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February 2006
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April 2006

The Versioning Problem

In a posting to the MEDLIB-L discussion list, Lisa Blackwell raises the question of what to do about the REP (Rapid Electronic Publication) papers in Molecular Endocrinology.  She wonders if we (i.e., librarians) should advise researchers to wait until the final manuscript is published before citing it, and whether or not it will become "a legitimate practice to fill ILL requests with author manuscripts."

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  I've been working with a NISO group on "the Versioning Problem" for several months.    Our charge has been simply (!) to devise standard language for describing and assigning metadata to the various versions of an article.  We've had a series of bi-weekly conference calls and the discussions have been fascinating.  Once you start to really dig into it, the number of potential versions and versions of versions is mind-boggling.  It's not driven only by the early publication experiments of journals like Molecular Endocrinology -- and there are a lot of journals that are beginning to do this -- but by the NIH Public Access Policy, the move to establish institutional and subject-based repositories, and the increasing practice of authors posting versions of their articles on their personal/professional websites.

As librarians, we have to accept the fact that all of these versions count as "publications" -- that is, they are out there and are being read and used and, yes, cited, whether or not we consider them to be "the definitive version".  In response to Lisa's specific questions, I would probably not advise someone to wait, although I would remind them that the final published version may vary in some substantial ways from the author's manuscript version and they may want to take that into consideration (it is also the case that sometimes the "final" version will never appear, but that's another can of worms that I won't get into here).  What is critical is that they be sure to cite the version that they actually used.  For ILL purposes we need to be sure that we are supplying what is asked for -- in other words, if a request is for the author's manuscript, that's what should be supplied.  The author's manuscript should not be sent in lieu of the final published version, but neither should that version be sent if what one really wants is the author's manuscript.

Obviously, this complicates the lives of librarians tremendously -- but welcome to the world that we live in.  When I spoke to the Elsevier managers last week, one of the things that I touched on was the need to develop more comprehensive search systems that will help us find our way through this increasingly complicated information space.  There are a lot of intriguing and useful attempts being made, but we are only in the very early stages of what will be a long evolution of figuring out how to deal with the digital scholarly world. 

The days when all we needed to worry about was tracking individual articles that were neatly and uniquely identified by volume and issue numbers are over.  There is no turning back.


The Days That Change Everything

I'd have to dig up the exact date, but it was sometime in late March of 1983 that I got on an airplane for the first time.  I was 27 years old, wearing a suit that I'd bought at St. Vincent de Paul for $5.00, and carrying a beat-up brown suitcase that my father-in-law had used when he was in college.  I was on my way to Washington DC to interview for the National Library of Medicine's Associate Program.

I think of that trip often, but it's on my mind today in particular because Zoe Stavri is coming to town to interview me on the impact that the program has had on me.  She's working on some in-depth evaluation project of the program, and part of it involves long conversations with a select group of former Associates.   Zoe was an Associate a couple of years after me, and we've always kept in touch but rarely get to see each other, so just having her in town is a real treat.

When my plane landed in Washington DC, I went straight to the Mall, checked my suitcase into a locker at the Museum of Natural History and spent the afternoon exploring the Smithsonian museums.  I didn't expect to get the position, so I didn't know if I'd ever get back to DC again and I wanted to make the most of it.

And it was because of not expecting to get the position that made the following day, the interview day, such a great experience.  I knew a little about the likely backgrounds of the other candidates.  They'd be from strong library schools, they'd have done research projects, they'd have specialized in medical libraries, they'd have sponsors with strong ties to NLM.  I was a month away from graduating from a  little non-accredited program in Oshkosh, Wisconsin that mostly graduated school librarians.  I had next to no science background and, frankly, no interest in medical librarianship.  When I'd learned in one of my classes about what NLM was doing with computers I was very intrigued, but that was the extent of my interest.  I'd filled out the application only because my department chair had strongly recommended it.  I probably wouldn't even have completed it if I hadn't already asked some people to write reference letters.

I sent the application off in February, thought no more about it, and went about the business of trying to find a job.  The height of my ambition in those days was to find work as a reference librarian in a small college library.  I figured I could be happy doing that for the rest of my life, and it'd give me time to pursue my other interests -- mainly music and my own writing.

When the call came from NLM to interview I was thrilled, but convinced that they'd made a mistake.  I was one of eleven finalists from all over the country?  Impossible.  But if they want to give me a free trip to DC, I'll take it.

