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Dublin By Bike

Open Repositories 2016 is almost upon us, page and that means I once again have the pleasure of (with my cochair Claire Knowles) organising the Ideas Challenge.  This is the most fun I have all year!

The Challenge

The Ideas Challenge asks the conference to form small teams and to propose a specific solution to an existing problem.  In my mind, sickness there are three main strategic goals to the challenge, and it’s hard for me to decide which is more important.

  • It’s an opportunity to discuss the future of repositories.  Ideas proposed at previous conferences have become features of repositories.  Emerging technologies and infrastructure have been demonstrated to the conference, sparking discussion and debate about their merits.
  • It’s a way for developers and non-developers to meet, engage and work together in a relaxed context, outside of their jobs.  They get to run a mini-project and bat around blue sky ideas.  It is one of the key events that helps to bring the developer community together (developers don’t get let out much under normal circumstances) and many of my contacts in the International Repository Community were formed and grew through developer challenges.  This includes my co-chair Claire Knowles.
  • It provides a forum for developers and the development process to take centre stage.  This should not be underestimated.  While policy and business requirements are in the hands of librarians and managers, the software tools that enable Open Access are in the hands of the developers.  Having a general conference session at which software, developers and development collaborations are the stars is an important part of the community calendar.

The Themes

Challenges usually have themes.  Last year (Claire and my first year of responsibility), the theme was ‘achievable ideas’.  Many winning ideas have historically been large-scale, sector changing plans for world domination.  While big ideas are valuable and can show strategic priorities, we felt the need to have a look at what progress could be made with small-scale ideas.  Last year’s winner proposed allowing authors to submit fulltext documents by responding to automatic emails from the repository requesting they do so (e.g. “Your publication is missing a document, please reply to this email and attach a PDF”).  Genius!

This year’s theme will look at ideas to make the lives of academics easier.  As another Open Repositories first, we will includes some academics from outside of the conference on the judging panel, including a postgraduate and a professor!

Two meta-themes that have always run through the challenges is the idea of encouraging new collaborations, breaking down barriers between developers and non-developers and having a fun, informal presentation session.

Min Maxing Effort and Utility

The ideas challenge is supposed to fit into the gaps in the conference, perhaps starting with a conversation during a coffee-break, and then throwing together some slides during a lunch.  The process is:

  1. Form a team
  2. Think of a problem
  3. Think of a specific technical solution
  4. Build a four slide presentation
    1. Introduce the Team
    2. Outline the Problem
    3. Overview of the Solution
    4. Technologies Required
  5. Give a 3-minute presentation to the conference.

Speaking with a member of the idea team that placed second last year, he estimated the total time at around 90 minutes, but said that he expected it would be shorter with a smaller team (he had 5 members).  Their slides were created by photographing scribbles on paper.

I think the presentation session is greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are really good.  Each presentation offers an informed opinion of the future of repositories.  As an aggregate, the session give an overview of what is on the minds of the community, what problems the non-developers see, and what technologies and platforms the developer community favour.

The Scoresheet

As a board-game player and some-time game designer, I like the idea that the priorities of the challenge can be codified in a scoring system.  Last year we created a scoresheet that would minimise the possibility of a tie.  We originally did this to minimise judging effort, and that really paid off.  We had the results within 15 minutes of the final presentation, an unprecedented occurrence at Open Repositories.  Thanks to this efficiency, this year the Ideas Challenge presentations will be just before the closing session, meaning teams will have even more time to have ideas and create presentations.

This year’s scoresheet has now been created.  The scoring systems prioritises the main themes of the challenge and minimises the possibility of a tie.  We have also added a ‘newbie’ bonus to encourage those who have never participated to get involved.

Start Your Engines…

How can we make repositories serve the Academic Community better?

Carry this thought around in your head in the run-up to the conference.  I am excited to see what you come up with.

I was in Dublin for OR2016 and the day after the conference, ailment
I was able to squeeze in a great tour of the city with Peter, Kim and Alan.  It was great.

Brodsworth Hall

At the beginning of this year, drugs I started working for Jisc. My first months have been nice and busy, search and full of mainly one challenge. SHERPA Ref.


For those of you not in scholarly communications (Hi Mum), medic here’s a bit of background.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the a big deal in UK academia. It’s a sector-wide exercise to rank all Universities by the quality of their research outputs. How well an institution does in the REF will have a direct impact on the research funding it will receive through the next cycle. HEFCE (the UK government’s Higher Education quango) administer it and set the rules.

A word on Research Outputs: Without getting into a debate about the scope and nature of a Research Output, for the purposes of this post, we’ll be focusing on Journal Articles.

As far as I can tell, the product that a journal is selling is reputation. An academic that can get a Journal Article published in one of the top journals is respected by his peers, and more importantly, by research funders.

Journals make their money by selling subscriptions to university libraries, and the traditional model of scholarly communications is funded in this way.  When a researcher gives a journal her article, the journal handles dissemination of the research.  The business I have been in for the last ten years is about shaking this up by enabling academics to publish their work via the web so that it’s available for everyone, for free.  It’s called Open Access.  Publishers have a variety of views on this, and make those views formally known through Publisher Policies, which are legal wording defining what authors can and can’t do if they publish in their journal.

However, we can now add the British government to the growing list of entities that support Open Access to research.  HEFCE has decreed that for a research output to be considered in the REF, it must be Open Access.

Understanding whether a particular Publisher’s Policy allows an author to make his article Open Access is actually quite difficult. The author would have to read through potentially pages of policy document to understand this. To assist, the SHERPA Ref service provides a simple answer as to whether a Publish Policy allows an author to make his article open access and how he can do that. We’ve had our crack admin team read the policies, we’ve stored them in a database, and we’re providing and interface that allows anyone to query by journal.

