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The barn-like SEC, where UKSG was held

Now that the UKSG annual conference has got back to something like normality following the pandemic years, it seems a good moment to explore some fundamental questions. What is UKSG for?

You could say, somewhat flippantly, UKSG is a quiz and a disco, with a few presentations in between, but there is more to it than that (and in any case, the disco was replaced this year by a drinks reception).

At its best, UKSG offers a chance for the process of academic information exchange to critically examine what it does well and what could be improved. The good news is that the plenary sessions of UKSG 2023 certainly raised some fundamental topics, although perhaps inevitably it didn’t get very far in reaching any firm conclusions. For me, the most rewarding part of the UKSG Conference has always been the break-out sessions, where a speaker or team describe an initiative, a project, a case study, where they tried something new. This is what we did, in other words. These are not keynote presentations, not major policy discussions, but nonetheless tremendously valuable and inspiring.

One clarification before describing individual sessions. UKSG is a conference that can feel very different for each participant, depending on which of the many options you select. By my reckoning, there were around 28 optional sessions, but individual participants could only attend a maximum of around five or six. Hence my impressions may be different to those of other delegates.  

The first of the big plenary themes was global equity, although the two speakers from the global south were on slightly different agendas. Mac-Anthony Cobblah of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, talked as much about sustainability as about equity. Adetoun Oyelude, from the University of Ibadan, talked about the preservation of indigenous knowledge, which wasn’t about equity either.

The other big theme was open access, which has now been a key topic for at least several years. Plan S, we were reminded, is either four or five years old, depending how you reckon it. Here was a panel of the great and the good, including Robert Kiley, of Coalition S. The session asked the key question: what will happen when support for transformative agreements end at the end of 2024? But it seems that nobody answered that question: the session drifted off into predictable statements about how “ we can all agree on the benefit of OA … but the pace of change is not uniform … we will try to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible”. But it wasn’t stated quite what were transitioning to. The claim that we will “adopt mechanisms to avoid undue publication barriers” lacked any specificity. It was clear that the switch to OA, and to transformative agreements, had not made things any easier for researchers from less developed countries.

For example, there was talk of reduced reduced-price deals to encourage wider access, yet the results indicated a very low take-up of this offer; this is the classic problem in economics, when you provide a benefit, but the intended targets of that benefit do not know how to access it. Plus, non-disclosure agreements made it impossible to work out how much institutions in the global south were paying.  APCs are often higher than authors can afford. Hybrid OA and fully OA have similar, if not identical, APC costs (known as double dipping). It didn’t sound to me that OA was moving towards a world of greater equality. Instead, there were rather bland statements for how this was to be achieved, such as  “We need to work together to foster collaborations”, we need an “invitation to action” to find “concrete solutions”. It was good to hear that CoalitionS has commissioned a study on developing a globally fair pricing model for OA academic publishing, but will they have any power to impose it?  

And so to the break-out sessions: here there were some real gems. As I said, I can’t judge for the quality of all the sessions, but of the ones I attended, the following stood out:

The best pedagogical presentation was Elizabeth Gadd of University of Loughborough, talking about the problems of using journal publications as a metric to evaluate researchers. Fascinatingly, instead of launching into her analysis, Liz Gadd used a simple poll tool, Menti, to get the audience involved. We had to select terms that described qualities of researchers, such as “curiosity” or “thoroughness”. Once we had seen the qualities required, we in the audience could see for ourselves that using journal publication as a metric for evaluating researcher performance or capability.

The most informative presentation was on the latest developments in AI, by Jake Leaver, of University of Glasgow. He provided a remarkably accessible and comprehensible overview of the last few years of AI, right up to and including Chat GPT4. His analogy for these new tools was “very complex autocompletes”, since they work from language models, based around predicting words from the assessment of a vast corpus of sources. It seems incredible that popular perception of these tools suggests some kind of hidden intelligence, yet not a day passes without a reference to sentient ML in the mass media.

For me, the best “how we did it” presentation was by staff at the University of Birmingham, on how they promote the practice of text and data mining. What was inspiring about their talk was that they made it clear they are not experts; they are learning as they go along, but it was clear from their talk that, without their involvement and enthusiasm, there would be far less use of, and understanding of, TDM at Birmingham. Their talk was a model of how the library staff can be proactive, encouraging the adoption and use of new technology, and can help to reduce, if not remove completely, the obstacles faced by would-be AI users.

It would be invidious to name the poor presentations, but as in earlier years, some of the lightning presentations were not-so-thinly disguised product pitches, and some of the break-out sessions maddeningly chatty and inconsequential.

Overall, UKSG managed to be inspiring, enjoyable, and rewarding all in one. Despite having some 700 participants, UKSG manages to remain informal and approachable. Most if not all the speakers were happy  to chat after their talk, and the atmosphere is one of shared learning rather than showing off your knowledge – quite an achievement for any conference.