Monday, April 21, 2014

More heretical thoughts on library trends - Altmetrics, discovery and spaces

Almost 4 years ago in 2010, I posted A few heretical thoughts about library tech trends.

I was sceptical about QRcodes, Mobile websites and SMS reference. How did I do?

It's a bit difficult to gauge whether a given technology was absorbed or rejected into the industry, certainly you can't go by the number of presentations in conferences, since the lack of mentions could either mean the idea died out or the idea is so common place that it is not considered something worth talking about.

Nevertheless, I will try to score myself.

I think I pretty much got QRcodes right - it seems successful only in a limited number of library use cases such as scavenger hunts and novelty video walls like the one in NCSU.

NCSU Listen to Wikipedia video wall with QRCode is heavily used

I feel the general concept is sound, linking physical location to online locations but the technology, the supporting infrastructure, alignment of the stars? is still lacking.

With regards to mobile library websites, I was mostly wrong, though it still accounts for a relatively small amount of traffic at my institution, it is undoubtedly important particularly at public libraries though the current trend seems to be shifting towards "mobile responsive" rather than pure mobile sites.

With regards to SMS reference, I am unsure how it stands. The launch of Springshare's LibAnswers platform with SMS reference has probably made it easier for libraries to provide this service and usage probably increased but whether it has caught on to become a staple like how chat reference is one in US academic librarians is unclear to me. I give myself a half-right score.

In all for 3 predictions, I score myself between 33% to 50%.

More predictions

So let me go on and try to gaze into the crystal ball and predict the fates of 3 more library trends...

Focus on Discovery vs Delivery - Delivery will win 

I've always was a bit conflicted when it came to web scale discovery services, which are basically attempts by academic libraries to compete with Google and Google Scholar by creating "one-search" systems that mimicked the functioning of commerical web searches.

Even back in 2012, just before the final launch of the web scale discovery service at my institution, I blogged "Playing devil's advocate. Why you shouldn't implement a web scale discovery service.", though I ultimately came down on the side of implementing web scale discovery.

The essential argument here was first made strongly by Utrecht University in Thinking the Unthinkable: A Library without a Catalogue.

The argument goes as follows, Google has won the discovery wars, libraries should not try to fight a war that has long being lost and should instead focus on making delivery of content easier from Google, Google Scholar or whether our users were searching from.

More poetically I wrote in "The day library discovery died - 2035"

"While most academic libraries in the 2010s bought into the discovery meme, a few others saw the writing on the wall sooner and their rallying cry was "delivery not discovery" and decided to opt out of the discovery wars which they saw (correctly as history will record) libraries had already lost and ceded discovery mechanics to outside the library but focused on delivering content once discovery occurred elsewhere.

The majority of commenters branded such moves as "Defeatist" , deriding such moves as turning the library back to a warehouse (albeit a digital one with libraries focusing on digitizing their special collections and having in available everywhere).

In the end though the final seeds of the defeat of the library discovery movement was sowed by the librarians themselves in a completely different direction. By 2030, to their immense surprise, Open Access became the norm (the story of how this came to past is too long and complicated to detail here), hitting over 75% of all published literature on average and close to 100% in areas like life sciences.

This all but annihilated the reason discovery systems existed - aka the need to track which of the articles your institution had access to. "

While some comments to this tongue-in-cheek blog post was that I was far too conservative to put such a far-off date of 2038, currently, the idea of eventually giving up on search is still a minority position.

So to hold to this position is I believe still a minority and hence heretical thought, as can be seen from the reaction to the presentation by Utrecht University given last week at  #UKSGLive.

Recently Lorcan Dempsey  wrote about two opposing forces or trends in library strategy, one involves centralization of services and resources around a given central network presence aka library website, another involves decentralization typically citing the meme "embed the library into the researcher workflow"

He names them centripetal trend and centrifugal trend respectively (Lorcan has a history of coining terms that eventually stick, not sure here it works).

Clearly this desire for setting up "Full library discovery" is at odds with support delivery not discovery and it may be unclear yet which trend will win out.

He acknowledges that while the decentralization trend has a lot of interest, it is still a "emergent interest". I agree and would argue based on my knowledge of typical institutional incentives, in general the centralization trend will be stronger all things equal.

But all things are not equal and I expect more and more libraries to eventually more towards the decentralization side of things.

Altmetrics (certain portions relating solely to social media shares) will mostly be forgotten

A while back a colleague was referring to altmetrics and remarked offhandedly, "This is an area where Aaron is the expert".

I was kinda mystified why this was said since I didn't have any real expertise in this area (beyond the usual surface professional reading of areas affecting academic librarianship)

Then it dawned on me that most probably, the colleague was under the mistaken impression that just because one is familiar with social media this will automatically grant familiarity with Altmetrics.

Even if familiarity with social media grants an automatic understanding of the field of bibliometrics (trust me it doesn't, I acquired some limited degree of understanding by actually working on it in day to day work),  the problem of course is Altmetrics while commonly associated with social media mentions such as tweets, also includes other indicators that have nothing much to do with social media and arguably are even more important.

