A conversation with Alice Meadows about challenges and opportunities of open research infrastructure in supporting researchers, research integrity, and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility
A conversation with Alice Meadows about challenges and opportunities of open research infrastructure in supporting researchers, research integrity, and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility
Jo: Okay. Welcome very much, Alice Meadows, to today's episode. It's a great pleasure having you. Thanks for joining.
Alice: Thank you for the invitation.
Jo: So Alice is the director of community Engagement for NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. And there at NISO she's responsible for engaging with and developing the NISO community, including communicating the value of the project events and programs. Very curious to hear more about that as we dive into the discussion. And also, she is a co-founder of Small Brains, which is a consultancy firm similar to Access 2 Perspectives and very much in service of the scholarly stakeholders. So please, if you're diving into the discussion, could you share with us what brought you to where you are today at these two institutions and then later also touch on the famous scholarly kitchen where many interesting things are boiling?
And then, of course, the work that you did with ORCID. But it's probably okay, maybe I should stop here. So let's hear from you. Thanks for joining.
Alice: Sure. Thank you. So, yes, well, most of my career has actually been spent in scholarly publishing. So I started out in pre internet days well, pre internet days at what was then called Basel Blackwell Publishing in Oxford, England. As you can tell from my accent, that's where I originally came from. I now live in Boston, Massachusetts. So I worked, I don't know, a long time, working in Scholarly Publishing, mostly in journals, mostly in marketing and communications. I had a spell of consulting when my children were in school and then went back to work for Blackwell, which was then Blackwell Publishing, which was subsequently acquired by Wiley in 2007, I think. So then I had some experience of working for a bigger commercial publisher as opposed to a smaller private publisher. It was all very good experience, and I honestly loved scholarly publishing, but also knew that working for a big commercial organization of any sort really wasn't for me. So I started looking around for other opportunities and was lucky enough to be hired to work at ORCIDS just at the time when they had received a very nice $3 million grant from the Helms Foundation which basically enabled the organization to double in size. So there's a bunch of us that all came on new at the same time and it was relatively early in ORCIDS evolution anyway, this was 2015 so it was a very exciting time to join and I discovered that much so I loved scholarly publishing. My real passion was for research infrastructure and in particular open research infrastructure and also for community engagement rather than sort of, you know, more traditional marketing and communications which I've been moving out of anyway in the publishing world but really got more immersed at ORCID. So I was at ORCID for about four and a half years and then joined NISO more or less exactly three years ago actually to do community engagement there and they haven't really had anybody doing that before. So it's been really rewarding and wonderful to kind of make my mark there and figure out how my goal when I started at NISO was this somewhat facetious goal was to make standards sexy because people think that they're very dry and technical and boring which at some levels they kind of are. They're very, very important. But what standards enable us to do and what the research infrastructure enables us to do is incredibly critical to how we do research and how that research is then disseminated around the world. And so that's a bit I think publishing is a part of that but the infrastructure kind of really underpins whether it's publishing funding, research itself the whole thing is underpinned by this research infrastructure. So I think that's why I've been just drawn to it and feel so passionately about it.
Jo: Again. Exactly there. As you know, we've also had conversations before this one and you also kind of invited us to a nice conference two years ago where we presented AfricArxiv so from your, like, how the scholarly infrastructure has been before ORCID came to life. And now with it and other standards being established, being established like being there to be used increasingly. So I know that adoption is going so and so. It could be quicker to make the system functional and efficient to its potential. With AfricArxiv we are looking at the whole infrastructure and dissemination, discoverability opportunities from global health perspective and how that can leverage another values like equity, transparency, research integrity also the core of your work and of your personal preferences and understanding but yeah, of personal importance and professional importance as well. Could you take us maybe through like the journey from before ORCID and now another standard and what NISO was doing in that regard and facilitating conversations that enormous being a facilitator and just getting the word out but also trendsetting here we are today and how we can maybe leverage adoption.
