I spent a fantastic three days last week at the Society for Scholarly Publishing Annual Meeting in Boston. This conference was unique in my experience in that attendees are international (mostly from the US and the UK, but also from China, India, the Netherlands, and a smattering of other countries), and they belong to all sectors of scholarly information: publishing, consulting, and academic libraries. Having mainly frequented librarian affairs in the past, I venture to say that this will be the only time I’ll see an oyster bar at an opening reception. Lucky me, I was a member of a very select group of students and early career professionals chosen for the SSP Travel Grant. And what a lovely bunch we were!
Among the themes that emerged at this year’s conference, one was actionable content. (I credit Judy Luther of Informed Strategies for the term, which she used during the closing plenary. She is one of the chefs of the Scholarly Kitchen, the SSP’s fantastic blog.) We heard it during Rick Joyce’s opening plenary when he spoke of “travelers,” or the stuff that gets noticed, opened, shared, and commented upon on the web. Assets that travel fastest include visuals, and they generally aren’t the ones that the publishers control. His examples included a paparazzo shot of Victoria Beckham holding a copy of Skinny Bitch (ha ha) and this image of Michelle Obama. The concept also appeared in the keynote address of Dan Cohen, when he spoke of making DPLA into a platform as well as a portal. A portal gets used to search and find interesting, relevant stuff, whereas a platform implies the creative reuse of content. He drew our attention to the many amazing apps created with the DPLA API. (My personal fave is Culture Collage, although Historical Cats is a close second.) Cohen also described their efforts to geocode their digital objects, which allows one to see the materials they have from 1923 in Massachusetts via the timeline interface, among other things, and enabled user Jon Voss to identify this street corner and overlay a photograph discovered via the DPLA onto Google Street View. This theme of participation and creative reuse sparked thoughts of maker/hacker spaces, 3D printing and digital humanities labs in the library, which makes me happy that we are all on the same page in terms of fostering creation in addition to discovery among our users.
The astrophysicist Chris Lintott offered a dazzling keynote address on his participation in Citizen Science which turned on a concept of threshold fear. I was peripherally aware of one of their projects called Galaxy Zoo, which launched in 2007 with a gigantic data set from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It turns out that machine algorithms weren’t so great at identifying new galaxies, so the thought was to harness the spare hours of the internet masses to process this massive agglomeration of data. A few hours into launch, they succeeded beyond their most extravagant hopes: 70,000 identifications per hour. The identifications by human volunteers were mostly quite accurate and usable by professional astronomers. And as an added bonus, being human, they also noticed funny looking things, like Hanny’s Voorwerp, which subsequently led to interesting new research. In another Citizen Science project, Planet Hunters, one volunteer even went so far as to download data from NASA and graph it to calculate the approximate radius of the planet and deduce the shape of its orbit. Long story short, Citizen Science began providing more and more information, software, and access to research papers to support their volunteer scientists in the development of their knowledge of astronomy. Interestingly, despite the serious discoveries being made, volunteers mostly stopped short of engagement with the professional literature and publication of their work. They were by and large okay with passing along their discoveries to professional astronomers for publication. At the moment, Lintott and his colleagues are still grappling with this barrier. He concluded with a quote from Argelander that I adored: “Observations buried in a desk are no observations.”
Almost everything at SSP was about innovation. I’ll just comment on one of the more impressive bits of metadata wizardry seen during Dan Cohen’s and Jill Cousins’s presentation on “Collaboration at Scale.” It’s a little hard to fathom how an object in a small historical society can get digitized by a regional DPLA service hub or partner and then make its way to the DPLA main site, but we saw plenty of examples. This effectively makes the DPLA’s collection at once intensely local and impactfully global. The DPLA’s metadata application profile is a modified version of the Europeana Data Model, which means that the two sites can “talk” relatively easily. Europeana used the DPLA’s API to integrate its American material into the world’s largest resource on World War I (objects from Australia’s Trove and the national libraries of New Zealand and Canada are also visible). Fun fact: for every one use through the DPLA’s main portal, they get nine via the API. Europeana 1914-1918 is also a platform on which visitors can share their memorabilia, get it digitized, and get it included in the site. As a way to target specific audiences, Europeana has begun unrolling channels like Europeana Fashion, which allows users to explore history through a subject they enjoy. I am super excited about Europeana Sounds, which will appear in the next year. Cousins used this graphic during her talk, which resonated with me, since it captured something I’ve been wondering about. We are users most of the time, and creators some of the time, but might we be becoming creators more often and more readily with the proliferation of affordable and accessible digital tools and resources at our disposal? The choice of a circle struck me for reasons that Cousins might not have initially intended; it suggests that we can transition fluidly from user, to creator, and some of the time even to professional, and back again to user, etc. Interestingly, several publishers emphasized that inviting your readers to the table and creating community spaces was urgently needed to infuse new ideas and breathe new life into scholarly publishing.
I was fascinated by the session on alternative metrics moderated by William Gunn of Mendeley. As a complement to citations, altmetrics promise a way to rank content and measure impact. There are a number of scholarly publishers that have integrated metrics into their platforms, such as Elsevier’s Scopus, which will show you pdf downloads, shares and saves pulled from Mendeley, CiteULike and Twitter, among others, mostly within an embedded Altmetrics app with the much-talked-about donut. The complexities of altmetrics? There are so many, but for starters, the impact score inside the donut relies on a proprietary algorithm, so it is hard to get inside what that figure really means. Impact does not necessarily equate with research quality. There are important cultural differences in social sharing. For instance, Twitter is used for academic purposes mostly in North America and Europe, whereas Facebook gets used more in Latin America, and Sina Weibo in China, etc. There is also the issue of data integrity and gaming, which is to say artificially enhancing an impact score by bribing folks to blog, tweet, comment on, or otherwise share an article. The most useful metrics change depending on the academic discipline, and in the humanities, citation counts may still be the best measure of impact. On the horizon, keep an eye out for a NISO report on alternative metric standards, and a Zotero API for studying readership in this more arts and humanities friendly bibliographic manager.
[UPDATE: As of June 9, 2014, the NISO white paper is available at http://www.niso.org/topics/tl/altmetrics_initiative/]