Wednesday, 3 July 2013

In praise of diversity

Those of you who follow my Twitter feed will have seen that in the past couple of weeks I've been to two really excellent conferences. The first was the OAI8 conference organsied by CERN; the second was the Open Access Monographs conference at the British Library, organised by OAPEN and Jisc Collections.

This post was actually already half-written, in a sort of breathlessly-excitable tone, after the first conference. But my inefficiency turns out to have been a blessing in disguise. Despite their very different subject matters and quite different audiences, the two conferences got me thinking about a similar set of issues. 

My standout presentation from OAI8, a conference officially on 'open access innovations' but actually covering a lot more than that, was Kevin Ashley. Kevin was talking about 'quality' in data sharing. He argued that, at present, quality is defined by the data management profession, and usually means clean, corrected, perfectly beautiful data. But, he asked, is this a definition of 'quality' that everyone would agree with? What abou the researcher whose interest lies in seeing the original, messy data? What about the one who wants it as soon as possible, not in the fourteen months that one data archive proudly cited as evidence of their very thorough work?

Kevin argues that our notions of quality currently privilege one kind of user, the one who wants reuse-ready data and doesn't mind how long it takes to get it, but ignores many others. We need more diversity in our understanding of data 'quality' to give researchers the choice that they need.  

And diversity, for me, really encapsulates the spirit of the OA monographs conference. Cameron Neylon, in a mind-numbingly brave closing keynote which involved 60 randomised slides and no script (no script!!), mentioned how nice it was to be at a conference where speakers turned to each other on stage and said 'let's make sure we talk about this afterwards'. And he was right. The feeling at the conference was collegiate; lots of different ways of 'doing' open access monographs and a sense that there was space for everyone to have a go.

There were some models that were new to me: I was particularly interested in the EU-funded Agora project which is experimenting with Green open access monographs in philosophy and seems to be turning out some interesting data. It was also good to hear a bit more about developing models like OpenEdition, a French infrastructure project for OA books, and the Open Library of the Humanities.

But the best thing, as Cameron said, was a feeling that everyone wanted to engage with each other; that competition, if there was any, was friendly, and that we're expecting to see the diversity of traditional book publishing recreated in an open access world. Books are heterogenous, and authors want different things from their publishers. Some will want to experiment with open peer review and new ways of exposing the process of writing a book (as Kathleen Fitzpatrick elegantly discussed); others will be keen to integrate different types of content such as data, video, text, or even objects that the reader can reassemble using a 3D printer (Cameron again!). Others are going to be more concerned about brand and reach, and will feel that a traditional publisher with an open access option is the best route for them.

So we need to make sure that the open access monograph environment serves all these users. Let's not, as Kevin Ashley discussed at OAI8, trap ourselves by prioritising a single type of author, or a single set of needs. Let's preserve this diversity, and deal with the issues that it raises (such as visibility and trust of newer publishers) with new solutions (such as the Directory of Open Access Books).

A final anecdote from OAI8. Carlos Rossel is the Publisher at the World Bank, and over the last year he has implemented an open access policy for all publications funded by the Bank (there are a lot). He didn't want to: it was a directive from higher up which he couldn't ignore. But in the first year they have had over ten thousand deposits into the Bank's repository, and over a million downloads.  'I came to open access reluctantly,' he said, 'but I was proven wrong and the people moving towards openness were proven right.'

That's the journey we need to take researchers on in relation to OA books. There's a lot of scepticism out there; many researchers in HSS still see OA as something to be afraid of. To get them to travel alongside us, we need to give them a means of transport which feels safe, comfortable and built for them - in other words, we need to preserve the diversity which will give them choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment