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NFAIS Conference Celebrates 60 Years With Diamonds and Pearls
Posted On March 20, 2018
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Faux diamonds littered the tables, and real pearls (of wisdom) emanated from the speaker’s podium at the 60th Annual (aka diamond anniversary) Conference of the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS). From Feb. 28 to March 2, close to 150 attendees explored the conference theme, Information Transformation: Open, Global, Collaborative.

The conference theme was embodied throughout the 2.5-day program. Openness was demonstrated by the wide range of organization types represented—nonprofits and foundations (the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others), universities (such as the University of Oklahoma), established publishers and vendors (ProQuest, Elsevier, etc.), government agencies, startups, and others too numerous to mention. Globalization was on display in the selection of speakers from Australia, India, Great Britain, and Germany, as well as the U.S.  And collaboration was facilitated by setting up the conference with round tables, instead of auditorium-style.

Still, there were vigorous debates­, perhaps most notable in participants’ contrasting assessments of and approaches to OA publishing. On the one hand, Ralf Schimmer (Germany’s Max Planck Digital Library) advocated for the principles of Open Access 2020 and a shift from library subscription and licensing to article-processing charges (APCs) as publishers’ revenue. He asserted that “there is already enough money in the system” to support the APC business model. On the other hand, Michael Levine-Clark (University of Denver) presented a comparison of his own school with the California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that under the APC model, some academic institutions would experience dramatic increases in cost, while others would see dramatic reductions. So, even if there is “enough money in the system,” it isn’t equally distributed.

Facing Challenges Through the Years

Opening speaker Cameron Neylon (Curtin University) reviewed 60-plus years of scholarly communication history in a fitting anniversary keynote. He described the series of challenges and responses that characterized this history. In the 1950s, the challenge was the financial sustainability of the explosively growing scientific publishing community. Neylon credited commercial scholarly publishers, chiefly Robert Maxwell, with developing a business model that generated the revenue needed to fuel ongoing expansion.

Then, in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was the role of the editor that came under scrutiny. Editors sometimes made decisions about what to publish with little or no input and transparency. In response, the scholarly publishing community developed and formalized the conventions of blind peer review that have served it well ever since.

The challenge of the late 1980s and 1990s arose from the successful response to the two previous problems: how to keep track of the work being done within the immense system of scientific research and publication. Or, to quote Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 “Information Management: A Proposal,” “how will we ever keep track of such a large project?” The result has been the spectacular success of the World Wide Web and the opening up of scholarly publication in all fields.

Predictably—because, as Neylon commented, “there will always be a next crisis”—the web’s success has led to today’s crisis: trust. Many scholars hoped that open networks and standards would lead to open yet trusted communities. But the networks have been corporatized and failed to create thriving communities. Thus, the job of scholars today is to reinvent scholarly communities so that they are both diverse and trusted. Neylon concluded with a proposal that this work be founded on Robert K. Merton’s four principles of science: universalism, communalism, organized skepticism, and disinterestedness.

Annual Events: Miles Conrad Lecture and Startup Shootout

The second day included the NFAIS conference’s annual centerpiece, the Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture. It was given by this year’s Miles Conrad Award recipient, C. Lee Giles, the David Reese Professor at Penn State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and co-creator of the CiteSeer system as well as many other services that have enhanced scholarly communication. In a wide-ranging lecture, Giles combined a look back at the development of CiteSeer with a look ahead to new applications for machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). He also offered assessments of specific technologies such as search engines and programming languages with a broad vision of the power of AI to make scholarship more productive. (Next week’s NewsBreak will be an interview with Giles.)

Also of note on Day 2 was the third annual NFAIS Startup Shootout. The format offers startup company representatives a chance to participate in a Shark Tank-like competition to gain the title of Startup Shootout Winner of the Year. This year’s three contestants were David Celano (business development manager of SciencePOD), Mads Holmen (co-founder of Bibblio), and Craig Tashman (CEO of LiquidText). At the end of the day, the judges announced LiquidText as this year’s winner. LiquidText is built on Tashman’s doctoral work at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Its iPad app, which enables users to read, annotate, tag, and link disparate documents from different sources, was named Most Innovative iPad App for 2015 by Apple. Currently, Tashman envisions moving beyond the iPad app to provide solutions for the substantially larger desktop market.  

Looking Forward With Blockchain

Joris van Rossum (director of special projects at Digital Science) provided a fitting bookend to the conference and follow-up to Neylon’s opening keynote. In his closing keynote, “Academic Publishing, Blockchain, and Shifting Roles in a Rapidly Changing World,” van Rossum reviewed the changing roles and responsibilities of scholarly publishers. He defined four traditional roles: registration, certification, dissemination, and preservation. Three of these, he said—registration, dissemination, and preservation—are being taken on by others, leading to a diminished role for publishers. The fourth—certification—involves the journal editor and peer reviewers in verifying and validating the research that is accepted for publication. In the current climate—which is characterized by the reproducibility crisis in science, calls for greater transparency in the peer-review process, limited metrics of scholarly value and impact, and general distrust of institutions—the need for improved certification is one that publishers are well-positioned to fulfill. van Rossum proposed that publishers have to test the deployment of blockchain technology to address this problem.

Differentiating the underlying blockchain technology from its widely hyped application as digital currency (see bitcoin and its competitors), he described several applications: rewarding scholarly productivity, including not only authorship, but also editorial and peer-reviewing work; managing micropayments in a more seamless and effective manner than in the past; and providing a trusted, comprehensive record of scholarly production. In conclusion, van Rossum announced a forthcoming project—involving Digital Science, ORCID, and Springer Nature—to test the application of blockchain to the peer-review process.

With an NFAIS conference called Blockchain for Scholarly Publishing coming up in May, the Digital Science initiative, and no doubt other projects being planned to address trust, OA, and other challenges in scholarly publishing, it will be interesting to hear the progress reports at NFAIS’s 61st conference next year.

Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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