Open Insights: Digitizing Mozart, democratizing knowledge - F1000
Open Insights: Digitizing Mozart, democratizing knowledge

Open Insights: Digitizing Mozart, democratizing knowledge

At F1000, we believe that collaboration is central to meaningful scientific progress. We need to work together as a community to think about how we ensure that we maximize the ability of researchers to spend time conducting their research, but at the same time getting their outputs as quickly as possible to those that need them. This year, as part of our 10th anniversary celebratory activities, we’ve asked experts from across the globe to take stock of the progress they’ve seen over the last 10 years, to gain a deeper insight into open research practices and perceptions around the world.

In this contribution to the series, Chris Banks, Director of Library Services at Imperial College London, explores the changes digitization and digitalization have made to libraries and what the shift from a read economy to a publishing economy means for knowledge and researcher services.

Digitizing Mozart, democratizing knowledge

If you start with the fundamental belief in the power of libraries to be the curators and disseminators of knowledge, then the democratization of access to knowledge is the thing that runs through library services. My unconventional professional journey – from English National Opera to the British Library to the University of Aberdeen to Imperial College London – means that I have seen how that democratization has been transformed through digitization and digitalization. During over 20 years at the British Library, I was fortunate to be involved in the early digitization of significant collections, including an amazing manuscript that can best be described as Mozart’s diary of his compositions, with musical incipits of work written on one page accompanied by notes about the work on the opposite page. We recorded those incipits, one of which was for a now lost work, and we brought the manuscript to life by putting it online. This very early digitization demonstrated to me the power of giving the reader choice, because librarians were very torn about digitization. Some felt it would mean that nobody would ever come to see the physical collections. My position was, there are people who will never be able to come anyway, but the digital option meant we could tell them so much more about the manuscripts and collections we held without them having to visit us. Digitization could in many ways be seen as a step to open access. The next steps moved us towards open research.

My time at the British Library straddled the introduction of the internet when we began seeing – particularly with journal production – the gradual digitalization of the entire scholarly dissemination process. That’s where you start seeing the huge change in business models and with this the huge dependency of democratization on the affordability issues, the scalability issues, the accessibility issues and the money involved in continuing to provide academic access to, and academic ability to publish in, journals. Those two things – access to read and ability to publish – are increasingly allied because not only are researchers using your collections, but you’re also providing repository functions for their current research and data outputs. For library and knowledge services, it’s bringing us ever closer to current researchers. If you go back (even a tiny bit) the engagement with researchers was either they were coming in using your collections or somebody was coming to deposit their collection with you.

A scrambled ball of string: between access to read and access to publish

Now what we are beginning to see is the overlapping of services beyond the provision of access to content. It’s becoming a combination of licensing of access to content and procuring access to publishing services, with the repository still being there as part of those services. For libraries, I picture this as a really scrambled up ball of string, with a thread going in one end and a thread coming out the other end. The thread going in is what libraries used to just get on with and get by on: reading access, initially buying and putting on the shelves, and more likely now, licensing access to online content for a community of users. Now we’re in this whirlwind of other stuff in the middle, which is to do with funder policy, with publisher policies. The question is what the academics want to do and is there going to be a single thread that comes out the other side?

Our role as librarians is to make that mess in the middle as simple and painless as possible for the research community. We don’t want them to have to navigate that massive great big knot. For example, when we’re negotiating for publishing services, we want those services to be as streamlined as possible. In relation to open research and rights, we’ve done a lot of work highlighting to the funders that different policies with different embargo periods have made life very confusing for researchers. It seems as if funders are now aligning, most now requiring immediate CC-BY, and then the researcher can choose whether it’s the version of record or the author accepted manuscript that is openly accessible.

Shifting the dial with open research: what influences researchers’ publishing decisions

What I believe is needed next, is to make the research publishing process simple for the academic. For libraries, this is likely to be our next challenge because we see some publisher resistance. At the moment, we’re still in the middle of that ball of string, with no clear path out identified and instead, we’re seeing many, many flowers blooming in terms of possible solutions foiled by a deep conservative caution amongst the wider academic community in changing the status quo. Here it is very interesting to step back and consider what shifted the dial for open research adoption in the UK. The data we have available at Imperial – based on our academics publishing around 10,000 articles a year – is very, very clear. If I look at the different funder open access polices as they were introduced – Wellcome, RCUK, HEFCE, UKRI – what was most significant and made the most impact for open access in the UK was the introduction of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) policy. When you look down that timeline and what happened with open access and open research at Imperial, at each stage these polices were introduced, its irrefutable: the REF is the one policy that absolutely swings it round. This matters because it’s not only an unfunded policy, but it’s also a policy that means the most to UK researchers because no researcher wants their work to be ineligible for the REF. It puts researchers’ concerns about research evaluation and their professional profile and progression at the heart of questions about access to read, access to publish, and open research.    

The importance of the REF policy to UK researchers’ opting for open access publishing underlines how research evaluation is a determining factor for the services offered by both libraries and publishers. How academics are assessed has for a long time perceived to have been bound up with publishing brands: “I’m as good as the container which holds my work” rather than “I‘m as good as my work.” It’s a Nature article. It must be good. It’s a Lancet article. It must be good”. This attitude has a lot to do with the volume of research being published: not everybody can read everything. People use the container – the Journal title –  as a shortcut for prioritising their reading, or as a shorthand for perceived quality of the research contained in it. From a funding perspective, there is a big problem in relation to publishing research. Funders are putting hundreds of millions of pounds into huge research challenges, such as food security and climate change. The results of that research then get atomized into hundreds and hundreds of articles in different journals. Mark Walport has spoken very eloquently about this: when we build on the science of predecessors, everybody benefits. Science and scientific knowledge builds on the work and discoveries of those who have gone before but instead we’re atomizing that knowledge all over the place.

This is why metadata matters. We have not collectively focused enough on the process of discoverability or understandability. We need to adhere to standards for metadata and its global availability. Any restriction on the flowing and linking of metadata restricts access to or visibility of that built knowledge. From a librarian’s perspective, the discoverability, the linkability, and the comprehensibility of research is an area ripe for improvement. The recent explosion of AI tools are a huge opportunity for the discoverability and a greater public understanding of research findings.

From a read economy to a publishing economy

But the biggest financial change and challenge for library and knowledge services is the move from a read economy to a publishing economy. Library budgets are now increasingly paying for publishing through article processing charges (APCs) rather than paying for reading through subscription charges. From an equity perspective and the affordability for less resourced institutions and researchers, there is a perception that these publishing charges can, to an extent, be absorbed by the research-intensive institutions:  rich institutions can pay a bit more and make it even easier for the others. But that compounds the issue for research-intensive institutions because under a read economy, the reading burden is spread much more widely across institutions whereas in a publishing economy, those who publish more pay more. No research is fully funded and the research-intensive institutions in turn rely on income from international students to make up the shortfall. That’s a fragile reliance in these times.

One argument is that some publishers, at least in relation to open research in the UK, have failed to fully realise the UK government’s financial commitment to open research and to use that to affect a meaningful transition to open access. Over a decade, UKRI (and its predecessor RCUK) have allocated over £260 million to support the transition to open access publishing. My question is: has this UK big experiment worked? Have publishers focused on leveraging as much of that money as they could rather than focusing on accelerating a transition to open access? In terms of shifting the dial as much as the REF policy, which had no funding, and the UKRI policy, which was £260 million worth of funding, I don’t know the answer to that yet. But I think for that amount of money, it’s a question worth asking.

Learn more on our Open Insights series here: