Category Archives: Balkans

Open Access Week in Serbia

Open Access Week is in full swing and there is a lot of blogging about its various events in many countries.
OA week was marked in Serbia this year as well. As you may remember, I went to Belgrade twice in the past two years – in 2008 and 2009 and gave a total of four lectures, one brief TV interview, four long radio interviews and a print interview. I am now writing a paper about Open Access for one of their journals as well.
This effort has paid off.
I have remarked before how difficult it is to make changes in smaller countries – the scientific community is small, everyone knows everybody else and there is usually an entrenched hierarchy that resists changes from below.
But, the small community may also be susceptible to a “founder effect” of sorts: if the small group of people with influence starts changing the system, then it is likely to spread very rapidly and get fixed in the entire country.
So, for example in Serbia, there is one enormous university – Belgrade University – and only a small number of smaller schools in other cities. Those smaller universities are almost certain to adopt whataver changes the BU adopts – it is a matter of survival for them. So if Belgrade University adopts some kind of Open Access rule, or decides to give Impact Factor a smaller role in hiring and promotion decisions, then all the other schools will be quick to follow and the entire system of the country will change rapidly.
But how does one change the system in such an enormous and buraucratic entity as Belgrade University? The change will happen if the new rules are first adopted and pushed by university librarians and by the Medical School – the rest of the university will then follow their lead.
So I was particularly happy to see that the OA week event in Belgrade was attended by several of those people who are in positions of influence – Medical School professors and university librarians. You can see the announcements here, here and here.
The meeting was opened by Dr.Simic, the Dean for Research at Medical School at the University of Belgrade. This is her opening address (you can download the MP3 files by clicking on the links – of course, you need to understand Serbian):
Here is the rest of the program:
1.Zoran Zdravkovic (Senior Librarian and Library Manager at Belgrade City Library): Access to Information

2.Sanja Antonic (Biomedical and Biotechnology librarian at the University Library in Belgrade): Impact Factor and the future of Open Access

3.Vedran Vucic (President of the GNU Linux Center): RSS Feed Aggregators of Medical Information

4.Ana Ivkovic (Senior Librarian at Institute for Oncology and Radiology of Serbia, National Cancer Research Center): Social Media and Scientific Information

5.Dr Vera Zdravkovic (Professor of Medicine, Child Clinic, Belgrade University): Open Access and the User

6.Nada Arbutina (Belgrade’s City Library): Where does the Scientific Path Begin?
Ana Ivkovic has also blogged about the event, with some pictures.
Afterwards, they told me that 6 out of 6 presentations mentioned PLoS, two of them going into details of Article-Level Metrics, particularly in the context of reducing the influence of Impact Factor in hiring and promotion decisions. I was also told that 5 out of 6 presentations mentioned me by name, with those who could say “Bora told me” winning over those who could only say “as Bora said when he was here” 😉
Now I have to sit down and write that paper for them – of course, this is the craziest week on record with OA Week, ScienceOnline2010 finalization, anti-Ida paper to monitor media reactions, a manuscript to review for JOMC, galley proofs of another paper of mine to proofread, and more….but I’ll do it this weekend for sure.

