The interoperability imperative: Separated by a common language?

This blog is part of a series related to the Library Collaboration in RDM research project at OCLC Research.

In a recent post, I described the interoperability imperative as a key element in developing robust, sustainable research support services. The interoperability imperative is the need to pay close attention to what happens at the boundaries between the key agents – systems, people, and institutions – that bring research support services to life. Key questions include how those agents interact, and what infrastructure – technical, social, or collaborative – is needed to catalyze and sustain those interactions.

When the agents in question are people, an important piece of interoperability infrastructure is a shared vocabulary. A shared vocabulary facilitates communication by promoting mutual understanding of key concepts and terminology across stakeholders, which helps drive convergence in expectations, planning, and priorities. Take away the shared vocabulary, however, and the results can be very different.

In our report Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise, we emphasize that an important tactic in building social interoperability – the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding – is to speak your partner’s language. Frame your message using concepts and terminology that are understandable and compelling to your audience.

Think about a word like preservation, and how it can differ in meaning between, say, a librarian and an IT specialist. In fact, there are lots of words and phrases that can scuttle a good conversation between individuals with different professional backgrounds. This point was underscored during the recent joint OCLC-LIBER online workshop Building Strategic Relationships to Advance Open Scholarship at your Institution, based on the findings of the Social Interoperability report. This three-part workshop brought together a group of international participants to examine the challenges of working across the institution, identify strategies and tactics for cross-unit relationship building, and develop a plan for increasing their own social interoperability.

During the first session, we conducted an online poll, asking participants – nearly all of whom worked in an academic library – to name a word, phrase, or concept that they found problematic in conversations with colleagues in other campus units. The results are displayed in this word cloud:

As the word cloud shows, there is a whole glossary’s worth of terminology that can potentially trip up an exchange of ideas between a librarian and one of their colleagues in another part of the campus. Most frequently put forward as a source of confusion and misinterpretation is the seemingly commonplace word “data”. Interpretations of this term run the gamut from research data sets associated with published scholarly work, to any kind of information in digital form. “Open” is another troublesome word: when we say something is open, do we mean it is freely available without restriction, or are there terms and conditions attached? Is “open” being used improperly as a synonym for “public domain”, or vice versa? Not to mention the freighted meanings that come with use of terms like “open content”, “open source”, and “open access”.

There is a whole glossary’s worth of terminology that can potentially trip up an exchange of ideas between a librarian and one of their colleagues in another part of the campus

The term “impact” can sow confusion as well: different parts of the university – both academic and administrative – can have different ideas about what constitutes impact (if they can define it at all), how it can be accurately measured, and what benefits are realized from documenting it (e.g., scholarly prestige, university reputation). Shades of meaning around the word “archiving” have plagued many cross-campus conversations: to an archivist, archiving is a profession with accepted stewardship standards and practices; to a computer scientist, archiving may simply mean safeguarding bits in a long-term storage system. And to some, “metadata” is hand-crafted, deep descriptions supporting discovery and use, while to others, it is merely some system-generated information that assists in file management.

The profusion of words displayed in the picture underscores the importance of defining terms and concepts prior to engaging in conversations with colleagues in other parts of the campus. They also speak to the broader need to dedicate attention to building social interoperability through the use of tactics like “speaking your partner’s language” to build bridges and promote mutual understanding. In the Social Interoperability report, we feature this tactic as one of several (see picture below) that contribute toward the overarching strategy of Securing Buy-in – the idea that in successful cross-campus partnerships, each partner should see a clear benefit from working together.

Think about advocating for something like open science: appealing to ideals and principles to get people on board can be useful, but it is often not enough – stakeholders need to see how they will advance their practical interests by embracing open science practices. In order to reach that understanding, open science advocates need to, among other things, adopt forms of expression that communicate key concepts – “open”, “impact”, “privacy”, etc. – in ways that avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation by those they seek to persuade.

When talking about communication obstacles arising over words with different meanings to different people, or different words used by different people for the same concept, it seems almost obligatory to quote Oscar Wilde, writing in The Canterville Ghost, who famously observed that “we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” But the insight behind the quote is vital for libraries to embrace as they communicate their expertise to other parts of the campus, demonstrate the importance of including librarians in cross-campus working groups, task forces, and other initiatives, and ultimately, highlight the value of the library as a campus partner. Consider this observation from the Social Interoperability report:

However, we also heard that there are sometimes senior leaders in research administration or campus ICT who do not always understand how or why the library should be a partner in research support activities, often because these leaders were “coming from the outside [academia] and really have no concept.” In these cases, libraries and their advocates on campus must effectively and regularly communicate their value and offerings.

Familiarizing yourself with how potential campus partners speak, and dedicating attention to mutual understanding of key concepts and terms, is an important tool for communicating effectively and building social interoperability.

What terms or concepts do you find troublesome in communicating with colleagues in other units around campus? Share them in the comments below.

Thanks to my colleagues Rebecca Bryant and Chela Weber for helpful advice on improving this post!