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Meet the editor of... Aslib Proceedings


An interview with: David Nicholas

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Professor David Nicholas is the Director of the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London (UCL), where he is also Professor of Library & Information Studies and Director of the UCL Centre for Publishing and the research group Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER).  His chief research interests are the digital consumer, the digital transition and the virtual scholar. He has been Editor of Aslib Proceedings since 1996.

Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives is a Thomson Scientific (formerly ISI) ranked international journal, over 60 years old, devoted to issues in information work. As such it contains articles on a wide range of issues from e-government, heath informatics, electronic publishing, search engines, knowledge representation and the technology of information retrieval systems, to the trustworthiness of TV news. Its aim is to provide research and comment in a form that is easily and quickly understood, and it champions writing in a fresh, rigorous, but unfussy writing style. 

Journal vision and mission 

How would you describe Aslib Proceedings’ vision, and what makes it unique?

It’s interdisciplinary, with wide-angle vision, and without any particular professional baggage or philosophy. Many journals have a very precise audience, but we think that with the Internet all subjects bang into one another, for example perspectives from publishing are as valuable as those from librarianship. 

It’s also fresh and current – many journals take about 12 months to publish of which 6 is getting responses from referees, but we say that if you can’t publish before 15 months then your message is irrelevant. We want to reflect the changes that are going on all the time, so we need a turnaround that is relevant to today’s world; we aim for about six months and tell the author within a month if something’s OK, or requires changes. We keep our refereeing within the editorial advisory board, or, if necessary from the information school I head, so we get a quick response.

In some way, Aslib Proceedings in similar to the Journal of Documentation.  Would you say that the difference is that whereas the latter has been described by the editor as "totally a research journal in the sense that we would not publish an article that was not grounded in research to some extent", Aslib Proceedings is more practitioner oriented and with the objective of developing evidence-based practice?

JDOC is a traditional, high impact factor journal, with a good name and people like to park their research there. We are just not in the same game. As the name "Proceedings" suggests, we are more of a rapid talking shop. JDOC is very formulistic with lots of references, and its articles have an academic structure that is typical of a scholarly journal. We wouldn’t want to be constrained by that model, our authors wouldn’t have that many references as much of the stuff is coming out of their brains, or something they are doing at the time. David [Bawden] is a colleague and we work closely together, discussing and exchanging ideas and articles, it works well as his journal is more theoretical and ours is more practical.

What is Aslib Proceedings’ position with respect to other journals in the information science field?

We lie half way between highly academic journals like the Journal of Informaiton Science and JDOC on the one hand and Library World and the more magazine type journals on the other; we are half way to being a practitioner journal.

How is the journal linked with ASLIB? 

Funnily enough it isn’t at all. I was asked to bale the journal out in 1996, when it had lost its way and had very little copy coming in. It had a great brand name in our profession for getting practitioners to talk about scholarly topics. Although at one time ASLIB had about six journals, effectively Aslib Proceedings no longer has any connection; but we kept the name because at the time ASLIB was the driving organization of our profession. No one really cares that it’s not run by ASLIB nor is it proceedings, they just remember that it’s something they had to read, it’s a sort of blast from the past.

How has the journal changed under your leadership?

When I took it over, it needed resuscitation. Many new journals were entering the field including ones published by Emerald, and AP had completely lost it – when you are dying, no one will send you articles. We used the brand to get back the qualities that it had had before – I couldn’t have done this on my own, but I had my CIBER research group which I was able to use to populate the first couple of issues with high class research. I also used CIBER’s influence to get in names, and as a result if you look at the first issues you have editors of newspapers writing, to give back its aura of hey, big fish write in this journal. It took about two and a half years before articles came in on their own – I had loosened the blockage.

Readership and editorial objectives 

How would you describe your subject range?

We cover librarianship and information science (LIS), but also scholarly publishing, computer science, and news and media – the information rainbow. In my information school, we teach records management, information science, librarianship, publishing, electronic communication – subjects keep bumping into one another and the journal personifies this. We aren’t-self contained little units, we have our strengths, but there’s a big information domain and the journal is moving its coverage into that domain – we are repositioning ourselves in the new realignment.

