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December 2009

Birthday Parties

When we got home from the champagne tasting, the message light was on.  I knew it was Josie.  I pressed the button, and there she was, singing "Happy Birthday" to me.

Squeaky little girl voice, but her pitch and rhythm are exactly right.

I'd been home fifteen minutes or so and then she called.

"Happy Birthday Nonai!"

"Thank you, Bug!"

"Did you hear my message?"

"I did!  You sang wonderfully.  Would you sing it for me again?"

She giggles.  "Yeah," she says, shyly.

"Did you have a good birthday?" she asks when she's done with the song.

"Yes," I say.  "I had a fine time."

"What party did you have?"

That is, did I have a Gymboree party, or a Pump It Up party, or did I have some of my friends over for a Pirate party, or what?

"Well, I haven't had a party yet."  This perplexes her, and she's a little concerned.  She's always had at least two or three birthday parties (and attends her friends' on a regular basis), so how can it be my birthday and I haven't even had one yet?

"We'll have a party when you and your Mom come over on Sunday...  Okay?"

"Okay," she says, apparently placated.  "Love you, bye..." 

Policy and Passion

I know that it startled some of my colleagues when I said, during some of the meetings in Boston last week, that as far as I could tell Open Access just wasn't very controversial among publishers any more.  When I was at the STM meeting in Frankfurt, I detected very little opposition to the concept -- indeed, all of the major publishers appear to be experimenting with some form of open access publishing, and the best of the open access publishers are treated with increasing respect for the strength and quality of their operations.  If you'd gone prowling through the halls of the Arabella, or spent time hanging out in the bar listening in on conversations, you'd have been hard pressed to find anybody expressing opposition to "open access."

"What is controversial," I said, during one of those Boston meetings, "is the NIH public access policy.  But opposition to the policy is not about opposition to open access.  It's opposition to what many publishers consider to be unwarranted government intrusion."

One of the things that SPARC has been tremendously successful at is controlling the terms of the debate and equating support for Open Access with support for the NIH policy and FRPAA.  If you're a supporter of Open Access, you are necessarily a supporter of the policy.  Express reservations about the legislation and you open yourself up to charges of being opposed to Open Access.  It's been a very effective advocacy strategy.

Unfortunately, this rhetorical sleight-of-hand effectively cuts off serious discussion of the implications and trade-offs inherent in any policy proposal.  Issues of stewardship, interoperability, commercial and non-commercial reuse, branding, context, differences in how the literature of different disciplines is handled, as well as the appropriate role of government all have a place in the discussion.  It is perfectly possible to be completely committed to the widest possible unfettered dissemination of peer-reviewed scientific literature and still have serious reservations about whether or not the legislative approach enshrined in FRPAA is the best way to get there.

"For America to obtain an optimal return on our investment in science, publicly funded research must be shared as broadly as possible," states the recent open letter from the 41 Nobel Prize winners to the U.S. Congress.  I don't know a single person in publishing who would disagree with that statement.  But I really do wish that we were having a serious, honest discussion among all of the stakeholders about the best way to get there.


"Trust is the only important thing!"   Slightly hyperbolic, but I knew what Geoff was getting at.  We were talking at the end of the CrossRef 10th anniversary dinner about the various projects under development at CrossRef in support of their mission:

CrossRef is a not-for-profit membership association whose mission is to enable easy identification and use of trustworthy electronic content by promoting the cooperative development and application of a sustainable infrastructure.

I'd be speaking the next day on issues surrounding the development of sound policies for handling plagiarism and duplication of publication.  The Baroness Onora O'Neill, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, would speak on "Trust, Communication and Academic Publication."  Heady stuff.  (The slides for the presentations are now all available on the CrossRef site).

While issues surrounding the protection of the integrity of the scientific record were front and center at the CrossRef meeting, the same themes permeated all of the various venues in which I found myself engaged with publishers throughout the summer and fall, be it with the Scholarly Communication Roundtable, the STM meeting in Frankfurt, the publishing panel we put together for the NLM/AAHSL Leadership Capstone, or the Chicago Collaborative meeting in Boston.  The fact is, serious publishers of all stripes, be they large or small, commercial or not-for-profit, spend a helluva lot of time worrying about ensuring not just the integrity of the single article before them, but the ongoing stewardship of that article. 

Stewardship involves not just shepherding a manuscript through the peer review process -- there are issues of image manipulation, unintentional errors or violation of publication norms through ignorance or cultural differences, the challenges of dealing with post-publication updating, errata, error, fraud,  retraction and preservation.  In our focus on access, librarians tend to ignore most of this.   Is it that we think these issues are unimportant or trivial?  Or do we just not think about them at all?

Of course access is important, but as Professor O'Neill pointed out in her talk (done without slides, so not, alas, reflected in the presentations that are available online), access is not sufficient -- what we're really after is communication.  And ensuring communication requires that we pay adequate attention to integrity and to stewardship. 

Librarians haven't put enough energy into those aspects of the discussion, and we need to.