Serendipity or Chance

The King of Serendip (Sri Lanka) sent his three sons away to a foreign country to experience life in the real world.  They got into trouble, as boys will, when a merchant accused them of stealing a camel he had lost.  Although they had never seen the beast, the boys came under suspicion after cleverly figuring clues from chance observations – it was lame, one-eyed, missing a tooth, and carrying a pregnant woman with a jar of honey.

The Three Princes of Serendip is a Persian fairy tale, like Aladdin and Sinbad of the One Thousand and One Nights. When Horace Walpole translated the story over two hundred years ago he coined the word “serendipity” which Webster’s dictionary defines as an aptitude for making happy discoveries by chance.Book- Three princes

The word did not become fashionable until the last century, so there is evidently more serendipity around now! I have heard scientists, including myself, declaring they had made a serendipitous discovery, so it does not necessarily imply anything superstitious. But I have also heard people say that a discovery coming by accident or out of the blue was a “miracle”. Whether that was meant to be taken literally I don’t know, but the mind of science has great difficulty understanding how anything can break the basic laws of physics. But I could call something that happens naturally a miracle if it comes most unexpectedly just when I needed it.  Timing was important for the three princes too, because someone stumbled on the lost camel just in time for them to be pardoned by the ruler of the country.

If readers of this post were asked to share their best serendipity stories I guess we could publish a book far more absorbing than the Three Princes (which I never finished).  Everyone I know has a cache of them.  I can’t explain why one I heard a while ago stays at the forefront of my mind, but I did find it arresting at the time.

It was a story of an old man in his final hours. His daughter seated at his bedside asked if there was anything she could get for him, perhaps thinking he was thirsty. The only thing he wanted was to hear once more the old hymn, Amazing Grace, but he didn’t have the CD or even a music player.  She said that barely a few minutes later they heard through the wall of the next apartment a choir singing that very hymn.  It is admittedly a popular piece, but the chance of a neighbor playing it at the “right” moment was astonishingly slight, and left her with a wonderful memory of the last moments shared with her father.

Serendipity popped into my mind because I have had a strange series of happy discoveries lately. The story started unassumingly twenty years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was working on a new research project to test ovarian transplants in sheep (the very same flock that later produced Dolly the cloned sheep). When the newspapers ran the story I felt like scalding water had been poured over me, but the project turned out well in the end. The experiments helped to launch transplants for helping young women to conceive who would otherwise have remained sterile.

Unlike most of my peers who steadily ignore library archives and only access journals online from their desktops, I love to blow the dust off an old book.  I suppose there is something of an antiquarian inside me. One day, soon after completing my experiment, I was perusing the 1895 issue of the New York Medical Journal when I stumbled on a brief report by a New York surgeon, Robert T. Morris, M.D. He described two ovarian transplants he had recently performed with mixed success in women.  I had been scooped a century ago!  On the one hand, I felt delighted to have an opportunity to show off my scholarship by referring to his arcane paper when I came to publish my own work; on the other, I was disappointed to have been beaten.  Every young scientist wants to be first for something.

Bob Morris
Bob Morris

I got over the disappointment and in 2010 published a short biography of Dr. Morris in a medical journal. I thought nothing more about it until the day I received an unexpected email.

It was sent by his grand-daughter on behalf of her mother, Mary, who had been striving for years to bring more attention to her father’s achievements. Since neither of them had worked in medicine I was surprised they had noticed my work, and amazed that the daughter of a man born before the American Civil War had contacted me.

I corresponded with Mary until she passed away last autumn, but her mission continues as I work with her daughter to republish some of his work together with his unpublished manuscripts.  The deeper I probed the more spellbound I became by the man’s life story which reflected almost everything I cherished or ever wanted to do and be. Not only was he a famous surgeon with a rare scientific outlook for his day, but he was an explorer, a naturalist, a conservationist, and a gifted writer and poet.  The final serendipity, or should I call it irony, was the most affecting. I found that our families are related by marriage.

If Horace Walpole will be remembered down the ages for giving us the word “serendipity”, perhaps I can take credit for coining “super-serendipity” for a string of chance happenings.  Come on Mr. Webster, give me immortality!

Next Post: Bob Morris outdoors

Cost of Knowledge

I no longer sleep-walk when writing articles for scientific or medical journals, because I was woken to the drumbeats of an academic spring. As young scientists we were taught we must either “publish or perish” but I now hear the refrain “perish the publishers.”

Rebels have emerged from an unlikely corner of universities – departments of mathematics. This is not the throng you would expect to hear calling for revolution from city plazas and squares (or at least from internet platforms), but they have recently become uncommonly grumpy. They complain about monopolies held by companies that publish their work. Increasingly, they are marching behind the banner Open Access.  I am surprised that scientists, physicians, and especially sociologists haven’t joined them yet, because they too have commercial gatekeepers for publishing their works.

