Edit: A summary of the recent Open Science session at the Berlin Colloquium on Internet and Society with talks from Constanze Engelbrecht, Pasco Bilic and Christoph Lutz has been posted by the Humboldt Institute’s Benedikt Fecher (german version, english version). The text below is a more general discussion of how Open Science can be defined.

One area of research at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute is Open Science, an emerging term used to describe new ways of conducting research and communicating its results through the Internet. There is no single definition of what constitutes Open Science (and one could argue there doesn’t really need to be), but in this blog entry I want to point to attempts to define the term by prominent scientists and activists, and discuss some of the limitations of these definitions. I’ll summarize my observations in the form of five questions that suggest a direction that future research into Open Science could take.

Open Science: a few working definitions

Michael Nielsen – a prominent scientist and author on Open Science whose name pops up invariently when discussing the topic – provides this very comprehensive definition in a post to the Open Science mailing list:

“Open science is the idea that scientific knowledge of all kinds should be openly shared as early as is practical in the discovery process.”

In the same vein, Peter Murray-Rust, a professor in molecular chemistry and Open Access advocate, provides another definition (also through the OKFN’s open science mailing list):

“In a full open science process the major part of the research would have been posted openly and would potentially have been available to people outside the research group both for reading and comment.”

(Also see this interview if you want a more detailed exposition).

Finally, Jean Claude Bradley, also a professor in chemistry, provides a definition of what he calles Open Notebook Science, a very similar approach:

“[In Open Notebook Science] there is a URL to a laboratory notebook that is freely available and indexed on common search engines. It does not necessarily have to look like a paper notebook but it is essential that all of the information available to the researchers to make their conclusions is equally available to the rest of the world.”

(Here’s a presentation summarizing his approach, Open Notebook Science. A similar view is articulated by M. Fabiana Kubke and Daniel Mietchen in this video, though they prefer the term Open Research.)

From natural philosophy to science

One thing that these different definitions have in common is the way in which they frame science. In English, the word science has come to denote primarily the natural sciences (traditionally physics and chemistry, more recently also biology and life sciences). The history of the term is long and complex (check out the Wikipedia entry), but as a result of language change, a wide range of disciplines are considered not to be part of the sciences, but instead belong to the social sciences and Humanities.

Why does this matter? The above definitions are very closely tailored to the methods and organizational structures of the natural sciences. They assume that research is conducted in a research group (Murray-Rust) that works primarily in a laboratory and whose members record the steps of an experimental process in a lab notebook (Bradley), following a sequence of more or less clearly-structured steps that can be summarized as “the discovery process” (Nielsen).

Research processes in other fields strongly differ from this approach, not just in the Humanities (where there is frequently no research group, and data is of varying relevance), but also in the social sciences (where there is generally no laboratory, and data frequently comes from human subjects, rather than technical instruments such as radio telescopes or DNA sequencers). Beyond just using different tools, the instruments also shape the assumptions of their users about the world, and about what they do.  Sociologist Karin Knorr-Cetina points to this difference in the title of her book Epistemic Cultures, and similar observations have been made in Bruno Latour & Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. One crucial aspect of this is how data is conceptualized in the different disciplinary perspectives, and, related to this, how notions differ regarding what openness means.

Openness beyond open access to publications

Openness can be defined in a variety of ways. Not all information that is available online is open in a technical sense – just think about proprietary file formats that make it difficult to share and re-use data. Technical openness does not equal legal openness, a problem that is also on the institute’s agenda.

Open Access – the technical and legal accessibility of scholarly publications via the Internet – is widely regarded to benefit both science and the public at large. In the traditional publishing model access to research results in scholarly monographs and journals is available to subscribers only (usually institutional subscribers, in other words, libraries). The Open Access model shifts the costs, sometimes to authors (who pay a fee to publish) or to publishing funds or other institutional actors. The Budapest and Berlin Declarations on Open Access specify under which provisions publications are truly Open Access, rather than just somehow accessible. Open Access has a range of benefits, from reducing costs and providing access to scientists at small universities and in developing countries, to increasing transparency and raising scholarly impact. Models based on author fees, such as the one utilized by PLoS, are increasingly common and make Open Access economically feasible.

There is broad consensus that Open Access is a first step, but that it’s not enough. Many scientists, such as the ones cited above, call for research data also to be made available more broadly. Sharing research data, instead of packaging data and analysis together in scholarly articles, could enable new forms of research that are much more complementary than current practices, which tend to emphasize positive outcomes (experiments that worked) over negative ones (those that didn’t), despite the fact that negative outcomes can greatly contribute to better understanding a problem.

Making openness count

The barriers to achieving a more open environment in regards to research data aren’t primarily technical or legal, but cultural. Research has always been based on the open dissemination of knowledge (just take the history of the Philosophical Transactions, considered by most to be the oldest scientific journal), but it is also very closely tied to the formats in which knowledge is stored and disseminated, such as books, journal articles, and conference papers, which tend to take on a valorizing role, rather than being just arbitrary containers of scholarly information. Many scholars, regardless of their field, see themselves in the business of publishing books, articles, and papers just as much as they consider themselves to be in the business of doing research. While the technology behind scholarly publishing has changed dramatically, the concepts have not changed. Because institutionalized academia is incentive-driven and highly competetive, collective goals (a more efficient approach to knowledge production) are trumped by individual ones (more highly-ranked publications = more funding and promotions for the individual researcher).

Institutional academia is no longer the only place where research happens. Increasingly, there is (if latently) competition from crowdsourcing platforms that facilitate collaborative knowledge creation (and, more open, problem solving) outside of institutional contexts. Depending on how you define the process of knowledge production, examples include both Wikipedia and projects such as the #SciFund Challenge. The approach to knowledge production in these environments seems to focus on knowledge recombination and remixing at the moment, but it appears plausible that more sophisticated models could arise in the future. Whether the hybrid communities of knowledge production have a potential to displace established institutional academia remains to be seen. Rather, such communities could blossom in those areas where traditional academia fails to deliver.

But even inside institutional academia, the time seems ripe for more openness beyond making publications and data available to other academics. Social media makes it possible for scholars to both communicate with their peers and engage with the public more directly — though they are still hesitant to do either at the moment. Public visibility is not as high on the agenda of most researchers as one might expect, because academic success is largely the result of peer, not popular evaluation.

Redefining scholarly impact

This may change as new, more open measurements of scholarly impact enter the mainstream. Measuring and evaluating the impact and quality of publicly-funded research has been a key political interest for decades. While frameworks exist for conducting large and complex evaluations (Research Assessment Exercises in the UK, Exzellenzinitiative in Germany) the metrics used to evaluate the performance of researchers are generally criticized as too one-dimensional. This criticism applies in particular to measuerments that indicate the quality of publications such as Thompson Reuters’ Impact Factor (IF). A confluence of measures (downloads, views, incoming links) could change the current, extremely one-sided approach to evaluation and make it more holistic, generating a more nuanced picture of scholarly performance.

Questions for research into Open Science

The following questions reflect some of the issues raised by “open” approaches to science and scholarship. They are by no means the only ones, als the Open Science project description on the pages of the HIIG highlights, but reflect my personal take.

  1. How can Open Science be conceptualized in ways that reach beyond the paradigm of the natural sciences? In other words, what should Open Humanities and Open Social Sciences look like?
  2. How do different types of data (recorded by machines, created by human subjects, classified and categorized by experts) and diverse methods used for interacting with it (close reading, qualitative analysis, hermeneutics, statistical approaches, data mining, machine learning) impact knowledge creation and what are their respective potentials for openness in the sense described by Nielsen, Murray-Rust and Bradley? What are limits to openness, e.g. for ethical, economic and political reasons?
  3. What are features of academic openness beyond open access (e.g. availability of data, talks, teaching materials, social media media presence, public outreach activities) and how do they apply differently to different disciplines?
  4. How can the above-mentioned features be used for a facetted, holistic evaluation of scholarly impact that goes beyond a single metric (in other words, that measures visibility, transparency and participation in both scientific and public contexts)?
  5. What is the relationship between institutionalized academia and hybrid virtual communities and platforms? Are they competitive or complementary? How do their approaches to knowledge production and the incentives they offer to the individual differ?


Timely or Timeless? The Scholar’s Dilemma.

On May 19, 2010, in Thoughts, by cornelius

Note: this introduction, co-authored with Dieter Stein, is part of the volume Selected Papers from the Berlin 6 Open Access Conference, which will appear via Düsseldorf University Press as an electronic open access publication in the coming weeks. It is also a response to this blog post by Dan Cohen.

Timely or Timeless? The Scholar’s Dilemma. Thoughts on Open Access and the Social Contract of Publishing

Some things don’t change.

We live in a world seemingly over-saturated with information, yet getting it out there in both an appropriate form and a timely fashion is still challenging. Publishing, although the meaning of the word is undergoing significant change in the time of iPads and Kindles, is still a very complex business. In spite of a much faster, cheaper and simpler distribution process, producing scholarly information that is worth publishing is still hard work and so time-consuming that the pace of traditional academic communication sometimes seems painfully slow in comparison to the blogosphere, Wikipedia and the ever-growing buzz of social networking sites and microblogging services. How idiosyncratic does it seem in the age of cloud computing and the real-time web that this electronic volume is published one and a half years after the event its title points to? Timely is something else, you might say.

Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, discusses the question of why academics are so obsessed with formal details and consequently so slow to communicate in a blog post titled “The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing“. In it, Dan retells the experience of working on a book together with colleague Roy Rosenzweig:

“So, what now?” I said to Roy naively. “Couldn’t we just publish what we have on the web with the click of a button? What value does the gap between this stack and the finished product have? Isn’t it 95% done? What’s the last five percent for?”

We stared at the stack some more.

Roy finally broke the silence, explaining the magic of the last stage of scholarly production between the final draft and the published book: “What happens now is the creation of the social contract between the authors and the readers. We agree to spend considerable time ridding the manuscript of minor errors, and the press spends additional time on other corrections and layout, and readers respond to these signals — a lack of typos, nicely formatted footnotes, a bibliography, specialized fonts, and a high-quality physical presentation — by agreeing to give the book a serious read.”

A social contract between author and reader. Nothing more, nothing less.

It may seem either sympathetic or quaint how Roy Rosenzweig elevates the product of scholarship from a mere piece of more or less monitizable content to something of cultural significance, but he also aptly describes what many academics, especially in the humanities, think of as the essence of their work: creating something timeless. That is, in short, why the humanities are still in love with books, why they retain a pace of publishing that is entirely snail-like, both to other academic fields and to the rest of the world. Of course humanities scholars know as well as anyone that nothing is truly timeless and understand that trends and movements shape scholarship just like they shape fashion and music. But there is still a commitment to spend time to deliver something to the reader that is a polished and perfected as one can manage. Something that is not rushed, but refined. Why? Because the reader expects authority from a scholarly work and authority is derived from getting it right to the best of one’s ability.

This is not just a long-winded apology to the readers and contributors to this volume, although an apology for the considerable delay is surely in order, especially taking into account the considerable commitment and patience of our authors (thank you!). Our point is something equally important, something that connects to Roy Rosenzweig’s interpretation of scholarly publishing as a social contract. This publication contains eight papers produced to expand some of the talks held at the Berlin 6 Open Access Conference that took place in November 2008 in Düsseldorf, Germany. While Open Access has successfully moved forward in the past eighteen months and much has been achieved, none of the needs, views and fundamental aspects addressed in this volume — policy frameworks to enable it (Forster, Furlong), economic and organizational structures to make it viable and sustainable (Houghton; Gentil-Beccot, Mele, and Vigen), concrete platforms in different regions (Packer et al) and disciplines (Fritze, Dallmeier-Tiessen and Pfeiffenberger) to serve as models, and finally technical standards to support it (Zier) — none of these things have lost any of their relevance.

Open Access is a timely issue and therefore the discussion about it must be timely as well, but “discussion” in a highly interactive sense is hardly ever what a published volume provides anyway – that is something the blogosphere is already better at. That doesn’t mean that what scholars produce, be it in physics, computer science, law or history should be hallowed tomes that appear years after the controversies around the issues they cover have all but died down, to exist purely as historical documents. If that happens, scholarship itself has become a museal artifact that is obsolete, because a total lack of urgency will rightly suggest to people outside of universities that a field lacks relevance. If we don’t care when it’s published, how important can it be?

But can’t our publications be both timely and timeless at once? In other words, can we preserve the values cited by Roy Rosenzweig, not out of some antiquated fetish for scholarly works as perfect documents, but simply because thoroughly discussed, well-edited and proofed papers and books (and, for that matter, blog posts) are nicer to read and easier to understand than hastily produced ones? Readers don’t like it when their time is wasted; this is as true as ever in the age of information overload. Scientists are expected to get it right, to provide reliable insight and analysis. Better to be slow than to be wrong. In an attention economy, perfectionism pays a dividend of trust.

How does this relate to Open Access? If we look beyond the laws and policy initiatives and platforms for a moment, it seems exceedingly clear that access is ultimately a solvable issue and that we are fast approaching the point where it will be solved. This shift is unlikely to happen next month or next year, but if it hasn’t taken place a decade from now our potential to do innovative research will be seriously impaired and virtually all stakeholders know this. There is growing political pressure and commercial publishers are increasingly experimenting with products that generate revenue without limiting access. Historically, universities, libraries and publishers came into existence to solve the problem of access to knowledge (intellectual and physical access). This problem is arguably in the process of disappearing, and therefore it is of pivotal importance that all those involved in spreading knowledge work together to develop innovative approaches to digital scholarship, instead of clinging to eroding business models. As hard as it is for us to imagine, society may just find that both intellectual and physical access to knowledge are possible without us and that we’re a solution in search of a problem. The remaining barriers to access will gradually be washed away because of the pressure exerted not by lawmakers, librarians and (some) scholars who care about Open Access, but mainly by a general public that increasingly demands access to the research it finances. Openness is not just a technicality. It is a powerful meme that permeates all of contemporary society.

