Any frequent readers of this blog will be aware I am interested in article level metrics. I am particularly interested in the work done by Altmetric. Last week they published their annual top 100 list. I wrote this post about it.
The Altmetric Explorer is a tool for measuring the attention that scholarly articles receive online, and its intuitive user interface works as a live searchable database that allows users to browse the journals and repositories Altmetric tracks and obtain detailed reports.
On a weekly basis Altmetric captures hundreds of thousands of tweets, blog posts, news stories, Facebook walls and other content that mentions scholarly articles on the Web. The Explorer can browse, search and filter this data. The data can be exported by the user as ‘reports’ as simple text or spreadsheets, which can be then analysed in different forms. For example, The Explorer provides demographic data of the Twitter users found mentioning specific outputs, and thus works as a mechanism for the study of academic users of social media.
In the past few years I have often suggested, online, in talks, workshops and lectures, that the Altmetric Explorer can be useful to researchers as well. Librarians with access to the tool can help students and researchers get new views of recent articles that are receiving attention online. People often focus on ‘altmetrics’ as indicators of online activity around published outputs, but I often insist the Altmetric Explorer is useful as well as a tool for searching, discovering, collecting, creating, archiving, sharing and analysing bibliographic reference collections as datasets including not just bibliographic data including identifiers and/or URLs but also historical data of any metrics the service has tracked and quantified at the time of the data query/collection.
Inspired by Altmetric’s annual Top 100 list I used the Altmetric Explorer to search for the top articles with keyword ‘comics’ mentioned in the past 1 year. I did this particular search on the morning of Tuesday 20 December 2016. Dating the collection (and indicating the specific query) is always important as social media metrics are hopefully dynamic and not static (i.e. we expect an output’s altmetrics to change over time).
After my query I saved as usual my search as a ‘workspace’ on the app and then exported the dataset as a CSV file. I then manually cleaned and refined the data to obtain a file listing the top 100 references specifically on comics including their altmetrics. Data refining was needed to ensure the list included articles about comics, eliminating any non-relevant outputs (i.e. they were not about comics) and to correct text rendering errors, add missing data (like output titles when missing from the initial export) and limit the set to only 100 items by deleting the extra outputs.*
Hopefully it will be of interest to some of you out there. For comparison here’s these other datasets I have deposited on figshare in previous years:
Priego, Ernesto (2015): Almetrics of articles from the comics journals mentioned at least once in the past 1 year as tracked by Altmetric (20 August 2015). figshare. https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1514985.v3 Retrieved: 17 21, Dec 21, 2016 (GMT)
Though the two datasets above are outputs from different search queries (focusing on specific comics journals tracked by Altmetric rather than in any articles with keyword ‘comics’) we should we able to continue collecting data for future transversal studies.
Having yearly datasets obtained from the same queries, over a series of years, would provide evidence of comics scholarship’s presence online, and of the field’s (and Altmetric’s) evolving practices.
*It is possible the degree of relevance varies. Some outputs do not have ‘comics’ in their title but do discuss comics, for example ‘A randomized study of multimedia informational aids for research on medical practices: Implications for informed consent’ (Kraft et al 2016). It is possible however that a non-comics article or two remained, if you spot one do please let me know or leave a comment on the figshare output and I will correct and create a new version. It might also be noted that various outputs included are from The Conversation, which is not an academic journal, but it is tracked by Altmetric as it focuses on academic research news written by academics. For information and context about how Altmetric sources the data please read this.
This time the source data provides greater insights, particularly the article’s access type (Open Access, ‘Free’ or paywalled), type of content (article, letter, etc.) and subject.
Altmetric has already provided an analysis of this data (percentage of OA outputs in the list; countries of affiliations, institutions etc.) but having access to the source data means their analysis, visualisations and findings are actually reproducible (reproducibility was identified as a topic gaining interest; see Cat Williams’ post here). By providing access to the source data openly, other types of analysis are not only possible but encouraged (for example text and content analysis of the top 100 output titles).
One insight for me is that this list again demonstrates the dominance of the usual countries of affiliation, and up to a certain extent of the same journals (considering that Altmetric tracks a selection of publications, not all publications that exist).
