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Experts unite to debate international developments in research

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International advances in digital scholarship was the theme of the joint conference hosted in July by Jisc and the Coalition for Networked Education (CNI) – a US organisation supporting digital technology in scholarly communication – at the prestigious Wadham College, University of Oxford. Rachel Bruce discusses the key themes

For the last 20 years or so we’ve been collaborating with CNI to explore how digital scholarship and the use of technology in research and learning is progressing in the UK and US and where we share common themes in order to explore areas where we can work more closely together and with other countries and share approaches.

Since the 1990s the highlight of our partnership has been a biennial conference. Our most recent event took place in July in Oxford –and it focused on digital scholarship including open access, new forms of research and ways in which to better access, manage and use research via the use of digital traces, analytics and emerging shared standards and services. Renowned sector experts and thought leaders from across the UK, US and Europe came together to debate the biggest opportunities, and in some cases challenges we face with regards to research and the digital environment. There was a rich exchange with academics, policy makers and senior managers sharing best and innovative practice, across borders and boundaries.

Understandably coming so soon after the EU Referendum, Brexit came up in many discussions. Pleasingly, the resounding feeling was that regardless of the result, this cannot, and should not, impede important research collaborations. Instead, we need to prioritise thinking globally over thinking insularly, and quickly establish new patterns in higher education and research that support this agenda.

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt opened the conference with a stimulating keynote focused on open data of all kinds, from that in research to government data to cultural heritage. He highlighted the power of a shared vocabulary around data with regards to a spectrum from closed, to shared, to open and how that means moving from internal access within an organisation to public access for all. Without a shared vocabulary the many stakeholders engaged in developing data re-use will be at crossed purposes and this will hinder progress.

He demonstrated the power of open data to support creative innovation – such as the $965 billion of value from the human genome project by engendering huge leap forwards in genomics – but also the increasing pressure on the sector to store and manage data as we shift from scarcity to abundance.

Sir Nigel gave us the first mention of the Bronobyte, a unit of data featuring trillions of zeros and comparable to approximately 1,000 Y0ttabytes. Such a term didn’t exist until recently, and is indicative of just how ‘big’ our big data is getting. We need to make sure that the research systems and infrastructure we put in place anticipate and outpace these requirements.

The conference also gave us a good opportunity to reflect on what we are doing well in the UK, and at Jisc. On the topic of research data management we were able to share our approach and there was much interest in the research data shared service that we are developing at Jisc in partnership with a range universities and colleges.  This end-to-end service is responding to funder requirements for compliance with open research data policies, the need to enable good practices in research data management and create efficiencies.

The service we’re designing and procuring will support the whole research lifecycle, from managing active research (including the curation, retention and storage of data and metadata), through to publication and long-term preservation – something where there is currently a market gap, in response to funders expecting research data to be accessible for at least ten years after last use.

While still at an early stage, the feedback from the event was highly encouragingly, with many reiterating the need for such a service, both in the UK and abroad.  – David Rosenthal of Stanford University shared his own update on emulation and preservation strategies, which I would urge you to read. He proposed that strategies for managing digital data will change over the next decade and we will move from migration as the key preservation strategy to one of emulation.

Of course open access (OA) to research papers featured high on the agenda, with consensus being that the UK is making great strides – although this does raise its own challenges, particularly around offsetting the cost of the transition to OA, with institutions having to balance paying article processing charges (APC) to publish in hybrid journals, whilst still paying for subscriptions for those journals.  In the US, the Mellon-funded “Pay It Forward” project has modelled these financial issues, although the use of APCs is, so far, less common there.  A range of approaches is still emerging, from the Pay It Forward project, from Jisc (through its agreement with Springer on a “flipped” model), and from elsewhere, to address this challenge.

While the next conference with CNI is likely not to be until 2018, that doesn’t mean collaboration has stopped. We will continue to liaise regularly with CNI and share practice, and there were many very real and tangible connections made on new work and practical exchange, for example on researcher data and software skills and the development, maintenance and recognition and reward of these in order to support digital scholarship and new forms of far reaching research. There will also be a report released in the autumn drawing out and going into detail on key discussions from the event. Look out for an update.

Rachel Bruce is deputy chief innovation officer at Jisc