Eurovision Song Contest research

Regular readers will know that I have been live-blogging the Eurovision Song Contest final since 2011. Every year I sit down in front of the TV, metronome and guitar in hand, and write live musical analysis of the songs in real time, then attempt to predict the winner before the voting starts. Here’s the full archive 2011-2019 (spoiler – I only managed a home run in 2015, with all the top 3 correct, in the right order). My approach (in all musicology) has always been to try to analyse and understand the underlying songs/tracks on a musical level, and move past all the camp theatricality and geopolitics. I take the view that all popular music is ‘good’ by someone’s standard, and that it’s as interesting to analyse songs from a mainstream TV event like the ESC as it is to look at more obscure/highbrow material. Those who carry the scales of musicology should be blindfolded.

‘Volcano Man’ by fictional Icelandic duo Fire Saga, played by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. The songs in the movie were written by Atli Örvarsson.

In 2020, the planned contest in Rotterdam was canceled due to worldwide restrictions, but in a strange turn of events, Netflix asked me to undertake some academic research into the musical characteristics of the songs over the past decade. The research was commissioned in part as a celebration of the contest, and also to promote the release of the 2020 movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Working with my friend and colleague Simon Troup (Digital Music Art UK), we analysed the 259 finalists from 2010-2019, immersing ourselves in the corpus over an intense 15-day listening period, and extracting high-level data (key, BPM, style, lyric theme etc) to see what we could learn about voter preferences and song evolution.

We’ll be publishing a pre-publication version of the research paper very soon, and the full academic paper sometime in 2021 after peer review, so this blog post is a preview of some of the early findings, with some song excerpts, and commentary on the songs from the 2020 contest that never was, and also some analysis of the songs from the movie.

Songs for Europe: a music and lyric analysis of 259 finalists from the Eurovision Song Contest 2010-2019

A research project in progress 2020-2022

Project Summary:

Two musicologists[1] have published the early findings of academic research analysing the 259 songs that have appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest finals 2010-2019. They used a combination of computer analysis, music transcription, immersive listening, and lyric interpretation to identify every song’s lyric theme, style, and musical attributes, and then analysed the data to explore the characteristics of the songs that attract the most votes in the contest.

Headlines:

  • There are six broad ‘archetypes’: Euro-pop, Ethno-pop, Ballad, Anthem, Schlager and Chanson.
  • There are six broad lyric subjects: Love, Unity, Self-Assertion, Partying, History and Music, with love songs accounting for 69% of the whole, and 83% of the top 3.
  • The most popular styles are Euro-pop, Ballad, Ethno-pop and Anthem, accounting for 79% of the total. The older styles (Schlager and Chanson) account for less than 5% of finalists.
  • The classic Eurovision cliché of a key-change in the final choruses is alive and well, appearing in almost 20% of the finalists, but not among any of the winners.
  • Eurovision appears to enjoy sadder songs in recent years – “winter” love songs have been more popular since 2018.
  • The most successful finalists are Azerbaijan and Sweden, who qualified 9 times out of 10 (UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France aka the ‘Big Five’ are guaranteed a place in the final).
  • 65% of all songs were in a minor key; of these, more than half used the Aeolian mode aka natural minor scale.
  • The mean average tempo is around 104 BPM, although the actual tempos tend to group around 70BPM (Ballads) and 125 BPM (Euro-pop).
  • Eurovision winners are slowing down; the average tempo of the top 3 scoring songs dropped from 148 BPM (2010) to 76BPM (2019), helped by some successful Ballads in 2017 and 2019.
  • Many popular styles of music outside Eurovision (metal, hip-hop, rap, punk, trap, country, techno) are almost completely absent from the contest, although they have an influence on the production of the archetype styles. Eurovision song styles appear to have ‘evolved’, in the cultural Darwinism sense, independently from mainstream global pop music. The researchers speculate that this is due to the particular cultural and structural factors at play in the Contest, in contrast to the more unregulated market forces that decide the popularity of mainstream hits.

