Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Basics of Scholarly Communications in the UK

In the decade since the Budapest Open Access Initiative declared a new public good, there have been many expositions of the advantage and inevitability of Open Access and its consequences for new modes of scientific enquiry. Tony Hey (who has just claim to 'first cause' of UK open access in his position of Head of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton)  has recently started a series of blog posts A Journey to Open Access that gives a very accessible introduction to the topic. Stevan Harnad (who was given a chair in ECS by the same Tony Hey) also blogs extensively at Open Access Archivangelism.

In my lesser role of championing repositories and developing the capabilities of the EPrints platform, I have had the privilege of working with library and information professionals to try to explain the principles of Open Access to a broad range of academics and researchers, and I have been struck by the almost total lack of understanding of the UK scholarly communication infrastructure shown by my research colleagues.

To help those who have been too busy writing papers to appreciate how those papers appear and now find themselves ├╝ber-confused and offended by the Finch regime, I offer the following diagram as an introduction to Everything You Need To Know on the topic. Forget the dissemination of papers and the transfer of knowledge that form the scholarly publishing cycle, this is all about influence and power.
Publishing companies have pushed governments towards Gold Open Access (more money for publishers) and pulled universities away from Green Open Access (no-cost parallel dissemination).  Researchers themselves have sided with publishing companies and learned societies (who act like sub-branches of publishing companies) to try to maintain the stability of the publishing industry, irrespective of the health of the university sector on which it depends!

Consequently, we now have a government proposal (the Finch report) to pay publishers twice! Once to make UK research open access whilst still retaining subscription access to the non-UK material. It's a kind of Westminster Open Access Initiative stating that an old tradition of scholarly publishing and a new technology of the Web have converged to make possible an unprecedented injection of public cash for publishers

The only reasonable way forward is for researchers to take the initiative, and to show the kind of academic leadership that Professors Hey and Harnad demonstrated a decade ago - to start being proactive in their own scholarly communications. The easiest way to do that is to start using the existing repository infrastructure provided by their universities and supported by their libraries. 

Researchers already hold all the cards, they don't need to be held to ransom in this Finchian standoff. They are the producers and consumers and quality control agents that create every aspect of the literature, they are also the community that defines its own criteria for professional advancement and assessment. Everything they think that they depend on the publishing industry for, they can actually achieve for themselves.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Repository Twitter Training

In a previous post I reported on using EPrints to gather data from Twitter in order to support researchers  in the social sciences, particularly those looking for evidence of social processes or for the impact of the Web on society. The work was also reported at OR2012 in Edinburgh in a paper Microblogging Macrochallenges for Repositories that described the work involved in adapting EPrints to support this task.

Having got some more experience from running a pilot service at Southampton, we would like to invite anyone from the repository community who is interested in this work to join in a training session at the University on Tuesday 11th December from 1-3pm (buffet lunch included).

The first hour will focus on using the service: how to harvest twitter streams, how to monitor the harvesting process, how use the repository tools to analyse the collection of tweets, how to export the data to other visualisation and analysis services and how to deposit the analysed data in an institutional repository.

The second hour will discuss the management of the service itself: how to install twitter-harvesting functionality using the EPrints Bazaar, how manage the functionality, how to integrate it with your institutions other repository services and consideration for the licensing and ethical restrictions on gathering and using Twitter data.

If you are interested in attending or finding out more information, please email me, lac@ecs.soton.ac.uk.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Repositories, Theses and Graduation Ceremonies

I was attending my son's graduation ceremony at Bournemouth University last week. While waiting for his turn, the title of a graduating student's PhD thesis was read out. It caught my attention (it was about TV production on Dr Who) and so I slipped out my iPhone, googled the student's surname, a word from the title and the name of the university and found the thesis available in the Bournemouth Institutional Repository (first result). I was able to download and start skimreading the PDF before the student had returned to his seat .

It's difficult to express what a genuinely exciting experience this was - it felt like I had arrived in the future! This is a repository use case that I had never thought of, and everything just worked.

Congratulations to Bournemouth's repository team on the hard work they have put in to making the experience join up. Also, congrats to Andrew Ireland on a really interesting thesis!

 PS Universities really should consider letting graduation audiences see some of the really impressive work that their students have done. Perhaps an onstage projection of a poster from their final dissertation while they walk across the stage?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Changing Lightbulbs

Some more reflections on the road(s) to Open Access...

Q: How many publishers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: The lightbulb doesn't need changing because everyone has bought torches.

Q: How many funders does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One to run a community lightbulb changing programme, and another to bulk purchase torches.

Q: How many librarians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: About 0.25FTE, but the lightbulb has to have a CC-BY license.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Open Access Joke. Spoiler: not funny at all

Q: How many Finch committee members does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: The lightbulb doesn't need to be changed, it just needs a large injection of public funds to transition it to a more illuminating condition.

One of the Finch committee members has gone public on the tricky balancing act that the committee tried to maintain. In his words "Green was unacceptable to funders unless learned societies and publishers were willing to allow it". In my words, the committee was structured so that publishers' interests trumped all other considerations.


