The pleasure of writing: drilling into oil & gas information

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you will know that I’ve contributed articles and reviews to Jinfo (formerly Freepint) quite a number of times over the years.

Well, it’s a pleasure to be doing so once again. This time I’ve been exploring key information sources for the oil & gas industry, while avoiding making the numerous puns that come to mind (I see that some have managed to creep into this article, unfortunately).

It’s always an interesting and useful exercise to write about specific sources and searching as so much of the day-to-day work can become automatic and held inside my head.

Having to write about something brings it into the foreground and, in my case, makes me think hard about (as well as clarify and refine) what I do and how I do it. It has the added benefit of being a refreshing check to make sure that I haven’t got stuck in a complacent rut with the same selection of sources and the same ways of searching (“mindful” searching?).

When you’ve been “programmed to search” for as long as I have, avoiding stagnation becomes quite important. For me, writing is quite hard work, but it’s also enjoyable.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason that blogging became so popular.

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Robots are helping journalists write their articles

The Financial Times reported yesterday (12th Dec.) that the first articles jointly written by robots and humans are being published in the UK. In fact, the robot’s contribution seems to be largely that of fact-finder, providing statistical data for journalists’ articles.

The general opinion seems to be that the robots are providing a useful service and obtaining data that journalists might not otherwise have found, but humans will still be needed for the editorial process.

In February this year Wired wrote an article on the implications of “news-writing bots” for journalism. In their article “AI journalism” seems to have gone several steps further, the suggestion being that it could “generate explanatory, insightful articles”. It could be very helpful. Automated fact-finders could be a useful method by which to quickly identify fake news by scouring social media and calculating credibility of emerging stories. In the US, the software seemed to be, in the main, useful for doing number-crunching for election news which saved a lot of time, but it hasn’t always proved accurate. The hope is that “AI journalism” could free up human journalists to write the articles that require real analysis and “human thought”.

In both cases, the media is anxious to stress that human input is not being replaced, but that journalist time is being saved. I should imagine – as is so often the case with technology – time will certainly be saved for some articles, but new issues will arise that require careful sanity-checking and that will take time.

This could be quite disruptive for journalists, changing the way they search for information, and for some types of news it sounds like a very interesting move, but I can’t help thinking that there might be some really good material generated for Radio 4’s The News Quiz, which always likes to finish with a selection of unintentionally funny quotes from newspapers.

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It’s hard to find something, if it’s not there anymore.

It’s also hard to find or recognize something if you don’t know what search terms to use, what it’s called or anything about it. Searching requires curiosity and interest.

It’s about an intelligent and planned, strategic and enthusiastic way of looking for something. If you’re searching on a topic you know little or nothing about, you mug up first to get at least a basic understanding. This is often best done by asking your enquirer to explain more about what they are asking you to find as well as conducting some preliminary searching around the topic to get the best keywords.

The problem comes when, although the right names and descriptive words and clues are readily available, people are no longer interested or bothered to notice or know what things are called, so they don’t search and they don’t find and it’s a big loss. This video with the naturalist and author, Robert MacFarlane, illustrates the sadness of this. He and Jackie Morris have published a book called The Lost Words about the need for children (and adults) to spend more time interacting with the natural world.

It makes the point that more and more people no longer know what common birds and trees are called or how to identify them. This means they don’t notice what’s around them, or have that joy of realisation through identification. It means trees start to merge into one generic “thing” with a trunk, branches and leafy shapes. Birds are…just birds, with some variation in size and colour.

I feel very sad if we are really becoming less and less able to experience the pure joy of searching and finding plants and animals in the natural world. It’s a massive disconnect from nature and results in us valuing and understanding it less and enjoying it less. It often seems to me as if we don’t really think that we are an integral part of this world. Instead we are separate and nature is to be battled and subdued with weed killer, chainsaws and concrete and replaced with plastic grass because the real thing is soooo inconvenient. It’s a resource for us to plunder and exploit for what we judge to be our lifestyle needs (the Disruptive Searcher isn’t guiltless here, uses far more than she needs and yes, the conscience pounds and yes, she’s thinking about it and making changes to her life…but I’m sure she could do better!).

Why bother D.S.? Because wildlife and nature aren’t separate from us. We live alongside wildlife and in nature all the time. We depend 100% on the natural world for our survival and yet we are becoming blind to it and its gradual disappearance.

Oh, you can search with the best skills all you want, but year on year there’s less and less of the natural world to find.

We’re happier when we’re more in harmony with nature, numerous studies confirm it. Mental health is a huge issue, people say they’re lonely. More and more we’re told we’re on our own. That there’s no other planetary life but ours, no God of any sort any more (religion’s just a “fairytale”, eh, Richard Dawkins?) no obvious reason for our existence…so, no point? Eventually, we won’t be found either, for we’ll have ruined what we were given to live on and will cease to exist too.

