Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Arts and Humanities Data Service decision

On 14 May 2007, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) issued a rather strange press release, announcing that “AHRC Council has decided to cease funding the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) from March 2008” and at the same time announcing a change to its conditions of grant relating to deposit, removing the condition that material be offered for deposit in AHDS, although “Grant holders must make materials they had planned to deposit with the AHDS available in an accessible depository for at least three years after the end of their grant”.

This is a strange decision from a number of points of view. The first is the way it has been announced, the short period of notice (a call for proposals was currently open, closing in June), and the sudden-death cutoff of funds. Yes, there was a funding crisis, but the speed of the decision makes any sensible exit strategy for the AHDS difficult or impossible to work through… and it doesn’t appear that the AHRC is going to help create one.

Secondly it is strange because the Arts and Humanities (I’ll shorten to “the Arts” for simplicity) represent discipline areas that use and rely on a wide variety of resource types. Unlike many of the sciences, journals do not represent the most significant part of output or input in the Arts and Humanities. The monograph has always been important as a research output, but is now under threat through the pressure on the library cost base from the journals pricing crisis, and must change (and the discipline with it) or die. One way it is changing is to become virtual, and in the process to become richer… just the sort of complex resources the AHDS was set up to capture and curate. And at the same time, input has been a wide variety of resources, extending well beyond libraries to include museums, galleries, archives, theatres, dance halls, street corners… wherever the expressive power of human creativity is apparent. Many of the resources studied have been very poorly represented in traditional monographs, and can be much better represented for critical discussion in a rich digital form.

Thirdly it’s strange in its assumption that other “accessible depositories” (a term few of us have heard before; we think they might mean institutional repositories) can take up the missing role. One of the problems for the AHDS has always been the result of what is described in my previous paragraph: the resources offered are sometimes very complex web sites, based on (sometimes arbitrary) use of a wide variety of technologies, and the capture and curation of these has been a challenge which has required the AHDS to build up a considerable skill base. This skill base is just not available to the operators of UK institutional repositories, which so far have struggled to ingest mostly simple text objects (eprints). They will not easily fill this gap; they simply cannot ingest the sort of resources the AHDS has been dealing with, given their current and likely future resources. Only 5 of them even claim to include datasets, and few of those actually do; a slightly larger number claim to support “special” items, but again nothing complex is apparent on inspection. So the alternatives available to Arts researchers are few (or none).

Oddly the AHRC has not yet (I believe) dropped the condition that the AHDS must help applicants with a “Technical Annex”, supposed to ensure that created resources are easier for it to manage once they become available. Will they expect the AHDS to continue to do this once no longer funded by them? If not, who else will do this? Is there any conceivable way that institutional repositories could take up this role? Not obviously to me!

Fourthly, it is strange in its new assumption that 3 years post grant is a sufficient requirement: this in a discipline area that uses resources from hundreds of years ago!

Finally (for now), this decision is worrying because of the precedent it sets. Subject-based data centres have one great advantage: they can be staffed to provide domain knowledge that is essential for managing and preserving that subject or disciplines data resources. Institutional repositories by contrast are necessarily staffed by generalists, often librarians, who will struggle to deal with the wide variety of data resources they might be required to manage in widely differing ways. IRs have always had (to my mind) a sustainability advantage: they represent the intellectual output of an institution (good promotional and internal value), and they sit within the institutional knowledge infrastructure. Even if one institution decides to drop its IR, the academic knowledge base as a whole is not fatally damaged in any particular discipline. Subject data centres by contrast have always suffered from the disadvantage that their future was uncertain; their sustainability model has always been weak. Now that disadvantage has moved from potential to stark reality in the Arts and Humanities, one of the discipline areas most requiring access to a wide variety of outputs from the past.

If this decision worries you, there is a petition for UK citizens at, which I would urge you to sign. We also need to think hard about ways in which we can deal with the effects of the decision. It is difficult to challenge a major funder, but there are times when it needs to be done. We have to get this right!

[I should have added that Seamus Ross, who is responsible for a small part of the AHDS at Glasgow, is a colleague on the DCC Management Team. However, this posting is made in a personal capacity; while I believe my views may be shared, I have not attempted to get agreement from colleagues on the sentiments expressed.]

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