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The Limits on “Open”: Why knowledge is not a public good and what to do about it

22 October 2015 8 Comments

This is the approximate text of my talk at City University London on 21 October for Open Access Week 2015. If you prefer the “as live” video version then that its available at YouTube. Warning: Nearly 6000 words and I haven’t yet referenced it properly, put the pictures in or done a good edit…

Eight years of Open Access Week, massive progress towards greater access to research, not to mention data and educational resources. The technology landscape has shifted, the assessment landscape has shifted. The policy landscape has certainly shifted. And yet…amongst friends we can express some misgivings can’t we?

Certainly this has been harder and longer than expected, certainly harder and longer than those who have been pushing on wider access for twenty years had hoped, or expected. Of course we have learned, internalised through bitter experience, that collective action problems are hard, that while technical problems are easy, the social ones are hard. That cultural change is slow and painful.

But this isn’t my biggest concern. My real concern is that, just as it seems we have tipped the balance, made progress towards Open Scholarship inevitable, that it is too easy for that momentum to be subverted. For well resourced players to swoop in and take advantage of these shifts. For incumbent players to protect their existing positions, and profit margins, and to prevent new innovative players from eating into their market. Yet at the same time, while we (often) cheer on those small scrappy new players, we become less enamoured as they mature and grow, become more embedded into the traditional landscape and, perhaps, start to look and sound like those old incumbents, or be bought by them.

I believe we can understand what is happening, and understand what we could choose to do about it, through a shift in the way we think about the processes involved. For me Open Access was never the goal, it is a means to an end. That end might be loosely characterised as “Open Knowledge” or a “Knowledge Commons”, a concept that is half socialist utopian and half neo-liberal; that technology can enable the effective sharing of knowledge as a resource, and that that shared resource is a more effective base for value creation. That the sharing economy of Uber and AirBnB would co-exist, indeed would mutually support a sharing economy built on donated time, shared co-creation for its own sake. Under-exploited capital working hand in hand with Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus to make better markets but also a better world.

Knowledge as a Public Good

Central to this is the idea that Knowledge is a Public Good. It’s important to pin down the technical meaning of this because it is critical for the argument I’m going to make. Elinor Ostrom in her book, Governing the Commons, divides economic goods, units of exchange, on two axes. You can tell this is Social Sciences because there’s a quandrant diagram. Her first axis is whether goods are rivalrous or non-rivalrous. A rivalrous good is like an apple, or a chocolate if you prefer. If you take it from me, I no longer have it, either to exchange or to use. A non rivalrous good is like the flame on a candle. I can use mine to light yours and both of our candles remain lit. The second axis is excludability. How easy is it to prevent someone from using a good? I can lock a book in a room and stop you accessing it. I can’t easily prevent you from using the air or public roads.

Private goods (like money, or food, or your home) are both rivalrous and excludable. Public Goods, like roads, the air, or libraries are neither rivalrous nor excludable. “Natural” incentives exist to create private goods, accumulation seems to be a natural aspect of human character, something that Hirschmann notes in his wonderful book on the arguments of early capitalism. But Public Goods require different forms of provision. Because they are non-rivalrous they can create great benefits, and enable the creation of great value. Because they are non-excludable they come with a natural free-rider problem. Why would anyone pay to create them if anyone can use them without contributing? Public Goods need to be resourced at a global level, most often by government provision out of general taxation. They need to be mandated through legislation. The wearing of seatbelts is a Public Good, as is the provision of courts and institutional systems of the state that support its functioning. Both rely on systems of legislation and compulusion.

It is natural to think about knowledge as a Public Good. It is infinitely shareable and, once given, can’t be taken away. Therefore it follows that in the provision of Knowledge as a Public Good we need to apply those tools that can successfully support the creation of Public Goods. Mandates. Taxpayer funded infrastructures. If we are to remove the barriers to build the knowledge commons we need to nationalise knowledge. Taxpayers fund research, therefore taxpayers should benefit from, and have access to that research. It feels obvious, and natural, and it drives much of the rhetoric of Open Access advocacy. And that rhetoric, focussed as it is on Public Good provision has been enormously successful in providing resources and requirements.

