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April 24, 2014

Take our survey on academics, universities and Scottish independence

by Adam Smith

“I’ve kept my head down a bit,” a senior university figure in Scotland told me recently. “There’s the feeling that coming out is career suicide.”

He was talking about taking a position (or not) on Scottish independence. Although a handful of academics have thrown their support behind the yes or the no camp, most academics are keeping quiet.

To find out more about this phenomenon—and to count academics on both sides—Research Fortnight is conducting an anonymous, independent and unattributed survey of researchers and university staff. Respondents can be entered into a draw to win one of five subscriptions to Research Fortnight or Research Europe.

Take the survey here. It’ll close on 13 May.

It is the only survey we know of that is focused on the implications of independence and the debate on research, higher education and science. The five-minute survey is open to researchers in universities, research office staff, managers and researchers in industry. Responses will not be attributed to individuals or their institutions.

As well as counting the number of ayes and naes held on university campuses across Scotland, we want to hear more about what might stop academics from speaking their minds and which aspects of independence they’re concerned or hopeful about—be it research funding, tuition fee policy or science policy.

If enough people take the survey, the results will be fascinating and give us the first true picture of researchers’ views, hopes and concerns. We’ll publish the results in a supplement to Research Fortnight magazine, which will be made available for free to everyone who takes the survey regardless of whether their institution subscribes to the magazine or Research Professional, our online news site and funding database.

The survey itself is free and shareable online, so please pass it on to colleagues and ask them to participate too.

“It is absolutely right that academics…are encouraged and feel free to express their views,” said a spokesman for the first minister Alex Salmond in November. He was defending Chris Whatley, a historian at the University of Dundee who identified himself as a no voter while taking part in an academic debate on independence and found himself under fire from a Scottish National Party MSP.

Even if you feel you can’t voice your view in public, we hope you can feed into our anonymous and independent survey.

Click here to take the survey.

March 27, 2014

EU, science and gender: The BBC’s chatter ill serves its listeners

by Inga Vesper

BBC science interviewers sometimes do get over-excited when the person on the other microphone is a woman. Indeed “expert” interviewees from the “other” gender are a rare sight on BBC programmes more generally. In four years worth of programmes on BBC Question Time, only 98 of the 362 panellists were women.

When you combine a woman who is also a senior scientist with that other legendary beast, the EU, it makes for cringeworthy listening. This was the case with University of Surrey professor Jim al-Khalili’s interview on The Life Scientific with Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission—José Manuel Barroso. Though I wonder why Barroso’s name was never mentioned in the programme.

Glover has occupied this high profile and controversial post for four years, so you would think the interviewer would have plenty of material to talk about: how Europe struggles to create a joined-up scientific community; how Glover assesses her ability to influence EU politicians and her tireless efforts to create a network of national advisers, which is slowly starting to take off. Glover is also a vocal and passionate advocate of genetically modified technology.

The Life Scientific is meant to be as much about the person as his or her work, but Glover's deep-rooted passion for science could have been well explored by asking these questions. The fact that she won’t be continuing this role after May’s European elections could have provided space to ask these and other critical questions about her work. Has she really increased the profile of European science? Is there any lasting legacy, considering that the post may not be renewed under the next president?

But if you were looking for sharp insights, The Life Scientific was the wrong place. Instead the programme’s production team treats listeners to patronising anecdotes of Glover’s childhood (“Your parents must have supported you, right?”), interspersed with phone-ins from Glover’s colleagues, who gush over how fantastic she is, doing sciencey things that have to do with sparkly molecules.

al-Khalili calls Glover “the most influential scientist in Europe”, which even Glover would probably contest. “How do you get anything done in Europe,” he wonders, and the listener wonders, too. He was referring to the EU, of course and not “Europe”, which is a continent of 750 million people, and not the 500 million that we heard. In the same vein, al-Khalili asked Glover about how she copes with different stances on nuclear power in Germany and France. He ought to have known (or been briefed) that national policies are not her remit, nor are they the EU’s.

Barely troubled by al-Khalili’s questions, Glover sailed through it all. It was an easy interview for her, an occasion to repeat her well-worn, but still important, arguments for science, without having to justify or explain too much.

Underlying this interview was a whiff of disbelief that Glover had gone to work for the EU at all. Her continuous record of laboratory work at the University of Aberdeen was mentioned as if it were some sort of insurance for Glover to, one day, return to the safety of home, and not the perfectly normal arrangement for a scientific adviser, which is what it is.

The BBC might think that being lightweight about the EU and its work is en vogue in these increasingly Eurosceptic times for the UK. But in this instance it turned what could have otherwise been an engaging and insightful interview into shallow chatter.

Inga Vesper is news editor of Research Europe. Follow us on @ResearchEurope

January 23, 2014

Reform is not just a Tory issue

by Laura Greenhalgh

Reluctance to engage with the British conservatives in a debate over EU reform could represent a missed opportunity, for Europe and for science.

Last week, I attended a conference in London hosted by the think tank Open Europe. Billed as a Pan-European conference for EU reform, the event was dominated by conservative ministers from the UK and a handful from other EU member states.

The event began with a speech from UK chancellor George Osborne that epitomised the black and white nature under which the discussion on reform was initiated last January: “Reform, or we’re out,” he implied. But beyond this, I observed a nuanced debate between pro-reformers about the benefits and constraints of the EU and how it might do things better, with the majority supporting the UK staying in the EU.

To set things straight: I am not a conservative, I support the fundamental premise of the EU as an instrument of peace, economic progress and political reform, and I do not want the UK to leave the Union.

But I also see nothing wrong with a widely engaging debate on the changes—big or small—that could make the EU better, involving all political parties, even if the premise on which the debate was initiated might have ruffled some feathers. 

Europe is not struggling because it is anti-competitive and anti-science, as George Osborne claimed, but because of the banking crisis. And whilst European research is not to blame, it has certainly felt the effects: as many as 11 member states have seen a decrease in their higher education funding of more than 5 per cent since 2008, according to the European University Association.

Some of the changes being proposed by the reform campaign could benefit researchers significantly. At the London conference, participants played a game to reform the EU budget, suggesting how the allocations under the €1 trillion seven-year spending plan might be improved. The breakdown that won the prize of ‘best budget’ allocated nearly all of the money to cross-border R&D spending, with the remainder for cohesion in the poorest regions.

Such a swinging shift is unrealistic. But the underlying message is clear: many reformers want more spending on R&D.

Another major facet of the conservative’s agenda is “more power to member states”: allowing member states to make their own decisions on issues they are best placed to rule on. At present, MEPs and Brussels officials spend months ruling on directives that are then torn apart by opt-outs and alterations at the national level. So why not decide which issues should be European, and which should be national, without this messy in-between?

A debate about what constitutes a national issue and what constitutes an EU one could bring some much-needed clarity to Europe’s policymaking. What’s more, by leaving national issues at the national level, it would allow the Brussels institutions more time to focus on real Pan-European agendas—including the European Research Area.

Furthermore, engaging the conservatives in debate would allow their opponents to address a fundamental error in the right-wing argument: that is, trying to evaluate the EU against a perfect model of democracy, which national governments are even further from achieving. Idealism, rather than realism, has proved to be a highly effective weapon in the rhetoric heralding the failings of the EU, and it must be countered.

Some industries have grasped the opportunity to engage, with the British Bankers’ Association calling for closer ties with Brussels, and the UK car industry voicing concern about an EU exit. And there have been murmurings amongst scientists and research organisations about the potential damage to Britain if it leaves the EU, given that the UK is one of the most successful recipients of European research funding.

But some politicians from outside the conservatives seem scared to join in the debate, for fear of being branded a Eurosceptic. Others are worried about agreeing to alterations to the EU treaties, in case they are opening the door to the abyss. And the remainder seem to be treating the conservative’s campaign as they would a naughty child: ignore them, and they might shut up.

But let’s have some faith in the strengths of the European project, and the widespread support on its fundamental reason for existing. Let’s start a positive and forward-looking discussion on the Europe that we want to see in 20 years time. The EU is going to change regardless—so let’s not leave it only to the conservatives to determine how. 

December 11, 2013

Horizon 2020 - Calls Day Live Blog

by Inga Vesper

Welcome to our Horizon 2020 Calls Day live blog. We'll bring you the latest news on calls and funding, plus reaction and analysis, thoughout the day. All times are UK local.