The morning after my arrival, I walked from the hotel in Bethesda over to the library.  I remember my first sight -- you walk past that last little hotel at the edge of the NIH campus, and there the library sits on top of a low hill, striking in its fifties space-age design.  The cherry trees were in blossom and it was a beautiful day.  I walked up the hill slowly, nervous of course, but determined to have one of the best days of my life.  This is my one chance, I thought, to spend a day talking to some of the most interesting and talented people in libraryland, and I'm going to make the most of it.

From time to time these days I get asked by younger librarians for advice on interviewing.  My advice is always the same:  Be exactly who you are.  Answer every question as honestly and completely as you can.  Don't try to figure out what they want to hear.   If they don't offer you the job because of who you are, then it wouldn't be a good job for you.

It was easy for me to take that approach that day at NLM because I didn't think I had anything to lose.  I wasn't going to be able to make up for the thinness of my resume by coming up with some fancy facile answers to questions.  I wasn't going to be able to hide my lack of preparation  for a career in medical libraries.  The interviewers were going to figure out quickly enough that I was a wrong fit, so there wasn't any point in worrying about it. 

That evening, on the plane home, I looked down in wonder on the Appalachian Mountains, still mostly brown with spring in the higher altitudes still a couple of weeks away.  The sun was shining and it was still cloudless and beautiful.  I was drinking a bottle of beer (this was the early days of Midwest Express) and thinking how amazing it all was.  I'd had a wonderful day.  I don't know how the interviews are handled now, but in those days the core of it was three separate group interviews.  In each, you'd be sitting with four or six (I forget which) people from the library and spend an hour or so answering questions.  And these were senior people -- I remember in particular sitting across from Lois Ann Colaianni, Associate Director for Library Operations, as she challenged me with "what if" scenarios.  It was all great fun.  I was just as convinced on the way home as I'd been on the way there that I didn't have a prayer of getting in.  But I'd made the most of it.  I was proud of myself and happy.

Most days of our lives, the choices that we make don't have any major long term consequences.   We come out of a meeting and think in retrospect, "Oh, I wish I hadn't said that," or "I should've throught to make that point..."   We're constantly second-guessing ourselves, trying to do better, but the lapses don't matter that much in the big picture. 

And then there are days that mark the real turning points in our lives.  Can there have been a more significant single day in my life than that one?  I found out years later that I did get into the program just by the skin of my teeth -- the committees were very split.  (And I'm amused that, in retrospect, more than one person has claimed to me to be the person who turned the tide and got me in).  Maybe I would have found that college reference job and maybe I would've had a wonderful life.  But it wouldn't have been anything like this one. 

 


Reinventing Scholarly Publishing

When I spoke to the assembled managers at the Elsevier meeting, I was trying to focus on three points.  First, it seems obvious to me (but is perhaps not obvious to all of them), that the journal article is becoming relatively less important as the medium for scholarly communication.  With the increasing availability of large databanks & databases (cf., Genbank), the emergence of repositories of grey literature, and the burgeoning potential of blogs, wikis and their related social networks, there are many other avenues for consultation and collaboration among scientists.  Journal articles (even in the rich media, interactive format that they are slowly in the process of morphing into), will be competing for attention among all of these other sources of information.

Given that, the next great challenge for scholarly communication is to develop systems that treat those various sources of information analytically and do the kinds of synthesis and meta-analysis that can, at present, only be done by humans.  (Meeting this challenge is a significant component of the NIH "road map").

So, if I were a publisher, I'd be looking hard at economic models.  I suggested that one could parse the role of publishers into 4 stages:  Sifting/sorting, organizing, editing, distributing.  In the print world, this last was very problematic -- figuring out who to send the physical objects to in the most efficient way led to the subscription system in which most of a publisher's revenue is tied to distribution.  In the internet era, however, distribution is simple.  If we were inventing publishing now, we'd be looking at other elements in the communication chain for sources of revenue.

I've spent a lot of time talking with publishers in a variety of venues this spring, and I don't think there is a single one, even those most vociferously opposed to "open access", who disagreed with this.  No one doubts that the economic models for scholarly publishing are going to change.    The people who are involved in publishing are trying to figure out how to manage the risk.  Economic upheavals due to technological innovation always result in winners and losers.   It is inevitable that some publishers are going to go out of business.  And whether you're running Elsevier, or APS, or Biomed Central or the New England Journal of Medicine, you're determined that you're going to be one of the ones left standing.    So you make your choices carefully.