Musician as Physician #berklee #musictherapy

Musician as Physician: Interwoven Artistry for Complex Cancer Pain Management

Douglas E Brandoff, MD

Dr Brandoff opens with two vignettes; one where he describes a time of personal social frustration where he wanted to punch a wall (but played some classical piano instead – he demos it live!). His second example is a patient case (see slide).

As a palliative care expert and pain specialist, he gives us an overview of patient needs, in the context of his profession, and in the context of US healthcare. He considers opioids an important part of pain treatment, but acknowledges the rampant public health opioid crisis. We look at some disturbing stats of overdose deaths involving opioids in the US, correlated with heroin and fentanyl takeup, and a more local analysis of the picture here in Massachusetts.

Crossroads of Music & Medicine

Dr. Annie Heiderscheit, Director of Music Therapy, Augsburg University, MN

Dr Heiderscheit begins with an historical overview, which is fascinating – see photo. She presents this slide with minimal comment due to pressure of time.

We see some quantitative (and remarkable) stats relating to public health issues – economic costs of addiction, trauma and pain – but Dr Heiderscheit suggests that the human cost of these issues is literally unquantifiable. They affect our health, relationships, wellbeing, security, purpose, community and environment. “We can work to slap band-aids on gaping wounds, but if we don’t address these areas we are not achieving [societal] well-being”.

Academic conference questions – translated

conf.jpgSo farewell, Kassell, as day 5 of the IASPM2017 conference winds down. Our German hosts have been fantastic, and the overall atmosphere has been, as ever, one of courteous collegiality and mutual academic admiration. Almost all of the questions from the floor have been in the spirit of inquiry, peer support and knowledge sharing.

Almost.

Below, as a public service, I’ve provided a list of some of the more ‘problematic’ questions that we hear from time to time at academic music conferences, with translation.

Thank you for a great presentation…
I’d like to tell you about my work.

Less of a question, more of a point, really…
I’d like to tell you about my work.

Have you read…?
I’m going to cite an out-of-print book you’ve never heard of and watch you squirm politely.

What’s the relationship of your work to [e.g.] the Andean nose-flute?
I’ve written a book about the Andean nose-flute.

One of the things that seems, to me, to be the case, based on the way you set up the inherent affordances available to the agents of this paradigm, is that, how can I really say this, well, there’s a difference between… well, more of a dichotomy… between the primary sources as they state their position phenomenologically, and the secondary sources, filtered as they inevitably are through the lens of scholarship and the attendant limitations of the contemporaneous evidence base available, although I have to say you do a great job of pulling those sources together given the inherent paucity of reportage from the primary participants, which I suppose is an inevitability due to the kind of retrospective material we’re dealing with here, and we all would support, as I’m sure everyone here agrees, the requirement to preserve the authenticity of that, even if the researcher is sometimes pressured by the field into creating taxonomies not necessarily intended for academic consumption by the original practitioners being studied, and that’s important, but only important inasmuch as the research community needs to define it for this particular sub-field, given that there are so many other sub-fields within which different taxonomies have been established; what’s your view?
It’s time for the coffee break but I DON’T CARE.

How does the tabor syncopation example you played relate to Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital?
You musicologists know nothing about society.

In terms of the geopolitics you mention, what is the effect of the Dorian pivot-note key change halfway through bar 23?
You sociologists know nothing about music.

Recording in the 1960s: the new (Cult)ure of the Studio #arp2016

 

IMG_1603.JPG.jpeg
One day, all conference programmes will look like this.

I’m here in Aalborg, Denmark for the 11th Art of Record Production conference. ARP is one of my favourite conferences, for the following reasons:

  • It’s a good mix of academics and studio practitioners
  • It has an open-access peer-reviewed online journal
  • It consists entirely of techy people, so the PowerPoints and sound systems always work
  • The entire conference programme pack can be carried in your pocket – see photo

Our first keynote speaker St John’s University’s Susan Schmidt Horning (New York). Susan’s research deals with the way musical style is shaped by developments in recording technologies. Her book ‘Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP’ is known to many ARP delegates.