I was interested in finding out whether the Top 100 would include any articles authored or coauthored by researchers with a Mexican institution as affiliation. There are two:
A genome-wide association scan in admixed Latin Americans identifies loci influencing facial and scalp hair features. Nature Communications7, Article number: 10815 (2016) doi:10.1038/ncomms10815 (Published online:01 March 2016)
Beverage purchases from stores in Mexico under the excise tax on sugar sweetened beverages: observational study. BMJ 2016;352:h6704 doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6704 (Published 06 January 2016)
It is notable that both articles are the result of international coauthorship; the Nature Communications article including authors from other Latin American countries (Argenitna, Chile, Colombia); the BMJ one from Mexico and the United States. Importantly, both articles are open access.
I was also interested in seeing whether any Information Science or Computer Science research had made it into the list. There is only one article whose subject was categorised as “Information and Computer Sciences”:
Mastering the game of Go with deep neural networks and tree search. Nature 529,484–489 (28 January 2016) doi:10.1038/nature16961
This is a paywalled article authored by a team of 21 authors with Google DeepMind (London, UK) as affiliation.
I believe access to this data is useful to understand the evolving landscape of scholarly communications. It can also help us authors to gain insights into what kind of research is receiving attention online.
For example, the data seems to contribute to a body of encdotal and bibliometric evidence indicating that, for researchers with affiliations in ‘developing’ nations, open access and international collaboration remains key to greater visibility.
This year’s data also shows, again, that some countries (in the case of Africa, a whole continent), fields, and journals, remain under-represented or not present at all. It should also be noted that the only Computer Science article in the list is not by researchers affiliated to universities but to Google.
Yesterday I tweeted some quick thoughts after checking out the datasets, and compiled them using the new-ish ‘Moments’ feature on Twitter, which, for what it’s worth, I have embedded below.
I have done revisions to this post since publication.
[I don’t have time. What is this about?
My view is that altmetrics are not merely tools for the measurement of online attention but tools that can help us discover the literature that is being tracked as mentioned. I used the Altmetric Explorer as a tool to discover articles about inequality. I cleaned the data into three tables to reflect only the articles that interested me from three journals and then checked them for access and license type. Most are paywalled and if free access the licensing is not clear. Scroll down to see the tables, or download the dataset here.
It’s better if you read the post, though. ;-) ]
Using the Altmetric Explorer to Discover Literature
I‘ve been doing some research on the concept of ‘inequality’ from an economic and sociological perspective to add background to ongoing research on academic publishing and ‘monopolies of knowledge‘. I am interested in finding out more about the potential relationships between inequality of access to information (particularly access to peer-reviewed research publications) and other forms of inequality affecting social and economic development.
As you may (or not) know I am also interested in the potential for altmetrics as tools to help us in the discovery of research outputs. Some may not like it but needless to say people do search for and discover all sorts of information online. To give an example, these days many of us rarely get invited to a party with a paper invitation sent on the post (unless it’s a wedding, and even that is culture and country-dependent now); it’s likely, however, that there will be a Facebook invite, an Instagram account, or an email. OK, you may hate weddings or have never been invited to one. You must like music. If you are reading this you are likely to know people who discover new (and old!) music by looking into what other people listen to on apps like Spotify or Soundcloud, etc. (Yes, this sounds so old and so obvious!). We trust other people to recommend us stuff. (Think of how many of us travel today: TripAdvisor is a good example too).
More to the point, libraries and library web sites are no longer the only gateways to academic information (why should they be?). You don’t have to be a declared open education advocate to share, search for and discover interesting materials on Slideshare or YouTube. The distinction between ‘social networking’ or ‘social media’ sites and the rest of the Web is at best artificial: most platforms today imply inter-linking and therefore social interaction. Surely, I think, web platforms tracking social media activity like Altmetric can be used to discover what research people are mentioning online. One does not need a personal or institutional Altmetric account to discover other outputs from the articles themselves when they have Altmetric widgets. In other words, my view is that altmetrics are not merely tools for the measurement of online attention but tools that can help us discover the literature that is being tracked as mentioned.
The bibliography collection is an important part of a literature review. We may collect bibliography we are interested in reading before we properly review or collect as we read/review (hopefully once one is reading one follows leads in an article, checks the references and notes, clicks on links, gets elsewhere). To discover published research I have used the Altmetric Explorer many times before (see, as an example, “Ebola: Access and Licenses of 497 Papers Crowdsourced in 7 Days”, 14/08/2014).
Three Sets of Articles on Inequality
Recently I have been using it to search for articles on the topic of ‘inequality’. I am interested in which articles on this topic are being tracked by Altmetric as mentioned online, but I am also interested in the access and license types of the outputs tracked.