For more in-depth analysis check out our summary of all Horizon 2020 Work Programmes

Please refresh this page regularly to see the latest entries. And do check us out on Twitter—@ResearchEurope. Enjoy!

15:41 - A word of warning on the deadlines included in the call summaries on the participant portal: don’t take them as guaranteed. Several of the calls have more than one round of funding, and for these the Commission has only listed the latest cut off dates. Ones we have spotted already under pillar one are the ERC Proof of Concept grants, and the FET Open calls. So make sure you check the call details (or our database, of course) carefully: there may be a chance to get your proposal evaluated and get some money sooner than you think! 

14:23 - Daan du Toit, South Africa’s science and technology representative to the EU, has expressed his congratulations on Horizon 2020 call launch on Twitter, writing that “South Africa looks forward to research innovation partnerships with Europe”. South Africa will be one of many countries looking to tap into this new source of research income, the rules of which will be governed by the Commission’s internationalisation strategy for Horizon 2020 (full blown pdf version here). The basic jist is that H2020 is fully open to participation from researchers anywhere, but only certain groups can automatically receive funding. Aside from member states and associated countries, this is limited to International Cooperation Partner countries (less developed economies)—and importantly, this classification has been changed from Framework 7 to exclude emerging economies like Brazil, India, and China, which will now be expected to pay their own way. Exceptions are when the EU has specific reciprocal agreements to provide funding (like it does with the US), or if a country's participation is deemed to be crucial to the success of the project. 

14:01 - Cost, the European cooperation in science and technology, has branded the call launch an “essential milestone” in making Europe more innovative and competitive. In a statement just published, the organisation highlights its own role under Horizon 2020 in continuing to encourage coordination between researchers in different countries. This has involved a change in legal structure for the organisation, to help it function better under Horizon 2020. The organisation will mostly be funded through the sixth societal challenge—inclusive, innovative and secure societies.  

14:00 -  This is Laura, taking over the blogging for the rest of the day!

13.41 - Cefic, the lobby group for the chemicals industry, has issued a statement welcoming Horizon 2020. The programme's focus on industry and applied spending suits chemicals businesses well, said Cefic director for research Gernot Klotz. He added that EU funding, especially grants and loans to small businesses, are important in the face of "fierce" international competition. 

13.14 - Our funding opportunities team has uploaded the first batch of Horizon 2020 calls. These should appear in our database within the hour. 

12.55 - The Smart Cites initiative is apparently generating some buzz. There's €92 million in Horizon 2020 in 2014 for this programme, which aims to boost citizen involvement in innovation. However, the idea came under fire during a conference last month, when scientists said they are tired of large-scale pilot programmes on this, and would like more substantial and long-term funding to get on with the task at hand.

12.37 - Statement comes out on Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions. There's €800 million in 2014. The total budget, about €6 billion, is expected to fund about 65,000 researcher exchanges, the Commission says. Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions were supported strongly by researchers, who worried that they might lose funding to the more dominant ERC, as both programmes are in the excellent science pillar. The programme is certainly one of the most-loved parts of the Framework programme, and some participants welcomed the addition of Curie's maiden name to the title. 

12.19 - Commission issues statement on transport funding, which mentioned Shift2Rail, the planned Joint Technology Initiative for a pan-European railway network. Transport will get a total of €6.3 billion under Horizon 2020, which is about 8 per cent of the total budget. About €1.9bn comes from DG Transport, which will be involved in several of the calls. 

12.04 - Quick summary of research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn's launch speech. She says Europe badly needs new ideas, and that the calls represent the EU asking directly for these ideas. The three pillars are the mainstay, but there is plenty of funding for cross-cutting issues, such as gender, climate change, ect. "We are defining the problem, but we are asking the participants to find the best solution to get the job done," Geoghegan-Quinn said.

Questions were asked about SME participation, stem cell science and brain drain. SME participation target under Horizon 2020 is up to 20 per cent, and Geoghegan-Quinn is positive that this will be met. The applied science focus of Horizon 2020 came under fire, though, with one Twitter user calling it the "bullshit bingo". But Geoghegan-Quinn stayed firm, saying it was the way to go. "I've been to seven launch events, and attendants included a strong segment of industry who want to be involved," she said. "I guess Horizon 2020 will be oversubscribed."

11.27 - Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is to give launch speech on Horizon 2020 at EU-midday briefing in a few minutes. Watch here. Ongoing briefing on Ukraine might overrun a bit, though.

