Archive for: January, 2010

Science Online 2010: Scientists and librarians

Jan 17 2010 Published by under Tactics

I had the following exchange several times during the opening day of Science Online 2010:

Interlocutor: "So what do you do?"

Me: "I'm a librarian."

Interlocutor: *lengthy pause* So… what are you doing here exactly?

Er, what? A conference about science communication? How on earth can that not be imagined to intrigue a librarian?

This, ladies and gentlemen. THIS. Right here. This disconnect is the number-one threat to science librarianship today—perhaps to all academic librarianship. How can science libraries persist when scientists haven't the least notion that libraries or librarians are relevant to their work?

Stephanie Willen Brown and I did our level best to bust some stereotypes and suggest some points of contact during our (lightly-attended) session. I think we did a reasonably good job of it; I only wish we could have reached more people. I came away, though, utterly dismayed at the chasm librarians must bridge, and seriously worried about our ability and even willingness to bridge it.

I can tell you this: we will not bridge this chasm from behind our desks in our libraries. We will not bridge it at library or publishing conferences. We might be able to throw some ropes across the chasm online, but we won't do it if all we do is hang out in our own little corners of the Web.

We will not bridge this chasm if we are afraid of controversy or pushback. We will not bridge this chasm if we shrink from promoting ourselves and our services. We will not bridge this chasm if we do not listen to scientists interacting with each other. We will not bridge this chasm if we do not become a welcome, valued part of that conversation—and yes, that will mean overcoming a great deal of skepticism and even mistrust at first.

And I sense strongly that if we do not bridge this chasm, we will not survive.

8 responses so far

Adding a category

Jan 17 2010 Published by under Metablogging, Open Access

I'm still at Science Online 2010 and will have observations on it later, but first I'd like to acknowledge and celebrate a resource that has been absolutely crucial to my professional career—and indeed, to my profession.

Open Access News, under the able direction of Peter Suber and Gavin Baker, has for years been the single best source of smart information and informed opinion for open-access advocates. Both Peter and Gavin are taking their shows on the road, and while OAN will continue, it won't be what it was.

OAN has been my first info-stop as long as I've been a librarian. I will miss it sorely. It has been absolutely crucial in stemming the tide of FUD and outright lies coming from certain parts of the publishing industry, not to mention the ocean of ignorance and misinformation among faculty and even some corners of librarianship.

Thank you, Peter. Thank you, Gavin. I hope you are enormously proud of what OAN accomplished. I for one am in awe of you both.

I can't fill those shoes. OATP, for all its virtues, can't either. I do feel, however, that I ought to throw my hat back into this particular ring. So while I started Book of Trogool intending to firewall it off from open-access debates, I have reconsidered that decision. I'm not much, but I'm something, and we still need something—lots of somethings—to fill some small part of the gaping void that OAN's departure is leaving.

I don't know exactly what form this will take; I may start another tidbits series, or I may try my hand at the kind of calm, no-nonsense commentary that Peter and Gavin were so amazingly good at.

For now, though, I'm just announcing that for whatever I'm worth, I'm back in the OA blogging game.

One response so far

Science Online 2010

Jan 08 2010 Published by under Miscellanea

Blogging is liable to be sparse next week, as I will be at Science Online 2010 to do a workshop about institutional repositories, and talk about libraries generally alongside the inestimable Stephanie Willen Brown.

Here are the slides for my half of the latter:

So you think you know libraries

I'm not doing slides for the workshop; it's a workshop and I want it to be hands-on and participant-driven. I expect we'll do some SHERPA/RoMEO trawling, some test uploads and metadata, some cold reads of publication agreements, things like that.

If you'll be there next week, please come say hi; I look forward to meeting you! If not, keep an eye on the hashtag #scio10—I expect it'll be hopping.

No responses yet


Jan 07 2010 Published by under Tactics

Chris Rusbridge retweeted my tweet last night announcing my previous post. His prefatory comment gave me pause: "Curation by researcher or librarian?"

Er, both? Plus IT? I've never thought anything different, and if I've given the impression that I want to grab the entire pie for librarianship, I hereby apologize profusely.