There are a lot of smart and passionate people out there.   Across the board, regardless of where they worked, the people that I've talked with this spring believe deeply in the importance of what they are doing.  Sure, I met a lot of people who are very scared about what the future will bring (no different than librarians), but I also talked with people who are tremendously excited about the potentials of the future.      

There's a lot more at stake here than simplistic notions about the inevitability of open access.  In the middle of the 17th century, some very smart and creative people in the coffeehouses of London invented scholarly publishing as we have come to know it.    Now we have the opportunity to be a part of something similarly momentous, if only we can expand our vision.  Librarians and publishers will continue to have vital roles to play, and it would be helpful if we could figure out how to approach the future as true partners.

 


Lynn's Pictures

As far as I can tell, Lynn has always been interested in taking pictures, but she really got serious about it a few years ago when she bought her first digital camera.    She took right away to the immediacy of the results, and the ease with which she could manipulate the image.  She rarely takes "snapshots" -- photos intended primarily to serve as souvenirs of the event or trip.  While she almost always has the camera with her, it has often been the case that we've spent days in amazingly striking settings and she's never bothered to pull it out.  She doesn't take pictures casually, and she's not always in the mood.  On the other hand, I once saw her spend nearly an entire afternoon at the Musee D'Orsay just taking pictures of the interior of the building because she found the juxtaposition of all those structural angles so interesting.  When she's in the picture-taking mood, she focuses on that completely.

EBSCO has an annual employee photography contest, and while she usually enters a few shots, this is the first time that she's placed.  She was very excited on Wednesday when she got word that three of her pictures have been selected and will be published, along with the other winners, in an upcoming issue of the company magazine.

In Brazil, last fall, we (along with Bruce) booked a one-day tour so that we could see a bit of the countryside away from Salvador.  We had lunch high above a valley at a pretty little Dsc00288farmhouse that had been turned into a restaurant catering primarily to tourists.  Lynn took some time after lunch for picture taking, which resulted in "Blue Gate Above Paraguacu".

In January of this year, we flew up to Wisconsin to visit my Mom.  Marian was excited about seeing Josie in snow, but when we got there, the streets in my mother's small town were almost completely snow-free.  We had to drive south.  The county park we ended up stopping in had about two inches of fresh snow, and on that pretty and quiet Saturday morning it was strikingly beautiful.  "EasternDsc00616 Shore of Lake Winnebago" catches the light and the tone of the day just about perfectly.

Josephine was born on Valentine's Day.  It was a Monday, and Lynn and I had taken the day off to celebrate.  I was making potato pancakes and had opened the champagne, when Marian called to say she was headed to the hospital.  Lynn finished her brunch and then went to join her. 

We talked several times through the afternoon and into the evening, and finally I got the call that the baby had been born.  Lynn asked me if I wanted to come out and meet her, and my first thought was that I could wait.  Lynn & Marian were no doubt exhausted, and I was tired myself.   I said that I'd come up in the morning.  I heard Josephine holler in the background.  I said, "I'll be there in twenty-five minutes". 

New_grandfatherI posted a different version of this picture a couple of days after it was taken.  In this one, she's worked on the contrast to heighten the drama of the moment.  Josephine is a couple of hours old -- I'm suspended in one of those moments that irrevocably divides your life into before and after.

Today is Marian's birthday, so, as we do every year, we'll go to Fox Valley for dinner.  (At just over 13 months old, the kid is already a regular there).  Part of our birthday present to Marian is that we'll take Josie home with us to give Marian a night off.  If past overnights are an indication, that means I'll be getting up with the little critter tomorrow morning and get her a first bottle of milk.  We'll play with her ball and her little village, and I'll read to her for a bit.  Maybe, when Lynn gets up, she'll be in the mood to take some pictures.


Talking With Elsevier

As the small group discussion was wrapping up, we were talking about how the relationship between the library community and Elsevier might be different.  I was with a dozen or so senior managers, and was speculating about what it might be like if a library director like me could use Elsevier almost as a consultant, who would come in and help me work with my faculty to analyze my institution's information management needs and come up with a multi-year plan that was carefully tailored to our institution's priorities and goals.  "But would librarians trust Elsevier enough to do something like that?" came the question.  "No," I said, without hesitation.  "And that's just a reality that you're going to have to deal with, and figure out how to change.  It will only happen bit by bit."

It's too bad that more librarians can't spend the kind of time with some of the senior people at Elsevier that I was able to this week.  It's tough to demonize people when you've had food and drink with them and have talked passionately about what you believe to be the social importance of what you're doing.  And make no mistake -- the people I talked with do believe passionately in the role they play in the whole knowledge creation chain.  They believe they are doing good things.  I was very impressed with their openness, their eagerness to listen to what I had to say, and their very thoughtful questions and discussion.

What Tony had said to me on the phone a few weeks ago was something like, "How'd you like to go to Miami and tell 100 Elsevier managers what you think?"  Turns out that this was the first general  meeting with the senior management from across the company since Erik Engstrom was appointed CEO a year and a half or so ago.   And somebody'd had the creative notion that they should take half a day out of their meeting to listen to actual customers.

Which is why I ended up kicking off the Wednesday morning panel, telling the assembled group why I thought the journal article was going to become relatively less central as a means of scholarly communication and what that might mean for the library community, for a company like Elsevier, and for the relationship between them. 

The panel also included Jonathan Teich, an ER physician who has spent his career developing point of care information systems, and Rick Walsh, chair of medicine at Case Western, who is also the editor of one of Elsevier's most important journals.  The panel was expertly moderated by Doran Schneider, a family physician and medical reporter for his local ABC affiliate in Pennsylvania.  We each took about twenty minutes to picture the future from our different perspectives, and then fielded questions for about an hour.

Afterwards, the assembly was divided into small groups, which is where we ended up talking about trust and relationships.   At dinner the night before, I'd had the chance to talk with Engstrom at some length about what he is trying to do, and his belief that the company needs to embrace innovation and look for new ways to creatively engage with the communities that they serve.  Part of that means looking at the relationship with librarians to see if it can be shifted from something that is often acrimonious and tense, to something that is a real partnership.   

It's a tall order, and, as I said to the discussion group the next morning, if it happens at all, it is only going to happen a person at a time. 


Think Of It As Radio

It wasn't until I was describing the experience to Lynn last evening that it occured to me to think of it as radio.  I've always approached giving a lecture or doing a presentation first and foremost as a performance, not that much different from getting up in front of a crowd with my guitar (and there was that memorable experience in Melbourne when I was able to do both seamlessly).  The interaction with the audience is very important, and I rely on eye contact and interruptions and other visual clues to help me set the pacing and tone.  If the audience is flat and listless, I'll try to crank up the energy in some way; if they're really engaged I'll use that energy to help set the direction that the performance takes.

The remote lecture for MacCall's class yesterday was  a challenge of a significantly different order.    The Wimba software they're using isn't bad.  The audience can see my PowerPoint slides, or see where I might go via web browser.    They can hear me, and I can hear them if they ask a question.  There's a handy online chat feature, and it's all pretty intuitive and easy enough to get the hang of.  But I can't see them, and they can't see me.  So the non-verbal feedback that I normally rely on to tell me how I'm doing is non-existent.

That's particularly critical for the copyright portion.  Basic copyright can be extremely dry and boring, so as I've developed and refined this lecture over the years, I've tried to keep it relevant by bringing in a lot of examples from the music world, and I try to toss in a number of jokes and the occasional bit of sarcasm to keep things light.  But some of those go by pretty quick and are emphasized by my tone of voice, or a raised eyebrow or some other gesture.  With just my voice over the line, I have no idea how any of that went over.  And if I can't tell how I'm doing, how can I go about making it better?

Which is what made me think about radio.  I listen to NPR every day for the news, and many of the people there are extremely engaging and lively, and they do it all without any visual cues.  MacCall has asked me to do another lecture in a few weeks ("The 21st century landscape of academic HS library management" -- I'm glad he gives me the easy ones), and I'd almost thought of suggesting that I just drive over and do it live.  But maybe I need to be thinking about radio.


Talking With Publishers

I've been asked to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks to talk about my "vision of the library of the future."  The audience in this case will be 100 senior managers of Elsevier.  Talk about an anthropological expedition!

Elsevier personifies everything that librarians hate about publishers.  But that antipathy also reveals much of the economic ignorance that librarians bring to the issue.  Elsevier is routinely accused of price-gouging and of being "predatory".  As someone who sends nearly half a million dollars to Elsevier every year for our share of ScienceDirect, I'm certainly sympathetic to the pain, but Elsevier is just doing what successful companies are supposed to do.  I've heard librarians say, in disgust, "They just charge what they think the market will bear!"   The tone suggests this is the height of unethical behavior.  It is, of course, standard practice for setting prices in any market.  I've talked to reps of other publishers who say they just wait to see what kind of increase Elsevier is putting in and set theirs a percent or half a percent lower in order to come in under the radar.