Until the ‘90s, few questioned the system for publishing scholarly work. When a project was completed, sometimes after months or years of labor, it was prepared in the time-honored way as a journal paper. Years ago, I remember some old colleagues admitting they never bothered with the finer points of grammar or spelling; they were satisfied as long as their data were correct, trusting the journal would take care of the rest. No longer. In those days, editors and publishers copy-edited, corresponded with authors and reviewers via snail mail, and sometimes even hired graphic artists to prepare figures. It was a lot of work.

While the cherished peer-review system for vetting papers has not been tampered with, it has changed in every other way. Much of the labor has been transferred from editorial offices and publishers to authors. We must submit manuscripts that are polished, with publication-ready figures, and with everything conforming to a strictly prescribed format for submission via the portal of the journal’s website. Communication is of course via email. I recall that my early papers took nearly year to emerge from the pipeline, but today, after the editor’s thumbs go up, a paper goes online within a few weeks, and print copies appear somewhat later. Authors are delighted by the streamlining.

Path for publishing scientific research

But the old partnership between academia and commercial publishers has broken down like a strained marriage in which one partner is the earner and the other pockets the income. Researchers who generate the papers and serve as reviewers and sometimes as editors generally give their services without any expectation of pecuniary benefit. Of course it is not strictly true that a free lunch is served at the academic table because someone pays their salaries (the rest of us or their students), unless like me they no longer work for a university but can’t give up the habit of writing. But as far as publishers are concerned writers’ services are free.

Mathematicians were first to wake up to a contrary world in which the Internet had enabled publishers to reduce their workload and costs while journal subscriptions and profits soared. Their anger focused on Elsevier, not because it deserved to be singled out as the greediest company, but perhaps because of its size. Elsevier controls 25% of science, technology, and medicine journals, and the market capitalization of its parent is over $11B.

Before our colleagues started grumbling I gave no thought to signing over to publishers the copyright for my articles, nor did I pay enough attention to the problems of people who are interested in original research papers but don’t have access to a large university library. But I think tax-payers interested in research on black holes funded by the National Science Foundation should be able to consult astronomy journals, and it is understandable why donors to medical research charities should want to read oncology journals. If I lost an original copy of one of my own papers and didn’t have access to a library or couldn’t afford a hefty journal subscription it would likely cost me $25-30 to obtain a replacement. And if I want to reuse my own material for a review article I have to apply for permission from the publisher. Don’t you agree that mathematicians have a point?

The current business models strain libraries at a time when budgets are tight. Critics also repudiate the policy of bundling arcane journals that have limited circulation together with expensive journals that libraries must have rather than setting a fair price for each. And until the proposed legislation was withdrawn, they were appalled at publishers lobbying Congress for the Research Works Act that would have reversed the N.I.H. policy of making sponsored medical research available to the public within a year of publication.

Many mathematicians are now boycotting Elsevier publications. Worldwide, over 13,000 have signed the Cost of Knowledge campaign. They have a conspicuous champion, (Sir) Nick Gowers, a Cambridge mathematician who won the Fields Medal (Nobel Prize for math). What is more, the distinguished editorial board of the Elsevier journal Topology (basically geometry) resigned in protest, setting up the Journal of Topology as a rival open access journal published by Oxford. Topology toppled soon afterwards.

I checked the new journal online – very briefly because pages of equations were even more forbidding than reading Mandarin or Japanese. Papers can be consulted gratis for up to six months from the publication date after which they go behind a subscription wall. Someone has to pay eventually, but who and when?

Publishing online is cheaper than the costs of printing and distribution, but not zero. Each paper may cost $2,000 to 3,000. Most researchers are too busy to be yoked with the full responsibility of running a nonprofit publishing enterprise, and business partners must make a profit. The U.K. Government has made a rather gallant proposal to pay for publications by its scientists and scholars. I worry that the funds will be taken from the science budget, and unless similar moves are made this side of the Atlantic and elsewhere the U.K. could be contributing more than its fair share.

Most people agree that knowledge ought to be liberated for free people, but it is too early to predict where the publishing revolution will lead. Its fluidity reminds me of the uncertain future course of universities, which I discussed recently. I dream of an ideal solution but suppose that when the battle for Open Access is over we will see in hindsight it might have been predicted by following the money.

This musing was written after my last paper was accepted by an Elsevier journal. As it was a contribution to conference proceedings I had no choice, other than to decline. It is difficult even for a seasoned writer to join a boycott, let alone a young faculty member who dares not offend. But I have another paper appearing soon in an open access journal, so I can finish this post in good conscience.

Next post: Marmite – love it or loathe it

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