Guest Post by Martin Paul Eve
If one were to create a ranking of terms feared by those working in the humanities, “bibliometrics” would have to be up there. For differing, non-comprehensive citation cultures accompanied by long citation half-lives that are not usually seen in the natural sciences mean that, when bibliometrics are used for assessment purposes, they simply don’t work well in the humanities disciplines. When a book takes five years to write, for example, one won’t see a citation network that reflects the current state of a field within the types of timescale that are useful to research funders, for instance.
Yet, if those in the humanities do not want bibliometrics to be used for assessment, we are all actually already used to using the citation graph in another type of utilitarian exercise: cross-referencing in order to gain an understanding of a field. For example, whenever I need to get my head around a new field of scholarship, I have a tried and tested method. I will usually go to the British Library and order ten or so books that seem to have pertinent titles. I will then begin to cross-reference the bibliographies of these books. In other words, I want to know: what do these titles cite in common? What, exactly, are the key secondary works that are cited by all of these books? It is my gamble that the most-cited items will be good pieces to read in order to rapidly understand a new disciplinary space.
This is a labour intensive process. It involves my move to a physical space in the first place – our national research library – which on its own has implications for accessibility; as a disabled academic, I am not always in a brilliant state to make my way into a physical library space. This is then followed by a search of the catalogue, a wait for the delivery of the items, and then a laborious process of note taking, observation and cross-referencing across hundreds of permutations of bibliographic entries.
What if, in the contemporary digital publishing landscape, there were a better way? For many years now, there has been a steady growth in the number of academic books that are published open access; that is, free of price and permission barriers. Free to read and free to re-use. Several thousand of these are listed in the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), providing an ever-expanding corpus of high-quality, peer-reviewed monographs that are openly and digitally accessible.
It is with great pleasure, then, that with funding from Jisc’s Open Metrics Lab, the Centre for Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck can today announce our experimental project to build a bibliographic intersect tool for open-access monographs. The project has three components that Jisc is planning to make available for anyone to re-use:
- A literature review of existing material on bibliometrics for open-access monographs and bibliographic intersection tools;
- A tool that will allow people to download a corpus from the DOAB;
- A tool that will parse references from open-access monographs and tell the user which items are cited in common among the selected titles.
As this is a tool that I have wanted for some time in my own capacity as a researcher, it is excellent to have support from Jisc in beginning the development work on this. That said, we have had to impose some limitations. While there are excellent tools like Anystyle.io and Crossref’s citation resolution service – which we intend to use – we are going to have to work with a small subset of citations to begin with. Guaranteeing the universal parsing of arbitrary free-text input from any publisher in any style is well beyond the scope of this experimental exercise.
However, this is an exciting start to show what a citation graph – essentially, metrics for monographs – might achieve within a positive research context for the humanities. Rather than counting beans in order to assess researchers, we are interested in using the quantitative and cumulative weight of citation evidence as a way to accelerate the research process, to help with disability access, and to think through the capabilities of open access for our understanding of new areas.
About the author: Martin Paul Eve is Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a founder of the Open Library of Humanities, a member of the UUK Open Access Monographs Working Group, and author of Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future, published openly by Cambridge University Press.