Monday 27 February 2012

The COAR Question

Those of you whom attended the Portsmouth meeting last month, and hopefully everyone on the list, should be aware of COAR.  As you know there have been some very tentative discussions going on behind the scenes relating to the question of should UKCoRR become a member of COAR. 

There are a number of obstacles to membership in our way - not least of which is the question of how as a lightweight unfunded organisation we would afford to pay the annual membership fee.  There are also broader policy questions about whether membership of COAR would be in the best interests of UKCoRR's long term Independence of action, policy and governance.  You only have to glance at the recent announcements from us both on the Elsevier question to see that while the two groups have for the most part allied goals that we are likely to come from two different angles on some issues.

COAR is an organisational membership body funded by subscriptions pushing ahead the interests of open access and repositories.  UKCoRR is a individual membership organisation unfunded and independent that pushes forward the representation and development of its members, as well as the role of repositories in the UK.  There are other differences but I encourage you all to study the goals of both COAR and UKCoRR and come to your own conclusion on the compatibility or otherwise of the two organisations.

As I said in Portsmouth, as Chair while I can see a certain simpatico in establishing strong lines of communication and liaison with COAR (or indeed any other similar body) I do have a number of concerns over formal membership for UKCoRR. 

Not least among these are these questions:
  • What does UKCoRR the organisation really get out of membership? 
  • What do UKCoRR members get out of our membership?
  • How closely does membership tie us to COAR's agenda and policy?
  • Is it better to maintain our independence rather than interdependence?
As Chair I wouldn't like to be in circumstances where UKCoRR couldn't be seen to disagree with COAR's position on an issue where our membership felt strongly.  COAR encourages participation of its membership in its governance, but as an unfunded body this would leave our Committee in the awkward position of requiring our employers to fund our travel to Europe to attend meetings on behalf of UKCoRR; something that in these budget conscious times I might anticipate would not be that easy a task to achieve
Rather than UKCoRR becoming a member, would it not perhaps be a better idea for our host institutions to become members of COAR (UK membership is currently negligible)?  Would this better suit the aims of both organisations, and our employers to boot?

As such I am looking to you the membership to give the Committee a steer on this.  Leaving aside the fee question, the core question is: Should UKCoRR explore routes to becoming a formal member of COAR?

Najla Rettberg of COAR has helpfully provided a bit more information from their perspective that I'd encourage you all to read before responding.

I await your thoughts with considerable interest - please feel free to comment here or if you prefer contact myself or any of the Committee offline.

[Update 2/April/2012: As UKCoRR members will know already; following the discussions on the list and inside the Committee it has been decided that membership within COAR is not something that will be pursued. As Chair I've written to COAR to inform them of our decision, and warmly welcomed them to consider entering into a memorandum of understanding and support with us; in much the same way as we have with the RSP and the DRF.]

Friday 17 February 2012

Elsevier: The Big Bad or Walking with Dinosaurs?

You can't help but have seen in the last few weeks all the press about Elsevier in the blogsphere and news media, especially The Cost of Knowledge Petition.  It's been hard to avoid, and it's been a matter of debate within the UKCoRR Community as well.  One thing that raised my eyebrows more than their prices was the statement from COAR urging them " reconsider its prohibitive approach to open access and revise its policies to allow the deposit of research articles with minimum delay."  I think it's a brave move, although one fraught with political issues - coming down so heavily on the "anti" side of the debate.

UKCoRR certainly feels that the support of such retrograde ideas as the RWA by the AAP, and chief among them Elsevier, is something that has the potential to have significantly deleterious long term effects on the cause of opening access for all to the treasures of human knowledge.  As the Big Bad (it seems) for the RWA, we are not at all surprised that they are now reaping the whirlwind.  Not to mention their continued muddying of the authors licenses and permissions which causes each and everyone of us a headache I'm quite sure.  But they are not the only publisher to be guilty of these sins against open access, and part of me feels that singling them out for such a public barracking perhaps might let other issues or publishers slip back into the shadows.  I think we all need to remain vigilant and sound the alarm just as loudly should any other organisation or stakeholder in the scholarly publishing domain make such similar policy moves.

One thing UKCoRR has striven to do from our very earliest days is attempt to engage with publishers, along with other stakeholders, to seek a joined up future of scholarly communication.  To date I will confess these giants in the playground have ignored the minnows in the corner (from their perspective at least).  However, one only needs to point to the lessons of history and perhaps remind them that the massive and preeminent lifeforms that were the dinosaurs were once as all dominant while tiny rodents scampered around their feet.  When the sea change came in the shape of the K-T extinction event the dinosaurs were so locked into their evolutionary niche that they were unable to adapt, and their successors rose from beneath their claws.

