'A truly exciting time'

Share this on social media:

Danny Kingsley, deputy director at Cambridge University Library, looks back at her early days at Australian National University – and forward to the many challenges facing librarians

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications?

 In 1995 I chose, in my honours year of a degree in science and technology studies, to look at how researchers were responding to these newfangled things called ‘online journals’. For your younger readers, 1995 was the year the World Wide Web came to life. At the time this was such a new area I was struggling to find references for my literature review. 

I worked for a decade as a science journalist (more on that later) and then in 2003 some press releases started coming across my desk about something called ‘open access’. Not surprisingly, given the term was only newly minted, I had not heard of open access, but I did recognise the names of some of the people involved as being those I had referenced in my honours thesis. So I decided the time was right to get back in the game and applied to Australian National University (ANU) to do a PhD.

My PhD looked at why researchers overwhelmingly said that open access was a good idea, yet only 10 to 15 per cent of research was openly available. My findings (spoiler alert) were that disciplinary differences are incredibly important and that whatever solution you offer to the research community will need to be easy to use, not the risk status quo and demonstrate clear improvement to, and greater benefit than, the current system. (I’m not sure we have cracked that, by the way.)

In my empirical research I interviewed researchers at ANU and at University of NSW. The difference between them was that at the time ANU had a repository of over a decade’s standing, and UNSW had not yet launched their repository. However when I spoke to people at ANU they were almost all unaware of the repository. 

This set off alarm bells, and I started agitating amongst the senior executive of ANU that the institution was at risk of losing its reputation as a leader in this area. On graduation I was awarded with a new position ‘to fix it’. After four years of developing policy and upgrading and relaunching the repository, I moved to establish the Australian Open Access Support Group (now the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group) to provide advocacy and advice on open access across the sector. And now I am at Cambridge.

My past few positions have been ones that did not exist before I started. This reflects the fast moving pace of the area of scholarly communication. So I have been in ‘start-up’ mode for over a decade.

How does the rarified atmosphere at Cambridge University Library compare with your time at the Australian National University?

In many ways the experience is not that different, surprisingly. 

No matter how much all higher education research intensive institutions like to think they are unique, there is a strong thread of similarity between them. In all positions that require pushing a change agenda through, it is a matter of understanding the governance structures and ensuring you are able to communicate clearly to those people who are in a position to make decisions. It is also important to understand the concerns and anxieties of those people who will be affected by the changes. 

The policy landscape is different in the UK because of the ‘Finch effect’ and there is a significant difference in scale in terms of the volume of material my team is processing and making available, but there are many parallels between the positions. Both institutions were what was described as ‘test bed institutions’ for DSpace in the early 2000’s, and in both cases there had been a great deal of initial work followed by some years of neglect, so the job to get things moving again was very familiar when I arrived. I have also repeated the legacy theses programme I undertook at ANU here. 

What I have very much appreciated at Cambridge, particularly in the first couple of years, was that I was able to simply get on with the job. I have been able to share openly with our community our successes and the areas where we learned through experiment. One of the advantages of working at Cambridge has been that it provides a huge stage: rightly or wrongly, what happens at Cambridge is big news. So we have been able to accelerate progress across the sector by acting openly, transparently and inclusively.

As it happens the same week as I am doing this interview I presented a keynote to a meeting of the Australian equivalent of UK Council of Research Repositories (http://ukcorr.org/), the CAUL Australasian Institutional Repository Support Service. In it I described some of the differences between working in scholarly communication here and there. 

Despite a slight cultural cringe in Australia that ‘everything must be better over there’, in reality Australia has been ahead of the game in many areas of scholarly communication. The now very mature Research Data Australia service is still the only significant example world-wide of a central register for research datasets, while in the UK we are still exploring beta versions. ANU Press, a fully open access university press, is celebrating its 15th year; Australia has had a digital thesis programme for 20 years, whereas EThOS started in 2009.

Of course there are very obvious differences. Canberra recently celebrated 100 years since the first sod was turned on the new capital city but nowadays I regularly work in buildings that are centuries old. And the weather is a huge difference between the two experiences. Calling a 30 degree day a ‘heatwave’ is laughable to an Australian, but I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see snow! 

Can you explain exactly how the Library works to enhance scholarly communications across Cambridge University?

The Office of Scholarly Communication sits within the Cambridge University Libraries network. It consists of a team of 18 people who are highly specialised and trained in all aspects of scholarly communication. The nine strong open access team process more than 1,000 articles a month into our institutional repository, and answer thousands of queries from our research community. Our Research Data Management Facility assists researchers with Research Data Management Plans, provides policy advice, manages data deposits to the repository and runs the highly successful Data Champions programme. 

We have a great technical team that not only runs the repository but also has managed to integrate the repository with the University’s CHRIS system and provides advice to the University about infrastructure needs. 

The remaining team members manage our new digital thesis policy, provide training to the library and research community on scholarly communication matters, and runs a strong outreach and engagement programme both within and external to the university community. They all do this in a highly volatile and fast changing policy landscape that they need to stay abreast of. The University’s Research Excellence Framework return is dependent on the open accessibility of the papers put forward for consideration. That’s a big responsibility. 

You have spent a lot of time on advocating the use of 'plain English' in science communication. What's the thinking behind this?

As I mentioned before, I used to be a science journalist. That is a job of translation, interpreting and explaining what is interesting and relevant about research findings. Let’s face it, most published research is written in impenetrable language. It is astonishing to think that at the turn of the last century the readability of academic articles was equivalent to that of the New York Times. That is not the case today. The (serious) book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences explains many of the reasons why it has come to this.

It is something of a bugbear of mine that making papers open access alone is not necessarily opening up research to the public. I appreciate there is a necessity to use specific language and jargon within certain disciplines because of accuracy and shorthand. But when communicating with those outside the immediate research discipline, it is important to explain concepts and ideas in an understandable way. Indeed I argue that the ability to do so forces a clarity of understanding within the person doing the explaining.

What's the biggest issue facing university librarians (in Cambridge and elsewhere) at the moment?

The nature of the academic library is changing dramatically. When we look at who is using the Digital Library at Cambridge and who is accessing our research held in the institutional repository Apollo, in both cases only 15 per cent of accesses come from within the UK (let alone Cambridge). This is becoming a global endeavour. So academic libraries are moving from purchasers and gatekeepers of information to a closed community, to an environment where the role is to collect the research output of the institution and share it with the world.

That’s exciting and frightening in equal measures of course. There is a risk, if libraries do not meet this challenge front on, that they become increasingly irrelevant. Many people in the research environment are already unaware of the library services they use – saying things like ‘I never use the library’ when of course they do on a daily basis when accessing subscription material. This reflects a job well done in terms of enabling access to material but can pose a problem when arguing for funding. 

But, on the positive side, the significant focus on open access and, increasingly, open research, potentially puts the library once more at the heart of the institution, driving innovation and ideas. So chose which way you want to go. I personally think it is a truly exciting time.

Interview by Tim Gillett