The roots of our culture

So we are done right? The argument is won and it is merely a case of waiting for turnover to occur. So why do we feel so queasy when Springer moves successfully into Open Access? When Academia.edu hoovers up the space that Institutional Repositories were supposed to fill? When Mendeley is purchased by Elsevier? If we follow our own argument, this is what we want. Government has signalled a shift in its provision and the market has responded; commercial players shifting from content provision towards service provision. We can quibble about costs but the fundamentals are right surely?

And yet…(again)…there is something not quite right. There was more to this than just liberating knowledge from product to commons. There is an issue of control. Of governance and direction. A sense that service provision should align better with the values of the scholarly community. But what would that look like? Do we even have shared values?

As advocates of a technically enabled future we often talk about cultural change as though we need new values, new culture. But more often than not what looks new has deep roots. More and more it seems to me that what we need is a return to past values. As a person with a background in the natural sciences my cultural roots are strongly tied to the writings of Robert Boyle and creation of the UK’s Royal Society in the 17th Century. Boyle’s writing frequently focusses on the detailed reporting, the disclosure of failed experiments, sharing of data and reproducibility. The antique language jars but these startlingly modern concerns might have leapt from the page of a training handbook for new graduate students.

Of my being somewhat prolix in many of my Experiments, I have these Reasons to render[…] That in divers cases I thought it necessary to deliver things circumstantially, that the Person I addressed them to might, without mistake, and with as little trouble as is possible, be able to repeat such unusual Experiments

Robert Boyle, New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching on the Spring of the Air

In this 350th Anniversary year of the first publication of Philosophical Transactions the focus has been on the invention of the journal as the creation myth of scholarly communications. But to me the journal was merely one of several means to an end; communicating this developing process of enquiry effectively to the right community. Our origin myth, our expression of values, should be roooted in that goal of communication, not its vessel. But this is scientific enquiry. I first found this quote in Shapin and Schaeffer’s The Leviathan and the Air Pump, a text that arguably was a major contributor to the “Science Wars” and which famously ends with the contention that Boyle was wrong and “Hobbes was right”. Are the Humanities different?

I’ve been criticised for not understanding the humanities, and yet I’ve just been appointed to a humanities faculty. I’m not sure whether that means my opinion carries more weight or less but I have come to the conclusion that there is much more in common across scholarship than there is dividing us. What unites us is a rhetorical approach to argument, that builds on evidence using methods accepted within a community. What counts as evidence, and what methods are allowable, differs amongst our various disciplinary communities but the rhetorical structure of our arguments is very similar. Anita de Waard points out that bioscience articles have the same structure as fairy tales, and in fact this seems to hold, although I can’t claim to have done as close an analysis, across all research domains. We tell “stories, that persuade” in Anita’s words, with evidence.

I don’t know enough of the history of early modern scholarship to pin this down but my sense is that the standard story-telling structure of communication in what we now call the sciences was actually borrowed, from what we would now call the humanties, sometime between the mid-17th and early 19th centuries. Regardless Boyle, and modern humanists as well as natural scientists share some ideals in the requirement for review and criticism, and for attacking the ideas and not the person. While Peer Review as practiced today has only recently become regarded as a core criteria, the means by which scholarly work is identified and badged, review and criticism by peers of evidence and argument goes back a lot further.

Knowledge Clubs

We’ve gone from Open Knowledge and Public Goods to review by peers, almost by definition an exclusive club with rules of admittance and engagement. But while an overall commitment to structured arguments built on evidence might be general, the question of what is evidence, what is an allowable approach differs between communities. There is an element of circularity that no amount of Open Access can solve: those that can judge the qualities of a piece of scholarship are those that can understand it are those that are peers. General understanding is hard enough to achieve between cognate disciplines within the natural sciences let alone across wider domains. There is a disciplinary clubbishness, one that tends to exclude outsiders, whether they are other professional scholars, students or representatives of that amorphous blob we call “the public”.

