As a general artistic rule (which I acquired in the late ‘nineties), when some large organisation starts to talk about devising an ontology, you should definitely run away. Top-down attempts to impose language and structure on a varied ecosystem of independent structures are generally doomed. The only exception to this rule is if you are a highly paid consultant being paid to produce said ontology, in which case, I suppose, good luck to you, though as this is generally public money, perhaps it is wrong to be sanguine even about this.
The thing is, without some sort of information system that enables the linking of grants, researchers, and articles, it’s hard for the public (and policymakers) to get a handle on what’s going on. There weren’t quite oohs and aahs at yesterday’s Deuxième Labo meeting as a speaker demonstrated the UK Research Councils gateway, but I think I did detect a frisson of jealousy and grudging respect.
That the French system is apparently failing to achieve this seems to derive from the usual variety of problems: no-one in the room seemed capable of making a frank ideological statement in favour of openness; nor of the pragmatic reasons why openness speeds research progress. The overriding preoccupation of the room was with the data relating to the grants and salaries received by researchers. This perhaps reflects the concerns of the meeting—about the data about research, not the data from research—but the impression was of managers of unwieldily large groupings (“77 universities and 95 research institutions”) trying to create top-down structures, and failing to gain traction.
A cursory glance at the UK process suggests that their success was achieved by one of the research councils engaging a software start-up to produce the initial system. Its product then attracted other funders, who then chose to migrate to it.
I sensed that there was still a resistance amongst this very establishment group to learning the lessons of the web, namely, that simple, popular standards are more valuable than exhaustive standards (cf JSON vs XML); that if a first-mover has gained advantage you may just have to suck it up (“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”); the “not invented here” syndrome; violation of the “rough consensus and running code” principle and so on. The ORCID system for labelling each individual researcher was not mentioned once, until I piped up in the questions. Nor were clear use case scenarios presented. Ho hum!
And, I’m afraid, as is all too common in French academic circles, the meeting started 15 minutes late, and then overran by 45 minutes, which, as a hungry man with a train to catch, annoyed me more than it usually does.