Month: January 2015

Guest Post: Margy Avery on How the Research Ecosystem is Changing

Marguerite Avery,  who is a Research Affiliate in the program, reflects on changes in the research and scholarly publishing ecoystem. 

Some thoughts on “Shaking it Up : How to Thrive in – and Change – the Research Ecosystem some weeks later – proof that we’ve embraced the need for change and just how far the conversation has evolved

When I got together with Amy Brand (Digital Science) and Chris Erdman (Center for Astrophysics library at Harvard) in August to kickstart planning for the workshop that would become Shaking it Up, our goal was to continue an earlier conversation started by Tony Hey and Lee Dirks (Microsoft Research) at a 2011 workshop on eScience, Transforming Scholarly Communication.  Its objective, according to my notes, was to present a roadmap for action with a four- to five-year time horizon specifying recommendations for the whole scholarly communications ecosystems. Having already passed the halfway mark, this was an opportune time to check in and take stock of the evolving scholarly communication ecosystem, and raise key questions: How are we doing? Where are we on this path? What’s working? What’s still broken? What progress have we made?


Providing definitive answers to these open-ended questions was decidedly out of scope, so we focused business models – on one of the major obstacles in the evolution of scholarly communication ecosystem. The willingness to consider alternatives to traditional models, coupled with the proliferation of startups in this space, demonstrated some progress in changing attitudes and expectations of scholars and researchers, and to other stakeholders. Yet the greater institutional forces lagged behind with a willful yet full understandable deference to an aging knowledge infrastructure. Our theme would be hacking business models, and we set out to assemble those people in scholarly communication who landed somewhere between the  disruptive innovation of Clay Christensen and the creative destructive of Joseph Schumpeter.  Our delegates would report on new pathways, models, and formats in scholarly communication, and we could get a snapshot of our progress at this midpoint check-up.


The lapsed historian in me insists that we cannot assess our current standpoint without some historical context, thus a recap of the 2011 meeting follows. Transforming Scholarly Communication was an ambitious event in scope and presentation. The workshop spanned three days, with one each devoted to raising issues, demonstrations from the field, and the drafting of a report. Invited participation was capped at 75, and participants were assigned to one of six groups: platforms, resources, review, recognition, media, and literature. (See the table below for descriptions of each group.) The opening remarks (as gleaned from a rough transcript on the workshop Tumblr) from Phil Bourne  focused on the benefits of open science beyond the (already contentious) end result of free content. Much more provocative was a shift in thought from considering scholarly communication simply as a product to treating it as a process — and a complex one at that. Bourne stated: “Open science is more tha[n] changing how we interface with the final product; it is interfacing with the complete scientific process – motivation, ideas, hypotheses, experiments to test the hypotheses, data generated, analysis of that data, conclusions, and awareness.”  With this refocusing on processes, collaboration becomes visible and thus possible to be assessed and valued.

This emphasis on action bleeds over from scholarly communication itself into the necessity for cultivating a movement to affect change. “We need to define ways to recruit a movement – it will take more than tools to do so – are there clear wins for all concerned? If so, what are they? Platforms to disseminate scholarship, new reward systems, knowledge discovery from open access content…” Although it was not identified as such, Bourne has given recognition to the scholarly communication ecosystem. [this allows us to think of of new “products” and to pay attention to the infrastructure] The revolutionary aspect of his proposal wasn’t so much the free content, but what we consider to be content and how it would be published.

The six categories – platforms, media, literature, review, resources, and recognition – ran the gamut of the processes (and products) of the scholarly communication ecosystem. Each group was to consider the following issues: essential elements in successful systems, failure mode of unsuccessful experiments, promising future technologies, key unsolved problems, and interdependencies with other topics. (The notes from each section are accessible in full on the Tumblr page). The focus and recommendations varied with each topic: the Resources group, with its extensive listing of tools for each stage of the research process, was particularly concerned with the differences between formats and the lack of universal search capabilities across platforms and topics; the Platform group lamented the low participation rates for developing tools and worried over the blurring between platforms for personal and professional use; and the Recognition group cautioned that new tools should augment rather than supplant established forms of published communication.


Platforms project collaboration software, “smart” laboratory software, provenance systems
Media production, distribution, archiving (e.g. video, 3-D modeling, databases)
Literature publications based on test and still images (including creation, reviewing, dissemination, archiving, reproducibility)
Review standard publication-based systems, alternative rating systems, etc.
Resources seamless technologies for literature and data (literature/data search engines; cloud-based, group sharing, adjustable permissions, integration with search)
Recognition how can we best enable cooperation and adoption?