Of course that clubbishness goes back to Boyle and the Royal Society as well. Originally membership of the Society was limited to 50 people. This was an intentional effort to limit it to a group that could actually meet. That could act as real peers in observing and criticising experiments. That many of them were peers in the aristocratic sense was a product of the time. But our modern knowledge of community building and collective action would identify that one of the reasons it was successful as a political body was precisely that it was a club. A club almost exclusively made up of wealthy, white, men. And I say “almost” merely because a small proportion of them did actually have to work for a living.

Ostrom’s work shows us that group size and homogeneity are two of the most important determinants of success in collective action and governance problems. It shouldn’t really be a surprise then that small homogenous groups have been historically successful at both creating knowledge and defining what it is allowed to be. That universities grew out of clerical establishments and some disciplines still seem to act like a priesthood is not surprising, but it doesn’t sit well with either our modern ideas about the value of diversity and inclusion, or with the idea of knowledge as a Public, and therefore universal, Good.

Membership of these clubs need not necessarily be exclusive, but even in the most open of possible worlds, access to understanding and access to the respect and criticism of peers requires work, perhaps years of dedication. It is the tension between the idea that access to understanding must be worked for, and the desire for universal access to the fruits of knowledge, that underlies the mutual incomprehension between Robin Osborne, Professor of History at Cambridge University, and his argument that “Open Access makes no sense”, and Open Access advocates. Osborne’s view is that only those that have been formally trained can possibly understand. The naive Open Access idealist claims that anyone can. Both are wrong. The gap must necessarily be filled by dissecting who can understand what, what forms of access they have, and how the benefits can be maximised.

Osborne is correct in diagnosing the problem; that expanding access requires investment and that that investment needs to be made where it can have the most benefit. I think he is incorrect in how he assesses who might benefit and what those benefits might be. Framed as an investment the resources required in communicating historical research to interested historians has clear benefits. Further investment in more general communication, particularly in new modes with uncertain benefits is more risky, and a case could be made that its not the best use of resources. I think that case is weak, for reasons that many of us have discussed before, but here I want to focus on the risks to our research communities, our knowledge clubs, that a failure to invest could cause.

Cultural Science and the Excellence Trap

I need to take a step sideways at this point, because I want to situate the discussion of culture in a particlar way. Usually when we think about culture, we think of a group of individuals coming together to pursue a common interest. The actions of these individuals combine to create what we see as culture. John Hartley and Jason Potts in their book Cultural Science argue that what is actually happening is almost the opposite: that it is culture that creates groups and in turn that groups create knowledge. Now on the surface this may seem like typical humanistic slight of hand, shift the prism to recast what we know in a different light and proceed to rewrite the text books. But I think this formulation is particularly useful in our context.

Hartley and Potts describe Cultural Science as an evolutionary theory, one in which it is elements of culture that are under selection. The term they use for these elements, the “genes” of their theory is “shared units of meaningfulness”. I struggled with this, as I found it an entirely slippery concept, until a recent workshop working with Martin Eve, Damian Pattinson, Sam Moore and Daniel O’Donnell, where we were trying to tease apart the language we use, the stories we tell, about “excellence” in research and how it differs across disciplinary boundaries.

What struck me was that our shared (or not) conceptions of excellence are a strong determinant of disciplinary boundaries. Whether or not you agree that Hernstein Smith’s, or McClintock’s, or Ostrom’s, or Moser’s work is “excellent”, whether indeed you recognise their names, is a strong signal of what research community you belong to. And the language we use to talk about excellent work is also a strong signal. These are not the “genes” themselves but an obversable manifestation of them, in the same way that bands on a gel, or fluorescence signals in a modern DNA sequencer are an observable traces of underlying genes. And in the same way we can use them as proxies of those elements of culture we are seeking to study.