Behold the Mammoth

As you may remember, a beautiful mammoth fossil was discovered in Serbia a couple of months ago. I promised I’d try to go and see it myself on my recent trip to Belgrade. And I did get to see it. But the story is more fun than just that…. 😉
First, I tried to get in touch with Dr.Miomir Korać, the Director of the Archaeological park Viminacium to ask for permission to photograph the fossil as well as to interview him. After a couple of e-mail addresses bounced, I got what I think is the correct address…but got no response.
Once I got to Belgrade, I asked my contacts there about this and, as is usually the process there, a friend of a friend of a friend was willing to take me to the site. They also tried to contact Korać, as well as their own bosses, but nobody returned their calls. It is vacation time in Serbia right now, and people are not easily reachable (even by cell phones, not to mention the Web – Serbia has a distressingly low rate of Internet use for Europe). So, what to do? They decided to take me there anyway, and deal with the bosses later. Thus, I will not use their names or photos here (in case they get in trouble) and I told them that I am still interested in talking to and interviewing both Korać and their bosses if they want to contact me.
Why all this worry about bypassing the protocol? Because the fossil is in the middle of a huge open-pit coal mine Drmno (you see, there are maps and satellite images all over the Web), near Kostolac, a mine that provides something like 1/8th of electrical power of Serbia and is thus of strategic importance. For all they knew, I could have been an American spy! But fortunately they trusted the friends of friends of friends that I was not.
So, last Thursday, I got up early and went to the bus station. I took a bus to Pozarevac, a trip I took a million times as a kid. But this time, it was different. The bus was new and modern and clean and comfortable and smelled good. The music was discrete and not the worst of the worst of the newly-composed “folk”. The bus also started the trip exactly on time (to the second!) and arrived exactly on time. Not whenever the bus driver felt inspired to drive as it used to be once upon a time. Capitalism, baby!
It took a couple of hours in Pozarevac until our car that was to take us to Drmno arrived. So we sat in a cafe and got to know each other….over four huge shots of home-made slivovitz! I did not even have breakfast yet! I tried to dilute it by having a couple of big Turkish coffees, a couple of Cokes, some mineral water and a couple of handfuls of peanuts, but still, it was a tough and heroic deed.
Instead of going to Viminacium or even the town of Kostolac, we went straight to the mine (where we had yet another shot of brandy). The office building is nice, large and clean – and powered (yes, right next to all that coal) by a large battery of solar panels. The titles on all the office doors we passed indicated to me that quite a lot of science (mainly geology, but also stuff like vibrations, etc.) is going on there.
Then we got in a jeep and went into the mine itself. I took a lot of pictures of the mine – it is huge and it looks very tidy (I’ve seen a bigger one, Kolubara, when I was a kid, and remember it being, in my childish eyes, quite a mess). As such pictures may compromise (at least in some eyes) the national security and since they are not too related to the fossil, I will not post them here. But here is one, taken from a considerable distance (as much as my little camera could zoom in), showing just a small segment of one side of the open pit – the arrow points to the enclosure where the mammoth is:

Drmno kop.jpg

As you can see, there are at least 50 meters of the mine ‘wall’ hanging right above it – something that mine engineers are now trying to figure out how to secure against sliding, as the mammoth will stay in the spot and be seen by tourists.
The fossil was discovered in a part of the mine that is not in use any more – the coal extracted now is deeper down in the pit. It was found in a layer of yellow sand by a bulldozer driver for a local road-paving company that has a contract with the mine to come in and take away, for free, the sand and gravel they need for road construction. He was happily bulldozing the gravel when he heard a ‘clang’ noise at the blade. He immediatelly stopped the machine, went down to see and, upon seeing a small tip of something that looked like a bone, decided to call the mine bosses who, in turn, called the people from the Archaeological park Viminacium. The archaeological treasure of the area is a source of everyone’s pride there, of course.
It turned out that this is an amazingly well-preserved and almost completely articulated fossil of Mammuthus meridionalis, the Southern Mammoth that is thought to have migrated from North Africa to Southern Europe around 2 million years ago and is probably the ancestral species of all the other, younger species of mammoths found in the Northern hemisphere. The Southern Mammoth had much shorter and finer hair than the later Woolly Mammoth and probably went extinct when the next Ice Age appeared in Europe.
Being a much older species, the Southern Mammoth has not left as many or as complete fossils as the Woolly Mammoth either. Several have been found around Europe (Spain, Bulgaria, Sweden) and one has been mounted and is on display at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. Thus the Serbian fossil, with its exquisite level of preservation, will be carefully studied by Serbian and international teams of scientists for years to come.


This fossil, found at the depth of 27 meters, was about 4m high, 6m long and weighed about 10 tons. It is a female and was named ‘Vicky’. There has been probably no big tectonic activity in the area for about 1 million years – how old this one is estimated to be (the more precise measures of age will be performed soon) – as earthquakes would, over time, have disassembled a fossil embedded in sand.
The fact that the fossil is in sand is on one hand a great gift – cleaning up is easy and fast – but on the other hand it is a big headache as well – how do you move it!? If it was embedded in rock, they could cut the entire slab out and move it to a museum for cleaning and restoration. This is a major mine, close to major roads – there is plenty of heavy machinery, people who can competently use it, and engineers who can figure out how to do it. This is not like finding a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere – technology is at hand and can be used on the spot. But this fossil is not embedded in rock – it is in sand. So what can one do?


