Some years ago, I was one of the co-founders of the KBART initiative for metadata transfer. My interest in the project was sparked by a UKSG/Scholarly Information Strategies report on “Link resolvers and the serials supply chain”, which recommended the creation of best practice guidelines to improve the exchange of metadata between publishers and knowledge bases. I volunteered to convene a group to pursue this, thinking what was required was pretty straightforward and it would be all over by Christmas. Cue two years of detailed discussion just to get the first code of practice finalized (and several years of advocacy work and revisions since).
I remind myself of this story from time to time when I stray into thinking “really, how hard could it be to find a new, more equitable approach to scholarly communications”. Huge amounts of energy (= time + money) are being invested in exploring new approaches — from FORCE 11 and the Sydney Conference and OpenCon to the Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) and the Scholarly Communication Institute (aka TriangleSCI), and that is barely scratching the surface. Note that I use the “scholarly communications” term but even that isn’t entirely agreed upon (People’s Front of Scholarly Communication vs Scholarly Communication People’s Front perhaps) — for some it is broadly interpreted to mean “making the outputs of scholarship available” (thereby encompassing both established mechanisms as well as emerging ones); for others it’s more about open access and indeed in some library job descriptions seems pretty much a synonym for “repository”.
Depending on definitions and scope, the conversations I’ve been involved in or read/heard about range widely: formats, stakeholders, workflows, business models, technology, values, skills, are all in the frame for consideration. It’s a great indication of the health of our community that nothing seems sacred, and that so many of us engage so enthusiastically in testing the status quo. The majority of such conversations seem to be initiated by universities, funders or indeed researchers themselves, rather than by publishers. Indeed, the extent to which (particularly “traditional”) publishers are welcomed varies; their presence is either interpreted as a positive commitment to rethinking how we meet overall goals of scholarship, or as a negative monitoring of the revolution until such time as the water cannon are required.
What troubles me is how much of the focus seems to be on conversation rather than action. On the one hand, I think it’s fantastic that UNESCO is funding 10 years’ worth of OSI discussions. On the other hand – TEN YEARS? How are we going to be communicating our research via holograms and brain implants by then if we’re still in talk mode? Having participated in (and been hugely inspired by) some of these groups myself, it is dispiriting that the ideas thus generated often get as far as a follow-up blog posting and no further. And it seems incohesive and uneconomical for Mellon, UNESCO and others to be separately funding very similar think tanks; what if we had fewer think tanks, and released more budget (not just that of the funders, but those of the sponsors, and the self-funding attendees) to support implementation of selected ideas?
I don’t doubt that there’s a little of the pre-KBART me talking here — impatient, naive, certain that change is easy to effect if you just put your back into it. But many of the interesting ideas that emerge from these discussion are not costly in terms of materials or systems, but costly in terms of time to research and test, to raise awareness and inspire change. Mapping and smoothing out the bumps in the road to consensus was what slowed down the KBART vision in those early days — but with our small group of knowledgeable people, committing regular time each month (and substantial quantities of it in the case of the co-chairs), we were able to make progress. In my continued work with UKSG in the years since, what’s clear is that people’s day jobs are now too pressured to enable them to take such an active role in community endeavors. We break the conference bubble, return to our day jobs, and have no capacity to take our discussion forward.
Of course, lack of capacity is not the only challenge. We’re not just trying to rebuild a plane while it’s in the air, we’re potentially trying to take one plane and convert it into a range of other aircraft that better suit the needs of their passengers. Hence I’m not suggesting that we should boil the entire future of scholarly communications down to one set of discussions — it’s clear that one size won’t fit all and we need the opportunity to tease out the nuances. But we need to be better at pooling the outputs from our discussion, and ensuring not only that future conversations build on what is gone before, but also that we shift the focus from conversation to action. This is where capacity is currently lacking and where I’d advocate for re-allocating some of the funding, budgets and sponsorship, to (in effect) a small secretariat for scholarly communications focused on synthesizing discussions and managing a framework for putting ideas into practice. I’ll bet that some answers already exist in the discussions we’ve had so far. To misquote William Gibson: The future’s here. It’s just not appropriately resourced.