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Christmas dinner in the Anderson Room

Dear readers, I know that it is still just about November, but…Christmas is coming! I have had fun in the last few days finding new, festive exhibits for our food-and-drink-themed exhibition in the Anderson Room, which is up until the … Continue reading →

Open Data – moving science forward or a waste of money & time?

On the 4 November the Research Data Facility at Cambridge University invited some inspirational leaders in the area of research data management and asked them to address the question: “is open data moving science forward or a waste of money & time?”. Below are Dr Marta Teperek’s impressions from the event.

Great discussion

Want to initiate a thought-provoking discussion on a controversial subject? The recipe is simple: invite inspirational leaders, bright people with curious minds and have an excellent chair. The outcome is guaranteed.

We asked some truly inspirational leaders in data management and sharing to come to Cambridge to talk to the community about the pros and cons of data sharing. We were honoured to have with us:

  • Rafael Carazo-Salas, Group Leader, Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge
  • Sarah Jones, Senior Institutional Support Officer from the Digital Curation Centre; @sjDCC
  • Frances Rawle, Head of Corporate Governance and Policy, Medical Research Council; @The_MRC
  • Tim Smith, Group Leader, Collaboration and Information Services, CERN/Zenodo; @TimSmithCH
  • Peter Murray-Rust, Molecular Informatics, Dept. of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, ContentMine; @petermurrayrust

The discussion was chaired by Dr Danny Kingsley, the Head of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge (@dannykay68).

What is the definition of Open Data?

The discussion started off with a request for a definition of what “open” meant. Both Peter and Sarah explained that ‘open’ in science was not simply a piece of paper saying ‘this is open’. Peter said that ‘open’ meant free to use, free to re-use, and free to re-distribute without permission. Open data needs to be usable, it needs to be described, and to be interpretable. Finally, if data is not discoverable, it is of no use to anyone. Sarah added that sharing is about making data useful. Making it useful also involves the use of open formats, and implies describing the data. Context is necessary for the data to be of any value to others.

What are the benefits of Open Data?

Next came a quick question from Danny: “What are the benefits of Open Data”? followed by an immediate riposte from Rafael: “What aren’t the benefits of Open Data?”. Rafael explained that open data led to transparency in research, re-usability of data, benchmarking, integration, new discoveries and, most importantly, sharing data kept it alive. If data was not shared and instead simply kept on the computer’s hard drive, no one would remember it months after the initial publication. Sharing is the only way in which data can be used, cited, and built upon years after the publication. Frances added that research data originating from publicly funded research was funded by tax payers. Therefore, the value of research data should be maximised. Data sharing is important for research integrity and reproducibility and for ensuring better quality of science. Sarah said that the biggest benefit of sharing data was the wealth of re-uses of research data, which often could not be imagined at the time of creation.

Finally, Tim concluded that sharing of research is what made the wheels of science turn. He inspired further discussions by strong statements: “Sharing is not an if, it is a must – science is about sharing, science is about collectively coming to truths that you can then build on. If you don’t share enough information so that people can validate and build up on your findings, then it basically isn’t science – it’s just beliefs and opinions.”

Tim also stressed that if open science became institutionalised, and mandated through policies and rules, it would take a very long time before individual researchers would fully embrace it and start sharing their research as the default position.

I personally strongly agree with Tim’s statement. Mandating sharing without providing the support for it will lead to a perception that sharing is yet another administrative burden, and researchers will adopt the ‘minimal compliance’ approach towards sharing. We often observe this attitude amongst EPSRC-funded researchers (EPSRC is one of the UK funders with the strictest policy for sharing of research data). Instead, institutions should provide infrastructure, services, support and encouragement for sharing.

Big data

Data sharing is not without problems. One of the biggest issues nowadays it the problem of sharing of big data. Rafael stressed that with big data, it was extremely expensive not only to share, but even to store the data long-term. He stated that the biggest bottleneck in progress was to bridge the gap between the capacity to generate the data, and the capacity to make it useful. Tim admitted that sharing of big data was indeed difficult at the moment, but that the need would certainly drive innovation. He recalled that in the past people did not think that one day it would be possible just to stream videos instead of buying DVDs. Nowadays technologies exist which allow millions of people to watch the webcast of a live match at the same time – the need developed the tools. More and more people are looking at new ways of chunking and parallelisation of data downloads. Additionally, there is a change in the way in which the analysis is done – more and more of it is done remotely on central servers, and this eliminates the technical barriers of access to data.

Personal/sensitive data

Frances mentioned that in the case of personal and sensitive data, sharing was not as simple as in basic sciences disciplines. Especially in medical research, it often required provision of controlled access to data. It was not only important who would get the data, but also what they would do with it. Frances agreed with Tim that perhaps what was needed is a paradigm shift – that questions should be sent to the data, and not the data sent to the questions.

Shades of grey: in-between “open” and “closed”

Both the audience and the panellists agreed that almost no data was completely “open” and almost no data was completely “shut”. Tim explained that anything that gets research data off the laptop to a shared environment, even if it was shared only with a certain group, was already a massive step forward. Tim said: “Open Data does not mean immediately open to the entire world – anything that makes it off from where it is now is an important step forward and people should not be discouraged from doing so, just because it does not tick all the other checkboxes.” And this is yet another point where I personally agreed with Tim that institutionalising data sharing and policing the process is not the way forward. To the contrary, researchers should be encouraged to make small steps at a time, with the hope that the collective move forward will help achieving a cultural change embraced by the community.

Open Data and the future of publishing

Another interesting topic of the discussion was the future of publishing. Rafael started explaining that the way traditional publishing works had to change, as data was not two-dimensional anymore and in the digital era it could no longer be shared on a piece of paper. Ideally, researchers should be allowed to continue re-analysing data underpinning figures in publications. Research data underpinning figures should be clickable, re-formattable and interoperable – alive.

Danny mentioned that the traditional way of rewarding researchers was based on publishing and on journal impact factors. She asked whether publishing data could help to start rewarding the process of generating data and making it available. Sarah suggested that rather than having the formal peer review of data, it would be better to have an evaluation structure based on the re-use of data – for example, valuing data which was downloadable, well-labelled, re-usable.

Incentives for sharing research data

The final discussion was around incentives for data sharing. Sarah was the first one to suggest that the most persuasive incentive for data sharing is seeing the data being re-used and getting credit for it. She also stated that there was also an important role for funders and institutions to incentivise data sharing. If funders/institutions wished to mandate sharing, they also needed to reward it. Funders could do so when assessing grant proposals; institutions could do it when looking at academic promotions.

Conclusions and outlooks on the future

This was an extremely thought-provoking and well-coordinated discussion. And maybe due to the fact that many of the questions asked remained unanswered, both the panellists and the attendees enjoyed a long networking session with wine and nibbles after the discussion.

From my personal perspective, as an ex-researcher in life sciences, the greatest benefit of open data is the potential to drive a cultural change in academia. The current academic career progression is almost solely based on the impact factor of publications. The ‘prestige’ of your publications determines whether you will get funding, whether you will get a position, whether you will be able to continue your career as a researcher. This, connected with a frequently broken peer-review process, leads to a lot of frustration among researchers. What if you are not from the world’s top university or from a famous research group? Will you be able to still publish your work in a high impact factor journal? What if somebody scooped you when you were about to publish results of your five years’ long study? Will you be able to find a new position? As Danny suggested during the discussion, if researchers start publishing their data in the ‘open”’ there is a chance that the whole process of doing valuable research, making it useful and available to others will be rewarded and recognised. This fits well with Sarah’s ideas about evaluation structure based on the re-use of research data. In fact, more and more researchers go to the ‘open’ and use blog posts and social media to talk about their research and to discuss the work of their peers. With the use of persistent links research data can be now easily cited, and impact can be built directly on data citation and re-use, but one could also imagine some sort of badges for sharing good research data, awarded directly by the users. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years’ time the whole evaluation process will be done online, directly by peers, and researchers will be valued for their true contributions to science.

