Archive for: July, 2010

Introduction - the Honor System

Jul 14 2010 Published by under Miscellanea, Praxis

As a new blogger here at Book of Trogool I'd like to thank Dorothea for the opportunity to share in the discussion of evolving issues in technology, libraries, research, and scholarly communication.

I'm currently the Scholarly Communications and Library Grants Officer at Binghamton University, in upstate New York. I've been a librarian for some time (12 years now) and before that I was a chemist, with research experience in inorganic photochemistry, surface science reaction dynamics, and equine drug detection and quantification methods. While I did different experiments in each lab, each place was surprisingly similar in its culture and practice, and it was this lack of creativity in the research process that drove me to librarianship, although many of the projects themselves were interesting and insightful.

While I'll share some ideas from my library experiences here, in my current role I frequently find myself going back to my roots, so to speak, to understand and share the challenges of these emerging tools, behaviors, and systems. I understand things best by analogy and metaphor, and I think to better understand a new or changing culture you can find a lot of the answers from the past.

When I started as a serious (i.e. college) student, I attended and graduated from the University of Virginia. In addition to having its own well-defined culture, nomenclature, and social environment it also had the Honor Code and System. Anyone familar with honor systems knows the essense of the system is trust. UVa's system is pretty unique in that it has been entirely student-run since its inception in the 1800s, and only your peers could accuse and convict you of cheating. The system also had a single-sanction rule, so one offense and that was it. You were gone.

This system was not without some peculiarities. If a homework assignment was pledged, as we called it, you couldn't work with anyone. As a science major I could never ask a classmate for help with my assignments and lab reports, so I could never collaborate on anything or learn from my peers. I also never got an final exam returned to me, so I never knew what I didn't learn from a course. In practice it isolated and sequestered knowledge and information.

This single-sanction system is lot like the traditional publishing environment. Research output is carefully controlled and hidden prior to publication - no one can see the research until the final paper is published. If you go outside "the rules," just like the single sanction, your credibilty can be challenged and your reputation can suffers. Just like the honor system, once you're out its permanent. As a result there is little incentive to innovate with new methods of communication technology or produce output that is not recognized by the honor system.

So while Honor sounds great in theory its not so useful in practice. I use the capital because academia still abides by this principle. You see it in the tenure and promotion decisions and the way campus business and policy is conducted.

Another characteristic of honor is that it is very personal. And this is another disconnect I see with how traditional research is happening today. The publishers feel they are bestowing honor on the researchers by accepting and publishing their manuscript, and the researchers feel their research output and projects are giving honor and prestige to the publication. And this, I think, is where the challenge lies - to convince each group that their honor resides within themselves, and isn't transferred between one or the other in order to become legitimate. Never once as a student did I think the University made me honorable, or gave me honor by being there, I demonstrated honor by my actions and behavior.

Can this be changed? I hope so, because the culture can't continue in its current state. I hope to explore the issues and I encounter in discussions with faculty, students, researchers, administrators, and policy makers, and provide advice and strategies to affect positive change. I'll also try to explain some of the oddities of library culture, specifically academic library culture, which can be perplexing to anyone not immersed in this environment.

2 responses so far

Belated Zombie Day post

Jul 13 2010 Published by under Miscellanea

Oh, if I'd only had this picture for Zombie Day...


Credit for the photo to UK Serials Group. Credit for the alteration of the speech bubble (you can see the original slide here if you care to) to Steve Lawson.

Incidentally, I should have a postprint of an article based on this presentation up shortly. I'll leave word here when I get my act together and post it.

One response so far

Promoting a comment: "Open and shared format"

Jul 09 2010 Published by under Praxis

Richard Wallis has taken my ribbing in good part, which I appreciate; his response is here and will reward your perusal.

He also left a comment here, part of which I will make bold to reproduce:

As to RDF underpinning the Linked Data Web - it is only as necessary as HTML was to the growth of the Web itself. Documents were being posted on the Internet in all sorts of formats well before Tim Berners-Lee introduced us to the open and shared HTML format which facilitated the exponential growth of the Web. Some of the above comments are very reminiscent of the "why do I need to use HTML" discussions from the mid 1990's.

It is an open and shared format, such as RDF, that will power the exponential growth of the Linked Data web, but the conversations around it are still at the equivalent of 1995 stage.

