Remember December?
We held the first event in our new Ingenta Trends seminar series. The venue was Shakespeare's Globe theatre, on the banks of the river Thames in London. The session we held there was designed to communicate the latest developments in information industry technology to selected publishing industry executives. I made copious notes, which I will share with you in a series of postings over the next few days. First up is a review of the session by our own Chief Technology Officer, Leigh Dodds, entitled "Authoritative? What's that? And who says?"




Sated by lunch or fascinated by the topic? For whatever reason, you could have heard a pin drop among our audience as Leigh Dodds reviewed the ways in which we ascribe authority to content, explored the potential for crossover between traditional peer review and emerging Web 2.0 systems, and considered whether we can make processes more visible to end users.

The massive amounts of information available both through conventional publishing channels and on the web make it difficult for users to find reliable information. Particularly disturbing for publishers is that users are, ultimately, more concerned with finding an answer to their question than with issues of authority. Furthermore, users often have a very different understanding of authority to publishers; consider, on the one hand, the widely-accepted Google model wherein subjective measures of popularity and relevance are a proxy for authority, and on the other, publishers’ expectation that authority denotes submission to, and acceptance by, a formal process.

Despite the well-documented cases of abuse in the last year, editorial control – and particularly peer review – remains the most effective way to filter research output ensuring that published content is the most relevant, interesting and authoritative in its field. However, this formal publishing process is subject to pressures including the costs of filtering ultimately unsuitable content (average turnaways are 80%); the time it can take for content to undergo the process; and the constant need for the new material which attracts most usage.

Web 2 publishing certainly reduces the time-to-market as the majority of processes take place post-publication. User-generated sites such as Wikipedia certainly benefit from the speed and simplicity with which pages can be created, reviewed and edited - but even Wikipedia itself does not describe the content delivered through such "creative anarchy" as authoritative. Its creator attempted to deal with some of its infamous problems in the business model for second-attempt Citizendium - which only allows editing by registered users, incorporates marks of "quality" and is managed by subject editors. The success of sites such as Postgenomic suggests that the "wisdom of crowds" approach is even more effective within a subject silo, while their ability and tendency to include related material (conference programmes and reports, blog postings) brings them closer to traditional publishing.

Nature Publishing Group attempted to combine the traditional and emerging approaches with its open peer review trial. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the project was noted for its transparency - options included making identities of authors and reviewers public, publishing reviewer comments and even allowing end users to contribute. However, this transparency may have contributed to the project's lack of popularity, as academics will naturally be wary of publicly criticising one another's work. The lack of integration with other workflows was another factor preventing this concept from catching on at Nature, but one interesting observation was that posting content online earlier in the publication process did encourage authors to make it more presentable; a transfer of responsibility for some part of the copyediting process from publisher to author.

Leigh proposed taking forward the "open" concept in terms of openly demonstrating to users that content has been reviewed in some way, for example with a kitemark for peer review. As with Creative Commons licences, this would need to combine human-readable logos with machine-readable embedded metadata. Kitemarked content could therefore by searchable (as Creative Commons content currently is). A current example which displays promise is the BPR3 scheme, which enables bloggers to mark postings containing scholarly subject matter (in order to separate them from personal postings); BPR3 is being reviewed by CrossRef, which may carry out prototype work (in which Ingenta would participate).

Leigh has bookmarked further reading material at http://del.icio.us/ldodds/charleston-2007-11; please do share your comments below.