And perhaps the most important message for me, this time as a person who supports research data management services at the University of Cambridge, is to help researchers to really embrace the open data agenda. At the moment, open data is too frequently perceived as a burden, which, as Tim suggested, is most likely due to imposed policies and institutionalisation of the agenda. Instead of a stick, which results in the minimal compliance attitude, researchers need to see the opportunities and benefits of open data to sign up for the agenda. Therefore, the Institution needs to provide support services to make data sharing easy, but it is the community itself that needs to drive the change to “open”. And the community needs to be willing and convinced to do so.

Further resources
  • Click here to see the full recording of the Open Data Panel Discussion.
  • And here you can find a storified version of the event prepared by Kennedy Ikpe from the Open Data Team.
Thank you

We also wanted to express a special ‘thank you’ note to Dan Crane from the Library at the Department of Engineering, who helped us with all the logistics for the event and who made it happen.

Published 27 November 2015
Written by Dr Marta Teperek

Meet an Open Access publisher

Have you ever wondered what Open Access publishing actually is?

Many people associate ‘ Open Access’ with Article Processing Charges for journal articles, but can this business model work for books, and if so, how? Are Open Access books always free? Can Open Access book publishing ever hope to be a profitable business?

This wide ranging session will cover how librarians can be active participants in Open Access, both by providing information to researchers about Open Access publishing opportunities, and by highlighting Open Access material that the library subscribes to.

Join us for a short talk and question and answer session with Rupert Gatti and Alessandra Tosi, the co-founders of Open Book Publishers based here in Cambridge.

When: Thursday, December 10, 2015 from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM (GMT) – Add to Calendar

Where: Milstein Room – University Library. West Road. Cambridge CB3 9DR GB – View Map

Book here

The post Meet an Open Access publisher appeared first on Medical Library.

Helmut Schmidt, 1918-2015

The eminent politician and statesman Helmut Schmidt died on November 10 at the age of 96 and a state funeral took place in Hamburg on November 23. Many obituaries and tributes have been written outlining his career and achievements. The … Continue reading →

Rose Book-Collecting Prize 2016

Entries are open for the 2016 Rose Book-Collecting Prize, which offers students the chance to win £500 by building their own book collections.

The Prize was endowed in 2006 and is believed to be the first of its kind offered by any European university. As well as the £500 prize money, the winner will be offered 10 years’ free membership of the Friends of Cambridge University Library. The prize will be awarded in the Easter Term. It has been funded by Professor James Marrow and Dr Emily Rose in honour of Dr Rose’s parents, Daniel and Joanna Rose.

The contest is open to all current undergraduate and graduate students of the University registered for a Cambridge degree. To enter, students should submit a list of their collection together with a short essay, explaining the theme and significance of the collection, by the first day of the Lent full term, Tuesday 12 January 2016. Shortlisted candidates will be invited to talk about their collection to the judges.

The judges will make their decision based on the intelligence and originality of the collection, its coherence as a collection, as well as the thought, creativity and persistence demonstrated by the collector and the condition of the books. The monetary value of the collections will not be a factor in determining the winning entry—a coherent collection of paperbacks is a perfectly valid entry.

In 2015, the prize was won by Tom Zille of Homerton College for his collection of books on ‘German and English Literature of the Inter-War Period’.

For full details of the Rose Book-Collecting Prize and how to enter, see

Gordon Duff Prize 2016

The Gordon Duff Prize is an annual competition open to members of the University of Cambridge for an essay on any one of the following subjects: bibliography, palaeography, typography, book-binding, book-illustration, or the science of books and manuscripts and the arts relating thereto. The Prize will be of the value of £500.

To enter, candidates must submit the proposed subjects of their essays to the Deputy Librarian, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, CB3 9DR so as to reach her not later than the last day of the Michaelmas Term, i.e. 19 December 2015. Candidates will be informed whether their proposed subjects are approved by the Library Syndicate after its meeting on 9 February 2016.

If the proposed subject is approved, essays, which must not exceed 10,000 words in length, must be sent in hard-copy form to the Deputy Librarian, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, CB3 9DR by the last day of Lent Term, 24 March 2016.

A copy of the winning essay will be deposited in the University Library.

For further information on the Prize and a list of previous winners, see

Arctic & Antarctic Regions

Trial access is now available to the Arctic & Antarctic Regions database.

Access is available until 23 December 2015 via this link

Please send your feedback on the trial to or to Peter Lund at the Scott Polar Research Institute (email:  Thank you.

Image: Evgenia Arbugaeva, Tiksi

This database provides multidisciplinary subject coverage of Arctic and Antarctic studies, indexed from a wide variety of sources. As a top resource for research on the Polar regions, this database offers many titles that are uniquely indexed with EBSCO.

Arctic & Antarctic Regions provides records consisting of abstracts and annotations from 12 database files containing over 1.4 million records from books, dissertations, government reports, monographs, conference proceedings, scientific periodicals and theses. The database provides access to valuable research on cold regions, spanning from 1818 to the present.

Our window onto 19th and early 20th century Italy opens wider

I wrote in January of a very generous donation of items that had belonged to Denis Mack Smith and had been passed on to us by the Bodleian. A couple of weeks ago we took delivery of a further nine … Continue reading →

Michaelmas term at the Pendlebury

We’re well through the first term here at the Pendlebury Library of Music, so now might be a good moment to catch up on some of the new things around.  There have been changes to both room use and services, … Continue reading →

A Letter from Sir Mansfield Cumming to ‘My dear Hoare’

This letter from the first director of what was to become the Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6) Sir Mansfield Cumming, to his head of mission in Rome, Sir Samuel Hoare, is part of the Templewood collection here in the Manuscripts department of the University Library. It is a tantalizing glimpse of espionage in action and leaves the reader hungry for information.

Who was ‘R’? What was this mysterious ‘business with the ecclesiastics’? Clearly there has been some kind of incident, and Mansfield Cumming is keen to emphasise that he regrets it, and was not personally responsible.

Hoare was an experienced intelligence officer, having previously been head of mission in St. Petersburg, from where he sent the first communication to the west confirming the death of the Mad Monk, Rasputin. While in Rome, Hoare met Benito Mussolini, who was at that time editor of a right wing Italian newspaper. The British were desperate to keep Italy on their side, and so bankrolled Mussolini’s propaganda efforts to the tune of £100 a week.

The second half of the letter is more informal, almost chatty, and looking forward to new activities at the end of the war. The remark about how Hoare will ‘shortly have to transfer your activities to the House of Commons’ is, unfortunately, not an indication of any Establishment wide conspiracy of espionage, but rather a reference to the fact that Hoare had been since 1910 the MP for Chelsea, and would presumably be resuming his political role after the war.

The letter was written the day after the conclusion of the Second Battle of Le Cateau, where the British attack had captured the St. Quentin-Cambrai railway, 250 guns and 12,000 prisoners, advancing 11 miles in 5 days. With similar gains being made elsewhere, the Central Powers were staring defeat in the face. The reference to ‘this new development’ references the message sent on the 5th of October from the German government to American president Woodrow Wilson indicating their willingness to seek a negotiated peace along the terms of the Fourteen Points Wilson had laid out in a speech on the 8th of January 1918.

The letter was originally restricted until 2005, but was actually opened by permission of the Cabinet Office in September 2001. Mansfield Cumming was famously the inspiration for spymaster ‘M’ in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. He has signed the letter in his legendary trademark green ink, which is still used by the current head of the SIS. Interestingly, he has signed with both his initials, and not the ‘C’ of legend.

The letter can be found at classmark MS Templewood [III:4;75]

Jack Dixon, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.