The ability for information to be openly available creates a pressure for it to be. Timeliness and timelessness are two sides of the same coin. In the competitive future of scholarly communication, those who get everything (mostly) right will succeed. Speedy and open publication of relevant, high quality content that is well adjusted to the medium and not just the reproduction of a paper artifact will trump those publications that do not meet all the requirements. The form and pace possible will be undercut by what is considered normal in individual academic disciplines and the conventions of one field will differ from those of another. Publishing less or at a slower pace is unlikely to be perceived as a fault in the long term, with all of us having long gone past the point of informational over-saturation. The ability to effectively make oneself heard (or read), paired with having something meaningful to say, will (hopefully) be of increasing importance, rather than just a high volume of output.

Much of the remaining resistance to Open Access is simply due to ignorance, and to murky premonitions of a new dark age caused by a loss of print culture. Ultimately, there will be a redefinition of the relativities between digital and print publication. There will be a place for both: the advent of mass literacy did not lead to the disappearance of the spoken word, so the advent of the digital age is unlikely to lead to the disappearance of print culture. Transitory compromises such as delayed Open Access publishing are paving the way to fully-digital scholarship. Different approaches will be developed, and those who adapt quickly to a new pace and new tools will benefit, while those who do not will ultimately fall behind.

The ideological dimension of Open Access – whether knowledge should be free – seems strangely out of step with these developments. It is not unreasonable to assume that in the future, if it’s not accessible, it won’t be considered relevant. The logic of informational scarcity has ceased to make sense and we are still catching up with this fundamental shift.

Openness alone will not be enough. The traditional virtues of a publication – the extra 5% – are likely to remain unchanged in their importance while there is such a things as institutional scholarship. We thank the authors of this volume for investing the extra 5% for entering a social contract with their readers and another, considerable higher percentage for their immense patience with us. The result may not be entirely timely and, as has been outlined, nothing is ever truly timeless, but we strongly believe that its relevance is undiminished by the time that has passed.

Open Access, whether 2008 or 2010, remains a challenge – not just to lawmakers, librarians and technologists, but to us, to scholars. Some may rise to the challenge while others remain defiant, but ignorance seems exceedingly difficult to maintain. Now is a bad time to bury one’s head in the sand.


Mai 2010

Cornelius Puschmann and Dieter Stein

It took me a bit longer to put these up, but here are the slides and video clip for my presentation in Osnabrück last week (in German). I was invited to speak at the ZePrOS (Center for Graduate Studies) at the University of Osnabrück on effective ways of communicating one’s research online. Alex Bergs gave a very flattering introduction after which I went on a long but practically-oriented rant on scholarly communication in the digital age. My audience was very patient and gave me some great questions to ponder.

I was grateful for the opportunity to present on this subject for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that a topic such as Open Access is best approached holistically, i.e. by taking on the researcher’s perspective. It makes much more sense in my opinion to embed a discussion of Open Access into the larger picture of communicating research results openly on the Web, instead of treating it as an isolated issue that is primarily about making publishing cheaper.

Another reason is that graduate education tends to neglect what are perceived as ‘peripheral’ issues, such as where/how to publish, the inner workings of the academic job market and why visibility (not just inside your own discipline) is important. We need to promote digital literacy among grad students, in the sense of teaching

  • new methods, tools and infrastructure for doing research (e-science, e-social-science, e-humanities),
  • new ways of presenting and making accessible one’s research (Open Access, self-archiving),
  • new ways of communicating with colleagues and working collaboratively (tagging/bibliography-sharing, collaborative writing) and
  • new approaches to teaching and learning (using video lectures, creating digital learning materials).

My impression is that the best way to achieve something like digital scholarly literacy is to take an integrative approach to these issues. E-science, virtual research environments, e-learning and social media tools for collaboration are hardly ever discussed in concert, but often treated as separate topics. While this may appear to be a more focused way of looking at things (especially if you’re a librarian, funding agency etc), all of these themes are connected in the daily lives of scholars. Cameron Neylon’s points on innovation in science blogging (“The natural unit of science research is the blog post”) go hand in hand in my view with Michael Habib’s observations on digital scholarly identity and a discussion of e-learning and e-teaching could easily be attached to this.

All of these things are part of digital scholarship as an integrated process – as opposed to analog scholarship with a few digital bits here and there.

Between the most public and private forms of communication lies a wide range of channels and activities. Scholars communicate with each other not only through books and journals but also through manuscripts, preprints, articles, abstracts, reprints, seminars, and conference presentations. Over the course of the twentieth century, they interacted intensively in person, by telephone, and through the postal mail. Scholars in the twenty-first century continue to use those channels, while also communicating via e-mail, blogs, and chat. New dissemination channels for written work include personal Web sites, preprint archives, and institutional repositories. An information infrastructure to support scholarship must facilitate these myriad means of communication. (p.47)


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