As I do normally in my research workflow I have been exporting the results of my searches and then cleaning the data. I do this by manually applying spreadsheet filters and adding and deleting columns, and using OpenRefine to deduplicate and standarise the data. I then check each output (i.e. I click on each link) and make a note whether I can access the full version without academic library credentials or not.
In this case I am sharing with you three sets of articles, each corresponding to a different journal that has published articles on inequality that have been tracked as mentioned online by Altmetric within the last year. In the tables below I have left the Altmetric score in timeframe (one year) in the first column and have organised the outputs in that order (from the highest score to the lowest). Having checked each article one by one manually not using any institutional credentials or IP, I have indicated in the last column the access type of each article. As Altmetric scores can change over time often quite quickly I have also left the most recent mention online according to Altmetric. This is of course not live data so it merely reflects the score and the most recent mention at the time of my data collection.
Information, Communication & Society
Altmetric Score in timeframe
Most recent mention online according to Altimetric
Racial formation, inequality and the political economy of web traffic
I am not sure if this humble blog would be tracked by Altmetric so (ironically) I may or may not be contributing to the Altmetric score of the outputs above as I am linking to them. (It is insightful that altmetrics can be tracked when people have reached merely abstracts but not full texts). In this instance I am not listing them above because I necessarily recommend them but as a small sample of articles on inequality from recognised journals, noting their access type.
I do not know if the authors of these articles have deposited open access versions of these papers in their respective institutional repositories or elsewhere (if you are so inclined, you can check the three journals’ archiving policies here), and I am not publishing this post because I cannot personally access the articles above (so thank you very much indeed but please do not contact me, dear reader, to offer me the PDFs via email or Twitter). I am not saying the articles above are all there is on the subject; I am just sharing those results and detailing their access type (which you can’t easily get unless you click on them and try to access them, and even if you can access them -this means full versions- you may find it difficult to tell why you happen to have access to them).
In this post I have wanted to make a very simple point: following the links to the publishers’ versions of record of these articles discovered via the Altmetric Explorer, the access conditions were the ones detailed above.
It could be argued that as an academic I have used the wrong tool to access these resources. It can be said that in my case, as an academic based in London, UK, it is my fault to expect to access these resources from outside my library (you say you can’t access them, dear reader? Your fault!) What I am trying to do here is try to see and share what happens when someone who normally has access to this kind of research steps out from their traditional/standard discovery tools and/or position of privilege. If you don’t have the right credentials, how much can you access? [I must also note that the Altmetric Explorer requires registration and normally membership too; however, all the links listed above can be reached via regular search engines and Google Scholar].
Things are changing slowly but academics’ distrust and complaints about the low quality and lack of trustworthiness of information found on the Web are common, but at the same time we have allowed paywalled online academic journals to remain (to me weirdly) disconnected from the rest of the Web, with links leading to abstracts that promise you a full version if you pay or have the right library credentials. This breaks the flow of information that has made the Web the amazing invention it is, and contributes to the separation between the outputs of higher education and the ‘general’ public.
In my opinion it is a serious problem that if you don’t have the right credentials then so much detective work is required to access some important research (or to elucidate articles’ licensing conditions, even if they are ‘free’ or ‘complimentary’). Others, as we know, can’t be bothered at all and merely jump all the hoops, against all policies. The more barriers you impose, the more people will want to circumvent them. Ideally.
In reality, it is more likely that paywalled outputs remain inaccessible/invisible to the larger public, and perhaps even more to those affected by the very conditions studied in them. Even as an academic or student in an elite institution it is often hard (read: not straight-forward, not friction-free) to access them! A non-academic searching for this research online is likely to have already transcended many of the structural barriers created by inequality. Once you finally get to an interesting article, how great it must be then to be greeted by a huge ‘pay or keep off’?
Some might say my hypothetical non-academic individual seeking access does not really exist. Some have suggested to me that there is no evidence there is interest from the public, and that those who have access are the only ones interested. That the non-academic public wouldn’t understand the research anyway. That those interested could try harder to find surrogates. That in case they exist they are likely to know people who can ‘share’ the research with them anyway. The list of justifications of the current system can be long.
Having lived, studied and worked in a developing country I know intelligent, curious, well-informed bilingual individuals who have no access to versions of record do exist. This is people who face the inequalities of access to scientific information. They may be relatively privileged, because they have transcended the most pressing needs to enable them to seek out research. This, however, does not mean they do not exist and that their needs are not important.
I know interested individuals that are not academics exist here in the UK too. I also know for a fact that there are academics worldwide who do not have access to a lot of paywalled research. I am often one of them myself. I know there are others because I know them personally and because we know that not all libraries can afford to subscribe to the same ‘bundles’ (for the latter there is a growing body of evidence). My personal experience does not count as scientific evidence, but it matters to me and I know it matters to others. I question why we assume that if there is supposedly no current public demand for research then it is acceptable to paywall it and not encourage further public interest and demand.
I am aware it is getting boring because I have been repeating this for several years know, but legal ‘frictionless sharing‘ wouldn’t go amiss, especially for this type of research. We call it “open access”.
Priego, Ernesto (2016): Inequality: Three sets of Journal Article Titles and URLs/DOIs from Three Different Journals, with Altmetric Score in Timeframe (1year), Last Mention at the Time of Collection and Access Type Noted. figshare. https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3808134.v2 [CC-0].
In the social sciences, art and humanities calls for papers for collected editions remain a major form of dissemination of scholarship.
Scholars get very excited about the prospect of getting their work published in collected editions. Often, the conditions of publication are unknown to them until the work has been created, submitted and reviewed.
It is still rare for calls for papers to detail whether the final publication will be softcover or hardback, paywalled or open access, and what type of licensing will be applied to the published work.
It can no longer be assumed that certain publishing conditions are non-negotiable, always-already the default ones. It can no longer be assumed they will be the appropriate ones for all scholars either.
To reflect the current scholarly landscape accurately, and in the spirit of transparency and fairness, complete information about the intended format, licensing conditions and access type should be clearly and prominently included at call for papers stage.
Academia might be the only creative industry where authors do submit work for publication without being fully aware of publisher licensing conditions and access type (we could learn a lot from Morrissey’s Autobiography! Moz seems to have never read a recording deal in advance…). Scholars get so excited about the prospect of getting their work finally published, that, traditionally, the conditions of publication (the conditions detailed in a publication contract, that will determine when, where and how the work will be published, what the author and the publisher will be able to do with the output, etc.) are unknown to them until the work has been created, submitted and reviewed, i.e. once it is rather late to do much about it. Understandably, a final contract cannot be signed until something has been accepted for publication and often it won’t be officially accepted until it’s finished. However, the case I’ll try to make here is for clearly informing authors interested in submitting to a call for papers about the intended conditions of publication (format, access type, licensing type) for the content accepted in response to said call.
This creates a situation of virtual intellectual and creative kidnapping, where the author has lost the freedom to negotiate conditions of publication. The output (journal article, book chapter, monograph, editorial for collected editions, edited collection) has already been created, it has passed peer review, revisions have been made; lots of work by several people went into it and valuable time has spent waiting for it to get finally published. Often the accepted publication will have been already listed in appraisal forms and academic CVs before the output in question has been actually published and a contract has been signed. The author is often disempowered to have a say about what they will be able to do with their own work (for example where and how to share it, translate it, adapt it, etc.) or about who will be able to access it and how.
In the social sciences, art and humanities calls for papers for collected editions remain a major form of dissemination of scholarship. Though some journals in these fields do include clear information about licensing and access type prominently, calls for papers in general still tend not to include information about how the content, if accepted, will be licensed and how and where (in which formats, at what price, open access, paywalled) it will be published. I invite you to take a look at the calls for papers published here. How many calls for papers detail whether the final publication will be softcover or hardback, paywalled or open access, and what type of licensing will be applied to the published work?
The issue of publisher takedown notices (e.g. Elsevier’s) highlights how scholars are keen to share their own published work (including any features added by publishers) on their blogs or social networking sites, but do so seemingly ignoring the licensing conditions they signed or agreed to. Publisher’s policies should be clear to authors before the submission of work, not once they have been broken. If authors wish to disseminate their work in ways publisher policies do not allow, they should be free to either negotiate them in advance or choose a different publisher.
Our disciplines however seem to have somehow relegated licensing and access type to an after thought. As open access mandates from governments, funding bodies and institutions become the rule and not the exception, it is time we start changing this practice and start including licensing and access type information at call for papers stage. Now, it is of course understandable that some editors will not know yet if there will be interest from a range of publishers they might have in consideration, and often what happens is that they wait until they have a body of work so they can make their full proposal. This workflow places academic editors at a disadvantage as well, as they will have already worked hard on compiling and editing a collection (or on ensuring contributions) way before a publisher’s offer detailing conditions has been made.
