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Wednesday, 26 August 2015

How can scholarly communication avoid becoming just a cacophony of noise?

White Noise -CC BY 2.0 Kyknoord (Mental State)
I was asked to write an editorial for the UKSG newsletter. UKSG purpose is to connect the knowledge community and encouraging the exchange of ideas on scholarly communication. So wrote a piece on how can scholarly communication avoid becoming just a cacophony of noise - a tough one to answer.
You can visit UKSG and subscribe to their free newsletter here

In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the author sums up how big space is by writing:  “Space is big. really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.” Well the same applies to the web. In our own personal online universe we see it as something big, but do not realise how truly vast and diverse it is. Take for example the 300 minutes of video that is uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. In 2013 it was estimated that there were over 14 trillion webpages on the Internet; and does that include the non-indexed, dark, intranet content or is it much, much bigger than that? When we think about scholarly content we often think about it in simple terms, journals, papers, presentations, databases and (for more web-focused academics) a collection of tools and social networks. It is likely to be much more than we can imagine, as academic content and comment seeps into the media, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with the latter providing a constant stream of academic Tweets. Then we have tools like iTunes U, JOVE, Piirus, Slideshare and Mendeley to name but a very few.

Even though academia has been slow in embracing what we used to often refer as web 2.0 in 2005, there is still an awful lot of chatter around the web from academics. Lots use Twitter, over 7 million on ResearchGate, 3 million on Mendeley and over 21 million are on It is a very big place with a lot of conversations going on 24 hours a day, globally. Naturally not all of these users are active or engaging with the platforms and communities. Nevertheless that is potentially a lot of sharing and conversations and this is before we really get our teeth into open peer review. Then look at Twitter and how many academics are on there using the micro-blogging site as a regular communication tool. There are no exact figures, but it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands at the very least. Founder of, Richard Price estimated in 2011 that there were about 17 million faculty members and graduate students in the world. This is of course an estimate, as it is hard to track staff in-between contracts and those retired but still working.

We are now at a crossroads within academia when we think about openness, whether that be MOOCs, altmetrics, open peer review, open access or big data - they all have an open element to them. With more websites creating opportunities for open dialogue between academics worldwide, it seems wrong not to grasp them with both hands, provided that this openness comes with responsibility. The problem is that researchers have not adapted to these changes very well, and through no fault of their own. After all, they are busy professionals who are encouraged to build a sustainable and credible career mostly based on publishing and winning grants. As the web has changed, they have too, just not at the same pace. Critiquing, discussing or passing comment on a peer’s output has very little in terms of formal recognition and reward. Added to that there has been a lack of support for academics to reap the rewards afforded to them by being able to share their work via the various freely available technologies. Academics are still very cautious when it comes to publicly discussing and commenting on research in their area. The notion of discussing someone else’s work in the open, away from the safety of the office or blind peer review is somewhat uncomfortable, and with good reason. It is understandable given the legacy that pre-21st Century academia created, that not to rock the boat is the safer career option. Many wonder what there is to gain from talking about their own work on the web, which can be seen as narcissistic or another person’s work which can seen as antagonistic, even when it might not be in both cases.

CC BY 2.0 Nancy<I'm gonna SNAP!
Whilst critics of open peer review might see public commenting, discussing and reviewing research as a luxury or waste of time it does have potential benefits. It can help identify flaws in published and ongoing research, as you may believe that you are the only person conducting research like this, but there is always a chance someone has carried out similar work and can contribute their knowledge. It aids forming potential collaborations and help identify peers who can help build a personal learning network. Communicating, collaborating, problem-solving are all things we teach students at university. Academics have the potential to tap into an organic, intelligent community on the web for similar benefits. Yet it still feels like the exception to the rule. In time I am certain we will see a lot more open peer review, post publication comment and review and the continued growth in useful communication using social media platforms, in particular academic-inclusive ones.

If the digital immigrant - native model is anything to go by we will soon see further changes within academia underpinned by open access and the wealth of research-focused web-tools appearing almost daily. This will happen as more web native students move on from junior to career researchers and utilise the technologies that are so openly available on university campuses, that is of course unless they become institutionalised by existing practices. Change is already happening, but we are still some way away from a critical mass. In time this change will be good as more knowledge is shared, mistakes spotted earlier by peers and collaborations forged from around the world. Naturally with these benefits comes a bitter taste as internet trolls do and will continue to exist, bad and mischievous research will be published, and we could struggle to sort out the useful chatter from the banal. There is also the Kardashian Index to consider, as academics should always be judged on their research output over their social media popularity and an ability to communicate. That said, researchers should hone the core skills of communicating their work to a variety of audiences.