First, they could disarticulate the skeleton, take each separate bone to a museum and rearticulate it there. That would take a lot of people, a lot of effort and a lot of time – and something would be lost in the process: the exact position and location of the fossil in the place where it was buried. Another way would be to freeze the sand around it, lift the whole slab and take it to a museum where the sand would thaw. This they think is too risky – the freezing and thawing may damage the fossil.

ulaz u sator.jpg

So, the mine and the museum struck a compromise. The fossil will stay in place. The mine will secure the 50 meters of overhanging soil above the fossil and build two roads: one for the tourists who come to see Vicky, the other for the mine to use for driving around its heavy machinery into the pit. The museum will finish the cleaning and the analysis of the fossil and build an enclosure that will protect the fossil and accommodate the visitors (I am assuming that a museum shop will be built to bring in some revenue).
If any of my palaeontologist readers have better ideas for either preservation or moving, leave them in the comments or contact me. They are all ears.

ulaz u sator2.jpg

Right now the fossil is protected from immediate weather and light by a small canvas tent, which also means that I was not able to take pictures from a distance greater than a couple of feet. I had to crouch to get inside and could only take close-shot photos. I also could not find a good object to include in some shots as a size reference. But I took a lot of pictures from many angles and I hope you can see how wonderfully intact and well-articulated the fossil is. The rest of the pictures are under the fold, followed by a YouTube video (not shot by me) where you can see the fossil as it looked when it was first shown to the media:

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How Facebook got us together

A year ago, almost none of my old school friends were on Facebook. Today, many are.
Facebook statistics show that this past year has seen a huge influx of people, globally, of roughly my age who are not techies or bloggers, just normal people. Over the past 5-6 years, Facebook has evolved and changed quite a lot. Some of the best and most liked functionalities on Facebook right now are blatant copies of the best aspects of FriendFeed and Twitter and Flickr and YouTube and Dopplr and LinkedIn and other services (some of which are now already dead).
As us oldsters are joining in great numbers, there is a clash of generations as we use Facebook differently than the kids do and they feel like we are encroaching on their territory (thus learning how to use the privacy settings is the key).
Unless Google Wave kills off all the competition, Facebook will remain the main and the biggest central place for people of all generations to find each other, have fun, or do business. Just like it did for college and high school kids five years ago, and for the techies and bloggers about a year later, Facebook is now introducing everyone to the wonders of Web 2.0.
If you are one of my 1,161 friends on Facebook (yes, I use it for PR and not just for finding old friends), you have noticed I friended a lot of people with Serbian-sounding names over the past year or so. Yup, those are old friends from school: preschool, elementary/middle school, high school and vet school. And by finding each other on Facebook, and through using Facebook as a tool, we organized, for the first time in many years, to meet in person in Belgrade last week.
You may have also seen me tagged in a bunch of pictures from those reunions – check out the photo sets here, here, here, here and here (that’s uploaded so far – there may be more soon).
Was it an anniversary of graduation? No. Did we meet as a single coherent class of people sharing the same classroom? No. I went to three such parties on three consecutive nights in Belgrade last week.
One meetup was just a few of us from the last two years of high school (nobody brought the camera, alas).
The second meetup was organized over just a few days – it started on Facebook as I told some friends I’d be in Belgrade and would like to meet. They then contacted some others via phone or personal contact in physical space, we chose the venue (the ancient restaurant “Manjez” – yes, the name comes from ‘manege’ as that was the place where King’s horses were stabled and trained a century ago) and whoever could show up showed up. Eighteen of us got together:
reunion at Manjez.jpg
One of them I met last year when I was in Belgrade. Others I have not seen in 20 or 25 or even 32 years. Only two I had to ask for the name. Some I recognized by the walk as they approached the restaurant. Others did not change in their faces at all. Others I recognized once they started talking. Most of us were in the same class in elementary school (1-4th grade), with some I was also in the same school later, including high school, and with one I was even in the same preschool.
Everyone remembered anecdotes from those old days, many brought photographs, year-books and class pictures. We wondered about people nobody’s heard from in years (one of them just e-mailed me two days ago completely out of the blue: he just googled my name). Two of our friends, I heard, died in the meantime (one of them as a conscript in the war between Serbia and Croatia in the early 1990s). Then we walked over to the old high school yard, where I saw that my legend still lives on with the new generations, as you can see for yourself from the graffiti:
Bora grafiti dvoriste.jpg
The third party was a more elaborate affair. While the people found each other on Facebook and started planning there, most of the preparation happened over e-mail over several months. Several people came from abroad. We reserved an entire restaurant for our party, hired a DJ to play the 1980’s Yugoslav music (which was so amazingly experimental and creative that nobody at the time noticed the syrupy, commercialized Western music by the likes of Michael Jackson) and managed to collect 55 of us, plus three of the teachers:
reunion at Lava Bar.jpg
The central point for most of us was 8th grade – the time when the two shifts first met during a field trip (let me explain: half the kids went to school 8am-1:15pm and the other half 2pm-7:15pm, then reverse each week. I was B-shift, with English being 1st and French 2nd foreign language. A-shift had French as 1st – even had some other classes taught in French – and English as 2nd. Most of the people at this party were from the A shift, but we partied and made friends and even dated between shifts in 8th grade so much, it did not matter any more).
But I also knew some of them from before and after. It is also a collection of kids from old Belgrade families. Many of our parents knew each other before we were even born. We all got haircuts from a mother of one of our friends. Another friend’s mother was all of ours pediatrician. If we needed an otorhynolaryngologist, we went to one of our friend’s father. The ties are multigenerational.
While it was fun to meet all of them, including the teachers (and yes, 8th grade crushes), I was most glad to see my best friend from those old days. We spent a lot of time together over the years, visiting each other (our fathers were also friends), going ice skating and horseback riding together, studying math for competitions, partying and just generally growing up together for about eight years of elementary/middle school (1-8th grade). But we have not heard from each other in about 25 years or so. So we spent a lot of time last Saturday night catching up with each other. After getting a degree in architecture, he built and ran a chain of diving schools on the Adriatic coast. As the wars made it impossible to run schools in Croatia while living in Serbia, he shut them down and opened a cafe in the center of Belgrade. He seems to be very happy! After the restaurant kicked all 55 of us out at 2am, we got in several cars and went to his cafe to continue partying and drinking. I got home at 4am, just a few hours before my flight home. But it was worth it. I am still excited and have this warmth in my heart from meeting all those old friends. And it would not have happened if it wasn’t for Facebook.