Those who have invited me are hoping that I'll be able to say something that will affect the behavior of these Elsevier folks in some positive way that will help to mend their relationship with the library community.  That's a tall order. 

Transparency would help.   It could start with simply being more straightforward about pricing and profits and what they're trying to do.  When discussing pricing for some of the backfile sets, for example, I've heard Elsevier reps talk about the need to recover their costs and that they're offering a really heavily discounted price and similar sorts of things designed, presumably, to soften the librarians that they're talking to.  It usually doesn't work.  Librarians know that they're doing more than "recovering the costs" and the notion of a "discounted price" is only valid if somebody is actually being charged a standard price in the first place (many states in the US have laws about that sort of thing).  So librarians end up feeling suckered and their distrust for El-Severe grows.

But transparency in pricing is absolutely antithetical to the way of doing business of large corporations (this is nothing peculiar to Elsevier).  I don't know if such a shift is possible.  On the other hand, the risks for them are real.  For many years, Elsevier could ignore the complaints of librarians because, no matter how much we fussed, we kept buying the stuff, convinced that our faculties would be up in arms if we cancelled their journals.  Finally, in the last couple of years, librarians have been able to mobilize their faculties and some of those institutions are pushing back.  That's what it finally took to get Elsevier's attention.  At least some in the company hierarchy have begun to believe that a different kind of partnership with librarians is essential for their long-term survival.  (If they weren't serious about making changes, they certainly wouldn't have hired Tony McSean as Director of Library Relations.)

But, as would be the case in any company, I'm sure there is much disagreement in the ranks as to whether such changes are necessary or what form those changes ought to take.  When I talk to librarians about the society publishers, I point out that we share the same goals -- to distribute the literature as widely as possible.  The societies need to make money in order to do that.   With the for-profit publishers the terms are flipped -- they distribute the literature in order to make money.  So our goals and theirs are necessarily in a different kind of tension.  It doesn't mean that we can't find a way to be productive partners -- but I think it will require a greater degree of willingness, on both sides, to listen and learn.

 


The Malleable World (Wikipedia and Knowledge, Part 2)

Diderot began the first encyclopedia riding the wave of excitement that accompanied the enlightenment.  Unlike earlier ages, where determination of the truth relied on revelation or received wisdom, the encyclopedists believed that there was an objective discoverable truth that could be approached through reason.   To say that something was true was to say that it accurately reflected that reality.  The goal of the encyclopedists was to sift through opinion and error and determine was that actual truth was.

Does Wikipedia rest on that same epistemological view of what truth is?

No one that I am aware of, has ever seriously claimed that the traditional way of building reference works is infallible.  (And it annoys me that wikipideans are so eager to punch at that straw man -- are library schools really teaching their students that they should never question traditional reference books?)  What has been argued is that a combination of expert investigation, various modes of peer review, vigorous debate among knowledgeable people, and transparency about inevitable biases is the best way we've found so far to do a pretty good job, and that it has the fallback mechanism of giving the intelligent reader the information that they need to make a judgment about how reliable the information they are getting is likely to be.

Wikipedia suggests that none of these things are necessary.  Not only does it not matter what the expertise of the person drafting an entry is, it doesn't matter whether or not we as the reader know what that expertise is.  We should trust that information (at least) as much as a traditional reference work because the model is self-correcting and errors will (inevitably?) be caught.  And at a certain point, the community will decide that the entry is stable and true.    The underlying bias seems to be that everybody's opinion is as good as everybody else's and the majority will eventually decide what the truth is.

How are we to decide whether or not to believe this?  The implication is that truth is malleable, and that there isn't an objective standard that we should measure information against.   

Try this as a thought experiment -- the most popular tool among residents and young clinicians for assisting their decision making is UpToDate, which rests on the same assumptions of expert opinion and authority as traditional reference works, although it uses digital technologies in creative ways to greatly increase the currency of the information.  And yet, it is undoubtedly rife with errors (it is, after all, a human construct).  Would you be more comfortable having your clinician use it if you knew that it was created using the wikipedia model?

In other words, is the wikipedia way a better approach to discovering the truth about the world, and if so, why?   And what does that say about the nature of truth?