A recent update sent to the E-Framework JISCMail list contains the following summary of a paper written by myself, Scott Wilson (CETIS) and Randy Metcalfe (formerly of JISC OSS Watch) :

Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access

June 2007. Anyone wishing to make achieve a better understanding of the “open” agenda in higher education should read this recent paper by Brian Kelly, Scott Wilson, and Randy Metcalfe presented at the ELPUB2007 Conference on Electronic Publishing in Vienna. The “open” word is of course used by all of us in incredibly different contexts and as the authors note: “For national advisory services in the UK (UKOLN, CETIS, and OSS Watch), varieties of openness (open source software, open standards, and open access to research publications and data) present an interesting challenge.”

More information at: http://elpub.scix.net/data/works/att/140_elpub2007.content.pdf

This paper, which was presented by Scott Wilson at the ELPub 2007 conference, builds on previous work which has sought to address the tensions between the potential benefits which open standards can provide and the dangers of using standards which fail to gain acceptance in the marketplace, are too complex, are superceded by alternative approaches or are used too soon. The paper argues that there is a need to be flexible (in order, for example, to avoid repeating the mistakes made when the UK higher education community was committed to use of Coloured Book networking protocols as a stepping stone to OSI network standards – a decision which was eventually overturned by the success of Internet networking standards).

The paper describes the parallels with pragamatic and user-centred approaches to use of open standards with the selection and use of open source software and providing open access to scholarly publications and data. In all these cases there are clear benefits to be gained by the sector, but there are also a whole host of complications which would be foolish to ignore.

These issues are very pertinent to the current JISC call for projects in its Capital Programme. The JISC Circular 02/07 document (MS Word format) clearly states JISC’s commitment to open access:

B21: JISC supports unrestricted access to the published output of publicly-funded research and wishes to encourage open access to research outputs to ensure that the fruits of UK research are made more widely available.

and goes on to demonstrate a pragmatic approach to use of standards:

B25: JISC mandates the deposit of the native version (Word, PPT, etc.), with PDF as well if wanted, but certainly with a format from which usable xml can in principle be derived (not PDF).

The approach to use of open standards which JISC requires projects to take is clearly stated:

B29. The institution and its partners must use the technical standards stipulated by JISC and where unstipulated open standards wherever possible, Any deviation should be justified in the proposal and any alternative be designed with re-use by others in mind. Easy of interoperability between systems is key to the provision of next generation technologies for education and research, and projects are expected to work with JISC to address this issue. It is the responsibility of the lead institution to inform its project partners accordingly. Relevant standards can be founded in the JISC Standards Catalogue

This paragraph provides the flexibility needed to address potential problems which use of open standards may cause. The requirement to document any deviations is important, and reflects the approach developed by UKOLN in its work (with AHDS) in providing a technical advisory service to support the NOF-digitise programme. As described in the paper A Contextual Framework For Standards for that programme a documented report on deviation from mandated open standards was required as part of the reporting process, and an accompanying FAQ was produced.

I hope this post will be of use to anyone who may be considered submitting a proposal to this call.