Alice: Yeah, I mean, you're absolutely right there's adoption not just of a walk kid but of the research infrastructure in general. That's probably the single biggest challenge. In many ways the technology is there, but the ability and sometimes the desire to take advantage of it are not necessarily there. And also parts of the research infrastructure are open, parts of it are not so open or even closed proprietary. So not everybody has equal access from that perspective. Most of it, not all of it, has been developed with very much the global doors and the scientific community in mind rather than being more inclusive. And so now what happens is there are very well meaning and sometimes fairly successful efforts to retrofit to meet the needs of those communities. But then again you have the challenge of people who've been excluded from the decision making process understandably not feeling very bought into using something that was developed for other communities. So I think the big challenge, one of the big challenges for really harnessing the power of research infrastructure, whether that's ORCID standards, other forms of persistent identifiers, anything really is social as much as if not more than technical. And that makes it more difficult because technical solutions are if not easy, then kind of less complicated to find. But persuading people that they should then use those solutions is in my experience anyway, much more challenging. And that's why I kind of selfishly feel that my sort of work might be community engagement. Not just mine, but people like me who engage in trying to bring the community along with us is a critical and often overlooked part of that. Less so now. But I think many organizations miss a trick by not making community engagement a strategic part of what they do.
Jo: So who's the community for? NISO.
Alice: Oh for NISO, it's basically theoretically anybody in the information community globally. So that could be publishers and content providers, librarians and other curators of content, the vendors, service providers that provide the platforms and products that help deliver and create that content, the infrastructure providers. So anybody that is creating, curating, disseminating information is really part of our community in theory. Now in practice NISO is a US based organization and has a much stronger community in the US. Than anywhere else in the world. We do have members from outside of the US. But not very many. We do get people from outside of the US. Engaged in our work, but again not that many. I think what we've been quite successful at in terms of bringing people into the conversation is a diversity of types of organizations. So how NISO works is by developing consensus that are bringing people from different types of organizations and different communities together to solve problems, shared problems, through a consensus process. So I think we're quite good at, for example, bringing different types of libraries together with different types of publishers together with the vendors that support them to find solutions mostly not exclusively, but mostly within the US. What we have been less stood at. So far. And what we're really trying to work on is bringing people from those other typically underrepresented communities into our work. And as part of that, I'm going to do a little plug here because the applications are going to open shortly. Three years ago, when I first started, we introduced a scholarship program, the NISO Plus Scholarship program, which is intended for people who feel their Voice is currently or their organization's voice is currently underrepresented in the NISO community and it gives them an opportunity to get involved with our work. We offer them a free place at the conference, they get free access to all our educational content webinars for three years and they get offered lots of opportunities to join working groups, committees, write for our blog, that sort of thing. And it's really been one of the joys of my time at night. So to see that program developing to build really good relationships with some of these people who we want and hope will be the next generation of leaders in the information world and we hope we'll stay connected with NISO in that sort of context. Well over half of them are really actively engaged with what we do, which is fantastic. So we now have 20 plus new voices who bring different perspectives to our work and they really are very global. This last year, 2022, more than half the participants in the program are from outside the US. So that's the direction, I think, one of the ways that we can help grow our community outside of the US.
Jo: Yeah, that's excellent. Also, I saw that you made extra efforts to make it inclusive or globally inclusive as an event, the NISO conference, by not only the fellowship but also having something dedicated and very easy to buy. Should I call it a Viver program or a Viva program? Alice: Yes, we have them.
Jo: It's not so typical like we would see in other places, like publishers do it.
Alice: We do really do make every effort to make the conference as inclusive and accessible as possible. So it's virtual, fully virtual. It's held in two blocks of time so that it's office hours for the Americas and Europe, middle East, Africa for one chunk and then Asia Pacific for the other, with early evening for the West Coast, but later evening for the east coast for the other chunk of time. And then we also have some great sponsors, which means that we are able to keep the cost down. So we have a very low flat rate for anyone in lower income countries, students, unemployed, retirees. And we also have a sort of needs based fund where people very kindly donate to cover the cost of people who can't afford to even pay the very reduced rate. And we really try to make the speakers as diverse as possible. You've been very kind with putting us in contact with people, including Joy, who has been fantastic and she's actually on our planning committee. So, yeah, there's a long, long way to go. It's very far from perfect, but it is nice to feel that we're making some steps in the right direction.
Jo: Yeah, and I'm glad you basically mentioned the many efforts you're taking on to the organizing community because it takes more than just making announcements and putting up a Viver program. So really inclusive, like inclusion needs to be proactive from the inviting organization because you mentioned earlier, like, something that is in for another community is not an easy buy in for any other community. So it was really refreshing and uplifting to see how you found so many ways in engaging any participant and stakeholder of the conference and providing various options and ways to also counter nodes across finance. Because with Access 2 Perspectives, I have similar challenges. And I know how even if there's opportunities out there, I still need to find a way for the target audience to be accessible and inviting. Also being seen as inviting and not just another offer which may not be useful.
Alice: I think we all have to learn to take a step backwards in order for other people to be able to take a step forwards. And sometimes that's hard. You get invited to do something and it's flattering and you want to say yes, but actually I find it incredibly rewarding to say, actually, you don't need to hear from me again, what about this person who you haven't heard from? And I think often there's this perception that people only want to hear from those at the top. And those at the top are mostly white, mostly men, mostly well educated, mostly from the Global North. And yes, they have something to say. But that doesn't mean that other people don't also have something to say that's just as interesting and sometimes more interesting, but they don't have the opportunity to do so. So I think anything any of us can do when we're offered the chance to contribute is to say, well, thank you very much. But have you considered this person who I know has a really interesting perspective that hasn't been widely heard? I think that's one of the ways that we can all look at a very individual basis, helping things forward. And you again, are very good at this, Jo.
Jo: Yeah, that's also what I'm practicing. And as you said, sometimes it's a little bit painful because I also need and I'm flattered by the opportunities but then to look around of who else is there or who else might be better fitted for this opportunity than me. And then it might still benefit all of us in the team or in the community or in the colleagues. And as you said, it's so rewarding to see somebody else flourish, because I enabled that to happen. And there's no loss, really. So there's more gain instead.
Alice: Just making the pool bigger, I think.
Alice: Bigger and bigger and more diverse.
Jo: It’s also so typical. Two females in this conversation and I was at an event lately where the organizers mentioned, oh, sorry, we really tried, but we have a male only panel, and we tried to get a woman on this panel, and there was just no one available. And I was like, okay, so if that's what you have to say, that maybe you didn't try hard enough for once. But then it got worse when one of the panelists, who's male apologized for not being female. When he started talking, I was like, oh, my God, this is really good. I just shared. And I said, this is like inequity for genders. Like any gender base or inequity is not a joke. It's not funny. I'm just leaving this year.
Alice: A few years ago, Lauren Cain, who's now the Executive Director of Bio One, and I did some work on gender disparity at conferences. We happened to be sitting next to each other at I don’t know which conference it was now but one of the scholarly publishing conferences, and it was an all male panel, which we were sort of harming at each other about. And we looked around at the audience, and the audience was overwhelmingly, but definitely at least half and half, if not more than half women to men. And so then we went through the program, and we counted up how many men male speakers versus females there were, and of course, it was disproportionately at that stage, weighted towards men. So then we sort of put our heads together and decided we do like a little mini, not very scientific, but a little analysis of recent academic publishing conferences to see if this was true across the board. And with a couple of notable exceptions, I think SSP was pretty even, and I think OASCO was the other one that's off the top of my head that was pretty much more balanced, but the rest were all, in some cases, horrendously disproportionately, male versus female speakers. But the good thing about that analysis is, I think we published it in the Scholarly kitchen, in fact, and we then redid it a year or so later. And we found that with the exception of one society, I think all the societies have made a real effort. I mean, I don't want to take all the credit for it, but there was quite a lot of sort of, oh, my God, this is not very good. And I think it did make a difference. So sometimes it's that whole thing of just articulating the problem and providing some evidence. Often that's all it takes for people to. I don't think people are intentionally trying to kind of replicate the old order for the most part, some probably are. But mostly I think people just do things because that's the way they've always been done and all you really need to do is kind of challenge it a bit and give them an alternative and give them some sort of evidence of why things could be different and how to do things differently. And most people, most of the time, I think will rise to that challenge.