Culture creates groups in the model of Cultural Science through the gathering and reinforcing of community ties, through shared story telling, which in turn re-creates the culture. It is a cyclic process of reinforcement. Our obsession with winning, with being the top of the ranking, with “excellence” both defines how research communities self identify and is part of the story we tell ourselves about what we are doing. And we transmit that language beyond our communities into the wider world. “While the UK represents just 0.9% of global population, 3.2% of R&D expenditure, and 4.1% of researchers, it accounts for 9.5% of downloads, 11.6% of citations and 15.9% of the world’s most highly-cited articles.”

It is we who create this world in which everyone has to be above average. In which we pursue a goal of focussing resources only on the very best, which if successful would actually destroy our research capacity. Our focus on excellence is both dangerous, leading at best towards building skyscrapers on sand and at worst to systematic fraud and self-deception, but it is also who we are in a very deep sense.

The scaling problem

Cultural Science is an evolutionary model. It is therefore concerned with which cultures (and therefore which groups) survive over time. This does not mean that culture is static. It is not in that sense like an atomistic (and therefore just as implausible) genetic theory of fixed genes under selection, but sees them as dynamic, responsive to the group that is co-creating them, and is created by them. As in any evolutionary theory, there will be stable strategies, stable combinations of cultural elements under given environmental conditions. And as in any evolutionary theory, these stable combinations are susceptible to environmental change.

Our cultures of excellence grew up in an era when research communities were closed and were small. Until perhaps the late 1950s the key players in any given field probably knew each other. Environmental changes then started to shift that. First the massive growth of the research enterprise after the Second World War meant that direct personal contact between researchers within a (broad) field was no longer possible. Both geographic expansion and increase in numbers prevented that, leading to involution, splitting and specialisation. My guess would be the size of those communities stayed more or less constant but their conceptions of excellence, of what good work looks like, became more and more specialised.

As that happened, the shared understanding of excellence was lost, that shared cultural element was lost, but the need to describe our work or claim excellence across those boundaries remained, or even intensified. The rhetoric of excellence remained critical even as the meaning of excellence was lost. Arjun Appadurai in his introductory chapter to The Social Life of Things discusses how parallel markets in a commodity, a local markets where value is tied to use, and larger scale markets where the connection with knowledge of use-value is lost, can operate in parallel. These markets are often driven by prestige. At some level the “market” in excellence across disciplinary boundaries is a knowledge free market in prestige.

Proxies, most of them meaningless, arise to address the problem of unpredictable exchange value. The information value of a journal impact factor, university ranking, or citation count is comparable to that of the magical thinking of graph theories in commodity futures or currency markets. But they fill a deep human need to tell stories that can predict the future. Indeed they function as a kind of cargo-cult level story telling that satisfies our scholarly need to present “evidence” as part of our narrative, while simultaneously failing to qualify for the definition of evidence that would be acceptable in any discipline.

But whether or not there is real meaning in these proxies is secondary. As Appadurai describes markets can be stable and can function without price being connected to reality. It is entirely possible that this expansion could have been managed and a stable and shared means of agreeing on excellence might have emerged. Whether it would have been a good thing or not is a separate issue, but an evolutionarily stable strategy, based on strong in groups with their own internal definitions and some form of cross communication between disciplines and with stakeholders emerging on a shared basis is at least plausible.

The internet changes everything

But then we have the internet. Disciplinary specialisation, the creation of new journals, new departments and sub departments, combined with successfully externalised measures of excellence, would drive, arguably did drive a consolidation of communities, a closing down and hardening of barriers. The fight for resources may not have been pretty between these newly fortified communities, but it might have worked. The internet and in particular the web blew all of that up.

The web, for good or ill, through the way it transforms the economics and geography of both publishing and interactions more generally creates an assumption of access. Perhaps more importantly it restructures the economics of which communities, or clubs, are viable. First, it makes much more niche clubs possible by reducing radically reducing the costs of discovering and interacting with like minded people (those who share cultural elements). But achieving these cost reductions requires some degree of openness. Otherwise there is no discoverability, and no interaction.

