Provocative and inspiring: Force11 Scholarly Communications Summer School, 2018

I was delighted to win a tuition scholarship to attend this year’s Force11 Scholarly Communications Summer School in San Diego, California. The demanding pace of our work in the Library’s Research Services division means it’s tricky to take time out to consider our work in broader contexts. I was therefore grateful for the opportunity to spend a whole week debating pressing issues and potential innovations in the scholarly ecosystem with researchers, fellow librarians and thought leaders, especially in such a beautiful location with the chance of a trip to the beach!

FSCI Geisel
Exploring the Geisel Library at the University of California San Diego campus

Force11’s Summer School (#FSCI) is more intense than a conference, both in duration and active participation: I signed up for classes, not talks, taking place over 5 days. I chose classes on the nature of collaboration in research; alternative approaches to peer review; and exploring what we mean by public Humanities – topics that I hoped would allow me to both apply and stretch my existing practical experience of supporting research dissemination. On the whole, classes were well-structured with a combination of expert insight, stimulating practical activities, and thought-provoking discussions. These were my highlights from each class:

Collaboration, Communities and Collectives: Understanding Collaboration in the Scholarly Commons

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Envisaging an alternative dynamic research system inspired by the principles of the Scholarly Commons

I loved hearing from Daniel O’Donnell and Maryann Martone on the concept of the Scholarly Commons, developed from considering what our system of scholarship would look like if we started it from scratch nowadays, with access to the internet and public funding. The Commons is ‘an extension of the Open Science concept,’ a ‘conceptual space or spaces onto which we can map principles, best practices, service and standards that govern the production and dissemination of scholarly and research works so that they are maximally useful to all who need or want them.’ Its underlying principles are still being developed, and we were encouraged to contribute our suggestions. We considered how implementation of the Commons principles could disrupt the scholarly ecosystem, with my group envisioning a dynamic system of research communication centred on the connections between research objects, allowing continuous, versioned peer review rather than final, formal publication. Our instructors likened this approach to Cameron Neylon’s aggregation model of scholarly communication.

FSCI Peer review
Summarising peer review and what it means to researchers

Pre- and Post-Publication Peer Review: Perspectives and Platforms

Cochrane’s John Hilton led an engaging class where we problematized the practise of peer review and appraised alternative methods of quality control for research. I was astonished to learn that peer review didn’t become standard practice until around the 1970s – did you know Crick & Watson’s ground breaking paper on the structure of DNA was never peer reviewed?! It was fascinating to consider how peer review occurs in many varied forms in addition to the formal, pre-journal-acceptance stage, though it’s often not recognised as such when it happens less formally, e.g. after conference presentations, on social media, and as comments on pre-print servers. I enjoyed exploring alternative approaches to peer review, such as F1000’s post-publication peer review platform (adopted by funders The Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); RIO’s multi-phase peer review model; PubPeer; the Pinterest-like overlay journal tool Peeriodicals; and Elsevier’s awkwardly named Volunpeers. A key objective for me over the coming months, aligned with the Library’s plans to extend our open research support offer, is to increase my knowledge of the use of pre-prints in research today, including via pre-print repositories.

FSCI public humanities
Attempting to sketch what a Public Humanities could look like

Public Humanities as Scholarly Communication

This provocative class unapologetically generated more questions than answers. We’re increasingly comfortable thinking about Digital Humanities, but what about Open or Public Humanities? Can we have a Humanities which is Open or Public without being Digital? Can the Humanities be Public without being Open? (I think not). What do we even mean when we talk about the Humanities? Faced with instructor Samantha Wallace’s challenging question, ‘Can the University be removed from the Humanities?’, I was forced to confront my proprietorial stance, realising for the first time my assumption that expression or culture only become ‘the Humanities’ when the academy gets involved. I also recognised unpleasantly cynical and paternalistic notes to my thinking about Public Humanities, with assumptions about outreach work or community engagement as impact-demonstrating add-ons to research projects. I was grateful for UCSD Library’s Erin Glass’ insight that it’s unhelpful to refer blandly to ‘the public’ – this is an anonymous signifier for what are in reality distinct, identifiable communities with whom we in academic institutions should seek to build real relationships. Despite the often abstract discussion, I left this class with a practical takeaway. Prompted by Sidonie Smith’s comment on platforms and tools that ‘Just trying to stay abreast of what’s out there becomes a dizzying affair,’ I want to explore the Library’s role in supporting Humanist researchers interested in working more publicly and openly, perhaps through developing expertise with relevant platforms, tools and methods and sharing this with Humanities researchers through personal consultation. I’ll also be considering the class reflections of Micah Vandergrift, one of our instructors, for further thinking and ideas.

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Aside from deepening my understand of scholarly communication, especially problematic aspects of the traditional research publishing ecosystem and emerging challenges to these, the most valuable aspect of the Summer School was the opportunity to meet colleagues from around the world. Delegates represented six continents (no applicants from Antarctica sadly!), and it was amazing to share experiences of managing Open Access funds with a librarian from Canada; discuss our Library’s DMP service with a research student from Chile; hear the plans of one of the first Scholarly Communication librarians to be appointed in Nigeria; and consider new theories of research collaboration developed by sociologists from Russia. Everyone I spoke to was passionate about open scholarship, generous with their insights and unafraid to challenge assumptions with nuanced arguments. The people – instructors, delegates and organisers – made FSCI a stimulating and inspiring event, and I left California with a refreshed sense of purpose and creativity which I hope to channel into enhancing our scholarly communication support at Manchester.

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