REF? The paper by a “good chap” with “a great future ahead of him” or that by the recently married young lady “who will be pregnant within a year”?
What if the paper contains only null results? What if the field is one that gets relatively few citations? What if the committee man deciding my paper’s fate dislikes me, or sees me as a rival for promotion? How can we even contemplate the possibility of these situations occurring? How can we possibly contemplate allowing a situation in which we prevent our colleagues’, employees’ and students’ papers and work the opportunity of being refereed and published? Isn’t that what we are here for? And if not, what the f*** are we here for?

And dear reader, before you naively shake your head and say, “Burleigh you silly ar$e, of course this won’t happen”, I can assure you we already have internal committees deciding which of us are allowed to apply for postdocs. This recently caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth, not least from yours truly….

The Government are also insisting that all data that makes the paper should be freely accessible. Again, that’s a great idea in principle. And again, astronomers are largely ahead of the game. Many of the large telescopes and satellites we use already have public archives, usually with a year long proprietary period. But not all data comes that way.

For example, I have access to a privately funded telescope. Why should I make my private data available for a Yank to analyse, when they won’t reciprocate? I could be altruistic, but quite frankly I’ve been f***ed over enough times by people taking my data from an archive the day it becomes public. People who have no qualms about who they upset (a simple courtesy email or phonecall might have saved many a scientific relationship). I have no intention of giving those kinds of win-at-all-cost scientists any further advantage over me.

I also have access to telescopes which don’t maintain their own archives. Again, should I be forced to make my data available, when no-one else using those telescopes has to? Including potential rivals working on the same objects and topics.

What about theoretical models? I use models provided by foreign collaborators who, while happy to see the results published, do not wish for their models to be published. Does that mean I have to give up those collaborations and deny myself access to those models?

Should I just give up research? Or at least, research in such an environment as proposed today? I can assure you, plenty will, and they’ll take their ideas abroad.

Just a few worms crawling out of the can…. And a 15 minute conversation over lunch with some colleagues revealed many other concerns and pitfalls. For example, should we publish the raw data we collect, or the final calibrated data (which may have taken months of hard work)? Which bits of the theoretical models should be published? The point on the main graph or every timestep in a terrabyte-size simulation? Who pays for that data storage for 10 years, and is it affordable?

Open access sounds such a wonderful, liberal idea that who could possibly object? Indeed, I don’t. But I object to this stupid plan, and can only conclude that very little in depth thought has gone into this. A committee of allegedly eminent people has apparently spent many hours coming up with this recommendation to Government. One that completely favours the publishing houses and clearly screws the researchers. This so obviously flawed plan stinks to high heaven. And it is almost certainly unimplementable. By April 1st next year. Or at least, if it is implemented, it will do enormous damage to British science and scientists.

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