ATG Foreword, May 2019
Isabel Thompson, Senior Strategy Analyst, Holtzbrinck, @IsabelT5000
Board of Directors for the Society of Scholarly Publishing (SSP), Winner of the SSP Emerging Leader Award 2018, and passionate about using technology and collaborative partnerships to serve researchers and benefit the academy.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Joris van Rossum, Alex Jackson and Katy Alexander from Digital Science for pulling together such a thought-provoking set of viewpoints on what happens to be my favourite topic: examining the future through the joint lenses of emerging technology and human context. After all, neither research nor technology exist in a vacuum; they are supported, explored, and furthered by the many individuals who digest their potential and take them to new heights. I hope that readers of this issue will enjoy pondering the ideas explored in these articles, and see the exciting potential for their continued development in the service of research.
One of the things I most enjoy about technology is that it provides a freedom to think differently. It allows you to throw out preconceptions of what is or is not currently possible, and reorientate your thinking to what is desirable. Artificial Intelligence and blockchain both hold great significance in this regard, as they allow ways of thinking and working that have fundamentally not been possible before. With research’s job being to push the boundaries of human knowledge, I am excited to see how we can bring these technologies deep into our understanding of the foundational architecture of the space – not simply as methods to improve current processes and dynamics, but as the facilitators of entirely new and more desirable ones.
This issue of Against the Grain brings together a combination of perspectives that look at how technology and context interact. It is worth saying that this angle was not something that was specifically requested from each of the contributors – but it is highly telling that this is what they all chose to look at!
Firstly, we have Joris van Rossum, Director Special Projects at Digital Science, reviewing the effects of the web on different areas of publishing: news, trade, and academic. He shows how the web, as a technology, created an entirely new economic context for ‘publishers’ of all types to exist within – some of whom are adapting well, and others less so.
Secondly, we have Anita Schjølle Brede, CEO & Co-founder of Iris.ai, who takes a look at how the fundamental capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) can and will create different possibilities for research creation and analysis across the short, medium and long-term. Anita rightly points out that AI will have additional implications in the context of blockchain: the ability to layer scalable analytics and assessment over new research infrastructures will enable a very different future.
Thirdly, the role of blockchain is explored in more depth by Dr. Aleksandra Sokolowska, Head of Research and Analytics at ETH Zurich Spinoff Validity Labs AG. She looks at the need for a ‘tech revolution’ in the scientific ecosystem, and the role that blockchain can play in facilitating that. For example, she points to how distributed ledger technologies could support improvements from small use cases (such as the time-stamping of ideas), to fundamentally different organisational and governance structures – ones that value all stakeholders and their contributions appropriately.
Lastly, we have Daniel Hook, CEO of Digital Science, who steps back and looks at the broader cultural and political context that research resides within. He shows how research agendas and funding patterns have shifted over the last few decades, and looks at how they are likely to change in the coming years. Alongside this he asks how research will deal with the existential questions that it is facing: questions about impact, about accuracy, about value to the public. In a world where research is increasingly politicized, how can research drive the societal improvements that governments want, without being buffeted by politics?
From my perspective, when it comes to evaluating the likelihood of technological or cultural shifts, it is always important to ask “Why now?”. What’s brewing that makes now the moment? When it comes to research, there are many changes we want to see: from open research to new academic incentive structures. And as discussed in this issue, we can see some compelling pieces of the “change” puzzle coming together in terms of both technology and the broader context. Yes, it is easy to come up with reasons to say that changes are further off – after all, cultural change is what’s necessary, and that is the hardest of all. But when there are goals that we all support, perhaps it’s not enough to ask simply “Why now?”. Perhaps it is even more important to say: “Why not?”.
Enjoy the articles! I look forward to the discussions and ideas that are born from them.