Friday 3 February 2017

Research Infrastructure and the Future of National Libraries

In my role as a member of the British Library Advisory Council, I was recently asked to present a few thoughts on how research infrastructure might change in response to the changing demands of academics.  This post records my notes for that discussion.  It does not record what I said to that committee on the day - and certainly does not imply that the British Library in any way endorses or subscribes to my views; but it does reflect what I believe is the necessary direction of travel in the provision of resources for academic research. 

I have been asked to speak for a few minutes about developments in academic research and the implications these might have for the British Library; and where I really wanted to start was with a quick appreciation of where we have come from.

It is important to remember that we are sitting at the centre of what was a 200 year project to create a comprehensive – divided, but universal - infrastructure for research and knowledge creation.  All you have to do is walk down Museum Row – from The Science Museum, to the Natural History Museum, to the V&A – each with their active Higher Education equivalent research staff – to remember that we inherited a powerful, cross disciplinary research infrastructure.  Or look back to the old round reading room of the British Library with its 400-odd volumes of an ever changing manuscript catalogue – seeking to encompass all of human knowledge.  Whatever your field, whatever you methodology, the nineteenth and early twentieth century created an infrastructure in stone and brick.
In the last fifty years much of this has either been transformed, or else become increasingly redundant – catering for an ever shrinking body of old-school scholars; while much of the effective infrastructure that underpins research has moved elsewhere.  Arguably 'Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine' (STEM) subjects, with their greater resources have led the way in creating endless new data stores and distributed infrastructural kit.  And while buildings – like the Crick Institute, or CERN – represent a fragment of a constant ongoing rebuilding of intellectual infrastructure, they are just the tip of a much larger transformation that has taken a new form.

Through repositories like Cern’s Zenodo project; through the Genome project (with at the time, its seemingly huge demand for data storage), with Gold Open Access science journals (built on commercial publishing models, and incorporating their own data stores), with GitHub and with a collaborative project-based approach to research, STEM has created a new distributed knowledge infrastructure – because the older one failed first for their disciplines.  

In the process STEM has largely side-stepped the brick and stone infrastructure along the way – in particular the British Library.  You will not find a physicist or an astronomer in any of the Library’s reading rooms.  In other words the hardest end of STEM seems to me to have cracked substantial elements of this conundrum, and left the other two thirds of the research landscape – from the softer end of STEM, to social science, business and economics, and the humanities, largely eating dust, and reliant on an increasingly creaky twentieth century infrastructure.

So, in the first instance, it seems to me that we are challenged to rethink ‘research’ data, and publication as a new form of infrastructure.  So, the Library – or somewhere – needs to create a context in which notes and files, data stores of all kinds can be shared and curated – in a digital form.   And this data, or data store, needs in turn to be tied directly to the public commentary – or publication – built upon that data.

But in the process there is also something more subtle going on.  While STEM has led in a particular direction, it has brought with it a particular style of research organisation, which again changes the nature of the infrastructure required.  All you have to do is look at the evolution of the Research Councils UK – from its shared services centre, to an ever growing emphasis on inter-disciplinary funding – and emphasis on large team projects, and the training of Early Career Researchers to be ‘leaders’ – by which they mean project heads – to see a direction of travel towards large teams of ‘laboratory-ish’ groups, fronted by media friendly ‘interpreters’.  And of course, this is all combined with a precipitate concentration of research funding on an ever smaller number of ever more self-congratulatory institutions.

In other words, it seems to me that national research culture – and in a more chaotic way, international infrastructure as well - is faced with a twofold change.  First, there is a fundamental transformation in the most significant core of the research ‘infrastructure’ from bricks and mortar, to online - to immediately accessible data; with the tools to use it and ‘publish it’.

And second we are faced with a gradual, forced move towards larger and more ‘laboratory-like’ forms of research, in which collaboration – both virtual and face-to-face – are increasingly normal.
By way of a caveat, however, we are also faced with a multi-generational lag in which every variety of lone and independent scholar will want the same old, same old – to be available regardless of the cost.

All of which just leads me to believe that the evolving nature of research – mainly that based in Higher Education – needs urgent attention in the following areas.

  • The shared curation and storage of data and research materials – building on STEM models, but made friendlier to different data types.
  • We also need the tools to work with that data – and training that supports their use.
  • We need to explore different validation and authorisation models for ‘publication’.  At the moment we are allowing a multi-billion pound business to be built on national expenditure, and we need to reclaim elements of this – through new models of peer review and distribution.  These in turn need to be tied to data – vertically integrated from data to experiment to commentary - and more amenable to collaboration – with a traceable development path through all of it.
  • We also need a clearer commitment to non-HE researchers.  We need to acknowledge that HE – as gatekeeper of research authority - forms part of the problem.  And we need to keep a weather eye on the boundaries around who can research.  The BL certainly needs to create an infrastructure for HE research, but it needs to be an infrastructure that is open to everyone.

In other words, and as usual, the British Library needs to remember that it is a national machine for research and learning, committed to access to all knowledge, for everyone who needs it; and to use these first principles to navigate a remarkably complex and rapidly changing landscape.

We also need to remember, as William Gibson said: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’.