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Issue 17 July 2009   Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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Advocacy for scholarly communication
by Keith G Jeffery

Despite the apparently obvious benefits, take-up of the opportunities in the digital information space by the scholarly community has not been as complete or rapid as one might expect. Various organisations and individuals have suggested – and tried – advocacy to improve the situation. The advocacy is usually based on the ‘benefit to society’. The thesis of this article is that advocacy is a necessary but insufficient condition to realise the benefits of the digital information space; advocacy has to be supported by perceived benefits in recognition and reward for the individual or organisation.

Targets of advocacy
The target of the advocacy is a part of the problem of under-use of the digital space: researchers are motivated by, and therefore are influenced by advocacy based upon, different criteria from those of students or lecturers in teaching mode; this is a result of the recognition and rewards systems in place and which differ markedly.

To sketch a (deliberately provocative) characterisation: researchers want fame (recognition) and research money, each generated with least effort; students want easiest access to material to give correct answers; teachers want ‘boilerplate’ course material self-updated by some reviewing system more than they want relevant research results which they can use and adapt for their own environment. Thus advocacy has to address:

a) how participation in the digital world assists individuals in meeting their objectives and thus gaining recognition/reward;
b) how not participating has disadvantages (being 'left out' or 'falling behind').

The advocacy has to overcome any perception that the benefits are not worth the effort of change. Since many academics are quite reactionary and risk-averse (or is it just inertia?) then the marginal benefit has to be greater than, for example, that which would make an acceptable business case in a commercial organisation.

Advocacy based on the scholarly digital environment
The scholarly digital environment also needs breaking down into areas which,  although related, can be quite independent and have independent benefits/disadvantages for an individual or organisation. These include:

  • Data/Information space:
    • creation of data/information;
    • discovery of data/information;
    • use of data/information (including a citation).
  • Cooperative working space:
    • creation of an identity in the space (arriving on the scene);
    • (re)discovery of others in the space (networking);
    • use of the network in the space (e.g. to work up a project proposal).

The best advocacy is supported: (a) by case studies demonstrating benefits; and especially (b) when the benefits meet directly the objectives or aspirations of the person or group being persuaded so that they can identify strongly with the case study.

Data/Information Space
An example is the Southampton OA IR (Open Access Institutional Repository); improved league table positioning is a clear result and, although other universities are putting in place OA IRs and institutional mandates, the take-up is still surprisingly slow despite the apparently obvious advocated benefit to researchers, departments and the university (and the strong advocacy from Southampton’s Professor Stevan Harnad).

Advocacy is not enough. Unless there is a strong competitive advantage to be gained by using a novel technology/environment which translates directly into benefits against objectives of the individual or class of individuals then inertia (probably more so than reaction) prevails. This means that it is necessary to adjust the environment so that competitive advantage is gained and thus benefits the whole community. The UK RCs (Research Councils) mandated open access in an attempt to maintain/improve the UK standing in research by making it widely available (as well as taking a moral position in relation to outputs from publicly-funded research). The REF (Research Excellence Framework) is likely to make it strongly advantageous for a university to have an OA IR allowing harvesting of research outputs (no cost/effort) rather than gathering together submissions (large cost/effort). The RCs are now considering requiring universities to supply, instead of the now-eschewed final reports, evidence of research outputs from a grant (i.e. a tedious and costly administrative task); or harvesting from the expected university research information system. This would involve a CRIS (current research information system) preferably using the EU-recommended CERIF (Common European Research Information Format) to provide project (grant) information linked to the OA IR for the actual delivered research output objects (no effort for the university). The expectation is that for researchers these measures will be much more effective than any advocacy based on ‘benefit to society’.

Rather then increasing benefits the other approach is to reduce costs. The major cost for many researchers or lecturers is the effort of creating the metadata to accompany the digital artefact (e.g. web-forms for an OA IR). There are three ongoing approaches to reducing this burden: a) once-only data input of core data based on an institutional central CERIF-CRIS (such as person, organisational position, projects, cooperations, events, facilities, equipment, all with date ranges and roles); this means much of the metadata can be 'pre-completed' by the system; b) research workflow: this means that the (additionally required) metadata is added incrementally through the workflow so reducing it to 'bite-sized chunks'; c) automated mining of the article or dataset to generate proposed metadata; this is much more experimental and is not yet of production status.

Similarly we can reduce costs to access digital materials by providing better metadata, more intelligent/semantic search, more automation (instead of scrolling pages in a browser, seen as a waste of time). All this requires effective tools in the e-infrastructure based on metadata (describing in knowledge-based terms the actor as well as the resources and services). Examples of benefits include automated generation of CVs and publication lists for researchers and reading lists for lecturers to provide to students. For organisations benefits include tracking funded projects, resources used, research outputs produced and it provides management information for strategic decision-making as well as automating production of reports demanded by funders and others.

It is noticeable how many people now just 'Google' for information rather than using superior (relevance, recall) tools. Presumably this is because of an amazingly simple interface and large coverage from one viewpoint, rather than having to understand how to use more sophisticated tools (capabilities, coverage) e.g. library catalogue systems or OA IRs (including OAISTER over OAI-PMH) or even Google scholar. Until we provide end-users with a tool as simple as Google but (based on knowledge based metadata) utilising higher quality tools I suspect we shall make little progress.

Cooperative Working Space
There is also a plethora of systems available and they come and go fast (from e.g. LOTUS Notes to current social networking sites). Typical users do not want to have to interact with many different systems to achieve their objectives. Most scholarly organisations have systems for office functions (email, calendar, documents, spreadsheets, presentations), finance (including travel claims), human resources (including timesheets), project management and project proposal generation/validation, as well as many for access to publications (including multimedia) and datasets. The linkage between these systems is usually poor or even non-existent. Worse, accessing these systems from a cooperative environment (involving concurrent videoconferencing with presentations, with access to articles or datasets or visualisations generated from datasets) is something of a conjuring trick and not for the faint-hearted. This is a real barrier to take-up of the scholarly digital space.

Just as in the data/Information space advocacy is not enough. There has to be advantage in cooperating and it may well be necessary to adjust the environment to create this advantage. The particle physicists discovered this a long time ago and utilise digital technology to push their political agenda and marshal the community. Some years ago the UK gained quite a lead in bioinformatics because three RCs cooperated in a programme designed to encourage cooperation between the bio/biomedical side and ICT (using data information tools and cooperative working tools).  The message is that without strong encouragement (in both cases essentially recognition and reward within a strategic direction for research indicating continued recognition and reward) any advocacy on cooperative working is wasted.

We have to overcome the disinformation and FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) generated by some in the community who wish to derail any moves towards increased utilisation of a 'digital commons'. SHERPA is doing a great job here for digital publications but we need to get advocacy working first on those ignorant (one hopes not malicious) purveyors of misinformation who cause those who might accept the benefits and be willing to engage to hesitate or even not engage.

We need to:

  1. find a unified approach over this complex space of data/information and tools. Right now for many if not most researchers, students, lecturers there are too many confusing and conflicting offerings  and perhaps too much narrow  advocacy;
  2. do the same for a cooperative working space;
  3. demonstrate for each separately and then together that the unified approach works and delivers real benefits (recognition and reward) to the individual and the organisation;
  4. then, and only then, advocate this approach, fine-tuned by community (researchers, students, lecturers) and discipline (e.g. chemistry, economics).

Keith G Jeffery
STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of STFC.

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