Altmetrics, qualitative understanding and the Croatian seaside

The famous Zadar sunset

The famous Zadar sunset


The LIDA (Libraries in the Digital Age) series of conferences,initially annual and now biannual, has become something of an institution since it was established in 2000. Its location, now in the beautiful Adriatic city of Zadar, having migrated up and down the Croatian coast over the years, is certainly one factor in its popularity. Its enthusiastic organizing team, headed by Tatjana Aparac-Jelusic and Tefko Saracevic is another. But LIDA is also notable for its choice of themes, different each time, and generally an indicator of trends and developments in library / information research.

Tefko Saracevic, Blaise Cronin and the author enjoying LIDA

Tefko Saracevic, Blaise Cronin and the author enjoying LIDA

The latest LIDA conference, held in June 2014, had as a general theme “assessment” of library / information services. While assessment and evaluation have arguably gained in importance as services have come under increased scrutiny in hard economic times, this could have been a theme for any LIDA of past years. The two sub-themes were, however, an interesting departure: qualitative methods and altmetrics. I had the pleasure of chairing with qualitative methods theme, while Blaise Cronin of Indiana University chaired altmetrics. (Since Blaise is editor of Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, this was a good conference for LIS editors.)

Elke Greifeneder addresses LIDA

Elke Greifeneder addresses LIDA

The extensive set of invited and contributed papers is available online, and well worth perusing. Not only do they contain a good deal of interest in their own right, but taken as a whole I suggest that they signal something of a seismic shift in research into the effectiveness of information services. While it is clear that both altmetrics and qualitative methods have some way to go in establishing a fully validated set of tools in which we can all have confidence, it seems that they now provide a valuable set of new methods and perspectives, with which to find a much clearer and holistic understanding of system effectiveness, than has been possible with traditional quantitative measures. I particularly recommend Donald Case’s presentation to the conference as a particularly insightful account of the ways in which the assessment of information use and value has changed over the years. Other presentations, all available as presentations and/or text online on the LIDA site, which I think are especially worth a look are: Elke Greifeneder’s examination of the relative contributions of qualitative and quantitative data in seeing the ‘big picture’; Cassidy Sugimoto’s critical analysis of the ‘metric menagerie’ of altmetric measures; Sheila Corral’s advocacy of the inclusion of intangible assets in evaluation of libraries; the international comparison of a model for assessing school libraries by Polona VIlar and Ivanka Strcevic; and Jeppe Nicolaisen’s interesting musings about what metrics tell us about the nature of a journal article.

This is not, of course, to say than the more traditional quantitative methods – surveys and the like – no longer have value, still less that any one method, or type of method, is superior, or sufficient on its own. It is interesting that both I, introducing the qualitative theme, and Blaise Cronin, introducing altmetrics, used the same quotation from the nineteenth century physicist Lord Kelvin, to the effect that you cannot understand, or improve, anything until you can measure it. It does seem clear, however, that our ways of measuring must become more sophisticated and multi-dimensional, and that qualitative must blend with quantitative if we are to reach full understanding. And, as I have written in a previous blog post, we should follow Václav Havel’s recommendation that we should have “a humble reverence for everything that we shall never measure”.

The Fermi paradox and the information society

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

The Fermi paradox has long troubled people who wonder if there is life elsewhere in the universe. The paradox relies on two evident facts, both of which have become very much more evident since Enrico Fermi first posed the question which took his name in 1950: “where is everybody?”. The first fact is that it appears that there are very many potential sites for life to emerge in the universe; the discovery in recent decades of hundred of planets of other stars emphasizes this point. The second facts is that there is no evidence of any intelligent activity to be detected outside our own planet, despite decades of searching for radio, and other, signals, artefacts, and other evidence.

In particular, the question has been posed as to why we see no evidence to our own solar system by robotic probes, given that the most conservative calculations suggest that the galaxy should have been thoroughly explored by now. A variety of answers have been given, summarized nicely in Stephen Webb’s book Fifty solutions to the Fermi Paradox.

Among the more commonly accepted of these are that: while life may be common, intelligent life is very rare; or, more chillingly, that some factor invariably intervenes to destroy or degrade civilizations before they can engage in widespread space exploration; or perhaps, more optimistically, advanced civilizations invariably reach a ‘singularity’, and turn into something we cannot comprehend, but which is not interested in space exploration.

A new paper from Michael Lampton of UCLA’s Space Sciences Laboratory gives a new, and for me interestingly information-related, perspective. He proposes that advanced civilizations may all do just as ours seems to be doing, and pass through a transition, becoming largely information-driven societies. Specifically, they will gain the ability of acquire very detailed information of very distance locations by remote sensing, and then to be able render them almost perfectly in an immersive artificial reality. Why then go to the trouble of sending an automated probe to another star system, still less travel there yourself, if you can find out essentially everything about it remotely, and then ‘go there’ through immersive simulation? Lampton argues that for such a society, gaining knowledge would be the raison d’être, and this could be done entirely remotely. There would be no interest in the main motivators of pre-transition exploration – conquest or trade or gaining raw materials – and hence no need for physical presence.

Artist's impression of planet Kepler-186f; a first step toward telepresence?

Artist’s impression of planet Kepler-186f; a first step toward telepresence?

Although Lampton does not suggest it, a logical follow-on assumption would be that such an information-driven society would have developed tools for long-range communication which are far more directed and less ‘leaky’ than radio or laser signaling; which would account for the failure of the SETI initiatives to detect anything. If so, there could be many conversations going on between the stars which we would have no hope of detecting.

So, the answer to the question “where are they?” may be that they are present virtually’; of course, in a version of the Earth corresponding to our past, assuming whatever form of sensing is used does not contravene Einstein’s injunctions against information being conveyed faster than light speed.

Remarkable, the strange places that thinking about the centrality of information gets you.

The Sampo: the constructor in the Kalevala

While on a recent visit to the Information Studies department at Oulu University, I happened to read an interesting article by Jorma Leppänen in the Finnish Airlines magazine. This dealt with the Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem, and my eye was caught by his mention of the Sampo, of which I have to admit I was previous totally ignorant.

A typical depiction of the Sampo

A typical depiction of the Sampo

The Sampo is a rather mysterious artefact, forged by the blacksmith Ilmarinen for Louhi, the Queen of the North. When the main protagonist of the saga, Väinämöinen, attempted to steal it, it broke into pieces and disappeared into the sea.

The nature of the Sampo is not clearly described, other than it brings prosperity to its owner. It is depicted in the original as a kind of mill, creating flour, salt and money. It has been interpreted in various religious and spiritual terms, and has appeared in a variety of popular culture presentations, as evidenced by its Wikipedia entry.

Alanen's 'Forging of the Sampo'

Alanen’s ‘Forging of the Sampo’

According to Elias Lönnrot, who originally complied the Kalevala in the nineteenth century, the Sampo embodied the highest scientific and technical understanding of the times, specifically technologies relating to agriculture. It was a system which, in current language, collected and refined knowledge. Perhaps with this in mind, its name has been used for a Finnish system for the analysis of needs for software for data reduction and analysis.

It could be seen, with an excess of imagination, as a sort of ur-3D-printer, or perhaps more conceptually as an expression of the constructor theory which David Deutsch proposes as an information-centered ‘theory of everything’.

Not being much of an advocate for ‘hidden ancient knowledge’ theories, I am not suggesting that the Finns many centuries ago really foresaw such developments. Rather that it is remarkable that we now in a position to begin to understand how some of these ancient dreams may be realized in theory and in practice.

The future of the library; musing on

Musing, sometimes optimistically, more often pessimistically, about the future of libraries seems to have appeal for many thinkers in and about the profession. Charles Ammi Cutter arguably started it with his late nineteenth-century vision, in some respects remarkably prescient, of a public library one hundred years ahead. From time to time, such musings take a detailed and scholarly form: Licklider’s Libraries of the future and Shuman’s Library of the Future and Beyond the Library of the Future are classic examples from earlier decades.

