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March 29, 2012 / playforth

UKSG 2012: the freebies are already here, they’re just unevenly distributed

Exhibition etc

Apart from the ridiculously cosmopolitan Communia conference in Turin in 2010, UKSG is the biggest conference I’ve ever been to. It’s also the most generously, not to say lavishly, sponsored. So I was prepared for nice catering, glossy marketing and bloody good freebies, but also a bit apprehensive that the exhibition would be an sprawling ordeal of publisher hard sell. Happily, I was right about the catering and the freebies and wrong about the hard sell – although the exhibition was large, I managed to make my way around it before the first plenary session on Monday and everyone I spoke to was charming and polite.

Having been immersed in open access discourse and advocacy for a while, it felt almost like a betrayal to chat to people from Elsevier, Wiley, Sage etc, but in the real world we are still their customers and the individuals we deal with aren’t (for the most part) pantomime villains. On the other hand, there is a part of me that finds it obscene that there’s enough money sloshing around in the industry to give out the posh freebies and sponsor the endless refreshments (including a conference dinner that must have cost 5 figures).

I was quite pleased with the amount of networking I did, deliberately seeking out people I thought would be interesting to talk to instead of taking the line of least resistence. I put faces to names, learned about some new developents, and hopefully raised the profile of what my institution is doing.

Best freebie: Swetswise chocolate.

Worst freebie: Elsevier lipbalm (as spotted in the goodie bags given to the sponsored student attendees).

Day 1

The first plenary kicked off with a dynamic, provocative presentation from Stephen Abram (@sabram) on libraries as social institutions. Take away messages: technlogical change could destroy librarians if we don’t represent ourselves and our value better, but it’s in times of dynamic change that the greatest opportunitites are to be found. We need to think about what the library experience is (physical or virtual) and what distinguishes it from transactional services offered by Google etc. We may not be able to control the end user but we can take control of the ecology.

Next came Martin Eve (@martin_eve) on ‘autosubversive practices in academic publishing’. Going by the tittle, this could have been a somewhat dry presentation, but it was great to hear a perspective on scholarly publishing reform from an early career researcher. There’s a sense in the OA community that researchers (at least in the UK) are, with a few vocal exceptions, pretty apathetic about changing the system, but Martin’s description of ‘angry young academics’ made me see that desire for change IS coming from that direction.

After lunch I went to a breakout session delivered by Dave Pattern (@daveyp) of Huddersfield University, which brilliantly uncovered some of the frustrations of trying to get at online resources, caused by poor platform design and authentication minefields (he counted c. 30 clicks to reach one article in an example exercise.) Some solutions tried at Huddersfield included implementing Summon with EZProxy, as well as building lovely Amazon-style serendipity/recommendation functionality into the OPAC.

Then we heard from Marshall Breeding (@mbreeding), who very quaintly still refers to ‘library automation’, but in fact is all about the future – specifically new web-scale (mostly cloud-based) technologies. He sees the next development being something more comprehensive and integrated than either an LMS or a e-resource management system, what he calls a ‘Library Services Platform’. Bring it on!

Great presentations from Ben Showers (JISC) and Kevin Ashley (Digital Curation Centre) followed, also looking at library evolution but focusing more on the role of data. Ben described the potential to use (and re-use) our data in better ways, so that we act on it rather than just collect it. He quoted Cory Doctorow’s comparison of mammals (few copies) and dandelions (many copies) and urged us to be, like the latter, promiscuous  (I think just when it comes to data…) Kevin told us about data curation and how it was about more than just preservation – data may be the next commercial big thing but it can also mean opportunities for researchers and institutions if made easily reusebale. If data represents an investment, we want to do what we can to maximise returns.

Day 2

After a break on Monday night when I caught up with some old friends over beer and burgers, I re-emerged into conference land on Tuesday morning in time for a breakout session on discovering openly available content on publisher platforms. Structured as a workshop/brainstorming exercise, this was quite an eye-opener for someone who doesn’t really deal directly with packaging or organising e-resources – it made me realise that there’s a lot of OA content out there that we’re currently not making discoverable for our users. Although unsurprisingly it’s another minefield of non-standardized practices, interfaces and workflows.

Back into plenary and an interesting report on the PEER project, an large EU study of self-archiving practices involving various publishers, authors and repositories. The main thing that jumped out here for me was the fact that out of over 11,000 authors initially invited to self-archive for the project, less than 200 did so – the problem of populating repositories writ incredibly large! More detail in the slides. Next we had a really interesting talk from Greg Gordon of SSRN, a successful example of open access social science practice which gave me hope that the repository model is ideally suited to my discipline after all.

In my next breakout we heard from Bernie Folan (@berniefolan) of Sage about a study involving early career researchers and librarians discussing how to improve access to information, communication and workflows in the social science/humanities research process. I’ll link to the slides here as they’re interesting and fairly self-explanatory. Then it was time to put on the glad rags for the conference dinner and ceilidh in central Glasgow. I will draw a veil over this, except to say that after two days in rooms with no natural light I was somewhat dismayed to find myself eating dinner in what was essentially an overheated cave, and that I was very impressed to see so many of my colleagues up and jigging before coffee had even been served!

Day 3

A fascinating debate between Cameron Neylon (@cameronneylon) and Michael Mabe (@michael_mabe) on the future of scholarly publishing kicked off the final morning, although in fact the most interesting debate was probably taking place in the ‘backchannel’ ie on Twitter – the audience seemed to feel more strongly about the speakers’ respective positions than they did themselves! The Mabe position was roughly: the reason the internet hasn’t already changed the scholarly journal model is because the model is essentially one that works and reflects basic human needs, behaviour and attributes. The Neylon position: publishing IS changing, the tools are all there to do-it-yourself and new flexible platforms will soon overtake the old ways. There’s a searchable #uksglive tweet archive here created by @mhawksey.

I enjoyed Jenny Delasalle’s breakout on how the library can support research evaluation, even though since we’re not in the REF the imperative to record this stuff isn’t as acute. I’ve got some good ideas to share with researchers on how to use metrics to ‘tell the right story’ about their research activities though, as well as taking on board the problems with relying on any single index or measure.

The penultimate plenary came from Ian Middleton from EBSCO on the pains of being a subscription agent and the resuts of a survey they carried out with librarians, publishers and agents on future developments – and threats – in the scholarly information supply chain. The results will be published in April – one thing I’d highlight is that librarians were much less convinced about the sustainability of the subscription model than the agents or publishers…

The traditional quirky ‘and finally’ talk was so quirky that I can’t adequately represent it here! It was described by @AlisonMcNab as being like a 21st century Philip Larkin poem and that’s probably about right, although with hints of Alan Bennett and John Betjeman as well…

Best conference bingo hits: William Gibson quote, printing press analogy, you can’t read e-resources in the bath
Best conference Pointless answers: Buckminsterfullerene, Milhouse van Houten, the Newman-Pitt-Clooney attractiveness scale
Best conference coinage: crapplications

UKSG liveblog:



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