Openness should 'go deep'

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Brian Kelly of the UK Web Focus challenges the higher-education community to go beyond open access to published research in the pursuit of openness

Open data is the new buzzword of governments around the world. This June the Thai government announced its new open data portal, the second Asian country to go down that route after the launch of Data.One in Hong Kong in March. The Thailand site can help you access information from a number of government agencies and through it you can request additional datasets, as well as comment on the discussion forum.

Exposing government data to the public gaze, the argument goes, helps identify problems and strengthens that data. Openness as a strategic goal shows an organisation’s commitment to transparency and public engagement. The same goes for a university or research organisation – where there are great stories to tell, if only we’ll open up the data to tell that story. Meanwhile other big press stories about the mismanagement of freedom of information requests show what happens when a university – or any other organisation for that matter – is even in the least bit defensive about their data, for whatever reason. There’s an assumption that you have something to hide, which can be dangerous.

It’s a fairly well-used truism to say that the best things that can be done with your data will be done by other people. In the UK we have a fairly well-established approach to open access but we need to look behind that at the evidence we use as the basis for that research. We need to take responsibility for what we are publishing, at all levels.

For example, a repository manager might be promoting the benefits of open access to their researchers on a daily basis by encouraging them to input into an open-access repository, or target papers at open-access publications. But their arguments will be undermined if they fail to publish the very data that is under their control. Repository managers have a clear need to understand usage patterns and how their resources can be reused. Since repositories are also closely linked with the open-access agenda it would seem to be self evident that administrative data about the process of administering the papers should also be published openly.

In 2008 Southampton University was among the first universities in the UK to require all academic staff to make all their published research available online to maximise its visibility and impact. Like Cardiff and Glasgow, Southampton University now also provides information on the file formats used in its repository, so a better picture across this sector can be obtained.

The evidence of a survey of repositories hosted by Russell Group universities (a group of universities in the UK) shows that the most popular file format is PDF, with only small numbers of papers deposited in their original format (such as Microsoft Word) or in a more structure open format such as HTML. The data and subsequent discussions have highlighted the tensions between the simplicity in depositing PDF files, concerns regarding depositing proprietary master formats such as Word and the difficulties in creating more open and reusable formats such as HTML.

This kind of information can help to inform existing practices and policies for repository managers, such as whether policies on preservation on the original format for resources are being implemented. The evidence can also inform strategies for future development work such as development of Scholarly HTML as a more appropriate format for use in repositories and the need to ensure that easy-to-use workflow systems are available to minimise difficulties in depositing items.

For over 10 years UKOLN, a JISC-funded Innovation Support Centre based at the University of Bath, has been promoting openness in higher education in the UK through open standards, open-source software, and open content.

The higher-education sector has benefited from the investment and associated success that you get at a time of growth but now it’s a time of financial uncertainty for research. What worked in times of growth may not be the same for the leaner ones. Pressures may result in cultural change. But our sector is unique. In UK universities at least, researchers’ loyalty tends to be towards their discipline first and their institution second. Many practitioners have what I would consider to be fairly public-sector values – where research is seen as a common good, rather than a private pursuit. We can only hope that those values will continue, and with them the culture of openness that they bring.

Brian Kelly is based at UKOLN at the University of Bath, a research organisation that aims to inform practice and influence policy in the areas of: digital libraries, information systems, bibliographic management, and web technologies