Jo: Yeah, and thanks for sharing this. And I think why I mentioned this here is also because what we just talked about earlier, if I believe they tried and I believe it might have been challenging, but then to stop there and not like those men they could get on a panel, why don't ask them? Is there a female colleague anywhere here a junior you can mentor into being ready and ready, also mentally ready and happy to take on this challenge of being a panelist here. And it was just a five minute input, so it was not a big deal. And that doesn't seem to be an easy thing for many to consider. Always the CEO or the kind of management level to represent an organization, or instead yeah.
Alice: It's often in my experience, it's actually, without wanting to diss the senior leaders who obviously do have a lot of interesting things to say. But very often it's the sort of middle tier who have enough strategic knowledge and understanding to get the big picture, but are also kind of immersed enough in the real work of the organization to understand the challenges and opportunities there. And they often, in my view anyway, have really interesting stuff to say. Particularly, I mean, at NISO, for example, where what we're trying to do is to come up with the conference that is intended, as I think you noted, it's not meant to be a talking at you kind of event. It's talking together to figure out what our common challenges are and really importantly, to come up with some concrete ideas for how we can address those challenges. So out of each conference, we try to get two or three solid ideas that we can actually use to effect change. Which again is really important because an awful lot of talking happens about all this stuff, but it often doesn't translate into action. So I really love that. What we try to do is to come up with those real actions. And I also think it's very important, as I was saying earlier, that we take some individual responsibility for actions so that we're not just relying on organizations like NISO or companies or other people, but we take some accountability and responsibility ourselves for taking action and affecting change.
Jo: Okay, can you elaborate on that? Because you can either make an institutional statement, NISO stands for equity and this is how we do it, and then all the stuff, sign up for that and there's a kind of community or institutional agreement and strategic planner to implement. But how can you do that on a personal level, working for a particular organization or doing that wherever you go as an individual?
Alice: I would say two things. First, I would say a top down, okay, now we're going to be an equitable organization is not going to work because that's not an inclusive way to make that decision, is it? So I really believe that if you are going to and I think all organizations should make their best efforts to be diverse and equitable and inclusive. But if it's a top down decree, it's not going to work. It's probably not going to work if it's a grassroots thing that the leadership isn't brought into either. So you've got to have a coming together of the stakeholders within the organization to agree that this is what is wanted and needed and what that's going to look like. To have any chance of success is my view. And from that you can build towards taking some individual accountability. And so I will give an example without naming any names at all. But if you see somebody engaging in behavior, that's not offensive, bad behavior, but for example, somebody being asked to represent your organization when there's other people who maybe have less opportunity. So it's a thing. Actually, using the conference example is a good example. So I am asked to speak at a conference. It's a topic I'd love to speak on. I would love to say yes, and I'm very tempted to do so. But as an individual, I can also think, well, you know, I've spoken at this conference before. People have heard what I had to say. But my colleague over here hasn't just had as much experience. I can suggest her as an alternative to me. I can work with her, I can mentor her as needed, coach her, and then she will be well equipped to do what I've been invited to do. But she will bring a different dimension. It will be a new opportunity for her and it's a way to demonstrate in action that we are living what we say we want to be, which is to be more diverse and equitable and inclusive. Does that make sense?
Jo: Totally. And I would like to go back to the question because you said the top down approach would never work in my view as a CEO of my one woman show Access 2 Perspectives, which also collaborates with other cooperatives. So it's a little bit that it's not like a cooperative, like more branches and we can come to talk about maybe it is, but I don't know. Not formally, but I define for myself, I defined values for the institution. Based on personal values and knowing very well that any human being on this planet will have it easy to buy into this value system. Because of all the commonly discussed values such as transparency, colleagueship or collaboration over composition, I can sometimes sense it with colleagues because we compete. We all need to make money to survive as a business and we also need to eat as individuals. It's very pragmatic and very livelihood. But I believe, and I've experienced that collaboration is stronger than competitive approach and also more rewarding. So that then transparency, research, rigor for the scholarly aspects, you name it. So when an institution or the management at an institution you find that basically. So do you think looking back at in the early two thousand s and maybe second decade as well, there was a big splash of CSR corporate social responsibility and I think that has brought from I didn't follow this thoroughly, but I know that it's been misused. There's been some what you might refer to as whitewashing going on or green washing when it comes to ecological corporate logical responsibility. Do you think this value setting for organizations has a similar dilemma or can it actually be easy for the staff then to feel good in an institution that not only says these are the values that you want to operate based on these and then the staff can hold the management accountable?
