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January 2008
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March 2008

ASA Meeting in London

The presentation that I ended up delivering to kick off the ASA annual conference last Monday focused on four themes:  most important was the need to develop flexibility in licensing terms so that it becomes easier to provide consistent support to people in interinstitutional collaborative research teams -- something that is become far more prevalent.  I also talked about usability, findability and branding, and part of the point that I was trying to make is that these issues are critical for all of us within the broader scholarly communication community -- librarians, publishers, intermediaries, researchers, faculty -- and that they cannot be solved by any one group in isolation from the others.  The need to work much more closely with each other has never been greater.  Or so I claim, at least -- a theme that I've been trumpeting in one form or another for a couple of years now.  With a bit of luck and hard work, the Joint AAHSL/publisher liaison task force that is just getting underway will provide a mechanism for doing some of that.  Getting to conferences together is useful, but we need to do more than just give presentations to each other a few times a year.

I was glad to be the first speaker, since that meant I could quickly get over my jitters and enjoy the rest of the meeting.  Lots of good stuff (I did skip out on part of the afternoon session so I could walk over to the Tate Modern).  I found the sessions on consumer magazines to be particularly interesting since that's the sector that I have the least experience with -- a whole different set of challenges in that market from what we face on the academic side of things.  The ebooks discussion was quite good as well (and Mark Carden turned out to be one of the best presenters of the entire conference), although I'm still not persuaded that "ebooks" are really anything other than a brief transitional stage to more fluid forms of online content.

This was my fifth trip to London so much of it felt familiar.  In addition to the Tate Modern, we stopped into the British Museum, but we really didn't do very much touristy stuff.  Had a great time wandering on Denmark Street, where there are eight guitar stores along a single block, and we had some fine meals in pubs and some excellent meals in restaurants -- from Italian to Persian to Indian to Chinese.  And we did a lot of walking, just soaking in the atmosphere, watching the people, looking at the architecture, and loving being in a city where you can turn a corner and come across a little shop like The Silver Mousetrap, where the sign proudly proclaims, "Established 1690".

BtheA had arranged things so that we could play at the reception on Tuesday night in honor of his installation as CILIP President.  Half the band was able to be there and we did a half hour set, proving to those of his friends who've heard rumors for years about the Bearded Pigs that he actually is a fine guitar player!  It was great fun.  I invited everybody to join us in Chicago in May.

And, as always, when I leave the confines of the United States I am reminded that despite the incredible size and marvelous diversity of my native country, we are still in some ways a very insular and parochial people.  It would be better for the world at large if more of us did more traveling and spent more time listening, with humility, to what people in the rest of the world have to say.  We still have so very much that we need to learn.

A Moment's Thought...

On Monday I'll be doing a talk for the annual meeting of the Association of Subscription Agents in London.  I last spoke to that group four years ago and quite enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to seeing them again.   The audience is a mix of people who work for agents and people who work in publishing and, unlike some of my more rabid colleagues, I find that most of those folks are fine, dedicated people who believe that they're working for a social good.  This is even the case with those who (gasp!) are opposed to open access (or rather, opposed to some of the mandates or to the moralistic tone of much of the debate -- I've actually met no one in publishing who is opposed, on principle, to the notion of providing broader and easier access to scholarly material).

But then, that's part of the issue, isn't it?  I spend time actually talking with them and trying to get to know them as people.  It's much harder to demonize someone after spending an evening in the pub with them.  You may still disagree vociferously, and you don't necessarily personally like each and every one of them, but you may find that the disagreements are honest and they aren't the evil, lying, money-grubbing bastards that they're portrayed to be.  This doesn't mean that you can't still sincerely believe them to be wrong.

My disgust with the open access movement came about when the level of rhetoric on the blogs reached such a pitch that people were making crude and utterly unfair accusations about the moral character of people that I happen to know.  The self-righteousness of many of the open access advocates, who seemed completely unaware of their own rhetorical spins and flourishes was a real disappointment, even though in my idealism I still share many of the goals.

But the problem, I'm afraid, is inherent in the nature of internet communication.  It is so easy (and emotionally satisfying, apparently) to accuse a whole group of being rotten liars when you can do so from the solitude of your own computer and never really be called to account for what you say.   Unlike my friend Marcus, I don't believe that there's much chance of developing mechanisms for strong and effective conversation on blogs (although I do admire his idealism).  The noise ratio will always be too high.  Substantive conversation requires actually listening, paying attention to the arguments of the other, bringing real facts into play, and always being aware of the possibility that you yourself may be wrong.  As my friend Lonnie used to say (paraphrasing Housman), "A moment's thought would have shown him the error of his ways, but thought is difficult, and a moment is a long time."   I'm not saying that I think it never happens -- but pick any 100 comment threads at random and you're not going to find very much of it.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to see the blogging guidelines that have been developed by MLA's Task Force on Social Networking.    The principles are pretty straightforward and commonsense -- but then, what one might think of as "common sense" is sometimes in pretty short supply.

If I was writing guidelines (which I'm not) I'd add one:  when you're getting ready to unleash the full force of your rhetorical armamentarium against someone or some group, ask yourself if you'd be willing to say the same thing to that someone's face.

But oh, how boring the blogosphere would become...

The Harvard Vote

I'm inclined to think that the Harvard vote may be more significant than the passage of the NIH policy.  That it is driven by the faculty rather than being imposed from the outside is a very positive sign.   Most important, however, is that a major university is taking a significant step towards managing its own scholarly production.   It is ironic in the extreme that one of the unintended consequences of the NIH policy may be a strengthening of the dominance of the commercial publishers at the expense of the society publishers.  A non-librarian colleague who works with a lot of the biomedical societies tells me that there has been a noticeable uptick in bids from the commercial guys to buy up the publishing programs of some of the societies.  In addition to the very favorable financial terms that they can offer, they are now suggesting that they can eliminate the headaches of dealing with the NIH policy.  It's got to be pretty tempting to the executive directors of those societies.

On the discussion list that SPARC recently set up to discuss authors' rights, there's been a bit of dismay at the PR that Springer is putting out encouraging authors to take advantage of their Open Choice option.  The Springer press release ends this way:

The cost of Open Choice is - as stated on the NIH web site - a permissible cost in your grant so please take care to budget for it.

Publishing with open access in Springer journals completely takes away any worries you might have about complying with the new NIH rules for grantees when it comes to publishing your research results. We look forward to the submission of your next paper.

Best regards,

Your Springer Open Choice Team

What could be easier? 

And Elsevier has built a nice revenue stream from the HHMI and Wellcome Trust mandates.

I don't fault the commercial publishers at all -- they're being creative and taking advantage of the changing terrain as best they can.    But I continue to worry about the small publishers and the societies and continue to believe that it was a grave error on the part of the open access movement not to seek alliances there.  The societies, after all, are a part of academia and, for many of our faculty, a more significant professional home than the university that they are a part of.  If the Harvard vote represents a movement on the part of faculty toward taking more control of their own scholarly production, then that's a very good thing.

Editing and Peer Review

During the six years that I was the editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association it was rare in the extreme that we published an article exactly as submitted.  When I started, I suppose I thought of peer review as strictly a search for error, an opinion as to whether or not the piece should be published.  I came to understand that the reality is far more subtle and complex.

Marcus suggests that librarian journals should evolve into blogs, arguing, in part, that peer review should be a post-publication process rather than a "pre-publication process that sometimes drags out for many months."   Although there is something appealing about this idea, when I think about the actual articles that I was involved in editing, I'm not at all sure that this would be a good thing.

As editor, I considered my responsibilities to be not just to select the most appropriate work for each issue of the JMLA, but to work with each author to present their work and ideas as successfully as possible.  And I began to see the peer review process as just the first step.  Often (perhaps usually) the reviewers (we always had three reviews) disagreed among themselves as to what the major issues or necessary revisions were.  Sometimes they flat out contradicted each other, and part of my role was to sort through those differences and give the author the best advice I could.  Frequently, the writing was simply poor and there were many cases in which it became clear to me as I worked my way through the article that the paragraph that the author had written actually said nearly the opposite of what they intended to say.  Or the article would be full of extraneous and repetitive material that simply got in the way of a busy reader actually getting to the meat of the work.  I believe that most of the articles that we published were more effective in connecting with an audience than they would have been without the pre-publication review and editing.

I'm not at all sure that it would be a service to the library community if all of those articles that I read through in their first iterations had simply been posted to a blog and opened up for comment.  The few experiments that have been done in the last couple of years with post-publication review have not been overwhelmingly successful, the ArXiv experience notwithstanding (extrapolating from the experience of a small, tightly knit, fairly homogeneous scientific community that writes largely in formulas to a much more diverse, narrative literature is a stretch, I think).

Certainly, the lag between completion of an article and its availability to a wide audience needs to be shortened, but this is a matter of efficiency, not a fundamental aspect of "traditional" journal publishing.  The major scientific journals have typically reduced this time lag to a few weeks and there's no structural reason that can't be done with the library literature -- it's a matter of the resources that you're willing to devote to tackling the problem.  Marcus suggests that this could be accomplished by "a carefully designed and managed blog."  The devil is in the details, and I wonder if that careful design and management would result in something that looks more like a typical journal or more like a typical blog. 

I'm not one who is terribly impressed by the "wisdom of crowds" (a concept that seems to be especially dubious during the US election season).   I've rarely seen anything approaching substantive discussion and analysis take place in a comment thread, and the longer the thread, the more worthless it typically is.   Rather than providing vibrant post-publication review, I'm afraid that posting unedited articles for comment would result in much good work being buried and ignored.

But the terrain continues to evolve rapidly, and the opposition of blogs to traditional journals is probably a false distinction.  The traditional journal is rapidly morphing into something else, while adopting features that we associate with blogs (the ability to provide rapid responses being the most obvious).    The underlying architecture of blog software is also developing rapidly and trying to accurately characterize the qualities that define a blog would likely become a contentious debate.   

Marcus is pushing the right questions, and everyone involved in scholarly publishing, at whatever level, should be thinking creatively about how to make the communication and discussion of projects and ideas more effective.  But it isn't a matter of journals vs blogs.  The most effective modes of communication that we develop over the next decade will adopt features that we associate with each, but will be fundamentally different from either.