The biggest problem is still one we have struggled to cope with since the beginning of the web: how best to sort out all of the data into easy to access, discoverable, manageable chunks. If academics spend more time traversing the web to discuss and reply to the new forms of scholarly communication, they might well get fatigued by it all. The modern phenomena of social media fatigue is just one of the problems, as for example active and popular Twitter users simply stop using the platform once it becomes unmanageable. Therefore there is a need for training and support to help researchers not only understand why they should embrace their online communities but also be skilled-up to flourish in them. That includes netiquette, dealing with negative feedback, time management and deciding which technology is best. Communities need to be well defined, moderated and where possible open.

The likes of Twitter and blogging are essential tools for academics to communicate beyond their peers to a wider audience, but there is also a strong need for secure, private academic-only communities, that are open but also closed to elements outside of their subject areas. No single solution can push scholarly communication forward, it has to be lead on several fronts. Whilst the benefits for participation in such communities might seem modest right now, so more thought is needed as to how active participation in scholarly communication and open review can be more rewarding. The benefits of creating a hive community of knowledge across the globe could be that it solves huge problems faster than before. We need to have systems that allow us to see these solutions, rather than lose them in a wall of sound.  

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Work experience in the ScHARR library

Hi! My name's Eleanor Rimmer (also known as Melanie Rimmer's daughter). I'm a year 10 student at Poynton High School, and I've been doing a one week work experience in the ScHARR library.

I want to work with books, either in a library or a bookshop, once I'm done with education, because I've always liked books and organizing things. I think my house counts as a miniature library in its own right-family and friends are always 'borrowing' books, and there are even shelves in the bathroom!

Work experience may not be over yet, but I've really enjoyed it so far. Everyone I've met has been really friendly and helpful, and I've learned a lot about databases and social media and shelving and things like that. It's obvious that the people working here take pride and enjoyment in what they do-that attitude is inspiring. This has been a great learning experience for me, and I'll definitely have a lot to think about when I'm done with my GCSEs.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Research Hacks - How to Hack Your Research

I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk for in the spring as part of a half day event themed about the Digital Academic at The University of Warwick. The talks were captured and have now been published on YouTube.
I have to say that I am not asleep in the last video :-)

Monday, 6 July 2015

Andy Tattersall and Leo Appleton's CILIP Conference Presentation on Social Media

Dr Andrew Cox talking about Wicked Problems
Last week I made the trip over the Pennines as part of a small ScHARR expedition to present alongside my MmIT colleague Leo Appleton at the yearly Cilip Conference, formerly called Umbrella. The presentation followed one by my colleagues Anthea Sutton and Helen Buckley Woods about the work they continue to do with their distance learning courses for library and information professionals called FOLIO. I’d arrived in Liverpool the day before and attended various presentations and workshops including one by my MmIT colleague Andrew Cox from the iSchool in Sheffield. Andrew gave a talk about the concept of the wicked problem (Rittel and Webber 1973). He argued that research data management might be considered as a wicked problem. It was not a term I had heard prior to the conference but very much now realise I come across ‘wicked problems’ quite often in my work. According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia: “A wicked problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” I think we’ve all come across such problems at some point in our professional lives and at least I know what to call them when I meet one now.

I also saw the superb Cory Doctorow for the second time give a keynote which twisted and turned through the complex problems the web deals with in the 21st Century. Problems such as net neutrality, security and ownership were dissected by the journalist and blogger at lightening pace. It was an entertaining and as you would expect, a thought-provoking talk which perhaps left the audience with more questions than answers afterwards.

The day ended with two good keyontes from Stuart Hamilton, Deputy Secretary for the International  Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and a really inspiring talk by Barbara Schack. Barbara who is the Director of Development at Libraries Without Borders talked about The Ideas Box. This is a comprehensive portable media centre and built in power source. You can see more in this video below.