Michael Nielsen in Reinventing Discovery and Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus, both examine the question of how this change in economics makes micro-contributions and micro-expertise valuable. No longer is it necessary to be a deep expert, to be a participant in Osborne’s community of practice, to contribute to the creation of new knowledge. In the right circumstances the person with just the right insight, just the right piece of knowledge, can contribute that effectively. Massive economic and cultural value is being created daily online by systems that work with these possibilities. This was what gave rise to the neoliberal techno-utopian socialist vision of a possible world, what someone (and I can’t remember who, John Wilbanks?) referred to as “commons-ism”.

But our communities have turned inwards, seeking internal consistencies, in a natural search for stability in a rapidly changing world. As we deepen, and harden, the shared sense of what is excellent work within a discipline, we necessarily fortify precisely those boundaries where the web could bring us into contact with differing conceptions, precisely those that might bring the most benefits. I think it is not accidental that the disciplines that Michèle Lamont in her book How Professors Think identifies history as the discipline with one of the most stable self-conception. She describes a community that is proud of “having prevented the threat posed by post-modernism from com[ing] to fruition in history” because it “demands adherence to a logic of scholarly inquiry shared by [history] scholars generally by which the results of historical inquiry can be tested for their validity very much as they are in other disciplines”. It should not be surprising that the same discipline views with scepticism the idea that value could be added by contributions from the outside, by people not sharing a training in that shared logic.

So we are caught in the cross hairs of two opposing strategies, two different cultural and community approaches, that grow in response to two different environmental changes. It is not self evident which would be more successful and more stable. Or over what time frames. To dissect that we need to return to the economic analysis with a new focus on these communities and clubs.

The economics of clubs

The economics of clubs, what makes them sustainable and which characteristics matter, is a well established field building on the work of Buchannan. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in this area but I do want to focus on the class of goods that are used in sustaining clubs, and the ways in which clubs manage and invest in their creation. Buchannan’s original work looked at organisations like sports clubs. Clubs that have facilities that members can use. These are (largely) non-rivalrous – we can both use the pool at the same time – but are excludable – the door to the pool can be locked and only members given a key.

This puts us firmly in the bottom right hand corner of the quadrant diagram. Usually this quadrant is referred to as “toll goods” and we would put something like an electronic subscription journal or paid for database in this corner. But they are also called “club goods” and it is goods in this quadrant that typically sustain clubs. They are the membership benefits. A subscription journal is, in this sense at least, a membership club where the member benefit is access to the articles it contains.

But what about our other “knowledge clubs”? What sustains them?

In many cases it is obviously money. Research groups depend on salaries and grants. Open Access journals rely on money from consortia, or from APCs, or receive money indirectly through donated time and platforms. Databases receive grants or charge subscriptions or are sustained by foundation members. This money is exchanged for something, or invested in the creation of something.

My claim is that the central good that is the core of sustaining these clubs is knowledge itself. That knowledge is always created in, and communicated through, clubs; research groups, departments, journals, databases. But if that is true how is it possible that knowledge can be exchanged for money (or prestige or other club goods) if it is a Public Good? By definition the provisioning problem of public goods is precisely that they can’t be exchanged for money because of the freeloader problem.

Knowledge is a Club Good

The anwer, of course, lies in the question. Knowledge is not a Public Good. It is a Club Good. Knowledge as it is created, within a club is excludable, by the simple expedient of not telling anyone else. Through communication and dissemination we make it less exclusive – sharing ideas with colleagues, speaking at a conference, publishing an article, publishing it in an Open Access venue, writing a lay summary, undertaking engagement activities – but we can never entirely eliminate exclusion. We can only ever invest in reducing it.

This may seem depressing. It is an acceptance that we can never make knowledge as free as we might like. But I think it is also liberating. It identifies openness as a process or practice, not a binary state of an object, something to work towards rather than something that we fail at achieving. And it recentres the question of how best to invest limited resources in making things more open, more public, and less exclusive. Which audiences should we target? How best to enable unexpected contributions? How to maximise network benefits?

