The Future of Research Communications and e-Scholarship

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Are we ready to define the scholarly commons?: Thoughts on FORCE2015

Just back from FORCE2015 in Oxford.  Note to self:  never organize a conference right after the holidays!  Many thanks to all of the people who worked so hard to make it happen;  it was a great conference and I learned a lot.  But it was definitely different in tone from the last two events.  Was that because of the name change or because we are growing as a community?  A comment was passed to me that Beyond the PDF implied direction, whereas FORCE is, perhaps, a more nebulous charge. In the Twitter stream and during and post conference, some people are asking the question: Are we inventing the future or just discussing the same issues again and again?   May we never change so much that such frank and honest questions are not asked in public!

While perhaps missing the sense of righteous indignation that characterized the BtPDF predecessors, what was encouraging at FORCE2015 was the breadth of stakeholder groups represented and the number of new faces in attendance.  Yes, the administrators weren’t there yet, but unlike the last conference, the funders and almost every other stakeholder group were, beyond token representation.  I got a sense that , after the initial excitement of BtPDF, the idea that a single group, new tool or technology was going to come along and disrupt a conservative institution in place for 350 years had been tempered.  Rather, many of our community have rolled up their sleeves and started to chip away at the edges; very successfully I might add.  But as Phil Bourne said in his wrap up, systemic change requires more than chipping.

But I continue to feel that what FORCE (both the community and meeting) does is very special and a necessary pre-requisite for systemic change.  Every time I attend a FORCE event, I learn something new and valuable by having the curtain lifted on a part of the current scholarly ecosystem that I had perhaps not thought to question.  We get the curtains lifted because everyone is at FORCE as a participant, not a servant or a salesman.  Frank opinions are expressed in ways you don’t get when half the participants are behind booths. 

At the last BtPDF, the admission by one of the panelists, I believe he was from Springer, that the publishers deal with the libraries and really aren’t concerned with the scholars, both surprised and ticked me off. Scholars are, after all, the center of the universe!  But it honestly reflected the current market.  Libraries buy subscriptions;  scholars do not.  Similarly, Kaveh Bazargam’s expose of the costs of formatting in terms of both money, efficiency and fidelity, was an eye opener to me.  The cost of formatting might be obvious to a technologist, but it wasn’t to me as a scholar.  And these two bits of information help me understand and articulate what we are facing in a more nuanced way than before.

So what did I learn this time?  I think the two most valuable take aways came from the Credit session.  First, the observation from Dan O’Donnell, a humanist, that science conflates authorship with credit was my “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?”  moment.  Other fields don’t do this;  the authors are simply those that do the writing and not necessarily the work itself.  This conflation clearly shows why our current system of authorship can never be made to work for team science.  I had been at two workshops in the fall on “training the next generation of neuroscientist”.  Learning to work in teams was a major theme, yet our current system of authorship makes teamwork impossible because it is brutally linear, i.e., the order implies importance of contribution.  The presentation by Eric Meyer that talked about credits using, appropriately, Star Wars as a theme, tells me that having author lists of 100 individuals was not the way to go.  Rather, like George Lucas, we should move the credits from the author line to the credits section, where different contributions are acknowledged.  Like a movie, there can be hundreds of people who work on a study.  We even have a taxonomy now that would allow that. However, unlike George Lucas, we don’t just face censor and fines from our peers for changing the way that things are done.  He had no technological barrier to removing the opening credits for Star Wars.

But we clearly do, as pointed out by an audience member, I believe from Nature. And his commentd lifted the other curtain:  the Publishers got to the Internet first.   Scholars didn’t flock to the internet, as other communities did.  But the publishers adapted to the new medium early.  And when you get somewhere first, you tend to bring with you the past and set the tone for the future.  The Publishers institutionalized the old model in their software.  And so there is no simple way in author submission platforms for us to say “hey, we’d like to move from authorship lists to credits”.  The wise writers of the Manifesto knew this, which is why they called for new platforms for scholarly communication, but I don’t think that the significant barrier posed by something as simple as manuscript submission tools was apparent to the entire community.  We perhaps assumed that publishers were being obstructionist without realizing the inflexibility of existing systems and the expense of creating new ones.  

In fact, looking at all the posters and based on past conferences, we’ve created lots of new tools.  But too often, the platforms that we are building to replace the old ones are just new and shinier silos.  Because of the competitive nature of scholarship, we-the scholarly community who study the future of research communication-often think that just adopting our platform will solve everything.  But it was clear to me that just new platforms can’t disrupt our current state.  Rather,  to make the FORCE11 Manifesto a reality, we need to rethink how scholarly products, i.e., research objects, enter the ecosystem and where they end up. Right now,  containers like journals, workflows and repositories are our sole entry into the ecosystem, each with their custom formats and community conventions.  But they shouldn’t be an entry;  rather they should be containers that select and format research objects from the Commons for consumption by their constituents and customers. 

As many in FORCE11 have seen and articulated, what we need is the Scholarly Commons.  It is not a place, but rather the common API’s, practices and policies that govern the flow of research objects of all types into and out of the ecosystem.  Publishers, libraries, repositories, tool builders build on top of the Commons to add value, not to cordon off individual pieces.  Some of this work was going on in the pre-meeting workshop, but I still think that we are too uncoordinated.  I liked Sarah Callahan’s suggestion for a 1K Challenge:  If we were going to start over, how would we build it?  I think we should be having that conversation this year, with the broad community that FORCE11 has become.   And once we have it, we can see where our current pieces fit into that vision and what would be needed to make them operate more smoothly.  I think the community is ready for this in a way it wasn’t before.

I can think of no better place that FORCE11 to define and then build this future.  So, as current but soon-to-be outgoing president of FORCE11, I’d like to devote the rest my term to finding ways to support our community in “Defining the Scholarly Commons”.  If we are successful, future FORCE conferences will be building the future and not discussing it. 


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