Monday, 8 May 2017

Predatory Publishers - Problem or Business Model?

A lot of the training I give as part of my role happens as a result of questions and interest from Cambridge librarians. Like a Bat Signal, if they're getting questions on a particular scholarly communication topic that they don't know how to answer I step in with some training. Recently I started getting a lot of questions about so-called 'predatory publishers' so last month I put together a training session on how best to determine if a certain publisher is appropriate to your work. The following blog post summarizes this training and my slides can be found at the end.

What do we mean by the term 'predatory publisher'?

So-called predatory publishers are a growing phenomenon in the world of academic publishing. These firms typically contact potential authors directly via email offering a chance to publish. To the novice researcher this can seem like a very tempting offer but it often comes with a sting in the tail. Unhelpfully there isn't one single definition you can point to to showcase what a predatory publisher is and the more you explore the topic the more it becomes clear that the term can mean different things to different people. 

Most librarians will have heard of predatory publishers thanks to the (in)famous Beall's List maintained by Jeffrey Beall, a scholarly communication librarian from the University of Colarado. Beall maintained a list of publishers which in his words "unprofessionally exploit the gold Open Access model for their own profit" (paywalled article - ironically). This list was removed without warning at the start of 2017 causing a number of online conspiracy theories about the reasons why to develop. 

Essentially predatory publishers are taken to be those who charge a fee for the publication of either articles or books without providing any of the publication services an author would expect such a fee to cover. This exploits the Open Access publishing model which charges for publication but provides author services such as peer review to ensure that academic standards are met. Missing out these important steps can result in bad quality research entering the scholarly landscape. 

Some of these publishing firms have also started to branch out into academic conferences. Having received a few invitations myself I know that these these can be very flattering but a quick Internet search will show that the reality of these events is not always so great. There are reports of several conferences being held at the same time in small hotels with little room and time for interaction with colleagues. Sometimes big names on the programme fail to turn up having never been contacted in the first place. As speakers have to pay to attend these events it can often prove to be a waste of money for little gain in academic reputation. 

Are these publishers a problem?

It depends on what you want from the publication process. Traditionally the motivation for publishing your work includes enhancing your reputation and visibility as an author and getting recognition of the work you have done. Some so-called predatory publishers meet this need but there are significant downsides. Many of these firms will do nothing to enhance an author's reputation and in extreme cases it may even result in damage. Even if your research is sound the lack of editorial and peer review services means it may end up sitting alongside work that is substandard or even wrong. 

Typically publishing with one of these firms means that the author has signed a copyright transfer agreement which may mean that they lose the right to use their material in better publications. Even if the work can be withdrawn at a later stage this often incurs a hefty fee and the damage may already have been done.

Having said this there is an argument that these publishing models are fulfilling a need. Different countries have different academic reward systems and if what you need is a physical copy of your work then this is a business model which works for you. In some countries it is also common to see authors trying to avoid the risk of (and lengthy time associated with) rejection by traditional publishers. If these researchers are prepared to pay to see their work in print should be just accept that these publishers are going to work to meet this need?

Checklist of things to consider

So given all this how do you spot a predatory publisher? There are a number of factors you can think about but be careful not to consider them in isolation. Just because a publisher meets one of the criteria doesn't mean they're not legitimate.

  • Transparency - a good publisher will share their information and details such as location, contact information and a mission statement should be easy to find. If a publisher claims to focus on a huge range of topics then treat with caution as this may indicate a for-huge-profit approach. If you receive an invitation to publish then check it's from a professional address rather than something personal like Gmail. Check for spelling and grammatical mistakes but be aware of cultural differences which may explain overly formal language.
  • Indexing - being listed in the typical indexes and databases for their discipline is a good sign but remember that there may be perfectly valid reasons why a particular title doesn't appear (it may be too niche or new). If you can't find a specific title then check for others by the same publisher.
  • Quality of previous publications - look at previous articles in the journal in question. Do these look like good quality articles or are there spelling and grammatical mistakes? Does the abstract make sense? Some journals have been known to publish abstracts with mistakes because they simply don't understand the terminology of the subject.
  • Fees - any author fees should be clearly accessible and explained prior to publication. Be aware of hidden fees - if the journal starts asking for extra payments then alarm bells should be ringing.
  • Copyright - if the publisher claims to be making the work available Open Access then check whether a Creative Commons or other type of open licence is being used to make sure that the resource is available. The publisher should also be upfront about the rights that the author will retain after publication.
  • Peer review - robust peer review is key to the academic publishing process and a good publisher should set out clear guidelines for both authors and reviewers. Be wary of the promise of review periods which seem to be fast - these are often too good to be true and may indicate a lack of thoroughness.
  • Editorial board - members should be listed on the website, with a named person acting as Editor in Chief. These people may be names you recognize but they should have some connection with the field the journal is publishing in. It may also be worth checking the web presence of some of the members to see if they mention their affiliation with the journal as some publications have been known to use the names of people without actually asking them!
  • Website quality - check that the website looks professional but be aware of cultural differences here. What may look sophisticated to someone from a large UK university may be out of reach of a smaller publisher in another country.

Above all, trust your judgement

If something doesn't feel right then you need to investigate further. Think of the publication process as you would online shopping - if a shop looks unreliable you are unlikely to give them your credit card details so exercise a similar level of caution!

For those who prefer their information in a more visual form the (slightly edited) slides from my presentation can be found below.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

My Role as a Social Media Editor: One Year On

Last year I wrote about my new role as Associate Editor (Social Media) on the Board of the New Review of Academic Librarianship. It's been a bit of a challenge at times but I've also learnt a lot from my experiences - something which has been really useful for my role within scholarly communication. 

When I took on the role I was interviewed about my plans and earlier this year I was contacted to do a follow up on the last twelve months. It's been a busy and exciting time for the journal as we've worked to establish our social media presence. The interview can be found here or by clicking the image below.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Libraries’ Role in Teaching the Research Community – LILAC 2017

This post is reblogged from Unlocking Research, the blog of the Office of Scholarly Communication, Cambridge.

LILAC (Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference) is one of the highlights of the information profession calendar which focuses on sharing knowledge and best practice in the field of information literacy. For those who don’t know information literacy is defined as:

Knowing when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner (CILIP definition)

Showcasing OSC initiatives

Since it was my first time attending it was a privilege to be able to present three sessions on different aspects of the work done in the OSC. The first session I ran was an interactive workshop on teaching research data management using a modular approach. The advantage of this is that the team can have several modules ready to go using discipline specific examples and information, meaning that we are able to offer courses tailored to the exact needs of the audience. This works well as a teaching method and the response from our audience both in Cambridge and at LILAC was positive.

There was an equally enthusiastic response to my poster outlining the Supporting Researchers in the 21st Century programme. This open and inclusive programme aims to educate library staff in the area of scholarly communication and research support. One element of this programme was the subject of my final LILAC contribution – a short talk on the Research Support Ambassador Programme which provides participants with a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the scholarly communication process.

As well as presenting and getting feedback on our initiatives the conference provided me with a chance to hear about best practice from a range of inspiring speakers. A few of my highlights are detailed below.

Getting the message out there - keynote highlights

Work openly, share ideas and get out of the library into the research community were the messages that came out of the three keynote talks from across the information world.

The first was delivered by Josie Fraser, a Social and Educational Technologist who has worked in a variety of sectors, who spoke on the topic of The Library is Open: Librarians and Information Professionals as Open Practitioners.  Given the aim of the OSC to promote open research and work in a transparent manner this was an inspiring message.

Josie highlighted the difference between the terms free and open, words which are often confused when it comes to educational resources.  If a resource is free it may well be available to use but this does not mean users are able to keep copies or change them, something which is fundamental for education.

Open implies that a resource is in the public domain and can be used and reused to build new knowledge. Josie finished her keynote by calling for librarians to embrace open practices with our teaching materials. Sharing our work with others helps to improve practice and saves us from reinventing the wheel. The criteria for open are: retain, reuse, revised, remix, redistribute.

In her keynote, Making an Impact Beyond the Library and Information Service, Barbara Allen talked about the importance of moving outside the library building and into the heart of the university as a way to get information literacy embedded within education rather than as an added extra. The more we think outside the library the more we can link up with other groups who operate outside the library, she argued. Don’t ask permission to join in the bigger agenda – just  join in or you might never get there.