Perhaps that’s what some of us ultimately want. We’re certainly heading that way, unless we start again to look around us, searching and finding out about the world we live in, joining those (like Robert MacFarlane) who treasure it. Then we’ll realise we’re not at all alone: there’s still most of a whole, beautiful world out there…for now.



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What I’ll be reading: Expert internet searching

You’re never too old to learn. I may have been embedded in the world of professional searching for around 20 years, but that doesn’t mean I know it all.

Keeping existing skills refreshed as well as learning new ones is vital as well as fun and interesting, which is exactly what I hope reading Phil Bradley’s latest edition of Expert Internet Searching will be.

He hopes so too, which is a nice sentiment. I look forward to diving in for some disruptive searching techniques. Thanks, Phil!

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Peer review: not much fun?

Just a quick post to flag up an interesting article in 3rd June’s issue of the The Economist on how to make peer review less onerous: Preview and prosper.

Whoever thought there’d be a statue dedicated to peer review?


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New scientist regains independence

New Scientist has announced in its 20 May 2017 issue that it has returned to independent ownership having been owned by Reed Business Information since the early 1970s. It has been bought by Kingston Acquisitions which the FT describes as an “investment vehicle” and which previously led the acquisition of the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in 2013.

In recent years some of my more academic colleagues said New Scientist had dumbed down its content too far for their liking. This may be true to an extent, and can spoil a good read, but there’s a balance and it does also depend on who New Scientist wants to have for its audience.

Striking this balance is not always easy, but it’s clear that New Scientist doesn’t aim to be as high-brow as Nature or the AAAS’s Science magazine. My own feeling is that it does a pretty good job in the breadth of its coverage and choice of feature articles and that if it can attract readers – including young readers – who might otherwise hesitate to pick up a science-themed journal, then that in itself is a Good Thing.

It’s probably also quite a good time to go independent as the Open Access debate continues to trundle on. Universities still hesitate as they face the annual dilemma of whether to renew their costly contracts with the large academic journal publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley, while open access journals and platforms are still debating what constitutes a truly workable open access business model and have to tackle the added nuisance of rogue open access journals and platforms which may sound good, but aren’t properly vetted or managed.

It’s clearly complicated and therefore very slow progress (I went to a dinner at the Royal Society about 15 years ago dedicated to discussing Open Access and while there’s definitely been progress, not a huge amount has changed). The above issues don’t help the Open Access cause – and I’d venture to suggest that, although rebelliously appealing, in truth, neither do sites like Sci-Hub. Maybe the individual researcher feels indignant enough towards the expensive publishers that the risk is worth the diving in, but this kicks up clouds of muddy confusion in the copyright waters and doesn’t really solve anything. It also doesn’t help business users as I wouldn’t advocate taking such action since they really don’t want the CLA (Copyright Licensing Agency) knocking at their door if they’ve been tempted into illegal downloading, however justified a protest action it might seem.

All this is part of the reason why the large publishers still exist in their current format. True, many of them have added a number of open access articles to their collections with the option to publish for open access, but this seems to be quite a small percentage of the content and is costly for the author. For example, publishing what Springer terms “Open Choice articles” on their platform involves an open access publication fee of US$3000/€2200 (excluding VAT). Not sure that’s going to catch on in a very big way!

Going independent also bucks the trend of consolidation in the industry which has seen already large publishers merge. Nature Publishing owned by Macmillan was swallowed by the large, open mouth of Springer in 2015, creating a combined entity worth $5.8 billion. A 2015 article in ScienceAlert noted that just 5 publishers controlled 50% of all journal articles published, these five being: Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage.

So if The New Scientist has managed to wriggle free of one of them, I hope that it enjoys freedom to improve and continue for many years to come.

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Missing you already…or not?

Happy new year! Here’s an interesting bit of news to start off 2017. An article in Science magazine 6 Jan 2017 describes how hundreds of universities, technical schools and research institutes and public libraries in Germany will be starting the new year without access to Elsevier’s 2000 plus academic journals. This came about as the negotiations over the renewal of a nationwide agreement came to a standstill in December.

That must be quite some agreement (or disagreement as it turns out). But it’s not all about the large cost involved. Germany was also asking that all papers by German authors be made open access, and for greater transparency of pricing, which Elsevier strongly opposed.

Some organisations will still have access to archived papers, but how will this affect the quality of their research? And I wonder how Germany’s yet-to-come negotiations with other major publishers, Wiley and Springer Nature, will go?

Tick, tick, tick…the lack of time

How crucial is this? I wonder. How much time do you have for searching and reading? How much can you take in? How much do you need to know? You don’t want to miss anything significant, but what level of absolute coverage do you strive for, have time for? How much time do you as a researcher have, in reality, to read and digest numerous papers in full when access is available? Perhaps having to be a little more circumspect about what to read isn’t all bad. It is a value judgement: when is enough, good enough?