11.20 - Commission press statement on Horizon 2020 is out, summarising the EU's favourite parts of the programme. "Horizon 2020 funding is vital for the future of research and innovation in Europe, and will contribute to growth, jobs and a better quality of life," says research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. There's €15 billion in total for 2014-2015, including €1.7bn for the ERC, €1.8bn for industrial leadership and €2.8bn for societal challenges. A press briefing is scheduled for 12.30 CET. 

11.04 - G8 Dementia summit has kicked off in London, with German health minister Daniel Bahr calling it the biggest problem facing western societies in the near future. Meanwhile, the Innovative Medicines Initiative has launched its last Framework 7 call, on clinical trials for Alzheimer's disease, worth (€53 million). Under the health societal challenge in Horizon 2020 there is a pot awarding €5 million each for projects that align research into dementia and brain diseases across Europe (HCO-11). The overall funding pot for health is about €7.5 billion over the duration of Horizon 2020.

10.34 - Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, is interviewed on Vieuws. She says that the WASTE programme in Horizon 2020, which is to get €100 million over the next two years, could create up to 400,000 jobs. The energy saving programme, down for €200 million in the same time frame, could create 250,000 jobs. "We need to get cracking and get those projects going," she says. Watch the full interview here

9.58 - The European Commission has published a flyer on ICT-enabled public innovation, providing nformation on funding opportunities under societal challenge 6 and 7—inclusive and secure societies—for ICT infrastructures that could improve governance. This includes funding for emerging technologies, open participation in governance, mobile public services, and funding for privacy research under secure societies, for which there will be €47 million in 2014.

9.40 - Whilst celebrating Horizon 2020, spare a thought for our friend of seven years Framework 7. Manfred Horvat of the Vienna University of Technology has written an in-depth analysis of the outgoing Framework programme for us, saying that through Framework 7 "innumerable collaborative links have been built, strengthening and tightening the connections in the fabric of European R&D."

9.17 - Impressions on Horizon 2020 from EUREC's Greg Arrowsmith: In an article written earlier, he remarks on the strengthened position of energy research in this Framework programme, and says that a hike in funding will support Europe in achieving the 20-20-20 target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. Arrowsmith, however, is critical of the more open concept of Horizon 2020, saying that this could lead to a diffusion of goals and a too-wide approach to solving societal problems. "Unless the Commission takes action, the stakeholders who do the writing (often volunteers) will lose motivation," Arrowsmith warns. Read the full comment here

8.55 - Research commmissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn will hold a briefing on the Horizon 2020 calls at 12.30 CET. We'll be there to tell you what she's got to say.

8.30 - Good morning! We've kicked off the day to the news that the Commision's participant portal is still empty - fortunately we've obtained all the calls info from other sources, so our funding team is already busy filling out the database to bring you the latest calls. Meanwhile, a screenshot for posterity:

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 08.33.06

December 10, 2013

Horizon 2020 Work Programme Summaries

by Inga Vesper

Dear readers,

to help you get on top of the Horizon 2020 Work Programmes, Laura Greenhalgh and Inga Vesper have prepared a list of handy summaries. These include details about call topics and budgets, as well as some analysis on recent trends and future prognoses for scientific fields covered by these programmes.

You'll find all summaries here.

Enjoy the read!

November 04, 2013

Nutt's message undermined by his own lazy evidence, say scientists

by William Cullerne Bown

This post is from Dr Maria Viskaduraki, a biostatistician at the University of Leicester, and Diamanto Mamuneas, a PhD student at the Royal Veterniary College

In October 2009, David Nutt was forced to step down from his position as head of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after counselling the then government against reclassification of Cannabis from Class C to Class B (advice which the government ignored).

Shortly after, the BBC reported Nutt's words; "If scientists are not allowed to engage in the debate at this interface (between scientific advice and policy making) then you devalue their contribution to policy making and undermine a major source of carefully considered and evidence-based advice."

It is unusual to witness scientists defending the value and importance of science in the public sphere – especially when it comes to politics – and Nutt should be credited for daring to do so. Science is the best tool we have for settling disputes over such issues and it is a dangerous mistake for governments to choose the majority opinion in the face of scientific evidence.