IMG_1604.JPGSusan’s starting point is the technological, social and cultural upheaval from the 1960s, drawing a line from postwar technologies. Ampex tapes became the industry standard, based on the work of a company that began in Radar research. The major labels – RCA, Decca and Columbia – all began around the mid-20th century. They had a dramatic effect on recorded sound because they were monetising recordings, due in part to the empowerment of a new generation of young people with disposable income who could purchase the new pop product – the single, and later, the album.

A day in the life of music listening

Boston skyline
Boston: view of the Charles River and city skyline

I was recently invited to write a blog piece for ‘Harkive‘, a music/sociology data collection project run by Craig Hamilton at City University Birmingham. He conducts a survey for one day per year, collecting qualitative data about music listeners’ habits. The aim of Harkive is for people to “share the story of how, where and why they listen to music”. The blog entries are an attempt to add colour to the data, detailing the real-world situations in which we experience music. Here are some examples of previous entries. My contribution is a single ‘day in the life’ of music listening – in this case, my activities on 14th July 2015. I found the act of reflecting on a whole day’s listening (including inadvertent listening) to be a surprising experience – there’s a lot more music around us than I had ever really considered. If you’re interested in contributing to the project here’s the link.

IASPM 2014 – Dynamic Popular Music

Dynamic Popular Music – The First Stages of a New Art Form

Keith Hennigan, Trinity College Dublin

Keith begins with an entertainingly ‘sci-fi’ way of looking at musical creativity – that is, speculating about the opportunity to make different choices at various stages in the composition’s development (and in its playback timeline). Dynamic Music is categorised (after Collins) as ‘Interactive’ (where the music changes in response to the user) and ‘Adaptive’ (where the user interacts with an additional element that in turn affects the music). Keith adds ‘Generative’ to the taxonomy in order to include music that changes due to internal systems [JB note – he comments that he was prevented for tech reasons from doing a live iPhone demo but I infer he was going to show us something like this – http://www.generativemusic.com/].

IASPM conference Cork 2014

IASPM 2014 conference poster
IASPM 2014 conference poster

I’m en route to the UK & Ireland IASPM conference in Cork. I was at the International one in Spain last year – the branch and International IASPM conferences leapfrog each other every other year, so for 2014 we’re back in our respective countries. I’ve submitted an abstract for the 2015 conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil (about chord loops in the Eurovision Song Contest – regular readers will know this is an interest). Waiting to hear if it gets through peer review.

So here’s my abstract for the forthcoming conference. This is part of a panel about similar themes — other presenters are Holly Holmes (Chester), Dan McKinna (BIMM) and Marcus O’Dair (Middlesex).

As always I’ll live-blog from the conference where possible.

Where is creativity? Locating intellectual property in collaborative songwriting and production processes
(Joe Bennett, Bath Spa University)

Songs lie at the centre of popular music’s Intellectual Property framework. They represent the starting point for the industry’s two most important creative products: the live performance or the recorded audio artefact. In the early 20th century, US and European copyright conventions were established whereby two separate objects could be ‘owned’: the song and the sound recording, the latter being a derivative work of the former. This state of affairs, where ‘song’ and ‘track’ are separate copyrights, remains at the industry’s administrative core, and has led to awareness among creators of the economic benefits of ‘keeping a slice of the publishing’.

However, in real-world songwriting and production situations it is not always easy to ascertain who contributed to ‘writing the song’ and who acted as an arranger, performer or producer. Inferring creative contributions from the audio artefact itself is fraught with methodological challenges; from a listener’s point of view, there is no experiential distinction between song and track. Drawing on the theoretical work of Moore, McIntyre and Csikszentmihalyi2, together with interviews with professional songwriters and the author’s own experience as a songwriter and expert witness forensic musicologist, this paper argues that the artificial administrative distinction between ‘song’ and ‘track’ is simultaneously a constraint upon creators and a silent driver of creative practice itself.