In at The Deep End

Just as you don’t want to know about the processes that go into making laws or sausages, you probably don’t want to know what’s going on behind the web services you use every day. A lot of what is shipped is not beautiful to behold.  This is normal, and right up to the wire, managing a project can be duck-work — calm on the surface but paddling furiously below.

I inherited technical responsibility for SHERPA Ref quite late in its project lifecycle and it was my responsibility to work through the last remaining technical hurdles and get it release-ready.

The Challenge

The first piece of critical analysis was to identify which parts of the system were ready for launch and which weren’t. On the whole, the system was robust. There was sophisticated administration and data entry infrastructure that was functional and appropriate, a database structure that was a little was inelegant but functional (as a developer, I’d love to live in a world where elegance was one of the bars all software had to clear) but there were still some issues with the front-end.

Results from our closed beta testing were generally positive, but there were criticisms that came back to the issues we identified with the front-end.



Problem Solving in Broad Strokes

Of course, some of these issues were bugs that beta-testing had shaken out, but some of the issues were structural.  An early misunderstanding of the requirements by the development side of the project team had led to some subtle issues in the way decisions and recommendations were being made by the system.  This was a critical issue that affected a low number of journals, so had not been caught earlier in the process.

Then there was a decision to make.  Repair the existing front-end or build a new one.  The front-end of the system was a fairly small (in terms of lines of code) component of the system and is essentially a view on the data that is curated by the larger components of the system, which made either option a viable one.  In the end it was decided to rebuild due to the lack of current staff that had a detailed knowledge of the framework that was used to build the system.

Building a REST interface to access data stored in a database is the bread-and-butter of a Web Systems Developer, which is one of the hats I wear. The most complex part build was reading from the database and normalising from the eccentric structure of the database into something more usable. It didn’t take long to produce an equivalent system, and it was a simple matter to also push JSON data out over predictable URLs to create an API. However, it turned out that the third issue (that some results weren’t quite right) was a different matter.

The Benefit of Automated Tests

As part of the new development, a comprehensive set of Unit and Integration tests were written. By far the most important of these were created in association with Jane Anders, the SHERPA Services Development Officer, and by far the most expert person I’ve ever met on the subject of publisher policies. Her job is to ensure that the data that powers SHERPA Services accurately reflects reality. Together we chose a set of representative publications and wrote down what the system should say about each of them. We ended up with 28 journals. We used these to test against the system, and quickly isolated the conditions under which the system did not perform as expected.

The biggest benefit of tests when dealing with software projects that they give provable confidence. There is now a process for determining that the software is correct at this point, and furthermore, we can recheck it at any point in the future.

The End of the Process

Sherpa Ref was launched today in a small blitz of Jisc publicity. I ran the tests once more before launch time and kept my fingers crossed; I’m never fully convinced that my software works, and I think that’s a healthy attitude.

I learn best by doing, and while there was no Rocket Science in this project, it was an opportunity to stretch my legs with the technical management of a troubled project while gaining understanding of the organisational context of my job. Thoughout this process, I had the support of colleagues in other offices in Jisc. We were provided with infrastructure to run our test and live services on, development support from Rachel in the Open Access Scholarly Comms Development Team.

All in all, this has been a good quarter, and I’m happily ensconced in my role, and I’m now looking at the next challenge: version 2 of SHERPA’s other Open Access Services…
We have English Heritage membership, discount and we took the opportunity to see a fine old Victorian country house.

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Open Repositories Twitter Trends

I attended the Open Repositories 2014 conference last week, practitioner and harvested the conference twitter hashtag using an EPrints repository with the Tweepository package installed.  During the conference I generated wordles which I tweeted (the tweepository package makes that a two-click process).  These proved to be quite popular, so I thought I’d archive them here.  Anyone interested in the trends of the conference can do a comparison.  Here they are with their original tweet texts:

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I’m in Helsinki for a conference, neuropathist and I’ve been walking around, taking some pictures.  Here are five of them.

White Faced Saki

I haven’t been out with my camera lately, asthma but I did get a nice shot of a White Faced Sake at Marwell Zoo.  I had a play with my black-and-white processing software, and then with the colour processing software.  Here are the results for the same photograph.  I thought the black-and-white one was best at first, but the colour one is winning me over.

Marwell Portraits

On Noah’s birthday, ailment we bought season tickets to Marwell Zoo, and we’ve been making good use of the tickets ever since.  I’ve also been playing (again) with black-and-white processing, just for fun 🙂  Here are some animal portraits.

The Black Eagles

The Korean Air Force flight display team, troche the Black Eagles, caries performed over Expo Park in Daejeon to commemorate 20 years since Expo ’93.  The display was spectacular, and challenging to photograph.

Jinjang at Sunset

I spent the weekend at my mother-in-law’s house, migraine way out in the countryside of Korea, in the village of Jinjang.  The weather was so hot that we spent most of the daytime just lounging around the house and avoiding the sun.  In the evening, I went out to take photos with the tripod I got for my birthday.  I also tried my hand at HDR photography for the first time, and I’m quite pleased with the result.

Details of Old Sarum

A year ago, sildenafil we got English Heritage family membership, sales which paid for a years’ entry to a large number of castles and other historical sites over England.  We got our money’s worth, but won’t be renewing — we’ve seen all the castles we can conveniently get to.  However, the membership was about to end, so we used that as an excuse to visit nearby Old Sarum.

I’ve posted about Old Sarum before, and visited so many times that it was hard to get excited about photographing it, so I experimented with highlighting details of the castle rather than the whole castle itself.