If I read this right, Richard is not actually saying that the web is all HTML and therefore HTML is Good and All Web Things Must Be HTML. That's good, because that would be a silly thing to say. The web I use has plenty of CSS and Javascript and XML and JSON and JPEGs and PNGs and Flash (gah) and PDF (double gah) and other stuff on it.

What Richard is saying (again, as I read it) is more subtle: widespread growth of the data web requires an open standard to cut through the Babel of competing and closed formats the same way that HTML cut through the Babel of document formats, because without that interoperability is too much effort and so no one realizes the benefits.

Richard is welcome to check my understanding; I may have this completely wrong. Nonetheless, I don't believe a word of it, and I especially don't believe it if RDF is the HTML analogue (which, let's be clear, Richard very carefully did not say). Here's why I don't.

First, HTML was hardly the only part of the web stack necessary to its explosion. TCP/IP, anyone? Moreover, HTML by itself is obviously insufficient as the driver of that explosion, or we'd all still be on Gopher (remember Gopher?). Formatted strings of words are not all we monkeys interact with. Neither are assertions, about documents or anything else. (The whole thing about "not all data are assertions" seems to escape some of the die-hardiest RDF devotees. I keep telling them to express Hamlet in RDF and then we can talk.)

Second, I don't know that we need to rely on a single data format for interoperability. It's not impossible, but remains to be proven. The data web that I personally think is more likely closely resembles today's mashup and microformats cultures: lots of formats with suitable documentation (one hopes) and APIs, available for use by whoever's willing to suss out how the various datasets work and write code to glue them together. It's a rough-and-ready sort of interoperability, arguably an inefficient one, but eppur si muove, as Galileo did not say of the web.

Third, I'm not entirely convinced we need to rely on interoperability and its network effects as our incentive toward data-sharing. Tim BL certainly did; there wasn't much technical precedent for what he was up to. But we have the web already, a cogent argument if ever there was one. We also have governments, grant agencies, and businesses wanting to multiply return on investment in data. RDF seems downright small-potatoes by comparison, as incentives go.

Finally, the HTML:RDF analogy falls down in one area that I think is utterly crucial: ease of adoption. I can teach enough HTML (and CSS) to be going on with in a couple of hours; I've done it. I still touch RDF only with great fear and loathing and a constant sensation that I must be doing it wrong, and I'll teach it only when I absolutely must and with a great many "I don't pretend to understand this" disclaimers. You can't frighten me with XML namespaces, XPath, XSLT, or regexes, but RDF scares me stiff. This is not an open standard that's going to rule the world. Not today, not tomorrow, and in my opinion not ever.

There's another danger lurking in the one-format-to-rule-them-all argument, a danger I hinted at above: what happens to data that for whatever reason aren't expressible in the format of choice? Second-class citizens? Invisible? I hope not.

Anyway, I say again: if the data web depends on RDF, the data web is a pipe dream and we should look for something else to do. I'd much rather believe the "if" clause counterfactual.

5 responses so far

Small fry, blogging networks, and reputation

Jul 08 2010 Published by under How Libraries Work, Metablogging

So, the PepsiCo blog thing. Right.

Advance disclaimer: this is me talking, not either of my illustrious co-bloggers. We have not yet made a decision about what to do; one co-blogger is across the pond at a conference and the other is vacationing, so that discussion will have to wait a bit. This is just my take.

Book of Trogool is very small fry at ScienceBlogs. Very small. SB was a bit dubious about it at the start, to tell the truth, and if their info-science stable had been better-established I doubt they'd have taken it on. I'm very grateful that they did, because I needed them.

One of the reasons SB's info-sci stable isn't larger is that librarianship is a very difficult profession to blog in. It doesn't like blogs or bloggers, or social media generally, much less trust them or those who engage with each other and the world using them. Because libraries and librarians feel beleaguered, they especially don't like discourse critical of libraries or librarianship in social media coming from one of their own. Library vendors aren't fond of critical discourse in librarian blogs either. For individual librarian bloggers or public social-media figures, this has absolutely meant trouble at work. I'm one example, but very far from the only one—and I earned my problems more than most folks I know in similar straits.