Library-2020-CoverLibrary 2020, a new book edited by Joseph Janes of the Washington iSchool, is an interesting addition to this material. Janes assembles 23 chapter authors, with an additional contribution from himself, and get them to describe their vision for the library, specific or general, in 2020. The authors were asked, among other things, to be provocative, inspirational and not boring, and by and large they have followed these instructions. The contributors are largely practicing librarians and library educators, with a sprinkling of people from adjacent areas. Their contributions cover a wide spectrum of issues and views. Inevitably for a book of numerous short contributions, some will be more appealing than others to every reader, and it is likely that every reader will find something to interest them.

If a single theme can be identified from such a variety of viewpoints, it is that touched on by many contributors, and expressed concisely by Kristin Fontichiaro: “libraries can no longer count on describing themselves as the repositories for stuff”. And many contributions reflect on what an alternative purpose may be. Fontichiaro suggests that libraries should be “places that host experiences”, and this is supported by others, with the currently very trendy makerspaces getting considerable mention. The Annoyed Librarian adds talks, workshops, and exhibitions, sensibly – to my mind – reminding us that libraries will still be primarily cultural centres, rather than general community hubs. Some contributors, again sensibly in my view, remind us that libraries will still be about information and resources, focusing on providing, as Janes says, a high-quality personal service. Elisabeth Jones emphasizes the continuing role of libraries in safeguarding and augmenting information access, and making materials findable. And, in a splendidly succinct and insightful chapter, Peter Morville writes of the library as “the one place you can go for truth … an act of inspiration architecture … [a] wonderful and wacky intertwingularity [sic] of information and architecture”.
What’s missing from these four pictures of library interiors?

The same issues are addressed in a less wordy and more visual form in an article in the Slate web magazine on What will become of the library?; how it will evolve as the world goes digital. The author, Michael Agresta, starts from the current travails of some libraries in the USA, categorizing the situation of many public libraries as providing three main services: storage of under-used collections of paper books; desktop computers for the dwindling number of those without other Internet access; and a warm place for the homeless. The article touches on many alternatives, including the inviting spaces – maker, cultural and community – analysed in more detail by the contributors to Janes’ book.

What the future is for the library, and particularly the public library, time will tell, but there are more than enough positive ideas here to generate at least a little optimism.

Information about information

One of my long-standing interests, as shown by its frequent appearance on this blog, is the idea of information as a constituent of the physical world. I am, of course, particularly interested in the relations which this may have with the concept of recorded and communicable human information.

lusA valuable new resource for discussing these topics is ‘Information about information’, a section within the Plus mathematics web magazine from Cambridge University.
fqxiSupported by the Foundational Questions Institute, this gives ‘popular science level’ accounts of questions such as whether the world is made of information, what is the relation between information and entropy, and whether information can be destroyed in a physical sense.

Well worth following for anyone with an interest in these issues.

Applying logic, organising information

Regular readers, if such there be, of this blog will know that one the recurring themes is my interest in theories and formalisms for the information sciences, particularly those derived from other disciplines. Formal logic, stemming from philosophy is one of these, and a recent book by Martin Frické gives a new slant on the topic. This is an amended version of a review of the book written for Journal of Documentation.

Martin Frické

Martin Frické

Books on the organization of information and knowledge, aimed at a library/information audience, tend to fall into two clear categories. Most are practical and pragmatic, explaining the ‘how’ as much or more than the ‘why’. Some are theoretical, in part or in whole, showing how the practice of classification, indexing, resource description and the like relates to philosophy, logic, and other foundational bases; Langridge’s Classification: its kinds, systems, elements, and applications and Svenonious’ Intellectual foundation of information organization are well-known examples this latter kind. To this category certainly belongs this new offering from Martin Frické of the University of Arizona.

The author takes the reader for an extended tour through a variety of aspects of information organization, including classification and taxonomy, alphabetical vocabularies and indexing, cataloguing and FRBR, and aspects of the semantic web. The emphasis throughout is on showing how practice is, or should be, underpinned by formal structures; there is a particular emphasis on first order predicate calculus. The advantages of a greater, and more explicit, use of symbolic logic is a recurring theme of the book. There is a particularly commendable historical dimension, often omitted in texts on this subject.

It cannot be said that this book is entirely an easy read, although it is well-written with a helpful index, and its arguments are generally well-supported by clear and relevant examples. It is thorough and detailed, but thereby seems better geared to the needs of advanced students and researchers than to the practitioners who are suggested as a main market. For graduate students in library/information science and related disciplines, in particular, this will be a valuable resource. I would place it alongside Svenonious’ book as the best insight into the theoretical ‘why’ of information organization.

It has evoked a good deal of interest, including a set of essay commentaries in Journal of Information Science. Introducing these, Alan Gilchrist rightly says that Frické deserves a salute for making explicit the fundamental relationship between the ancient discipline of logic and modern information organization. If information science is to continue to develop, and make a contribution to the organization of the information environments of the future, then this book sets the groundwork for the kind of studies which will be needed.

How I (nearly) fell out of love with Apple

I am not by nature what you would call an early adopter of technology. So it was only a few months ago, quite a while after Apple introduced the latest version of their operating system, that I obeyed the little light on my iPad and upgraded.

And got rather a nasty shock.

Nor was I alone. If you don’t believe me, search for “IoS 7 nasty”, “IoS 7 ugly”, “IoS abominable” or similar. “Too white, too bright and just horrible” was one typical opinion from the negative end. In fairness, polls have shown that at least half Apple’s users liked the new version; but a lot didn’t, and that included me.

There were several general complaints that I went along with. Most obviously, the depth cues have been removed, and replaced with a parallax effect that some users claimed gave them migraines or seasickness: I didn’t try it enough to see if I had that effect, but I certainly didn’t like it. The new design, interface and apps, features lots (and lots) of bright white space, which I find at best serves no purpose, and at worst makes things difficult to read. Wallpaper and icons have been changed to a look which one commentator, reasonably in my view, described as ‘kindergarten garish’. On at least some devices, customised wallpaper and images are distorted out of recognition. I could go on, but you get the idea.

What made it all worse is that Apple is the company that thinks it always knows best. So, no you can’t customise any of look and feel, as you can on other tablets; and, no, once you’ve upgraded you can’t go back. This caused a lot of angst among Apple fans, who’d always trusted that Apple really did know best, and couldn’t feel that way anymore. Not a few suggested that Steve Jobs would never have allowed it, if he’d still been with us. And some sadly said that they didn’t love their iPads any more.

IoS7 icons: love them or .. hmm

IoS7 icons: love them or .. hmm


I felt that way for a short while, and then decided to fight back. So, for anyone in this situation, I modestly offer these solutions; they work on the iPad mini, I can’t say about other devices.

First, damage limitation. Turn off ‘motion’ in settings; this removes the migraine/seasickness threat. Then remove all Apple wallpapers, and replace them with something dark-toned and fairly abstract to avoid distortion; star-fields and seascapes work well. Delete the garish icons, and move any that can’t be deleted off pages you use.

Then we can start to get more positive. Consider replacing any Apple or third party apps that have the unpleasing new look by alternatives. My real find here was the Coast browser: designed specifically for the iPad, this is a lovely piece of software, and finding it was worth the temporary unpleasantness. Apple’s notes and the Twitter app were both rendered largely unusable for me by the amount of extraneous white space, and I replaced them by Sticky, SimpleMind and Echofon.

So now I’m happy again with my iPad for now. But I share the views of those who feel wary about Apple products, in a way they didn’t in the past. I’m not sure how much longer Apple can stick to offering take-it-or-leave-it interfaces, when such a significant number of their users are inclined to leave it. It may not be a coincidence that Apple have dropped from 2nd to 14th in a popularity table of British brands, below Microsoft and Google. It seems the days when any company, however, well-regarded can refuse to allow interface personalisation, or at least a choice of theme, are gone.

In praise of messy desks

One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries (AA Milne)

The author's desk

The author’s desk

Some of us naturally have tidy desks. Others of us, including myself, do not. And we in the latter camp have traditionally been made to feel inadequate, if not slovenly.

This is, of course, grossly unfair. It has been known anecdotally for many years that messy desk owners can locate known items just as quickly as tidy desk people, as well as having the advantage of always being surprised by new things and new connections. But still the stigma has persisted.

Now, at last, the balance is being redressed. Loughborough University researchers have established that a messy desk represents a sophisticated approach to information storage and retrieval, which offers lessons for digital retrieval systems.

