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.
I was thrilled to be invited to participate as a speaker in the University of North Texas Open Access Symposium 2013. It’s ongoing, and it’s being recorded; video of the presentations will be available soon. In the meantime, I’ve posted slides from my presentation on figshare.
I thought I’d add some thoughts here expounding on my presentation a bit and relating it to presentations given by my fellow panelists. I’m a proponent of open access, for several reasons. I think closed access, that is, encountering a pay wall when one goes to download a piece of research on is interested in reading, is unjust as well as inconvenient. The case for this claim can best be made with reference to two main points revolving around the question of intellectual property rights. Generally, in the case of closed access publications, authors are asked to sign away many, if not all, of their copy rights. Now, authors are free to negotiate terms with publishers, and we are free not to sign away our copy rights — but often the only choice with which we are left by many publishers is simply to take our work and publish it somewhere else.
Many otherwise ‘closed’ publishers will allow authors to retain all their copy rights for a fee (which varies from publisher to publisher) — this is known as the ‘author pays’ model of Gold OA (the latter term refers to OA publications in journals, as opposed to publications made OA via some sort of repository, which is known as Green OA). There is probably no better source for learning the terminology surrounding OA than Peter Suber’s website.
There is also the argument that when publicly funded research is published, the public should at least have free (gratis) access to the publication. Some publishers have argued against this on the grounds that they add value to the research by running the peer review process and formatting and archiving the article. They do perform these services, which do cost money (though peer review itself is done for free by academics). So, they argue that simply giving away their labor is unjust. If it is unjust to have the public pay again and unjust to ask publishers to give away the results of their labors, then, many argue, the ‘author pays’ model of OA makes the most sense. This, of course, ignores the fact of the free labor of academics in conducting peer review. (The labor of actually writing articles is arguably covered as part of an author’s base salary.) But even if authors are already paid to write the articles, it doesn’t follow that it’s just to ask them to pay again to have the articles made freely available once they are published.
Publishers, including Sage, are experimenting with different versions of the ‘author pays’ model of Gold OA. Jim Gilden was another member of my panel. He discussed Sage’s foray into OA, some of their innovations (including the interesting idea of having article-level editors who run the peer review process for individual articles, rather than for the journal as a whole), and some of the difficulties they have encountered. Among those difficulties is some sort of prejudice among potential authors — and members of promotion and tenure committees — against OA journals. This surprised me a little, but perhaps it should not have. One of the themes of my own talk is that ‘we’ academics are included among the enemies of open access. Our prejudice against OA publications is one indicator of this fact.
The other member of our panel was Jeffrey Beall, best known for Beall’s List of Predatory Open Access Publishers. Jeffrey talked about his list, including how and why it got started. That story is pretty simple: he started getting spam emails from publishers that didn’t quite feel right; as a cataloger, he did what came naturally and started keeping track; thus, Beall’s List. Things got more complicated after that. Many publishers appearing on Beall’s list are none too happy about it. Some have even threatened to sue Jeffrey — one for the sum of $1 billion! There are other, less publicized, sources of friction Jeffrey has encountered. He’s not too popular with his own university’s external/community relations folks. And he’s subject to a negative portrayal by many advocates of open access, who don’t appreciate the negative attention Beall’s list draws to the open access movement.
Criticism of Beall from publishers on his list is to be expected. In fact, it was serendipitous that I wrapped up the panel and ended my presentation with the slide of CSID’s list of ‘56 indicators of impact‘ — a list that includes negative indicators, such as provoking lawsuits. Jeffrey serves as a very good example of the sort of thing we are getting at with our list. The most important fact is that he has a narrative to account for why getting sued for $1 billion actually indicates that he’s having an impact. Unless a publisher were worried that Beall’s list would hurt their business, why would they threaten to sue?
Jeffrey and Jim were both excellent panel-mates for another reason. All three of us are not exactly full-fledged members of the open access enthusiasts club. Beall can’t be included, since his list can be interpreted as portraying not only specific publishers, but also the whole OA movement, in a negative light. Gilden can’t be included, since, well, he works for a for-profit-publisher. Those folks tend to be seen as more or less evil by many of the members of the OA crowd. (It was interesting to me to see the folks at Mendeley trying to — and having to — defend themselves on Twitter after Mendeley was bought by Elsevier, the evilist of all evil publishers.) And I? Well, as I said at the beginning of this post, I am an advocate of open access. But I am not an uncritical advocate, and I argue that a greater critical spirit needs to be embraced by many OA enthusiasts.
