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Public Work From the Start

Posted in Research on August 7th, 2009 by darcusb – 2 Comments

I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the nature of academic publishing. Just today I had a manuscript accepted for publication in a special issue of a journal that I myself have no access to (!). I hate that ideas I may be working on only get airing either in conference presentations, or after going through the peer-review process, or by informally passing around a manuscript among friends. I hate that the readership of my work is severely constrained by the publishing model that predominates in 2009.

As I’m working on setting up a new source-control and backup system for my academic manuscripts, I’m wondering: why not to put it all in public (say github) repositories? It’s certainly much easier technically. And it can have other benefits if I want comments during the process.

Three obvious arguments against:

First, there’s a long history of researchers treating their work as proprietary. There are entirely rational reasons for this that have to do with the rewards structure of the academy. In short, you don’t get tenure without being able to brand your work, and there is a competition for new ideas, a concern about people borrowing or stealing those ideas, and so forth.

But, I’m not that concerned about this issue. If ideas are public from the start, the digital paper trail is there such that interested parties can fairly easily determine the provenance of ideas.

The second issue is potentially bigger: peer review. If all work is public from the start, then peer review in theory cannot be blind. But maybe this is all the more reason to push on this idea; blind peer review is both overrated, and a bit of a fiction anyway.

The third issue is related to both of the above: the “previously published” standard for publication. Publishers almost without exception demand you assign copyright of your work to them, and part of involves guarantees that it has never been previously published. What does it mean to publish version-controlled draft work on the web, or to blog pieces as you go?

Maybe I ought to just to go all public, and all open access. Hmm …

Ah, the above is obviously related to the much more catchy notion of the open scholar [via DigitalKoans]

RDFa for Scholarship

Posted in Research, Technology on March 26th, 2009 by darcusb – Comments Off

So Jeni Tennison (who once very graciously helped me out awhile back on the XSLT list with trying to wrap my mind around XSLT 2), describes a very intriguing demo of integrating RDFa into web pages that could point to some interesting possibilities for scholarly publishing. So when you load the page, you see this: RDFa example

So what’s going on here? A JQuery-based plug-in is extracting RDF triples from the page, and displaying that information in the panels on the left. That’s cool enough, but consider what happens if you add a note at the bottom of the page that “Erasmus Darwin was Robert Darwin’s father.” You get this confirmation:

RDFa example

So there’s some natural language parsing going on here that converts that into additional triples. These triples then get added to the human-facing display.

RDFa example

Hmm .. I might have to experiment with this when I get some time.

In other RDFa-related news, how cool is it that the new site makes use of RDFa (via John Breslin), or that slideshare does as well (see Ed’s post)?

My University and the Web: Priorities

Posted in Research, Teaching, Technology on March 9th, 2009 by darcusb – 1 Comment

So my last post was outlining some frustrations I’ve been having with my university’s IT infrastructure and decision-making. But an obvious next question might be, what do I see as an alternative, and what do we need to get there? In no particular order, here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. Open standards support can no longer be an optional “nice to have” checklist item among a long list of other items. It has to be a central requirement. Right now, relevant web-related standards include CSS, HTML, XMPP, CalDav, IMAP, Atom, and so forth. Support for these standards means it’s easier to integrate different applications, and to evolve them to meet new needs. This evolution-friendliness includes making it easier to move to other solutions.
  2. In particular for important institution-wide web applications, open source needs to be the norm, and proprietary software, with all its monetary and innovation costs, the exception.
  3. If as an institution we believe in new models of learning that integrate teaching and research, and which put students and inquiry-based learning at the center of what we do, then our technology decisions should reflect that. To wit, while I have no definite technology ideas in mind, I do in general think:
    1. We really need to get away from the straight-jackets presented by dated and course-centered solutions like Blackboard. These present severe limitations on what we can do in the classroom (and beyond).
    2. As an alternative, I am really intrigued by student-centered social networking software like Elgg. I’m also encouraged that open source LMSs like Sakai are working on integrating similar kinds of functionality (see, for example, the whitepaper for Sakai 3 [pdf]).
    3. This learner-centered social-networking model probably ought not be limited to undergraduate education, but rather leave room for a more comprehensive online community that really reflects the connections across fields of learning and scholarship, as well as breaks down the barriers between undergraduate and graduate teaching and faculty research.
    4. A university-wide website redesign and CMS has to be built for all of this from the beginning; not added as an after-thought. In short, our web presence needs to be built on a foundation that is as dynamic and flexible as is learning and research in the 21st century. Old-school CMSes are not.

My University and the Web: Present

Posted in Research, Teaching, Technology on March 8th, 2009 by darcusb – 6 Comments

Last week, I attended an IT strategy council meeting, which included among the topics of discussion an update on the forthcoming university website redesign, and another on the place of open source software at the university. I was at this meeting primarily for the latter discussion, after having been recently asking a simple question, and not hearing an entirely satisfactory answer:

What is the role of open source software and open standards at this institution?
I was prompted to ask this question as a result of a confluence of three quite concrete frustrations that boiled over last term.

First, I (belatedly) heard of Miami’s move to a fully proprietary calendaring and email stack (MS Exchange). Despite all the obvious marketing hype surrounding buzzwords like “unified communications” and such, I knew this move really meant one thing: the institution was hitching its communications fate to a solution that would only work as promised for those users who—whether by choice or some compulsion—used Microsoft products. So without going into all the details, let’s just say I voted with my virtual feet: I effectively boycotted the new system, and now forward all my mail to GMail, which has a (much) better web client, and better IMAP support. Likewise, with its support of CalDav, Google’s calendar application has much better standard’s compliance than Microsoft’s. In short, then, Google’s standards-based solution works better for me than Microsoft’s closed one.

Second, my students and I became increasingly and painfully aware of just how bad our Learning Management System (LMS)—Blackboard—is. One immediate issue was online quizzes, which I had been using as a weekly way of assessment for students. But because of how poorly Blackboard is designed, transferring quizzes and tests across course semesters is both a) really awkward, and b) buggy. For this reason, I had to delay rolling out these quizzes in my large-enrollment class for roughly a month. And this was despite the fact that Blackboard had known of this bug for months.

So this semester, I’ve ditched the quizzes, and I’ve continued off-loading as much of my web content as possible outside of Blackboard. My syllabus is a separate XHTML file, that in turn links to other XHTML files for weekly assignments. My slides are all available online as well (though currently authenticated), again as XHTML files. In short, virtually everything is online, but the only thing I use Blackboard for is the gradebook, and course announcements.

Another issue presented itself in another lower-level class. This course is called Global Change, is team-taught, and focuses on learning about the breadth of geography through analysis of contemporary issues: climate change, urbanization, water, etc. My colleague and I had been frustrated with the consistency and quality of participation we were getting from students that were coming from increasingly diverse disciplinary backgrounds. So, we decided, let’s shift towards a group learning approach where the students drive much more of the content, and can collaborate on learning. The students, for example, gathered the majority of the topical readings for each module. But how to do facilitate this in Blackboard? Our awkward answer was to use the very awkward Blackboard blogging module. While we all saw great promise in the approach, we also felt held back by the limitations of the LMS.

So Blackboard sucks and I’m asking myself, why are we continuing to invest in this software?

The third issue that contributed to my pushing on this issue is my taking over as the director of graduate studies for my department. One of my jobs is to recruit good students. The most important way students find out about our program is through our departmental website. But our departmental web presence sucks because it’s too difficult for people to update content. What content should we be keeping up to date? Well, everything we do: the classes we teach, the works we publish and present, the research projects we’re working on, the students we work with. Ideally, we could easily keep this content updated, and it could in turn filter to the wider university. For example, if we publish information about a talk in our department, other people elsewhere in the university that might be interested in it should be able to be automatically notified.

There’s really no simple way to make this happen at my university. But thankfully the IT people here are reasonable, and so agreed to set up Drupal for us. I had them install some additional plugins such as for bibliographic management. I ultimately want something like this site, which isn’t really that hard to do with Drupal (notwithstanding that I’m really not a fan of PHP).

On the other hand, we have no real infrastructure on campus to make this easy. For example. there are no (good) university themes for Drupal. Instead, every new installation has to either hire some contractor to create one, or do the work themselves (as I am). This is really not good. It’s just too hard to create a decent web presence for an individual department or program. Yes, the IT people are very helpful, but they’re also overextended. Someone needs to give them the resources they need to make it easier on all of us, and so to promote the university’s mission better, and save money while doing it.

But, this issue goes back to the website redesign. Long story short: it seems a fait acompli the university will adopt a proprietary CMS. While I can imagine such a platform may well work for university level marketing and such, I have a really hard time envisioning how it would enable what we need at the department level. I also find is really hard to imagine how such a CMS will integrate in anything but very awkward ways with the learning that happens in classrooms and laboratories around campus.

So this is where things stand now, and I’m not terribly optimistic. My university has already made an expensive and multi-year investment in a proprietary email and calendaring system, and is about to make a similar investment in a proprietary CMS. These kinds of decisions will limit our flexibility going forward.

But the conversations will be ongoing, and there’s enough interest among forward-thinking people here to imagine that there may be room for exploration. I’ve got some ideas on this that I may explore in a future post.

Why Book Reviews?

Posted in Research on January 30th, 2009 by darcusb – 3 Comments

As I’m wrapping up another book review to submit to a publisher, I’m left wondering: why do we still do this? Consider that traditional academic book reviews:

  1. are not valued in promotion and tenure
  2. are limited in volume by the constraints of traditional publishing, and so many books do not get reviewed (I won a book award for my first book, but I’ve still yet to see it reviewed in a journal)
  3. have a limited potential readership (as an example, I don’t have access to the journal that I am submitting this latest review to!)
  4. assume authoritative expert opinion, but really just reflect one reader’s partial opinion, and leave no room for a broader conversation (except in rare cases)

In all kinds of ways, then, the practice of academic book review is profoundly limited. So why do we bother? What might be the implications if we all decided to boycott the practice, and instead encouraged a culture of blogging our thoughts on new books?