Two Watersheds for Open Access?

This past week I taught “Two Watersheds,” a chapter from Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality. I got some interesting reactions from my students, most of whom are budding engineers. But that’s not what this post is about.

I do want to talk a bit about Illich’s notion of the two watersheds, however. Illich illustrates the idea with reference to medicine. Illich claims that 1913 marks the first watershed in medicine. This is so because in 1913, one finally had a greater than 50% chance that someone educated in medical school (i.e., a doctor) would be able to prescribe an effective treatment for one’s ailment. At that point, modern medicine had caught up with shamans and witch doctors. It rapidly began to outperform them, however. And people became healthier as a result.

By the mid 1950s, however, something changed. Medicine had begun to treat people as patients, and more and more resources were devoted to extending unhealthy life than to helping keep people healthy or to restoring health. Medicine became an institutionalized bureaucracy rather than a calling. Illich picks (admittedly arbitrarily) 1955 to mark this second watershed.

Illich’s account of the two watersheds in medicine is applicable to other technological developments as well.

A couple of weeks ago, Richard Van Noorden published a piece in Nature the headline of which reads “Half of 2011 papers now free to read.” Van Noorden does a good job of laying out the complexities of this claim (‘free’ is not necessarily equivalent to ‘open access’, the robot used to gather the data may not be accurate, and so on), which was made in a report to the European Commission. But the most interesting question raised in the piece is whether the 50% figure represents a “tipping point” for open access.

The report, which was not peer reviewed, calls the 50% figure for 2011 a “tipping point”, a rhetorical flourish that [Peter] Suber is not sure is justified. “The real tipping point is not a number, but whether scientists make open access a habit,” he says.

I’m guessing that Illich might agree both with the report and with Suber’s criticism, but that he might also disagree with both. But let’s not kid ourselves, here. I’m talking more about myself than I am about Illich — just using his idea of the two watersheds to make a point.

The report simply defines the tipping point as more than 50% of papers available for free. This is close enough to the way Illich defines the first watershed in medicine. So, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that what the report claims is true. Then we can say that 2011 marks the first watershed of open access publishing.

What should we expect? There’s a lot of hand wringing from traditional scholarly publishers about what open access will do to their business model (blow it up, basically). But many of the claims that the strongest advocates of open access are making in order to suggest that we ought to make open access a habit will likely come to pass. Research will become more efficient. Non-researchers will be able to read the research without restriction (no subscription required, no paywall encountered). If they can’t understand a piece of research, they’ll be able to sign up for a MOOC offered by Harvard or MIT or Stanford and figure it out. Openness in general will increase, along with scientific and technological (and maybe even artistic and philosophical) literacy.

Yes, for profit scholarly publishers and most colleges and universities will end up in the same boat as the shamans and witch doctors once medicine took over in 1913. But aren’t we better off now than when one had only folk remedies and faith to rely on when one got sick?

Perhaps during this time, after the first watershed and before the second, open access can become a habit for researchers, much like getting regular exercise and eating right became habits after medicine’s first watershed. Illich’s claim is that the good times following the first watershed really are good for most of us … for a while.

Of course, there are exceptions. Shamans and witch doctors had their business models disrupted. Open access is likely to do the same for scholarly publishers. MOOCs may do the same for many universities. But universities and publishers will not go away overnight. In fact, we still have witch doctors these days.

The real question is not whether a number or a behavior marks the tipping point — crossing the first watershed. Nor is the question what scholarly publishers and universities will do if 2011 indeed marks the first watershed of openness. The real question is whether we can design policies for openness that prevent us from reaching the second watershed, when openness goes beyond a healthy habit and becomes a bane. Because once openness becomes an institutionalized bureaucracy, we won’t be talking only about peer reviewed journal articles being openly, easily, and freely accessible to anyone for use and reuse.

Altmetrics — Meretricious or Meritorious?

I think Jeffrey Beall has got this wrong. He claims that altmetrics are an “Ill-conceived and Meretricious Idea.”

On the other hand, I think Euan Adie has got this right. Here is his measured response (sorry, couldn’t resist) to Beall.

So, I come down on the meritorious side. Of course, none of this is to say that altmetrics are without flaws. But one thing they are decidedly good for is connecting academic researchers to those who read their research. That’s what scholarly communication is all about, in my book (sorry again).

First days teaching at Georgia Tech

So, I walked into my first class on Monday morning around 8:30am. The class doesn’t start until 9:05am; but it’s in the same building as my office, and I wanted to figure out the computer, screen, lights, etc. before students arrived.

I’m going to have to start getting up earlier if I’m going to beat them into class. There were already 7-10 students present. More than half an hour early. For a philosophy class.

“Y’all are here early,” I remarked casually, trying to hide my surprise. “Yes sir,” they replied, very nearly in unison.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at this from freshman convocation (thanks to @ReplyCollective for pointing this out to me).

One hell of an engineer, indeed. I’m looking forward to this year. Should be fun.

Blue skies, impacts, and peer review | RT. A Journal on Research Policy and Evaluation

This paper describes the results of a survey regarding the incorporation of societal impacts considerations into the peer review of grant proposals submitted to public science funding bodies. The survey investigated perceptions regarding the use of scientific peers to judge not only the intrinsic scientific value of proposed research, but also its instrumental value to society. Members of the scientific community have expressed – some more stridently than others – resistance to the use of such societal impact considerations. We sought to understand why. Results of the survey suggest that such resistance may be due to a lack of desire rather than a lack of confidence where judging impacts is concerned. In other words, it may be less that scientists feel unable to judge broader societal impacts and more that they are unwilling to do so.