I am not incidentally in focussing on a more fuzzy process or practice of openness shying away from my positions on licensing or best practice more generally. In fact I think it strengthens my position. Open Licensing, once you’ve decided to invest in making a research article free to read, enhances discoverability and re-usability at no additional cost and, in most cases, no financial downside. But it does open a route for how to make a case for where more restrictive licensing may be sensible. A difficult one to prove but at least one that can be analysed.

In this model clubs create (or refine, curate, present) knowledge in the context of their own culture. Knowledge can circulate within the club as a Club Good, a benefit of membership. Prestige accrues to those whose contribution is viewed internally as excellent and there drives an internal symbolic economy of prestige, as Martin Eve puts it in his book, Open Access in the Humanities. But while this internal economy may be enough to sustain the club in some circumstances (for example a small scholarly society where the journal is a membership benefit) it doesn’t bring in the external resources that are usually required.

To interact beyond their borders clubs also trade knowledge for prestige, and thence for money in the form of grants and salary. Here, that knowledge trade is accompanied by claims of excellence, often associated with the name, or Impact Factor, of the journal, or the name of the publisher for a book. But the claim is empty of meaning. Again, our traditional thinking would be to harden the boundaries, enhance the sense of exclusivity of being in the club, in direct opposition to the possibility of new interactions bringing new goods to the club.

We return then to the question of which strategy is more stable, defining and closing borders, or – in some yet to be well defined way – creating opening and opportunities for interactions. What we have added is an understanding that those openings can be created by investing in making knowledge less “clubbish” and more public. We can layer on top of this the Cultural Science perspective that these openings aim to create interactions with new clubs, and that those clubs that are most open to interaction will be those with shared cultural elements.

The prescription for action

Where does this leave us. I’ve asserted that knowledge is a Club Good. That scholarly communication is a series of efforts at different levels to make that knowledge less exclusive. The new insight is that this process is engineered to return new Club Goods back to the group, primarily prestige but also club facilities and resources. If we are to shift the balance so that clubs make knowledge more public and less exclusive, we need to identify what Club Goods they are getting in return. And we need to understand how the incentives are created to provide the systems that support this “public-making”, literally “publishing” of knowledge.

The scaling problem of the mid to late 20th century was addressed through taking Club Goods and privatising them, corporatising their management in the process. Copyight in scholarly world and the whole apparatus that surrounds scholarly content as a private asset, was essentially invented in the 1950s. This now sits as private capital, largely in the hands of, but very unevenly spread between scholarly publishers. This is not all bad. That capital is what made it possible for scholarly communications to move online in what is in retrospect a staggeringly short time.

Today we have new options for managing that scaling. The change in the economics of club formation, discovery and costs of communication, provide new models. Co-ops and consortia are emerging like Open Library of Humanities and Knowledge Unlatched, membership models that look more club-like such as PeerJ, and cooperative support mechanisms like SCOAP3 and the ArXiv support group. But each of these are relatively small. Governance and management challenges arise when groups sizes grow beyond those that allow personal interaction, often breaking as the group becomes too large to sit around a table.

The web is what has changed the systemic economics in a way that makes these groups viable. To allow them to grow we need to learn that lesson and build new shared infrastructures that continue to drive costs down while connecting clubs together in new ways. Infrastructures that drive discovery, interaction, and at some level make those cultures more interoperable. These infrastructures will have politics, and that politics will be one of openness and porous borders.

We need to architect our disciplinary cultures so as to find a balance between identity, and internal conceptions of excellence that drive internal competition, and openness to contributions from the outside. We can define two extremes, one in which a disciplines self conception is incoherent and therefore in a sense too open to contribution. Lamont diagnoses anthropology as suffering from this, I might point to the constant turmoil in Library Science and Information Studies as perhaps similar. Other disciplines are too stable, too well defined, and resistant to new ideas. Lamont points to history and philosophy – I might point to synthetic chemistry – as disciplines where coherence runs the risk of becoming stasis or isolation.