Open Access in Belgrade

As you know, I gave two lectures here in Belgrade. The first one, at the University Library on Monday, and the second one at the Oncology Institute of the School of Medicine at the University of Belgrade. As the two audiences were different (mainly librarians/infoscientists at the first, mainly professors/students of medicine at the second) I geared the two talks differently.
You can listen to the audio of the entire thing (the second talk) here, see some pictures (from both talks) here and read (in Serbian) a blog post here, written by incredible Ana Ivkovic who organized my entire Belgrade “tour” this year.
The second talk was, at the last minute, moved from the amphitheater to the library, which was actually good as the online connection is, I hear, much much better in the library. Library got crowded, but in the end everyone found a chair. What I did, as I usually do, was to come in early and open up all the websites I wanted to show in reverse chronological order, each in a separate window. Thus, the site I want to show first is on top at the beginning. When I close that window, the second site is the top window, then the third, etc. Thus I do the talk by closing windows instead of opening them (and hoping and praying that would not take too much time).
Knowing how talks usually go in the States, I prepared to talk for about 50 minutes. But, when I hit the 50 minute mark, I realized that nobody was getting restless – everyone was looking intently, jotting down URLs of sites I was showing, nodding….so I continued until I hit 60 minutes as which time I decided to wrap up and end. Even then, nobody was eager to get up and leave. I was hoping I’d get a question anyway….and sure, I got 45 minutes of questions. Then another 20 minutes or so of people approaching me individually to ask questions….
I used the Directory of Open Access Journals as the backdrop to give a brief history of the Open Access movement, the difference between Free Access and Open Access and the distinction between Green OA and Gold OA.
Then I used the site to explain the brief history of PLoS and the differences between our seven journals. Of course, this being medical school, I gave some special consideration to PLoS Medicine.
Then I used the Ida – Darwinius massillae paper to explain the concept of PLoS ONE, how our peer-review is done and to show/demonstrate the functionalities on our papers, e.g., ratings, notes, comments, article-level metrics and trackbacks.
Then I used the Waltzing Matilda paper to enumerate some additional reasons why Open Access is a Good.Thing.
Trackbacks were also a good segue into the seriousness by which the scientific and medical community is treating blogs these days. I showed Speaking of Medicine and EveryONE blog as examples of blogs we use for outreach and information to our community.
I showed and explained (which they seemed to particularly be taken with and jotted down the URL), showed and explained the visibility and respect of such blogging networks as and Nature Network and then Connotea as an example of various experiments in Science 2.0 that Nature is conducting.
I put in a plug for ScienceOnline conferences and the Open Laboratory anthologies as yet another proof how seriously Science 2.0 and science blogging is now being taken in the West. Then showed 515 scientists on Twitter, The Life Scientists group and Medicine 2.0 Microcarnival on FriedFeed as examples of the ways scientists are now using microblogging platforms for communication and collaboration. I pointed out how Pawel Szczesny, through blogging and FriendFeed, got collaborations, publications, and in the end, his current job.
Then I described Jean-Claude Bradley’s concept (and practice) of Open Notebook Science and showed OpenWetWare as a platform for such work. I pointed out that Wikipedia and wiki-like projects are now edited by scientists, showing the examples of A Gene Wiki for Community Annotation of Gene Function, BioGPS and ChemSpider and ended by pointing out a couple of examples of the ways the Web allows citizen scientists to participate in massive collaborative research projects
But probably the most important part of the talk was my discussion of the drawbacks of Impact Factor and the current efforts to develop Article-level metrics to replace it – something that will be particularly difficult to change in developing countries yet is essential especially for them to be cognizant of and to move as fast as they can so as not to be left behind as the new scientific ecosystem evolves.

A beautiful Mammoth fossil discovered in Serbia

mamut1.jpgAn almost complete and beautifully preserved fossil of the Southern Mammoth, Mammuthus meridionalis was discovered a couple of weeks ago by a team of archaeologists led by Miomir Korać from the Archaeological Institute Belgrade and the Director of the Archaeological park Viminacium in Eastern Serbia.
The fossil, pretty much articulated and all in one place, was discovered at a depth of 27 meters (about 88.5 feet) in sand, which indicates that this area did not experience a serious earthquake for at least a million years or more since the animal died. It was identified as a female. She was about 4.5 meters tall, about 6 meters long, and weighed about 10 tons.
Southern Mammoth is one of the oldest and one of the largest species of mammoths. It is thought to have migrated from Africa into Europe between 1 and 2 million years ago. It was hairy, but not nearly as much as the later Woolly Mammoth, and thus not as adapted for the cold climate of the Ice Ages.
It will probably take only a couple of months to clean up the fossil, analyze it and articulate the skeleton, as it is so well preserved in sand. It will be displayed near the site of discovery, i.e., it will not be shipped to a bigger museum elsewhere.
I will be visiting Belgrade next month for a few days and I am trying to figure out if I could go to Kostolac, see (and photograph) the fossil and interview the researchers. I will let you know how that turns out.

Trip to Germany and Serbia

Later this month, I’ll be attending the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. The list of Nobel Laureates (about 20 of them) and the list of about 600 young researchers from 66 countries are very impressive. Of course, not being a chemist, I’ll have to do some homework before I go, learning what these people did to get the prizes.
The program certainly looks interesting – there is a lot of “meta” stuff beyond pure chemistry, so I will always find interesting sessions to attend and blog from. Yes, I am going to be there as a blog-reporter. I understand that PZ will also be there in the same capacity.
The meeting is from June 28th to July 3rd, after which I’ll fly to Belgrade for a few days, to visit my Mom and meet some friends (especially those I missed last year). Ana, Vedran and some others are already trying to organize for me to give lectures and interviews while there.
If you’ll be either at the Lindau meeting or in Belgrade at the above dates, let me know. I’ll be flying through London, but will not have much or any time to stop and do any socializing there this time around.

Happy birthday, Milutin Milankovic

MilutinMilankovic.jpgToday is the 130th anniversary of the birth of Milutin Milankovic, a Serbian geophysicist best known for Milankovitch cycles that describe periodicities in Earth’s climate.
Vedran Vucic is in Dalj (near Vukovar, Croatia), Milankovic’s birthplace, today for the birthday celebrations. He says that the house in which Milankovic grew up has been renovated for the occasion. I am assuming it has been turned into a museum. As I will go to Serbia again this summer, perhaps Vedran and I can take a trip to Dalj, where a group of science popularizers are interested in hearing about Open Access publishing, science blogging and other developments in science communication.
[Image Source – Portrait of Milutin Milanković by Paja Jovanović (1859-1957)]