Recently I had the priviledge of attending the FORCE11 conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon, (inspiration for the terrific comedy series Portlandia) supported by a conference Travel Fellowship. FORCE11, for those unfamiliar with the group, stands for Future of Research Communications and E-scholarship – but I admit it sounds like researchers dressing up and staging Star Wars re-enactments with the open access librarian rebels resisting the publishing storm troopers.
In fact FORCE 11 is a community of researchers, librarians, organisations, publishers, technology projects and companies, and various other parties that have come together over the last 5 or so years to advocate for, discuss and collaborate on new forms of scholarly communication. The group formed in 2011 (hence the 11) around the FORC Workshop held in Germany and has continued with the support of volunteer time and some in-kind administration support.
Like many similar groups, FORCE 11 is interested in open access to academic journals, however this is only one of the many challenges that need to be addressed if we are to have an efficient, effective and innovative research system. There are problems with the entire research process from the reproducibility of scientific experiments and the peer review process to the ability of researchers to communicate effectively about their results and the lack of reward mechanisms to do so. The solutions are many and varied, residing in new technologies, standards and practices on the one hand and changes to legal and policy settings, and institutional cultures on the other.
Changes to research practices and communication have been underway since the early 2000s but things are really starting to gain momentum in a significant way. As well as open access to journals we now have advocacy groups and policies encouraging open data, open educational resources, open science and even open government. There is now a bewildering number of projects, advocacy groups, government inquiries and other mechanisms established around the world to look at the these issues, with FORCE 11 being yet another one. A question immediately arises, how does this group differ from the numerous other groups active in the scholarly communication space and which ones should we be following? To be honest I’m not sure of the answer however at this point FORCE 11 distinguishes itself by its commitment to facilitate the discussion across all disciplines and sectors, without requiring financial investment (although organisations are encouraged to join the membership program). Given the amount of discussion and activity occurring across so many groups in so many countries, this is an important role.
Another distinction seems to be a commitment to go beyond national boundaries or even the Global North by making an effort to include participants and voices from around the world at the 2016 conference. The executive applied for and received support for travel fellowships for around 35 participants from diverse countries. I was fortunate to receive a fellowship to attend and was, I think, the only Australian at the conference (apart from Cameron Neylon, FORCE 11 president, who recently moved to Curtin University). It was great to be able to meet researchers and librarians from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe as well as US, Canadian and European attendees. The active development and support for the networks required to transform scholarly communication at a global level are one of the most important benefits of the FORCE 11 group.
Force 2016 Travel Fellows (I am front row 4th from the left)
So what happened at FORCE 2016?
The event consisted of a day of workshops based around the working groups currently established by the FORCE 11 community, followed by 2 days of conference. The workshops reflect the three key interests of FORCE 11: technology, standards and systems, and the big picture - the overall ecosystem of scholarly research and communication. The technology focus covered semantic publishing and infrastructure, OpenRIF, open software, and data management amongst other things. The standards and practices workshops covered an open standard for annotations, innovations in curation, open peer review and organisation identifiers amongst other things. And the big picture workshops covered defining the Scholarly Commons, and defining the principles that underlie open standards for publishing and curation.
FORCE 11 has its origins in the sciences, particularly biology, so as a social scientist interested in research communication for public policy it was fascinating to hear about the issues around standards of publishing that are inhibiting reproducibility amongst other things and the work underway to improve this. Keynote speakers such as Cesar Hidalgo from MIT discussed the data, visualisations and tools available for predicting economic development while John Brownstein from Boston Children’s hospital gave an impressive, and at times scary, picture of how social media, blogs, local news and other platforms can provide public health surveillance and epidemic intelligence gathering. The poster and demo sessions also showed an extraordinary proliferation of tools and technologies for producing, accessing, managing and mining data and publications with software developers and metadata experts joining forces with discipline experts to find tailored solutions as well as large scale applications for the wider research community.
It was good to also hear about some of the complexities that exist outside of the laboratory when researchers working with Indigenous and community groups discussed the politics of openness for groups long exploited without consultation. On the other hand the discussion about research dissemination and uptake to the wider community sometimes lacked an understanding of the many audiences that might exist for both research data and results and the need to tailor communication to different groups – not only the general public but for practitioners, industry and business, government departments and agencies etc. – based on an understanding of what exactly these groups want from research and scholarly communication. There is also some way to go in acknowledging the amount of research produced outside of academia and how this is to be evaluated and managed alongside university-based research.
To sum up, it was an incredibly informative conference which has given me many ideas and a lot of homework. I had a number of conversations with people eager to do something about the ongoing issue of grey literature management, for public policy, international development and other areas and look forward to working with my new global network to do so. I also had many conversations with people for whom the world of research and publishing by government, NGOs, consultants and research centres was an unknown but interesting new area.
For anyone interested the FORCE11 website has plenty of information, and a discussion forum and groups that you can join or initiate a new group or follow them on Twitter @force11rescomm. Or get in touch with me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via Twitter @amandaslawrence to discuss what we can do from our corner of the world to improve the way research is practiced and communicated for public benefit.
Amanda Lawrence is Research and Strategy Manager at APO and has written and researched on grey literature, public policy and digital libraries. More publications available here: http://apo.org.au/creator/amanda-lawrence