Experiments in Knowledge Production. Open Access and the politics of the digital academy

Last week Michael Guggenheim (CSISP, Goldsmiths) and Noortje Marres (CSISP, Goldsmiths) convened an event about experiments in knowledge production at Goldsmiths, which included LimnMattering Press and Big Data and Society.

Noortje Marres introduced the workshops as having two main aims. Firstly its focus is on getting to know more about the three invited initiatives in experimental publishing in the broad area of technology, science and culture. But it also aims to use the presentations as a starting point for a broader conversation about the politics of knowledge production. In this sense the workshop wants to combine practice and theory as a common motive within STS.

Chris Kelty gave the first presentation. Kelty is one of the founding editors of Limn, a scholarly magazine with the catchy subtitle ‘it’s free but it is also for sale’. Limn is an experiment in small-scale publishing. Kelty explains how it started in 2007 as an experiment, as an anthropology research collaborator. It focused on how to do anthropological research on contemporary problems and work on concepts in common. The idea of Limn as a network and magazine grew out of that initial idea, and started to focus more on rethinking aspects of the scholarly journal model. The first idea was that the issues should all be completely digital. But then, Kelty states, they became concerned about the projects authoritativeness, so they decided to do a print version too. They also started to think more about design at that point to make things more authoritative.

Limn serves as a conceptual, historical and ethnographic analysis of contemporary problems. It includes issues on themes such as systemic risk, and sentinel devices. These issues focus on problems that are complex technological, economic and ecological, to which they aim to add insights. Kelty explains that Limn is basically like an edited volume each time, but these kinds of publications are of course not that easy to conceive in the current publishing system, where edited collections take a lot of time, and you need to find the right publisher etc. And this is where Limn comes in. Limn also draws insights that are curated (they invite people), not peer-reviewed; they are more juxtaposed in this sense, meaning that they are not sequestered in articles or a disciplinary form. Other materials are then intermingled with this material on the web version. Limn is focused on forms that emphasise rapidity, ongoing research and the wider discussion, Kelty argues. It wants to communicate a snapshot of an ongoing experimental project. The discussions they foster are then animated by design, illustration and the exploration of traditional and new digital possibilities. They also set themselves the task how to illustrate the conceptual core of each issue. Most of what Limn does is very DIY, Kelty states, as there are many technologies that enable low overheads and that are easy to use etc. Their main costs, Kelty says, are people. He states that they don’t have a model that brings in money, although they do make a small profit from the print issues, and they sell PDFs, although with the web content already for free, this is more like a donation model Kelty argues. Kelty tells how scholarly publishers love Limn but then they also want to make it more like what they do, i.e. turn it more into a model based on standardised formats, peer review, closed access, more disciplinary focuses, a reduced number of images and colour, a standard design template, and this all based on the model that you pay us money to do this all for you. There is an issue of scale here, Kelty argues, how can you scale up but stay small at the same time? Kelty is very interested in the consortium model, with shared infrastructures, shared people and potentially shared money. But at what point does a consortium then turn into a publishing company? There are costs associated with scholarly publishing and they are related to making publications high quality and authoritative: it takes the time of people to make things good.

Evelyn Ruppert was up next to discuss her experiences with the journal Big Data and Society, which is still in development, but which also comes from very different origins. Fisrt of all, as she explains, it wasn’t her idea to start a journal, nor was she particularly excited about beinf engaged with something like big data. When SAGE approached her with the request to start this journal, she thus initially said no. However, after thinking about it, Ruppert decided it might be interesting to experiment with, mostly as a different way of collaborating with people. The journal, Ruppert states, will also be multi-disciplinary, it wants to think beyond fields. And finally, Ruppert was interested how one could make a journal based on such an ill-defined and problematic object such as big data. How could they find a way, through this journal of talking beyond disciplines about this emerging object? As Ruppert argues, it is already happening as a concept, so lets get engaged with it. It is coming out of our various practices and investments in different places, so how can we gather these and what will these tell us about this object?

