Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The benefits of Open Access

In today’s Guardian, George Monbiot discusses academic publishing, specifically the exorbitant costs of accessing peer-reviewed research and the blatant profiteering of the publishers. In academic libraries, this has been known for years as the ‘serials crisis’: it's the fact that libraries need subscriptions to journals and rising costs mean that, as Monbiot points out, journal subscriptions now take up 65% of university libraries’ budgets. As well as the idea of large-scale digital libraries √† la the National Digital Library – “a single global archive of academic literature and data” – Monbiot discusses Open Access publishing as a possible solution. 

Open Access publishing basically involves making access to research data and scholarly literature less restricted. Universities and academics can do this in a couple of ways: Green Open Access involves putting research in openly accessible institutional repositories; Gold Open Access involves publishing in specialist open access journals. Fundamentally, Open Access publishing cuts through the limitations placed on academic research. 

Academic research and scientific research are currently constrained by the requirements of society. There are financial restrictions such as those imposed by academic publishers and there are legal restrictions such as copyright law. Both of these can prevent scholars from accessing materials or working with them in new ways. These financial or legal constraints are often opposed to the spirit of research: to the Enlightenment ideals of sharing knowledge in an atmosphere of open creativity; to the communities of scholars working together and sharing information to further human progress. There is no reason for limitations in research: the only constraint should be the limits of imagination. 

Open Access logo from Wikimedia Commons
Open Access publishing cuts through the financial and legal Gordian Knot. Green Open Access presents research free via institutional repositories and digital libraries; Gold Open Access gets the money for publication from non-consumer sources. Open Access can also cut through the legal requirements usually through Creative Commons licensing: in The Power of Open, Mark Patterson of Public Library of Science refers to Creative Commons licensing as “an integral part of the success of open access publishing...” 

And Open Access has benefits other than those immediate, practical ones. Arguably more important is the atmosphere of openness and mutual co-operation that Open Access publishing encourages. This links to the parallel movements of Open Data and Open Content. A spirit of openness and sharing of information is conducive to creative and intelligent output. It can free academic research from the suspicion and competition of the commercial sector and encourage researchers to consider themselves as part of a community working together for the greater good. 

As well as the qualitative impact on atmosphere and good feeling, an open atmosphere can quantitatively improve research. Studies from 2001, 2006, and 2010 (see below) have shown that articles published as Open Access have a citation impact advantage: they are cited more often by other researchers and so more people see the results of the scholars’ hard work.

Stevan Harnad, a big voice in Open Access, believes that university libraries and particularly institutional repositories can maintain and encourage this atmosphere. It’s vital that libraries and repositories recognise the importance of Open Access and work as much as possible to encourage this open atmosphere to create strong and productive scholarly communities in our universities and to dismantle the rampant and damaging capitalism of the academic publishing industry.

Lawrence, S., 2001. Free online availability substantially increases a paper’s impact, Nature, 31 May 2001.

Eysenbach, G., 2006. Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles, PLoS Biology, 4 (5).

Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Lariviere, V., Gingras, Y., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S., 2010. Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLOS ONE, 5 (10).

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

I, Digital Native

I’ve been reading Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Wikipedia defines a digital native as “a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts.” Since I currently work with 16 to 17 year-olds and will soon be working with university students, I thought it was important for me to understanding this generation of digital natives so that I’m able to provide a better library service.

And so I was surprised to discover that Palfrey and Gasser’s definition of ‘digital natives’ describes me:
They were all born after 1980... They read blogs rather than newspapers. They often meet each other online before they meet in person. They probably don’t even know what a library card looks like, much less have one; and if they do, they’ve probably never used it. They get their music online – often for free, illegally – rather than buying it in record stores. They’re more likely to send an instant message (IM) than to pick up the telephone to arrange a date later in the afternoon... And they’re connected to one another by a common culture. Major aspects of their lives – social interactions, friendships, civic activities – are mediated by digital technologies.
(Apart from the library card comment and [LEGAL DISCLAIMER] the illegal music comment.)

A digital native. Probably with disgusting sticky fingers.
I had never considered myself to be a digital native so reading this was like discovering that an anthropology text is about my subculture. The term ‘digital native’ seems to imply an innate grasp of technology: using mobile phones in the playground and taking ‘coding for kids’ classes. I remember learning to use technology: teaching myself to use a mouse; my first experience using the Internet; teaching myself HTML. Sometimes I still get the feeling that devices like the Kindle are astoundingly futuristic. The point being that I am fully aware of all the technology I use and that, unlike my imagined digital native, I don’t feel blas√© about it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that technology does have a different role in my life compared to, say, my parents. The different ways we approach technology, for example. When my parents don’t have a clear step-by-step procedure for doing something on the computer or on a device, they can’t do it: if they don’t know how to reset the clock on their mobile phone, then they just don’t know. Whereas I will look through the menus, try out likely options (Settings, Options, etc.), and figure out how to do it. I’m not worried that fiddling with technology and trying things out will break it – sometimes it feels as though my parents and older family members do. This seems to indicate different approaches to the use of technology and different levels of understanding.

There are also the different ways that technology has integrated itself into our lives. It’s common – particularly among newspaper opinion columnists – to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and the ‘online world’. I see no distinction: the ‘online me’ is me albeit with some of the restrictions of online communication.

Another quote from Born Digital:
...Digital Natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and the offline. Instead of thinking of their digital identity and their real-space identity as separate things, they just have an identity (with representations in two, or three, or more different spaces)... For these young people, new digital technologies – computers, cell phones, Sidekicks – are primary mediators of human-to-human connections.
I spend a lot of time online. The Web is my primary source of information about the world. Since my friends from school and university are scattered across the country, I communicate with people primarily using email and social media. I would rather chat with someone using Facebook or Chatzy than talk to them on the telephone. I have friends – even close friends – who I have never met in person. Voices for the Library is a group made up of people who primarily communicate with one another online and meet in person very rarely.

So I suppose I am a digital native. My life is integrated with and augmented by technology. Things 8, 9, and 13 for CPD23 are all about web-based tools and technologies that are used to organise oneself and make life easier. These kinds of tools – Google Calendar, Google Docs, wikis – and certain pieces of hardware – laptop, USB stick, Kindle, iPod – are integrated into my life in such a way as to make them crucial to my normal operation. Google Calendar augments my memory; my Kindle augments my capacity for communication: these pieces of technology are integrated with me and make me a more effective human being.

Transhumanism argues that the next step in human development will be merging with technology to make humans fitter, smarter, and better. To some degree, this is already happening with digital natives: as humans whose lives are so integrated with technology that they are recognisably distinct from generations before them, there is a strong case that this is the first generation of posthumans. Although I don’t agree with Ray Kurzweil’s quasi-religious belief in The Singularity, I do agree that the human body is imperfect and that augmenting humans using technology can be of great benefit: “Our version 1.0 biological bodies are likewise frail and subject to a myriad of failure modes, not to mention the cumbersome maintenance rituals they require. While human intelligence is sometimes capable of soaring in its creativity and expressiveness, much human thought is derivative, petty, and circumscribed.”

Some argue that digital natives suffer from their attachment to technology. In the wake of horrendous riots across England last week, the Government has discussed the negative influence of social media technology and its potential for organising riots and disorder. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr discusses the negative impact of the Internet on human neurology (in brief: dwindling ability to concentrate; a generation of ADHD sufferers). Rather than interpreting this change as a kid of decay, the authors of Born Digital see it as an adaptive change necessitated by a changing information environment. Digital natives are simply adapting to survive in an environment of ‘information overload’. For example: in a world where the information can be found with a couple of keystrokes, what non-trivial benefit is there to memorising the kings and queens of England? Einstein said: “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. ...The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”

We’re likely to see even more changes in the way that people, particularly young people, use technology. Rather than restricting the technology, we have to learn to adapt like digital natives have and will continue to do. 

EDIT: A few hours after posting this, Deb Elzie tweeted about this research by the Open University which suggests that there are no 'digital natives' and that there is no clear break between the technology usage of different generations. In which case, anyone has the potential ability to use technology in the intuitive way that is the hallmark of the digital native: rather than being a matter of age, it's a matter of experience. So-called 'digital nativity' lies in shared characteristics and technological affinity rather than arbitrary age limits: there's no reason why people born before 1980 shouldn't be able to use technology as well as people born after. There is another interesting piece on digital natives here by Simeon Oriko.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Addendum - A bit more openness

My last post was on the virtues of an open Web within institutions. I was going to touch on the value of openness and sharing information for people and institutions – governments, organisations, etc. – but it didn’t seem to fit. Which is a shame because one of my favourite sections of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is on this very subject. It’s about overprotectiveness of personal information and asks what is wrong with sharing information? Online or offline, what does it matter how much of one’s life or one’s thoughts are shared? Why should we greedily hoard the personal details of our lives? Why shouldn’t we share everything? Giving out information and being open – within reason – loses us nothing.

