Friday, 30 September 2011

Free Library and Information Science knowledge

A one-minute meta-research post, inspired by Dave's question in the cafe of "Wonder if there's a lot of library research in open access formats out there on the Interwebz?"

One minute later, the answer is: loads.

1. Repositories

OpenDOAR is an index of, currently, over 2,000 repositories, maintained oddly in an old workplace of mine (hopefully now free of asbestos). DOAR stands for Directory of Open Access Repositories, typically university and college "online buckets" where the resident academics and scholars pour in their work.

Browsing on repositories which contain Library and Information Science content gives 74 such buckets.

2. Open access journals

DOAJ is the Directory of Open Access Journals. They've got, blimey, a lot indexed in there now. Specifically, 7067 journals, 3252 journals searchable at article level, and 636,986 articles. Yes, two thirds of a million free articles you can get to from here.

Browsing by subject gives a total of 123 Library and Information Science journals.

3. Google Scholar

Unlike the previous two, this one is a more hazy search. With the options of "Articles excluding patents", from any time period, searching on the phrase "library and information science" comes back with "about 84,000" results.

However, this is a complete mish-mash of stuff, including books, and strange article formats I haven't seen before. Also, only a fraction of the search results linked to free articles - 23 out of the first 100 results. Even so, that's still a fair few free bits of knowledge. There's also quite possibly some overlap with the DOAJ search results.

MIT Science Library journals

If you haven't already, I'd recommend playing with all three of these, taking a bit longer than one minute, to see what you can get that's relevant to your research. In all cases, you will of course have to do a lot more precise searching (unless you are doing the mother of all library and information science literature reviews).

Fill your boots. Pay nothing, at least to start with.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

How can a textbook cost more than my rent?

As overheard in the slightly confusingly named Miami University, which is in Oxford (not the English one, but in southern Ohio) last summer. Uttered by a student starting round about now, who with dismay was looking at the prices of textbooks in the bookstore affiliated with the institution, and realising that the most expensive book for her course would cost more than a months rent. (Or, in the case of the typical Miami University student, a terms worth of tanning salon appointments)

There were, or are, other options possibly available to her. She could rent the book from the store. Or, if one was available, buy or rent a digital copy from a service such as coursesmart, though the savings over buying the print version are often disappointing. She could try and get it out of the college library (unlikely, as they don't often stock textbooks which are out of date a year later), or even try the public library (tho' I'm guessing that borrowing a $215 textbook for a term isn't going to be a likely option from that route).

Or go for what's been described as the "less legal" options of finding a copy online. Yes, like the music, film and TV industries, there seems to be a rise in the availability of academic text books appearing online, either cheaply or free. Not so much "less legal" as completely illegal. But with the high costs of textbooks, sometimes measurable in the hundreds of dollars each, it was perhaps not a matter of if, but when. And therefore, students now have "services" such as LibraryPirate, as simply described in TorrentFreak.

What makes LibraryPirate more interesting than similar rogue services is that:
  • They are focused solely on academic textbooks.
  • They are going at it in two ways, by stripping the DRM from digital versions, and by helping students to create their own PDFs by quickly photographing an entire book.
And looking at their legal threats bar chart, some publishers have noticed them. Which they've ignored.

Academic publishers could, of course, reduce their prices drastically. Though this would involve restructuring their whole business model, upsetting shareholders, and may not stop book copying and piracy. Heck, if people will torrent a 99p or 99c album track rather than purchase it from iTunes, a massive price reduction may not stop this.

Alternately, there's a counter-argument that some publishers have known this is coming for a while, and are cashing in while they can. It's possible in some circumstances; several studies indicate that students have been willing (reluctantly) to keep buying textbooks even when prices have increased steeply. That particular linked study by Dr. Koch also indicates that the governmental system of college education funding support has possibly made matters worse, not better:
By building textbook cost increases into its approved financial aid formulas, Congress has placed itself in the position of ratifying and even encouraging further textbook price increases.
What else could publishers do? Possibly band together and get governmental help in trying to close down such sites, though if they become distributed, or set up in some Cryptonomicon-like data haven, that's going to be tricky. It's notable that The Pirate Bay has been in operation for eight years, with only a few days downtime, to date. (Looks further) As a side point, even said Pirate Bay now has a (small) selection of academic materials.

