Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Lot of Effort

I suppose the New Year is a time for reflection and loin-girding, and during the enhanced Winterval binge that this UK academic enjoyed (21st Dec - 6th Jan, thanks to scheduled network downtime at the office) I have had chance to think a bit around some repository topics.

Are repositories just wrong? Aren't they failing? These are questions that were brought up at the JISC CRIG unconference in December, a theme that has emerged from Caveat Depositor (Dorothea Salo) in recent months and one that was addressed at the inaugural UKCoRR meeting of research repository managers in the UK back in May.

They're certainly not easy services to run, requiring researchers and faculty at least to change their working practices, if not to re-evaluate their relationship to the information that they generate. And who ends up doing the hard work? Librarians! If they're not running proxy deposit services, they're having to spend endless meetings evangelizing, proselytizing and advocating the use of repositories at the grass roots, middle management and the top level of University structures. And outside the walls of the university, similar (seemingly interminable) discussions and arguments are taking place with funding bodies and governments on open access. Slowly the pieces are falling into place - the NIH mandate being the latest example. Slowly repositories are beginning to build up some useful levels of contents (see for exact stats). It's still painfully slow, and certainly not an overnight success.

It's easy to feel a failure if your one-year-old repository has only a few hundred items in it, but the adoption of technology and institutional change don't come quickly. The adoption of email and word processing wasn't that quick within a University context. Our school was full of geeks who used it exclusively by 1982, but Bill Hubbard (SHERPA) tells a story of how his University's Vice Chancellor nearly provoked a rebellion by unilaterally moving all his own communication to email and refusing to read any more written memos. Still, it worked within a year. Some things just require a longer time to catch on, and then some mandating!

It is easy to imagine that the Web has revolutionised the lives of academics, and that it is only repositories that are failing in their duty to be popular. But in fact, the Web has also failed to take off in academia in important ways. No, really, just look around and see how many academics in your schools have up-to-date home pages. How many academics (who live and die by reputation) have digital profiles that aren't years out of date? This summer, one team in our school boasted a front page BBC News story about its research project. The BBC dutifully linked to the home page of the principal researcher, but it turned out that he hadn't yet updated his home page to mention the project. That'll be the THREE YEAR project that had just finished. D'oh!

In total, about a third of our academics don't have a functional home page (I'm ignoring the "official" web page that the school portal automatically puts together based on papers, projects, recent seminars because its too general and too sparse.) And we're computer scientists - technology geeks in other words. What hope the arts faculty? But it's not just us - it also looks like 20% of MIT Computer Science professors don't have web pages (according to their phone book, at least).

So it looks to me like researchers in general aren't too good at web dissemination. Don't blame repositories! They *are* a part of the solution, it's just that they're a solution that researchers aren't looking for. In other words, Dorothea is right.

BUT SO WHAT? Just because academics don't care about an issue doesn't mean that it should be dropped. This is where DS and I will have naturally different perspectives. She stands in the library and I stand in the research lab. She can't tell academics what to do. She can't change their behaviour. She can't force researchers to adopt open access, preservation-friendly practices. She can only advise and educate. That is pretty frustrating. I'm sure that she's got all the low-hanging fruit. Perhaps everyone who was going to be quickly convinced has been convinced.

But this isn't just her fight. Librarians can't boss professors, only other professors or their senior management and their funders. So the others had better step up to the plate - the researchers, academics, professors who support repositories, open access, information preservation. Those who can see the advantage and implications of a well-maintained network of up-to-date, accessible information about research, researchers, research projects, activities - the scholarly lifecycle, its outputs and stakeholders. Those who get it - that the Web has changed the rules for everyone. In other words, this is MY problem (as an academic), not Dorothea's (as a librarian). And academics just don't listen to people unless they're forced to. And that is why (I believe) the smart money is on mandates at the moment - funder mandates, institutional mandates or departmental (patchwork) mandates. Whoever is listening to sense should just impose sense where they have authority.

Librarians often react badly to mandates because they contrast with the normal library/faculty relationship. But that's rather the point - after all the education and information has been delivered, the remaining message is "just do it". "Stop messing around." And librarians can't deliver that message. In a world in which knowledge can be easily shared and indexed for the whole planet to benefit from, it is simply no longer acceptable that research material (data, analysis and article) should be slowly be lost to disorganised filing cabinets, file systems or unsupported, obselete IT platforms. Or to propping up out-of-date publishing business models, come to that.

So what do I predict for 2008? More mandates and more content. It'll feel like slow progress, but the rate of growth of the content will start to speed up. Perhaps I'll get Tim Brody to put a speedometer on the front page of ROAR!

1 comment:

  1. Les I'm finally catching up with open access/repository blogs mainly provided by the RSP blog site:

    Silly story connected to your post.
    At my previous employment I would get so frustrated by some academic responses to calls for papers and coherent argument with, "get yer sh*t together and get it on (INSERT acronym of previous repository I ran)!

    Funnily enough my exasperation but clear message (if a bit rude) was remembered by the librarians in the room. They never forgot it and were pretty diligent in mentioning IR in all contacts made wit the Academics..