2 Allan F Moore, Song Means  : Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song (Ashgate, 2012); Phillip McIntyre, “The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term ‘Song,’” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 5, no. 3 (2001): 100–111; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity,” in The Nature of Creativity  : Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, ed. Robert Sternberg (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 325– 339.

RMA Study Day session 3: Mark Doffman, Mirjam James and Karen Wise

Session 3 (Chair: Jonna Vuoskoski)

Mark Doffman (University of Oxford), Mirjam James (University of Cambridge) and Karen Wise (University of Cambridge)

Panel discussion: What are the challenges in researching processes?

With reference to studies carried out by members of the panel, we explore some of the methodological issues that are relevant to musical processes and their exploration, focusing on the challenges posed by three main questions: Where is the process situated? How do you capture processes? How do you make sense of the collected data?

CMPCP logo

[JB notes]
Mirjam discussed some of the methodological challenges researchers face when undertaking fieldwork to investigate ‘creativity/originality’ in classical music performers (see project page and video). Should the process be short, medium or long? How long (musically) should the object under investigation be?

Will You Still Love [This Song] Tomorrow?

Last week I posted a research survey on this site to investigate the way listeners infer meaning from song arrangements. Thanks to all of the Facebook, blog and Twitter contacts who responded. Some of the respondents have asked me to publish the results, so here they are. The text below is part of a forthcoming research publication which should be available sometime in 2014.

Carole King in the studio

—————

Song, Performance and Track – a listening experiment

Joe Bennett, 26 Sept 2013

It is self-evident, or perhaps a tautology, that an audio recording of a song carries cultural meaning for the listener, but to what extent does the listener infer meaning (from the track) that was not created by the songwriter? To borrow from Allan Moore’s terminology, to what extent is the track one of the ‘means by which songs can mean’[1]? To provide an objective/measurable example of the way ‘performance’ can create listener inferences I devised the following simple listening experiment, conducted using an online poll.[2] Participants were asked to select randomly one of two unidentified recordings ‘Song A’ and ‘Song B’ and listen to only one of them. ‘Song A’ was Carole King’s 1970 recording of the Goffin/King composition Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? ‘Song B’ was the Shirelles’ recording of the same song from 1960. Importantly, both recordings share the same melody and lyric as each other, with near-identical harmony, but are performed in different styles (‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘1960s girl band’ respectively) and at different tempi. Listeners were asked to speculate about inferred/imagined events – that is, to provide information about the characters and story that is not provided in the lyric.

Songwriting survey – your ears needed!

PianoI’m currently undertaking some research into inferences in song – the story, characters and images that listeners imagine when they hear a recording or performance. At the moment I’m collecting data about two well-known recordings (take the survey – you’ll find out what they are at the end) and I’m trying to get as many responses as possible. The survey will take around 5 minutes (including the time it takes to listen to the song!) and there are 8 questions.

So please forward this link to everyone you know – and don’t forget to take the survey yourself.

Take the survey

IASPM day 4: The Cultural Capital Project: Towards Digital Music Monetization Based on Shared Culture #iaspm2013

The Cultural Capital Project: Towards Digital Music Monetization Based on Shared Culture. Ian Dahlman (McGill University, Canada), Brian Fauteux (Concordia University, Canada), Andrew Dewaard (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA)

[abstract]

This presentation will introduce and outline the ideas behind The Cultural Capital Project, a collaborative research project funded by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts, which explores the historical antecedents, theoretical trajectories, legal ramifications and technical components involved in the creation of a non-profit patronage system and social network uniting musical artists and fans. CultCap operates on three fronts: first, a social network of user-generated listening and sharing habits; second, opt- in tracking software that harvests the musical consumption of users, then suggests equitable compensation to artists through a micropayment subscription fee; third, a legal intervention aiming to provide a legitimate space for the digital consumption and promotion of music in which users are treated as stewards of cultural goods. Incorporating the multitude of individuals who propel the cultural industries with their creative labour, including fans, photographers, artists, labels and others, The Cultural Capital Project aims to establish a “radical monetization” of the music industry based on equity, connectivity and sharing. Integrating the ideas of Bourdieu, Attali, Lessig and more, this research argues — both legally and philosophically — for the recognition and compensation of music consumers in the cultural industries, and the establishment of a sustainable infrastructure to fully embrace shared culture.

[note – my blog summary below was typed at some speed, and may not have framed this complex paper as fluently as the authors would like. For those who wish to explore the Cultural Capital in the detail intended by Brian and his colleagues, please read the original paper, published online at http://www.iaspmjournal.net/index.php/IASPM_Journal/article/view/635]

To see my Uncle Sam…

I’ve recently been researching musicians and neuroscience as part of my PhD in collaborative songwriting, and I’m starting to form the impression that the academics in the USA are a little freer with the copyright on their publications than many of their UK equivalents. Here’s an example from the Neurosciences Institute’s Aniruddh D. Patel. And here’s Laurence Parsons, a UK-based academic working in a similar area of research. Patel’s publications list has pdfs directly downloadable from the webpage with no login; Parsons’ page sends us to the usual gateways (JSTOR etc). This is not to compare the individuals, more the policies of openness relating to their respective institutions.

Anyway, this was just a quick example – I’ve ranted about the issues about copyright relating to academic journals in the Web 2.0 blog. The main point of today’s entry is to fly the flag for Zotero, an online research tool I’ve recently discovered in case any researcher academics stumble across this blog. I’ve been using Endnote (a commercial application costing over £100) and I wanted to find out if it would fulfil my own research needs, namely;

  • Storage of journal articles in The Cloud
  • Full text search of all documents
  • Drag and drop citation functionality using MS Word
  • Automatic web page indexing
  • Drag and drop citation functionality using Google docs

And I was amazed to discover that there’s a Firefox plugin that does all these things and more – outperforming Endnote (the application I’ve been using) and RefWorks (the one the University uses) and supplies 100MB of online storage. And it’s free!

Here’s their blurb;

Zotero is an easy-to-use yet powerful research tool that helps you gather, organize, and analyze sources (citations, full texts, web pages, images, and other objects), and lets you share the results of your research in a variety of ways. An extension to the popular open-source web browser Firefox, Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software (like EndNote) — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best parts of modern software and web applications (like iTunes and del.icio.us), such as the ability to interact, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero integrates tightly with online resources; it can sense when users are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, and—on many major research and library sites—find and automatically save the full reference information for the item in the correct fields. Since it lives in the web browser, it can effortlessly transmit information to, and receive information from, other web services and applications; since it runs on one’s personal computer, it can also communicate with software running there (such as Microsoft Word). And it can be used offline as well (e.g., on a plane, in an archive without WiFi).

So here you go – check out Zotero. My bibliography-in-progress is online here.

Here’s a detailed comparison of several of the bibliographic applications available.

Why didn’t the dinosaurs die out?

There are still some who believe that print-based research publication is inherently better than online publication.
There are still some who believe that print-based research publication is inherently better than online publication.

Got one!

In a previous post I was discussing the issues of copyright and peer review relating to the publishing of academic work online. Well, I’m delighted to report a lovely example of some progress in my own subject area, Music.

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has been undertaking an AHRC-funded research project for CHARM (the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music), the outcome of which is a book entitled The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performances.

It’s a serious and in-depth study of its subject, and contributes new knowledge and debate to our discipline, as all good research must. And it has been published in online-only form – there is no physical book version. I emailed Daniel to congratulate him on successful publication, and he mentioned in his reply that some of his academic contacts were rather alarmed that he hadn’t ‘published’ his book in the print media sense.

Daniel shares my view that the economic arguments for an academic being supported by a print publisher are negligible – sales of such specialist texts being inherently small in number. And he believes that the best way to share his research  with the academic/musical community is to publish it in unprotected form online. The peer review/quality issue is taken care of (presumably by the AHRC funding application process, and the support of the three august institutions that make up CHARM – Royal Holloway, King’s College London and the University of Sheffield.

Medieval music notation - interestingly, this image comes from a Victoria University Medieval studies course - freely available on Blogger.
Medieval music notation – interestingly, this image comes from a Victoria University Medieval studies course – freely available on Blogger. Click image to go to this blog.

And most pleasingly of all, his work is not based around music technology or musical e-learning – he’s a self-proclaimed ‘traditional’ academic researcher working in ‘classical’ music – a specialist in, among other things, Medieval European music. So if colleagues like this are becoming early adopters of online research dissemination, the future for e-research looks very bright indeed.

Contrast this with the print equivalent – Daniel’s list of publications is formidable, but if you want to read his work now, you will run into another locked gate in print-only cases. He’s done his best to circumvent the copyright issues too, by putting as much of his work online as he can, and deleting audio/score examples that are still in copyright.

So Daniel, and all e-researchers like him, still needs to tiptoe carefully around the niceties of copyright. In his multimedia (presumably HTML/CD-R?) publication Multimedia Music of Fourteenth-Century France (1997) he describes “editions of music, recordings, maps, charts, facsmiles of manuscripts, tables and translations” that are unavailable in the online version for copyright reasons. What if he did publish these omitted excerpts online? Who really would be harmed economically?

This work, which is about as specialised/specific as music research gets, has a great academic significance but not an economic one. And the latter has hamstrung the former, as he acknowledges;

UK institutions of higher education are entitled to receive a copy for the cost of the copying. At the moment, again for copyright reasons, it’s not available elsewhere. But if there’s enough interest a commercial release may be developed later.

We need a change in copyright law – some extension of ‘fair use’, where the knowledge benefit to society outweighs the negligible economic loss to the copyright owner – in cases when the book version of the research is uneconomic to publish. Or better still, some form of digital watermarking/tracking (like YouTube’s previously-used mechanism for paying PRS royalties for music) so that academics, students and copyright owners can benefit from the ‘Long Tail‘ principles of remuneration that only the Internet can provide.

The status quo doesn’t help anyone – new knowledge is effectively suppressed if its dissemination (in print form) is uneconomic or unfunded. We have an opportunity to change this from the inside by simply publishing our research online as a matter of habit. And Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis etc) make this as easy as saving a Word document.

Copyrights and wrongs

PenIt’s not all good news. Some of the principles I’ve been discussing on this blog – notably the advantages of publishing research freely on the Internet – bring with them two attendant ‘issues’ (I used to refer to these as ‘problems’ but then I became a manager, and all ‘problems’ became either ‘issues’ or ‘challenges’ ;-). They are – Data Protection and copyright.

Data Protection is, basically, the right for individuals to see, and to some extent control, personal information about them that is stored on computers. The Data Protection Act 1998 means that identifying individuals online without their knowledge or consent, while not always strictly illegal, can cause potential problems for bloggers/researchers/teachers using Web 2.0 tools – especially when you get into ‘privacy-light’ web applications like Facebook. You’ll note that where I’ve posted photos of students at work on our School website they are not identified by name, or when they are (e.g. in a pop video) this personal identification has been set up by the student themselves. This is one reason (the other being convenience) why we use embedded YouTube code with video-based student work (i.e. use YouTube playlists to find where the student has posted their own work, and effectively link to it – avoiding any issues of content ownership or DPA). If the student graduates and decides for whatever reason that they don’t want their pop video online, they can just take it off YouTube and it will disappear from the School site (this feature was, of course, unavailable to Ricky Gervais in 1983).

