My second main session at the JISC conference was entitled The A-B-C-Ds of Open Scholarship, a panel discussion with four speakers:

Les Carr began the introductory remarks with a little bit of roleplay. Though perhaps a little bit over the top, this nicely illustrated his point.

Publishers used to (and arguably still do) serve a useful purpose. Before the rise of the internet, communicating your research to large numbers of your peers around the world would have been impossible without publishers to provide the benefits of scale.

Yet in an age where rises in journal subscription spending is rising even as numbers of subscriptions fall and putting a new page up on the Web costs almost nothing, it’s feeling pretty hard to justify keeping the publishers around.

Clearly the major hurdle is quality-assurance. Without publisher-mediated peer-review, I can publish absolutely I like on the web without an up-front guarantee that it meets some minimum standard of rigour. We need either to make pre-publication peer-review work right for open access (the risk is that the publishing author becomes the paying customer who has to be kept happy), or work out an acceptable system of post-publication peer-review.

For Peter Murray-Rust, bibliographic data itself is an incredibly rich source of information. As well as helping us find useful books and articles, it also lets us look at who’s worked with whom, when they did so and where they were working at the time. In an world where collaboration is vital, that’s a very valuable tool.

Although bibliographic collections can be copyrighted, individual record cannot. Projects like Mendeley are giving us the tools to build up high-quality open bibliographies, rather that having to buy them from large companies who don’t get what we need and tend to munge the data in unhelpful ways.

OPEN by Tom MaglieryDavid Shotton followed on, adding that “citation is the glue which holds scholarly endeavour together.” The majority of citation data is currently locked up in the references sections of papers, but by making it open and accessible to data mining lots of interesting possibilities open up.

Key among these in my opinion is the ability to trace the evolution of ideas through series of articles and make visible the conversations which researchers are having through their published outputs. This turns the citation record into a valuable companion to peer review in assessing the quality of ideas.

Dr Shotton talked about citation distortion (where an idea starts life as hypothesis but becomes accepted as fact because it is cited a lot rather than because overwhelming evidence is presented). Opening up citation data means that this type of distortion can be objectively analysed.

Rufus Pollock heavily stressed the need for incentives: his favourite phrase seems to be “Where’s the candy?” It’s clear at the moment that many researchers repeat effort in many places that they don’t need to, even taking account of the need to independently verify findings.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to slip into thinking that my own openness benefits everyone except me, and overlook the fact that my openness also encourages others to be more open with me. Charmingly naive though this may seem to the average embattled academic with marking deadlines and REF looming large on the horizon, the success of projects like Wikipedia tells a different story.

The quote of the conference for me came from Les Carr in this session: “Science is the by-product of scientists trying to get promoted.” For me, this embodies the main theme of this session, that researchers have the same basic motivations as everyone else, and are not necessarily driven by some high-minded ideal of making all knowledge equally accessible to all people.

There are big benefits to be had from making scholarship more open, but they will only be realised as and when individual researchers see them as outweighing the cost of changing their behaviour.

As Les Carr pointed out: until then, those who “get it” will share their stuff and damn everyone else, while those who don’t will do anything to avoid rocking the boat.

We need the true value of openness to be recognised as intrinsically linked with academic success. For example, we need standards for the citation of data so that it can contribute properly to the impact metrics so beloved of funding bodies.

It would be nice to think that all it needs is for someone to come up with the one idea that convinces everyone and causes a step-change in academic culture. But that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a long, hard slog in a sector where change happens at rates comparable to continental drift, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Photo: OPEN by Tom Magliery