What am I giving you? I am giving you nothing. I am giving you things that God knows, everyone knows… It seems like you know something, but you still know nothing. I tell you and it evaporates. I don’t care—how could I care? I tell you how many people I have slept with (thirty-two), or how my parents left this world, and what have I really given you? Nothing. I can tell you the names of my friends, their phone numbers, but what do you have? You have nothing. They all granted permission. Why is that? Because you have nothing, you have some phone numbers. It seems precious for one, two seconds. You have what I can afford to give. You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup. I can afford to give you this. This does not break me. I give you virtually everything I have. I give you all of the best things I have, and while these things are things that I like, memories that I treasure, good or bad, like the pictures of my family on my walls I can show them to you without diminishing them. I can afford to give you everything. We gasp at the wretches on afternoon shows who reveal their hideous secrets in front of millions of similarly wretched viewers, and yet.. .what have we taken from them, what have they given us? Nothing. We know that Janine had sex with her daughter’s boyfriend, but...then what? We will die and we will have protected... what? Protected from all the world that, what, we do this or that, that our arms have made these movements and our mouths these sounds? Please. We feel that to reveal embarrassing or private things, like, say, masturbatory habits (for me, about once a day, usually in the shower), we have given someone something, that, like a primitive person fearing that a photographer will steal his soul, we identify our secrets, our pasts and their blotches, with our identity, that revealing our habits or losses or deeds somehow makes one less of oneself. But it’s just the opposite, more is more is more—more bleeding, more giving. These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes, who leave theirs for anyone to see. What does he care where it is, who sees it, this snake, and his skin? He leaves it where he molts. Hours, days or months later, we come across a snake’s long-shed skin and we know something of the snake, we know that it’s of this approximate girth and that approximate length, but we know very little else. Do we know where the snake is now? What the snake is thinking now? No. By now the snake could be wearing fur; the snake could be selling pencils in Hanoi. The skin is no longer his, he wore it because it grew from him, but then it dried and slipped off and he and everyone could look at it.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The virtues of openness

Over the past year, we’ve seen the growth of groups like WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and LulzSec: these are groups bound together not by proximity or community but by the members’ shared values, in particular the value of openness. WikiLeaks published information that the group believes should be out in the open – the actions of those who represent the public: governments, militaries, and government representatives. Though Anonymous and LulzSec ostensibly hack and DDoS attack websites “for the lulz”, the groups actually have strong values concerning who and why they hack: as part of Operation AntiSec, attacks on SOCA and the US Department of Homeland Security were justified because of these governments’ efforts to “dominate and control our Internet ocean.” 

The actions of these groups are reactions – albeit, extreme reactions – to lack of openness on the Web. Although the Web is an amazing expanse of shared information, efforts to ‘dominate and control it’ are routine. The most extreme case is China’s Golden Shield Project – the ‘Great Firewall of China’ – which restricts access to the Web for the Chinese people. National and local governments worldwide keep information closed off from the public and, in the case of WikiLeaks and the diplomatic cables, can take websites down to prevent access to information.

For people in the West, the most everyday form of censorship occurs in work or school. Many employers and education institutions use software to block websites: to erect walls across the Web. The most frequently blocked websites are usually social networking websites – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. – which employers and educators perceive as wastes of time. But there are other, more surprising banned websites: Stephen Abrams recently shared these lists.

Thanks to Alice Halsey for this image idea
In an educational environment, lack of openness can have a detrimental effect. From a library perspective, restricting Web access seriously restricts the research that students can do. As well as the quantity of research sources, lack of access can also impact the quality. When teaching information literacy, it’s important to get students to use the references and further links at the bottom of Wikipedia articles: in an environment where Wikipedia is available but the referenced material is blocked, it’s difficult to verify sources and ensure accurate information.

In employment, blocks on social networking websites can be equally detrimental. It’s true that time spent playing FarmVille or chatting on Facebook can be wasted time but social networking also has the potential for great professional development. Openness in a work context comes down to trusting your employees to do the right thing. Twitter, for example, can keep someone connected to a disparate community of like-minded people, can link to useful resources and ideas, and can provide a support and professional development network with projects like CPD23. Blocking social networking and indeed any other websites treats employees and students like children: it’s detrimental to their effectiveness in the workplace and to their engagement in an organisation. It’s interesting to note that none of the top 100 best companies to work for block social media websites.