The author's other desk

The author’s other desk


Furthermore, a recent study from the Minnesota Carlson School of Management showed that a disordered environment produced more creativity than one with excessive order, the latter merely promoting generosity and healthy choices. This is confirmed by researchers at NorthWestern University, who find that a messy environment is more conducive to some types of problem solving than an orderly one.

So let us have no more criticism of we messy desk people; for were we not right all along?

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? (Albert Einstein)

On becoming historical: time and the non-classical ion

As I have written in an earlier post, my undergraduate degree was in organic chemistry. For my dissertation, I elected to do an experimental study (the only time I had a serious relationship with the practical aspects of science) in support of a rather abstruse argument within theoretical organic chemistry in which my supervisor was engaged. This was all to do with whether a reacting molecule did, or did not, pass though a ‘non-classical ion’ intermediate stage, with a different kind of chemical bonding than that allowed by normal theory.

Saul Winstein

Saul Winstein


One school of thought, led by the eminent American chemist Saul Winstein, argued that it did. Another, led by the equally eminent H.C. Brown, argued that it did not. (For aficionados, this is to do with solvolysis of terpenes of the nonbornyl kind.) The feud, for it can be called nothing else, was long-lasting, and became distinctly personal in nature.

HC Brown

HC Brown

My supervisor introduced me to this controversy in our introductory project discussion. “You must understand”, he said, “that there are two kinds of men in physical organic chemistry. There are Brown men and there are Winstein men. Now, I am a Winstein man. And therefore, for the duration of this project, you also will be a Winstein man.” (Winstein, I later came to realize, had died some years previously, but this did not affect his status as team leader; indeed, papers with his name on them continued to emerge for a long while thereafter.) ‘Being a Winstein man’ meant accepting wholeheartedly, without conclusive experimental evidence, the ontological reality of non-classical ions, and being rude about people who thought otherwise. It was my first insight to the fact that science is not always the impersonal and disinterested search for truth that I had been led to believe.

What all the fuss was about

What all the fuss was about


So, as a fully committed member of #teamwinstein, I studied reaction rates of transforming terpenes for six months. I contributed my small brick to the scientific edifice, by producing some negative results, which I was told were just as valuable as positive ones, got my degree, and moved on to other things. I have kept an eye on the progress of the controversy as it has rumbled on through the decades. I gather my team is winning, as recent crystallographic and other studies do fairly unequivocally show the non-classical structure, although the other side hasn’t quite conceded defeat.

An interesting new article by William Goodwin in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science now examines this whole topic from the perspective of the history and philosophy of science, as an example of a scientific controversy, and how such controversies can throw light on what we mean by scientific knowledge and progress. I must admit that it is rather chastening to find that something which I had mentally filed away as ‘what I was involved with a little while ago’ is now officially history.

Appealing to ideas from social epistemology, Goodwin argues that such controversies, however personal and not-totally-rational in nature, may be understood in a way which does not deny the rational development of scientific knowledge. This makes me, as a good Popperian, more comfortable about my minor part in the Brown-Winstein feud.

Goodwin also makes the point that physical organic chemistry has made great progress by reliance on ‘soft’ theory, relying on concepts and analogies. “Theoretical explanations in [organic chemistry] are often produced after the fact to rationalize results, and it is often not possible to make numerical predictions about the behaviour of novel reactions. Those explanations that are produced are frequently qualitative”. The situations being analysed, certainly including these terpene reactions, are very complicated, and it is often not possible to predict how the effects of multiple structural features of the molecules involved will interact. As a result “organic chemists have made a trade-off: they have de-emphasized quantitative prediction and unambiguous explanation for something much more useful, given their pragmatic goals: a theory that helps them make plausible, but often qualitative or relative, assessments of the chemical behaviour of novel, complex compounds.”

All of which sounds very much like the kind of theory we deal with in the information sciences. Perhaps this is one reason why I, and numerous others, found the move from chemistry to the information sciences so appealing and productive.

As long as we don’t pretend that it is science?