Six themes for 2011 eScience workshop


As one of only three traditional publishers in the room, I was focused on our role within scholarly communication – what was our value-add to the process? I identified four functions  – authority (how do we know whom to trust?), discoverability (how will your work find its audience?), recognition (will your community acknowledge your contribution as valid?), and community/collaboration (will your audience engage with your work?) The scholarly communication ecosystem generates an enormous volume of content, from the granular and descriptive (data sets and procedures / processes), the observational (tweets, blog posts), to the reflective and declarative (journal articles and books with hypotheses/arguments). It clearly doesn’t make sense for traditional publishers to participate in every stage, however that doesn’t mean this content should not be published. And by published, I mean made readily available for peer critique and consumption. (Which leads into a type of peer review, with readers assessing and determining value.)

As I had been one of three participants assigned to float from group to group, I was charged with making a summary statement. My closing remarks echoed Bourne’s identification of a more holistic approach to scholarly communication in terms of product and process. “Clearly scholarly communication needs to move beyond words and print. Fields of inquiry have changed dramatically since the dawn of scholarly publishing hundreds of years ago. Research encompasses subjects requiring massive data sets, highly complex procedures, and massive collaboration.” I advocated for the inclusion of “ancillary material” – all of the content that we could neither print nor incorporate into traditional texts and push to the web such as data sets, video, audio, workflows and processes, color images, and dynamic processes – and acknowledged these would require a new model of authoritative digital publication.

And despite the frustration voiced by many participants with the shortcomings of the current publishing process, an indelible reverence remained for the work of publishers.  “As Sharon Traweek reminds us, the scholarly journal article has remained a stable, enduring standard of scholarship. She wisely reminds us of the difference between documenting process and documenting results. David Shotton echoed this, by describing a peer reviewed journal article as a line in the sand upon which knowledge is built and captures a scientist’s understanding of his or her work at a particular moment. Perhaps we need to distinguish between scholarship and research, with scholarship being the codified results, and research representing the process and observations. And while these tools are two halves of the same whole, each requires a different approach and different tools to reach different audiences.” At this meeting, I caught a glimpse of an evolving role for scholarly publishers, but without a clear path forward.


How the conversation has evolved over the last three years.


Shaking It Up illuminated a number of specific issues for us to consider in scholarly communication reform but how do these compare from 2011 to 2014?  (I won’t offer a summary of the workshop – see accounts from Roger Schonfeld and  Lou Woodley; and the DigitalScience report will be released soon.) For starters, the emphasis on infrastructure increased dramatically. Whereas in 2011, the word infrastructure appears only three times(!!!) in the meeting documentation, it undergirds the entire 2014 discussion as well as being the subject of the keynote. In “Mind the Gap: Scholarly Cyberinfrastructure is the Third Rail of Funders, Institutions, and Researchers: Why Do we Keep/ Getting it Wrong and What Can We Do about it?” CrossRef’s Geoff Bilder offered energetic provocations on the flaws in scholarly communication cyberinfrastructures (“Why are we so crap at infrastructure?”). He lamented the inclination of scholars and researchers to forge their own systems specifically tailored to their research agendas and outputs at the expense of interoperability and persistence. While these forays represent brief moments of progress and do serve to push the conversation and expectations, the unique systems (and their languishing trapped content) ultimately do not meet the broader needs of a scholarly and research communities over time. He advocated for a shared, interoperable platform created by professionals who think about infrastructure.  Overall this demonstrates a significant change in how we think about our research objects and environment.


(It’s difficult not to view this as a metacommentary on the evolution of scholarly communication itself, specifically with original digital publications. These often suffer a similar fate due to the particular creation and design carefully tied to the specific research project; while this may yield a brilliant instance of digital publication, its long-term fate is tenuous due to a highly specialized format, platform, and/or mode of access.)

Another welcome departure was the level of community engagement on scholarly communication issues. If the 2011 meeting participants considered themselves representative of only 10% of their communities, they would no longer hold a minority opinion or awareness. The importance of open access, intellectual property, and copyright is recognized across disciplines, if still unevenly.  And not only are individuals and thematic communities taking on these issues, but so are institutions. The number of scholarly communication officers (or dedicated offices) at universities is growing, as is the adoption of open access mandates and the use of institutional repositories on campuses. (And of course funding agencies and other sponsoring organizations have long been sympathetic to open access.) Although the depth of knowledge and understanding of such issues needs continued improvement, these concerns are no longer relegated to the fringe but have become scholarly mainstream.