However, irrespective of whether David Nutt and the ACMD's original position was evidence-based or accurate, Nutt and colleagues' high-profile paper, published in The Lancet a year later, falls short of settling the controversy and is a poor example of science's potential usefulness.

Nutt presents evidence generated using the “multicriteria decision analysis (MCDA) approach” and to understand just what the results tells us, and more importantly just how these results were arrived at, one must first push past this obscurantist's dream of an acronym and see just what the procedure involved.

Over the course of a single day, a group of “experts” got together to discuss how each of 20 drugs deemed relevant in the UK scored (from 0-100) in terms of 16 criteria. These experts were asked to share their own opinions and it is clearly stated in the subsequent publication that “scores [were] often changed… as participants share[ed] their different experiences and revise[d] their views”. It is well-documented that an outspoken individual can bias a crowd so the subjectivity of this approach should be considered – not to mention the extent of the individuals' expertise if they were so easily biased.

The seemingly arbitrary criteria on which the substances were then scored included drug-specific damage, family adversities, economic cost, crime, loss of tangibles, injury, dependence and loss of relationships. It is difficult to imagine a situation where most of these are not interconnected. Statistical analyses are expected to take into account interactions between variables and not simply assume them to be independent. It becomes impossible to weigh up the relative costs when the criteria are so closely linked.

Consider a drug that causes, through crime, an economic cost. Might this drug not also lead to family adversities due to subsequent arrests? And then perhaps a loss of tangibles and loss of relationships too. In another instance, it might be that a given drug results in just a few of these but almost never certain others – perhaps a drug doesn't result in crime as much because it costs less, is readily available and is not illegal (such as alcohol) but can still lead to family adversities and loss of relationships because of the extent to which it alters behaviour.

Some of the criteria are also difficult to define and might be understood and weighted differently by another panel of experts or even by individuals within the group expressing their opinions here  (e.g. is economic cost more important than family adversities?). Indeed, when two drugs were tied for all criteria (both with a maximum score of 100), the panel seems to have simply chosen between them

Nutt and colleagues do consider evidence from other countries that seem to support many of the experts' prior positions (unsurprisingly). Unfortunately, such comparisons cannot validate the poor methodology evident in this study and are not appropriate to make in the first place due to differences in “availability and legal status” across the locations, which influence their impact in terms of each criterion.

Sadly, it looks like David Nutt might be right about recreational drugs and he might have had an important and valid message for the government at the time of his sacking, but, by presenting lazy evidence, he might have unwittingly devalued and undermined his own contribution.

November 04, 2013

Exactly what science do Nature think David Nutt stood up for?

by William Cullerne Bown

David Nutt has just been awarded the 2013 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science. 

Nutt, you may recall, is famous for being sacked from his position as the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after disputing government decisions on the classification of cannibis and ecstacy.

In my view, spelt out in detail at the time, Nutt did not so much stand up for science as use science to prop up his own worthy but thoroughly non-scientific position.

So here's my question for the four judges who gave Nutt the award and for the others - from Benda Maddox to Mark Walport - who have allowed their names to be used to endorse this decision: "Exactly what science is it that you think David Nutt stood up for?"

October 30, 2013

Will arrows hit their target?

by John Whitfield

Note: This post was written by a senior researcher at a centre for local and regional development studies at a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named.
-John Whitfield, comment and analysis editor,
Research Fortnight.

It’s interesting to note how the word ‘local’ was quietly dropped from the title of Andrew Witty’s review of ‘Universities and Growth’ released on 15 October.  When the review’s terms of reference (pdf) were published in May, they spoke of investigating ‘Universities in their Local Communities: Enabling Economic Growth’ and exploring “the range of ways that universities contribute to their local economies including as agents of research and innovation, as providers of skills, employers, purchasers of goods and services, and as facilitators bringing people together” and “how to create an integrated strategy between the local and national players”. 

Some time in the past six months any hint of a ‘place’ agenda in describing the role universities might play in driving growth seems to have fallen by the wayside. The final document has executed a volte-face, and is instead urging that funding should be structured “by technology/industry opportunity – not by postcode.”  It also tells us to “embrace the country’s density of population and institutions”music to the ears of institutions that happen to be in areas ‘thick’ with potential collaborators in the public and private sectors.

Likewise, research intensive universities in struggling parts of the country will be breathing sighs of relief at having escaped being forced, or even just expected, to help build their local economies in return for public funding.  They now have carte blanche to work with the ‘best’ collaborators wherever they might be. Of course, they tend to be in the most economically vibrant parts of the country. 

Herein lies the paradox: the places with the greatest need for investment in innovation will often lack the industrial capacity to assimilate and capitalise on new knowledge or applications stemming from their local universities. Therefore, those universities that generate research with industrial applications are more likely to seek commercialisation opportunities further afield with suitable national or international firms.  So the rich places get richer and the poor places get poorer.

Witty dismisses the notion of rebalancing the economy once popular within the coalition, saying that England is a “small country” and that some Regional Development Agencies showed “myopia” in the geographic focus of their activities. 

Perhaps this dismissal stems from the review’s extremely narrow definition of the role universities can play in contributing to economic growth. The underlying assumption seems to be that universities can only create (economic) value through science and technology. Bodies such as the European Commission and OECD take a very different line, giving increasing prominence to the importance of universities’ research strengths in the arts, humanities and social sciences – through for example, contributions to the creative industries, business processes, service (including public service) design and policy and practice in urban and regional development.

Furthermore, the OECD, in its influential reviews of higher education and territorial development in 47 regions across member countries, emphasises not only the contribution universities can make to the economies of their cities and regions, but also the roles they can play in social and cultural development. 

For its part, the European Commission, through its new approach to regional development known as smart specialisation (which will underpin structural funding post-2013) explicitly acknowledges universities’ role not only as generators of research and knowledge, but also in helping to build absorptive, leadership and collaborative capacity locally.  It states that:

“Smart specialisation ascribes a key role to universities as actors in their local innovation ecosystems, connecting global and local knowledge domains, and arguably gives them far more prominence than has been the case in previous structural funding programmes. There is a compelling case therefore for universities to play …. a much more broadly defined role than just generators of technological research and other ‘upstream’ activities.”

The Witty review, in contrast, presents us with a world in which the contribution of universities to economic development is linear and unidirectional – as reflected in the report’s big idea of “arrow” projects. This terminology (cf ‘Catapults’) presents a deeply oversimplified view of how economic development and innovation happens.  If we must rely on such simplistic terms, maybe ‘boomerangs’ would be more appropriate?  At least they usually come back to where they were launched.

The idea that pouring money into university research will release a plethora of inventions that the private sector can pick up and commercialise has been extensively critiqued in the academic literature.  A recent study (pdf) by the Intellectual Property Office reveals that publicly funded research in the UK yields relatively few patents: the highest ranked UK applicant for portfolios of patents relating to graphene (Manchester University) is in joint 163rd place in a league table dominated by Korean and Chinese corporations and universities.

UK universities are highly ranked and regarded worldwide for their research, but translating this ‘excellence’ into innovation for the benefit of the national economy seems beyond the grasp of policy makers. 

There appears to be resistance to any hint of telling universities what to do in return for public funding, for fear of curtailing their ability to seek and attain global ‘excellence’.  But is the pursuit of academic excellence harming the public good?

It is a shame that the Witty review did not investigate more deeply the growing links between universities and their Local Enterprise Partnerships, particularly in terms of designing plans for the allocation and use of EU structural and investment funds.  Unfortunately Witty offers no guidance on how to promote or incentivise these kinds of local partnerships, which continue to rely on mutual goodwill and trust between local leaders.  But will this be enough to ensure all parts of the UK can absorb and retain the potential benefits of universities in their areas?

For more on universities' role in their local economies and the Witty review, see John Goddard's article in the 30 October edition of Research Fortnight.

September 12, 2013

A better way to track citations

by Paul Stokes

Open citation data is coming. It’s a matter of when, not if


‘In the beginning was the link…’ – Most of us know what a citation is, a relationship between two publications.  But what is open citation data?  Unsurprisingly, its citation data that’s open, free to use, re-usable…and useful in ways you probably haven’t thought about yet. 

Over the years citations have become the key currency of academic reputation, helping to measure the degree of influence any one scholar’s works have had on the academic community.  At the most basic level, there are two important aspects of citations associated with any one paper; who is cited in it and who it’s cited by.  The first is easy to establish, the information should be there in the document.  However a crystal ball is needed to know who is doing the citing. Those links are yet to take place and some form of citation data storage coupled with regular analysis to ferret them out will be required - something like the lifecycle below.

