Thursday 26 November 2015

Standards: chaos minimization, credibility and the human factor

Standard, standards, standards. One is born, one conforms to standards, one dies. Or so Edmund Blackadder might have said.

And yet, as David Sommer and his panel of experts demonstrated earlier this month, standards underpin our scholarly publishing infrastructure. Without them, we could not appoint editorial teams, enable the review process, tag or typeset articles, publish in print or online, catalogue, discover, or even assess the quality of what we published – assuming, that is, we had been allowed through the office door by our standards-compliant HR departments. We couldn’t determine the citation rates of our publications, sell said publications to libraries (all of them naturally sceptical of our unstandardized claims for high usage) or even contact our high-profile UCL author (is this the UCL in London, Belgium, Ecuador, Denmark, Brazil or the USA?). Resolution, disambiguation, standardization is the order of the day.

‘We are’, as Tim Devenport of EDItEUR said, ‘in the chaos minimization business’.

Speakers at the seminar offered overviews of the roles played by CrossRef, Ringgold, ORCID, COUNTER, Thomson Reuters, EDItEUR, libraries (in the guise of the University of Birmingham) and JISC, considering content, institutional and individual identifiers, plus usage, citation, metadata and library standards.

Audio of all talks is available via the ALPSP site, but here are some broader conclusions from issues discussed on the day.

Humans make standards

But we’re remarkably good at breaking them too. The most foolproof systems are those that don’t allow much human intervention at all (ever tried to accurately type a sixteen-digit alphanumerical code on less than eight cups of coffee?). Vendors should build systems that not only pre-populate identifier fields, but actively discourage users from guessing, ignoring or simply making up numbers.

Be the difference

Publishers, funders and institutions need to actively assert their need for standards at every stage of their workflows. Break one part of the article supply chain and something, somewhere, is bound to be lost. (And the worse part? We don’t know where.) That means that the entire supply chain must inform and develop standards, not just 'free ride' on existing ones.

Standards help authors find their voice

If an article can be found by DOI, funding source, award number or ORCID iD – in other words, if one or more of the key standards is applied to a particular publication – then research gets heard above the online ‘noise’. Authors can help themselves by claiming their own iDs, but it’s up to publishers and institutions to show them why it matters.

Identifiers enforce uniqueness

They not only help with functionality (disambiguating data and eradicating duplication), but they ensure correct access rights, help understand a customer base and build stronger client relationships. All of this adds immense value to your data.

Standards build credibility everywhere

We tend to think of publishing standards as being the building blocks of the standard workflows – and they are. But the latest development from ORCID encourages involvement in peer review, with journals and funders now collecting reviewers’ iDs to track review activities. That’s a startling contribution to tenure decisions and research assessments. And what about the prospect of using iDs in job applications to verify your publications?

The Impact Factor is a number, not a standard

OK, so we knew that. And we probably had an opinion on it. But coming on a day when Thomson Reuters announced they were ‘exploring strategic options’ for the Intellectual Property & Science businesses, it was good to hear from the horse’s mouth.

Even the ‘standard’ standards need, well, standardizing

Given the significance of COUNTER usage statistics for library negotiations, the possibility for inaccuracy seems startlingly high. Over 90% of users still require some form of manual intervention, and that means greater likelihood of error. There is a role for standardizing and checking IP information to improve the accuracy of COUNTER data - but for now, no one seems to be claiming that ground.

Slow is good

If a publisher/funder/institution is a late standards adopter, that’s OK. Better to start slow and get it right than to implement poorly and leave a (data) trail of tears. But start. Organizations such as ORCID make available plenty of information about integrating identifiers into publisher and repository workflows.

Standards are not anti-innovation

On the contrary, they facilitate innovation. And they provide the information architecture for innovation to flourish in more than one place.

Share it

Since we can't predict when/where (meta)data will be used, let’s make sure everyone knows as much as possible. Make it open source, or at the very least, make it trustworthy.

And finally…

The mobile charging area at the British Dental Association front desk is a perfect example of the need for rational standards. How many wires?

Martyn Lawrence (@martynlawrence) is Publisher at Emerald Group Publishing and attended the recent ALPSP Setting the Standard seminar in London. He can be contacted at

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