Altmetrics, simply is short for ALTERNATIVE metrics so it can be pretty much anything except traditional bibliometrics citations, though for some reason social media mentions eg tweets, likes on Facebook seem to be the ones most associated with it.

There are many ways to classify altmetrics, Plumanalytics a platform which seems to have the most number of metrics currently classes metrics into

  • Usage - Downloads, views, book holdings, ILL, document delivery
  • Captures - Favorites, bookmarks, saves, readers, groups, watchers
  • Mentions - blog posts, news stories, Wikipedia articles, comments, reviews
  • Social media - Tweets, +1's, likes, shares, ratings
  • Citations - PubMed, Scopus, patents
Early research on altmetrics have focused mostly on seeing if any of these altmetrics (1) correlate with future citations and (2) whether they are distinct types of metrics showing different types of impact (typically using statistical methods like principal component analysis)

I have read through quite a few papers on altmetrics and scanned through so many over the last 2 years that they all start to blur in my mind.

But the overwhelming impression I get is that Social media type metrics like Tweets and shares are currently pretty much useless in predicting citations. Worse yet, because the vast majority of articles are not tweeted or otherwise spread via social media, trying to use such metrics to even focus attention on what to read tends to be hit or miss. Even if tweets did a good job of directing their attention to new fast breaking research (something that is a shaky assumption) you should read, it would have low recall and you were just as likely to miss other important work.

Here's one sample conclusion. Essentially not enough Top 1% cited papers (fairly recent ones after the rise of social media) have altmetrics so altmetrics are outperformed on recall/precision compared to Journal citations scores. 

If that is the case, you might as well just glance at articles in top journals. 

That said, some research so far seems to suggest other type of metrics particularly ones relating to Mendeley readership figures do correlate moderately with traditional bibliometrics citations. This makes sense when you think about it.

Moreover I am not quite sure I am on the same side as Why you should ignore altmetrics and other bibliometric nightmares.

It makes a pretty devastating case against altmetrics though it probably makes the same points made by formal research except with more anecdotal evidence.

Still at times the author seems to be making a case against Bibliometrics as a whole, rather than merely altmetrics (though it irks him more than traditional metrics), he pretty much belongs to the "read and understand the paper to judge it's worth" school of thought, so I guess any metric will be useless in his mind.

"Altmetrics are numbers generated by people who don’t understand research, for people who don’t understand research. People who read papers and understand research just don’t need them and should shun them."

I would add that Altmetrics is a vast and evolving field (see Top 5 altmetrics trends to watch in 2014) with many confusing terms such as altmetrics vs article level metrics (ALM), so I don't pretend to understand everything about it.

It also is associated with what I feel are many good ideas, such as tracking of other research outputs or artifacts rather than just research papers, including datasets, code, videos, figures (figshare etc) etc. 

I wouldn't say all altmetrics will be pointless, but I am going to stick my neck out and say that those relating to social media mentions particularly tweets will be of little practical use (even excluding predictions of future citation success). It is possible they may measure impact in the sense of what the public is interested (read tickled or amused by) , but that is of limited use.

I expect in say 3-5 years times, most altmetrics platforms like Impactstory, and Plum-analytics will drop measures like tweets or Google+ shares, so if they are included will be increasingly ignored.

Also as noted in the Q&A , social media platforms like Twitter can have fleeting life spans, are we so sure 10,20, even 50 years from now, we will all still be using Twitter or even Facebook?

While it's true that tweets might measure another type of impact, my suspicion is in the long run (5-10 years) researchers will not care as incentives do not reward interest in these areas.

3d Printers, collaborative spaces and a truly heretical thought

Though 3d printers are starting to appear in collaborative spaces , Knowledge commons etc of academic libraries, a shot in the dark prediction is that they will be mostly a fad.

In the long run, they will continue to be located in labs and not in the library. One argument is that 3d printers belong in a library to promote collaboration, but that seems to me to be a weak argument, since you can pretty much use that argument to include practically any piece of equipment you can find in a lab or anywhere for that matter. Is this mission creep?

I am not the only one who thinks so. But maker spaces are really a minor issue.

The key point is collaborative spaces and learning/digital commons are the academic libraries' (and public libraries') attempt to hold on to space we don't need any more when more of our items are available online.  Will we succeed?

Right now the paradigm model held out as the "academic library of the future" is NCSU's James B. Hunt Jr. Library. Others like University of Technology, Sydney (UTS)  in Australia have similar models . We talking about big large hi-tech libraries where space allocated to print books are limited (or even non-existent) and instead users use high-tech "library retrieval system (LRS)" to browse and select books that will be automatically brought from a off-site repository to the user on demand.

Will this catch on and most university administrators be willing to sign off on such undoubtedly costly academic libraries?

Or will the libraries' of future be lean and mean? If we started a academic library today from the scratch with no preconceptions would we insist on occupying so much space? Could it be simply that because we started with so much space assigned to us due to our print collection, now that when we no longer need it (as much) we continue to find excuses to hold on to what we are used to?


I won't be surprised if all of the 3 thoughts above turn out to be totally wrong, though some are fairly modest.

What do you think? What current trends do you see that you suspect are mere fads or blind alleys in today's environment?
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