Archive for: November, 2010

Reimagining the University Press and the Post-Collections Library

A portentous-sounding title for a not-so-portentous post, full of half-baked thoughts and idle musings.

I was just thinking about the recent Jounal of Electronic Publishing issue on Reimagining the University Press and without actually reading very much of the issue in question (ignorance is so liberating sometimes...) the most pressing question in my mind was:

  • So what exactly do we need university presses for anyways?

And I got to thinking some more and figured that there are probably tons of people in university presses thinking to themselves,

  • So what exactly do we need academic libraries for anyways?

It seems to me that the core issues for all the players in the various parts of the academic content ecosystem are these:

For content producers, the core seems to be figuring out what kinds of documents are going to emerge and be the main vehicles for online scholarly communications.

It seems to me that it's unlikely that those documents will take the shape of what we currently think of as monographs. Even long-form text-based communication will probably evolve, even within the humanities, into more compact, concise forms. A series of shorter, blog-post-like, essays seems like an interesting model for even fairly complex communication online rather than huge "books."

Sometimes I think it's like we view the monograph as some sort of sacred, perfect format, handed down from god along with the ten commandments. Sort of like the album. Well, we've all seen what's happened to the album. Change the distribution/publishing method and what once seemed inevitable suddenly seems optional.

(Trade book publishing, of course, is a whole other kettle of fish.)

It's also interesting to consider what we currently think of as scholarly articles will evolve into. Certainly they will become more atomized and at the same time considerably richer. There are lots of possibilities to add more contextual richness and multimedia to articles at the same time breaking down what's there and redefining what we think of as the "least publishable unit" into the constituent parts of an article: text, graphs, raw and analyzed data on the one hand and materials, methods, results and discussion on the other.

And of course, whatever these varying forms of communication evolve into will be integrated within a social context of recommendation, discussion, citation and metrics.

Yet another point worth pondering is, "What's this going to cost and who's going to pick up the tab?"

Which brings me to the collection part of the academic content ecosystem. In other words, academic libraries.

For libraries, the core issue has always been very simple, "What's worth paying for?"

With the media singularity seemingly approaching (and wasn't it supposed to be here already anyways), it's hard to know who will be left standing at all in the next five, ten or fifteen years that's going to be trying to sell us anything at all?

Think about it: newspapers, magazines, music, film, university presses, trade book publishers, scholarly societies, commercial scholarly publishers. These are all industries whose business models and distribution systems are under intense disruptive pressure.

It seems to me that an emerging important question is, "What's there going to be left to collect in a radically different media landscape?"

It certainly makes me think of what a library looks like in the post-collections world.

Or is it a "post-collections" world? Or do we need to rethink what's worth collecting? Our collecting has always been scarcity driven. We collect media for our patrons because they're scarce and expensive and our patrons need us to pay for them. But if those media either no longer exist or are no longer scarce, then what's left?

Well, as I allude to above, somebody will still be producing content of some description and somebody will have to host it, edit it, review it, promote it, organize it and somebody will have to pick up the tab for all that, even if it's quite small. Oddly, these kind of sound like the services that disciplinary and institutional repositories, scholarly societies, university presses and libraries have always provided.

Or maybe not. Maybe, like for those singularitized media, the intermediaries will be disintermediated.

Any ideas?

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The Journal of Electronic Publishing on Reimagining the University Press

A terrific new edition of The Journal of Electronic Publishing (v13i2), focusing on the future of university presses and, by extension, of scholarly publishing as a whole.

A lot of terrific-looking articles:

There's some interesting commentary on the issue out there already, here and here.

The previous issue of JEP (v13i1) also has some relevant articles.

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Best Science Books 2010: Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Telegraph & Library Journal

Nov 22 2010 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

A few lists with only a few relevant items each.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

  • The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

The Telegraph (History)

  • Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways by Christian Wolmar
  • Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life by Richard Cohen

Library Journal (Notable books) & Top 10

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Valliant
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
  • Eating Pomegranates: A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters, and the BRCA Gene by Sarah Gabriel

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

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Around the Web: The story of electronic stuff, Reclaiming our scientific scholarship, Scientist as star and more

Nov 22 2010 Published by under around the web

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From the Archives: Here comes everybody by Clay Shirky

Nov 21 2010 Published by under book review, education, social media

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, is from May 28, 2008.

I have also read Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and mostly like it quite a lot. A review is still brewing for that one and I hope to get to it before the end of the year.


One of the main reasons I wanted to actually write the review of Wikinomics even if it had been quite a while since I'd finished reading it was so I could contrast it with Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody.

I would bet anything that Clay Shirky read Wikinominics and thought to himself, "Hey, there's some pretty interesting ideas in this book, but it's a bit over-hyped and repetitive. I bet anything I could basically write the same book, but better if I just see my main audience as more than just the business crowd. If I see my audience as everybody."

And guess what? He would have been right. Here Comes Everybody is a great book. Potentially a classic. This could be the book that explains to the masses what's truly powerful about web 2.0, social software and peer production. It's clear, concise, to the point, not unnecessarily repetitive and most of all, a realistic look at the strength (and even some weaknesses) of the web 2.0 paradigm. It's aimed at anyone interested in how that set of software tools and mindsets are changing big and small things about society -- about sharing, collaboration and cooperation. In other words, it's a great book for librarians, scientists and everyone in between.

The central idea of the book is that two (or ten or a million) heads are better than one. If a problem needs to be solved, if a social need needs filling, if art, culture and science are in need of being created and communicated, the best way to do those things is to share the production of that content or idea or service among those that are interested and have a stake in it's success.

Some recap: The book gets us started with some of the central stories of the book: how this nerdy guys goes about using social tools to get his girlfriend's cell phone back. It's an interesting story about cooperation to get a job done but there is also some exploration of the potential of these tools to harm people and to violate their privacy. We see people using social tools to battle cartel-like airlines and the Catholic Church among others and for stay-at-home moms (and other groups) to connect with others with the same needs and interests in fractured communities.

An interesting thing is that Shirky does see the potential for these all-encompassing social tools to replace traditional, local communities in ways that aren't always positive. In other words, we have to remember our connection to our local communities.

If the cost of creating communities is next to nothing, so is the cost of failure in the web 2.0 world. Once of the great strengths of these new social tools is that you can just try stuff without huge outlays of time and money. It's almost Darwinian how, for example, many different online communities get started but only those that really fill a need end up survival.

Like I said, this is a great book. Not a perfect book, of course. Sometimes I thought he tried too hard to make the case that everything newnewnew is goodgoodgood. He often seems like he wants to acknowledge that some of the "old ways" are worth keeping or have some value but then backs away. The book ends on a note that implies that experience has nothing to teach youth -- only that youth will trample and destroy all old fogey ways. It's an interesting point given that it wasn't a young person that wrote this book. It's hard to imagine that a 20-year-old would have the experience and maturity to write such a generally fine and balanced book, largely free of hype and overstatement. But maybe I'm too old to see that -- but then Shirky and I are about the same age.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. 327pp.

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From the Archives: The science of evolution and the myth of creationism by Ardea Skybreak

Nov 20 2010 Published by under book review, education, evolution, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters, is from June 8, 2007.


The whole raison d'etre of this book is to counter creationists' arguments against evolution. Nothing less than completely uncompromising and hard-hitting, this is a great book. It dissects all the worthless creationist arguments one by one, first presenting their point of view and demolishing it with solid scientific argument. Make no mistake, this book strongly advocates a point of view; it sets out a position and defends it. It identifies positions that it disagrees with and challenges them.

Based on a series of essays in the radical left wing magazine Revolutionary Worker, this is certainly a polemic but it thankfully avoids the highly polarizing post-modern rhetoric of many leftist critiques of science and instead clearly distinguishes the human practice of scientific research and development and the pursuit for how nature really works. She clearly spells out her position than on page 52 when she says, "All ideas are not equally true: some ideas much more closely correspond to the way things really are than other ideas." And how about, "The challenge we face is not so much to ascertain that material reality exists, but to figure out, and consistently apply, methods of scientific investigation which can best minimize our subjective distortions, and systematically uncover what's actually real." (p. 278)

Some of the things I liked about this book? It might be strident and determined, but it's definitely not dry and humourless. Take a look at page 210, where she talks about a "supposedly highly educated Supreme Court Justice, who presumably went to both college and law school, unquestioningly repeating something that is so patently false that it would cause a high school student to totally flunk a basic biology test" or on page 234, "Many creationists like to claim evolution can't be true because it would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Wow, are you impressed yet? This sure sounds scientific doesn't it? Only one problem: they don't know what the hell they're talking about!"

I also like that it engages creationist nonsense on virtually every page. There are a plethora of extensive, fantastic side bars on topics like "What does the science of evolution tell us about human 'races?'" and "Social Darwinism is not based on science and has nothing to do with Darwinism" and "Are humans still evolving?" In other words, the material is presented so you can quickly find a chapter or side bar to support most any point in a discussion with a creationist. The chapters are organized so that Chapter 1 provides an overview, Chapters 2 and 3 general principles, Chapters 4 and 5 on speciation, Chapter 6 on proven evidence for evolution, Chapter 7 on the evolution of humans and Chapter 8, the capstone chapter, 120 pages demolishing very specific creationist theories and positions, along with a handy taxonomy of creationists. The table of contents is extensive and detailed, making it very easy to find the information you need very quickly, as is the index.

This is a lively, entertaining and even important book. I would highly recommend it for all academic collections: college, university and even high school and middle school. Anyone that passionately cares about science and rationality could do worse than have such a book in their personal collections as well. It could come in handy during arguments at contentious dinner parties or family gatherings, for example.

(Book supplied by publisher.)

Skybreak, Ardea. The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters Chicago: Insight, 2006. 338pp. ISBN-13: 978-0976023654

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Friday Fun: Scientists discover unknown lizard species ... at lunch buffet

Nov 19 2010 Published by under friday fun

Yeah, this one's true. *shudder*

From the science fiction news site blastr, Scientists discover unknown lizard species ... at lunch buffet.

We can only imagine how thrilling it must be for a scientist to discover a previously unknown species. But for a scientist to discover a previously unknown species being served at lunch buffet ... well, THAT we don't even want to try to imagine!

But that's what happened to herpetologist Lee Grismer. When Grismer heard from a colleague at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology about an undocumented species of all-female lizard in the Mekong River delta that reproduced by cloning, he hopped a plane with his son to see for himself.

From the original CNN story:

So what does a plate full of Leiolepis ngovantrii taste like?

Well, nothing remotely like chicken, Grismer says.

"You wouldn't want to substitute it for a Big Mac or anything like that," he says, and you won't see lizard banh mi showing up on menus anytime soon.

Grismer complained that he had to hold his breath while eating the local dish to appear polite to the restaurant owners.

"You take a bite out of it and it feels like something very old and dead in your mouth," he said.

And yes, there are a bunch of pictures in the CNN story. *double shudder*

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Best Science Books 2010: Cloud Computing

Another list for your reading and collection development pleasure. This one concentrates on more business-y books so I've only chosen the ones that relate more to social media/technology. It's 10 Business Books In 2010 from Cloud Computing.

  • Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky
  • Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead by Charlene Li
  • The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations by Vinnie Mirchandani
  • The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick
  • Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list or lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

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Best Science Books 2010: Amazon UK

Nov 18 2010 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another list for your reading and collection development pleasure, drawn from Amazon UK Business, Amazon UK History and Amazon UK Science & Nature.

  • The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
  • Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt
  • The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There by Sinclair McKay
  • Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox
  • The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
  • The Natural History Book by DK
  • The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals by Patrick Barkham
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World by Prince of Wales Charles
  • Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren
  • The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo
  • Concorde Manual: An insight into flying, operating and maintaining the world's first supersonic passenger jet (Owner's Workshop Manual) by David Leney
  • The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past by Richard A. Fortey
  • How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual's Guide to Tackling Climate Change by Chris Goodall

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list or lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

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Computer Science & Academia: Two views on staying or leaving

Via my York University Computer Science & Engineering colleague Andrew Eckford, two contrasting blog posts by two different Harvard computer science profs. One has decided to leave academia for greener pastures at Google and the other has decided to stay.

First, Matt Welsh on leaving.

There is one simple reason that I'm leaving academia: I simply love work I'm doing at Google. I get to hack all day, working on problems that are orders of magnitude larger and more interesting than I can work on at any university. That is really hard to beat, and is worth more to me than having "Prof." in front of my name, or a big office, or even permanent employment. In many ways, working at Google is realizing the dream I've had of building big systems my entire career.

As I've blogged about before, being a professor is not the job I thought it would be. There's a lot of overhead involved, and (at least for me) getting funding is a lot harder than it should be. Also, it's increasingly hard to do "big systems" work in an academic setting. Arguably the problems in industry are so much larger than what most academics can tackle. It would be nice if that would change, but you know the saying -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The cynical view is that as an academic systems researcher, the very best possible outcome for your research is that someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook reads one of your papers, gets inspired by it, and implements something like it internally. Chances are they will have to change your idea drastically to get it to actually work, and you'll never hear about it. And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point. At Google, I have a much more direct route from idea to execution to impact. I can just sit down and write the code and deploy the system, on more machines than I will ever have access to at a university. I personally find this far more satisfying than the elaborate academic process.

Michael Mitzenmacher on staying.

I think there's a sense in academia that people get PhD's so that they can become professors. Most graduate students have that point of view going in -- their experience with research professionals at that point is essentially entirely with faculty. And most professors encourage students to have that goal. Some of that, I think, is that most professors like their job (unsurprisingly), and some may not have other experiences to suggest to their students. And some of it may be more calculated. One measure of a faculty member's success is how many faculty offspring they've produced.

But being a faculty member is not for everyone. As Matt has described in this blog, and I in the past have described in my blog, being a professor is probably not exactly what most people expect. Besides teaching and research, your time gets taken up with administration, managing (graduate) students, fundraising, and service to your scientific community. It's perhaps absurd to expect that everyone who starts out in a PhD program be interested in all these various aspects of the job. And, fortunately, in computer science, there are still many other compelling options available.


I suppose the question that's left is why I'm staying at Harvard -- that is, why I still like being a professor. (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, "Who else would hire you?") I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.

The job is never boring. On any given day, I might be teaching, planning a class, working with students, thinking, writing a paper, writing some code, reading, listening to a talk, planning or giving a talk, organizing an event, consulting in some form, or any other manner of things. In the old days, I wrote a blog. These days, I'm administrating, making sure our classes work smoothly, our faculty are satisfied and enabled to do the great things they do, and we're able to continue to expand and get even better. Once I wrote a book, and someday I hope to do that again. Perhaps the biggest possible complaint is that there's always something to do, so you have to learn to manage your time, say no, and make good decisions about what to do every day. As someone who hates being bored, this is generally a good feature of the job for me.

Not surprisingly, a lot of it comes down to how much personal benefit and fulfillment a particular person gets from the teaching and service missions of academic life and how much a particular person enjoys a certain variety of tasks and activities and not just head-down research.

Because, of course, everyone is different. We shouldn't all be expected to find fulfillment in the same things.

Personally, I find great enjoyment is a wide variety of tasks. I love building interesting and useful collections and building solid and lasting relationships with faculty and administrative units. I love my involvement in IL but I'm not sure I'd love doing three or four times as much as I do now. Sitting at the reference desk (both physical and virtual) is fantastic, I really enjoy helping students with their work -- but I think I'd explode if I had to do it all day. In addition to all that, I have the time and am certainly encouraged to play and active role in the development of librarianship. I like being engaged in scholarly and professional activities as much as any of the other things I mention above.

So, I thrive on the particular kind of variety that my particular academic library job provides. Academia works for me.

How about you? I'm interested in the take that other librarians or scientists in other contexts might have.

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