This was, in essence, the point of my talk. The text parts are pretty clear, I think. So let me focus here mostly on the images, and especially on the ‘Images of Impact’ slides. First, I explained how I derived my title from Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. This seemed fitting not only because of the play on words, but also because I have come to see much of the struggle surrounding open access in terms of different conceptions of liberty or freedom. Popper’s emphasis on individual liberty was something I wanted to expand on, and I also linked it with Isaiah Berlin’s account of positive and negative conceptions of liberty. I also think Popper has an ambiguous relation to Neoliberalism. Popper was an original member of the Mont Pèlerin thought collective that many credit with the development and dissemination of Neoliberalism.
That Popper’s relation to Neoliberalism is unclear is an important point — and it’s another reason I chose him to introduce my talk. Part of what I wanted to suggest was that much of the open access movement is susceptible to being subsumed under a neoliberal agenda. After all, both use similar vocabularies — references to openness, to crowds, and to efficiency abound in both movements.
I didn’t really dwell on this point for long, though, in deference to the Symposium’s keynote speaker’s views on ‘neoliberalism‘. At the same time, I did want at least to reference Neoliberalism as one thing members of the open access movement need to be more aware of. I’m worried there’s something like a dogmatic enthusiasm that’s creeping into the OA crowd. Many of the reactions from within the OA enthusiast club against Jeffrey Beall (or against Mendeley) seem to me to betray an uncritical (and I mean un-self-critical) attitude. Similarly, I think it would be better for OA enthusiasts to examine carefully and to think critically about OA mandates and policies being considered now. Most, I fear, only think in terms like ‘any movement in the direction of more open access is good’. I just don’t believe that. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to think that way.
Sorry — on to my images of impact. I love altmetrics. I think that’s where you find many of the brightest advocates of open access. I also think the development of altmetrics is one of the areas most fraught with peril. After all, given the penchant of neoliberals for measurement-for-management-for-efficiency that goes by the name of ‘accountability’, it’s not difficult to see how numbers in general, and altmetrics in particular, might be co-opted by someone who wanted to do away with peer review and the protection that provides to the scholarly community. Talk of open, transparent, accountable government sounds great. But come on, folks, let’s please think about what that means. That drones are part of that plan ought to give us all pause. Altmetrics are the drones of the OA movement.
This is by no means to say that altmetrics are bad. I love altmetrics. I have said publicly that I think every journal should employ some form of article level metrics. They’re amazing. But they are also ripe for abuse — by publishers, by governments, and by academic administrators, among others. I just want altmetrics developers to recognize that possibility and to give it careful thought.
The development of altmetrics is not simply a technical issue. Nor are technologies morally or politically neutral. I suggested that we consider altmetrics (and perhaps OA in general) as a sociotechnical imaginary. I think the concept fits well here, especially linked to the idea of OA as a movement that entails an idea of positive freedom. There is a vision of the good associated with OA. Technology is supposed to help us along the road to achieving that good. Government policies are being enacted that may help. But we need to think critically about all of this rather than rushing forward in a burst of enthusiasm.
The great danger of positive freedom is that it can lead to coercion and even totalitarianism. The question is whether we can place a governor on our enthusiasm and limit our pursuit if positive freedom in a way that still allows for autonomy. I refer to Philip Petitt‘s notion of non-domination as potentially useful in this context. I also suggest that narrative can play a governing role. I do think we need some sort of localized (not totalizing) metanarrative about the relationship between the university and society (this is what I referred to in my talk in terms of a ‘republic of knowledge’). But narrative must also serve the role of de-totalizing in another sense. Narratives should be tied to articles and accompany article level metrics. We need to put the ‘account’ back into accountability, rather than simply focusing on the idea of counting.
So, to sum it all up: OA is good, but not an unqualified good; altmetrics are great, but they need to be accompanied by narratives. The end.
Philosopher Nigel Warburton, of philosophy bites fame, has just resigned his academic post at the Open University to pursue other opportunities. The Philosopher’s Magazine conducts an extended interview with Warburton here. Much of what he reveals in this interview is both entertaining and, in my opinion, true.
But one aspect of the interview especially caught my attention. After offering several criticisms of academic philosophy today with which I’m in total agreement (in particular the tendency of hiring committees to hire clones of themselves rather than enhancing the diversity of the department), Warburton offers what he seems to view as the ultimate take down of academic philosophy. I quote this section in full, below. If you’ve been paying any attention to this blog or our posts at CSID, you’ll understand why, immediately.
He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:
“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”
In the US, we are not subject to the REF. But we are subject to many, many managerial requirements, including, if we seek grant funding, the requirement that we account for the impact of our research. We are, of course, ‘free’ to opt out of this sort of requirement simply by not seeking grant funding. Universities in the UK, however, are not ‘free’ to opt out of the REF. So, are the only choices open to ‘real’ philosophers worthy of the name resistance or removing oneself from the university, as Warburton has chosen?