The second ill-defined bit for Ruppert was open access. As a concept it is differently defined everywhere, there are multiple different meanings given to Open Access, including from SAGE, it was thus not settled what it could be. Ruppert thus thought this would be a good point to experiment with what an Open Access journal could be. Here focus was on practices: how do you make up an editorial board, and an advisory board etc. that will be inclusive and engaging across disciplines and that will be able to engage different methodological and theoretical approaches. At the end about 80 people signed on to the journal to contribute to its operation, to being part of it and to try and make it work. Ruppert also wanted to explore what they could bring to this idea of Open Access. SAGE set the model out as being accessible to everyone and for the first 3 years there will not be an APC fee (which is increasingly becoming the default Open Access model for publishers). So, basically Ruppert argues, they have a window of 3 years to come up with a model.

Rupert states they call Big Data and Society a digital space instead of a journal, because it is digital only and it is a space for bringing together and connecting elements, including other kinds of sections of content which can be more agile and can consist of people outside of the academy too. She mentions the idea of a commentaries section for instance, which would be a livelier space, but also of a demonstrations section, where people can demonstrate new models/visualisations/tool use etc., bringing together different kind of approaches. Ruppert also mentions an early career research forum, where early career researchers can post short articles about their work. This should again be a lively and quick turnaround space. She also wants to connect podcasts and blogs connected to that.

Ruppert argues that the journal/space is connected to the idea that content flows, so it is going to be a continuous publishing model, there will be no issues but continuous publishing. This means they will still have special issues/themes but will also allow publishing to happen when it happens. Ruppert states that if we think of a journal space as formative in the shaping of a field, we also want something to reflexively think about this, a logo that provides for an interactive engagement with the keywords in the journal. Thus a keyword analysis will be added to see how the journal is taking shape and what are becoming the main themes that the articles are extending to. There will also be links through the platform via keywords. So basically, Ruppert states, this is all an experiment in trying to figure out how access to content can be different than a standard search and can be more like browsing in a library. How can the search function be performed differently to allow for different kinds of discoverability of content?

Mattering Press is up next. Joe Deville and Endre Dányi explain how Mattering Press grew out of a much bigger collective, the flows/doings/edges peer support PhD network, which was set up in 2007/2008 and out of which they organised a bunch of workshops to discuss their own research projects connected to the idea of relationality. The question then was, how to stay in touch and engage with each others work after graduation? It was here that the idea of starting a book publisher came up, Dányi explains. Mattering Press was thus stablished in 2012 and its first books will be available at the end of this year.

Mattering Press explores three understanding of openness:

–       What connects us is an interest in how STS works. We like opening up black boxes, which includes opening up this black box of academic publishing. We are all involved in it but we accept a lot of it as it is offered to us.

–       The openness of open access, which appeared initially as a set of technological solutions and possibilities. We have a commitment to high quality objects, our aim is to produce printed books, but not with the aim of profit or growing. So how do we make this sustainable?

–       Openness needs to be defined and redefined every time that we find a book project: what does openness mean for authors, editors, the publishing process and the format? This is openness on the fly. The term they like to use is care.

Deville explains that the question of care came up quite early on in the project, and was incremental in thinking through a lot of questions, including the issue of openness, how can things that have been stabilised be opened up? But there is a tension here too, once you start opening up these relations you are generating new points of connections. So if you are going to be opening up this work, Deville argues, it is for us important to emphasise the need to take care, to think about the processes that go along with putting things together again, with reconnecting. This related to concepts of the relational composition of entities. But also to the history of feminist ethics, where responsibility becomes relationally distributed amongst a range of parties. Care and openness are related for Mattering Press, Deville argues, as it directs attention to the relationality but also to the inseparability of our practice with the value that we put into the world. But it might also be about creating some friction, about thinking through the consequences of adopting certain approaches. It pushes us to think a bit more carefully in this respect. You find yourself as having to perform yourself as being entrepreneurial for example. As Deville explains, they are in the business of creating a bit of revenue. They have some limited funds available, about 3000 pounds per book. They also have some books that come with some money attached, and they want to help early career-scholars with limited funds too. Thinking about care then, this means contemplating on where do you want this entrepreneurial mode, what do you want to do and allow and what do you not want to intrude with a market model?

Care, Deville argues, helped us draw attention to the specific actors involved in publishing: who are we mobilising and implicating and can we recognise them or bring them into our practice in a way that is meaningful for all the parties involved? And this includes raw questions of labor and value. What about typesetters, designers etc. for instance. It also stimulates us to think about the materials that we are producing and how we are going to circulate them. Deville argues that for authoritativeness they have adopted a peer review model but they have chosen an open peer review model and also treat different books different when it comes to peer review, for instance early career scholars might want some more support. The idea of unpaid labor in academia is also an important matter for Mattering Press. How are we intervening in that terrain, Deville asks? They see themselves as a double producer, producing knowledge for scholars but also producing models about publishing, this kind of expertise that can be rendered translatable in the same way that texts does, by circulating publishing expertise as a question of openness which publishers tend to keep closed down most of the time.

During the discussion, one of the focuses seemed to be on reader side openness. As Gary Hall for instance remarked, with respect to authority and the idea of print etc., it seems that the idea of openness is more located on the author-end but the projects mentioned here today are all quite closed on the reader side. CC-BY for instance, a commonly used license in open access publishing, relates to the idea that these things are open to readers to. The better things look, in this respect, the more they are designed, the more closed down they tend to become too in the sense that people are afraid they can’t interact with it because of the authority that comes with design. Kelty replies that he was part of a group of people that really pushed radical openness such as CC-BY. And he says he still believes in that, in peer-production, open source style etc. But it became clear to him that that wasn’t a valuable way of doing things in academia, where, as Kelty argues, we make finished projects. It is a desire to say that infinite openness is not good, openness with a certain point of closure is what makes it authoritative.

Other questions that came up related to the issue of authority was whether it is possible to gain authority (over time) via the content, the role of peer review, care and editorial control, and what the role in publishers is in all this when all you need is to pay for some fundamental costs such as server space and the rest is free labor (which is of course problematic too). There is also the question of stability. How long is this going to go on? Are these projects research projects or will they last ten years or will they turn into an archive? Authority and stability go together in this respect. Ruppert wonders whether it has to be about free labor or whether we could also talk about a redistribution of labor? I am redistributing my labor to different functions, she argues. What kind of redistributions of labor do different publishing models involve? There is a labor of love in whichever model you are in, she argues. There are different distributions of that labouring. What consequences does that have? Mattering Press responds by explaining that they mix books from big names with experimental stuff, explaining that you need that kind of authority and then the editorial work etc. The question is then, what are you composing in terms of relationships between the specific texts?

Another question focused on how in the presentations we heard a lot about production and not that much about readership and new forms of reading. Kelty responded by saying that what connects the reading and open access for him is the potential of worldwide access. There is lots of anecdotal evidence for that, such as receiving emails from people all over the world who have encountered Limn.

But what about the actual practices of reading, an audience member aks, what is reading and what is academic reading, what are the innovations in what reading is happening and how you are thinking about that? The visual medium is significant and important for instance, think about video and audio and podcasts. In academic circulation we have been tied to texts. We need to experiment with authoritativeness and reading through multiple media more.

Deville responds that there is a commitment to books from the side of Mattering Press. They can mean different things of course, can be pamphlet-length and supplemented by different materials. But the framing of complexity in a book is important for them too. But to radicalise the problem of the reader, it is important to explore how readers get to publications, to things that they actually read. It is becomes harder and harder for readers to find relevant publications. Publications also become more and more unimportant for a lot of people for the information they get. For instance, many readers end up not at the publishers website, but at other websites: repositories, author website etc. Why is there so much thinking going on about these containers when in fact these containers become less and led important? The authoritativeness of text has been influenced by its containers, but in the end readers end up with stuff that does not look authorative it all (copies of copies etc.).

Kelty responds that Limn is very ephemeral, but it tries to give authority to a specific style of writing within STS, and we want this authoritativeness to accrue to the projects and the people. The idea of packaging has maybe become proportionally more important. But what about the container of the book? Here the university press stamp is still really important. We also buy books to support a certain model. Are we moving from journal level to article level? This is a critical mode of change. If it is all about the article then it becomes more about the author then about the container and this is dangerous too. And this is also a result of the standardisation by the big publishers, of standardisation and digitisation. And there is also a science model being pushed on the humanities which states it is all about articles, it is all about standardisation. So how do you counter this hyper-selected model as a reader? On the other hand, Kelty argues, with something like Vectors every article is its own avant-garde film, so reading that becomes very difficult. Thus standardisation has benefits too. The flipside to this idea of the container and digital object is for instance mailing lists, where people circulate material. In other words, there are other forms of access and distribution. Does the notion of containers come out of that too?

Noortje Marres is interested in these kinds of critique of current dominant practices and how doing experimental publishing is also a way of producing alternatives. How can STS really inform an alternative way of doing, an alternative way of knowledge production or publishing practice? Marres explains that for her however the notion of openness is antithetical to STS commitments and attachments. A politics of openness, she states, is related to Karl Popper’s notion of how technology and knowledge add up. But knowledge technology and democracy did not add up and they are not aligned. Marres explains that she is still very much attached to this critique of openness but at the same time she states that she sees in these practices that people are producing differences form this flat story of openness: thinking about care, messing up registers of authority etc. Marres thus asks: do you see it as your roles to produce a different understanding of openness and of open knowledge?

Kelty explains that STS has never really been involved in a critique of openness, it has been involved in a critique of the separation of science and politics. The suggestion that openness should solve this problem, that is problematic of course. The most radical forms of open access dwell in an open source world: if we just get everything open and standardised then knowledge should triumph and of course we should be critical of that. But actually, Kelty states that he doesn’t think that that is the dominant vision of openness. Ruppert argues that there is a very narrow notion of openness as access. We don’t really engage in opening up the production of knowledge for instance. Deville argues that we are all talking about performative categories (the book, the press, openness etc.) we are all engaging with these concepts but it becomes a question where you can intervene. One does adopt categories but the question is how you can engage with them differently? STS is in this respect interested in opening up black boxes and examining stability, so in this practical sense it seems logical that STS is involved in examining the practices of openness and interfering with it.

Marres refers to the problem with labelling. The labelling is nonsense. If the starting point is the scepticism of the containers and concepts the focus should be on what is exciting about knowledge production and what one is doing. You won’t get far with labelling. There is something you won’t solve when labelling. Does this mean that the open access idea then precedes what you are doing and you are not particularly interested in the ideology behind this but there is something you connect to? Kelty responds negatively to this, stating that he is actually committed to this. Open access is a label and we can’t get away from it, we need to use it. Marres argues that the confusion about these terms is generative here, where you are taking advantage of but you are also contributing to producing as a politics. If the practising of making knowledge open becomes the focus then the different narratives that accompany these become diffused. Danyi states that there is so much STS out there but there is so little conversation. Mattering press is about how to put people into conversation with people. Kelty says that he wants to focus on the conversation that happens before the publication. Science works because it is open within a closed space, he argues. That is one of the ways in which we produce knowledge. What about the relationship between open access, open knowledge and the acceleration of knowledge production (such as in book sprints), Marres asks. Could this lead to loosing interest, if it is all unstable and all fast. But the argument about book sprints, Hall replies, is that you get people together in one space, it is about collaborative production in an experimental fashion, it is not about becoming the new model. Kelty replies that there is the related problem that we are publishing way too much. It is the blogospheric model etc. that is pushing us to produce more content. But it is also the fault of publishers. Scholarly publishers benefit form creating more journals and benefit form selling the subscriptions. There is a lot of redundancy: people are reading on many channels and we are also producing on different channels. The digital allows this; we are expected to occupy these channels. You need to declare your knowledge on a multiplicity of formats because that’s what readers want. We need to pay attention to the aspects of the temporality of publishing and how different models can create different forms of temporality. Finally there is the question of how do these experiments end, and can they even end? Mattering Press replies that they can, they can put their books in a repository or with another publisher. And for Limn, Kelty explains, they don’t publish it as a periodical but as a book, meaning that they can put the project to sleep for 2 years if needed. Ruppert then concludes that maybe it cannot end but it can always become something else.


2 comments on “Experiments in Knowledge Production. Open Access and the politics of the digital academy

  1. Pingback: From Openness to Openings: Reflections on the Experiments in Knowledge Production workshop | CSISP Online

  2. Pingback: From Openness to Openings: Reflections on the Experiments in Knowledge Production workshop – Making Mattering

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