In Education and the Social Order, Bertrand Russell talks about how infants instinctively “rage at any constriction of the limbs.” This instinct, he says, “is the basis of the love of freedom.” Russell says that constraint without reason leads to rage and rage leads to destruction. Conversely freedom and openness lead to fulfilment and happiness.

Humans desire openness: the freedom to access the shared inheritance of human information. A lack of openness – in terms of the Web or knowledge or whatever – is inimical to human creativity and this is why groups like Anonymous and LulzSec step up to defend openness so vociferously. Creativity requires access to a range of perspectives, dissemination of ideas, communication between individuals, collaboration between groups. These are all things that the Web can enable but which the blocking of websites prevents. Like fish growing to the size of their physical environments, human minds grow to the size of their mental environment. As far as possible, we should avoid restricting our mental environments and stop censorship of news, books, and websites.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Things 10 and 11 - Masters, Charterers, and Mentors

Things 10 and 11 are about the past and the future: how did you into librarianship, where do you intend to go, and whose help do you need to get there?

I am a ‘baby librarian’: I’ve only been in The Profession for two years and I’ve only had a full-time library job for one year. Nevertheless, there is a story as to how I got this point and it contains Thing 10’s concepts-of-the-week, graduate traineeships, Masters degrees, and Chartership. So gather around, friends, and I’ll tell you a tale...

During my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I thought that in our illogical and ruthless capitalist society, work was something that one had to do to earn money to buy food and shelter. I had never had a job that I enjoyed doing and so I made the generalisation that I would not enjoy any jobs. I took the Stephen King approach to employment: after university, I would spend years toiling in the drudgery of employment before I could finally make a living writing short stories, novels, etc. My drudgery of choice was law: I did work shadowing at solicitors’ firms, I filled in applications for law traineeships, and I got accepted at BPP to study a Graduate Diploma in Law. It was to be a dull but profitable life. 

For various complicated reasons which I can only half-remember, I also applied for a graduate traineeship at Manchester Metropolitan University library. The interview was in July: a week before I’d been to my undergraduate graduation; two months later I was due to start law school. On the morning of the interview, as the previous graduate trainees explained the job and talked about librarianship, I experienced a road-to-Damascus style moment of enlightenment. This was a job that I wanted to do. I would actually enjoy doing this job. I could get the money necessary for my survival and do something that I enjoyed. I didn’t have to play the self-sacrificing artist. I could be a librarian. 

It was a moment of beautiful, librarianly revelation.

Since I had no idea what librarianship involved, I quite deservedly didn’t get the job. But I knew that I couldn’t go to law school. While BPP pressed me to finalise my registration, I quickly applied for MMU’s CILIP-accredited Masters course in Library and Information Management to start in September (and applied for other library jobs just in case). In retrospect, it seems stupid and irresponsible to reroute my life because of an intuition from a single morning’s interview for a job that I didn’t get. But - and I hate myself for admitting this - sometimes you have to be Kirk rather than Spock. 

And it all worked out. I got accepted onto the MA, had a wonderful year studying librarianship with some wonderful people, took a number of part-time jobs including a couple at MMU library, and, in May 2010, interviewed for an Assistant Librarian position at an Army library. While at the Army college, I’ve written some articles for publication, I’ve got involved in public library campaigning, and I’ve spoken at some conferences. 

A particularly intimate mentor/mentee relationship
What do I want do now? Now that I’ve got some practical experience of working in libraries, I want to work in Higher Education: either in a university library or anywhere else I can support academic research. Once I’ve found this ideal job, I’d like to start the process of Chartership. This would involve getting a Chartership mentor and, as per Thing 11, at this point in my career, I feel like I could really benefit from the focus that a professional mentor could provide. As I continue to meet people, work, and write, I’ll be keeping my eye out for potential mentors. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve given some thought to PhD research though I have only the haziest ideas about research topic. 

My plan for the immediate future is to keep an eye out for the theoretical ‘dream job’, to look for a mentor who could help me develop, and to get involved in more stuff in different areas of The Profession including getting more involved with CILIP as the organisation adjusts into its restructuring.