Conference Buzz: It’s What Counts: How Data Transforms Our World

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

33rd Annual SSP Meeting

The Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) held its 33rd Annual Meeting on June 1-3 in Boston, MA. Its theme was “It’s What Counts: How Data Transforms Our World.” Last year in San Francisco, the attendance was 595; this year it was 720—a significant 21% increase. My overall impression was that the mood was considerably more optimistic than it has been in the last 3 years since I began attending SSP meetings, and there were considerably fewer of the “How to Survive in These Tough Times” type of presentations. Besides the opening keynote and closing plenary sessions, the conference consisted of 4 concurrent tracks and a well attended exhibit hall.

Plenary Sessions

The opening keynote, by Jon Orwant, Engineering Manager at Google, was outstanding. His title was “Approximating Omniscience,” and he noted that because we have an overflow of information, our abilities to find what we need have not kept pace with what is available. Scholarly publishing is a unique market because it has an excess of both supply and demand. Publishers can reduce information inefficiencies by packaging products in new and innovative forms. Google is working at this in its book scanning project, and Orwant has visualized some of the statistics of this database in a variety of fascinating ways. He compared scholarship to a financial model, in which readers invest time in books and are slowly paid out in ideas. Books are analogous to savings bonds; journals are like mutual funds; and articles are like stocks. Orwant has also developed a “books ngram viewer” which compares phrases that have appeared in books over time, so, for example, one can compare “kindergarten,” “nursery school,” and “child care” and observe that “child care” has become a much more popular term recently. A version of the ngram viewer has also been developed for music. (Warning: This is a fascinating and entertaining website and can consume lots of time!) Orwant concluded his presentation with a list of experiments he would like to see conducted, including development of a low overhead micropayment system for content, apps inside digital publications, and systems to reduce the costs of rights clearance.

In his endnote address, John Palfrey, Professor and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School, focused on four issues affecting libraries and librarians:

  1. Changing patterns of learning. Youth and media are both now born digital, which has led to different practices in information access. Palfrey forecasts that by 2012, we will be more likely to access the web on a mobile device than a PC, and most of the media we interact with will be digital. This is already causing issues of information overload and credibility.
  2. Innovative teaching. Teachers will need to be more in the mode of creating. Many creators of today’s services like Facebook and Google were students when they began creating their services.
  3. Changing patterns of research and publishing. Open access is a major innovation in digital scholarship. Harvard has committed to open access in faculty publications and has begun to facilitate it for student works as well. It has also launched the Digital Public Library of America project.
  4. Changing roles for libraries and librarians. Even the richest schools in America (like Harvard) do not have increasing library budgets; the best we can hope for is that they will remain flat. We must think about sharing our collections differently. No great library can stand alone any more, so we must be more precise with our acquisition policies and determine what we have that no other library does, which we therefore have an obligation to collect. Likewise we need to aggressively create more content online.

Today’s problems and challenges can be turned into opportunities, especially in areas of information creation, empowerment of individuals. We are in a digital-plus era which is having a profound transition in every field.

Concurrent Sessions

Two of the more interesting concurrent sessions that I attended were on startups and information overload. The startup session featured 6 new entrants into the marketplace and showed that innovation is still alive and well in our industry. It was also of interest because it illustrated some of the more pressing user problems of today.

The 6 companies were:

  • Mendeley: organizes a researcher’s downloaded PDF documents and allows annotations, data extraction and highlighting sections important to the user.
  • Scribd: turns any file into an HTML page and has become the world’s largest reading and sharing website. Text of any document can be made searchable by OCR.
  • SureChem: chemical patent search for scientists allowing searching of structures embedded in the text of patents. A database of 12 million chemical structures from 20 million patents can be integrated with an organization’s internal data for unified searching.
  • Deep Dyve: partners with publishers in the sciences and humanities to create low-cost single-day viewing-only “rental” access to single documents. No printing or downloading is allowed.
  • Recorded Future: built largest temporal index in the world, allowing searching on terms such as “next week” or “last month” by applying natural language processing to unstructured text.
  • Aggregates publicly available regulatory compliance data on hazards to scientists, tracks what they use, and organizes it for safety.

…quiet study places in libraries are becoming a thing of the past because libraries are now becoming community spaces encouraging user interaction … we need to think of overload as a market problem, not just a user problem…

The information overload session was interesting because it analyzed this common problem that besets virtually everyone in today’s information abundant environment. One often hears people complaining about the overload problem, but this session offered some different views of it and suggested some steps toward a solution. Phil Davis, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University described his experiences in writing his Ph.D. dissertation and noted that quiet study places in libraries are becoming a thing of the past because libraries are now becoming community spaces encouraging user interaction. He said that we need to think of overload as a market problem, not just a user problem, and journals can play an important role in signaling quality content. Oliver Goodenough, a Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said that publishers can help users overcome information overload by providing summaries of conclusions, data, and logic, with deeper analysis behind them. Karen Fisher Ratan, Associate Director, Strategic Development at HighWire Press agreed, saying that we have not served users well but have left them to their own devices. Our products are not targeted at them, and there is a wall between users and publishers. She suggested that David Shenk’s book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, is a good reference on information overload. HighWire surveyed 45 researchers at Stanford University who had these recommendations for publishers:

  • Respect the workflow.
  • Productivity is more important than novelty.
  • Produce time-saving tools and information.

Summaries of other sessions are available at The Conference Circuit blog, and speakers’ slides will be added to the SSP website.

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