The sixth Bloomsbury Conference was held on this topic earlier this summer (more information, including many of the contributions can be accessed here). Like all the conferences in this series, the central theme was formal scholarly communication – how it is developing in the digital environment and how it may develop; the drivers of change; and the responses of publishers, librarians, and scholars themselves to the changes. This particular event was more British based than others, but all the themes expressed and the research behind them had international relevance.
The thinking behind the program for this event began with one understanding of outreach. It is a truism that research articles are written by scholars for other scholars in the same discipline their peers. Making these articles easy to access only goes a little way toward making the content truly accessible in the sense of being fully comprehensible to the lay public, to professionals, to those working in the small and medium sized industries so much loved by politicians, and even to those scholars working in other disciplines. As Lee-Ann Coleman of the British Library asked, while describing her excellent educational work does access make it accessible? Part of the aim of the open science movement, exemplified in the presentations on this occasion by Dave De Roure (Oxford e-Research Centre) and Jeremy Frey (University of Southampton), is making multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship easier. Open Science is hard work but it does aim for the reproducibility supposedly at the heart of the publishing process. Publishers have a role: for example, medical publishers, including Wiley Blackwell, seek to translate research for clinicians. David Payne, Online Editor of the British Medical Journal explained what they do in this context, while Richard Gedye of the International Association of STM Publishers described their work through PatientINFORM and R4L.
As the program was developed, it became clear that others with something relevant to say started from a different position from outside the Academy. The Finch report (as Michael Jubb of Research Information Network explained) was all about openness and transparency. Professor Brian Collins (University College London), who showcased the recent Royal Society report on Science as an Open Enterprise, took as one of his texts the gnomic saying of his colleague on the team (Onora ONeill) for effective communication, we need intelligent openness. For Research Councils UK, represented by Dr. Astrid Wissenberg, open access to formal publications is a start but only a start. It also became apparent that the term outreach is in some circles not even an appropriate term. A presentation by Ann Grand (University of the West of England) on Science Communication and Public Engagement was particularly thorough and challenging in arguing that open science keeps scientists honest people want to scrutinize; they are the funders.
But how does this all relate to impact? Under the terms of the UK Research Excellence Framework, as all British scholars know only too well, 20% of the grades given in the assessment of an individuals research relate to the impact of the research. Guidance on how to grade, however, is minimal. Dr. Ian Carter (University of Sussex) provided a succinct and useful view, suggesting that the end is to promote innovation not quite the same as understanding and engagement. He ended with a great quote: Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it! Thus Michael Faraday to William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he asked about the practical worth of electricity.