Dialogue: a new model for conferences and scholarly communication

Mon Mar 17 2014 08:03:01 GMT+1100 (AEDT)

Recently I've been thinking a lot about how librarians communicate with each other to explore ideas and professional practice.

Generally speaking I see four current models for substantial professional communication - journals, conferences, blogs and unconferences. All have strengths, but they also all have significant weaknesses.

Journals

Scholarly journals date to the seventeenth century, and their longevity is not without good reason. Typically journal articles are of sufficient length to really explore a problem, discovery or experiment in detail, and standard practices with regard to provision of evidence and citing of sources ensures that assertions can be tested and the literature can be further explored if the reader so desires.

The traditional journal format has many drawbacks, however, and these are only becoming more apparent as technology has advanced, particularly in the last couple of decades. Traditional business models for scholarly journals have become socially unacceptable as the economic justification disappeared - when publication costs approach zero, charging anything for access to read articles becomes highly questionable at best.

The Open Access movement was a logical response to this new reality, with Plos and arXive being two early and wildly succesful players. In the library world, journals like Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice and Code4Lib Journal are well known examples. Even open access journals, however have problems. Pre-publication peer review is the standard, and that takes time. Well-regarded journals usually end up with more proposed articles than they can publish, which can further blow out the time between the paper being finished and being published. Finally, the journal article format lends itself to interaction mostly via other journal articles or written responses, mostly not easily located via the original article.

Conferences

Conferences are mostly an attempt to address the final point about journals. A robust discussion in the coffee queue or at the bar after a conference session can be much more efficient than trawling through journal articles across a range of journals and editions. Conferences are also a great way to meet with other professionals, network, and hopefully be inspired by the keynote speakers.

The big problem with conferences is the conference paper. In theory, this is the point of conferences - hear a bunch of smart people presenting their new findings or ideas. Professional conferences like VALA or the ALIA Biennial issue a Call for Papers, then screen and peer-review paper proposals. VALA tends to screen on proposals, whereas ALIA Biennial wants completed draft papers straight up. Whilst this sounds like a recipe for robust papers of the quality of journal articles, it can be fairly limiting and stifling. Because they are a venue for face to face interaction, conferences should enable attendees to discover the latest research, ideas and initiatives. When papers are expected to be original (i.e. not previously published) and submitted six or more months ahead of the conference, that immediacy is squashed. It doesn't help that many conference presentations give one the impression that the paper was simply written to ensure the author's employer paid for conference attendance.

There is also a mountain of evidence that having someone stand at a lecture and talk at a group of people is a terrible way for the audience to learn anything. This is widely understood in higher education institutions - as this 2012 article about teaching Physics explains, the research goes back to 1976. Regardless, we continue with the conference paper presentation and pretend that it is a great format for learning about new ideas and discoveries. In the worst cases, conferences are simply locations for people to read what amounts to a tepid journal article out aloud, to a crowd wondering whether they'll get the scones again at afternoon tea.

It's not as if I'm the first person to have identified these problems. Just a few weeks ago no less an authority than Mary Ellen Bates announced A Conference Manifesto pointing out that "The traditional conference is going away, because it is no longer serving its purpose."

Blogs

Professional blogs have risen (and, some say, fallen) in popularity in the last decade or so as a less formal way to explore ideas, practices and, sometimes, rants. Some, such as Lane Wilkinson take a fairly formal, heavily-referenced approach similar to a journal article. Others intersperse report-backs from conferences, rants about the latest library controversy, and cat pictures.

Professional blogging at its best is often an attempt to publish more quickly the thoughts that might otherwise go into a journal article. It can be a useful way to explore ideas in a public way, benefiting from the comments of readers who may point the blogger to an interesting source of further reading, or simply offer an alternative argument. Blogging systems also usually provide useful 'linkback' and 'pingback' functionality enabling readers to follow the conversation across multiple sites.

The problems with blogging as a professional communication mode are, however, numerous. The library blogosphere is fractured and full of abandoned and semi-abandoned blogs. It can be hard to find the gems without a good search and filter tool. Bloggers who combine personal thoughts and news with professional thinking discourage subscribers who aren't interested in their personal life. The recent shuttering of Google Reader also caught many RSS users off guard, and as I recently found with my own blog, even blogs that are still updated can appear to be abandoned if their RSS feed is broken due to a change in publishing platform or URL.

As someone who previously has considered that professional blogging might be a viable alternative to the more formal journal system, I have also been struck by the value of editing and peer review in my role as an editor (and writer) at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Even the best writers and thinkers end up writing much more eloquently and convincingly with a strong and supportive editor. They also tend to think more deeply. Whilst post-publication peer review has some attractions, having someone help you to get it right before you publish is not to be underestimated.

Unconferences

Finally we come to unconferences. These have become quite popular among Australian librarians, with Library Camp a long-standing and well-regarded example. Unconferences are based on the Open Space Technology principles. Notably, participants set the agenda themselves at the start of the event, and volunteer to host or lead particular sessions.

Unconferences can be a powerful way to explore solutions particular pressing problems, but I admit to being an unconference sceptic when it comes to broader discussion and their ability to make a significant difference across the profession. All too often unconferences can be hijacked by those who are confident but uninformed or uninteresting, and sessions easily devolve into hand-wringing or mutual appreciation societies. As long ago as 2006 Scott Berkun wrote about improving unconferences. Alas, most of his suggestions don't seem to have been taken up much, and I'm not convinced that they really resolve the problems he identifies. Ultimately unconferences are a useful tool for encouraging discussion and more active participation, but their 'self organising' principles are limiting.

Three years later, there was a great discussion in the comments of this Chronicle of Higher Education post about unconferences, but these observations seem to have also gone nowhere.

Why we do these things

Ultimately, reading and writing articles and blog posts, and attending conferences and unconferences, is done for one or more of the following reasons:

I would argue that we can achieve most of these in a much more effective (and fun) way.

A new way

So what's the solution?

I think it's time for a new model that combines the best aspects of journals, blogs, conferences and unconferences. This approach is based on a few observations:

The new approach should be based on some simple principles:

Publish first

We've already established that lectures are an ineffective teaching tool. Academics and teachers are dealing with this reality with the 'flipped classroom' - where the students watch lectures online and read articles and chapters before class, and the class is a workshop where they can ask questions and further explore concepts they are finding difficult to comprehend. Unconferences are one tool that attempts to 'flip' the traditional conference, but the problem is that the program is only set once everyone arrives. This makes it difficult to determine whether it's worth attending, and also difficult to secure funding.

Conferences tend to be protective of their papers, generally releasing them several months after the conference has taken place. The theory behind this is that if people have access to the papers ahead of the conference, they are less likely to attend. The result is papers released into the open around a year after they were written, which nobody much ends up reading.

I think this model is profoundly flawed. The first principle of a new way for professional communication should be 'publish first'. The place to announce, articulate and disseminate ideas and research is ideally in a publication - an article, blog post, or perhaps a podcast or even a video. This gives your idea, argument or research an anchor.

I'm yet to find a convincing argument that the best way to bring an idea or finding into the public realm is by reading aloud Powerpoint slides for twenty minutes. Remembering my point that people with great ideas aren't necessarily the best public speakers, we need to ensure that ideas don't die just because their originator had an attack of nerves and left the audience bored or confused. Publishing first also means that the idea can be explored and considered by others with plenty of time before they ask questions or make responses. We've all thought of a great question to ask a conference presenter - the day after their presentation and Q & A session.

Conferences are for developing ideas

If an idea or research finding is published before a conference, then there is little point running events where people present papers. Rather than announcing their idea or finding, authors now have the opportunity to explore and develop their idea with the other participants. What is the point of having all those people around you if you don't engage them in discussion about what you have to say? Like the flipped classroom, everyone has the opportunity to read the papers before the conference, and then discuss their thoughts or ask for clarification on any points they don't understand. Publication should be seen as the beginning of a discussion, not the end.

The conference format could vary. To be honest this is something I haven't yet formed a strong view about, but a successful new-model conference might include any of

A further advantage of the 'Publish first and develop ideas at conferences' approach is that it encourages information professionals to write because they have something interesting or important to say. This ideally will result in an increase both in the volume of publication within the profession (because you don't know whether you'll be offered the opportunity to speak at a conference until after you have published) and an increase in the quality of those publications and ideas (because writing a paper just so you get funded to attend the conference is no longer really possible).

The role of event organisers is to help make connections

A further advantage of publishing first is that conference organisers can bring together professionals to build on the connections between their ideas or findings. Rather than setting an arbitrary theme for a conference and then asking for papers, organisers can look at what papers have been published recently and invite interesting authors to participate in their conference. Handled skilfully, this should result in an event with a broad cross-section of authors with a coherent theme, and bring together practitioners and researchers who can build on each others work.

