The World Transformed

Letter From The Executive Director, April 2020

What a difference a month can make. Last month we were basking in the success of the NISO Plus meeting. We were reviewing the outputs and planning our next steps, based on conversations from the meeting. Few then could imagine the impact that the new coronavirus would soon have, or would recognize the world a scant four weeks later. While many of your institutions are closed or have implemented social distancing practices, much of our work continues. Publishers, service providers, and libraries are still serving the needs of customers and patrons electronically as much as they ever were, if not more.

Delivery of information is among the most important  things to maintain in a crisis. The phrase “the fog of war” is used to describe the uncertainty that exists in critical situations, when clarity about your own situation, the capabilities of your opponent, and the implications of your actions and decisions are paramount to understand, yet elusive. Not understanding the information landscape or its different elements can lead to making poor decisions and to potentially dangerous outcomes.

Unfortunately, we are deeply embedded in that fog right now, due to the spread of the new coronavirus. What we need is better information, based on verifiable data, that is shared robustly and accurately. Despite the scholarly community’s best efforts, this hasn’t always been the case of late. In the rush to get information out as quickly as possible, some inaccurate or misleading information has been distributed. This is not to presume any malevolent intent—even the best researcher is sometimes wrong. Right now, speed is more important than perfection in the overwhelming number of cases. However, especially in this moment, with so many lives on the line, the Russian proverb is particularly apt: “Trust but verify.”

When you’re in the midst of an epic event, it is often difficult to see the trees in front of you, let alone the forest comprising those trees. As we are whipped about from day to day, even hour by hour, we all need to know that this will pass and the vast majority of us will endure, perhaps a bit worn thin and distressed, but intact. In the midst of all the scrambling, it is important as well to have your eye trained on the future. Even with all this uncertainty, we can foresee at least some of the likely outcomes when this storm has passed.  

The ecosystem for preprints, with all of its benefits and limitations, is being pushed into the spotlight. Whether the current pandemic provides a boost for that ecosystem or puts nails in its coffin will have everything to do with the quality of the research posted as preprints and if erroneous information is presented that is later found to be unsubstantiated. 

Funding, first from philanthropic organizations and then later from government agencies, will be curtailed if there isn’t a rapid turnaround in the economy. For organizations like libraries, whose budgets already hadn’t been improving during the upturn in the economy over the past decade, this will be particularly painful. Decreased funding for libraries will lead to demands for greater collection development flexibility, a greater emphasis on cross-institutional partnerships, and a stronger focus on assessment. And I expect this will have follow-on implications for those companies that serve the library community. Greater efficiencies will be demanded of publisher and supplier systems (most likely driven by standards) to bring down costs. Unfortunately, I expect that many of the infrastructure investments made over the past decade could be at risk as resources begin to dwindle. However, I am hopeful that the rapid deployment of relevant scientific knowledge during the pandemic will transform the flow of information because of greater demands for openness, sharing, and reproducibility. If open science does produce faster, better results, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to “put the genie back in the bottle” when this crisis subsides.

NISO is trying to lend a hand in our own way to the community. We are expanding login capabilities for NISO members, so that staff members working from home can still participate in our monthly educational programs. NISO is also hosting a free webinar this Friday, April 3, on how to manage your institution as things change beneath your feet. We are maintaining a list of expanded access information resources for the community.

Since it is April 1, I will pass along one last bit of wisdom. Standards are often known for being dry. In the case of one standard, very dry. So dry, in fact, that it needn’t be touched by the harmful degradation of vermouth at all. The “radiation method” for making a dry martini is described in ANSI K100.1-1974, and it involves a 60-watt lightbulb and a sealed bottle of vermouth.The vermouth radiates into the bottle of gin, “producing martinis with the proper degree of dryness with an accuracy not even approached” by other methods.

I hope that you all remain healthy and upbeat in this challenging period. Remember that NISO is a community and that we are here to support each other. Please reach out if there is something we collectively can do for you or your organization.  We’ll try our best to help.

Be well,

Todd A. Carpenter
Executive Director