Is open access the world killer for the publishing dinosaurs?  Personally I hope not, but seeing this increasing reactionary inflexibility from the big boys of publishing does certainly ring one or two points of commonality in my head.  The more they dig into their 19th/20th Century position as gatekeepers, guardians and protectors of the IP of the scholars of the world, and the more the 21st Century makes it easier, faster and simpler for others to fill the various roles, the more I think they're going to back themselves down into their very own Chicxulub crater.

But it also means that we in the repository sector have to remain just as agile if we are to survived the impact.  I often say to my team that what we do and how we work with repositories today is very much evolved from where we were when I entered the field in 2006.  We've been evolving, and we need to keep evolving if we are to meet the needs of our academics as they, hopefully, finally wise us to the fact that they don't need publishers like they used to; and that the apparatus and expertise to help them share, curate and celebrate their knowledge output is just a short walk across the campus to the repository office.

One thing I would charge all UKCoRR members with is going through the signatories on the petition to see if they can find any local authors and academics.  It is without a doubt a golden opportunity to make use of these self-declared opponents of restrictive knowledge exchange paradigms.  These fine people are willing to speak out, and up, about open access and should be approached as potential local champions of the cause.  Cherish them, support them and above all make use of their insights from the academic perspective; because I often sense that we repository workers don't always quite manage to chime to right bells for academics. 

As some UKCoRR members have said to me - the press visibility in the academic sphere over the restrictions that publishers make on access to our shared knowledge has never been higher.  If nothing else the Cost of Knowledge row is not going to go away quickly, and there will be more than a handful of previously unaware and perhaps uncaring academics who can be brought into the open access fold and the light of a new, better, more open tomorrow.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

It was the Year of Fire...

Those of you in Portsmouth last week had the chance to hear my Babylon 5 themed talk thinking about the future direction of UKCoRR.  The aim was to get not just the membership in the room talking and thinking about where we go next with UKCoRR, but also to give an idea of some of the obstacles and opportunities that currently exist.  You can view the slides here and view the quote that drove my thinking here.

New look for Repository Managers?
One of the reasons I picked the Babylon 5* is for the key questions that are asked that define a person I think perfectly transfer to help define or at least clarify what UKCoRR stands for, should be doing as well as aiming to do.  For those of you not familiar with Babylon 5 lore here are the questions.
  • Who are you?
  • What do you want?
  • Why are you here?
  • Do you have anything worth living for?**
  • Who do you serve?
  • Who do you trust?
  • Where are you going?
Leaving aside one of those these neatly give us a guide with which to look to how the membership of UKCoRR is comprised, how we can serve the needs of our membership and our members' stakeholders along with the more tricky questions of interactions with those entities and organisations who lie beyond the rim...or at least outside of UKCoRR itself.

Some of these questions I believe are easier to answer than others.  Some though need continued and protracted thought and consideration.  I can say, for example, the question of funding vs Independence is one that has vexed the Committee for some considerable time; and I suspect will continue to.  As Chair I'm personally ethically opposed to the introduction of any fee for membership structure, but at the same time conflicted as there are opportunities that would be far easier for UKCoRR if we had some form of funding stream.

Naturally there are those organisations out there whom might wish to provide us with an alternate funding stream - but with great funding comes great responsibilities (apologies, mixing my genres there) - to whit to accept a quid means there may a pro quo around the corner.

Likewise there is the prospect of UKCoRR entering into arrangements of mutual benefit with external bodies that may well serve the interests of our members well; but at the same time once again these come with strings attached.  Is it better to simply be in formal liaison with key players rather than partnership, or is loss of our Independence a small price to pay for advancing the cause of professional repository management and administration?  I remain to be convinced but over 2012 we will continue to talk to a variety of other organisations that do overlap with our concerns to explore where mutual benefits do exist, whilst not giving away the home world at the same time.  I'll be talking more about one of these in particular where I want you the membership's views in my next post!

There are two major reasons why I raised all these questions in this post and the talk.  Firstly because I believe that UKCoRR as an organisation, like open access and repositories, is a field that continues to evolve at a relatively cracking pace.  As the professional membership body for repository practitioners we too must evolve likewise.  And secondly because as part of the annual cycle which begins anew in April the Committee will be charged with drawing up a strategic and operational plan of action for the next year - and this is your opportunity to feed directly into the process.

So contact us, comment on this or catch us at the various repository events around the Country over the coming couple of  months because, as I never tire of saying, UKCoRR is the membership - we the Committee simply try and run it according to your desires and needs; not to mention enlightened best interests!

Because if we don't, it may all end in fire but this could also be the year of rebirth just as easily.
* Don't get me into who the Shadows, Vorlons and First Ones are in the repository world - that's a whole other talk!
** I think this one is a bit beyond us!