Roll With The Times

Un essai en anglais  sur la question de la visibilité, rédigé en réaction au thème de la conférence de Charleston de cette année. Les sources traditionnelles d’information sont mises à mal par le Web : les bibliothèques disparaissent derrière les interfaces des bases de données et des moteurs de recherche, tandis que les éditeurs se font mordre les mollets par de nouveaux entrants qui misent sur l’économie de la réputation. À lire avec une tasse de Earl Grey et un dico bilingue.

The theme to this year’s Charleston Conference sounds universal but should hit especially close to home for all involved in scholarly communication. My training in health sciences and librarianship has driven me to the questions of discovery and access, which matter to librarians and publishers alike. And as web technologies transform the way we discover and access information, these traditional providers of knowledge are faced with a difficult challenge: they are slowly being pushed to the background and rendered invisible by new models and digital-native players.

Invisible libraries

The priorities of academics have always revolved around the content, which must be accessible, current and reliable. It builds the communities, which in turn fuels research. More eloquent writers than me have pointed out that we are not in fact seeing a radical shift in information-seeking behaviour but rather the successful adaptation of technology to this long-standing paradigm. Scholarly communication too can be always-on, up-to-date in real time, built in the language of the web: this has resulted in online databases, the sharing of preprints, academic social networks, alternative metrics and will produce many more. Perpetual change has become a hallmark of this landscape; reactions to all these new tools, platforms and practices have varied from ecstatic to irritated. And rightly so, for they all shake the information supply chain in one way or another.

Librarians noticed early on the decrease in faculty members physically present in their facilities, an indication that after changing our personal lives, web services had started modifying our professional habits. Online platforms and databases carved themselves an intermediate position and this is where invisibility comes in: libraries offer the (literal) key to accessing these databases’ contents but this is something users may not even be aware of, as authentication is provided by their institutional login. And indeed, many academics will credit their university for the access. The difference between this and acknowledging the actual provider, which is the library, is a subtle but significant one, because it reduces the latter’s visibility, robs it of due recognition and undermines its development. This is particularly true for students, who are most of the time less aware of these workings than more experienced faculty members. Some graduates leave university without ever wondering who was selecting and paying for the research they were reading.

Clearly, this does not threaten the very existence of libraries: they remain at the heart of the system, connecting people and information in ways no other service can. Unfortunately and very clearly as well, this game of hide-and-seek forced on libraries is detrimental to their image among users and decision makers.

Changes in publishing

Publishers also face the problem of invisibility, but in their case it has taken a different form, to be linked with the new methods of sharing research. The first piece of evidence is the adoption of green open access, driven by the need for current and relevant information. It was especially apparent when I was an undergraduate biochemistry student: scientists repeatedly expressed their need to circulate findings quickly, while graduates and younger researchers stressed how important up-to-date information is for competitive applications. The world needs an acceleration in the diffusion of research and sharing preprints seems to be a step towards fulfilling that need. Similarly to the issue raised previously for libraries, this is not a threat to the publishing activity in and of itself: preprints will keep becoming postprints, because publications federate communities of researchers around a legacy of scholarly practices. However, preprints do not circulate this legacy since they lack the visual and editorial context of the postprint. They are the hallmarks of the publisher’s identity but they are simply absent in this crucial step of early diffusion.

Related to an other aspect of sharing, a second change is coming with academic social networks. Using the codes of web 2.0, these services put the researcher’s need for community interaction first. Leveraging new metrics and relying on the tried and true mechanisms of reputation, influence and leadership, they amplify the voices of individuals over the publications they appear in. For now, no such platform has managed to upend the whole world of scientific information. But if these new players do not necessarily aim to be the be-all and end-all in this system, their ambition to be the major interface for the research community is a clear challenge to the publishers’ role and visibility.

What next?

The evolution of technology has brought changes to the way librarians and publishers engage with people or facilitate people engaging with each other. New players have been quicker to turn these changes into models, establishing themselves at the top of a hierarchy based on visibility. This strongly challenges the value of traditional providers of knowledge; the error would be to think it also means their end.

The solution to this invisibility problem is to remember that technology is shaped by how we use it, not the other way. Trying to define both problems and solutions solely through technology will not work. What will work is stepping outside of the box to come up with fresh processes, design new interactions, develop different uses… How libraries and publishers adapt in the coming years does not depend on what they believe technology allows them to do but on such resourceful reinvention of their model.


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