Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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“Nudge nudge, say no more”: What I think needs to happen next in the Scholarly Commons Project

Posted: Oct 02, 2016 19:10;
Last Modified: Oct 02, 2016 19:10

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In the follow up on the Force11/Helmsley Scholarly Commons Working Group workshops in Madrid and San Diego, participants (and steering committee members) have been asked to write a brief description of what we think is the “best direction to develop the principles.” Here’s my two cents.1

I think that the lessons we’ve learned over the last year are the following:

  1. There is (or perhaps could be) such a thing as a “Commons” in scholarly communication;
  2. This approach to scholarly communication could have an immensely disruptive potential, as it could provide a way of completing the always-threatening development of research communication into a Common Pool Resource;
  3. The disruption (and the commons) will not happen without leadership; somebody needs to propose a definition of the boundaries of the commons; explain how this defintion can be used; and create the mechanisms by which it is.

Given this, I think the next step is to work on (3): providing the leadership necessary to properly define what we mean by Scholarly Communication as a Commons or Common Good, and then to develop the mechanisms by which this Commons could be implemented. If we could do that, we could have a radical effect on how research is promulgated and rewarded (i.e. bring about lesson 2).

Working on (3), in my view, involves taking some decisions and some risks. In the course of the last year, I think we have done a very good job of rapidly collecting good material from thought leaders in the Scholarly Communication world. We took a risk in doing this by invitation rather than an open call, but, as far as I can see, we did a pretty good job in the end selecting our informants. While I think that the criticism of April and others about the ironically closed nature of our process is relevant, I think we probably did about as good a job in getting together the raw materials as anybody would have been able to do under any method. I think it is telling that the criticism we have seen of the 18 “principles” is largely that they are not a coherent body of principles (which they are not) rather than that they are wrong. I think we have pretty clearly uncovered a strong consensus as to what Scholarly Communication should be within the commons (answering [1]); we just haven’t developed a strong statement of that consensus (answering [3] and serving [2]).

So if we have done a decent job quickly developing an answer to our Helmsley question (i.e. question 1, whether there is grounds for believing that there is something common, or a Commons”), we have been weaker on doing something with this answer: we haven’t taken that answer and the raw material we gathered and processed it into a position that others can agree with, disagree with, supplement, or modify. Some of the difficulties we had in the run up to the San Diego workshop, both internally within the Steering Committee and among the participants we asked to attend had to do with this lack of a position. We presented what we had distilled from what we heard in San Diego, but we had not got very far at that point in engaging with these statements critically—pointing out their errors, contradictions, and lacunae—or developing our own position on them or the larger question.

This is what (3) requires us to do, except now also with what we heard in San Diego as well. We need to take everything we have heard, analyse it critically, and use it to develop a position that we can propose to others for reaction.

I’ll conclude by anticipating my position on what we heard. I think that we now have the material required to propose a certification programme in which people and institutions certify their compliance (or aspiration to comply with) a “Commons” approach to Scholarly Communication. To do this, I think we need to analyse the statements we gathered in Madrid and work out the theory behind them—a theory that I naturally think will look something like the one I have proposed, though it doesn’t have to look exactly like my version. This theory needs to be stated in actionable terms (I do x, I don’t do y) and it needs to be generalised enough to be able to be used in analysing anything you can do in the context of scholarly communication—in any discipline or using any technology, currently known or not.

While that might sound impossible, it really isn’t. While there were some contradictions in the details of the Madrid statements (e.g. the presence or absence of reward systems) and while there were some things that were not fully worked out (e.g. governance), I felt that the statements we collected in Madrid could be shown to be based on a fairly coherent implicit philosophy of scholarly communication—one based on openness, equality of access, and the concept of research communication as a common good. These are terms that are technology and process independent and work as easily with current practices as they will with any future developments.

And finally there is the purpose to which this programme can be put. In my view, what is needed now, and what could be incredibly powerful in leading the transformation of scholarly communication, is a “nudge”—a programme that encourages socially desirable behaviour by providing a context by which people can voluntarily adopt these same behaviours. I think the Madrid statements imply a very strong consensus of what this socially desirable behaviour is; what we need to do now is produce a statement that is as strong explicitly as the Madrid statements are implicitly. And then develop that into a programme.

As a final note. I’ve been thinking about the difference between the “Mertonian” statements and my principles. As people in San Diego said, they seem to work together. So I’ve been wondering what their relationship is. In the end, I think that the “Mertonian” principles represent a world view and the seven I proposed represent a theory of practice. I.e. we were able to get statements with such a strong implicit agreement from our participants in Madrid because those participants on the whole shared the same “Mertonian” world view as to the purpose and ideal practice of research. But we asked them more specifically to apply this implicit world view to the practice of scholarly communication. The seven principles are the theory of action that lies behind those statements.