These positions assume that scholars (editors and authors/contributors) are at the service of publishers and not the other way around. For authors, particularly early career researchers hoping to develop a publications portfolio, the power lies on editors and peer reviewers, themselves dependent on publishers, who most of the times are free to impose conditions that may seem to authors and editors to be ‘the way things are’, i.e. as non-negotiable conditions. In practice, it should be perfectly possible to negotiate these conditions (many authors have done it), if one knows how and one is interested. Luckily for publishers, the conditions are rarely interrogated and even less negotiated. Editors and authors are simply happy to get their work published, and see no option but to sign any standard conditions imposed by the publisher.
Open Access is not only about bringing down the barriers to access and reuse of scholarly publications. Behind it lies the desire to re-connect scholars with the fruits of their own work and to empower them to choose how they want their work to be published (and this implies choosing the conditions for their distribution, accessibility, and reuse).
To reiterate: what has been an after thought, the small print many authors discover once it is too late, should be detailed first thing at call for submissions stage. There is no content without form, and there is no content without the conditions of access and dissemination. I know I am not alone in hoping that more and more colleagues will take into consideration not just editorial reputations and thematic and disciplinary approaches outlined in calls for papers, but how a submission will see the light of day in the end (if it does at all!).
Scholars today know better than ever before that publishing can no longer be the end of the road but the beginning of a conversation. There is a plethora of both legacy and pioneering publishing platforms and scholarly methods of assessment and review available to scholars today. Paywalls and hardbacks are not the only venues for publication anymore. Access and licensing type are not synonyms of research quality: and no single access type has the domain over quality. Scholars should be free to decide where they submit their work for consideration, and should be able to negotiate licensing conditions whenever possible. Scholars should be free to submit their work for consideration wherever they please as long as they have been made aware of the access and licensing type well in advance before submission. Licensing and access type is a factor many authors today have in mind before submitting work, and yet this information remains largely absent from calls for submissions. If the known or tentative publisher(s) are detailed in the call for papers authors can locate their policies via SHERPA/RoMEO, but informing potential contributors of the policies should also be the publishers’ and the editors’ responsibility. If the author ends up having to do detective work to find out something as important as this then something is wrong.
Indeed, the current model of academic publication still remains strongly aligned with paywalled access models, but calls for papers that will paywall accepted submissions (or publish them in expensive hardback editions only) should not take for granted that paywalls and hardbacks are the only available model. Authors today must be informed of complete information and assess, in advance, before even considering making a submission, how and where, under which conditions, their work will be published if accepted. This implies interrogating the current power structure: it should be authors who have the agency to decide. Declaring licensing and access type as small print well after authors have had their work accepted for publication removes authorial agency, and quietly, falsely positions traditional publishing methods as the default.
Colleagues interested in knowing more about negotiating licensing and access conditions may be interested in the following two guides:
Collins, E., Milloy, C., Stone, G., Baker, J., Eve, M. & Priego, E. (2015). Guide to open access monograph publishing for arts, humanities and social science researchers. OAPEN-UK project. Available at http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/12373/.
Collins, H., Milloy, C., Stone, G., Baker, J., Eve, M. & Priego, E. (2013). Guide to Creative Commons for Humanities and Social Science Monograph Authors. 0OpenUK, JISC Collections. Available at http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/11863/
I am not a publishing lawyer nor copyright officer. Needless to say, the information in this post is not legal advice. If you need more details on your author rights or legal advice about what action to take, please contact your publisher, librarian, copyright officer, an adviser or solicitor.
“Here’s what the Internet did: it introduced, for the first time, post-Gutenberg economics. The cost of producing anything by anyone has fallen through the floor. And so there’s no economic logic that says that you have to filter for quality before you publish… The filter for quality is now way downstream of the site of production.
What we’re dealing with now is not the problem of information overload, because we’re always dealing (and always have been dealing) with information overload… Thinking about information overload isn’t accurately describing the problem; thinking about filter failure is.”
‘Content’ is not what it used to be. I started blogging around 1999. I was an earlyish adopter of MySpace and then Facebook and Tumblr, but I did not get a Twitter account until 2008 and didn’t start a personal Twitter account until 2009. It seems unnecessary to say but since then blogging has been significantly superceded by social media, and user generated content is now the default in today’s mediascape. Boy, do I sound ‘old.’