The advantage of meeting face to face is that information professionals can discuss their connected ideas and develop new partnerships. This could simply involve the ability to compare notes in depth or, as we shall see in a moment, may involve building a solution to a commonly identified problem or opportunity.

If they come, you can build it

Part of developing ideas could also mean building tangible products. When the idea or finding is already known to most participants, and the organisers have brought together people with complementary skills and knowledge, a professional event has the potential to be not just a place of discussion but a place of creation. Perhaps Day 1 is a series of roundtable discussions and Day 2 is a hackathon. Perhaps it is Room 1 and Room 2. Maybe what is built isn't software but lesson plans, or standards, or best practice procedures - a Buildathon or a Writeathon or something with a more catchy name.

Embrace Rockstars - and develop more

There's been a lot of talk about 'librarian rockstars' of late. Much of it is in that negative, whiny tone that has become an art form in a profession famous for passive-aggression. This needs to end. Rockstars are valuable. Think about the best concert you ever attended. Think about how pumped up and excited you were. That's how you should feel before, during and after a library conference. The best conferences I've attended had excellent keynote speakers. They inspired, energised and challenged me.

The exception to the 'no lectures' rule is keynote speakers. Their purpose is not to announce new ideas, but rather to inspire and energise. The best keynotes are a mixture of polemic and synthesis of ideas. The keynote speaker's purpose is not to deliver knowledge but to deliver energy - it is an emotional experience, not an intellectual one. This is the point that the anti-rockstarists don't fully appreciate - what the rockstar knows is less important than how they make their audience feel and why they inspire them to do.

One thing the anti-Rockstarists are correct about however is that we need to widen the pool. In this regard it is important that organisers provide opportunities for the rockstars of the future.

Open all the things

For this system to work, it also needs to be open - articles need to be freely available to read, watch or listen, and ideally free to index and build upon. No closed access journals please! Conferences also need to be open to multiple communication channels.

By separating the announcement of ideas and findings from the meeting of professionals, the reasoning behind closing the event to digital delivery and communication becomes fairly pointless. The value of attending the conference is now entirely in the experience of being there - the lunchtime discussions, the introductions to interesting colleagues, the ability to participate in debates and explore ideas with colleagues in the sort of freewheeling way only possible in a face to face environment. To this end, physical events should be as open and digitally connected as possible. Most conferences now have a dedicated Twitter hashtag, but there are more possibilities. Live-streams of panel discussions, dedicated blog channels updated in the breaks, and interaction with those not on-site through questions and comments via Twitter or other channels are all possibilities worth exploring.

That digital dualism is a nonsense is now widely accepted. Physical meetings have huge advantages, but these can be augmented by incorporating two-way digital communication into the design of the event and accepting that the conference exists online and offline simultaneously. This might mean questions or suggestions 'from the floor' are also able to come from social networks or online fora. It might involve a panel member 'attending' via video-link. There could even be multiple sites connected online for parts of the conference and acting independently of each other during others. Matt Finch wrote last November about his desire to flip the usual practice of hosting events in cultural hubs and (sometimes) beaming them out, and reverse the process so the event is physically in a more marginal location and beamed in to the centre. This could easily work in both directions, however. Imagine for example a national Australian library conference that takes place in Freemantle, Orange, Geelong, Mildura, Oatlands, Mackay and Newcastle simultaneously, with continuous communication between sites. Whilst the benefits of being physically in the same space are manifold, there are plenty of 'blended' conference models now possible that have not really been explored.

The other aspect of being 'open' is that the library and information field really needs to open up to other diciplines and share our ideas and learning. Journals and conferences don't need to be focussed on a particular profession, and may well be more useful if they are focussed on a set of problems or subjects rather than professions and disciplines.

Mess with the best, or die like the rest

You may be thinking most of this sounds like an unconference. Whilst the participatory aspects of events based on Open Spaces Technology are attractive and well-suited to today's information environment, they have several limitations, as explored earlier. The key difference I am proposing is that the planning that goes in to a traditional conference should not be thrown out with the non-participatory format. One of the demands in Bates' Manifesto is "make it worth my while". To do this, organisers must ensure that not only is the theme of their event relevant and interesting, but that the participants are informed, dynamic and interesting.