And as our more science-themed meeting unfolded in Cambridge MA and virtually, other discussions were happening in parallel. Leuphana University’s Hybrid Publishing Lab in Lünenberg, Germany hosted the Post-Digital Scholar Conference. This humanities-focused meeting “focused on the interplay between pixels and print, and discussed upon and closed modes of knowledge, in order to seek out what this elusive thing could be: post-digital knowledge.” It’s fair to say that many scholars and researchers agree with the need for change and  the areas in which change are most needed (for example, see this previous talk for thoughts on where change is needed in university publishing). Many scholars are increasingly comfortable experimenting with these possibilities, the level of concern becomes more granular as we reflect upon the experience of these new possibilities and how these resonate in the professional space. What are the barriers here?


Addressing Access, Attribution, Authority – and Format  


While the original six themes [platforms | media | literature | review | resources | recognition] proved incredibly useful for discovery and early identification of the issues and challenges of transforming scholarly communication, I’ve sharpened my categories of analysis. Based on my many conversations with scholars and researchers over the years on the publication of digital scholarship and new formats, I’ve determined that the concerns and issues facing a new digital publication formats fall across three categories: access, attribution, and authority. If the problem is traditional scholarly publishing cannot accommodate research objects and research results in the digital space, then why haven’t we experienced the groundswell of creative activity and innovation we’ve seen in other areas of scholarly communication such as search, sharing, and collaboration? The barriers to participation –  setting aside the obvious issues such as time, technical skill, and/or resources – are access, attribution, and authority. In other words, innovative digital publications are viewed as a professional gamble, which only a few brave souls are willing to take at this time due to the current affordances of the scholarly communication ecosystem.


Let me say more about these three points:

  • To elaborate on access: scholars are legitimately concerned by the prospect of creating an innovative digital publication only to have it inaccessible to its audience; this could happen immediately either immediately or over time as a proprietary platform goes fallow due to an end to funding, the creator/keeper of the platform moving on to new projects, and libraries – the preservation endpoint – being unequipped and unprepared to handle these digital orphans. Bilder’s infrastructure concerns speak precisely to this point.
  • To elaborate on attribution: scholars publish work not only to share their research results and to advance the conversations in their fields and beyond, but of equal importance is the acknowledgement of authorship of the work. Receiving credit for a publication in the eyes of the academy.
  • To elaborate on authority: and speaking of receiving credit from one’s peers and adjudicators (e.g. tenure and promotion committees), a publication carries more weight if published with an established press of solid reputation. Of course these presses are not publishing anything beyond standard books and journal articles, and most anything digital is really just electronic – print content marked up for reading on a device – and not truly embracing the affordances of the digital space.


I was gratified to hear echoes of these points throughout the day. Accessing Content: New Thinking / New Business Models for Accessing Research Literature addressed challenges of new formats and access barriers (e.g. Eric Hellman of Gluejar raised the problem of libraries including open access titles within their catalogs, as well as presentations from ReadCube and Mendeley). Attribution and authority were themes within the Measuring Content: Evaluation, Metrics, and Measuring Impact panel, which grappled with these issues in developing tools for alternative assessment (e.g. altmetrics) with presentations from UberResearch and Plum Analytics. The last panel, Publishing Content: The Article of the Future, offered alternative visions for the future of scholarly communication (albeit while still adhering to the book-journal binary with ‘article’ of the future). These participants posed the greatest challenge to traditional format expectations by embracing the affordances of the web: Authorea,, and Annotopia offer tools that mesh readily with aspects of the existing infrastructure while simultaneously threatening other elements of the scholarly communication ecosystem. And this is what we’d hoped to accomplish with Shaking It Up – to identify an array of business models and the possibilities for changing existing structures and/or developing new ones to accommodate the changing needs of scholarship.

Where do we go from here?

So while the observation that so much as changed and yet so much remains the same seems cliché, there really couldn’t be another analysis when you think about the disparate factors at play:  scientific research (communities, practices, and research results) are evolving at warp speed, while university administrations  and scholarly publishing entities have a retrenched commitment to the persistence of traditional content dissemination from the product to the supporting infrastructure for publishing, which undergirds the tenure and promotion process. I applaud the incremental change pushed from start-ups and distinct projects exploring facets of this massive issue – and it is a massive issue with an infrastructure, many moving parts, and continually evolving research methods and results – as these demonstrate the changing needs of the communities, that this is embraced by users, and that other possibilities exist beyond the established systems. But it’s not enough. To move the needle, we need a critical mass of scholars publishing authoritative digital publications in an array of formats. Otherwise, these stay on the fringe. Just like that guy using cooking oil as automobile fuel.


And how can we change these systems? Stay tuned for the next blog post.