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Highlights From the CERN Workshop on Innovations in Scholarly Communication
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Posted On July 7, 2015
One of the big events on this year’s open access (OA) conference circuit was the CERN Workshop on Innovations in Scholarly Communication (OAI9), a meeting held every other year to discuss current and emerging issues in the ever-changing field of scholarly communication. More than 200 participants from the international community joined together June 17–19 at the University of Geneva to discuss big issues, learn from each other, and challenge perceptions related to publishing and scholarly discourse.

Going Beyond Traditional Media

Michael Nielsen (who is, according to his website, “a scientist, writer, and programmer”) kicked off the conference with a thought-provoking keynote speech, “Beyond Open Access,” which shared his current thinking about what publishing might look like in the future. Nielsen observed that right now, when we talk about OA, we’re most often referring to digital access to journal articles—in other words, the type of content that was available to researchers 100 years ago, perhaps improved with DOIs and other features, but, for the most part, artifacts that would still be recognizable to Albert Einstein and his peers. As Nielsen noted, that “all falls short of what is possible. The opportunity isn’t just to digitize paper, but to create entirely new forms that go far beyond traditional journal articles. … We have an opportunity to amplify our individual and collective intelligence.”

Thinking about the ability go beyond traditional media, Nielsen encouraged participants to consider not merely what is being envisioned by publishers, but to consider apps and other types of media that we interact with on a daily basis instead—and to regard them differently. He said, “[T]he point is to look at even familiar examples through an unusual lens, that of media theorist and designer,” and that we can—and should—“identify some unusual and powerful design patterns that go beyond what traditional media can do.”

Nielsen discussed a few examples to make his point. One was a blog post written by Peter Norvig that included a live economics simulation using an IPython code notebook. By including a model that readers can use rather than a static code snippet, most readers—or at least nonspecialists—are able to easily interact with the concepts. As Nielsen said, “You can do it without having a sophisticated understanding of economics or mathematics,” which, if applied to the scientific community, could help “make knowledge both more explorable and more extensible.”

A second example came from Nielsen’s own work. He took a famous paper about neural networks and converted it into an entirely different form. Instead of presenting the material as text interspersed with figures and tables, he created an iterative series of chunks of expository text, followed by interactive models. With each iteration, the material becomes increasingly complex. As Nielsen explained, “as the reader builds up knowledge, the models get more complex, and readers’ understanding grows.” The process is designed to “build this dialogue between abstract discussion and concrete, explorable models.” Ultimately, “the form looks superficially similar to a journal article, but this is actually essentially different,” since in a traditional article, a reader has to assemble a model in his or her head. With this form, models are presented that take the reader on an interesting journey, in an informative way, in order to build up some kind of understanding. This type of experience is quite different from reading a traditional journal article.

Nielsen shared a few other examples before connecting the pieces back to OA and scholarly publishing. He ended his speech by offering a few important questions he urged the OA community to consider:

  • Open access to what?
  • Do repositories like the arXiv and PubMed provide a platform for experimentation with more powerful media forms?
  • How should open access policies be crafted to ensure we don’t inhibit innovation by constraining experimentation?
  • How can we ensure wild experimentation with new media forms?

Several of his core ideas are presented in his May 2015 blog post “Where Will the Key Ideas Shaping the Future of Scientific Publishing Come From?” and his slides are available on the OAI9 website.

Battling Barriers to Access

Another highlight from the conference was the discussion about barriers to and the impact of OA. Erin McKiernan, in her session, “Open Access: How Researchers Can Be Successful and Spur Change,” made an important point about personalizing stories related to access barriers. She explained that she began her career at a large university where the library had subscriptions to a typical array of subscriptions and databases. “[S]tudents and faculty don’t see the barriers. They don’t hit the paywalls. While they know that access might be an issue, it’s not something they see firsthand, at least not much.”

As soon as she graduated, she lost access to the journals she relied on, and the experience stuck with her. Shortly after, she was working in Puerto Rico at a teaching university with minimal access to scholarly literature, where she was involved in establishing a research training program. Students had questions they wanted to answer, but it was consistently a struggle to access the scientific literature. As she noted, “it wasn’t just frustrating [for the students], but it impeded the research process.” The workaround, which is typical for many people who are involved in research, was for students to email friends with connections to wealthier universities to ask for downloads.

Later on, McKiernan moved to Mexico, where she worked at INSP (National Institute of Public Health of Mexico). She explained that there, “It was no longer an abstract issue, but something you could see and experience on a daily basis.” INSP is a federal research institute with about 300 researchers, 700 students, and only 139 subscription journals. Of the 139 journals to which researchers have access, 51 are for print-only subscriptions to highly expensive—yet highly important—journals such as Cell, Nature, and Science. So although researchers at the institute are studying major public health issues and diseases, including cholera, dengue, malaria, and tuberculosis, they still do not have access to a long list of journals that publish influential research related to their fields, because the cost of subscriptions is prohibitively expensive.

All of these experiences of working with researchers who were faced with barriers to access led McKiernan to ask herself, “What can I do as an individual to improve access?” Her answer is that “the biggest thing I can do is to make my work open.” The rest of her talk focused on the myriad ways in which she has committed to doing that.

New OA Tools

One further highlight was the breakout session “Monitoring Progress Towards Open Access—Tools for Institutions, Funders and Other Decision Makers,” which showcased two new tools. Mikael K. Elbæk presented the Open Access indicator, which is still in development but is scheduled to be released during 2016. The indicator was developed under the auspices of the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science. When completed, it will measure OA levels of Danish research from January 2016 onward and will present analysis and visualization, statistics, and a common national framework for tracking OA progress.

A second project, the SPARC Europe tool How Open Is Your Research?, was presented by David Ball. It is freely available through the SPARC Europe website and is designed to let institutions measure their progress toward openness by answering a series of questions clustered around 11 themes. The tool helps users visualize organizational strengths and identify potential opportunities for the future. Once all of the questions are answered, a radar graph is produced. One participant in the session shared his experience of working through the questions with a team from his institution—and noted that it was more challenging than expected to gather data to support answers.

As usual, the OAI conference was chock-full of interesting presentations and discussions. These are just a small subset of the sessions and speakers that stuck with me after the meeting. Tweets from the conference can be found at #OAI92015.


Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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