If you are arguing about the merits of makerspaces in libraries, the discussion will be a lot more informed and useful with people like Mia Ridge and Eli Neiburger in the room. If you want to discuss the place of coding in libraries, you probably want to invite Andromeda Yelton and Coral Sheldon-Hess. Looking to bring some creativity into the way libraries are managed? You could do worse than ensure that Mal Booth and Kim Tairi are part of your discussion.

It takes time and effort to ensure that people with interesting and up to date ideas are available at your conference to explore, discuss, provoke and teach. Getting the right combination of people to really provoke meaningful discussion and learning takes skill and deliberate management. It can't be left to chance.

A second important factor connects back to my point that passionate people make poor facilitators. The unconference model of the person with the panel idea being responsible for facilitating it is crazy. Not only does it put someone with a clear bias in charge of running the discussion, that person is also probably quite knowledgable and therefore better participating fully in the discussion.

Good facilitation, particularly for discussions on important and contentious topics, is a difficult and rare skill. Paying for professional facilitators may well be the best investment a conference organiser makes.

Finally, remember the role of your keynote speakers. Their role is to inspire, engage and stimulate your participants. Look for those attributes - whether they are a big name or from a major organisation is of little importance.

Business models

To make this a little more tangible, it might be worth considering some possible 'business models' for this brave new world of professional communication.

Journal-Conference

This is the model that originally sparked my thinking. There is overwhelmingly a strange disconnect between journals and conference. In many ways they currently compete, with conferences publishing proceedings in much the same way journals publish editions.

I see a great deal of scope for the rise of 'journal-conferences' where the conference becomes a way for the ideas outlined in (open access) journal articles over the previous year to be more fully explored, or perhaps re-visited in light of responses and discussion in other journals, blogs or conferences. This model also provides scope for forward-thinking existing players to simply re-align what currently exists. ALIA, for example, is already well placed to implement this model. ALIA publishes two journals - Australian Library Journal and Australian Academic and Research Libraries. ALIA also runs a number of conferences, the key one being the ALIA Biennial. It would be fairly easy, should they wish to do something innovative, for ALIA to re-align the ALIA Biennial so that the key ideas explored at the conference come from articles previously published in the journals.

Alas, for this model to really work well I suspect it will take a new player. ALIA has, for the moment, handed control of its journals to Taylor & Francis, and for a journal-conference to work well would require a fast rate of publication and an annual conference cycle. Not every article will generate enough interest to warrant a space at the conference, so there would need to be a relatively large number of articles. A journal like In the Library with the Lead Pipe, or a conference like VALA could expand to this model, leveraging off the reputations for quality that they already hold.

Curated Conference

A curated conference would work on the same principle as a journal-conference, but instead of restricting itself to article published in its own journal, the conference would use articles, blog posts and other scholarly texts published elsewhere. This process is already used to an extent when conference committees look for workshop facilitators and keynote speakers, so this model may win out. On the other hand, a conference run in this way may feel a little derivative if handled poorly. This sort of approach will also work a lot better with open-access journals rather than closed ones, and would require a change of approach from practitioners in terms of publishing - currently the number of Australian professional library blogs, for example, is likely somewhere below 100, and most aren't used as a place to publish and explore new ideas or research.

Unconference-Buildathon

Despite my negativity about unconferences, they have their uses. A combination of a 'buildathon' (the Barcamp model), with an unconference could see the energy and solutions derived from the unconference immediately turned into a usable product - whether some program code, a standard, a training manual or something else. The unconference ensures that the pressing topic is fully explored and (ideally) some kind of consensus reached on a desirable outcome, and the buildathon makes it happen. This might be a multi-day event or all happen in a single day.

Eating our own dogfood

Conferences should be places to connect and explore and build, not to find ideas and information - just as our libraries are changing in the same way. If libraries are now a place for cultural and informational creation rather than just 'consumption' and information storage, why not library conferences? Physical meetings should be a place for dialogue and the development of ideas, not merely passive events for the announcement of ideas.

If pressed for a new name for this conception of professional discourse, I would call it simply Dialogue - but I don't necessarily care whether conferences are still called conferences, or whatever. This is not an issue of semantics or marketing, it requires a new conception of why we meet physically and temporally, how we discuss things over time and space, and the best strategies to ensure we learn from and build upon the work of other information professionals.

Let's start the revolution.