Crosby Beach
At the end of the first day I decided not to take the guided tour to Liverpool Museum and attend the sponsored drinks reception, as I felt like I’d been inside long enough and persuaded Andrew Cox to join me and head off up to the coast to Crosby. I’d been recommended Crosy by Leo as it was his old home town. So once we had navigated Liverpool’s rail infrastructure we found ourselves trekking towards blue skies and a vast beach populated by 100 cast iron sculptures made by the artist Antony Gormley. It was a beautiful clear evening, so we headed down the coastal path for about five miles before hopping onto a train back south to Crosby and then grabbing a bite to eat; opting out of the general knowledge quiz that was going on around us. Back in Liverpool I headed to the Cavern Quarter and my The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night Hotel. I could hear the sounds coming clearly from the Cavern and various bars till the early hours, probably much of the noise generated by a bunch of librarians, post conference. Nevertheless that’s what you should expect when you book a hotel in the cultural heart of Liverpool :-)

Erwin James giving his Keynote
Day two started with another popular keynote from the Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti who talked about the threats to our democratic institutions. The final keynote of the day was from someone who knows all too well what it is like to be stripped of all liberties after spending a long spell in prison. It was a very powerful and thought-provoking talk by ex-prisoner and now Guardian journalist and author Erwin James. His talk had the audience engrossed as he told his very candid story about being sentenced for 20 years and finding his way out through the power of books and writing. In particular one book, Prisoners of Honour by David L Lewis had a dramatic and positive effect on James. From there onwards James was hooked on the power of learning and reading and has become a strong advocate for prisoners and other marginalised areas of society being given the opportunities to learn and engage with the arts. His talk was the highlight of the conference for me, it captured the idea of how important books and learning is to all parts of society and that we should never forget that. James showed he was still incredibly remorseful for his actions in what was a powerful but subtle a talk you would ever see.

In the afternoon myself and Leo gave our presentation ‘With Power Comes Great Responsibility - How Librarians can Harness the Power of Social Media for the Benefit of Others. We were very lucky to present in such a grand setting as St George’s Hall in Liverpool. Our own presentation took place in a very grand but intimidating old court room. So we found ourselves in the dock talking in trandem about the four themes relating to social media that make up for our conference in Sheffield on 14th-15th September. We showcased the potential for social media as a facilitator in marketing and promoting services. We spoke about the emerging interest in altmetrics, social media for professional development and with our own areas of research. It was great as always to deliver a talk with Leo but also to deliver one following my ScHARR colleagues who gave a very informative presentation. Next year the CILIP conference rolls onto Brighton, so all being well I will get another run out to the seaside.

Also, I noticed this sign at the conference, obviously from a previous event, suffice to say that we all ignored it. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

ScHARR IR team - going the extra mile

Growing evidence suggests that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles can lead to adverse health outcomes including back pain, obesity and diabetes.   For several years the University of Sheffield has taken part in the Global Corporate Challenge, a worldwide initiative aimed at making employees more active.

Participants wear a pedometer which monitors their activity for 100 days, and over this period are encouraged to try and improve their personal best at the same time as competing with others on a team or individual basis.

Never ones to shirk a challenge, the IR team are joining in and last night four of us braved the heat to go on a "night walk" through Sheffield's Whiteley Woods, where we achieved a total of 100,000 steps for our team, HEDS Will Stroll.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Productivity Hacks for the Digital Academic: Part Two

This is part two of a blog post I wrote for the Digital Science Guest Blog

Image CC BY 2.0 Dennis Hamilton
The first part of this guest blog post looked at the problems that new and existing academics face when considering web and social technologies as part of their profession. The second part looks at a few options for dealing with digital distraction in the academic institution. Given that the web and technology is increasingly becoming important to how researchers do their work, from communication to measurement, it makes sense to have strategies at hand should managing them all becomes too much.

Create to do lists
Starting your working day as you mean to go on can be a helpful thing to do. We often start our working day full of good intention and a strong sense we can achieve many things. By mid morning and a few checks of your email and favourite research and news websites we find ourselves promising more for later. Soon lunch is with us and by mid afternoon we start feel bad we have not nailed that proposal, article, literature search. So for the last hour the temptation is just to reply to email and complete a few conversations, as that feels like moving things forward. The reality will be that it did not, as more emails pop up in some kind of technological ‘whack a mole’. A list is a way of prioritising your tasks and what you need to complete. Tools such as Wunderlist can help structure your working to be more productive and constructive. Of course like any of the suggestions below it requires a level of willpower but so does any kind of change for the better.

Use a timer
Like the suggestion above, this is about structuring your working day that fits in with the modern digital academic. For some researchers they have to consider the notion that they will often struggle to retain focus, whether that be internal or external factors. That for some, the idea of sitting hour after hour reading or writing will never happen naturally. Work may always be in some kind of fractured state and by giving yourself set times to work on projects and pieces of work you can have a better chance of at least nudging them forward bit by bit. By applying a timer you can set waypoints and reminders to change task that it is less disruptive than just jumping from one thing to another. One way to do this is called the Pomodoro Technique which encourages you to work on one thing for 25 minutes at a time with regular short breaks in between to recharge the brain cells. Whilst apps like 30:30 on IOS and ClearFocus Pomodoro App on Android help break your day up into more productive chunks.

