25 February 2011

Researchers to be assessed on engagement

Starting a new project – for a university with the sense to realise that some editorial input would beef up some case studies – I had to check out on the plans for the Research Excellence Framework. (REF has taken over from the Research Assessment Exercise as a way of judging academic researchers before handing out money.) The next exercise continues the pursuit of evidence of ‘impact’, the idea that research doesn’t just sit on a shelf but has some tangible effect, economic or otherwise, on society.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the people behind REF, conducted a pilot run of impact case studies last year. It recently put on its website Research Excellence Framework impact pilot exercise: Findings of the expert panels a “report to the UK higher education funding bodies by the chairs of the impact pilot panels”.

While much of the report is about the usual things you would think of as impact, it also mentions “public engagement”. It says that in the prototype case studies that universities put forward “Panels received a number of case studies of benefits arising from engaging the public with research and we consider that this should be included as an appropriate kind of ‘impact’ in the REF.”

This prompted the report’s authors to recommend that the REF exercise “should include benefits arising from engaging the public with research.” It then went on to flesh this out with the observation that the case studies should:

“Show a distinctive contribution of the department’s research to that public engagement activity.”


“Make a case for the benefits arising from the public engagement activity. This must go beyond showing how the research was disseminated.”

Explicit statements like this are important. Researchers may pay lip service to the idea that they communicate their work to the public, the source of their research funds after all, but they will quickly forget about this in their pursuit of the next paper. But academics are also good at playing the game. Tell them that the minister for science is interested in spin-out companies – that really happened a few years ago – and they will suddenly list all of the businesses that they started, regardless of how successful they were. adding public engagement to the mix may be yet another box to tick, but at least it draws the academics’ attention to something that it is all too easy to overlook.

24 February 2011

No, Nuance, I am not a software pirate

Software companies have every right to protect their wares. It costs millions to develop a new program and to keep it at the ‘bleeding edge’. But I don't see why unsuspecting users should have to put up with their incompetent attempts to stop piracy.

One company in particular seems to be so sloppy in its defence mechanism that you have to wonder about its software writing skills. That company is Nuance, the crew behind some reasonably heavyweight software tools.

Over the years Nuance has brought together: OmniPage, which does optical character recognition; PaperPort, which does file management and document scanning; PDF Converter Professional, which some might describe as a budget conscious alternative to Adobe’s Acrobat; and Dragon Naturally Speaking, probably the most widely used speech recognition package you will find.

I have the misfortune to own all of these, a bundle that costs more than $600 at Amazon prices, more if bought direct from Nuance, or in other countries, where the usual software trend prevails with predatory pricing of the $1 = £1 variety. Each software package fulfils its intended task pretty well. What they don't do is to work together harmoniously when it comes to piracy control.

Activation aggravation
Nuance uses a familiar approach to software protection, something called activation: its software “phones home” when you install the software, checks your serial number against its database and then, it if it is satisfied that you are a legitimate customer, does something magical with your computer to tell it that you are not a criminal.

Microsoft and Adobe both use a similar strategy. They do, though, implement it in a way that is usually unobtrusive and that does not throw a hissy fit whenever you do something to your computer.
Microsoft, for example, uses activation for its Windows operating system and for its Office suite. After the initial installation, most people will see the process again only if they rebuild a computer and want to reuse the same serial number.
Soft on hardware
Microsoft’s official line on hardware changes is “When you make a significant hardware change to your computer, such as upgrading the hard disk and memory at the same time, you might be required to activate Windows again.”

Do anything less drastic and you won’t be bothered. Add a new hard drive? No problem. Plug in an external drive? Fine by us. Upgrade the ‘BIOS’, the core code that tells it what it can do, on your motherboard? We don't need to know about it.

Nuance, on the other hand, throws a wobbly if you try any of these things. Like Microsoft, Nuance takes a ‘fingerprint’ of your computer’s hardware. As the support person put it “The BIOS update changes the machine fingerprint and our Nuance application activation is based on the machine fingerprint.” Other small changes will also alter your machine’s fingerprint to such an extent that Nuance treats these modifications as suspicious. So the software scurries off to check out its database.

Why Nuance needs to take a more complete and sensitive fingerprint of your hardwarethan Microsoft or Adobe is anybody’s guess. But that is only the half of it. If you have a mixture of the packages listed above, adding them in the wrong order can lead you into a perpetual cycle of activation.

You are running PaperPort? Fine, now add PDF Converter Professional and PaperPort thinks you have rebuilt your computer. Now add OmniPage and the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down around your head. Do just about anything and PDF 7 Pro will protest.

The workaround advice that you will receive from support is “Please uninstall the application in the following sequence: 1.Paperport; 2.Pdf Pro; 3.Omnipage; 4.Reinstall Omnipage first then PDF 7 Pro and Paperport”? Isn't it an admission of failure to have to offer such nonsense?
Support collapses
The problem with this is that, after a while, the computer back at base decides that you are a criminal and locks you out. You can no longer use the software that you have paid good money to install on your computer.

Yes, there is an on-line support system, but activation issues aren’t a part of it: in any case you get only 90 days of “free” support. Even if you do manage to get support to take pity on you and answer, they don't seem to see the point. The response is along the lines of “that’s how it works, get used to it”.

Something similar happened a few years ago when Adobe unleashed Acrobat 7 on the world. It too got locked into an endless loop of activation. Raising this with their support team evoked a very different response. They saw the point, understood the issue and put in train a repair mechanism. Adobe event sent a new CD that was supposed to deal with the issue, which turned out to have something to do with motherboards that included RAID, a fancy feature for people who want to do clever security things with several hard disks. The disk didn't work, but by the time it arrived Adobe had tracked down the source of the problem and put out an update the squelched the activation messages.

By contrast, even though Nuance received reports about the problem near on a year ago, during the beta tests of the latest version of PDF Converter Professional, the company remains in denial.

What can a customer do about this? Nagging them obviously doesn't work. So I have reviewed the product on places like Amazon, praising the software but warning potential customers of these activation concerns. The responses suggest that the review has hit a nerve. It has also smoked out others hit by this diseased software.
Not just me
Just in case anyone thinks that this is a one off, brought about by my own constant tinkering with a computer that I built myself, look no further than the places where people, some of them fans of Nuance’s software, get together to compare notes. Activation and the problems it provokes come up regularly. Other users have also copied me in on email exchanges with Nuance’s support team showing that they have also tried to get to the bottom of this insane behaviour, with little luck.

Nuance’s response in these cases is dismal. Unlike Adobe, its first reaction is to say there’s nothing wrong, that’s how it is supposed to work. You get the same denial if you point out that these four software packages don't all behave in the same way, and did Nuance really set out to be inconsistent?

Nuance needs to address this issue properly, and not to fob off users with complicated and time consuming workarounds. My first question on this through the official support channels dates from 21st June last year, but as I said this issue also came up during beta testing of PDF Converter Professional. Does it really take that long to chase up whoever wrote that particular feature and to get them to do something about it?