Editorial Introduction to Issue 42: Less Could Mean More
Tomorrow, 31 January 2005 will be the moment of truth for those institutions among some 100,000 public authorities which received a request for information on the first operative day of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the United Kingdom. For by tomorrow they must have responded to the request within 20 working days. No doubt many senior administrators in HE and FE institutions up and down the country will be wondering how many requests their institution has really received, as opposed to the number that have actually been reported - at least one aspect of the legislation that will not have endeared itself to them, quite understandably. If they read Steve Bailey's thoughtful article Assessing the Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on the FE and HE Sectors, then one possible scenario he describes might very well cause them to clutch their staffing budgets ever closer to their troubled bosom. A considerable deal of heat has been generated in the short term by the repeated calls for, and the ultimate publication of, guidance on both exemptions and fees; how much light has shone is more difficult to measure. As is clear from Steve's article, the matter of handling requests is naturally uppermost in adminstrators' minds right now, but there are other longer-term issues that require their attention also. As is clear from his examination of the current situation, there are a number of imponderables to be addressed. Even the private sector, for example, which doubtless cannot believe its own luck, being both exempt and yet entitled to make enquiries that may provide competitive advantage, will discover that it is not as exempt as it might have thought. But Steve seeks to draw us away from the immediate concerns of request management and fee charging to an area which is of far greater interest to information professionals: how records and information are to be managed for the future in the light of the FOIA's provisions. For it is this matter which will prove central to an institution's success or failure in complying with the law. What he considers essential is a complete change in people's attitude, what he terms a change in the institutional culture with regard to the creation, management and disclosure of information. He maintains, for example, that a properly planned system of record creation for the many operations within an institution would lead to less information of much higher quality being created, more easily managed and providing the degree of transparency that is in the spirit of the Act. It would seem Lord Falconer does not disagree . Less could mean more.
Steve has been looking into the future without the advantage of having read Freedom of Information in University College Dublin 2001-4 by Rena Lohan who has been giving us the benefit of her hard-won hindsight. Lena has been implementing the Irish FOI legislation in her institution for the past three years. I asked her to describe her experience of managing the demands imposed by the Irish legislation and to draw conclusions. Her article also makes it clear that a complete re-appraisal of how information is generated and recorded is necessary, if institutions, (bearing in mind Steve's scenario), are to manage, or even better pre-empt requests for information from the public, media and others. It is equally clear that the skills of record managers, archivists and information professionals in general, who have played such an important role in the creation of time-saving publication schemes already, are essential to future cost-effective compliance with the FOIA.
Important as these articles are from the standpoint of institutions faced with the demand for information access, I am sure you will also find it interesting to read Stephen Twigge's report Freedom of Information and the Historian which gives the view from the other side of the issue, for those seeking information, in particular our historians.
I am indebted to Michael Daw who was very helpful in his advice about tools which support collaborative activities and who has gone so far as to write us an article on Advanced Collaboration with the Access Grid with follows very neatly up on Andy Powell's contribution last issue on VRVS. Michael gives a very objective description of the robustness of the current version of the technology together with the possible outcomes of its development in the next few years. He draws our attention very usefully to the overwhelmingly important benefit to be had from such technologies, namely the reduction of what one of my colleagues terms our collective 'carbon footprint', as well as defending the sanity of hard-pressed professionals too frequently from home.
Conscious as I am of the slightly parochial nature of the UK's new FOI legislation, I have been keen to find articles of world-wide appeal and so it has been pleasing to obtain material on new technologies including Patrick Lauke's contribution on Mozilla Firefox for Rapid Web Development and Testing. Patrick looks at this new browser released by the Mozilla Foundation and points out useful features and extensions for the benefit of Web developers. They will find it interesting to read of the potential Firefox offers. A somewhat different ball-park, but still in the realms of exploring new technology, Sebastian Rahtz is wondering whether you might be Looking for a Google Box? in which case he describes the installation, maintenance and configuration of this serious bit of kit and describes the benefits and drawbacks involved. This issue also offers further material on collaborative technologies with a number of views of Wikis with a report from Brian Kelly on Experiences of Using a Wiki for Note-taking at a Workshop while Robert Bristow reports on this conference with his article Beyond Email: Wikis, Blogs and Other Strange Beasts. Still with Wikis, Emma Tonkin is to be found Making the Case for a Wiki and takes a broader view of the technology by considering realistically the issues of deployment as well as providing a details of the varying functionality across the different kinds of Wiki now available.
Readers of past issues recently will have noticed that Ariadne has been tracking the work of the OSS Watch and so it has been very gratifying to obtain an article from Randy Metcalfe on Software Choice: Decision-making in a Mixed Economy, an issue of increasing importance to institutions in their search to further the development of effective technology. And with respect to new organisations currently emerging Sophia Ananiadou, Julia Chruszcz, John Keane, John McNaught and Paul Watry provide a comprehensive view of the aims and role of the National Centre for Text Mining (NaCTeM) and how it can contribute to more effective research initially in the area of bioscience and biomedecine though clearly text mining is not going to stop there.
New technology has I hope been well provided for in this issue therefore but there are also issues that abide and wax and wane but rarely disappear. One of these is most certainly copyright and so the overview that Alastair Dunning provides of a number of new case studies in this area and I am confident that projects involved in digitisation of resources not their own will welcome Tracing Help with Copyright. e-Government will be with us one hopes with increasing benefits both to the Knowledge Economy and the individual citizen. Many people have become involved in this large project who might never have imagined such a possibility even 15 years ago. In her article A Librarian's Experience of e-Government Jane Inman describes the route she has taken as a librarian through the expanding landscape of e-government and highlights the skills librarians can bring to this arena.
Those who already closely follow the debate that surrounds the open access movement may already have seen the lengthy critique of Jean-Claude Guédon's article entitled "The 'Green' and 'Gold' roads to open access: the case for mixing and matching," published recently in the Serials Review . Stevan Harnad's Case Against Mixing Up Green and Gold provides a succinct version of his commentary and is offered to readers as a snapshot of the ongoing debate. Those interested further are recommended also to read Guédon's thought-provoking article, which - thanks to the issue editor David Goodman - is freely available from ScienceDirect for the next few months as the publisher's sample issue. However, there may be some who are occasionally mystified by the intensity of these discussions, and wonder if such debate always brings the Open Access movement further along its proposed road. It is possible that the OA movement as a whole may have as much to fear from the unintended disengagement of fellow travellers as it does from those who want to travel in the opposite direction.
I hope you will enjoy issue 42.
- Need-to-know is now right-to-know: Freedom of Information, Lord Falconer of Thoroton
BBCi News 4 January, 2005
- Jean-Claude Guédon, "The 'green' and 'gold' roads to open access: the case for mixing and matching." Serials Review, 30(4), 315-328. Available from: