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Open Science stars: Iara Vidal

We’re running a series to showcase some of the different perspectives in the scholarly publishing and communication world, and in particular regarding the theme of ‘Open Science’. We’ve already heard from Joanne Kamens about her work in making open data repositories and campaigning for greater diversity in STEM; Dan Shanahan discussed issues with the impact factor and assessment in academia; Gal Schkolnik let us know about her research into Shewanella and experiences with Open Access publishing; and Israel Bimpe described his story as a student from Rwanda and global health champion. So quite a mix, and it’s been great to get such a variety of thoughts, perspectives, and experiences.

But we’re not stopping there! We spoke to Iara Vidal who is working on her PhD in Information Science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and has plenty of experience with altmetrics and also in working as a librarian. Here’s her story!

Hi Iara! So can you tell us a bit about your background to get things rolling?

Sure! I had my first experience with scientific research in high school. I was in what we call a “technical school” here in Brazil, studying to be a meteorological technician. In 1998 me and some other students did a study correlating rain levels with the incidence of certain diseases whose transmission is somehow related to water. It was great fun to go looking for all the data we needed, and we actually got a poster accepted at the 10th Brazillian Meteorology Conference (pdf is available here, if you’re curious and can read Portuguese – there’s a short English abstract but that’s it). That was my first scientific event – and honestly, conferences are probably my favourite aspect of academia to this day. For college, I changed from Meteorology into Library Science. I joined a research group in my university and kept presenting papers in small scientific events and student meetings. It was an amazing experience, but when I graduated in early 2005 I decided to go work in libraries instead of staying in academia. I *love* being a librarian, but things became difficult when, through reasons that are too complicated to explain here, I ended up as the sole librarian in a federal agency. Much as I tried, I could not improve my situation. So, in 2012, I decided to leave and pursue an academic career. I got my master’s degree in Information Science in 2014, and have been working on my PhD since 2015.

When did you first hear about open access and open science? What was your initial reaction?

I think I first heard about open access in the early 2000s, maybe in one of the Library and Information Science student meetings I used to go to. But it was only in the past few years that I got more involved in the issue. In 2013 I attended a conference celebrating the 15th anniversary of the SciELO Network (http://www.scielo15.org/en/about/), which got me really excited not only about open access, but also about the role of Latin America and other peripheral regions in all this. As I researched more about open access I got to know about open science as well. My reaction to all this was of excitement (hell yeah let’s free knowledge!), but also questioning: how do we get people to change their behaviour? I think the answer lies in incentives, which increased my interest in research evaluation. I studied altmetrics in my master’s and am now moving to article-level metrics, but the end goal is improving evaluation.

How do we get people to change their behaviour? I think the answer lies in incentives, which increased my interest in research evaluation.

How important do you think open access and open science are to researchers and students?

I think it is much more important than most realize. I don’t think anyone would deny that access to information (not only finished articles, but also data, instructions, software and so on) is essential to science, but many don’t realize that not everyone who needs access has it. Even if we believed the general public can’t understand research (which I don’t), there are lots of researchers out there with limited resources that need to make an impossible decision between buying access or investing in research. As a community, we need to address that, and I believe being open is the way to go.

You work a lot in the field of altmetrics. Why do you think these are important for researchers?

Altmetrics can help us better understand the impact of our work. Who’s reading it? Who’s sharing, and why? Like any other metric, they can’t tell you the whole story (not every activity around scholarly outputs happens publicly in social media), but they do pick up a lot of things that were simply invisible before.

I don’t think anyone would deny that access to information is essential to science, but many don’t realize that not everyone who needs access has it.

Credit: Juan Pablo Alperin (CC BY)
Credit: Juan Pablo Alperin (CC BY)

Do you think altmetrics serve different purposes between peripheral and central countries?

This question is so important to me that it is one of the central issues in my PhD research! We know, at least since the 1980’s, that international journal databases include a very small portion of journals from peripheral regions like Latin America. This has important implications when trying to use them to evaluate authors from these regions. If the sources used by altmetric providers include only media in English and/or from central regions, they will face similar problems. So, it’s not that altmetrics serve different purposes between center and periphery, it’s just that, if we’re not careful, they will show a distorted picture of everyone in the periphery, as traditional metrics do.

International journal databases include a very small portion of journals from peripheral regions like Latin America.

How do altmetrics fit into the bigger picture of open science? Where do you see the future of altmetrics in an increasingly collaborative, transparent, and open research environment?

As we’re making efforts to open up science, it makes sense to measure not only the influence of a work inside academia, but also outside: into professional practice, education, policy-making, and the public opinion. Article-level metrics (or even better, output-level metrics), which combine citations, social media mentions, usage statistics and more, can be very useful for that.

Image credit: Juan Pablo Alperin (CC BY)
Image credit: Juan Pablo Alperin (CC BY) (Source: Figshare; interactive version via GitHub)

Are altmetrics superior to other metrics like the journal impact factor? Or are they different beasts entirely?

First thing we need to realize is that altmetrics is not a monolith. The journal impact factor is a single number. Altmetrics are a bunch of different numbers that have lots of different meanings. Now, there are attempts to distill altmetrics into a single number (like the Altmetric score or Mike Taylor’s Less Wrong Metric), and they have their value. But what makes altmetrics interesting to me is exactly their heterogeneity. And this actually applies to all metrics. Even citations don’t have a single straightforward meaning, because there are many reasons to cite. I can cite one paper to contest its findings, and another to signal to my reviewers that I am aware of important work that has been done in my field. So, when using metrics to evaluate the importance of a work, a person, or an institution, it is crucial to understand that research can be used in many different ways, and that it’s very hard for a single number to account for all of them.

Do you think things like the ‘sort by altmetric‘ function on ScienceOpen are useful?

One of the uses of altmetrics foreseen by the Altmetrics Manifesto was exactly as a recommendation tool. Even with my reservations about the Altmetric score, I was very curious about the “sort by altmetric” function when it launched. We will always need filters to help us navigate the scholarly literature, and altmetrics can point you to what is “hot” in your community right now. It may be an unexpected finding, or something that needs correction. But it can also be useful to look at the bottom, at the papers that for some reason are not getting attention. If we let go of the notion that attention equals quality, we can see that are lots of interesting things out there waiting to be discovered. For instance, I looked for “scientometrics” (the study of measuring and analysing science, technology and innovation) and sorted papers from low to high altmetric score, just to shake things up. Curiously, first paper in the list (meaning, the last one by altmetric count ) was authored by two Latin-American women and analyzes research in a neglected tropical disease – almost an underprivileged combo!

You’ve attended OpenCon last year (yay!) What do you think the role of the OpenCon community will be in the future of scholarly communications? What do you think it says about the state of research around the globe that such communities even exist?

OpenCon is easily one of the top 3 things I’ve ever been involved with. I truly believe members of this community will be leading the change in the scholarly communication system. One example of this was the “Defining the Scholarly Commons: Reimagining Research Communication” workshop that Force11 held last February in Madrid. The workshop united experienced and early-career researchers as well as students like myself in a thought exercise to reimagine scholarly communication. I think most of the students and early-career researchers there were OpenCon alumni. Of course this happens because being part of OpenCon made us more visible, and that’s why the inclusiveness of OpenCon is so important. I see a real concern inside the community to empower people so they can make a difference where they are, at the same time that they contribute to a global movement. That’s a lot like the scientific enterprise itself: it is (or should be) about building universal knowledge AND solving local problems, not neglecting one for the other.

OpenCon 2014 group photo. Credit: Aloysius Wilfred Raj, CC BY.
OpenCon 2014 group photo. Credit: Aloysius Wilfred Raj, CC BY.

I see a real concern inside the community to empower people so they can make a difference where they are, at the same time that they contribute to a global movement.

What is it like being a researcher in Brazil? Are scholarly communication channels well-established? How difficult is it to access the literature for you and your colleagues? And how difficult is it to publish Open Access?

First, a disclaimer: I have studied a bit about these issues, but my views are heavily influenced by the field I’m in (by the way, Library and Information Science are among the Applied Social Sciences over here). Things might be different for fellow Brazilians working in other disciplines. The typical Brazilian researcher is employed by a public university or research center (some private institutions do research as well, but it’s less common). Scholarly communication practices are influenced by the evaluation criteria enforced by funding agencies, which includes a journal ranking named Qualis. As it happens in other countries, we’re judged by where we publish. Qualis criteria vary according to discipline, but “international” (English-language) journals with high impact factors and/or indexed by an international database are often in the top tier. So, that’s where we’re all trying to publish. We do have our own journals, mostly hosted by universities and societies and getting their funding from them and/or from agencies. They are usually free to read and free to publish (I can’t remember any paid Brazilian journal, but again, I might biased). Based on this, and knowing Brazil is the home of the SciELO Network, one of the first open access initiatives in the world, you might think Brazilian researchers are passionate OA advocates. That’s not quite true. Open access was pretty much a survival strategy for our journals – they wouldn’t get many users willing to pay for subscription. The federal government pays for a bunch of subscriptions from some big international publishers, which are available to students and researchers in public universities and research institutes (and some private ones). I believe this helps to keep the OA issue away from Brazilian researchers minds, at least until they really need that one article they can’t find in the portal.

Open access was pretty much a survival strategy for our journals – they wouldn’t get many users willing to pay for subscription.

If you could change one thing about scholarly communication, what would it be?

I would love to get rid of the notion that evaluation is supposed to measure and reward quality. I think it would be much more useful to consider evaluation as a tool to change behaviour and promote desired outcomes. When you know the criteria used to judge your performance, you will do all you can to meet these criteria. This is something we can use to our advantage. We should reward open access not because of “quality” (there’s plenty of great papers behind paywalls), but because we want our publications to reach as many people as possible. Same logic should apply to funding allocation: it is not simply about rewarding who did a good job, but finding where the weak spots are and what can be done about it. Of course I’m not against recognizing merit, but we need to consider that you can only get so far without proper resources. It may be that some researchers/institutions/countries/regions don’t advance because they’re simply not good enough, but I’m willing to bet that the problem in most cases is not ability, it’s lack of resources. If we keep rewarding the “good” ones and punishing the “bad”, the divide will get bigger and bigger (what we call the “Matthew Effect”) and it will become even harder for the “bad” ones to improve.

I would love to get rid of the notion that evaluation is supposed to measure and reward quality. I think it would be much more useful to consider evaluation as a tool to change behaviour and promote desired outcomes.

If you could give one piece of advice to students wanting to pursue a research career, what would it be?

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far in my life: it is ok to take detours, to change paths, and even to give up when things stop making sense to you. I began in Meteorology because a private high school was too expensive for my family’s budget while a public technical school meant quality education for free. I went to Library Science because it aligned better with my interests (have you seen how much calculus is involved in weather forecasting? Too much for me). The research group I was in during my undergrad had a focus in Linguistics. I graduated and got a job as a librarian in a health-related government agency. At some point I started a bachelor’s course in Theology, but abandoned it halfway. When I realized my job was doing me more harm than good, I gave it up and got back to academia. I’m currently in love with scholarly communication studies, but who knows, this might change too. Yes, my meteorological technician certificate is pretty much useless now, and I forgot most of what I once knew about ontological metaphors. Yes, if I had stayed in academia instead of spending 6 years of my life in a job that ultimately made me miserable I would most probably be a PhD and even have a stable (as in, for life) teaching job by now. But the skills I got, the experiences I had, the people I met, the things I found out about myself, none of that was a waste. So take your time and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Thank you so much for your insight and experience, Iara!

Image credit: Iara Vidal
Image credit: 20/20 Fotógrafos Associados studio

Iara (pronounced “yara”) Vidal Pereira de Souza is a non-practicing librarian from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She’s currently working on her PhD in Information Science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which aims to explore article-level metrics from a set of articles published by Brazilian scientists. Her interests include scholarly communication studies (especially scientometrics and research evaluation) and open access issues.