Alice: I think in theory that's right but I do think if you have a leadership that isn't really brought in and all they're doing is checking boxes as you say whitewashing, green washing, whatever then saying that you want to be more diverse and external inclusive is easy, right? We all yes in theory want to say that but making it happen in practice takes work and it takes work at the organizational level and the individual level. So if an organization checks the boxes that says, yes, I want to do this, but then, for example, they don't, I don't know, give, have good parental leave, or they don't support people who have caring responsibilities or they don't actively encourage their staff to engage in volunteer opportunities. I'm not saying they should necessarily do all those things, but, you know, those are examples of how an organization can live those values of being diverse, equity and inclusive. But I think many organizations who claim to want to be diverse, equity and inclusive don't necessarily do those things. They think it's harder to live your values than to define your values. I think often and that's true people as well as organizations.
Jo: Yeah, I mean, there you say something which I was so painfully sometimes experienced, where I find it hard not to be taken down by my own ego and ending up in the competitiveness trap thought like in my thoughts, where my better self wants to be more cooperative. But then we all make experiences of being hurt. So therefore any management level but wouldn't it also attract an audience, clients, users and staff members that value these values and therefore would hold the management accountable instead of not having them officially on the website openly?
Alice: But again I think this is why it needs to be a bi directional thing. It needs to be genuinely brought in leadership and a genuinely engaged staff team, whatever. If I may perhaps give you an example from SSP. So when I was SSP president last year, SSP is definitely I think anybody who has been involved in it would say it's a very valued driven organization. But we had never defined what those values were. So when we were thinking about our strategic planning I wanted to relate that back to our core values which we hadn't articulated. So one of the things that we did was we set up a task force, a small task course that was led by the now president Miranda Walker and the now president elect Randy Townsend to work on our core values, to define them. And we were pretty strict. We said we don't want more than about four and we want to develop them through a consensus process. And it was an astonishingly quick and productive and heartwarming experience because it was both a sort of you know, it was the board we said we wanted to do this and the task force was run by two board members. But we also very much involved all the committee co chairs and people like that and people who are actively engaged in our community and it was an incredibly easy process. We had a sort of zoomed call with about I think 40 people on and we sort of whittled our way down. So we had a big pack of his 40 values. Yes, yes, no, maybe. And we whittled it down and down and down and we got down to I can't remember back ten or twelve or something like that. And then we did a survey. We did Google form and whistled it down further and then we did a little bit of words, Tomithing, to define the four values that we came up with. And as a result I think everybody is really good to have those values articulated because I think we all kind of implicitly knew them. But everybody also feels really good about the process because it was a good inclusive consensual process. So I think it is possible to be top down and bottom up in a very productive and inclusive and enjoyable way and then I think it would be something that sticks when you do it like that because everybody feels ownership, everybody feels accountable.
Jo: Thanks for sharing that. I found this quite fascinating, enlightening and also motivating. Does it come down to..? So the question is, is the lack of that due to words now becoming known and often referred to as toxic working environments? And why is that when it's only capital, money driven, revenue driven?
Not to divert too much away from today's topic and we will come back from scholarship and research infrastructure but because there is also open science which we are both very much engaged and passionate about, values driven and heart centered or whatever, heart center. Means, but values driven, for sure. So we as scholars and scholarly stakeholders are relearning to design our workplace and the work we do and how we do it, how we engage with our users and clients and target audiences in a values based approach. And then in an earlier episode we had here, we had a conversation with Rebecca Kennison, Simone, and Chris.
Alice: She and I used to work together at Blackwell many years ago. She's a friend..