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Gold Finch and Green Open Access

The UK's Finch Recommendations on Open Access, much of which look suspiciously like a blank cheque that the research sector has to write to one of its support industries, has stirred a lot of debate. Still, the government has supported it, and RCUK has been careful to publicly support it even while ensuring that it doesn't interfere too much with its current policy of open access mandates. But while I'm frustrated at the Finch recommendations and relieved that they haven't stopped the funding councils support for the UK's rich open access repositories infrastructure, I do think there might be some positive outcomes for OA.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that the Open Access proposition is very simple, but quite radical:
  • Universities are disruptive communities - they create new knowledge and transfer it to society through teaching, training and all kinds of impact mechanisms.
  • The Web is a disruptive technology - it drastically reduces the difficulty of sharing knowledge between multiple parties, across the world.
  • Open Access is a disruptive idea - it rebuilds universities' research communications on the Web's more efficient communications platform.
The context in which Open Access operates is less simple. Scholarly communication is a complex network of stakeholders whose principle output is "The Scientific Literature"and whose major outcome is "The Progression of Scientific and Scholarly Knowledge". But each stakeholder participant in this network is driven by other outputs and outcomes: individual researchers have careers to develop and families to feed; universities have reputation to develop and sustainability to ensure; publishing companies have profits to increase and shareholders to benefit; research funders have governments to impress; governments have lobbyists and voters to satisfy and industries to benefit. The meshing of these diverse motivations into a stable network of 'players' that produce such a lasting and valuable resource is tribute to the decades of investment into the bigger picture of scientific progress by all parties. The astonishing thing about scientific publishing is not that it has been done well, but that it has been done at all.

The Open Access idea is particularly welcomed by those who see the stresses in the network threatening its viability or choking its productivity. On the other hand, where Open Access practice is actually adopted, it is by those researchers who see it as an effective route to getting their job done regardless of the "complex network of stakeholders". In other words, open access flourishes in disruptive communities who adopt new practices to improve their own capabilities, regardless of the consequences. Disruptive technologies aren't disruptive just because they exist, but because they are adopted, used and gradually mainstreamed. The network works around this disruption - new players emerge, new practices are fashioned, new relationships are formed, new contracts are negotiated - and an improved network results that is better fit to the current conditions.

Willett's strong words directed to publishers at the recent Publishers' Association indicate that the government really has adopted the Open Access ideal and is not taking many prisoners along the way:
Provided we all recognise that open access is on its way, we can then work together to ensure that the valuable functions you carry out continue to be properly funded 
The role of the Finch recommendations is to coerce the current research publishing players into accepting that Open Access is a reality that they must adopt by offering them a lifeline that allows them a chance of transitioning to the realities of a new Open Access publishing network.

Many of us think that this is pointless because we believe that the new network needs leaner, more efficient participants rather than the same old players. But the effect of the Finch lifeline may be a radical restructuring of the network, as Chris Keene (EPrints repository manager at Sussex) has pointed out in discussions on the UKCoRR mailing list. Payment of the APC (article processing charge) changes the relationship between publishers and researchers.

So although Finch's proposal may seem retrograde, superfluous and overly generous to the publishing industry, it does lead publishers by the nose to a much more exposed position. Now they have to deal with every author of every research paper and justify their costs on a much greater scale. Previously cost negotiations have been handled once per year per institution, and then with the library as an intermediary. Now they have to deal with angry and cash-strapped researchers on a daily basis - those that lived by the market will probably die by the market in a thousand hand-to-hand combats.

In the meantime, quite unlauded by Dame Finch, the UK has a robust infrastructure that actually delivers Open Access through an excellent network of institutional repositories together with training and advocacy programmes from each University library, all underpinned by a decade of technology R&D, policy development and professional practice funded by JISC. Finch doesn't predict a smooth transition to publisher-led Open Access, and the research community's response seems to back her predictions up. But the RCUK response shows what the UK is actually really good at - pragmatism - and likely means an increased role for repositories and the emergence of a more balanced and thoroughly hybrid environment as the network of stakeholders all seek to come to a new equilibrium.



Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Soton Labs: Embedded Repository Experimentation

We are just in the second stage of the transition for the ECS repository - all the data has been copied across to the main Southampton Institutional Repository, all the ECS repository URLs now redirect there as well, and we are in the middle of data reconciliation and de-duplication. This is very exciting, because the university finally has a single OA research service, with all stakeholders pulling in the same direction and providing a unified view of the university's research output for business, research, education and administration purposes. Huge thanks to Wendy White, Simon de Montfalcon and the rest of the library team, as well as Tim Miles-Board, Tim Brody and the rest of the EPrints Services team for making the whole venture run so smoothly!

Even more exciting for us is the fact that we now about to set up a new programme of repository activity called "Soton Labs". Inspired by the idea of Google Labs, it is an institutional space for experimentation and innovation around research information systems, and EPrints will form its backbone. Driven by the needs of the research staff, it will be informed by a whole range experience and ideas (many gathered from research council and JISC projects) that can be offered to staff on the famous "permanent beta" experimental basis until they are ripe for integration into the main (business critical) repository. Unlike the ECS repository which was focused on a single department's needs, Soton Labs will have a broader brief, to deliver cutting edge services and to facilitate new improved practice for early adopters throughout the whole institution.

I've got a shortlist of tasks that we hope to address in the coming months:

  • live collection of research data
  • simple metadata schemas for research data archiving
  • collections of documentation around research proposals (bids, reviews, responses)
  • research projects
  • linked data.

So you can see that rather than reducing the repository activity in Southampton by halving the number of installations, we're stepping up the pace of repository development.