Alan Carbery in his talk Authentic Information Literacy in an Era of Post Truth  discussed authentic assessment of information literacy. He described looking at anonymised student coursework to assess how students are applying what they have learnt through instruction. When real grades are at stake students will usually follow orders and do what is asked of them.

Students are often taught about the difference between scholarly and popular publications which ignores the fact that they can be both. Alan said we need to stop polarising opinions, including the student concept of credibility, when they are taught that some sources are good and some are bad. This concept is becoming linked to how well-known the source is – ‘if you know about it it must be good’. But this is not always the case.

Alan asked: How can we get out of the filter bubble – social media allows you to select your own news sources but what gets left out? Is there another opinion you should be exposed to? He gave the example of the US elections where polls and articles on some news feeds claimed Clinton was the frontrunner right up until the day of the election. We need to move to question-centric teaching and teach students to ask more questions of the information they receive.

Alan suggested we need to embed information literacy instruction in daily life – make it relevant for attendees. There are also lessons to be learnt here which can apply to other areas of teaching. We need to become information literacy instructors as opposed to library-centric information literacy instructors.

Key points from other sessions

There is a CILIP course coming soon on ‘Copyright education for librarians’. This will be thinking about the needs of the audience and relate to real life situations. New professional librarians surveyed said that copyright was not covered in enough depth during their courses however many saw it as an opportunity for future professional development. The majority of UK universities have a copyright specialist of some description, but copyright is often seen as a problem to be avoided by librarians.

There is a movement in teaching to more interactive sessions rather than just talking and working on their own. Several sessions highlighted the increased pressure on and expectations of students in academia. Also highlighted were the benefits of reflective teaching practice.

There are many misconceptions about open science and open research amongst the research community. There is too much terminology and it is hard to balance the pressure to publish with the pressure to good research. Librarians have a role in helping to educate here. Many early career researchers are positive about data sharing but unsure as to how to go about it, and one possibility is making course a formal part of PhD education.

Originally posted on Unlocking Research on March 9th 2017. Shared here via CC BY licence

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Making the Modern Academic Librarian: The Supporting Researchers in the 21st Century Programme

As if a workshop and a short talk wasn't enough, I also decided to submit a poster to LILAC 2017! The poster looked at the Supporting Researchers in the 21st Century programme at Cambridge which aims to upskill library staff in the area of scholarly communication. We are very much hoping to offer this training to a wider audience in some form so keep your eyes open! 

In the meantime my poster can be found below and further details of the programme are available here.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Who Educates the Educators?

Another day, another conference presentation! Today marked the end of my presenting duties at LILAC 2017 (top tip: never submit three proposals for the same conference on the assumption that it will increase your chances of the organisers choosing one!). I talked about the Research Support Ambassador Programme - an educational programme for library staff which helps to increase scholarly communication literacy. The slides from my talk can be found below and further details of the programme can be found here.

Teaching RDM: The Modular Approach

Yesterday I presented a workshop at LILAC in Swansea which looked at how we teach Research Data Management in Cambridge. We use a modular approach which allows us to take a range of ready made modules and activities to create a bespoke workshop for our audience. The presentation can be found below:

I've also shared the cards I used for the workshop activity. Participants were asked to create a workshop for the audience in their packs from a list of defined modules and activities. The cards are available here and are under a CC-BY licence meaning they can be reused. Hopefully they're helpful in planning your own RDM activities.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Event Justification Toolkit

It's conference season again! Around this time of year lots of bursary application adverts start to land in my inbox. Having won probably more than my fair share of awards to attend conferences I also get emails asking for advice on what to include in applications. I also get queries as part of my role supporting the professional development of library staff. Most of these questions revolve around how to get your boss to pay for you to go to a certain event! Again this is something I've been reasonably lucky with in the past so I pass on what tips I can. Hopefully I'll be able to put them to use myself this year.

About a year ago I put together a short toolkit on preparing a business case for event attendance to help colleagues with their applications. Although it's phrased as if talking to a line manager it can be used as an aid if you're struggling to put together a bursary application. Please do always read the guidelines for the individual bursary as they will always tell you exactly what the judges are expecting.

The toolkit can be found below and downloaded as a PDF here. I hope it proves helpful and best of luck in your applications!

Friday, 10 March 2017

Where Did They Come From? the Background of People Working in Scholarly Communication

This post is re blogged from Unlocking Research, the blog of the Office of Scholarly Communication, Cambridge.

Scholarly communication roles are becoming more commonplace in academic libraries around the world but who is actually filling these roles? The Office of Scholarly Communication in Cambridge recently conducted a survey to find out a bit more about who makes up the scholarly communication workforce and this blog post is the first in a series sharing the results.
The survey was advertised in October 2016 via several mailing lists targeting an audience of library staff who worked in scholarly communication. For the purposes of the survey we defined this as:
The process by which academics, scholars and researchers share and publish their research findings with the wider academic community and beyond. This includes, but is not limited to, areas such as open access and open data, copyright, institutional repositories and research data management. 
In total 540 people responded to the calls for participation with 519 going on to complete the survey, indicating that the topic had relevance for many in the sector.

Working patterns

Results show that 65% of current roles in scholarly communication have been established in respondent’s organisations for less than five years with fewer than 15% having been established for more than ten years. Given that scholarly communication is still growing as a discipline this is perhaps not a surprising result.
It should also be noted that the survey makes no distinction between those who are working in a dedicated scholarly communication role and those who may have had additional responsibilities added to a pre-existing position. These roles tend to sit within larger organisations which employ over 200 people although whether the organisation was defined as the library or wider institution was open to interpretation by respondents.
Responses showed an even spread of experience in the library and information science (LIS) sector with 22% having less than five years’ experience and 27% having more than twenty.  Since completing their education just over half of respondents have remained within LIS but given the current fluctuations in the job market it is not surprising to learn that just under half of people have worked outside the sector within the same period.
Respondents were also asked to list the ways in which they actively contributed to the scholarly publication process. The majority (72%) did so by authoring scholarly works or contributing to the peer review process (44%). Although not specified as a category a number of respondents highlighted their work in publishing material, indicating a change in the scholarly process rather than a continuation to the status quo.

LIS qualifications

Most of those (71%) who responded to the survey either have or are currently working towards a postgraduate qualification in LIS, an anticipated result given the target population of the survey. The length of time respondents had held their qualification was evenly spread in line with the amount of time spent working in the sector with 48%having achieved their qualification less than ten years ago whilst 49% having held their qualification for over a decade. Just over half of this group felt that their LIS qualification did not equip them with knowledge of the scholarly communication process (56%).
Around a fifth of respondents (21%) hold a library and information science qualification at a level other than postgraduate, with the majority of being at bachelor level. Of these there was a fairly even divide between those who have held this qualification for five to ten years (31%) and those who qualified more than twenty years ago (28%). Only 17% of this group felt that their studies equipped them with appropriate knowledge of scholarly communication.

Qualifications outside LIS

A small number of respondents do not hold qualifications in LIS but hold or are working towards postgraduate qualifications in other subjects. Most of this group hold/are working on a PhD (69%) in a range of subjects from anatomy to mechanical engineering.
This group overwhelmingly felt that what they learnt during their studies had practical applications in their work in scholarly communication (74%). This was a larger percentage than those who had studied LIS at either undergraduate or postgraduate level. These results echo experiences at Cambridge where a large proportion of the team is made up of people from a variety of academic backgrounds. In many ways this has proven to be an asset as they have direct experience of the issues faced by current researchers and are able to offer insight into how best to meet their needs.

So what does this tell us?

