Monday, 28 January 2013

A Sierra-Fuelled Dawn

The Shuttlebus, in R2D2 livery, awaits its first customers
Following the commendable example of the Universities of Bristol, Bath, Exeter and Cardiff in forming the GW4 collaboration, we are pleased to announce that Fundermental Towers University will be forming an alliance with its sister institutions in the wider Rochester area.

The research intensive universities of Fundermental Towers, Ebbsfleet White Horse (Unrampant), and Snodhurst, together with Deangate Ridge Golfing Academy, will form a strategic alliance to explore and identify opportunities where their combined research strength can more effectively address global challenges, as well as getting an impressive discount on stationery costs.

Professor Gymslip Plimsole, Vice-Chancellor of Fundermental Towers University and former contestant on ESRC's T Factor, welcomed the news. 'This is an exciting day for the wider Rochester area, and the impact will be felt right the way from The Esplanade in the West to Tinker's Alley in the East. Together the 'R2D2' collaboration of universities is more than the sum of its parts. With a total turnover in excess of £7.83(sterling), these four royal and ancient seats of learning will create an unstoppable critical mass of ground breaking research.'

'We have already commissioned a 'shuttle service' between the universities', continued Plimsole. 'I have had my son Kevin, our Transport Officer, source and purchase a 1983 Ford Sierra which is ideal for the job. We hope to paint it in the colours of all four institutions. When combined these come out as a rather fetching puce-brown. Fortunately most Sierras of that age came in that colour, so there may be no need for a repaint. See? This collaboration is already saving us money!'

'Whilst we are all excited about the bright new Sierra-fuelled dawn ahead of us,' concluded Plimsole, 'there are still a number of details to iron out. The most important of these is the biscuit selection for our intra-R2D2 meetings. I know Snodhurst have a penchant for jammie dodgers, but we at Fundermental Towers have more refined tastes. For us, it's custard creams or nothing.'

Monday, 21 January 2013

Notes from Open Access Forum, University of Kent


Open Mic: the panel take questions after the talks
Over fifty members of staff gathered in the Senate Chamber on 15 January to discuss issues around the Government’s Open Access (OA) policy. This had been developed following the publication of Dame JanetFinch’s report in June, which recommended that
‘a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded’.
The Vice Chancellor, Prof Dame Julia Goodfellow, opened the Forum by making clear that ‘the direction of travel has been set for us, it is for us to discuss the best way to respond.’ She pointed out that the block funding from RCUK, some £59k for Kent, did not cover the majority of either funded or self-funded research that was currently undertaken, and that some thought needed to be given as to how the OA costs for this would be met.

Ultimately the only possible source for these would be QR. She emphasised that other institutions, both large and small, were having to make similar decisions.

Before handing over to the other speakers, she outlined for clarity the OA terms ‘gold’ and ‘green’:
  • GOLD open access is publication, normally in a standard journal that allows free access to any articles for which an ‘article processing charge’ (APC) has been paid. The RCUK block grant is intended to offset these APCs.
  • GREEN open access is self-archiving of articles that have appeared elsewhere. This may be in institutional repositories such as theKent Academic Repository (KAR), or subject-specific ones such as PubMed. The Research Councils have stated that archiving must happen within 6 months (or 12 months for AHRC and ESRC).


Prof Dick Jones (School of Computing, and Faculty Director of Research for the Sciences), stated that ‘in principle’ many in the Sciences were supportive of OA, and that many already did publish via OA journals or self-archive. However, he had a number of concerns, including:
  • The cost of imposing OA universally. If even half the articles currently published by the Faculty were made available via gold OA, the cost would be between £250k-£750k;
  • Having to pay twice, for both APCs and for subscriptions to the journals. This raised a further question of the iniquity of the current publishing model, which relied on academics writing for, editing, reviewing, reading and then paying for the journals.
  • How will APC funding be rationed? Will it be centrally? On what basis will it be provided – first come first served, or the merit of the work, or the impact factor of the journal?
  • The effect on learned societies. These relied on income from subscriptions, and, in turn, supported and developed their community. If their income source was to be removed they faced an uncertain future. Dr Ruth Blakeley (below) concurred with this, suggesting that the loss of learned societies would be more than ‘collateral damage’, as they provide support for both the sector and HEFCE consultations. 

Dr Ruth Blakeley (School of Politics & International Relations) stated that the Academy of Social Sciences was intending to lobby the House of Lords to stop the policy. Their concerns were:
  • One size does not fit all. There was a sense that OA had been developed to suit the publication culture of STEM subjects, and was not suited to the social science and humanities disciplines, which made more use of monographs and ‘slow burn’ articles.
  • It would exacerbate the funding divide. STEM subjects would require more funding for OA, and the policy would therefore exacerbate the already considerable difference in funding between the sciences and social sciences/humanities.
  • Intellectual property. The current policy suggested that publications should be covered by the most permissive ‘creative commons’ licence, CC-BY. This license would let others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon academic work, even commercially, as long as they credit the author for the original creation. Some perceive a danger in this: for instance, your work may be ‘hijacked’ by causes of which you disapprove. You would have no control over your work. Instead, the sector should push for the more restrictive CC-BY-NC-ND.
  • OA & American journals. Many of the top journals are based in the USA, which hasn’t mandated OA. As such, UK researchers with RCUK funding may be prevented from submitting to them. This may have an adverse effect on their career and profile.
  • OA & the REF. There has been the suggestion that publications submitted for consideration to the next REF may have to be OA. If so, there are implications about funding, timescales and, once again, whether academics are able to submit to the top journals.

Dr James Baker (School of History) had a more positive view of OA. He had worked on KAR, as well as working as an academic in History, and had thus seen the subject from two perspectives. He regarded the move towards OA as ‘a good thing’, as the current model for academic publication was unsustainable: even Harvard library was saying it could no longer afford subscription fees.
  • Misunderstanding. The response from the History discipline suggested that there was some confusion and misunderstanding in the community. An open letter from 21 leading historical journals had suggested that OA sanctioned plagiarism, which was untrue. In addition, there was a level of hypocrisy in the claim that OA would ‘require authors to sign away their rights’, as they already had to do so through traditional publication.
  • Monographs. Interestingly, there was little provision for monographs in the Finch Report, although this was the main avenue for publication in the humanities. Jisc and the AHRC had funded the OAPEN-UK project, to gauge whether allowing online access to monograph texts had had an effect on book sales. The results thus far suggested it hadn’t.

 Trudy Turner (Information Services) discussed some of the issues that IS, in support of the academic community, was facing in implementing OA. KAR would be at the forefront of this, and there had been considerable investment in making it fit for this purpose. KAR had 24,000 publication records, of which half included full text. This was a good proportion, but it was unclear how many publications had not been recorded at all. Nationally all institutions were having to ‘navigate the landscape’, and all were considering what the best model for funding publications should be.

Dr Simon Kerridge (Research Services) outlined some of the pros and cons of OA, before presenting a ‘straw man’ OA policy for discussion. The University did not want to restrict publication or academic freedom; however, there was a need to consider how best to distribute limited funding for OA. If it did not support OA there was the danger of facing RCUK sanctions. Moreover, OA offered potential benefits, such as an increase in citation rates. The straw man policy suggested that the University should encourage/mandate green OA through KAR.

Prof Diane Houston (Graduate School) highlighted the potential impact of undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) publications. All PGs publish, and many UGs do too; should the University accept responsibility for paying for them to do so through OA? If the University did pay, there should be different criteria for publication from those applied to staff, and there was a need for a level playing field between disciplines.


The Vice Chancellor asked for an indication of support for OA generally, and for green OA specifically. The majority of the audience appeared to accept it.

However, a number of questions were raised following the speeches, and issues covered included:
  • How would international collaborations or multiple authored publications be handled?
  • How seriously would universities implement or monitor OA policies?
  • Who is the perceived audience who do not already have access to academic publications?
  • How would funding to facilitate OA be agreed and distributed?
  • Should the sector collectively oppose the Government’s policy on OA?


It was agreed that a representative working group be convened to further develop and consult on the ‘straw man’ OA policy. 

Developing Collaborations

Apollo 11: the ultimate interdisciplinary collaboration.
In space no one can hear you scream...

Funders are increasingly keen on encouraging collaborative research, but what are the pros and cons of this way of working? Run by Prof Jon Williamson and Dr Peter Bennett the Grants Factory session last week looked at some of the issues around working with others, particularly on interdisciplinary projects.

Jon kicked off by outlining possible reasons for collaborating. These included:

  • Having the opportunity to answer a large or complex research question, when you don’t have the skills, the background, the data, or the time to solve it yourself;
  • Having the chance to learn from others;
  • Developing new ideas and exploring different areas;
  •  Developing new and stimulating connections;
  • Propagating  your ideas and profile more widely.

However, you have to be careful in the collaborations you develop. You are going to work with these people for some time, and you have to make sure:

  • They have the time, motivation and commitment to work with you;
  • They have a personality that you can work with, and you with which you want to spend time.

Inevitably, there are pitfalls to collaboration.

  • Some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, may rate joint work less highly when it comes to the REF or promotion;
  •  It might be more time consuming, including having to learn a new disciplinary ‘language’, and having to administer and manage a programme.

So what makes a good collaboration?
  • The numbers involved are not unmanageable. Four is ideal;
  •  The involvement of all makes sense: they bring complementary skills, data or other elements to the table;
  •  They can commit time and energy to it;
  •  The working methods are agreed beforehand, including the ways in which you want to communicate (email/Skype/personal), and publish (first author/journals etc).
  •  The research question that sparked the collaboration interests you. You don’t have to know the answer, but you’ve got to be interested enough to want to find it.

And it might not work, but that’s the nature of research. It’s risky, but even if your collaboration does fail, you will hopefully have learnt by the process, have had fun, and have moved the question on.

Peter took over and started with a picture of the Apollo 11 astronauts. If ever there was a project that summed up the potential of collaboration, this was it. 400,000 people contributed, and achieved the near-impossible.

Collaboration is particularly useful for ECRs.
  •  It offers the opportunity to collaborate with more experienced partners, who will challenge, stimulate and formulate your own interests;
  • Partnering those with a strong funding track record will increase your chance of getting grants;
  •  Linking with other, research intensive university will be good for your profile and the development of your research;
  • It helps you to ‘acquire impact’ and increase your citations.

For Peter, his best collaborations were borne in tea rooms and pubs. Like Jon he emphasised the need to work with someone who shares your humour and outlook, and has complementary interests and skills. And, whilst collaborations can be fruitful, they all will inevitably end. This is not a failure, but a natural cycle, and you can move on to find others, through conferences, seminars, research visits and citation analysis.

Peter added to Jon’s list of pitfalls by adding some downsides of his own:
  •  Loss of control, and the sharing of ideas and data, which might be difficult for some people;
  • Collaborators might not fulfil their side of the bargain, and the project might fail as a result;
  •  Projects can be ‘bloated’, and costs can go up exponentially, as partners are added;
  • They can be a ‘hassle’ to run or be involved in.

However, on balance, collaborations offer huge potential to raise your profile and develop your career, to expand your horizons and to learn from others. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Peer Review: Roulette, Black Magic...or Fair & Transparent?

The next Grants Factory event will focus on ‘how the peer review panel works,’ and will take place on Wed 30 January at 12noon in Cornwallis NW SR6.

Prof Mick Tuite
Dr Simon Kirchin
To many the assessment of their well-crafted proposal by the funder is somewhere between a game of roulette and a black magic session. A sense of randomness, of unfairness, hangs over the system. But what really goes on? Are these concerns justified, or are the panellists doing the best they can with limited resources? This session will hear from two Kent academics who have had considerable experience of sitting on peer review panels. Prof Mick Tuite (Biosciences) has had experience of the BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust, amongst others, and Dr Simon Kirchin (SECL) has sat on panels for the AHRC. Both will talk about how these panels function, what they look for in proposals, and how decisions are made.

The event is free for staff at the University of Kent and lunch will be provided, but do let me know if you intend to come as places are limited.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

But that's the Way It's Always Been

Yesterday I organised an Open Access Forum at the University. It was well attended, and a great opportunity to voice concerns, to debate the issues, and to begin to formulate a policy to deal with this changing landscape. I will post some proper notes from this event shortly.

In the evening I was following this up by reading around the subject online, reading the responses and position statements, the blog posts and comments. At the same time I was reading about HMV going into administration, and it struck me that both these events - the implementation of OA and the death of these retail giants - were not a million miles apart. Perhaps it was the tone of the comments about both that did it: that elegiac paean for a past that was - to be frank - not that great. 

The current framework for academic publishing relies massively on the goodwill of academics to write, review, edit - free of charge- and then pay through the nose to read them. Not only that, but they demand that academics sign away any kind of rights to the distribution or use of their work. They hide away and paywall their knowledge. Similarly, the old behemoths of the High Street provided poor service, lack of knowledge, and overpriced goods. Both of them relied on the fact that 'that was the way it has always been'. 

New technology has opened up the market, and both retail and academic publishing faces a new and uncertain future. Sure, it's scary, but it's also exciting. In place of the bland and depressing chain stores might come more responsive, interesting outlets that provide customers with what they actually want. In place of the traditional model of academic publishing might come one that genuinely responds to the needs and desires of the sector.

I don't want to be unrealistic about the dangers ahead. I am aware and worried about the future of learned societies, for instance, or how we can make the new funding model work. I'm worried about the potential inequalities, about the funding divide, about protecting intellectual property. But at the same time I think there's real potential here for something new, something better, to fit this new century, that can complement and suit the age of the iPad and the connected researcher, that will make knowledge - and the distribution of knowledge - truly open. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

You're Better than That

Well, it feels like an awfully long time since I last posted. 17 Dec! That's almost a month. In the intervening period I've managed to forget everything I once knew, but I'm sure it'll come back to me. Just remind me, what does REF stand for again?

In the meantime the Times Higher gave me a gift that would warm the heart of any research manager: they published my letter. Whilst I live in the county that gave the world 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells', I hope the final piece doesn't come across like that:

For those of you who can't read my shaky mobile phone photo, here's the text online. They had to edit it slightly because of space constrictions (eg I gave the figures for 2010-11 as well), but I hope my point came across. What I was wanting to highlight was the fact that it's very easy to make assumptions based on institutional reputation. Everyone would assume that Russell Group or 94 Group universities would outperform a non-aligned university like the OU. However, when you question this it reveals some surprises.

But the publication of my letter was as a molehill next to the Everest-like achievement of my Private Eye Lookalike publication. I may have forgotten everything I know, but this will stay with me forever.