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One of the better slides at the UKSG Conference

All conferences follow a similar format. If the conference is big enough, you have some plenary sessions, plus some smaller-scale seminars and break-out sessions. You might have workshops, and most likely a conference reception. UKSG had all of these, and given that this was the 47th UKSG Annual Conference, did it differ from other, similar events, and from its own past events? It was certainly very windy in Glasgow, for those of us struggling with the rented bicycles, but that wasn’t the only difference to other events. The common perception of UKSG is that it is a library conference, and several of the plenary speakers addressed the audience as if they were all librarians, yet several individuals spoke of the conference as being dominated by publishers. For me, I thought the balance was OK: UKSG is valuable because the library voice is heard, which is not the case at (say) Frankfurt or STM.

As a participant in the scholarly publishing community, I find UKSG is different in other ways too, not just because it is not for profit, but because it makes an attempt to contribute to the community. Speakers gain free admission to the conference, and UKSG Insights, the linked journal for UKSG, pays any publishing fees for contributions (including the cost of peer review). The UKSG organisation is funded by institutional and personal membership, and clearly there is a lot of good will towards it, since many members continued to pay their membership fees during the Covid lockdown, when there was no conference. This year’s event was certainly a success in terms of numbers – a solid increase on last year’s total, even if not up to the highest number ever recorded.

Despite having several hundred attendees, and over 90 exhibition stands, there is something special about UKSG, an informality and approachability about the event that means, for example, you can chat with any of the speakers, and strike up a conversation in the lunch queue – not all events create such an atmosphere. So it’s an event worth celebrating.

This year, the plenary events were among the most valuable. In these talks, the question of whether UKSG is big enough to represent the entirety of scholarly communication is addressed, and the potential answer is a resounding “yes”; other events and media tend to be dominated by one player (Scholarly Kitchen for example, is dominated by commercial publishers).

Of course, there were some glitches. We were assembled at the start in the hall for a welcome, and then sent out again. Some of the graphs displayed in the plenary sessions were woeful. We might talk about diversity, but then ignore it when we display trend lines in different shades of blue and purple, making them unintelligible. Some of the slides seemed to be in competition for the most words that could be squeezed onto one screen. But you tolerated the glitches, because the benefits outweighed them.

 The big themes for this year were research integrity, with horrific figures for retracted articles revealed by Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch: over 13,000 retractions in 2023, yet, in his opinion, the number of retracted articles should be higher still. The issue of trust in research was expanded by a thoughtful presentation from Daniel Hook, head of Digital Science, who instead of giving a product pitch provided a perspective from his experience as a research physicist. He suggested the version of record meant less to him than what he called the “version of esteem” – the preprint he posted in arXiv, which represented his initial research. I’m not sure where this leaves the commercial players.

The other big theme of the conference was, inevitably, generative AI, and two plenary presentations, from Clarivate and CORE (disclosure: I work with CORE) presented similar approaches to using an LLM for scholarly discovery, a commercial one from Clarivate using ProQuest collections, and the CORE approach using OA content from institutional repositories. In both cases, the promising news was that generative AI can deliver worthwhile and valuable results for scholarship, with fewer or zero hallucinations.

The breakout sessions, over 30 of them, were inevitably a mixed bag. The best ones had the great benefit of being the contribution of someone in the field talking about their experience. I chose the AI-related breakouts, from my professional interest in this area, but the sessions I attended were more lectures than feedback, which for me lessened the interest. Far more interesting was a workshop on tools for scholarly innovation run by Judith Carr and Rachel Bury of Edge Hill University, who followed up on the ground-breaking work of Bianca Kramer and Jeroen Bosman back in 2015. There are hundreds of such tools; how can we make sense of them and evaluate them?

Carr and Bury managed in the space of two hours to get the six or so groups of attendees thinking more carefully about how they would appraise tools for scholarly communication. For me, the methodology was more interesting than the answers (I was alarmed that one group’s conclusion was “we liked ORCID”, as if it were a new service competing for space alongside commercial startups), but it was a credit to the two organisers that so much was achieved in such a short time.

Other breakout sessions I found valuable included a discussion of how small standards bodies such as COUNTER and DOAJ are funded. The role of DOAJ is pivotal, as it has become a kind of de facto arbiter of journal credibility. Some of the breakouts were very specific, and perhaps all the more valuable for that, such as the intriguing proposal to tag authors of published books for country of origin, country of residence, and (more contentiously), sexual orientation. As long as the authors added their own tags, it seems to work; I don’t know how well it would work for Austen and Dickens.

All in all, UKSG is one of the most important events on the circuit. I look forward to next year, in Brighton.