Publishing too much (transport) research?

flickr photo shared by jambina under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Today I stumbled across an editorial by the esteemed transport economist Kenneth Button in Transport Reviews that articulates a lot of ideas I’ve been working on the past few years. The editorial is titled, “Publishing Transport Research: Are We Learning Much of Use?”  In it, Button criticises the current trends that stress quantity and quantification of scholarly output, sacrificing quality and more “verbal” presentations of ideas. There are many reasons for this: the need for us to quantify everything, it’s easier to ‘show the work’ with math than it is to explain the ideas behind it, the whole publish or perish paradigm, and the struggle to retain qualified reviewers.  Button does make note of the increase in paper submissions from Asia, which has overall increased the demand for reviewers. He also highlights problems in the editorial process which hinders publication, such as requiring authors to suggest reviewers or citation stacking.

Button closes the editorial with his concern that without a step back and focus on quality, that transport journals may “sink to the level of junk bonds.” He closes it by encouraging people just blog.

This reminded me of another Transport Reviews editorial about the proliferation of transport journals by David Banister. Banister discusses the now many entry points of publishing that’s often daunting for authors to know where to submit a paper. He also notes the reliance on easily quantifiable metrics, such as impact factor and citation rates.

These problems aren’t really news and it’s obvious. From a librarian’s view, this makes collection development difficult since it seems like there’s a new journal we might need to subscribe to founded every few months. We can’t afford them all, so the need to tease out quality is important but how? It’s also hard to navigate which journals we should recommend people publish in based on copyright policies, review turnaround, and subject matter. Given that transportation is such an interdisciplinary field, it’s hard to guess which editors will take a narrow view of their subject and which will not.

As to Button’s argument that the increase in quality means a decrease in quality of thoughts, I would need to see some data. I do see that there are more things being published and I have concerns (see my crude analysis of published TRB conference papers in the last decade), but it’s also true that technology has opened up the process to more people. I think it can be a great thing, but we need to balance quantity with quality, and I don’t know how the current peer-review system is handling it. Button’s resignation that we should all just blog isn’t a bad idea, because it does provide a public feedback mechanism. Maybe open access, open data, and open blogging can be a way forward? Will that be enough to push big ideas forward and make people step back and look at the landscape?

Basically, go read Button’s editorial.

Look to the future and say, “Why yes!”

flickr photo shared by Reuben Whitehouse under a Creative Commons ( BY-ND ) license

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of libraries (and my library in particular) lately. What will we be doing? What will we look like? Where will the funding come? To that end I read John Palfrey’s new book BiblioTech to help me frame discussions with our institute director about the library. You should make your boss (or your boss’ boss) read it. For the most part I’d say I’ve been pragmatically upbeat.

This morning I sat in on a discussion of my colleagues before a meeting, and the focus was on falling staffing rates. The student to librarian ratio has lept through attrition, budget cuts, and increased enrollment to try and generate for money. It’s a common tale across the country and it sucks. In the middle of this fairly regular and well worn discussion I wrote down, “stop talking about cuts look for growth.”

In the meeting the discussion of cuts and the tight budgets came up again, and again I thought “ok, so what?” A number did try to steer the conversation to new opportunities and the future but we seemed somewhat mired in the muck of loss. Of course this makes sense – losing resources, staff, and space is traumatic for libraries. It forces the mission to change and it’s uncomfortable to deal with. I’ll also go a little generational here — for people who have spent most of their careers with fairly stable library situations where the stakeholders understand the function and mission, the current situation can be trying on the nerves. For others who are newer to the profession, who pretty much only know instability and chaos, this is just how things are. It’s not just age and experience, it’s also a mindset.

So here’s my public proclamation to keep myself honest: We need to stop focusing on the loss, and look to the new. We say we’re doing it, but are we really? Lots of discussions about potential new services or approaches often turn into historically minded gripe sessions about what we used to be. No more. Yes, understand the constraints and do not minimize them, but also offer up something different. We used to do a bunch of things we don’t do now because we laid off all the staff. That’s a bummer. It’s also a different time and now we can do different things. The mission doesn’t change much, but our mindset has to.

So as these discussions continue over the year, I’m going to embrace the opportunities for new things and say, “Why, yes!” I will not talk about the good old days and rue all that we’ve lost.

Let’s do this.

Walled Gardens: Business as usual with proprietary platforms

flickr photo shared by János Balázs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

During this week in 1961 construction on the Berlin Wall began. It was of the most famous walls in history, though know the construction boom in Berlin is helping its scar fade. (The wall interrupted filming of Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, which took place in Berlin at the time. It flopped because critics felt it was too soon to mock BDR/DDR relations in the aftermath of the wall, though it’s now something of a cult favourite in Germany. It’s probably my favourite Wilder film.)

I use this strained metaphor to talk about one of my favourite soapboxes – walled gardens of proprietary platforms. The more we (libraries, organizations, people) opt for licensing software and content rather than purchasing, the more we’re at the mercy of vendors and their ecosystems. It’s a cost of doing business.

This issue was a topic of discussion at a recent training I went to about EBSCO’s discovery service (EDS), which we’re rolling out on Monday. The pair in charge of implementation reminded everybody that not everything will be in EDS most notably stuff from ProQuest. Integrating different platforms from different vendors into a discovery layer has been a competition issue for a while, so I assumed many of my colleagues knew that EBSCO and ProQuest (who have their own discovery service) didn’t play well together. It was a not so friendly reminder for those who aren’t entrenched in digital licensing that vendors do things like this. It was also a good reminder that we license the content, we don’t own it.

“But they won’t even share the metadata?”

No, they won’t necessarily share the metadata. It’s valuable and they know it! Some publishers value sharing their metadata to make their content easily found, but then they catch you when you try to access a paper. For others, like EBSCO and ProQuest, their business is the service of aggregation and access so the incentive to share isn’t as great. Why help the competition? So they have their walled gardens, and we have to know when to move from one to another. In a way it’s job security?

But this is something we should all be familiar with. Often the platform dictates the content. I was an early subscriber to MOG because I liked their library more than other options (it’s also why I never used Pandora much), and it’s one of the big concerns about Tidal. This is also why Netflix and Hulu are getting into original content – because then we’re stuck subscribing to their services. The biggest example of course is Apple. They are nothing but a giant, walled ecosystem.

So what’s the point? This is pretty normal now and you should probably assume unless you physically (or digitally) store it yourself, you don’t actually own it. If you’re licensing it, you’re playing in a company’s walled garden which may or may not have gates to connect you to other gardens.

SLA and its discontents: Disagreeing with grace

flickr photo shared by wwarby under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

(I feel like this should be unnecessary, but let state for the record I want nothing but the best for SLA and its long term survival.)

This week reminds me a football match that’s kind of ugly with little to show for it.

This has been a very busy and significant week in SLA. On Monday SLA President Jill Strand emailed the membership to announce that SLA Board has decided to engage association management consultants (AMC) following recommendations from the Transition Committee. There has been some discussion about this, with some welcoming the change while others have reservations. Some wonder about the implications for current SLA staff. Others have felt this move should have been taken a while ago (when Janice Lachance first left) and it’s too little too late. Still others are deeply unhappy but cannot constructively articulate their concerns. It’s been rough.

Part of the fall out of this announcement was that Juanita Richardson withdrew her candidacy for SLA Treasurer in the election next month. She disagreed with the board and did not feel if elected she could serve on the board in good conscience, and did not want to be potentially involved with the implementation of this decision. This leaves Nick Collison running unopposed in the election. It also made for today’s candidates webinar short and surreal.

(I will not link or directly quote email listserv discussions, aside from the announcement. The barrier citation is another issue to tackle.)

Richardson’s withdrawal from the election has spurred others to comment. Many longtime, veteran members have shared their similar concerns and dismay. There has also been a call to recognize the board is made up of members volunteering to guide the association through this difficult period, and we need to assume their good intentions. We should also trust them that they are doing what they can to help SLA survive.

There was also a call to be mindful of tone and to remain respectful and professional, lest you make a name for yourself as a troublemaker or your personal brand is tarnished. That’s well intentioned, but also strikes me as a silencing tactic to control/squelch debate. By this point in my career people have probably already made up their mind about me, so I don’t really have much incentive to change course.

I think difficult times benefit from healthy, respectful, thoughtful debate and discussion. Yes, assume the board is doing the best they can but you can still question their actions and express concerns. It’s not going to make SLA weaker, if anything we will be a stronger association for it. Debate can be a productive form of engagement and honestly if the board’s actions don’t stand up to questions from the members, that concerns me. At the same time, none of this should be made personal. There’s nothing professional about personal attacks. Disagreement needs to be articulated pointedly and constructively, rather than immediately veering into hyperbole.

To make my position clear, I’m not fully on board with hiring the AMC at this time though I’m not really against it. What I am against is the lack of information about the process leading up to this and what’s ahead. I want to trust the board, as I’ve stated before, but more transparency and details would help me trust them more. That said, I don’t envy their position and do recognize they’re not doing this to hurt anybody, so I don’t want to give them more troubles. I just don’t really agree with them on this issue given the information we have, but of course there’s probably a lot that we don’t know about. (That’s a problem for me.) They need to trust members to be able to handle it and the lack of details is troubling for many of us. What will happen to SLA staff? What will the first steps be? I don’t know and if the board doesn’t know, which would be OK given the scale of the situation, it would be reassuring to hear that.

So to the SLA members who are respectfully engaging in a debate about this important topic, please continue the discussion! To those who are getting personal and nasty, stop it. We don’t need more negative librarian stereotypes. To those of you who feel that any questioning, especially difficult yet professional questions, is causing trouble, do you want members to be engaged or just pretend to get along?

SLA is defining itself now. We’re not in agreement and if we all want to move forward together, we’re going to have to work it out. Healthy debate needs to happen.


Curation and contemplation: How to serve up information.

flickr photo shared by kendrak under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I just made my first LibGuide. It’s on the very broad and generic (for me) topic of “Transportation Engineering” and doesn’t really link to much besides the obvious. I spent a lot of time reading over LibGuide best practices and looking at good examples to figure out how to approach making the guide.

I really struggled with how much to include. Should I add links to everything just in case? Would not including long lists of resources signal little effort? I kept trying to think of the user, and what they want most of the time. Yes, a few might want link barf of every book on transportation engineering but that’s what the catalog is for. Is this LibGuide to demonstrate my research expertise to users? Well… kind of but not really. It’s an iterative process and I decided for this one to do the “less is more” approach. Just get something up that will be a good start for most people, and then make more detailed ones for specific subjects. This way I will get over the perfection hurdle and stop worrying about including everything, especially since everything will be overwhelming.

This is something I struggle with in my other life as a DJ and music obsessive. How do you balance usable and informative? Curation, particularly the curatorial act of editing and limiting. Including everything might be informative, but unusable and hard to wade through. Nowadays, with the long tale and so much at our fingertips, it’s really easy to include everything. At the radio station we have a pretty sizeable physical collection and my duty as a DJ is to program something entertaining and informative from that heap of records. Hitting the high points, the critical notes, the must-knows are important. The interesting details that people might like… well that’s not always the way to go.

That is the value of curation – thoughtful selection to make it useful.

Some of the LibGuides I saw that were overwhelming with the amount of stuff linked therein seemed like compensation for a poor CMS. Others however really seemed like signs of insecurity – if they didn’t link to a bunch of stuff, regardless of how useful it may be, how else can they demonstrate their expertise and value? For them quantity denotes quality. Some of the transportation ones really made me scratch my head, and that’s all I do. Then I remembered some of my attempts at introductory playlists to scenes or genres that were 10 hours long and including way too much to be useful. It’s why it took me ages to pare this playlist of Medway Beat down from 15 to 3 hours. It’s still inclusive but a thoughtful tasting menu. That’s one of the great things about the constraints of mixtapes.

So in my future LibGuide endeavors I will try to limit myself to the boxes and really embrace the constraints in the name of the user.