This leaves the beleaguered library blogger who wishes to continue to blog with a few options. One is to be part of a group blog to create strength in numbers; In the Library with the Lead Pipe is a sterling example (and a fabulous blog; if you're interested in libraries from the inside, this is not one to miss). Another is to adopt some of the trappings of the formal library professional literature, such as length, exclusivity, and beta-reading-oops-I-meant-peer-review. ItLwtLP does this as well. A third option is to find a blog home with enough accumulated strength of character and good reputation as to afford some protection—and now you know why I chose ScienceBlogs.

Insofar as letting PepsiCo cadge cachet from SB's stable of bloggers damages SB's reputation (never mind strength of character) it causes me pressing difficulty. I'm not happy about that, because my sense watching events unfold is that SB has seriously damaged its reputation, both by casting its processes into doubt and by losing quite a few talented, brilliant bloggers. Moreover, based on the trajectory of other sellout properties like LiveJournal, unless Adam Bly learns a lot from this experience—and signs point to "not so much with the learning" at this juncture—he will likely err seriously again. And again. Until SB is not only not a shield, but an actual stain on a blogger's escutcheon.

These are petty, selfish concerns, to be sure. They are the tiny concerns of a small-fry blogger. Given that SB is rapidly alienating its big-fish bloggers, however, SB would be advised to heed these concerns, if it wishes to rebuild any sort of a stable.

To be perfectly clear, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with an individual industry scientist or big-pig-publisher employee coming to ScienceBlogs to blog on his or her own initiative. (Me vs. big-pig-publisher employee could be amusing!) I would hope that SB would provide such individuals the exact protections (from their workplaces not least) they have afforded me and other SB bloggers. What's wrong is selling a corporation the chance to trade on the collective cachet accumulated by SB's blogging stable by emitting corporate newspeak under the SB label—and I don't credit for an instant that Dr. Khan or Dr. Mensah or anyone else from PepsiCo will be blogging freely and uninterfered-with. I don't believe all the "advertorial" drapery fixes that basic wrongness.

So I labor under a dilemma. SB has been unique; there are other science-blogging stables, but none of them quite fits Book of Trogool. (Catch me blogging at Nature Networks! Not in this lifetime.) I sincerely doubt any of the group library blogs would take me on; I'm a bit Tabasco for this profession. I can't go back to solo blogging. If SB folds (a possibility, the way things are going), if my co-bloggers are too affronted to continue here, if I decide that I am too affronted to continue here—well, chances are I just hang it up, retreating to the slow, ponderous library literature to get my licks in.

That's not what I want. (Ask my writer's block why. I have named it George...) I hope, instead, that SB can get its managerial act together.

7 responses so far

I'd love to dance with you, but...

Jul 06 2010 Published by under Praxis

Richard Wallis of Talis (a library-systems vendor) posted The Data Publishing Three-Step to the Talis blog recently.

My reaction to this particular brand of reductionism is… shall we say, impolitic. I just want to pat Richard on the head and croon "Who's the clever boy, then? You are! Yes, you are!" This is terrible of me, no question about it, and I apologize unreservedly.

Here's the problem, though. Aside from my friends the open scientists (and not even all of them, to be honest), practically all the data-producing researchers I know are firmly stuck on Step 1. Firmly stuck, not to say "immovably." As for Step 2… trust me, these folks are not data modellers. I sincerely doubt my own capacity to teach RDF to someone who approaches me asking, "Is it okay if I record my data in Excel?"

Noting that I have been a longtime RDF skeptic so that you all can discount my peculiar biases, I will say that this disconnect between Linked Data proponents and Joe Q. Researcher concerns me a great deal, mirroring as it does the prior disconnect between RDF advocates and web programmers and content producers, a disconnect that has thus far prevented RDF from becoming common currency on the web.

The bar is too high, folks. It is too high. For my part, I'm starting somewhere both simpler and more complex: working on convincing people that exposing data in any form, emphatically including Excel, is a worthwhile thing to try.

11 responses so far

New initiative from John Wilbanks

Jul 01 2010 Published by under Open Access

I would be utterly remiss in my duties were I not to point out SciBling John Wilbanks's vitally important new open-access initiative.

I pledge my full and free support. After all, my brain is basically purée anyway…

(Apologies to those who saw this briefly yesterday. John jumped the, er, gun yesterday, and so did I.)

One response so far