Writers and Collaborators Workshops

In September this year we will organize a Lorentz workshop in the area of software analytics and big software. Lorentz worskhops take place in the Lorentz Center in Leiden, and are somewhat similar to Dagstuhl seminars common in computer science: A small group, a week long retreat, and a focus on interaction and collaboration.

Workshop poster

To make this interaction happen, we will experiment with “writer’s and collaborator’s workshops”, inspired by Writer’s Workshops for design patterns.

The workshops we have in mind are short (1-2 hour) sessions, in which a small group of participants (the “discussants”) study one or more papers (proposed by the “author”) in depth.

The primary objective of the session is to provide feedback on the paper to the author. This feedback can relate to any aspect of the paper, such as the experimental setup, the related work, the precise objective, future work that can be carried out to build upon these results, etc.

Besides that, the discussion of each paper serves to explore possible (future) collaborations between any of the participants. Thus, discussants can bring in their own related work, and explore how joining forces can help to further advance the paper’s key results.

The set up of the workshops draws inspiration from Writer’s Workshops commonly used in the design patterns community, which in turn were inspired by workshops int he creative literature community. Pattern workshops have been used to review, evaluate, and improve pattern descriptions. At the same time, the process is akin to a peer review process, except that the objective is not paper selection, but in depth discussion between authors and participants about the key message of a paper.

The specific format we propose is as follows.

The preparation phase aims to match authors and discussants. Using a conference paper management system like EasyChair, the steps include:

  1. Authors submit the paper they would like to have discussed. This can be a paper currently under review (e.g., their most recent ICSE submissions), a draft version of a paper they would like to submit, or an already published paper they would like to expand (for example for a journal submission).

  2. All workshop participants can see all papers, and place “bids” on papers they would be particularly interested in studying in advance.

  3. Papers and participants are grouped into coherent units of 3-4 papers and around 10 participants each.

  4. Each paper to be discussed gets assigned at least three discussants, based on the groups and bids.

  5. Discussants study the papers assigned in advance, and compile a short summary of the paper and its main strenghts and points for improvement.

The actual workshops will take 1-2 hours, has up to 10 participants, and includes the discussion of 2-3 papers using 30-45 minutes per paper. We propose the following format:

  1. For each workshop, we assign one moderator to steer the process.

  2. One of the discussants is assigned to summarize the paper in around 5 minutes, and explain it to the participants.

  3. Each discussant explains what he or she particularly liked about the paper

  4. Each discussant identifies opportunities for possible improvements to the paper.

  5. Workshop participants who did not review the paper themselves offer their perspectives on the discussion, including areas of further work.

  6. After this, the author him or herself can step in, and respond to the various points raised.

  7. As the discussion concludes, the moderator provides a summary of the main findings of the discussion of this paper.

  8. The process is repeated for the next paper, rotating the author, moderator, and discussant roles.

If you have ever attended a physical PC meeting, you will recognize our attempt to keep some of the good parts of a PC meeting, without the need to make any form of “acceptance” decision.

Since several of the lessons learned during such a session will transcend the individual papers discussed, we will also use plenary sessions in which each of the moderators can summarize the main findings of their workshops, and share them with everyone.

As also emphasized by the patterns community, this format requires a safe setting with participants who trust each other. In particular:

  • Papers discussed are confidential: Authors need not be scared that participants “steal” their ideas;
  • Feedback is directed at the work rather than the author, preserving the dignity of the author.

Clearly, such a “writers and collaborators workshop” does require work from the participants, both in terms of following the protocol and in preparing the discussions. So we will have to see if it really works or whether some adjustments are necessary.

Yet this format does provide an excellent way to truly engage with each other’s research, and we look forward to the improved research results and future collaborations that will emerge from this.

If you have any exeprience with formats like this, please let me know!

P.S. We still have some places available in the workshop, so contact me if you are interested in participating.

The Battle for Affordable Open Access

Last week, Elsevier cut off thousands of scientists in Germany and Sweden from reading its recent journal articles, when negotiations over the cost of a nationwide open-access agreement broke down.

In these negotiations, universities are trying to change academic publishing, while publishers are defending the status quo. If you are an academic, you need to decide how to respond to this conflict:

  1. If you don’t change your own behavior, you are chosing Elsevier’s side, helping them maintain the status quo.
  2. If you are willing to change, you can help the universities. The simplest thing to do is to rigorously self-archive all your publications.

The key reason academic publishing needs to change is that academic publishers, including Elsevier, realize profit margins of 30-40%.

Euro bills

To put this number in perspective, consider my university, TU Delft. Our library spends €4-5 million each year on (journal) subscriptions. 30-40% of this amount, €1-2 million each year, ends up directly in the pockets of the shareholders of commercial publishers.

This is unacceptable. My university needs this money: To handle the immense work load coming with ever increasing student numbers, and to meet the research demands of society. A university cannot afford to waste money by just handing it over to publishers.

Universities across Europe have started to realize this. The Dutch, German, French, and Swedish universities have negotiated at the national level with publishers such as Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Oxford University Press, and Elsevier (the largest publisher). In many cases deals have been made, with more and more options for open access publishing, at prices that were acceptable to the universities.

However, in several cases no deals have been made. The Dutch universities could not agree with the Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing, the French failed with Springer Nature, and now Germany and Sweden could not come to agreement with Elsevier. A common point of contention is that universities are only willing to pay for journal subscriptions if their employees can publish open access without additional article processing charges — a demand that directly challenges the current business model in academic publishing.

The negotiations are not over yet. Both in terms of open access availability and in terms of price publishers are far from where the universities want them to be. And if the universities would not negotiate themselves, tax payers and governments could simply force them, by putting a cap on the amount of money universities are allowed to spend on journal subscriptions.

Universities are likely to join forces, also across nations. They will determine maximum prices, and will not be willing to make exceptions. The negotiations will be brutal, as the publishers have much to loose and much to fight for.

In all these negotiations it is crucial that universities take back ownership of what they produce. Every single researcher can contribute, simply by making all of their own papers available on their institutional (pure.tudelft.nl for my university) or subject repositories (e.g., arxiv.org). This helps in two ways:

  • It helps researchers cut off (Germans and Swedes as we speak) from publishers in case negotiations fail.
  • It reduces the publishers’ power in future negotiations as the negative effects of cancellations have been reduced.

This seems like a simple thing to do, and it is: It should not take an average researcher more than 10 minutes to post a paper on a public repository.

Nevertheless, during my two years as department head I have seen many researchers who fail to see the need or take the time to upload their papers. I have begged, prayed, and pushed, wrote a green open access FAQ to address any legal concerns researchers might have, and wrote a step-by-step guide on how to upload a paper.

Open Access Adoption at TU Delft

On top of that, my university, like many others, have made it compulsory for its employees to upload their papers to the institutional repository (this is not surprising since TU Delft plays a leading role in the Dutch negotiations between universities and publishers). Furthermore both national (NWO) and European (H2020, Horizon Europe) funding agencies insist on open access publications.

Despite all this, my department barely meets the university ambition of having 60% of its 2018 publications available as (green or gold) open access. To the credit of my departmental employees, however, they do better than many other departments. Also pre-print links uploaded to conference sites have typically been less than 60%, suggesting that the culture of self-archiving in computer science leaves much to be desired.

If anything, the recent cut off by Elsevier in Sweden and Germany emphasizes the need for self-archiving.

If you’re too busy to self-archive, you are helping Elsevier getting rich from public money.

If you do self-archive, you help your university explain to publishers that their services are only needed when they bring true value to the publishing process at an affordable price.

© Arie van Deursen, 2018. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Euro image credit: pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons.