Sunday, April 29, 2012

OA not just for institutionalised scientists

On the Global Open Access List, an email list, a thread has developed on 'Open Access Priorities: Peer Access and Public Access'. Of course, true open access means access both for peers (meaning fellow-scientists, in this case, not just members of the UK House of Lords) and for the general public at large, so the discussion is really about what is more important and what is the more persuasive argument to get research scientists to make their publications available with open access. And should that argument mainly be quasi-legal, in the form of institutional mandates.

My view is this:

Is it not so that when there is no wide cultural or societal support for whatever law or mandate, more effort is generally being spent on evasion than on compliance and enforcement turns out to be like mopping up with the tap still running? If one should be taking examples from US politics, the 'war on drugs' is the one to look at.

Forcing scientists into open access via mandates and the like is only ever likely to be truly successful if it is rooted in an already changing culture. An academic culture with an expectation that research results are openly available to all. By the shame that researchers will be made to feel in the lab, at dinner parties, or in the pub, if their results are not published with open access. Of course that will still be mainly peer-pressure, but changing hearts and minds of peers is greatly helped if there were a societal substrate in which the open culture can grow. Mandates or not, OA will never happen if scientists aren't convinced from within. An appeal to them as human beings and members of society is more likely to achieve that than mandates, in my view. The latter should back up a general change of heart, not be a substitute for it.

What is 'the general public' should not be misunderstood and be construed to be only those interested in medical literature. It includes all those interested in the other 999 areas as well. Ex scientists, retired scientists, start-ups and SMEs, scientists interested in another discipline or cross-discipline topics, students, lawyers, reporters, teachers, even hobbyists. Einstein wasn't an institutionalised scientist when he worked on his most important work; he was a patent clerk.

Of course, those OA evangelists who wish to pursue mandates should be pursuing mandates. I encourage them to keep doing just that. But to narrow the efforts of OA evangelism to what is stubbornly being called "the quickest route", in spite of it being no more than a hypothesis which
certainly over the last decade and a half hasn't proved itself to be as effective as first thought, is a mistake.

By all means where there are opportunities to promote mandates let us do that, but not at the expense of making the moral and societal responsibility case for OA.

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

'Enriching' Open Access articles

I've been asked what the relevance is of my previous post to Open Access. The relevance of Utopia Documents to Open Access may not be immediately clear, but it is certainly there. Though Utopia Documents doesn't make articles open that aren't, it provides 'article-of-the-future-like' functionality for any PDFs, OA or not. It opens them up in terms of Web connectivity, as it were, and it is completely publisher-independent. So PDFs in open repositories – even informal, author-manuscript ones – and from small OA publishers can have the same type of functionality that hitherto only larger publishers could afford to provide, and then only for HTML versions of articles.

PDFs are often getting a bad press, as you probably know, yet according to statistics from many publishers, PDFs still represent by far the largest share of scientific article downloads. PDFs have great advantages, but until now, also disadvantages relative to HTML versions, particularly with regard to the latter's Web connectedness (this – open – article is worth reading: This digital divide, however, has now been bridged! The Utopia Documents PDF-viewer is built around the concept of connecting hitherto static PDFs to the Web, and it bridges the 'linkability gap' between HTML and PDF, making the latter just as easily connected to whatever the Internet has on offer as the former (as long as you are online, of course).

The new – wholly renewed – version (2.0) of the Utopia Documents scientific PDF-viewer has now been released. It is free and downloads are currently available for Mac and Windows (and a Linux version is expected soon). Version 2.0 automatically shows Altmetrics (see how the article is doing), Mendeley (see related articles available there), Sherpa/RoMEO (check its open archiving status), etcetera, and connects directly to many more scientific and laboratory information resources on the Web, straight from the PDF.

Utopia Documents allows you, if you so wish, to experience dynamically enriched scientific articles. Articles from whichever publisher or OA repository, since Utopia Documents is completely publisher-independent, providing enrichment for any modern PDF*, even 'informal' ones made by authors of their manuscript (e.g. via 'Save as PDF') and deposited in institutional repositories.

'Enrichment' means, among other things, easy Web connectivity, directly from highlighted text in the PDF, to an ever-expanding variety of data sources and scientific information and search tools. It also means the possibility to extract any tables into a spreadsheet format, and a 'toggle' that converts numerical tables into easy-to-read scatter plots. It means up-to-date Altmetrics, whenever available, that let you see how articles are doing. It means a comments function that lets you carry out relevant discussions that stay right with the paper, rather than necessarily having to go off onto a blog somewhere. It means being able to quickly flick through the images and illustrations in an article. It means that existing PDFs from whatever source are 'converted', as it were, on-the-fly, to what some publishers call 'articles of the future'. (The original PDF is in no way altered; the 'conversion' is virtual).

With Utopia Documents, publishers, repositories, libraries, even individuals with PDFs on their personal sites, can offer enriched scientific articles just by encouraging their users to read PDFs with the free Utopia Documents PDF-viewer, and so get more out of the scientific literature at hand than would otherwise be possible. Utopia Documents is indeed truly free, and not even registration is needed (except for adding comments).

Utopia Documents is usable in all scientific disciplines, but its default specialist web resources are currently optimised for the biomedical/biochemical spectrum.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Pee Dee Effing Brilliant

Are you a scientist or student? Life sciences? Do you ever read research literature in PDF format?

Did it ever occur to you that it might be useful, or at least convenient, if scientific articles in PDF format were a bit more 'connected' to the rest of the web? And would enable you, for instance, directly from the text, to:
  • look up more information about a term or phrase you're encountering (e..g a gene, a protein, etc.)
  • look up the latest related articles (e.g. in PubMed, Mendeley)
  • see, in real time, how the article is doing (Altmetrics)
  • search (NCBI databases, protein databases, Google, Wikipedia, Quertle, etc.)
  • share comments with fellow researchers
Well, all of that – and much more – is now possible. All you have to do is view your PDFs in the new Utopia Documents.

Utopia Documents has been developed by researchers from the University of Manchester, is completely free, and available for Mac, Windows and Linux. It works with all PDFs* irrespective of their origin**.

I invite you – urge you – to try it out, tell your colleagues and friends, and ask them to tell theirs. And tweet and blog about it. Registration is not necessary, except if you want to make use of the public 'comment' function. Feedback is highly appreciated. Either as a comment on this blog, or directly to the Utopia crew. And testimonials, too, obviously.

Disclosure: I work with these guys. A lot. They are brilliant and yet pragmatic. Driven by a desire to make life easier for scientists and students alike.

*With the exception of bitmap-only PDFs (scans)
**From any publisher, and even including 'informal' PDFs as can be found in repositories, or those that you have created yourself from a manuscript written in Word, for instance