This is an adaption of an editorial to appear in Journal of Documentation, jointly written by myself and Lyn Robinson

Ever since Rolf Landauer famously announced that “information is physical”, there has been an increasing tendency by scientists including David Deutsch, Seth Lloyd and Anton Zellinger to claim a place for information as a fundamental constituent of the universe. Information concepts have also infiltrated several aspects of biology, to the extent that it is now commonly claimed that biology is an information science. Some scholars, such as Tom Stonier and Marcia Bates, have investigated the idea of a unified conception of information, with links from the physical and biological realms to the social realm of meaningful communication, and to the concerns of the library/information sciences.

This approach has been criticized from the LIS standpoint by writers such as Birger Hjørland and Ian Cornelius, who argue that only contextualised and subjective information is of relevance to our discipline, and from science by authors like David Wallace, who writes of the idea that information is the fundamental constituent of the world, “I confess that insofar as they mean it literally and not metaphorically, I do not understand what they are talking about. It seems to be in the nature of ‘information’ that it is information about something: how can it make sense to regard the world itself as just information?” (Wallace 2012, p. 31).
9781780334929
A recent book by the scientific commentator Jim Baggott brings a new and interesting perspective to this debate, which is worth quoting in full (Baggott 2013, p.238-9):

“What does ‘information is physical’ really mean? I believe that there are two ways in which we can interpret this statement. One is scientific, the second is metaphysical.

The scientific explanation acknowledges that information is not much different from other physical quantities . But, as such, it is a secondary quantity. It relies on the properties of physical objects, such as photons with different polarization states or electrons with different spin orientations. In this sense it is like heat or temperature, which is a secondary quantity determined by the motions of physical objects. ‘Information is physical’ means that information must be embodied in a physical system of some kind and processing information therefore has physical consequences. Take the physical system away, and there can be no information. I obviously have no issue with this.

The metaphysical interpretation suggests that information exists independently of the physical system, that it is a primary quality, the ultimate manifestation of an independent reality. ‘Information is physical’ then acknowledges that in our empirical reality of observation and measurement, information becomes dressed in a clothing of physical properties. This is a bit like suggesting that heat or temperature are the ultimate reality, existing independently but projected into our empirical world of experience in terms of the motions of physical objects.

I have no real issue with this either, as long as we don’t pretend that it is science.”

Our approach (Bawden and Robinson 2013, Robinson and Bawden 2013) has been to argue that it is worthwhile studying the relations between concepts of information in various domains, since – even if no valid unified conception of information is found – much useful insight is likely to be obtained. Taking Luciano Floridi’s appealing picture of the nature of information as an archipelago, where each island amounts to information in one domain, we think it worthwhile to study the bridges, tunnels and ferry services in the information archipelago. We also strongly agree with Jonathan Furner (2013) that the concepts of information derived in LIS may have great value for other disciplines.

So, should be concerned that Baggott has outed us as potential metaphysicians? We think not. It is for physical science to decide on its best conception of information, and these subjects may be moving in a more metaphysical direction than in the past; Baggot’s denunciation of “fairly tale physics” covers far more than just information physics. From the philosophical direction, the ontology of ‘informational structural realism’ (Floridi 2011) seems quite close to Baggott’s metaphysics. Perhaps a unified conception of information, if a convincing one is to be found, will draw as much from the philosophical as the physical; for the LIS disciplines, multiple perspectives are surely needed.

References

Baggot, J. (2013), Farewell to reality: how fairytale physics betrays the search for scientific truth, London: Constable

Bawden, D. and Robinson, L. (2013), “Deep down things”: in what ways is information physical, and why does it matter for LIS?, Information Research, 18(3), paper C03 [online], available at http://InformationR.net/ir/18-3/colis/paperC03.html

Floridi, L. (2011), The Philosophy of Information, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Furner, J. (2013), Information without information studies, in Ibekwe-SanJuan, F. and Dousa, T. (eds.), Theories of information, communication and knowledge: a multidisciplinary approach, Berlin: Springer, pp 143-180

Robinson, L. and Bawden, D. (2013), Mind the gap: transitions between concepts of information in varied domains, in Ibekwe-SanJuan, F. and Dousa, T. (eds.), Theories of information, communication and knowledge: a multidisciplinary approach, Berlin: Springer, pp 121-141

Wallace, D. (2012), The emergent multiverse: quantum theory according to the Everett interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press

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