Somewhere between these extremes there is a space where shared culture and identity are strong enough, and shared understanding of excellence coherent enough, but where new contributions and perspectives (of certain types) can be welcomed and integrated. We can imagine a world where knowledge clubs come together through partially shared conceptions of excellence and culture, but where those overlaps (and lack of overlaps) are understood and productive channels for exchange and communication therefore clear. Of course this conception isn’t restricted to interdiscplinary interactions. It might also form a productive model for deciding how and where to invest in public engagement, and how to talk productively to other stakeholders in our space, how to get beyond the mutual incomprehension that so often characterises these conversations.

To achieve this we may need to reconsider “excellence”. My argument describes our current prestige economy as built on a sharp separate of the degree of knowledge between the internal community conception of excellence and an essentially knowledge-free exchange value market across the communities. To take clubs and wire them into a network, to borrow Nic Suzor’s words, we need to add meaning back to shared conceptions of excellence or value in each specific context. We would need to focus on the elements of overlap, differing qualities, plural, not quality that are unique to those differing contexts. To embed the desire to find and use these overlaps we would need to move away from our obsession with linear rankings, we would have to abandon the rhetoric of excellence. In short we need to re-engineer our shared culture.

So I started with the observation that cultural change is hard. I finish with a call for cultural change. But within a frame that, I think, makes it easier than it would otherwise be. First, through adopting the Cultural Science frame and seeing culture as an evolutionary and competitive process, we can look to those communities most effectively adapting and ask how their cultures can be sustained, enhanced and transmitted. Using that economic framing of goods how can we enhance the club goods that those communities are receiving?

Second, by looking at clubs as created by and co-creating their cultures, and using the language and rhetorics of those clubs as symbols or signals of those cultural elements, we can directly intervene through our use of language. We can consciously create and re-shape the culture we want to see. Qualities, not Quality. “Rhetorics of excellence”. Publics. Even the tone of voice and visible held nose when talking about Impact Factors and University Rankings. The stories we tell ourselves make our culture and make our response to it. Choose to act consciously through the language you use.

Finally, if we adopt this evolutionary frame we recognise that we can shape the environment. Building platforms and infrastructures that tip the balance towards discoverability, interactions and openness will naturally re-shape the investment choices that knowledge clubs make. Shared information systems aid governance and allow clubs to scale up. Platforms that are both general and flexible could completely reshape the economics of scholarly publishing, just as a starting point. We can build it, and they will come, if we focus on building tools that support existing, viable communities, not the imaginary ones we would like to see.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade worrying about the incentives for individuals. Carrots and sticks, mandates and citation advantages. But even with these in place, the culture of disciplines seemed to be a blocker. I believe that by focussing our attention on communites, groups, clubs and the incentives that they work within we will make more progress, because at some level the incentives for the group are the culture.

There are limits to openness. We can never completely remove exclusion. But we can invest time, effort and resources thoughtfully in dropping those barriers. And in doing so maximise the benefits that network scales can bring. Our challenge is to contruct the world in which we approach that limit as effectively as possible.


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  • So what is the cultural work of Open Science? This is a topic I’ve been wrestling with as I interact with virtual organizations of domain and data scientists. I’m really happy to see you tackling this in the context of new organizations. Not sure what to make of Cultural Science yet (I’ll need to glom a copy). You mentioned Appadurai. His more recent work The Future as a Cultural Fact has some valuable content here. While information may or may not want to be free.. it looks like knowledge wants to acquire and express value. Science is a type of play (in the Old English noun form of this… still used for sword play and word play)… an activity that people learn and practice and get better at. Given enough encouragement and rewards to spend enough of their time and cognitive assets, scientists can play with observations and data and forge new knowledge. Right now we have millions of scientists at play on the planet, the challenge, as you concluded, is to scale up the network effects of this global form of serious play.