The scholarly communication workforce is expanding as academic libraries respond to the changing environment and shift their focus to research support. Many of these roles have been created in the past five years in particular within larger organisations better positioned to devote resources to increasing their scholarly communication presence.
Although results from this survey indicate that the majority of staff come from a library background a diverse range of levels and subjects are represented. As noted above this can provide unique insights into researcher needs but it also raises the question of what trained library professionals can bring to this area. Given that the majority of those educated in LIS felt that their qualification did not adequately equip them for their role this is a potentially worrying trend which needs to be explored further.
We will be continuing to analyse the results of the survey over the next few months to address both this and other questions. Hopefully this will provide insight into where scholarly communications librarians are now and what they can do to ensure success into the future.
Originally posted on Unlocking Research on March 9th 2017. Shared here via CC BY licence

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Further Developing the Library Profession in 2016

This post is re blogged from Unlocking Research, the blog of the Office of Scholarly Communication, Cambridge.
In this blog post, Claire Sewell, the OSC’s Research Support Skills Coordinator reflects on a busy year for the professional development of Cambridge library staff.
Librarians are always learning and 2016 was a bumper year for training in the Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC). The OSC has taken an active role in professional development since its foundation but things have stepped up since the dedicated training role of Research Support Skills Coordinator was established at the end of 2015.
The OSC runs two parallel professional development  schemes for library staff:

Supporting Researchers in the 21st Century Programme

The Supporting Researchers Programme offers training in the area of scholarly communication to all library staff at Cambridge University and is designed to equip staff with the skills they will need to work in a modern academic library.
In 2016 there were a total of 30 events attracting an audience of nearly 500 library staff. Attendees were drawn from across faculty, college and the University Library with several repeat attendees. Topics covered included:
  • Altmetrics
  • Bibliometrics
  • Copyright
  • Metadata
  • Open Access
  • Research data management
  • Research integrity
  • Presentation skills
Attendees have been quick to praise the sessions offered with an average of 71% rating sessions as excellent. Feedback has also been positive:
“[I learnt] a lot about metrics and the confidence to go and find out more”.
“Very engaging. Like the speed, got through a lot without it getting too boring or slow!”
“Appreciated that we were walked through the process and implications of funding requirements”
A presentation skills workshop – Presentations: From Design to Delivery – was by far our most popular session of 2016. Although originally scheduled to run twice, three extra sessions had to be added to cope with demand. In total 71 library staff attended these sessions and consistently rated them as excellent. We hope to build on this success by offering further presentation skills training in 2017.

Research Support Ambassador Programme

This intensive programme ran from June – October 2106 and included sixteen participants from across colleges, departments and the University Library. This spread across the University is particularly gratifying as participation is voluntary. The Research Ambassadors embarked on a training programme made up of three strands:
  1. Targeted training sessions in areas covered by the remit of the Office of Scholarly Communication such as Open Access and Research Data Management
  2. The development of transferrable skills such as leadership, presentation skills and working in teams
  3. Small group project work to create tangible training materials which can be shared across the wider library community
This programme has been adapted in response to feedback received after an initial pilot run in 2015. More structure was introduced through the regular training sessions which Ambassadors were required to attend. Extra optional sessions were also offered according to demand, mostly in relation to group projects. Lastly there was a narrower scope to the group project element to ensure that Ambassadors could complete the task within the time available.
The small group projects Ambassadors worked on aim to give back to the Cambridge library community by producing training materials that can be used by all under a Creative Commons licence. In 2016 Ambassadors worked on three projects:
  1. Digital Humanities webpages – webpages highlighting the work that Cambridge University Library is doing in this increasingly important area of scholarship.
  2. Metadata toolkit – these slides and associated activities can be used to teach the research community about the importance of metadata creation.
  3. Online videos – bite sized videos which showcase various different tools which will be of use to researchers in disseminating their research.
The Research Ambassadors are now able to work confidently in their own libraries to provide point-of-need help to the research community. At the same time they have improved their knowledge of the scholarly communication landscape and the range of ways in which they can support the research community.


We’ve also been working hard to promote the training we offer in the OSC, both to Cambridge librarians and the wider world.
Webpages have been created for both the Supporting Researchers in the 21st Century and Research Support Ambassador programmes so that interested parties have something to refer to and all information is kept in an accessible place. We held two Research Support Ambassador Showcase sessions in April and October to allow Ambassadors to demonstrate their outcomes and reflect on their participation on both a personal and professional level. There have also been two blog posts about the initial run of the Ambassador programme from both an insider and observer perspective which helped to give new insight into the initiative.
We have more formal plans for promotion of the programme through conference proposals and journal article submissions. More details of these will be made available once we know the outcome!