Arrrgh! | Pirates

Whatever happens, it's going to be an interesting academic year, for students and researchers looking for cheaper options for getting the information they need. And especially for academic-oriented publishing houses, facing the combined threats of open access, repositories, Google Scholar and mass article theft and distribution on their journal side, and the straight-out threat of people being able to torrent whole books for free on their textbook side, or find legal and free alternatives online.

I would possibly feel a bit sorry for the publishers who are charging students and universities large amounts of money per individual book, journal or article. But part of the weekend was spent rebuilding my biography on this website, which involved looking for long-forgotten papers and articles I'd written. And there's a load online - but publishers are, for many of them, charging silly money. For example, $25 plus VAT for a 15 year old article?! And worse, "£22.60 copyright fee + service charge (from £8.60) + VAT" for a 17 year old article which wasn't very good when it was fresh. It's also personally annoying to see a "copyright fee" to pay if I wanted to get back a copy of the damned article I co-wrote in the first place.

Either the articles are selling, in which case publishers are making a buck - a lot of bucks - from my work (albeit work that was done during taxpayer-funded time). Or they aren't selling, either because they aren't free or good value or relevant to anyone, or erm because they're not very good. So sympathy for academic publishers is somewhat lacking from me, and it's a reminder as an author-victim (?) that I should go and promote the e-petition on this (Knowledge generated by government funding should be freely available) some more. If only university repositories had been available back in the day, as that would have been the place to put my content in. Wish I'd kept a copy of every article, too.

Textbook Prices

But back on the academic textbook front, there's a problem. If academic book piracy and torrenting really takes off this year, could this impact the production of up-to-date books for students? In some subject domains, such as math, I'm guessing that textbooks don't require much updating, whereas in others (the physical sciences with e.g. new elements in the periodic table, particles inconveniently moving faster than light etc. or politics or history) there needs to be regular new editions. What would happen if the publishers of academic textbooks told new authors, and the updaters of previous editions, that their cut, revenue, royalty or whatever

So can textbooks still be produced at the fraction of the cost, or profit, that they are now? Some commentators think this isn't possible, with the many people involved in book production needing paying, while used book sales can also have an effect on new book sales. Others think that market pressures, and the increasing range of places you can buy a particular textbook, will eventually cause market price corrections.

I'm not so sure. The problem of academic journal and article prices has gotten worse over the last fifteen years, despite the emergence of the Internet and many projects and initiatives during that time. It's only very recently, with open access and repositories, that a significant shift across all subject areas, and not just a few, seems possible with journals. So it may be unrealistic to expect a sudden, radical shift in the book pricing and distribution model, from publishers.

And the alleged high production costs of academic textbooks is still unconvincing, simply because there are many specialist and niche and heavily researched books out there in the marketplace, and they aren't being sold at a couple of hundred bucks each.

It may take the extensive piracy of textbooks - if it happens - to force publishers to look at alternate pricing structures. A warehouse full of unsold, $200 a copy books may focus the mind.

Alternately, there's the authors themselves. Though heavily supported by the publishing houses who produce their academic books, could some be supported by other, independent, much more streamlined means? A small number of authors have put their academic textbooks online, of which one of the most well known is Keith van Rijsbergen's 1979 (second edition) Information Retrieval - though this was not a problem with the original publisher. What would it take for many of the authors of academic textbooks (new ones, and annually updated) to write for textbooks that were published in unconventional ways, or were available only online?

Who knows. It's going to be an interesting, and turbulent, year in many areas of academic publishing anyway.

Update In response to the first comment, here's one list of the "12 Most Expensive College Textbooks in America".

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Looking at UK government e-petitions

The UK government website allows residents to put up petitions for parliament to consider, of their own design. Some are accepted. Some fall foul of the rules about being offensive, irrelevant to parliament, or duplicates of existing petitions. Should a petition get 100,000 signatures or more, then it's considered by a parliamentary panel about whether to be debated (so, no guarantees).

Having started one petition (Knowledge should be free) and promoted another (Support public libraries), I've spent a while looking at the titles of many of the other petitions. Brief conclusions:

And encapsulating all of the above; extremists, both left and right, often don't read the instructions about not creating a duplicate e-petition, but go off and create their own. And the angrier they get, the worse their spelling gets. (Quick tip: if your e-petition is strewn with incorrectly spelt words, then it's not going to be found using the search mechanism)

What else is in the collection of e-petitions? Well, not everyone is angry, thankfully. Some people don't want to drop bombs, while others want to make up with our historical foe. And, there's a couple of e-petitions suggesting national anthems, such as this one or this one.

But there are e-petitions suggesting things should be banned. Lots and lots of things. Some concern bans for things on public transport. A drink? Something to eat? Or how about the transport itself?

And if they can't ban stuff, then they can try and make it more expensive and less affordable. Yes, there's a kind of jealousy that permeates more than a few of these e-petitions, sometimes leading to a bit of paranoia and exaggeration.

And being Britain, the home of dogging and various forms of deviancy, it's little surprise that there are e-petitions about sex. One in particular has links to websites embedded within, which may end up raising the profile of the services the petitioner wants to knock down. Another is by a meanie who is keen (jealous again?) to reduce how much fun people have well into adulthood, while another one is more keen just to never see genitalia again. On a more serious note, this dubious one - which possibly shouldn't have been admitted under the acceptability rules - is straight out of 1880s Britain.

Oh, yet more banning. Jangly things, doing a mainstream activity for more than a few hours, and something you might just have heard of, perhaps, described - perhaps inaccurately - as sparsely used.

Anti-Chen Protest Day 32 - Million Men March

Yes, there's more than a few e-petitions concerning video games and online services. Let's hope the politicians are familiar with these media, as they consider the e-petitions while lounging around in casual clothing up there in the Potteries.

And politicians may be interested, tempted, by some of the elaborate schema thought up by petitioners. Even if Health and Safety legislation will put a massive damper on suggestions such as protect airline passengers against hijack by nerve gassing entire cabin.

Yet more banning. Swearing in public. Flimsy pyjamas in public (are starched ones okay?). Fluffy dice in cars. Fat people - or, at least, financially penalise them.

And more dislike of other people and groups, such as teenagers (there's quite a few like that) and people who read the guardian.

But there are some people who want to make things more easily available. Hurrah for positiveness! Things like Ordnance Survey maps and data, handfastings, Freddos, and erm interesting mushrooms. New denominations are proposed, as are the introduction of chess and erm creationism into the school curriculum. Olde Englishe Ethnicity should be promoted, in the classroom and on signs.

And pies could be made more available - Communist British pies, comrade - by being made by the government.

And through the media of the e-petition, old pop culture favourites return, such as rubbish ski-jumpers and sarcastic puppet shows.

That's a very small selection of those petitions (sometimes) gaining votes. But a lot of petitions have been rejected - over 6,000 so far. Many seem to be because of duplication with other petitions (though this doesn't seem to have stopped there being quite a few legitimate petitions on hanging). And a few of the rejected ones, such as the e-petition to withdraw American independence, are now well-known.

Some, you have to admit, are creative, such as this solution to stopping future riots. Some deal with petitioners freedom to become diabetic, or to keep using online systems that are well beyond their date (dude: let go, and move on), or for their favourite activity to be made even better.

And then there's the male fantasy petitions, such as "Pippa Middleton for UK Olympic Beach Volleyball Team" and the more creepy or stalkerish one from a petitioner who doesn't watch the news for the news. We're not entirely sure of Nick's true intentions, either.

There's hyperlocal petitions, right down to a trash bin and a bus stop and bus routes.

And some people don't like who they see on TV. Actually there's a load of football-related ones in here, ranging from statues to barring specific people from being the referee, from removing embarrassing teams from the Premier League to retaining popular (with some) players at their club.

In fact, television comes up a lot in e-petitions that have been rejected, from reinstating a live feed, to bringing back a particular childrens TV program and a popular challenge show, to adding narrators to popular programmes, giving Noel Gallagher his own show and bringing back the greatest TV programme of all time.

There's a clutch of rejected petitions which deal with enhancements of religions, such as Jedi and Furry. And one clarifying where the Royal Family stand in one particular aspect of religion.

Recent news that a few people in the Outer Hebrides (especially some politicians) took it personally over a "Send the rioters there" petition was interesting, as this was not a unique idea. In possibly the worst case of e-petition spelling ever, one person wants to send them to an island off the south coast of England, while another wants them to go to a boot camp on more northerly islands.


And there's food related e-petitions too. Up with Turkey Twizzlers! Down with Garlic!

And every Englishman's home is his poultry farm. In fact, there's a fair smattering of personal petitions, such as "Help Katie get into University", proposed by, erm, Katie. Who I'm assuming is not this Katie.

There's also philosophy and English Language, and petitions to get words such as "Oooooof!" and "Tapenator" into the dictionary.

What else? A three hour national siesta lunch break. Heavy metal to open the Olympics. And an e-petition so succinct it makes most tweets look textually bloated.

Plus, banning the wearing of pyjamas in public, more alien contact stuff, another spelling/grammar one, making all schoolgirls take the pill, smartening up male TV presenters, bringing the old Facebook chat back, shutting Bono up, dealing with zombies, protecting the rights of crisp eaters - and those of chocolate eaters - banning the most annoying TV advert, giving independence to Hebden Bridge, and helping someone who wants to visit Hogwarts...

And compensation for Londoners for the 2012 Olympics.

And (nearly) finally; some people don't even want the e-petition system any more, explaining that:
We the undersigned believe that online petitions are a substitute for political engagement, and that social networking sites such as Twitter become needlessly and annoyingly clogged with liberals urging each other to sign them.

(...though perhaps liberals would prefer this one.)

My favourites? This one I personally feel is the most worthwhile economic campaign ever ... but it and all others pale in comparison to this, inexplicably rejected, one.

Though perhaps the final word, in e-petitions to the government, should be left to the reassuringly British one created by Joseph Blurton.

Friday, 9 September 2011

eHustings for CILIP Councillors 2012

The shortened address for this post/league table is

This years elections for councillors to CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professional, are underway. Six candidates have chosen to put in the significant time and effort, and stand for four vacancies. Successful candidates will serve on Council from 1 January 2012 to 31 December 2014.

Here's the eHustings online forum, and here are the manifestos of the six candidates.

To calibrate (from a purely quantitative angle) responses, there's a league table, below. Points are awarded thus:
  1. One point for each question thread that the #CILIP2012 candidate responds in.
  2. One bonus point for each question thread where the #CILIP2012 candidate has responded multiple times (as it's more of a debate then).

Here's the league table, as of 17:00 on Wednesday 30th November when voting closed for the 2012 election:

1. Keith Wilson ...... 19 points
2. Liz McGettigan ... 17 points
2. Sue Westcott ..... 17 points
4. Mike Hosking ..... 15 points
5. Sue Cook ...........12 points
6. Maria Cotera ...... 10 points



Question threads: 15

Question threads where all six candidates have responded: 5, namely:
  1. How do you take your gin?
  2. A suggested change to the way trustees are selected.
  3. How will candidates ensure that CILIP remains solvent?
  4. If elected, how will you use social media to help librarians?
  5. Proudest achievement.

Question threads where the least number of candidates (in both cases, 3 out of the 6) replied:
  1. What should a public library do or offer?
  2. e-books in libraries

Candidates who have responded in all question threads: 1, namely:
  1. Keith Wilson

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Writing about games in libraries

I quite like the way I'm gradually turning back to looking, in a more systematic way, at the many and varied uses of games in libraries and information science. It's been an interest of mine for over a decade [2000] [2000] [2002] [2008], encouraged by attending and presenting at various games in library conferences in the USA, and a couple in Europe, over the last decade. Jenny Levine, of the American Library Association, organiser of many of these events, has been a bit of a key influencer for me in this respect.

One of the summary presentations in Finland and the USA contained some examples of game use in libraries:

It's now a few years out of date and the world of gaming has moved significantly on - but hurrah! I have an excuse to examine and collect examples again, specifically in the use of games in UK libraries, as I'm writing a series of articles for CILIP update through 2012 on this topic.

Details of the survey are elsewhere on this website. If you are involved in a UK library games initiative - not just digital games - I'd love to hear from you. Thanks.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Knowledge generated by government funding should be freely available: e-petition

Quick link to the e-petition:

On 29th August, George Monbiot let fly in the Guardian with an analysis of the costs, and practices, involved in academic publishing and access to knowledge. It’s well worth a read, as are many of the reader comments afterwards.

In a nutshell; most UK academic research is government funded - in other words, from the taxpayer. Most of the resulting articles and papers end up in journals (print and digital), with most of these published by a very small number of publishers. Researchers often lose distribution rights as one of the conditions of publications, and the publishers charge often large amounts of money for academics, universities and whoever else to have copies of, or access to, those journals.

And these charges are not cheap, as Monbiot illustrates:
Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier's journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That'll be $31.50.
Of course, you could go into the library (if it still exists). But they too have been hit by cosmic fees. The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792. Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I've seen, Elsevier's Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930. Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets.

Those reader comments after the article provide more examples. And it’s not just academic libraries who are hit by these costs; independent researchers, and members of the public, often have to pay eye-watering amounts of money to access knowledge created by research funded by taxpayers (i.e. themselves).

The emergence of the Internet as a possible media for knowledge access and dissemination hasn’t reduced the costs that the major publishing houses generally charge. This is good business (profit) for the larger publishing houses; for example, the financial reports of Reed Elsevier, parent company of the academic publisher Elsevier, show healthy earnings for shareholders.

California Fair Elections petitions

This is not a new or recent issue; it’s been going on for years, as the comments after articles such as this one show. There have been initiatives to try and make access to academic knowledge faster or cheaper. These ranged from JISC-funded online access experiments in the mid 90’s, through to open access online journals in specific subjects, and more direct action such as persuading the editorial board of a journal to move to a cheaper publisher, Google Scholar, academics being urged to contact the authors of paper articles directly to ask for a free copy, and attempts to "steal" and make available large collections of papers.

Many of these initiatives have helped open up a small chink of knowledge here and there. But many are comparable to street fighting, winning a battle one street (journal), or even house (paper), at a time in a grinding, sprawling, war of knowledge access. Even Google Scholar doesn't come anywhere near making the 50 million plus published journal articles available.

One possible solution, or enabler, to forcing large amounts of future knowledge to be cheaply or freely available, is for the main funders of the underlying research to make it a condition of funding. There are precedents for this, one of the most prominent being in the US health research sector:
The NIH [National Institutes of Health] Public Access Policy ensures that the public has access to the published results of NIH funded research. It requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.

And here in the UK, some funding bodies are changing their policies for the better, so the war is being won, a street or even a suburb or town at a time. The JULIET project gives the most up to date positions from various research funding bodies, from the UK and elsewhere, with regard to open access.

As said previously, taxpayer money funds much of the research in UK universities and colleges. Making awards of this money conditional on the resulting research results and knowledge being made openly and freely available, within a reasonable time, will “force” publication in places where libraries, academics, researchers and members of the public can access them freely and quickly. It seems only fair; taxpayers would just be getting what they paid for.

Hence the UK government e-petition below. Note that is not an attempt to put publishers out of business. As emerging systems such as Open Access and Repositories demonstrate, the same materials and knowledge can be published in a number of places, both free and “charged for”. Publishing houses still have many useful functions to provide within the academic research sector.

In the (very unlikely) scenario that the e-petition gets 100,000 signatories, it becomes eligible for parliamentary debate. At the least, it will hopefully raise a bit more awareness outside of academia. While most academic researchers are aware of the issues, often through experience, most of the general public - whose tax money through this route finds its way eventually to the shareholders of a clutch of publishing houses - are not.

Here’s the link to the petition, and the petition text itself (annoyingly, the government website removes the paragraph breaks so it's a large slab of text on there). Yes, holes can be picked in it by the pedantic, but it’s been kept as non-technical and general as possible to appeal not just to academics but to anyone who comes across it.
Most of the research in UK universities and colleges is funded by the taxpayer through the government. However, the knowledge generated by this is often controlled by publishers who charge significant amounts of money, often hundreds or thousands of pounds per individual journal, for access.
These charges put severe pressure on university funding, which mostly comes from (again) the taxpayer and student fees. Research suffers as academics lose access, on cost grounds, to research in their field. Members of the public cannot afford access to knowledge they have indirectly funded.

Despite many initiatives to make this taxpayer-funded knowledge openly accessible, most of it is still “locked” away in high cost publications.

Publications and knowledge generated by research funded through the government, unless genuinely sensitive (e.g. military or atomic development), should be freely available, in their entirety, within a year. This should be a condition of research funding.

By the way, if you fancy “signing” a few more petitions, can I nudge you to consider the Petition in Support of Public Libraries? Low cost or free knowledge is an obviously good thing, but so is easy access - for the whole population and not just academics - to this knowledge.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Culture shock, people space

Back in Britain, and it's different from the US in many ways. Yes, superficially it's the same. People speak (variations of) English, drive cars, live in houses, shop in supermarkets. But differences are a'plenty.

Despite jetlag, here's the noticeable things after the first few trips out onto "the street". Note: these are all generalisations. Not every Brit is the same; not every American is the same.

1. British people drive more aggressively. Crossing the road is stressful. Even though roads are narrower, more congested, there is more speed here. Related to this, there is much less regard for pedestrians. Twice already I've been nearly hit at a pedestrian crossing. Light for cars is red, light for pedestrians is green - and a car speeds through. In the US, this would be much, much rarer - one reason being that if a car hits a pedestrian, the car driver would get sued to hell and back. Here in Britain, mow down a pedestrian and even if it's your fault, you'd often end up with just a fine.

2. C'mon British people. Smile. Look relaxed. You can do it. Well, maybe not, then. While a lot of Americans wander about, amble, looking relaxed, most people on the pavements here in Birmingham seem purposeful, fixed face, grim, focused, occasionally mean (act, or real?) or angry.

3. Personal space in public situations. I've queued four times since being back, and on three of those occasions the people behind me have gotten uncomfortably close. Yes, there's less room in supermarkets, at bus stops, but for there to be physical contact. Ugh.


4. It's noisy here, generally. Though not as bad as living near Birmingham City Centre, which was permanently noisy through traffic, people, crime (and the associated police response) and all manner of other things I'd rather forget about.

I'm wondering how much of these things is influenced by population density, and how the towns and cities of Britain have developed. People in America generally have more ... space. In many ways. Houses are often bigger, and more seem detached. Supermarkets are larger. Roads are (much) wider. This can be a touchy issue with some Brits.

In Britain, people often live in small, some would say tiny, new houses. They do their washing in small washing machines (I miss American plumbing so much), and drive small cars on narrow roads, to shopping malls crowded with people. Coming back from America, it seems to be a pervasively claustrophobic lifestyle endured by many here.

Using Wikipedia, which usefully offers up population densities (though these of course vary widely within an individual city or town) gives, per square mile the following values for cities and towns I've lived in over the last 20 years:

London (UK) - 12,892
Sheffield (UK) - 10,228
Birmingham (UK) - 9,684
Glasgow (UK) - 8,542
Worcester (UK) - 7,323
Detroit (US, Michigan) - 5,142
Toledo (US, Ohio) - 3,768
Oxford (US, Ohio) - 3,734
Grinnell (US, Iowa) - 1,825

The one outlier is the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides off the north west corner of the UK, with a population density of 22 people per square mile.

Hmmm. An over-generalisation, but there may be something in the space thing. And am now wondering if there's any research or metrics on how much personal space people of different nationalities give each other in queues.

Incidentally, I'm not one of these people who believes that "Britain is full". That's absurd, as anyone who's lived in places such as the Outer Hebrides will confirm. There's also plenty, many, brownfield sites and unlived-in houses, around the country, to mean that there's more capacity for people (though whether the infrastructure can cope is another thing). It's just very unevenly distributed.