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Notes

1. This is currently very telegraphic and “inside baseball”—the prompt is a need for discussion papers to support current deliberation within the Commons Steering Committee and I haven’t had the time yet to unpack some of the insider terminology and shorthand. I also need to put in some links.

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But does it work in theory? Developing a generative theory for the scholarly commons

Posted: Sep 02, 2016 17:09;
Last Modified: Sep 03, 2016 10:09

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…It is said that a learned professor of Heidelberg forbade his students the repetition of a certain experiment.

“But,” they protested, “it has always been successful.”

“Nevertheless,” he said, “its position among experiments is absolutely untenable from an intellectual point of view.”

The boys stared.

“The thing may answer very well in practise,” said the professor, “but it is not sound in theory.”

—“A professional paradox.” The Youth’s Companion: For All the Family 85.40: 515, Column 2. October 5, 1911. Hathitrust (from Quote Investigator).

The “Scholarly Commons Working Group”

(See also the further discussion)

I am part of the Scholarly Commons Working Group at Force11. The goal of this working group is to “define and incubate” a “Scholarly Commons”—something we define as being a set of “principles, best practices, interfaces and standards that should govern the multidirectional flow of scholarly objects through all phases of the research process from conception to dissemination” in any discipline.

As part of this work, we have been working on developing the actual principles that can be said to… well, this is a bit of an issue, actually—govern?, describe (?), organise (?), define (?). Let’s just say, right now, “develop a set of principles that will help in some way identify and establish the Scholarly Commons in some useful, non-trivial fashion.”

Contents

The work so far

With the help of a grant from the Helmsley Foundation, we’ve been developing these principles over the course of the last year. In the Spring, we held an invited workshop in which various intellectual leaders within the world of Scholarly Communication and Knowledge Mobilization got together to analyse the problems, lacunae, and disciplinary differences within current publication systems and practices. This group also came up with a list of statements that it felt contributed to the identification, governance, definition, or description of this Commons. In a couple of weeks, we will be holding a second workshop in which another set of leaders in the field will review this work and help further develop the concept.

The Principles

For the last several months, the Steering Committee of the Working Group has been working on attempting to refine the work of the Madrid participants: taking the principles, observations, and examples produced at that workshop and teasing out a single set of statements around which we think the community might be able to develop a consensus.

The result, in its current form, is a set of 18 Principles group under four main guiding qualities: that the Commons is (or should be) Equitable, Open, Sustainable, and driven by Research Culture. The principles themselves (in their shortest form) are as follows (I should stress that this is a quotation from an in-progress draft that is highly likely to change before it is released):

E1 – The commons is developed and governed by its members through their practice
E2 – The commons is open to all participants who accept its principles
E3 – The commons welcomes and encourages participants of all backgrounds
E4 – The commons assigns credit and responsibility for all contributions without imposing an intrinsic hierarchy
E5 – The commons accepts all contributed objects that adhere to its guidelines on an equal basis regardless of form
E6 – The commons has no intrinsic hierarchies, scores, rankings, or reward systems
O1 – The Commons is open by default: its content and standards are free to read, reuse, and remix by humans and machines, unless there is a compelling reason to restrict access, e.g., personal health information.
O2 – Content is FAIR: Findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable by humans and machines.
O3 – A publisher in the Commons is any entity that will ensure that outputs are open and FAIR.
O4 – All outputs are considered published when they are made available according to the principles and standards of the Commons.
S1 – There is global commitment and participation in the Commons’ long-term viability and preservation.
S2 – All activities and outputs that take place in in the Commons remain in the Commons.
S3 – Use of the Commons cannot devalue the Commons.
S4 – There is an expectation of service by Commoners to support research and scholarship in the Commons.
S5 – The Commons itself is continuously required to respond to the requirements of Commoners.
RC1 – The Commons exists independently of the technology, funding, and business models that support and enable it
RC2 – In the Commons, incentives apply to all stages of the research cycle and are designed to reward behaviours that support the best scholarship
RC3 – In the Commons, the form research is disseminated in is determined by the needs of the research itself rather than the demands of tradition or reward or evaluation systems

Some problems with the Principles as written

I am one of the people responsible both for generating these principles and copy-editing them into their current form. So my criticism of these will therefore hopefully be seen as constructive rather than nihilistic.

But, even as we get them to the stage where they are almost ready for release, I must confess that I am not very happy with them. Not because I don’t agree on the whole with them, but rather because I am not confident that they are that well put together from a formal perspective. Some of the issues that I have with them:

  1. Why this number? Are there really eighteen principles to the Commons? Or did we just happen to think up eighteen? How do we know we are not missing some?
  2. Why this distribution? Why are the RC (i.e. “Research Culture”) principles under RC? Do they follow naturally from the idea that the Commons must be driven by research, or are they there because “Research Culture” seemed as good a place as any to put them? Why are the “E” (Equity) principles under E and “O” (Openness) Principles under O?
  3. What about the mix of scopes and types within the “principles”? “The Commons exists independently of the technology, funding, and business models that support it” (RC1) seems like a different type of claim than “In the Commons, incentives… are designed to reward behaviours that support the best scholarship” (RC2): the first seems like a genuine principle; the second more like good practice.
  4. Is there not an inconsistency to the kind of entity they define? Sometimes the Commons defined here seems like a consensus among like minded people (e.g. E1); other times, it seems like a club with implicit officers and rules—or at the very least, peer pressure (e.g. S4). When you review the more detailed descriptions we have, you find more and more profound issues like this: there are rules about how one must be identified (perhaps implying some kind of enforcement mechanism); there are rules about what kind of reward systems must be in the Commons and about how there are to be no metrics or evaluations, and so on.

Are they undertheorised?

One explanation, of course, is that we are just sloppy thinkers, or that the principles are still very much a draft. But another explanation—and the one I prefer—is that they are undertheorised. I.e. that our “principles” are not really principles at all, in their current form, but rather a consensus collection of observations, hopes, aspirations, and political goals that have been collected on an ad hoc basis with “little attempt to analyse, explain, draw out common features across situations, identify patterns of behaviour, syndromes of factors, and so forth” (See Woods 2006 ‘undertheorized’). The problem, in other words, is that these have been thought up (or observed) on an ad hoc basis, rather than generated from any underlying theory of how the Commons works or ought to work.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in saying this: any project like the Scholarly Commons project needs to bounce back and forth between observation and theory. You can’t, or at least probably shouldn’t, theorise without gathering any material for your theory to explain; and, conversely, you can’t, or at least probably shouldn’t, continue to collect ad hoc examples without stopping every so often to check if these examples do suggest some larger theory that accounts for them. You know you’ve reached the end of your work when your theory can be used to generate from first principles claims that look very much like those you originally developed by observation; or, conversely, that you can map the observations you made onto an explanatory set of principles (I realise that some scientists might object to this as ‘HARKing’—Hypothesis After Results Known. Since I’m a Humanist and defining principles like this is a Humanities question, however, I don’t have any problem with this: in the Humanities Harking is such a basic methodology, you’d think we all have a smoker’s cough)

Principled principles?

So, applying all this to our observations of the Commons, is there in fact a real set of principled principles—that is to say, a set of statements from which everything in our observations can be derived or implied?

In fact I think there is. In anticipation of our upcoming workshop in San Diego, here’s my attempt to develop a set of principles that describe what participants in the workshops thus far have meant when they have discussed “the Commons”:

P. The Scholarly Commons is a consensus among knowledge producers and users that
    P1. research and knowledge should be freely available to all who wish to use or reuse it;
    P2. participation in the production and use of knowledge should be open to all who wish to participate;
    P3. our practices should be such that there are no systemic barriers and disincentives to prevent either free use or open participation.

R. On the basis of these three principles there are four basic rules to the commons:
    R1. Participation and access are the only intrinsic reward systems within the Commons. The Commons does not itself have systems for rewarding participation in any other way1;
    R2. The Commons does not require the use of any specific technology, approach, process, or system2;
    R3. The Commons does not prevent the development of either external systems for either reward or specific technologies, processes approaches, and systems, but such rewards, technologies, processes, approaches, and systems cannot be part of the definition of the Commons3;
    R4. Commoners may not participate in external activities that hurt the viability of the commons.4

How do they line up?

With the exception of the last rule (R4), which I am not entirely sure is a core value, and the third principle (P3), which might just be a negative restatement and operationalisation of the first two, I believe that these principles and rules can be used to generate all non-contradictory principles put together by the Scholarly Commons Working Group participants—and where they can’t, the fact that they cannot is actually an indication that there a problem with the original principle: that it either contradicts something else, is not actually a core value, is formulated poorly, or has some other problem.

To demonstrate this, here’s a table, in which I map each of the new principles against the original 18:

New Principle Original Principle(s)
P E1, E2, O3, S1, S3, S5
P1 E3, O1, O2, O4, S2, RC1
P2 E4, O4, RC1
P3 E4, E5, E6, O2, O4, S2, S5, RC1, RC3
R1 E4, E6, O4, RC3
R2 E4, E5, E6, O4, RC3
R3  
R4 E2, S1, S2, S3, S4

This suggests that the only original “principle” that can’t be reconciled with my more compact formulation, is RC2 (“In the Commons, incentives apply to all stages of the research cycle and are designed to reward behaviours that support the best scholarship”), and that there is one new rule that doesn’t map easily onto any of the original ones (R3 “The Commons does not prevent the development of either external systems for either reward or specific technologies, processes, and systems; it is just that such systems and technologies cannot be part of the definition of the Commons”).

I would argue, however, that these are related to each other and that neither is a fatal flaw. In the case of RC2, the original principle seems to me to be inconsistent in its current formulation with the rest of the original principles: incentives, by their very nature, discriminate against non-incentivised activities (in this case, non-“best” scholarship). This could be understood as violating original principles E2, E4, O4, and especially RC1 and RC4 incentives that are “designed,” moreover, imply a central governance and, perhaps, enforcement mechanism that is inconsistent with original Principles E1 and E6. (Written negatively, on other hand—i.e. “In the Commons, incentives do not reward behaviours that harm the production of the best scholarship”—principle RC2 in fact maps onto new principles P3, “R1”#r1, and R4).

In the case of R3, I think that the problem is a related lacuna in the original text: there is actually a lot of discussion in the description and operationalisation of the original principles about how and to what extent the Commons is compatible with existing systems and participants, such as major commercial publishers and university promotion and reward systems; but with the exception of the problematic RC2, there is no specific principle in our original set discussing, in abstract terms, how the commons interacts with these structures, systems, and participants. Taken together, I believer that the new principles expose (and clarify) some issues with the question of rewards inherent to the old statement.

Conclusion

In a couple of weeks we’ll be presenting some version of the original principles to our workshop participants for comment, criticism, and revisions. While I’m sure that the proposal here must be missing something, I’m putting this up as a blog now so we can use it in our preparations and discussions for that workshop.

Notes

1Anything else would potentially run foul of P3, since there is no such thing as a perfect reward system and reward and incentive systems work by privileging certain kinds of work or behaviour and, as a result, creating systemic barriers to others.

2Anything else would violate P1, P2, and P3, since it would prevent unfettered access, stop participation by anybody, and, as a result, create systemic barriers.

3This is because constructing a system that prevented the development of external reward systems or proprietary technology would violate all three of the core values: it would systemically disincentivise access and participation (i.e. by those, such as commercial presses or Universities, who wanted or needed to design such systems.

4This seems to be required, or else the Commons would rapidly cease to exist. But I’m not sure it actually belongs here, because I can’t see how an enforcement mechanism is consistent with literally the first principle: P.

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Yet another example of why APC Open Access should be a non-starter

Posted: Oct 04, 2013 10:10;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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I hope to write something more detailed about the fundamental ethical problems with APC (Article Processing Charges) models of Open Access.

The short version is that they are basically a subscription charge that preserves all the bad things about paywalled access to knowledge and preserve none of the good.

  1. User subscriptions are “pay to play” in the sense readers need to pay to access the knowledge; APC charges are “pay to play” in the sense that authors need to pay them or the knowledge to get published. Either way, access requires somebody to cross a paywall. Subscriptions are better because they spread the cost more widely (and hence make access cheaper on a unit basis). Moreover, subscription doesn’t prevent the dissemination of knowledge, it only restricts access; APC restricts the dissemination to those who can pay to publish. The second is much worse and far more unethical.
  2. User subscriptions involve trading cash for assets in the sense that libraries that pay subscriptions end up with an asset they can then use—access to the knowledge. APC charges are basically extortion: universities and libraries are told that their authors will not be allowed to publish if they don’t pay somebody to let them. The end result is that the library is poorer in terms of cash and not richer in terms of assets.

But the real evidence that there is a problem with the APC model is the existence of predatory journals. The basic premise—pay us and we’ll publish you—is far more open to corruption than the alternative—pay us and we’ll let you read our content. In a subscription model, the press has an incentive to keep quality high—readers will not pay for garbage; in the APC model, presses have an incentive to lower quality since authors will pay to print garbage.

That subscription models are more ethical than Open Access APC charges does not mean that Open Access itself is unethical or a bad idea. The main issue is how public money is being spent. If libraries and universities that are currently willing to risk public money going to scam artists instead used those funds to support Green Open Access journals we’d be able to have the best of both worlds: free access to freely disseminated research. That would be a good use of public funds—and it is much harder to scam.

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