Scales of justiceThe other big issue/problem/challenge/hurdle is copyright. Researchers often own their own copyright on their work (perhaps – though this is open to question depending on the individual’s employment contract with their home University), and are free to publish it online (although technically teachers often can’t – in most cases their teaching materials are the Intellectual Property of the employer). So before you post anything online you have to know who owns it in the first place (disclaimer – I have a decent working knowledge of this area as a composer and writer, and a teacher of copyright relating to musicians, but I am by no means an expert). As my own lawyer says, Intellectual Property Rights are only properly relevant when there’s money to be made – and even then, they can only be enforced by the courts. And given that a great deal of research (in the arts/humanities particularly) is highly specialised, few researchers are ever going to make megabucks out of their work in terms of publisher royalties – the sales are too few in number. Publishers make money, of course, out of Universities’ subscriptions to their academic journals, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to find a lot of academic articles online unless you subscribe to a service like JSTOR. It took me a good couple of hours to unearth a research article the other day using Athens/JSTOR (it was so much hassle that it would almost have been easier to go to the library).

PadlockSo assuming you’ve figured out who owns whatever you’re posting online, you run into the problem of quality. Who says that a blog/site is any good? In the old days it was easy – peer review was applied by publishers. Now that anyone can post random unresearched opinions online (as in this blog) it’s very difficult for the concept of peer review to apply. But it must be possible; the difference between web and print as text media is that print distribution costs money (and therefore a profit-making entity called a publisher), so surely we must be able to find a better differentiator than this?!. I admire the approach of Radical Musicology, which publishes all the work freely online. Given that most academics are not funded through publishing royalties to any great extent, shouldn’t all journals be openly available?

If I’m being naiive with these ‘open source’ principles as applied to research, then this may be technically and legally true in the current climate, but I’m in esteemed company. Cornell University recently lifted its restrictions of reproduction of its public domain works. UCL now requires all its researchers to publish to an open-access online repository. And scholarly publishers in the USA are seriously miffed about the University of Boston’s decision to publish all of its academics’ research online – although inevitably this has triggered the same peer-review quality debate outlined above.

LogoThe recent attempts by the music industry to enforce copyright control (e.g. the YouTube/PRS collision, which Google is effectively going to win, and the removal of DRM on iTunes) demonstrate that it is impossible to enforce electronic restrictions when there is huge demand for online content. Indeed, throughout human history we’ve proved to ourselves – politically, economically, and especially with access to knowledge – that a minority can’t enforce control against the majority interest (for very long). And the demand for open access to online academic materials is certainly there. Every academic has had to tell students that Wikipedia is not a primary source, and many assessors apply penalties for citing it. But perhaps the cultural expectation of the student (or of any ‘digital native‘) is to be able to find anything online – if they don’t get instant gratification they won’t go to a library. And if Wikipedia is all students can find via a Google search, they will cite it. So, if we as academics and researchers make more in-depth content available without the requirement for secure e-portals like Athens, we’ll be spreading the knowledge we generate as effectively as possible…

…which is kind of what the job’s all about.

————————

Note – if you’re interested in the issues behind this debate, read Martin Weller’s excellent ‘Ed Techie’ blog – particularly this entry about copyright, including the Larry Lessig TED lecture (which I’ve embedded below). Martin’s a Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University in the UK.

Keeping research locked away

Bank safeA colleague (let’s call him/her ‘P’) gave a research presentation the other day at the University. The subject was interesting, the research was a result of more than a year of work, and it was P’s first research seminar at this University. For all these reasons I was keen to attend and support P. Unfortunately a meeting over-ran and I couldn’t make it. Of course I sent P my apologies over email, and I learned that actually the presentation wasn’t very well attended because other interested colleagues had teaching commitments at that time.

Undaunted, I asked P if I could see some of the research outputs – a paper or other documentation of this work. Nothing was available – the work had been presented ‘live’ on that day, and had taken the form of a verbal lecture. I suggested that P could put some documentation of the work online and send out a link to interested colleagues – at our University and elsewhere in the subject, perhaps to network with those working in a similar research area, and build future projects. P asked me a question I’ve been asked many times about Web 2.0 skills – “Can I get some staff training to do that?”.

Let’s investigate this perfectly reasonable question. What would this staff training involve and what skills does someone need to put their work online? P already has standard/typical web browser skills, can type text onto screen, can cut and paste between MS Word and a browser, and can save/upload images and documents, i.e. all the necessary skills to get started with a blog. So I suppose we could run a simple demo of, say, Blogger – this would probably take less than an hour, then P would be ready to go. So we’d hire a ‘trainer’, book a room and ask the trainer to put some teaching materials together. They’d probably create something like this – i.e. a YouTube ‘How To’ video for Blogger. But these materials are already out there – and anyone who Googled the term ‘how do I start blogging?‘ would find it pretty easily. So P already has the skills, not only to create a blog, but to self-learn by using a search engine. No training necessary – only the will on the part of the trainee to investigate a new method of communication. Shouldn’t every academic exhibit this hunger to communicate as effectively as possible?

Now look at P’s work itself – it’s the result of more than a year of endeavour, excellent in its field, and ground-breaking in many ways. And no-one knows about it – the chosen method of research dissemination (a face-to-face seminar) has vanished into history, and anyone who wasn’t there has missed out. This research is effectively locked away in the memories of those who attended P’s seminar. The information has ‘died’ – all that work, down the drain.

Locked gateIn the ‘old’ (i.e. pre-Internet) research landscape, P could perhaps have published a paper or spoken at a conference. As we know, much of this culture still pervades in HE, perhaps because many academics remain Digital Immigrants (or even take obtuse pride in being ‘Digital Foreigners’ – personally I find this noble-savage approach irresponsible and even arrogant, given our pedagogical duty to our students). Papers are submitted to peer-reviewed/edited journals, printed, dutifully mailed by academic publishers and equally dutifully filed by libraries, and any suitably tenacious academic or student can discover them (though we know anecdotally that many students don’t do this in practice, preferring simply to use Wikipedia as the fount of all knowledge – it’s not hard to find a grumpy academic who will bemoan this trait). A lot of research content – actually, MOST research content – is still fairly difficult to discover through a simple web search, for a variety of reasons relating to copyright/IPR, but also, I suggest, through a lack of understanding by individual researchers of how to put their work online. Of course, many academic journals are available online, but just try posting an interesting Athens or JSTOR link on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or blog – and see how far the recipient gets without a login. Another locked gate.

LectureColleagues who present at conferences effectively ‘broadcast’ their work using the ancient Greek model of one-to-many speaking. Almost every academic has the skills to communicate using this method; the job title is ‘lecturer’ after all. But with the academic conferences, you’re left with the same problem as P’s seminar – if you weren’t there on the day, you’ve missed the boat. And realistically how many people can we reach in this way? A few hundred at most.

So, for the last ten years or so we have had a new and revolutionary method of communication available to us as professional sharers of knowledge. During this period it has been easier to publish content online without ‘tech skills’ i.e. HTML coding etc; this is what the world (and this blog) refers to as ‘Web 2.0’. Tim Berners-Lee, by the way, argues that the phrase is meaningless, and that there is really no difference between the two generations of the web.

“Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.” (arstechnica.com interview, 2006)

In practice, though, Web 2.0 (i.e. the world of blogs, free urls and wikis) is substantially different for us as teachers, because it’s possible for academics who are self-defined as ‘not very techy’ to publish material online using skills they already have. 20 years ago anyone who wanted to publish research on the Internet would, at the least, have had to learn about FTP and HTML. Now that’s just not necessary – anyone who can use a web browser can show their work to the world.

The gates are unlocked. All we need to do is push.