Acknowledging right now that I have a big dog in this hunt—namely, that data curation is work I want to do—and that undoubtedly biases my analysis, my fear isn't what Chris seems to think it is. My fear isn't that libraries won't own the entire data curation enterprise; libraries couldn't if we wanted to. It'd be like saying that we want to own every single facet of book production, including authoring, because of our interest in the dissemination of books. We'd never say that; it's senseless.

No, my fear is that libraries and librarians are being written entirely out of data curation—by librarian administrators like Mike Lesk, by consultants like Alma Swan, by IT folks like Chris himself, by researchers whose notion of libraries and librarians is stuck in the 1950s… and all of this rolling negativity leads librarians to assume we're helpless and irrelevant. (It doesn't help, of course, that learned helplessness faced with a technology-dependent problem is quite common in librarianship.)

This, despite the indubitable fact that outside the three or four fields that have established informatics specializations, the educational organizations that have stepped up to address this need are practically without exception library and information schools. What are we creating here? A situation in which our new cadre of trained professionals can't get jobs because their chief qualification may have the fatal word "library" in it? Good gravy, I hope not!

I hope this clarifies my stance. Of course we need researchers. Of course we need IT. And, may I say: of course we need librarians.

4 responses so far

Chris Rusbridge settles the question

Jan 06 2010 Published by under Tactics

If you're not reading the comments here, you're missing the best part of the blog. Case in point, this comment from the incomparable Chris Rusbridge, which I reproduce as a post so that those who are missing the best part of the blog don't miss it:

Several things I wanted to respond to. You say you are "not at all sure we need to prove ab initio that keeping data is a good thing". Well, yes, I kind of agree... but I'm also quite sure that keeping all data is not a good thing. So keeping some, but not all data is good. Which data? Ah, that's a question for much, much more debate (one could postulate some classes of data but specifying a good set of data appraisal criteria is still a really tough challenge).

I also agree that there is no "killer-app magic bullet that will take an unholy mess of undescribed, undifferentiated digital stuff and miraculously organize it", and further that "Data curation requires skill, time, process change (a tall order all by itself), and resources". But two things occur to me here.

To the first order, dealing with the mess and providing the skills and changing processes is not the library's job, or any other "central" organisation's job. Dealing with data is the researcher's job. The way forward is to make it increasingly clear that data messes equal bad, un-reproducible research. Good data management is essential for good research. Period. The only way out of this that I can see (other than bribery and scandal as motivators, both of which we might be getting) is to include better data management training in the preparations for new researchers, ie PhD and Post-Doc courses. And that's a truly long-haul approach. Once we have some better managed, better curated data, then some central or shared group (eg library, data centre, whatever) has a reasonable chance of ingesting it and making it available. But rubbish data should be rejected. Always.

However, the second thing is that managing data in a research context is hard, and as far as I can see the tools (and standards) are not very good. There are some, but they tend not to be portable, and to be limited to a subset of disciplines. Even making sure your research group backs up its data is hard, when they use 3 different operating systems on 3 continents with 3 different sets of institutional requirements. Getting some "killer apps" to make that hard-grind technical stuff that bit easier (or even feasible, in some cases) would sure help to make the culture change work.

No-one could have forced academia to adopt the web if we had stuck with lynx, or whatever the character browser was. It took a smart set of standards AND a good piece of technology (Mosaic etc) to allow academics (and eventually others) to see how it could make their lives easier.

Mind you, I don't agree with it all. Some parts of this puzzle are the library's job, notably persistence of digital materials past the expiry date of grants, labs, and entire departments. I also believe that if you have to embed smart people in a lab to ensure that data is managed successfully—and while that can be debated, I do believe it; if researchers could do this on their own, I think they would have already—why shouldn't those smart people be librarians?

But agree or no, I did think everyone should read it.

3 responses so far

Scholarly legitimacy

Jan 04 2010 Published by under Miscellanea

I had the honor to participate in a futurist exercise by ALA's Association for Library Collections and Technical Services. The short essays they solicited have been placed online; they are well worth perusal. I wish the discussants at ALA's Midwinter gathering a pleasant and stimulating exchange.

