v31 #3 Back Talk — I Love Fiesole in the Springtime

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments


Column Editor:  Jim O’Donnell  (University Librarian, Arizona State University)  

Did you ever have to translate Cicero’s speech attacking Catiline when you were in high school?  Then you have one reason to go Fiesole, perched on a ridge just outside Florence, because that’s where Roman soldiers hunted Catiline down and did him and his fellow rebels to death.  I’m a Latin professor, so that’s reason enough for me.

But there are lots of other reasons to head that way (the food, wine, paintings, wine, food — and the gelato!), but especially for Charleston Conference goers and their friends.  Fiesole is the home of Casalini Libri, under the leadership of Michele and Barbara Casalini, in the steps of their father Mario, who founded the firm 60 years ago.  Since 1999, Casalini has sponsored the Fiesole Retreats, now led by the redoubtable Becky Lenzini.  Every year, in some town or other (Fiesole itself about once in four years), Becky and colleagues bring together a rich assortment of librarians, policymakers, publishers, and others interested in the food chain of library collection development for three days of substantive presentations and rich discussion with just enough excellent food and drink to keep participants replete but still able to sustain the conversation!

This was a Fiesole year, with sessions held at the European University Institute, a short ride into tranquility from the madness of tourist-whelmed Florence.  A Back Talk column can’t do justice to the whole event and happily the presentations from it are all on the web (http://www.casalini.it/retreat/retreat_2019.asp).  But a few things that really struck me are worth mentioning.

Easily the most impressive single presentation was that of Jean-Claude Burgelman, head of open science in the research/innovation office of the European UnionBurgelman is an accomplished scholar in the area of information technology policy and has long experience in the intricacies of these issues.  His presentation (http://www.casalini.it/retreat/web_content/2019/presentations/burgelman.pdf — thirteen slides and well worth a reflective reading) was the most interesting, sane, and (to use one of his words) holistic look at what it takes to make science truly open that I have ever heard.  “Open Access” is shorthand for a complicated piece of the whole task, and Burgelman made clear both the broad range of issues and the urgency of researchers and their supporters taking advantage of this moment to gain control over essential elements of the research enterprise.   In the same spirit as Burgelman, Piero Attanasio of the Italian Publishers Association, emphasized the business that will be unfinished when the “Open Access” war is over.  

A variety of publishers and vendors with different experiences reported their experiences, and Ann Okerson convened a panel with a sobering set of stories.  Jasmine Lange, chief publishing officer of Brill, described a successful publishing firm with success (on a limited scale) of open access monograph publishing (the “BPC” — an acronym new to me for Book Processing Charge — runs to €8500 for front list titles), but much weaker OA success in the range of journals they publish in the humanities and social sciences (HSS for short, to contrast with STM).  Simon Ross of Manchester University discussed their HSS open book project, barely breaking even, while Natasha Mellins-Cohen, journals publisher for the Microbiology Society (UK), had the most concerning report to make.  Scholarly and scientific societies have an important role to play in impeccably peer-reviewed journal publishing, but they also depend openly on their publishing revenues to sustain activities of their societies — in the Microbiology Society’s case everything from day care at conferences to grants for young researchers — and they do not see, especially under the gun as they will be of Plan S as it rolls out, how to make an immediate and painless transition to full and immediate open access without crippling the business model for their society.  It would be hard to say whether the publishing or the other activities are more central to the society’s raison d’être. Clearly we have made much progress toward an open world, but significant challenges remain.

These discussions are what everyone coming to Fiesole expected, and I was taken with bookends to the three days that raised my sights.  Mike Keller of Stanford opened a pre-conference day devoted to the technological future, with sessions on artificial intelligence and on linked data.  For AI, Roger Jøsevold of the National Library of Norway and Ruggero Gramatica of Yewno raised the curtain on near-term possibilities in collection management and in discovery in ways that seemed more grounded and realistic than the more breathless journalistic imaginings of the future.  Then, at the end of the second day, the estimable David Worlock, at once a failed pig farmer, a longtime senior wizard at Outsell, and now consiglieri to enterprises like Knowledge Unlatched, was asked to lead a discussion of the conference so far, and he ignited an impassioned conversation.  He faulted all the conference participants for thinking too small, too near-term. This is a world, he said, in which new technology appears abruptly and disrupts existing structures dramatically.  What technology rock is getting ready to thud into our pond? Shouldn’t we be thinking proactively in that direction as well? Of those present, it was perhaps Stephen Rhind-Tutt, founder of Alexander Street Press, who had the perspective of experience to describe the buffeting effects of the market on innovation.  It was the kind of conversation that cannot be replicated on paper, and that makes the demands and costs of travel to participate in one of these gatherings worthwhile.

Then it fell to me to do closing remarks at the end of the session.  I tried to take David’s cautions to heart, and so I left the gathering with a thought experiment that I’ll pose here, hoping to use my Back Talk to get some backtalk!

Imagine, I posited, that it’s 25 years from now.  Technology has advanced. You are a citizen of Fiesole doing a classics dissertation in the University of Florence on old Catiline himself.  You’ve gathered and screened all the information you can find that seems relevant, fed it to your computer, and now you sit looking at your screen where a shimmering button appears:  one simple button with the word “dissertation” on it. You click on the button, hop over to check Retinalscanbook (the next generation of social media), and come back in five minutes to find on your screen the 350 page PDF (we’re still using that format after 25 years, so why not after another 25?) of what is undeniably a dissertation on Catiline, entirely produced and written by the artificial intelligence system in your computer.  (For reference, we had all just been reading of the AI-written bibliographical survey of lithium battery technology that was in all the papers that week.)

First question:  should the University of Florence accept that dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of doctor of philosophy?  And award the degree to you, the person who assembled and screened all the sources and clicked on the button? If not, why not?

OK, second question:  when the dissertation appeared on your screen, there was another button that offered to extract from the dissertation two independently publishable scholarly articles, because (after all) it’s good for your career to publish early and often.  I took a show of hands here around the room from people with some involvement in journal publishing. Would your journal, I asked them, accept those articles? About 40% said yes, a couple of people said no, and another healthy handful expressed firm uncertainty.  You see, the degree is supposed to be about a person, so it can be a real question whether a person deserves a degree for what a machine did. But an article is supposed to be about the content of the article. Why should you, oh journal editor of the future, care how it came into existence, as long as it is a serious contribution, properly footnoted, and not plagiarized?

I’ll be back in twenty-five years to see what ATG readers think.  



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