From what disciplines and professions are your readers and writers drawn?

What helps us is the way that people search – on digital databases. They put in a query and see what comes out. That benefits us as people are not just looking in odd corners, they are saying, I’ll have it, wherever it’s published. The high usage figures reflect this – we pick up other constituencies through the Emerald database, which is global. We are not just in the part of the library where the librarianship journals are.

Over the past four years special issues have been particularly important to you. What is your strategy here and what plans do you have for special issues over the next couple of years?

You can talk to any editor in the LIS field, and they will tell you that the quality of submitted material can be pretty low. It’s not a high flying discipline like nuclear physics, and there is a lot of quite descriptive stuff – someone’s account of what they have done in a particular rural library that’s of no interest to anyone. If we just sit and wait for material to come in, we won’t get the stuff we want, so we have to be proactive.

So, we try and have every second or third issue as a special issue, which means that I can approach people, which keeps the quality up.  I therefore approach library schools and ask them if they want to showcase their stuff for the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Their boss says, right, articles, Aslib Proceedings, now. For the Abersytwyth issue which we have just published, it seemed that nearly every member of the department submitted, people were very keen.

On other occasions, I’ve approached someone to ask them to be guest editor, and they can approach people they know, it’s using your social network. Lots of other editors are moving to a similar kind of model, because it helps improve quality. It’s a more proactive sort of publishing, where you don’t just look at your in-box or in-tray. This approach is mirrored elsewhere, the research councils don’t just wait for good proposals, they also have their own programmes, and invite contributions, so it’s happening everywhere in academe. 

But does that make it more difficult for the younger researcher or someone in an academic related area like librarianship to get published?

Not so much for the library schools issues, because that involves everyone in the school. But yes, for special issues on subjects, it does make things more difficult. But if a young person has quality then you can see it. We don’t mind working with them, so they are not on their own. Some of the boring stuff is produced by the older people; some of the young people have a fresh take. What they usually do is find a relatively low level journal, because they know that they can get published there, they learn the ropes on that because referees tell them things, then they move up the hierarchy. It’s happened to us all, none of us published in the best journal first.

Where it is difficult sometimes is in some parts of the world where they just don’t have the resources, certain parts of Africa for example, although the Web should be helping here, but I haven’t seen that happen yet. It tends to be very parochial, based on very old data. There is a demand from places in India and Africa to be published, but they just don’t seem to be connected, they are referencing material that’s 10 or 15 years old. The world’s changed. Their stuff tends to be parochial, just about their organization. But what happens in a particular organization is only relevant if it relates to what’s happening somewhere else.

Last year, you deliberately put the spotlight on two LIS schools to showcase their research, and you say you have plans for others. Is this an attempt to help increase their profiles in the light of the forthcoming RAE, an attempt to increase their subject output?

Yes, there is. Coming just before the RAE it’s an excellent opportunity to show peer evaluated material. The subject also needs visibility, so the more schools get higher ratings, the better! 

Are your future plans for special issues around library schools?

Most library schools are keen to take part, so it would be nice to do them all. We shall have some more subject-based special issues, but at the moment there’s much mileage in the school-based special issues – people like reading them, schools can give them to their visitors, tell their students to read them, they’re good for the archives. We seem to have found a nice little niche.

You have a very eclectic Editorial Advisory Board, which is both international and with healthy practitioner representation.  Does this reflect the aspirations of the journal? 

It’s based on the same collaborative approach that underpins my CIBER group – we don’t just work with academics, but with a whole network.  Academics do all the basic digging, etc., but they are surrounded by a core of practitioners, policy makers etc., who look at what we are doing, give advice, and may be help with funding. Having the interdisciplinary and cross-sector approach, mixing things up, but having a common theme – that’s what gives that freshness, that liveliness. So yes, it really does reflect the aspirations of Aslib Proceedings.

You say that you welcome articles with a "fresh, vigorous but unfussy writing style".  Can you elaborate on this, perhaps with some examples?

The point is, if we can’t read it and understand it, then who can? In some journals, it doesn’t really matter because you are just simply parking knowledge. But we are also communicating and disseminating, so we want something lively. 

If you want some examples, Robin Hunt, who set up The Guardian website, did four articles  for us, Peter Cole, the Deputy Editor of The Guardian, wrote a couple, and there’s also Robert Withey, a librarian. They all write so brilliantly and beautifully, the manage to convey great ideas really simply, they are really aspirational figures in trying to change the tortuous prose that is often typical of our field.

I’m intrigued by this notion of research here because when you talk to a lot of editors, they insist that research is grounded in the theoretical background.

The only problem here is when you are doing really forward-thinking stuff on the cutting edge, it’s more a case of blue skies thinking. In a way we’ve had a kind of paradigm shift, the web has so fundamentally changed things that what preceded it is actually irrelevant. In fact, it’s dangerous. I understand what they are saying, and we certainly need a rigorous approach, but you really have to be careful now about insisting on always being grounded in references to theories etc. because new theories are emerging now. Do you tell these authors, sorry, but there’s no references, we can’t publish it!  We want these breakthrough pieces. 

Publishing issues

How did you become ISI listed, and how important to you is ISI listing?

I don’t know, I believe this was sorted out by ASLIB. But it’s useful, not just with the UK RAE; in other places like Korea, Singapore and South Africa, they have a similar system, so they have as part of their contract to produce one or two peer reviewed articles in ISI listed journals. ISI is a kind of author vote not a reader vote.

Of course, there’s lots of good journals that haven’t got ISI, and Emerald now has quite a nice little metric that includes usage, because you can have a journal that’s highly used but is not highly cited. But, yes, it’s good for us to have ISI listing because it can make us attractive to authors.

How important is the actual impact factor?

We are a bit limited because we don’t publish stuff that people will necessarily cite, which is what impact factor is built on. I always look at the impact factor as a way of benchmarking us with other journals, such as New Library World, Interlending & Document Supply – are they below us or above us, and why? I’m not after beating JASIST or JDOC as we are in a different ball game.

Can you describe the refereeing process? What are the referees looking for?

Everything comes to me personally, or to my Deputy Editor, Ian Rowlands, who is a colleague so we see each other all the time. If they are clearly no good at all we send them back. If they look as though they are good we determine which two members of the EAB should get them. If there isn’t the expertise there, or if they’ve been over exposed, we then go to departmental or research colleagues of mine – always people we know and trust to give rapid feedback.

We don’t have a pro forma approach to refereeing with boxes to tick – I couldn’t get boxes to fit all the articles we publish! We ask for an opinion, and they are familiar with the journal’s aspirations. Usually they just send it back in an email which gives and open-ended response, saying what the strengths and weaknesses are.

And finally...

How do you see the discipline of information science, and the information professions generally, developing over the next five years?

Shrinking! Why? Because of this thing called disintermediation, whereby people can now do things themselves, rather than asking other people to do it. It’s happening in the travel industry: I do all my holiday bookings online. There is a sense in which we are all librarians now. So, librarians should be moving into publishing, media, newspapers, etc.

There will be a small group of individuals who will be experts, but the library profession as a whole will actually shrink. There’s always going to be a great job for university librarians, but in lots of other sectors, such as special libraries, apart from the area of law, there’s considerable shrinkage – people are searching for information by themselves. Public libraries have been a relative failure, largely because of lack of vision: and they don’t know how to work with, say, local bookshops, Amazon, Waterstones, etc., they have a diminishing market as people are buying their own books.

You even hear vice chancellors saying, why do we need a library, what about the Internet, not realizing that library resources extend beyond the libraries themselves. This will certainly affect the quality of information search – there will be a dumbing down, and information literacy will be a big issue. But it will have to happen before people react.

Articles by Robin Hunt in Aslib Proceedings

Articles by Peter Cole in Aslib Proceedings

Articles by Richard Withey in Aslib Proceedings

Publisher's note:

Professor Nicholas was interviewed in December 2006.

Visit the information page for: Aslib Proceedings