Anyway, I don’t think I’d be panicking. What options remain? Happily, quite a lot. German researchers will still be able search widely and still search Elsevier via the ScienceDirect platform. They can switch to pay-as-you-go downloading for papers required, although they may need to be a little more selective. They can use Google scholar, Deepdyve and other similar sites. Finally, they could also turn outlaw and go down the illegal route and use the (still surviving, nay thriving) Sci-Hub as the Science article also notes. ResearchGate also offers a very useful option, plus you can contact the author if you have questions.

No one wants to miss an important advance, but I notice, especially in the corporate world, time is precious and very limited for carrying out extensive reading of academic papers, (even if the papers were all free). Moreover, many of the strong results will only be brought back through good searching and this can require lateral thinking and a nuanced approach. A good example of this is covered in a recent article in Online Searcher:Search Strategies for Large Document Searching which gives you a good idea of how easy it is to miss something relevant, even when using the right keywords.

I love this sort of article, it gets my geeky side very excited. Perhaps this is because I still believe that while losing access to a particular source is certainly disruptive, a poor search technique can be even more so.

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Happy to be writing for Jinfo (formerly FreePint) again

So much going on in the world of information and searching and so few posts written. My only excuse is that I’ve been very busy because there is so much going on in the…OK, you can guess the rest! It’s not a good excuse really though, is it?

One of the consequences of having one’s head down working is that the exploratory aspect which is vital for keeping up-to-date with what’s changed and what’s new can suffer. It’s a common complaint, so how to make sure it’s still catered for?

Well, writing is one way that gets me to think about something other than my to-do list. Among recent extra-curricular activities I’m delighted to be a contributor once more to the highly esteemed online journal and platform that is Jinfo (formerly FreePint). For those of you unfamiliar with this resource, it started life as an advice platform primarily for students whereby they could submit their information and search-related questions to the “FreePint bar” (hence the cheerily studenty name of FreePint). The idea was that their questions would be answered by practising professionals. It was popular from the word go, but began quite quickly to be a useful resource for us practising professionals too.

An excellent way of keeping up to speed with developments, over the years Jinfo has remained true to its mission of offering advice on searching and management skills, as well as providing product reviews of a very wide range of information-related resources, but is now directed more at the professional community.

If a subscription is out of reach, their free newsletter provides a handy overview of what’s being covered and gives useful tips and hints as well as acting as a useful alert on new information sources. Worth signing up to.

What else? CILIP (my professional association) I find their news very handy, Searchenginewatch has useful articles now and then, although is mostly geared towards search engine optimization (SEO) strategies. I also find that universities sometimes provide helpful information, one of my oldest friends being the Scout Report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison which has been going for ages and ages, but has remained simple in format and quick to scan (a round of applause goes to the Internet Scout Research Group – thanks so much folks!)

Please let me know if you have any favourites, as the above is bound to be just a small sample.

Happy September to you…ahhh, the gateway to autumn.


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Saving libraries and searching skills

Caitlin Moran eloquently expresses in Caitlin’s Moranifesto: Save our Libraries why Libraries still have their place in the age of the internet, and why we shouldn’t be content with just “Googling it”.

“Do we all want to be Googlesheep, herded to one bit of learning about each thing, or the biggest-rated video of a shark eating a man, or a cat riding around on a small hoover, because that’s what everyone else has looked at? I’d argue that we don’t – that that approach will lead to the death of creativity and cleverness and original thought”.




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Another article in support of open access

I’ve posted several times on the open access movement which aims to end the practice of charging to read academic papers describing research which has usually been publicly funded in the first place.

The latest case for open access is made by Wired magazine. It describes a website called Sci-Hub which is openly flouting current copyright law by hosting free-to-access academic papers. Sci-hub describes itself as the “first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers”. Currently they claim to have 47 million papers in their repository.

Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers filed a copyright infringement claim against the website. An injunction to stop distributing papers was issued against Sci-Hub, but the website is hosted in Russia, and is therefore trying very hard to ignore this, although it was forced to relocate its domain after its previous site was shut down, as The Register described earlier this year.

Academic publishers have battled against open access for many years now, but the movement is slowly gaining traction. Some publishers have made certain journals free to access in a bid to show willing, but at over $30 an article, publishers like Elsevier aren’t going to switch overnight. Over the years, scientists and universities have boycotted Elsevier in protest at its hefty subscriptions, plus the annual mark-up.

Wired uses the Zika virus as an interesting example of where readily available and free access to research is vital for finding a solution quickly and notes the irony that leading journals have come forward to make new findings freely available – a clear “admission that copyright barriers and paywalls restrict access and slow innovation”.

It’s not that publishers don’t add value. Oft-cited examples are their peer review and editorial processes, and wide circulation they can achieve due to a journal’s standing within the research community. One model is to make papers free, but charge the author instead, but I see little advantage in that. So, as the Wired article suggests, perhaps it is the whole commercial model that is faulty.

I’ve ended most of my posts on this topic with the prediction that change will come and I still think it will, as does the Wired article. The pressure to disrupt the academic research publishing business is certainly not slackening off – Sci-hub is testament to that.

Here’s to the open access movement, and the hope that I won’t have retired by the time it comes to fruition!


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