With ALCTS's permission, I include my own entry here as well, as it is (at least in part) relevant to this blog's theme.

A distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman raised his hand politely after my talk. "Libraries," he said, in a grave and judicious voice, "are known and valued for their commitment to high-quality, authoritative information. Are we not damaging our reputation when we take anything and everything into institutional repositories?"

I can't remember what I answered (I probably stuttered something inane) but the question troubles me to this day. Sorting out what libraries' value and reputation should be in a world of information satisficers—a world, moreover, that increasingly seems disinclined to accept librarian judgment as a useful filter—looms as a worrying concern for librarianship.

At the same time, the academy wrestles with its own questioning of traditional measures of authority. Peer review has been proven biased, its judgments demonstrated to be hardly more than random. As producers of scholarly publications in print wane and perish, the humanities are forced to confront their instinctive distaste for all things digital. Supposedly reputable journal publishers have lent their good name (and worse, that of researchers they purport to serve) to false journals paid for by industry in hopes of fooling practitioners into drumming up sales.

We can help, we academic librarians. We do not help only by judging the legitimacy of already-packaged products: we help by conferring legitimacy on products and practices that we believe will lead to a stronger, clearer, more vital and more equitable scholarly-information environment.

We have done this before. We have helped legitimize entire scholarly disciplines, notably during the culture-studies ferment of the 1970s, by collecting in them and creating library spaces and staff devoted to them. And what is the first thing a new department requests from the institution, if not a targeted library collection? We have more influence than we know. How should we use it?

We have market power, too. What scholarly publisher or press reliant on sales and subscriptions could survive without our dollars? We have not always used our power wisely, as the decline in university presses attests; we have favored short-term service needs, "keeping the customer satisfied," over the long-term sustainability of the scholarly enterprise. Now that our backs are against the wall, now that no more money can be thrown down the serials abyss, what will we do?

Perhaps we stop legitimizing extortionate prices for dubious-quality journals by refusing to collect them, and patronizing their publishers as little as we possibly may. What price impact factors, or other so-called prestige measures, on journals that libraries refuse to collect? Perhaps we put our money where our mouths have been and divert collection budgets to worthy open-access publishers, granting them the legitimacy of our attention and support. Perhaps we assert prestige for the materials we collect into institutional repositories.

Perhaps we open our hearts and minds to the intellectual and methodological ferment happening outside traditional publishing channels; in so doing we entwine ourselves throughout the entire research process, rather than merely serving as its endpoint. Perhaps we legitimize excellent scholarly weblogs by offering them publishing platforms, or by preserving them. Perhaps we help researchers share their painstakingly-compiled data, as they have never before been able to do, share it in well-described, well-preserved, web-accessible form. Perhaps we ourselves design the citation formats, data standards, and review processes that will help make data and their collection as obviously legitimate a contribution to scholarship as peer-reviewed publication.

Perhaps we raise the profile of our institutions and their researchers by using our depth of bibliographic access to add up-to-date publication lists to researchers' web presences. At the same time we will aid their search for interdisciplinary collaborators across campus and across the world. Perhaps we ourselves become publishers, or absorb them, taking on the responsible and cost-effective stewardship of the scholarly record that too much of the scholarly-publishing world has abandoned in venal pursuit of profit.

Will these changes cause short-term consternation and disruption? Quite certainly. Is disruption not, however, exactly what is needed if we are to escape the unsupportable status quo?

Whatever roads we choose in the next decade, we must remember that we librarians are a vital wellspring of authority and trust in the academic world. Add to that our broad, long-term perspective, and we can move mountains... with luck, the very mountains that most need to move.

No responses yet

Magical thinking in data curation

Jan 02 2010 Published by under Tactics

Peter Keane has a lengthy and worthwhile piece about the need for a "killer app" in data management. It's too meaty to relegate to a tidbits post; go read it and see what you think, then come back.

My reaction to the piece is complex, and I'm still rereading it to work through my own thoughts. Here's a beginning, however.

In at least some fields, data are their own killer app. I expect the number of fields to grow over time, especially as socio-structural carrots and sticks for data-sharing grow, which I expect will happen. We don't have to talk about the uses for data in the subjunctive mood; there are examples, real live present-day examples, of data and data-sharing assisting the progress of research, as well as examples of the lack of data retarding it. So I'm not at all sure we need to prove ab initio that keeping data is a good thing. What we do need to prove is a little more subtle: that putting effort and resources into keeping data is a good thing.

Believe me, those two propositions are absolutely not equivalent. Especially these days, there's any number of good things that nobody wants to put effort and resources into. The newer the good thing, the harder it is to win investment in it; old things have established, often powerful incumbencies to fight for them, and they have the innate advantages of tradition and custom as well.

For all the talk about speculative investment, risk-taking, and innovation—I generally don't bet on real investment in novelty in academia, and I'm even less likely to bet on it in a resource-constrained environment. Face-saving investment of nominal resources, yes; usually not enough resources to matter, because setting up a novelty to fail means that novelty can conveniently be done away with a little later—after all, it didn't work, did it?

I apologize for the cynicism inherent in this argument; I wouldn't be so cynical if I hadn't witnessed this very syndrome quite a few times in quite a few different contexts myself. (You'll forgive me for not offering concrete examples in a public context, I'm sure.) But the fact remains: those of us who advocate novelty in academia have to be terribly careful about how we do it. As the opening of this post may hint, I prefer evidence and example to speculation and futurology as advocacy tools.

Two kinds of nominally-attractive argument, both of which can be found in Keane's post, tend to actively scotch investment in new things. One is the very title of his post: "we need to find a killer app." The other is "it'll be effortless!" The latter especially strikes me as magical thinking, and I'm afraid I consider both counterproductive in the current organizational environment.

Let's pretend for a moment that we're administrators. Someone comes to us saying "I need to build a killer app for data curation." What's data curation? is the natural first question, and why do I care about it right here and now? is the natural sequel. You see the dilemma already: if what data curation needs is a "killer app," but nobody will invest in the building of said app until data curation itself is viewed as a strategic necessity, well…

In short, we need to justify data curation on its own merits, not because it's going to be great someday, really, promise! I think that's quite feasible, mind you. There's plenty of jam today; we don't need to rely on hypothetical jam tomorrow—and doing so may actively harm our cause.

On to the question of effortlessness, where the magical thinking comes thick and fast and from every direction. My cards on the table: data curation costs effort. Can we build tools to make it less effortful? Sure. Should we? Absolutely. Will that ever reduce the effort to zero? Absolutely not. TANSTAAFL, and when we try to imply that there is, we cut our own throats. If data curation is free, who needs data curators?

Right now, I see epic tons of magical thinking about data curation in academia generally and in the researcher community particularly. The idea that it can just be left to graduate students. The idea that information management can be taught in a week's intensive seminar. Metadata, who needs metadata in an age of search engines? Et cetera, and if you'd like concrete examples of some of this magical thinking on the part of researchers, try this JISC report or this Australian report, which are crawling with it.

Keane's "killer app," which will apparently serve every kind of research data in every discipline equally, bothers me a lot. Many a time, I've had poor hapless graduate students call me who have had a passel of research data dumped on them to manage with not the least idea what they should do with it. They assume, because the researchers they work for assume, that there is some kind of killer-app magic bullet that will take an unholy mess of undescribed, undifferentiated digital stuff and miraculously organize it.

There isn't. There is not. Not DSpace, not Fedora, not Drupal, not Vignette, not anything you name. Data curation costs effort. Data curation requires skill, time, process change (a tall order all by itself), and resources. TANSTAAFL.

If I still haven't convinced you, consider this. Around about 2003, libraries were promised that a cheap, easy software tool was going to provide universal open access with minimal ("five minutes per paper!") investment of time and effort. Sounds good, they thought, and many signed on.

The result was the institutional repository.

That's why I'm desperately leery of telling anyone that data curation is going to save effort in the short term, much less that it'll be cheap or easy. We went that route once, and it blew up in our face.

11 responses so far

« Newer posts