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April 08, 2011

Scholarly communication, open access and disruption

I attended part of UKSG earlier this week, listening to three great presentations in the New approaches to research session on Monday afternoon (by Philip Bourne, Cameron Neylon and Bill Russell) and presenting first thing Tuesday morning in the Rethinking 'content' session.

(A problem with my hearing meant that I was very deaf for most of the time, making conversation in the noisy environment rather tiring, so I decided to leave the conference early Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, that meant that I didn't get much of an opportunity to network with people. If I missed you, sorry. Looking at the Twitter stream, it also meant that I missed what appear to have been some great presentations on the final day. Shame.)

Anyway, for what it's worth, my slides are below. I was speaking on the theme of 'open, social and linked', something that I've done before, so for regular readers of this blog there probably won't be too much in the way of news.

With respect to the discussion of 'social' and it's impact on scholarly communication, there is room for some confusion because 'social' is often taken to mean, "how does one use social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. to support scholarly communication?". Whilst I accept that as a perfectly sensible question, it isn't quite what I meant in this talk. What I meant was that we need to better understand the drivers for social activity around research and research artefacts, which probably needs breaking down into the various activities that make up the scholarly research workflow/cycle, in order that we can build tools that properly support that social activity. That is something that I don't think we have yet got right, particularly in our provision of repositories. Indeed, as I argued in the talk, our institutional repository architecture is more or less in complete opposition to the social drivers at play in the research space. Anyway... you've heard all this from me before.

Cameron Neylon's talk was probably the best of the ones that I saw and I hope my talk picked up on some of the themes that he was developing. I'm not sure if Cameron's UKSG slides are available yet but there's a very similar set, The gatekeeper is dead, long live the gatekeeper, presented at the STM Innovation Seminar last December. Despite the number of slides, these are very quick to read thru, and very understandable, even in the absence of any audio. On that basis, I won't re-cap them here. Slides 112 onwards give a nice summary: "we are the gatekeepers... enable, don't block... build platforms, not destinations... sell services, not content... don't think about filtering or control... enable discovery". These are strong messages for both the publishing community and libraries. All in all, his points about 'discovery defecit' rather than 'filter failure' felt very compelling to me.

On the final day there were talks about open access and changing subscription models, particularly from 'reader pays' to 'author pays', based partly on the recently released study commissioned by the Research Information Network (RIN), JISC, Research Libraries UK (RLUK), the Publishing Research Consortium (PRC) and the Wellcome Trust, Heading for the open road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications. We know that the web is disruptive to both publishers and libraries but it seemed to me (from afar) that the discussions at UKSG missed the fact that the web is potentially also disruptive to the process of scholarly communication itself. If all we do is talk about shifting the payment models within the confines of current peer-review process we are missing a trick (at least potentially).

What strikes me as odd, thinking back to that original hand-drawn diagram of the web done by Tim Berners-Lee, is that, while the web has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives to some extent, it has done relatively little to disrupt scholarly communication except in an 'at the margins' kind of way. Why is that the case? My contention is that there is such a significant academic inertia to overcome, coupled with a relatively small and closed 'market', that the momentum of change hasn't yet grown sufficiently - but it will. The web was invented as a scholarly device, yet it has, in many ways, resulted in less transformation there than in most other fields. Strange?

Addendum: slides for Philip Bourne's talk are now available on Slideshare.

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