Wednesday, March 18, 2009

London Calling

Busy day yesterday, giving two talks, one at The Natural History Museum, one at the British Library. Slides for the NHM talk are below. Karen James pointed out the irony that a talk where I gave the NHM a hard time for being backward about embracing digitisation can't be viewed on most PCs at the NHM because SlideShare requires a recent version of Flash (which users can't install without IT's permission), and the downloaded presentation won't open because the NHM uses an older version of MS Office. So much for my attempts to share the slides. There will also be a video available at some point.

The second presentation was at the British Libraries "Talk Science" series, for some background see the forum on Nature Network. There will be a podcast available of this presentation. In her introduction to my talk, Sarah Kemmitt quoted from a recent paper by Antonio G. Valdecasas ([JACC]1175-5326:1820@41 where he described Vagabundia sci:
Vagabundia comes from the Spanish word 'vagabundo' that means 'wanderer'. It is a feminine substantive; sci refers to Science Citation Index. We pointed out some time ago (Valdecasas et al. 2000) that the popularity of the Science Citation Index (SCI) as a measure of ‘good’ science has been damaging to basic taxonomic work. Despite statements to the contrary that SCI is not adequate to evaluate taxonomic production (Krell 2000), it is used routinely to evaluate taxonomists and prioritize research grant proposals. As with everything in life, SCI had a beginning and will have an end. Before it becomes history, I dedicate this species to this sociological tool that has done more harm than good to taxonomic work and the basic study of biodiversity. Young biologists avoid the 'taxonomic trap' or becoming taxonomic specialists (Agnarsson & Kuntner 2007) due to the low citation rate of strictly discovery-oriented and interpretative taxonomic publications. Lack of recognition of the value of these publications, makes it difficult for authors to obtain grants or stable professional positions.

My own feeling is that SCI probably does a reasonable job of ranking the impact of taxonomic publication, the real task is to broaden our notion of what gets cited.


Karen James said...

FYI I found another way to share the slides, by uploading the .pptx file for download here. It still requires an up-to-date version of Office to view but at least it gets over the too-big-to-email barrier.

I really enjoyed your talk and am cautiously hopeful that it (along with this post-talk IT "issue") will accelerate the ball that has begun rolling in the right direction in South Kensington!

I look forward to seeing the videos from both talks..

Jeremy Young said...

by most accounts the latest version of MS office is a dog on the Mac and I for one totally support the NHM IT department's policy of not inflicting every microsoft upgrade on users. IMHO if you want to share content with a wide audience you should save in backward compatible file formats.

Rod Page said...


I'm not asking that IT inflict the latest version of Office on people, rather that they give people the ability to have some control over their own computers.

The real issue here is Flash, which is ubiquitous on the Web, but which the NHM's IT policy means that apparently not everybody has access to. Whatever one thinks abut Flash, limiting its availability is not a clever move.

Karen James said...

There are two real issues here, both of which are more general than Office and Flash:

1. Should an employer ever mandate (rather than just make available) a certain version of any software on employees? I think just making it available would be sufficient. Those who need it can have it, those who think it's a dog can stay with older version. Specifically with regard to MS Office, I need the new version not just to open .docx, .xlsx and .pptx files but, far more importantly to me, to use the cite-as-you-write function of Zotero. Ideally everyone would just switch to Open Office but in the meantime I agree with Jeremy that it would be nice if those using new versions of Office would save in a backward compatible format with the understanding that a lot of people are still using 04.

2. Should employees have to get permission from their IT department to install software, especially when permission cannot be granted instantaneously and automatically for most software? Besides what people think about the 'permission' thing, a practical consequence of this is that seeking permission takes time and usually when I'm installing new software I want and/or need to use it right then not wait a few days.

Bob Knowles said...


It's not a question of IT departments 'mandating' anything. They answer to a proprietor of some description, who paid for the local network, the computers on it, and their maintenance. They're not going to let their kit be used to run any old flakey, bug-ridden, worm-eaten, virus-carrying downloads. It could damage their kit and their business. That could threaten the jobs of the installers themselves.

Some good stuff gets caught in the net (like the latest version of Flash). That's a shame. But don't expect IT departments to allow a free-for-all. It just ain't gonna happen.


Karen James said...

Thanks Bob. I am a little confused though because I used the word 'mandate' in my point 1 above, while your comment seems to pertain mostly to my point 2.

What is this 'net' of which you speak? Do most IT departments allow certain download/installs as pre-approved or something? My understanding is that at NHM every download/install has to be requested of, approved by and carried out by IT. I may very well be wrong on this because I use a Mac and this is (for now at least) only affecting my Windows-running colleagues.

Anonymous said...

IT is about ensuring we meet the needs to the user while maintaining the integrity of the network. Also, there is the issue that if something works, why change it? Just because Microsoft say jump, we do not have to say how high.

Too often when granting those with full administrative rights to their machines the same problems occur. Either they infect their machine with viruses, download and install software illegally, or change something to their system which affects its performance and integrity.

IT need to be selective over which Microsoft software or upgrades they put on to users’ machines because they either are incompatible with existing software integrations or produce various security risks.

Furthermore, adobe flash player should never be installed unless there is a specific business requirement for it to be used, in which case an ad hoc installing approach is far better serving. Flash is a great product that allows web users to view video content on the web. But it also serves as an excellent means for hackers to poison a website by injecting malicious code into the embedded video, which just sits there waiting for the next user with flash installed to automatically play and execute that malicious code leaving the PC’s vulnerable to attack and infection.