Moving forward

We have some exciting plans for training in 2017. The OSC recently sent out a survey to help with planning our next round of training and the response has been overwhelming. Re-runs of some popular topics such as copyright and presentation skills were requested along with new sessions on search skills and researching in the workplace. It looks like 2017 is going to be an exciting year for training so please follow our progress via this blog and our training webpages.
Originally posted on Unlocking Research on January 17th 2017. Shared here via CC BY licence.

Monday, 9 January 2017

How To ... Succeed at Failure

Last week I took part in the Cambridge Libraries Conference 2017 where I sat on a panel discussing failure. This is something we don't discuss enough as a profession, probably because it's always a little embarrassing to admit that you've failed at something, but I think it's an important topic to cover.

It's inevitable that you will fail at something at some point in your career, whether this be a job application, project or an interview. If you don't then I would seriously begin to question what has been going on behind the scenes! With this in mind it's only sensible to prepare for it so you can deal with it when it comes. This is particularly true if you are dealing with professional failure. People have long memories and if you handle things badly it could reflect poorly on you for some time and damage future chances.

I was tasked with talking about failure in job interviews. Given my struggles to get a full time job I thought I was quite qualified to take part! I've applied for multiple jobs across Cambridge libraries over the last few years (including jobs that I was already doing on a temporary or part time basis). For one role I applied seven times before I was finally successful! I learnt a lot about applications, interviews and rejections over the course of this process. Below are some of the points I raised and I hope the tips will be helpful.

  • It's normal and completely acceptable to feel rubbish if you don't get the job you apply for. If you're not a bit upset then this tells you something about how much you really wanted the job. It's important to acknowledge these feelings and self-medicate with chocolate/wine/Netflix as appropriate. What you mustn't do is allow this part to drag on too long and take over.
  • Think about it this way - failure is a by-product of innovation and trying new things. This is something that I heard at IFLA and it's stuck with me. New professionals and those who are really active in the profession are likely to fail more as they get involved in more things and there is nothing wrong with this - it's just about experimenting and finding things out. What your mother told you was true - how do you know you don't like something until you've tried it?
  • When you get rejected for a job it's a good idea to ask for feedback. It takes guts as no one really likes having their failures discussed face to face but it's worth doing as you can find out how to improve for the next time. You might even find out that you were the second choice for the role. Whether that makes you feel better or worse is open to interpretation...
  • Turn failure into a learning opportunity. If you get the feedback that you lack a particular skill then you know what to work on for next time. Was your interview or application bad? Then try to develop these skills. A lot of this is just trial and error and you will get to grips with it over time. Try getting hold of the job specification for your dream role and develop the skills they are looking for. That way when it comes along you will be prepared.
  • Learn to move on. Sometimes no matter what you do there is someone more qualified who will get the job. Does this hurt - yes. Can you do much about it - no. So move on. One of my biggest professional regrets is not moving on from that role I applied for seven times sooner. I got so fixated on trying to prove to myself and others that I could get the job that I ignored other opportunities trying to get a job that I was almost done with it as soon as I got it. It all worked out well in the end but sometimes I think I could have saved myself a lot of heartache. 

This is just one experience and point of view of failure. If anyone has any other experiences they would like to share then please let me know in the comments section. If nothing else we can all have a group hug and commiserate together! 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Research Support Ambassadors: The Next Generation of Library Superheroes

Today I'm taking part in the annual Cambridge Libraries Conference - Are You a Library Superhero? As well as taking part in a panel discussion on professional failures (more to follow in another blogpost) I'm presenting a poster about the Research Support Ambassador Programme. This initiative is aimed at improving the scholarly communication literacy of library staff and equipping them with the skills needed to work in the 21st century academic library.

A copy of the poster can be found below:

Hopefully there will be more publicity for the Programme in the near future but for now the poster provides general information. I had great fun leading the Programme last year and almost as much fun making a comic book poster to fit in with the superhero theme of the conference. I'm really looking forward to seeing where we can take the Programme in 2017!

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Making Metadata Matter (with Lego)!

A large part of my role involves managing the Research Support Ambassador Programme at Cambridge University. This Programme encourages interested staff to learn more about the research process and receive specialist training to enable them to provide a high standard of research support to library users. In addition to taking classes Ambassadors have the chance to work on a group project in order to produce training materials which can be used by librarians across Cambridge. 

In 2016 one of the three Ambassador project groups worked on a project to produce a presentation and teaching activity that could be used to explain metadata and came up with the brilliant idea to use Lego. The following guest post contains contributions from Kirsten Lamb (a Research Ambassador) on creating the activity and Rosie Higman (Research Data Advisor) on how it has been used in practice.

The Concept
As part of the Research Ambassadors programme 2016, Joyce Heckman, Kirsten Lamb and Eleanor Barker came up with a presentation and an activity to help teach researchers about metadata. For the activity portion they settled on the idea of describing the characteristics of an object to illustrate the difference between data and metadata. Since both are (often) abstract, making the “data” a physical object and writing “metadata” to describe it seemed like a good way to simplify the idea, and the simpler the object the easier to delve into the idea that there are many different ways to describe the same thing.

The humble Lego brick popped into their heads first, thanks to Lego Serious Play sessions forging the connection between abstract concepts and the brightly coloured plastic bricks. The other useful thing about a brick is that it can represent different things to different disciplines. In social science it might be an interview or a single answer from an interview, questionnaire, etc. In biological science it may be an experimental result. In maths it may be a single number in a complex series. In history it may be a photograph of an event or the GDP of Denmark in 1829.

Once you have established the conceit that a Lego brick represents one unit of data, you can explore other characteristics and types of metadata. After participants have described the brick in as many ways as possible, the group came up with an activity intended to emphasise the benefit of creating meaningful metadata, both to allow others to understand and reuse your data and to ensure that you can find the data you’re looking for in future. In this activity, participants would try to describe a Lego model, deconstruct it, then get another participant to try to reconstruct the model from their description alone. Meaningful metadata becomes essential when you want to share your data with other researchers. Even finding the data relies upon useful descriptions.

Using Lego in Practice
Having received this excellent idea from the Research Ambassadors the Research Data team (Marta Teperek and Rosie Higman) were faced with the task of deciding if this could be integrated into our training. At the moment there does not seem to be sufficient interest (or awareness) to run an entire workshop on metadata, so instead I looked at where it might fit into our existing ‘Introduction to Research Data Management’ workshop. This workshop runs for 2-3 hours on a regular basis for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in different departments, covering everything from file backup strategies to funders’ requirements to share research data.

Whilst file names and organisation are included in the introductory workshop there is not a specific section on metadata, so for the first attempt we placed the exercise at the end of the section on organising physical samples. As the workshop was already quite busy I realised we could not complete the entire activity in the time available, and so decided just to do the second half (making, describing and reconstructing models) as this would have the most impact on researchers. In particular, I felt it would be valuable for researchers, who are increasingly being asked to share their research data alongside their publications, to see how hard it is to re-use someone else’s data without meaningful metadata.

We have now run this exercise in several workshops and it is consistently popular with participants across the disciplines. The models built have varied from sausage dogs to abstract towers, and most groups struggle to recreate their colleagues’ models, emphasising the importance of good metadata. As with all our activities and workshops we are refining the Lego metadata activity on the basis of participant feedback and our own observations. In order to save on the amount of Lego we needed we ran the exercise with researchers working in pairs or small groups, this worked well in terms of allowing them to network but it was clear after the first workshop that I had not allowed enough time for the activity. Participants became very enthusiastic about their models and so spent a long time discussing it with their partner and then, after swapping descriptions, debating how the other pair’s model should be reconstructed. To get around this problem I lengthened the time allocated for the exercise, reduced the number of Lego bricks each group had to 6 and started using a bell to let participants know when they were running out of time.

After running the activity a couple of times it seemed like it might be in the wrong point in the workshop; we had not yet introduced the idea of data sharing so researchers were sometimes initially confused by discussing having researchers around the world use their data. This turned into a good opportunity as the section on data sharing is quite long, and did not have any interactive elements, so we moved the Lego exercise to the end of this section when researchers have been introduced to the principles of sharing and when we are about to discuss repositories. The new position of the activity has been more effective, with researchers able to see how hard it is to use data which is not properly described. The only difficulty we have now is making sure that researchers do not get distracted by the Lego for the rest of the workshop!