Times have changed significantly. We no longer need to advocate (at least not in the same way) for the need to promote and/or disseminate information online. The relative popularity of a platform like Medium seems to demonstrate the nearly-total blurring between web publishing and social media, at least for long and, er, medium-length forms. But we don’t need to look at the most sophisticated online publishing examples to get the feeling that, if you are, say, on Twitter, everyone is now pushing content. It’s not just a buzzword and I’m not saying anything new: the multiplication of user accounts means the customisation of personal profiles which turns all users, even the least experienced and humble ones, into brands producing content as commodities. Your profile picture is your logo, your online persona is the result of a conscious or unconscious public-facing strategy. The products are not just each individual output, but your whole process of being online; the whole ongoing process. It’s outward thinking, an exercise for reaching out, publicly, to others, continuously.
In the 21st century all media means publishing, the making public of packaged information (dear reader, please be kind: I am acutely aware that we still need professional publishers in the publishing industry). All publishing means ‘social’, at least in the sense of necessitating networks (of users, of data), programming interfaces and algorithms to create, maintain and develop those networks. Like commuters in packed rush hour trains, social media users share a common space where time, space and attention are scarce. Social media users become part of the crowd as a unit, as a whole, but the crowd is composed of individuals at odds with each other, often algorithmically thrown in together, and tensions, misunderstandings arise.
If you have ever taken public transport during the morning or evening rush hour, you understand how the laws of capitalism turn space, and yourself, into commodities. Space is scarce (so are seats, table seats, power plugs, air, floorspace). You are time-poor and your time is money. You are unique, in the infinite mass (‘the mass is matrix‘). The commuting train (thinking of the UK here) is a type of panopticon (be ever vigilant; report anything suspicious). On the one hand it promotes solipsism (headphones, personal devices, reading material), but on the other hand it requires a constant periphereal awareness. Other bodies are always around you and signals are everywhere. Bodies clash with each other and it takes concentration to avoid it. Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, but yet the rules of capitalism would like to deconstruct the law of physics and get us all in there at the same time, knowing it is not possible, creating desire and aspiration for the non-graspable; as an ecosystem it generates its own social classes, hierarchies, winners and losers, satisfaction, tension and frustration. It seems to me this is also the logic of today’s social media.
The binding tissue of social media communities is not necessarily commonality, but competition (there is commonality, but it’s conscious or unconscious competition, for attention, for presence, for space, for recognition, which drives it forward). The social media arena enables the production of content (defined as information purposefully packed for its dissemination). This is a rhetoric I used to resist, a semantic field favoured by self-fashioned, opportunistic social media gurus. However social media can only be fully, ethically theorised in practice, over time, and experience (my experience at least), shows that today’s social media has managed to transform publishing into the condition sine qua non of being online. Even so-called lurkers create content (their accounts as data points and their associated metadata). Like a car parked on a road, the lurker’s social media presence also contributes to pollution, takes up space, pays taxes, alters the configuration of the city, needs to be eventually moved around, might be eventually towed away, stays in the way of things and people, is exposed to environmental conditions, communicates things (class, taste, income) etc.
I write these paragraphs, paradoxically, as a way to frame my recent reasons to resist being on social media as I used to. There are other reasons apart from a perceived content overload, but in this case, this post was motivated by my experience of witnessing web publishing and particularly Twitter microblogging evolve (or devolve) towards pitch-perfect free market capitalism, where becoming a commodity through the production of content as a commodity is the ontological condition.
It is true that every Twitter user experiences Twitter differently. However recent changes in the Twitter API (including an aggressive imposition of ‘promoted’ tweets, inclusion of gif search, allowing all users to see tweets staring with a mention etc.) mean it is becoming very hard to filter information as before: it no longer suffices to be a good curator, because curation is not fully customisable at an individual user’s level, in terms of what content a user is exposed to and when.
Clay Shirky’s “it’s not information overload. It’s filter failure“, worked well for 2008, and it might still be insightful in 2016 if we redefine whose reponsibility it is to filter and if we think hard whether it is really possible to filter successfully these days. There’s also I think a distinction to be made between ‘information’ and ‘content’: one can argue information can exist independently from its packaging (the way it is disseminated, how it is wrapped with other data, phyisical or digital). Content is the paradigmatic shape in which information is transformed into a commodity, and content is composed of different bits of information. We no longer search for isolated bits of information, but for data and metadata wrapped in specific languages and interfaces (we don’t just search for a location, we search on Google Maps, expecting to find other locations apart from the one we were looking for, and information about those locations). We then share what we retrieved, which is a whole mini-package of code, with others, expecting them to have access to the same technical affordances (software, hardware, connectivity) that we do.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat encourage the transformation of anything into shareable content, not just from professional publishing organisations but from absolutely everybody (dear reader, please be kind: I am acutely aware of the digital divide). This is, of course, not new, and once upon a time we used to celebrate the fact ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ (Rosen 2006) were becoming content producers as well. The leveling of the playing field etc. I remember 2006 well: online, those were exciting yet innocent times. Ten years later, the attention economy is (or is determined to be) more than ever before the only economy, at least in the developed world. The people formerly known as the audience remain the audience, even if they become audiences by endlessly sharing content, and therefore by distracting each other’s attention. The overlords are still the overlords. Perhaps paradoxically, the only way for the regular user to produce more meaningful content (define meaningful etc.) is to spend significant time away from the endless whirlwind of voices sharing content of all types at all times.
There’s been discussion of how the “rise of social media content is overwhelming consumers“, but interestingly there is no doubt in those reflections that social media users are de facto consumers, and suggest that it’s the digital marketers (professionals employed by commercial entities), not the users, who can do something about it. Users are just the target. But don’t we as users have a responsibility too? Because being online is only possible through the creation of content and a digital footprint, (even if one never posts anything, even if one only lurks sites from a Tor browser), it seems logical that there should be a feeling of content overcrowding. Filtering the content one thinks one needs or expects to discover has become increasingly difficult, and often sources will equally post something really useful than something completely inane: it is way easier to filter what one posts before it is posted. Some will say posting inane content is an important requirement for the quality content to get eventually an audience at all, but for the experienced, busy user the proliferation of unfilterable chaff renders the social media experience totally frustrating and time-consuming. (Often chaff is in the eye of the beholder, but, one would argue, not always).
Fear of missing out means many of us feel we need to keep an eye on social media to be mildly aware of what’s happening in our fields and in the world, but the illusion created by what looks like everyone actively broadcasting how hard they are at work (or having fun taking planes to exotic conference destinations) can also have a paralyzing effect. Moreover this broadcasting of information related to professional activity does directly contribute to the larger market itself, promoting competition (and its anxieties). The multiplication of channels disseminating professional activity paradoxically yet successfully benefits the perception that jobs are scarce, and the convenient delusion that some candidates will just never be good enough.
If contemporary algorithms are designed to force users to see as much as possible in spite of their filtering efforts, perhaps we will (hopefully) see a growth of user self-filtering: do we as users really need to post all that? Do users find the time to ask themselves that question? Certainly this is something many if not most users already do up to a certain extent. Eventually, even if everyone became more selective about what they post, wouldn’t we end up in the same overcrowded place, if the intention is for everyone everywhere to be members of the online social arena, the market in the cloud?*
Or maybe it’s a question of a transformation of our ‘modes of perception’, and even the most sophisticated information retrieval specialists will need to consciously adapt their strategies to market-driven discovery systems. At this stage I personally wonder if the only successful filtering technique would be not to be here/there at all, or at least for considerable periods.
So I’ve been quiet on the blogging front. It took me ages to gather the courage to write this text and finally post it. It goes in various directions, and it might not mean anything to anyone at all but me (deep down my suspicion is someone out there might care). Maggie Nelson writes that
‘most writers I know nurse persistent fantasies about the horrible things -or the horrible thing- that will happen to them if and when they express themselves as they desire’ (The Argonauts, 2015: 114).
For all the social media content overload I increasingly perceive, I paradoxically feel social media is also promoting self-censorship and fear. It also promotes a particular type of writing, specially crafted to maximise sharing. Devising strategies to ensure content is shared in current infrastructures can be a very good thing, as I have said throughout my career, particularly when what is needed is to communicate the value of a certain type of humanities work. But quick sharing also has a counterpart, quick reactions (which, depending on the case, are not always bad!). However one sees plenty of quick, uncharitable reactions to unread content; unfriendly public attitudes to others’ work; virtual mobbing from people who one thinks would never do the same in a professional context like a conference or a lecture, the immediate, context-poor critique of those who dare to express themselves.
Usually it’s minorities and under-represented users who suffer the most and therefore lose terrain in the battle for representation. The widespread adoption of social media in professional contexts has led to self-censorship on social media, even in the lands of the free. When self-filtering becomes self-censorship is a topic that deserves more time and thought. This tension between the need/pressure to disseminate and the need/pressure to remain silent in order to be safe is one of the tensions at the core of this new economy as a way of being with others, a kind of mal d’archive where two opposing forces are at play.
Taking the time to write this and to reflect on the reasons to publish has made me reflect on both the ideas and practices that motivated it and the mechanism and strategies for its eventual dissemination. It may be that the best filter is to take time out all together, in order to keep perspective. Stepping away from a social media platform such as Twitter may remind us it is not an end in itself nor a community of communities disconnected to the offline networks that sustain it. Taking this time to reflect may help us to reassess what it is that we really want to get across, when and to whom. I suggest that this distance is healthy, even if I recognise that taking this route may mean that some people never read the content we do eventually share.
*Another important aspect of this discussion, which I did not mean to cover here, would be online harassment and bullying. Danah Boyd’s work may come handy in this context.
Due to different reasons (including health reasons!) I have been quite unactive on this blog. It does not mean I have been unactive everywhere though! Actually the opposite. I’d still like to continue using this blog whenever I can to document some of the work I do. Maybe this post helps me to re-start a bit of rapid blogging activity here!
Yesterday I published the following on The Winnower:
Back in December 2014 we posted an idea on the “Research Data Spring” (also named “Research at Risk”), a collaborative initiative for UK Research hosted by Jisc. This is an idea I am hoping to develop in conjunction with the Centre for Information Science at City University London (#citylis) and the researcher-led open access publisher Ubiquity Press. The members of the team are Andy Byers at Ubiquity and David Bawden, Lyn Robinson and myself at #citylis.
Here’s the idea as posted on the Jisc Ideascale platform. The ideas posted on the platform Jisc used for this initiative could be voted for by members of the community and receive comments. We are very grateful to everyone who voted, “agreed” and commented. We got 40 votes and 12 comments. Thank you.
In mid January 2014 we learned our idea was successful in passing to the next stage in Research Data Spring (of 70 ideas posted, 44 were shortlisted). We will participate in a sandpit workshop on 26-27 February in Birmingham, and today I will present the idea and network with other participants at a workshop within the International Digital Curation Conference. The detailed programme for today is in PDF here.
The idea has two main components, one that we could call “technical” (in the sense it implies the development of a tool) and one that we could call “research” (in the sense that it implies researching what has already been done, learning from the process of developing the tool and from its implementation).
Our idea is to write a plugin for Open Journal Systems that sends data automatically or semi-automatically to Institutional Repositories.
1. To make data submission easier in terms of data by allowing people to upload directly to Dryad (an international repository of data underlying peer-reviewed scientific and medical literature) and Figshare (an open access repository developed by Digital Science) via API.
2. To make depositing easier by connecting OJS to other services via the JISC publications router which can be subscribed to by institutions to receive submissions.
The key thing to say here is that we are aware there’s important work that has been done already in this area, with tools that are already in use. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to build on what has been done, as there seems to be consensus that none of the existing solutions are completely satisfying. We are not saying we can come up with THE tool; we would use this opportunity to
discover what has already been done,
work with what already exists,
use the development phase itself as research data,
implement and test the tool and obtain research data,
produce a research output and an open source tool that can be used by the community.
For example, Stuart Lewis alerted us that the University of Edinburgh uses both SWORD and OJS (http://journals.ed.ac.uk/). We also know Rory McNicholl made a plugin based on the OJS SWORD plugin that gives editors the option to deposit to repositories as part of the OJS workflow. This was developed for and is in use by UCL at http://ojs.lib.ucl.ac.uk/. Rory was interested in collaborating with us and we believe the knowledge and expertise exchange would be vital.
The points made by Martin Eve are vital. We believe it is authors (not publishers) who must be responsible for depositing their work in repositories. This is also why this is a researcher-led idea, one that seeks knowledge exchange between researchers (who are also journal editors), publishers, developers, librarians (including repository managers) and university administrators.
I am a researcher and editor, not a developer, and developing this project would be an opportunity to continue learning about the technical component, which can only give a more thorough understanding of the pragmatic challenges and opportunities, from an implementation point of view, of open access and data and manuscript deposit. I believe it is essential that authors gradually become more involved in the publishing and depositing process, and this collaborative idea is one step in this direction.
Here an attempt to visualise what I was up to in 2014 publishing, research and teaching engagement wise. I have focused first on how many blog posts I published on this blog per month, how many blog posts I edited and/or authored for the Comics Grid blog, how many outputs I shared on figshare and finally a general numeralia of some main categories of my 2014 activity.
This post is not meant to contribute to heighten already-pervasive anxieties of academic productivity (I’m fully aware most of this activity does not ‘count’ for many anyway), but merely as a humble, personal yet public exercise of reminding myself of the work I’ve done. You can click on the charts to enlarge them.
“The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.”
Dendrogramma, New Genus, with Two New Non-Bilaterian Species from the Marine Bathyal of Southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) with Similarities to Some Medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara