STM Innovations Notes

Last week I gave a talk at the annual STM innovations seminar. It was a hugely enjoyable event. Kudos to Geoff for arranging an excellent line-up. I thought I’d post some thoughts/comments based on my impressions of the day.

The first speaker was Allen Renear who introduced the audience to the changing ways in which scholars are interacting with the research literature. Studies have shown that while the number of papers that researchers are viewing is increasing, the amount of time spent actually searching is remaining constant. In short, researchers are reading less.
Renear argued that having to stop to actually read a document is far from the most ideal way to extract the information it contains. Renear noted that the vision of a more interactive scholarly corpus has been around, well, since the early days of hypertext, but remained confident that progress was happening.
In support of Renear’s argument, at several recent publishing events I’v heard the phrase “data mining” more times than I care to recall. Researchers seem to be increasingly aware of the information locked in scholarly literature, the need for interaction tools, and the importance of access to the primary research data. Semantic Web technologies and ontologies are a key part of this movement.
The next speaker was Dorothea Salo. I’ve been following Dorothea’s blog for a while and had been looking forward to meeting her. She gave an excellent talk, suggesting, from a librarian’s perspective, how publishers may continue to add value and support scholarly research even in the face of the growing Open Access movement.
The main thrust of Salo’s argument was that publishers and scholarly societies have a role in supporting and encouraging the social aspects of research. Salo looked at the early days of scientific publishing, the Royal Society and the birth of the “learned journal” (i.e. the Transactions) and suggested that publishing return to its roots and recognise the importance of forms of scholarly communication that has increasingly moved into conferences, blogs, and other forums outside the bounds of the journal.
Next up was my talk. I’ll post a longer description of that another time. But to summarise my main thesis was that by looking at early hypertext applications we can see what features the Web eschewed in order for it to be successful, and from there look at how current web trends (open data, extensible browsers) are allowing the Web to be upgraded to fit with this original vision.
Wikipedia is a hot topic with publishers as they see the rise of free, user created reference sources as a threat to their business. The whole debate about Wikipedia and its usefulness, trustworthiness, and process is complex and increasingly polarised. Jason Scott gave a very engaging, passionate, and funny talk about Wikipedia and its quirks.
Scott has been observing Wikipedians for some time and had lots of interesting anecdotes about pathological behaviour in that community, as well as an interesting perspective of Wikipedia as a whole. Jason is an interesting chap, and explained over dinner how he’d been using the time spent in London to invite people for a documentary is making on text adventures; his previous documentary was about Bulletin Boards.
Last speaker of the day was Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext. I was glad that Ted wasn’t there earlier in the day to here my talk as he’d have loudly disagreed with every word. In fact Ted seems to disagree with everything and everybody! His talk was interesting and he’s an engaging speaker. His thoughts on hypertext, the failings of the Web, and the short comings of modern computing platforms, are well documented and he re-iterated many of these in his talk, starting from the invention of the hierarchical file system.
He gave some interesting demos of the latest incarnation of his Xanadu concept. This was essentially a 3D information space that allows users to navigate through and around documents, visualizing the hyperlinks between them. The software supports micropayments as a model for allowing reuse of content between authors; this is part of Nelson’s transcopyright idea.
While the demo (technical difficulties aside) was intriguing I failed to see the value in Nelson’s vision, particularly as that involves rejecting the web as we known it as buying into what appears to be a proprietary platform. I was more struck by his overall bitterness about the disparity between his vision for hypertext environments, and the current Web, this is despite the fact that his work has undeniably had a huge impact on the state of the Web. Seems a shame. He’s quite a character though, and I’m glad I had chance to meet him.
Overall the event was a hugely enjoyable day consisting of an interesting and eclectic mix of speakers. I hope the event I’m chairing next year goes that well!