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  • Tim Vines

    Thanks Cameron – this is a very insightful post. I’m interested that you don’t draw a line between the work of researchers (producing raw knowledge), and the subsequent work of vetting and filtering that knowledge through peer review and publication. Researchers have been able to make their raw research public on e.g. arXiv or their own sites for decades, but the full value of research is only realized after peer review. Maybe expert peer review is the ‘Club Good’ that you are struggling to liberate? More prestige is given to papers in the highest profile journals because the community knows that these have been rated as ‘important ‘by the Club’s inner circle (the high profile academics who recommended publication in that journal).

  • Hi Tim

    So I probably drew a more explicit link in the talk than in the text. I don’t actually see “creation” and “review” as very different in this model. The knowledge, whether raw or refined, remains a club good. The certification that comes from review and publication are membership benefits. Publication itself is less about dissemination and more the process of creating new (or expanded) clubs. There remains a lot to work through but prestige is definitely a club good (although there’s an argument as to whether it is truly non-rivalrous) and membership benefit.

    In terms of the preprint vs publication question it gets more complex and indeed this is at the heart of what I want to tease apart. It could certainly be argued that in principle that actual use value of knowledge (in its most nearly public good form) should be enabled by preprint publication. Now we know that communication to the right audience is more than just slapping something up on the web. Other goods like attention and readership (which are in the opposite quadrant, common pool resources) need to be brought into play and prestige plays a large part in driving these attention markets. A key question is how separated do use value and exchange value get (i.e. what is the quality of information in the prestige markets). Still a great deal to work out here…

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  • Richard Poynder

    I look forward to a follow-up post in which you outline what you think this all means in practice.

  • Costa Vakalopoulos

    ‘The baloney wars’

    Oxford definition of ‘baloney': informal, foolish or deceptive talk; nonsense

    One of the most thoughtful or should I say insightful (apologies to Lakens) statements in the piece is the explicit dissociation of prestige from knowledge. I take this as meaning prestige is a necessary reflection upon content quality. I wish it had been taken further. This parallel universe creates further distortions in academic practice that are both insidious and damaging to the creative enterprise.

    No doubt prestige of a journal is likely to attract studies whose outcomes will be deemed in the future as groundbreaking, but initially these decisions to publish are based on in turn the reputation and ranking of the institution in the hope that this cosy relationship bears fruit. Not that this exclusive world is not already the subject of debate. But it does mean that HIF journals are likely to miss studies that do not fall into this category and that do ultimately have the potential to become leaders. This, even if considered not part of the sociepolitically elitist landscape. It offers the potential for some respite to lesser IF journals and the OA endeavour generally to fill in the gaps.

    But what is more disingenuous in the parallel prestige enterprise is the blanket control it exerts on academic discussion and citations of papers. Quite apart from providing insurmountable barriers to those without a ticket is that it controls acknowledgment of eventually published papers in HIF journals of the sources of inspiration for their work. In other words they garner massive citations at the expense of predecesors whose ideas they may emulate, but not in HIF journals and this is in turn, validated by a community that only acknwledges HIF journals. A vicious circle.

    HIF envy creates a citation bias of published work in HIF journals even if the eventual work citating only HIFJs is published in a lower IFJ. So HIF envy distorts the importance of these journals because researchers feel they have to cite them.

    Further there is a conscious or subconconscious conspiracy against work published in LIFJs that disregard priority of achievement because they didn’t publish in HIFJs and therefore don’t deserve or really aren’t as good as their HIF peers. Somehow by citing HIJs we believe we are more likely to be admitted or at least feel a warm glow in the presence of the ‘club’.

    This wouldn’t be a problem if HIFJs had an active policy to reward
    more radical and challenging ideas, but this upsets stakeholders in the
    status quo who like to set the paradigms for research, a natural human
    instinct to protect one’s turf.

    The fact that subscription based HIFJs don’t publish all the great work does create a threat to this parallel universe ( a good sign) and instruments have been created to contend with this worrying development such as the transformation of Beall’s list into a surrogate tool of disciplinary action that blurs the lines. A surrogate for a parallel universe in the ‘baloney wars’ of claim and counterclaim.