Put a leash on email
Email is a constant distraction for academics, whether it be the prospect of getting an exciting communication, response to a conversation or just passing on your latest idea to a colleague; it can be very addictive. The quicker we respond to emails the more they seem to come, and with it expectations by others you will reply speedily each time. Email is essential to modern academia and platforms like Google Wave and more recently Slack have tried to change that. There are tools available like Inbox Pause for Gmail that allows you to pause incoming mail till a time you want to receive it. Whilst restricting email on your mobile phone might also help break that pattern of constantly checking it up for new communications. Doing something like restricting email so it only updates when in wifi range not only gives you peace and quiet but could save on personal data charges. There is of course the option of just not checking, which is quite hard for some, but by turning off email whilst working at least puts an extra step in the process. Some organisations have tried ‘no email days’, or periods, but that approach has often been seen as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Use a blocking tool
Any digital academic keen to communicate their research across the web will more than likely at some point start using social media. Add this to email and you have a double whammy of digital distraction if you don’t contain it. Obviously there are detractors who believe social media is bad for the modern workplace, whilst there is the opposing view who believe it has revolutionised work and communication. Like so many other things in life, it is about everything in moderation, if you are on social media every minute of the day you will get little else done. On the other hand if you ignore social media as a researcher you could be missing out on valuable information, conversations and of course a platform to communicate your research. To bring some balance back for the researcher who wants to structure their working day around writing, reading and communicating there are things you can do. By applying blocking tools so that you use them when you want, not when others prompt you. One of the most popular tools is StayFocusd which allows you to limit time on a certain website. That website might be legitimate for work or not, nevertheless if you think you are spending too much time on Facebook personally or LinkedIn professionally, this could help.  

Create an alternative calendar
Again like the to do lists and timers this is a useful way to create a more structured and disciplined working day. Most academics have digital calendars these days, whether they use them is another thing. For anyone using platforms such as Google there is the ability to create additional, private calendars. These can be used as gentle reminders with repeated daily events to check your email, read or write for set periods of time, rather than mix up the various tasks into one cluttered, unstructured day.

Use an aggregator
Trying to stay on top of the latest published research, news and updates from experts in your field gets increasingly harder to do. The sheer volume of content across the web means finding new and inventive ways to keep up to date. One tried and tested way is to use an aggregator to pull in the disparate collections of content into one location. Such as journal contents, blog posts and news can be subscribed to by using an RSS aggregator such as Feedly. Whilst Twitter users can refine the continual stream of Tweets into various strands based on users, search terms or hashtags using tools like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck.

Set up a personal Dashboard
Working on a similar model to aggregators and employing rss are personal dashboards. Personal dashboards used to be more popular thanks to iGoogle, PageFlakes and Netvibes, with only the latter still in existence. Nevertheless, Netvibes is a useful tool that goes beyond rss aggregators that allows social media monitoring, video embeds as well as using the xml format to bring in traditional rss content.

Eat a frog
The final suggestion might seem like the most drastic, and before anyone goes out in the garden to find a frog, I need to say you do not actually eat one. For most people, apart from survivalists and Bear Grylls, eating a frog would be considered a very hard thing to do. So are many tasks an academic has to complete, they can feel almost impossible at times. Yet that comes with the territory and at some point you will have to tackle that piece of work. So why not do something radical about it and start your day by ‘eating that metaphorical frog’. By keeping email locked away for the first hour of the day you could instead work on that piece of work you have been avoiding for the last few weeks/months/years. The chances are by practicing this approach a few times you will begin to feel a real sense of achievement. So by the time email starts to suck you in, or you pop out of the office for a coffee, you will feel that little bit better about it.

In Conclusion
Whatever tools and tips you apply you are certain to find a few that will work with refinement. Everyone is different and works differently so these kind of suggestions will have different results. It might be that you are already very well organised, so in that case - well done. It might be that you are a terrible procrastinator and incredibly dis-organised, many people are for a variety of reasons, some of which they cannot change. Either way, it is likely that there will be something from this list above that you can use to help you manage your digital workplace that little bit better.

Useful Links

Friday, 5 June 2015

Productivity Hacks for the Digital Academic: Part One

This post was originally published in the Digital Science Guest Blog 

Image CC BY 2.0  Sean MacEntee 
Anyone who works in research will know that it is a complicated business. I’m not just talking about the research alone, as that goes without saying, but the day in - day out bits that all add up. This work is often broken into small chunks that can be a distraction from doing actual research. Meetings, form filling, emails, general administration, data extraction, reviewing, learning new methods, technologies as well as proposal writing, conference presenting and teaching; preparation for the latter two, the list goes on.

So for any academic using digital technologies to help communicate and measure their research, it can feel even more fractured. The more things you deal with, the more fractured your day becomes. That is not to say academics should not leverage the power afforded to them via new technologies, as they should. Whether it be Google Apps or social media, there are tools out there designed to aid researchers communicate and manage their work. By ignoring them, they are potentially missing opportunities, but using them incorrectly they could fracture existing working ecosystems. The Web is here to stay and old academic models of communication, the journal paper, book, conference presentation are starting to look a bit Web 1.0, in a world that stopped using the term Web 2.0 five years ago.

More Tech - More Problems
Technology usually exists to improve a system or solve a problem, but it is often without baggage of some kind. We like to think of technologies impacting in our lives in a wholly positive, painless way. Mobile phones are a great example, how did we manage without them? Yet they are expensive, invasive, complicated and require a lot more attention that the old fashioned house phone that sat at the bottom of your parent’s hallway. Nevertheless there are numerous benefits for such a technology, everything from monitoring people’s health, providing access to geographical, travel and weather information on the go. That’s not to mention access to email and your contacts list via video and phone contact. For academics who, for the majority, are not engaging with the various digital tools available to them at some point may have to consider a change in that tactic. Naturally as the post Google Generation move up through the academic ranks there is likely to be some shift towards a more digitally rich research environment. That is not to say that everyone of a certain age is a natural user of modern web technology, far from it, but they are more likely to be using social media as well as other web tools. Also we have to consider that academic institutions are more liberal with their access to the Web. There are less restrictions on what can be installed and accessed as part of the researcher’s role. So as the world of academic technology, communications, metrics, productivity and otherwise opens up, it creates more opportunities to explore tools. The more tools that get used the more potential for disruption in the academic workflow. Of course it all depends on the actual academic, some don’t need technology to get distracted, others could find that where they were previously sitting, reading and writing for two-three hours at a time; it was less so since the introduction of email, instant messaging and social media.

Harnessing this Technology
The increasing number of technologies, academic or otherwise being used in universities and research centres are there to try and improve existing methods. The existing journal and conference model was looking incredibly dated, and not in the nice attractive way we view old university buildings. Paper publishing with little or no dissemination, pre-web metrics and stand alone pieces of work begin to look very tired when compared to other organisational models. Universities pride themselves on innovation, new ideas and shaping the minds of future experts, scientists and start ups. Technology is all about innovation, but it is also often the bull at a gate that rushes ahead with little consideration for its actions. So trying to manage all of this technology takes some understanding else there is the potential for confusion and misunderstanding in the academic community. The more tools and technology an academic employs the more competent they become but also the more decisions on which technology to focus on; as well as how best to manage them all becomes very important.

The drip, drip, drip of distraction.
So for those academics wanting to dip their toes into the many thousands of tools, websites, APIs, Apps, extensions, plug-ins and workarounds it can be daunting. Often one tool leads to another, one connection opens up another, it can spiral out of control quite easily. For example, one tool alone causes more stress and anxiety above any other, that being email. That constant drip, drip, drip of notifications, updates and messages seeps into our personal space. Bar a stroll in the deep dark woods, it is rare for us to be out of contact these days thanks to our smartphones.

Therefore strategies need to be in place to help researchers as they use technology more, which I am confident they will do. Not because I am some kind of technology fundamentalist who dictates they should. No one should ever make you use a technology unless it can be proven to aid your work or personal life. As with learning technologies, the premise is that a pedagogy is applied to a technology, otherwise it is using the technology for the sake of it. Different tools have different reasons why researchers use it, some may have many. For example Twitter is a great communication and networking tool, but it is also a superb discovery and knowledge engine; it is all down to how you want to apply it.
So the more tools you use the more it will invade your working life, that is if you let it invade your working life. Like some of the other tools mentioned earlier on that fracture a working day, these happened thanks to desire to improve systems, email being one of them. Conferences would not happen to the extent they do without technologies such as trains and planes, so with such as social media and altmetrics we just need to know how to leverage them better.

If you are either struggling to maintain a wealth of technologies, just starting to use them, or thinking about using them as part of your research profile, there are a few tips to help you make better use of your valuable time. These will all be covered in the second part of this blog post.