Page45 (1)






Citation data lifecycle [From the soon to be published Jisc report Access to Citation Data: Cost-benefit and Risk Review and Forward Look


So, who’s doing this indexing and analysing and then supplying the information?  In the not too distant past there were only two sources, SciVerse Scopus and Web of Knowledge/Science.  Citation information and associated value added services could be provided to you if you were lucky enough to be associated with an institution that had an appropriate subscription.  Then not so long ago Google started providing citation information for free (through Google Scholar) followed more recently by Microsoft’s Academic Search.  Along with CiteSeerx and the Jisc Open Citations Corpus, these six players now make up the core providers of citation information.

So how has open citation data appeared on the scene and why are more publishers now making their citation information available?  Firstly, although publishers clearly see value in their citation data, it has now been recognised by many that the improvement in discoverability of publications outweighs the loss of subscriptions revenue (probably).  Secondly, the increase in open publication means that much of this information becomes open by default.

Is it really open and is it useful?
Herein lies the rub.  Where the data is available, it’s often only provided for tightly controlled use cases, or through a web interface that returns results rather than access to the underlying data—fine if your use case is supported, but not so good if you’re trying to achieve something a little different.  What’s more, if you should get hold of raw data from one or more sources, the chances are that it will be both out of date—access may have been provided to a downloadable snapshot from a database—or in a proprietary format that makes it difficult to use with information from other sources, (and many use cases for citation data exploitation require extensive—if not complete—coverage which implies multiple sources). 

So could linked open data provide a way forward?  Potentially yes.  The Jisc Open Citation Corpus is testing the waters for this type of data exposure, providing access to approximately 40 million citations.  However, when you consider the relatively small range of sources that went to make up that 40 million record dataset and the fact that the data gathering is still a ‘pull’ process as opposed to an automated ‘push’ process then the real scale of the challenge becomes apparent. Once again, we’re faced with a situation where the data is incomplete and not completely up to date. (David Shotton’s blog about the project covers these challenges and makes for entertaining reading). 

What we really need is some way of automatically interconnecting the citation data from numerous sources as regularly as possible and then exposing it.  Sounds familiar?  Indexing and aggregating services such as CrossRef are perfectly placed to provide such access.

So what’s holding us back?  A recent Jisc workshop I attended considering this very question came to the conclusion that there is very little holding us back.  It’s more a question of will.  The technology is there.  The data is mostly there (baring a few standardisation problems and errors).  It just needs everyone to sign-up to the concept and tick the box.

So does all this add up to a rosy future for open citation data?  Personally, I see a future where open access through linked open data to a complete corpus of standardised citation data is considered the norm.  Where virtual aggregation of such data on the fly is possible and practical.  Where new citation data use-cases are developed and research can take place with citation data as the subject of the research.  A pipe dream?  I don’t think so (apart perhaps from the virtual aggregation).  It’s all possible now.  But does the market (in the UK at least) have the will to make it happen?  Now that’s a different question altogether, one that is explored in the soon to be released Jisc Digital Infrastructure Directions report ‘Access to Citation Data: Cost-benefit and Risk Review and Forward Look’ (published on 10 September).  So am I an idealistic dreamer or a practical visionary?  You tell me.


What can you do with Citation data (now and in the future)?

The analysis and exploitation of citation data has come a long way from the simple ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ concept it started out as.  We’ve progressed (if that is the right word) onto using it for performance management (for everyone from the individual researcher through to departments and institutions), and for business intelligence.  To work effectively these use cases need current, comprehensive and trustworthy source data.  It is also essential that those using them understand the limitations of the tools.

As more citations become openly available the citations themselves are becoming the subject of research with investigators examining the inter-relationships between disciplines, generating new knowledge.  Making the data open and usable means that hitherto unimagined avenues of exploration can and will appear.

June 27, 2013

Open practices make for strange bed fellows

by Rachel Bruce

Open approaches are now familiar in all aspects of our daily lives. With governments spearheading initiatives to make the information they hold available to all and developments such as open source software now changing the way we work, communicate and play.

Open policies are already widely in use in the academic world and all the indicators show that this is an unstoppable trend. For future Research Excellence Framework exercises, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is proposing to adopt an ‘open by default’ policy that will require all research papers to be open access and to be deposited in institutional repositories. And it is expected that the EU’s next big funding round – Horizon 2020 – will embrace open culture and practices, including by requiring high levels of openness from all those who apply for funds, as well as funding a data sharing pilot.

At its simplest, an open approach to content is about giving everyone the freedom to access information, modify it and to re-use it in any way they choose. Digital technology is making this possible and thanks to open practices and developments such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), open access and open source software, knowledge is being democratised and made available to more and more people across the planet.

Open practices have the power to transform learning, teaching and research processes not just for those who are accessing learning for the first time, but also for academics, making it quicker to find answers and the best solutions and allowing them to iron out errors and inconsistencies on the hoof.

The Polymath Project is a good example. Mathematician Tim Gowers posted a maths problem on his blog, which has been designed specifically to invite collaboration from interested individuals, irrespective of their educational background and qualifications. 800 comments on the blog later and the problem was solved, with highly valuable additional insights being gathered along the way. Most of those who contributed were only able to do so because of the open approach that was taken. The rich potential for chance meetings and unexpected connections is one of the key advantages that an open method makes possible.

It’s worth considering, too, that because Tim was working collaboratively with highly motivated and engaged people, he was able to be more rigorous and more confident in the end result of the process.

Small wonder, then, that large amounts of funding are being devoted to developing the infrastructure needed to facilitate open practice.

MyExperiment is a Jisc-funded Virtual Research Environment (VRE) developed to help researchers work openly. It aims to find, use and share scientific research work and to build communities to work collaboratively, optimising outcomes and improving efficiency. At the same time, the Knowledge Exchange is working on initiatives to meet the national strategies of the UK, Denmark, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands to encourage the use of ICT infrastructure in higher education and research. The Knowledge Exchange partners have defined their common vision as being ‘to make a layer of scholarly and scientific content openly available on the Internet’. At the same time, the Open Knowledge Foundation is working globally on open initiatives.

One of the most interesting and valuable aspects of open practice is the fact that it enables us to learn useful things in surprising places. And in the true spirit of ‘open’ there is quite a lot that institutions and researchers can learn from Wikipedia.

By its own admission, Wikipedia is not a tool for cutting edge academic enquiry or for presenting new and original findings. It is simply a collaboratively written and edited, free internet encyclopaedia, but its rapid and efficient development into a highly valued ‘go to’ information hub for generalist enquiries offers interesting insights into the philosophy, tools and systems that might support the development of open practice elsewhere.

For a start, it’s completely democratic. Entries are written by volunteers and can be edited by anyone with access to the site, as long as they have not already been blocked for breaking the site’s clearly defined rules.

Some academics would go much further down the open route than simply sharing research and its outputs. Professor Geoffrey Boulton is one. In an article in Nature last year he argued strongly for making not just research findings but also all the data that informed it openly available. He says this will allow other researchers and members of the interested public to make up their own minds about what the data reveals rather than simply relying on what the original researcher regarded as interesting or important.

He has developed his ideas on this as part of a Royal Society report and recently he has contributed to a series of workshops for the Knowledge Exchange. The Knowledge Exchange is doing detailed work on ways to incentivise the open sharing of data and to give appropriate recognition to those who do share openly.

This is important because there are many researchers who find the concept of open practices uncomfortable. The fear that their work will be taken and altered or re-used inappropriately, or used without citation and appropriate recognition is very real. Working out answers to these concerns should be a priority for those who want to make open approaches work well. Wikipedia’s own solution is to record all contributions and amendments made throughout each article’s history, and to cite the individual who made it, so that their merit can be evaluated by anyone who wants to do so. The system is a proven fit for purpose and works well even in Wikipedia’s large-scale, dynamic environment.

The real crux of the problem for researchers is the need for exposure, peer review and impact, and how these can be achieved in an open context.

As scholars move their work onto the web, and collaborate via tweets and blog posts, we need to provide solutions to their concerns. We need to develop fresh ways to recognise that these new forms of communication will both reflect enhanced scholarly impact, and support it. We need to be able to measure the scholarly impact and ascribe a value to it. We need also to recognise the genuine value of broader engagement, through systems such as altmetrics - which can give a detailed picture of exactly what is making an impact and the form that impact is taking.