Blue skies, impacts, and peer review | Holbrook | RT. A Journal on Research Policy and Evaluation.

Open Access and Its Enemies, Redux

I don’t have time to be doing this, but it’s important. Making time is a state of mind — as, claims Cameron Neylon, is ‘Open’:

Being open as opposed to making open resources (or making resources open) is about embracing a particular form of humility. For the creator it is about embracing the idea that – despite knowing more about what you have done than any other person –  the use and application of your work is something that you cannot predict.

There’s a lot to unpack, even in this short excerpt from Neylon’s post. Whether, for instance, the idea of ‘humility’ is captured by being open to unintended applications of ones work — surely that’s part, but only part, of being open — deserves further thought. But I really do think Cameron is on to something with the idea that being open entails a sort of humility.

To see how, it’s instructive to read through Robin Osborne’s post on ‘Why open access makes no sense‘:

For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used. Current publication practices work to ensure that the entry threshold for understanding my language is as low as possible. Open access will raise that entry threshold. Much more will be downloaded; much less will be understood.

There’s a lot to unpack here, as well.  There’s a sort of jiujitsu going on in this excerpt that requires that one is at least familiar with — if it is not one’s characteristic feeling — the feeling that no one will ever understand. What is obvious, however, is Osborne’s arrogance: there is a price to be paid to understand me, and open access will actually raise that price.

In my original talk on “Open Access and Its Enemies” I traced one source of disagreement about open access to different conceptions of freedom. Those with a negative concept of freedom are opposed to any sort of open access mandates, for instance, while those appealing to a positive concept of freedom might accept certain mandates as not necessarily opposed to their freedom. There may be exceptions, of course, but those with a positive concept of freedom tend to accept open access, while those with a negative view of freedom tend to oppose it. The two posts from Neylon and Osborne reveal another aspect of what divides academics on the question of open access — a different sense of self.

For advocates of humility, seeing our selves as individuals interferes with openness. In fact, it is only in contrast to those who view the self as an individual that the appeal to humility makes sense. The plea is that they temper their individualistic tendencies, to humble their individual selves in the service of our corporate self.   For advocates of openness, the self is something that really comes about only through interaction with others.

Advocates of elitism acknowledge that the social bond is important. But it is not, in itself, constitutive of the self. On the contrary, the self is what persists independently of others, whether anyone else understands us or not. Moreover, understanding me — qua individual — requires that you — qua individual — discipline yourself, learn something, be educated. Indeed, to become a self in good standing with the elite requires a certain self-abnegation — but only for a time, and only until one can re-assert oneself as an elite individual. Importantly, self-abnegation is a temporary stop on the way to full self-realization.

Self-sacrifice is foreign to both of the advocate of humility and the advocate of elitism, I fear. Yet it is only through self-sacrifice that communication is possible. Self-sacrifice doesn’t dissolve the individual self completely into the corporate self. Nor does self-sacrifice recognize temporary self-abnegation on the road to self-assertion as the path to communication. Self-sacrifice takes us beyond both, in that it requires that we admit that content is never what’s communicated. A self with a truly open mindset would have to be able to experience this.  Alas, no one will ever understand me!

 

Unexpected idea in the packing area

Good stuff. The reference to Taylor makes up for the lack of reference to Humboldt. We might even think of the Tayloring of the university as its de-Humboldtification. Here’s a quote from Taylor on “scientific management”:

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

It does seem many believe the university can benefit from such Tayloring ….

The library, the cloud, and the digital scholar

Mark Carrigan and I have continued our discussion begun here about the difference between various media (in this case, blogs and Moleskine notebooks). We haven’t discussed aesthetics, yet — but, to be clear, I’m not into technophilia.

Dalek, you look maaaavelous! Makes me want to exterminate you.

Instead, our conversation took a turn toward libraries. Initially, I suggested that archiving and preservation were more of a problem for digital products than for physical books or notebooks. But that’s not quite right. After all, libraries are figuring out how to go digital while still archiving and preserving things.

I then suggested a comparison that I now don’t agree with: that the library is like a bank, while the cloud is like a mattress. (Yes, I apologized to libraries at the time for comparing them to banks.) Part of what I don’t like about this comparison is that it evokes security concerns. Yes, these exist and are legitimate concerns for folks storing things — even thoughts, such as in a blog — online. Privacy and trust are even bigger issues these days (I’m looking at you, NSA).

But when it comes to scholarly communication, I think we have additional needs — needs libraries fill, even if we don’t appreciate it.

I then suggested that a more apt comparison was the museum. That captures something that goes beyond mere security concerns and includes things like preservation and curation. But even that’s not quite enough. This post suggests ‘stewardship’ as the proper role of the library. To me, this is closer to what I was getting at. It includes a kind of sustainability angle. Libraries collect, preserve, and help disseminate our work with an eye to future generations.

Now, maybe we only care about that sort of stewardship for our official scholarly work — you know, books and articles. But if we’re serious about blurring the traditional distinctions of scholarly communication — and I am — then I think we also need to be concerned about the stewardship of our blogs. It’s this sort of vague awareness brought about by my engagement with libraries and librarians that prompted me to join this list of academic blogs being put together by Lee Skallerup Bessette (@readywriting).

As usual, though, the librarians are way ahead of us in thinking about this stuff philosophically. ‘We scholars’ really ought to engage with our libraries much more than we do. We might actually learn something.