Furthermore, Office 2007 has radically changed the way the user interface works, which from a business point of view, may limit or indeed slow peoples work until they figure out all the changes. Something right now, given work loads of a lot of people, do not have the time to do. Its far betting serving to allow time for those products to be familiarised privately with home use before being implemented on an enterprise level.

You can get around the problem of backwards compatibility with the new .docx, .pptx etc, by either arranging for the required audience to install File Format Converters provided for by Microsoft; or alternatively, and in my opinion if the author really wants to ensure complete exposure of their work, should save the document for backwards compatibility in the first place.

What started off on this thread as really a discussion on digitisation has turned into nothing more than a public slagging off of a department in the NHM. I do agree that there needs to be some modernisation, and changes in policy and practice, but NHM IT have all the right fundamentals in place. This is not constructive criticism.

On a final note, the machines used by the users on the facility are not their own, they are the museums (there are of course exceptions). As soon as users begin to accept this fact, and conduct their business on them in a fashion that complies with all requirements, the better the whole network and IT services as a whole, will function....

Karen James said...

Anonymous, I am curious to know if you are a museum colleague or not, and if so why you thought anonymity was required when you are actually defending museum policy. Ah well, it doesn't change my reply:

You are right that this started out as a discussion of 'going digital' at NHM but then you seem to lament that it had also initiated other discussions with lives of their own. I for one am glad that Rod's talk has precipitated many discussions about not only digitisation but satellite topics like IT policy. To me, the whys and hows of balancing user convenience against institutional security with regard to IT seems like a perfectly valid thing to discuss.

I used the word 'lament' above but of course what you wrote was that it “turned into nothing more than a public slagging off of a department in the NHM". First off, if you think this thread counts as 'slagging off' then you haven't spent much time on the internet. This thread has been very collegial in tone all along. Second, why take this so personally? A critical discussion of an institution's IT policy doesn't mean that anyone is attacking 'a departmnent'.” People criticise, for example, DNA barcoding all the time but I don't take it to mean that they are slagging off museum departments or people. Or is the fact that it is 'public' that makes you uncomfortable? The museum is a public institution funded by taxpayers' money so if there is a collegial debate happening in scholarly circles about digitisation and/or IT policy I don't see why it shouldn't happen in public.

I can't help noticing how remarkably similar all of this is to the issues around national security vs. civil liberties. As Benjamin Franklin said, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither” .

Vince said...

Wow. Lots of issues here, most of which have little to do with the substance of Rod’s presentation. With regard to IT policy, it is about finding a cost effective solution that strikes a balance between the need (particularly in science) for user autonomy and controls that prevent users endangering themselves (and others). The NHM is not just driven by science needs and it is hard for scientists to understand why others might want to limit what scientists do (at least down to the level of the software we use). Likewise it is hard for those providing these services to understand why a high level of autonomy is essential to scientists. Most academics coming into the NHM from comparable institutions will experience much higher levels of autonomy (and the associated risk that this entails) when it comes to decisions like software, which makes the transition to NHM controls difficult. Also I think our IT colleagues often misrepresent the level of risk, as is the case with the comments above on Flash. We (the scientists) could do a better job of explaining why certain key software is important to us and why our autonomy is important. For example, I recently converted almost 100 help tutorials to Flash for a project I’m working on, and I realize now that many within the NHM won’t be able to use them! In practice academics tend to come up with individual solutions to work around these limitations, just as Karen and I have. Overall, the NHM IT department is responsive to user needs, and the transaction costs of dealing with them are relatively low. Getting back to Rod’s presentation, this is much more than can be said for certain other museum service providers.

Bob Knowles said...

I didn't address your second issue, Karen, because in my experience (commercial IT - DEC then Compaq, then HP [three employers but one desk!]) 'permission' was never an issue. Employees didn't have the privs to do their own installs. If an employee wanted some new software, or an upgrade, or - sometimes - they wanted an old version NOT to be upgraded, they had to log a call with the help desk and sometimes get a waiver signed off.

I think it's chiefly in the academic/public-sector world that your issues 1 and 2 are separate.

Mike said...

I too am curious about anonymous' identity. This may be my only point of agreement with Karen!

I would also like to emphasise the quality of services provided by NHM's IT section. They do a fantastic job with limited resources in a technically and politically challenging environment. They are often under-appreciated because much of their work is invisible to or not understood by other colleagues.

It's very hard to resist commenting on some of the technical points made above, but following Vince's suggestion, let's get back to discussing the talk.

I thought it unfortunate that Dr Page chose to ignore all the specimen data that NHM does have available online in favour of concentrating on a collections-level documentation application and a handful of broken links he found within its data. In so doing he created the impression that NHM only pretends to make data available, hiding it behind requests to contact the Museum, whereas in fact this applies only to a few records within the particular application he was looking at. NHM started putting collections data online long before this was commonplace, and now has two department's EMu data online, as well as various other collection datasets (see list here). There is clearly much more work to do, but personally I think it is potentially misleading and a little unfair to characterise NHM as resisting "going digital".

Rod Page said...


I would still argue that the Museum lags far behind other comparable institutions (as demonstrated by the lack of NHM-sourced data currently in GBIF). Some of the databases listed on the link you gave are broken, for example, if I go to the fish collection and click on "Taxonomic search" I get a error message.

I'm only too well aware of the difficulties in maintaining reliable web sites, but if it's an issue of resources then this indicates that the museum doesn't think these databases matter enough to provide sufficient resources to ensure they don't break.

Having data online on the NHM web site isn't really the goal, however. It's having lots of data available for harvesting so that people can do useful things with it. Making this happen is hard work. I saw part of the goal of my talk as making the case for why museums would want to do it (and hence why they'd want to invest in making it happen).