Tales from the far North

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Last week I had the privilege of attending the 10th Munin Conference on Scholarly Publishing at the University of Tromsø.  When first invited I confess I had to check the map to find out exactly where Tromsø is – some 200 miles inside the Arctic circle, it turns out, in the far north of Norway. Indeed the University of Tromsø is the world’s northernmost university, and the town boasts a number of other such claims – the northernmost symphony orchestra, ski resort, Protestant cathedral and (surely its greatest source of civic pride) Burger King. Fortunately the Gulf Stream means the climate is slightly more welcome that might be expected at such latitudes, with temperatures only just dipping below freezing during the course of my stay.I was there to talk about a project I’ve been working on for Knowledge Exchange, exploring the need to develop an ‘open access infrastructure’ if policies intended to improve access to the results of academic research are to bear fruit. I also presented a poster summarising the findings of our recent work on ‘Monitoring the Transition to Open Access’ – and was pleasantly surprised to find it voted the winner of the conference’s poster competition. A book on the Scandinavian art of chopping, drying and stacking wood was my reward!

Like many of the international delegates, I readily confess that the location exerted as much of a pull as the conference programme. Tromsø offers the full range of winter activities, with trips to the Northern Lights, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, whale watching, as well as an amazing array of bars, restaurants and cultural activities in this town of only 70,000 people. That said, the roster of speakers who had ventured to this far flung corner of Europe was pretty impressive in itself. The event was kicked off with a keynote from Professor Randy Schekman, a US Nobel Laureate and Editor-in-chief of the open-access journal Elife. Over the course of the two days we heard from a range of speakers from the Scandinavian countries, but also from Harvard University in the US, plus the UK, Germany, Austria and even Sri Lanka. From my perspective it was an exceptionally well-run conference. As a member of a couple of conference planning committees here in the UK (ARMA and Researcher To Reader), I am always interested to learn from what others get right in this area. The Ølhallen beer hall (complete with stuffed polar bear) certainly made for an unusual but enjoyable setting for the conference dinner. Perhaps because the cold weather renders smart dress somewhat impractical, for me the conference also had a pleasingly relaxed, informal air and this was a real strength.

Publishers and commercial providers were few and far between here, replaced instead by a number of students and active researchers. It was refreshing to find these groups so well-represented given their absence is often notable at publishing and research management conferences in the UK. All credit to the conference chair, Caroline Sutton, for ensuring that some of the questions for the Nobel Laureate came from the students too.

The speakers did not shy away from some of the current challenges in research and scholarly communications – ‘Peer review and its discontents’ and ‘The use and misuse of bibliometric indicators’ were just a couple of the topics covered. In general, though, this was a conference for people who are excited about the many ways research can benefit the world at large, and it was all the better for it. I very much hope to return next year!

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