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What I liked about Beyond the PDF2

A week has passed since wrapping up the Beyond the PDF2 conference.  I’ve been amazed at the number of commentaries that have already appeared and I’m feeling I'm a little late to the party.  But despite my new found embrace of the blog, I am not quick to the keyboard.  Rather, I tend to take a few days to reflect, synthesize and yes, begin the brain’s innate tendency to bend and shape the narrative to my own point of view. So here is what my brain has produced:

First, let me say that I enjoyed this BtPDF just as much as the first, even though the topics were no longer new and so it lacked some of the revolutionary flair of the first.  I was gratified to see some of the participants from the first one but also a lot of new faces and new communities.  Although our representation from the humanities and the libraries was perhaps small, it was still there.  It was clear from the presentations from the different camp that discussions about business models for open access cannot be had without all parties at the table (in the session, they actually were at the table!). 

I also loved the fact that we could bring in over 30 students from around the world, thanks to generous sponsorship from Elsevier and the Moore Foundation.  We had a great mix of young and old and I think that we could not and should not have BtPDF conferences without bringing these groups together on equal terms.  The special atmosphere would not have been possible without the students and tech savvy taking to twitter and other outlets.  At the same time, scholarship is an “old man’s game”, given the longevity of careers in the academy, and we need to be there too.   

Because I think it critical that all groups participate in the discussion, I do not favor having one group in a room hacking away while the others talk, as has been suggested.  Although some were itching to code, I think the issues need to be heard.  Yes, the discussion sometimes gets off track , dull and repetitive, but watching the conference in its totality lets the issues rise and fall and come out in their time.  I saw nothing particularly revolutionary about any individual presentation, but considering the entire panoply of talks, demos and discussion points, I did see the seeds of something quite transformative (to be discussed in part 2). 

Several others have commented on the lively interesting commentary on the back channels via Twitter.  I liked the layout of the room, where you could choose to attend to the speaker and participate in the discussion via traditional hand raising on one axis.  Or you could choose to attend to the twitter feed and the interpretive drawing on the other axis.  I bounced back and forth, but appreciated that I could tune one or the other out as I chose.  I was worried with the organization that we would not have time for substantive discussion because we had so many people who wanted a chance at the podium.  But the twitter feed and the participants ensured that the discussion continued beyond the 1-2 questions typically fielded from the audience.  I thought that a very important dimension and one that showed the power of real time social media. 

I liked the egalitarian atmosphere compared to most scientific conferences I attend.  Here, the publishers, commercial providers, students and scholars all participated in equal levels in the dialogue and presentations, instead of having those who serve scholarly communication relegated to the vendor show, walled off from the discussions.  I didn’t see much pulling of rank or respect for the academic pecking order.  I liked the fact that a publisher could get up and say, more or less:  “Change may be coming, but right now, I have no shortage of buyers for my product” and “You can’t keep saying we need new modes of dissemination and then keep asking me about my impact factor”.   Reminding us once again that despite the restlessness and dissatisfaction of those in the room, most scholars adhere closely to the  current presentation and distribution modes.  Provided, of course, that someone is willing to pay for it. 

Yes, there were technical glitches in the internet and I would have changed the format of some of the sessions.  I would have liked to see more funding agencies represented and someone from the US National Library of Medicine, but overall, I think the conference succeeded in doing what it set out to do:  bring diverse stakeholders together to see where we are and where we are going.  My brain is still weaving my thoughts on these topics into a narrative.  Can't wait to see what it produces.  Stay tuned!


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