Jo: Yeah, it was so lovely. And they published Walking the Talk White paper and Jordan Valleys Alan Academy, which we featured there. And I was basically what you just described in the workplace or for an organization. I did this across twelve US universities.
But there was very much more about the pain points, how people had personal values and they saw themselves restricted in implementing them in their work, like transparency and all the values that you can think of. Like transparency, research rigour, collaboration, you know there’s a whole list.
The question is what's holding us back? Like what I want to add also I as a business owner and with colleagues and co creators that I engage with myself with more brains and also at night or what we just talked about, like how we want to operate in this ecosystem. And, like, why is it so new that we have to reinvent things that are natural to us as humans and also as a service provider? Like, any company? Doesn't matter to me. It doesn't matter what tax data an institution has. Everyone came here to serve. Like everyone, institutional wise is corporate. But then at some point the question is how much is there? Like, I also had a previous conversation on this show with Mark Hahnel from Figshare, and I will also quote him more often because this really struck me. He said, as a CEO of a company, I don't want to build a monopoly because I know that's not healthy. He also probably speaks as a biologist, that guy. So we know we need diversity in the system and that's only when things can run smoothly in the long run. Otherwise we just create a cancer tumor kind of thing. But we see one monopoly rise after the other. Yeah, so the question is I don't know what to say. What he also said is first, I don't want to build a monopoly here. We need to collaborate with service providers. And also I always make sure that we as a company give more than we take out. Of course there's an extraction of money because the service needs to continue to be of value, but they provide services that are actually useful for the community that are here to serve. And that's also what I want to achieve and that's what NISO is here to do. And then there's others who probably also think that's what they do, but the balance is not an imbalance. So how can I make sure to keep the balance? Well, question of the Millennium.
Alice: I'm not sure where we ended up with the question, but I know we have to wrap up in a minute. So I'm going to end with an answer that may or may not be an answer to the question, which is I think that the answer to almost everything possibly in the world, but certainly in the scholarly communications world is more transparency. And I think whether that's around issues of diversity and actually inclusion, you know, shining a light on what's happening, both good and bad, helps us make things better. You can't improve things if you don't know that they're bad. You can't celebrate things that are good if you don't know they're good. So that's an element of it. But also in terms of sort of the research integrity side of things and building trust, you know, you don't things don't have to be open. I think in an ideal world, open is better than closed. But there are clearly examples where that couldn't ever be the case, shouldn't ever be the case. And there are examples where it's not at the moment, it probably won't be for some time. But I don't think there's any excuse for not being transparent about the processes and the people and who's involved, why they're that sort of thing. So I feel provenance is really important from that perspective, being able to see, okay, this article was published by these people. The information about it was collected by these people. The information has then flowed to these systems. That kind of thing seems to me to be a very important step towards improving trust and integrity of the research we publish.
Jo: I think that's what you just said there, I think it's the biggest problem with the term open science because most researchers are scared of that open aspect. And it's not about opening everything up because like you said, there's hundreds of reasons not to be fully open about the research workflow security wise, authority wise, accountability wise, there's many reasons. And personal data to be protected, animal species that are in danger and of extinction to be protected. And then in a previous episode about fair data, I figured maybe it should just call it fair science instead of open science. But now what you just said, maybe transparent science is better because even if we don't see exactly what's happening, we need to be able to trace the people who are accountable, who can open if need be.
Alice: Exactly. if I could wave my wand and wish for one thing, that's probably what it would be in terms of scholarly communications.
Jo: Yeah. So let's push for transparency more than for openness, because I think that's really what's holding the researchers back who are meant to be using all of these opportunities that we have not with open science infrastructure. Wow. Okay. That's a high note to end this episode with. To be continued if you wish. I hope I have another opportunity, but I think that's been great as a closing point and statement and call to action. Yeah.
Alice: Thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation. It was very, very fun. And definitely to be continued, even if it's just over a glass of wine sometime or cup of coffee.
Jo: Oh yeah, let’s do that.
Alice: I would definitely ping you when I'm in Berlin. And if you're around, it would be lovely.