I think not. My colleagues and I recently published an article in which we present a positive vision of academic philosophy today. A key aspect of our position is that the question of impact is itself a philosophical, not merely a technical, problem. Philosophers, in particular, should own impact rather than allowing impact to be imposed on us by outside authorities. The question of impact is a case study in whether the sort of account of freedom as non-domination offered by Pettit can be instantiated in a policy context, in addition to posited in political philosophy.
Being able to see impact as a philosophical question rests on being able to question the idea that the only sort of freedom worth having is freedom from interference. If philosophy matters to more than isolated individuals — even if connected by social media — then we have to realize that any philosophically rich conception of liberty must also include responsibility to others. Our notion of autonomy need not be reduced to the sort of non-interference that can only be guaranteed by separation (of the university from society, as Humboldt advocated, or of the philosopher from the university, as Warburton now suggests). Autonomy must be linked to accountability — and we philosophers should be able to tackle this problem without being called out as non-philosophers by someone who has chosen to opt out of this struggle.
I’ve been continuing to think about the topic I broached in a previous post. There, I described what I termed ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways of thinking about autonomy and accountability. Of course, my ‘new’ ways are not all that new.
Here I want to sketch very briefly some recent thoughts I’ve had as a result of teaching my class this past semester at UNT in ‘Science, Technology, and Society’, my recent attendance at the ‘Broader Impacts Infrastructure Summit‘ at the University of Missouri, and recent discussions with colleagues. I want to thank my students for forcing me to try to get my thoughts in enough order to be able to stand up in front of them and teach. I also want to thank Steve Fuller for turning me on to some new reading material and Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle, with whom I tend to discuss everything.
I don’t want to blame any of them for these thoughts, of course. But I mention them, in part, to indicate ways in which my own thinking is influenced by these ‘non-research’ activities. In particular, my teaching this past semester has hardly been separable from my research. This notion that teaching and research can be — and should be — mutually reinforcing in this way is one of two main Humboldtian theses about the university. For short, let’s call it the integration of research and teaching (though I’m on record about my suspicion of the term ‘integration’).
The other main Humboldtian thesis about the university is that it should be autonomous from the state. This same notion was expressed in the post WWII era by Vannevar Bush, whose “Science — The Endless Frontier” forms much of the conceptual basis of science policy. In my previous post on autonomy and accountability, I argued that we needed to get past an account of freedom as freedom from constraint by the state. What I did not say in the last post is that this is precisely the account of freedom that both Humboldt and Bush share.
This notion of freedom is very much like what Isaiah Berlin describes as ‘negative freedom’. Under such a negative account of freedom, any interference on the part of the state with the sort of research that’s performed at universities would be an assault on freedom. I think this is the sort of freedom most academics believe in, whether they know it or not. The idea is that academics should be free from outside interference. Only free in this sense will they be allowed to roam wherever their curiosity would take them.
According to my ‘new’ account of autonomy, however, freedom means self-determination rather than freedom from restraint. This notion actually corresponds in many ways to what Berlin describes in the essay cited above as ‘positive liberty’. Under this conception of freedom, requirements such as the NSF’s Broader Impacts Merit Review Criterion need not curtail academic freedom, as long as they don’t take away the academic’s ability to self-legislate. Instead, such requirements could be seen under the rubric of ‘interference without domination’ as outlined by Philip Pettit in his account of Republicanism (thanks to Steve Fuller for that reference — have been trying to read some about Pettit and Republican political theory in the past day or two).
I am not quite comfortable with transferring ideas straight from political philosophy to the realm of knowledge policy. But I’m not worried here about making a mistake in the details. I think there’s something helpful in seeing things this way.
One more point that may seem unrelated — though it isn’t, I just won’t be able to make all the connections here. At the Broader Impacts Summit, it became clear that there were two ‘camps’ forming. Again, I’m going to speak loosely. One camp wanted to claim broader impacts as its area of expertise — let’s call them the BI-Experts, though I believe most of them would consider themselves experts in science education and outreach. What they were pushing, albeit in still-developing form, was to make broader impacts activities a side show to the real research. It would be a rigorous sideshow, mind you. But broader impacts activities ought to be the realm of BI-Experts, rather than scientists, who can’t tell outreach from a hole in the ground.
The other group — and interestingly, it tended to include former and current NSF program officers — had what I labeled a Humboldtian view of broader impacts. The idea was that intellectual merit and broader impacts should be integrated in the project (and perhaps in the person of the Principal Investigator). Without wanting to limit broader impacts to teaching, this view is consistent with the Humboldtian position on the integration of research and teaching.
However, the Humboldtian take on broader impacts actually depends on a positive notion of freedom. If one were to take a negative view of freedom (as I think Humboldt does), then one would be more inclined toward the BI-Expert approach. Why? The BI-Experts will run interference for the scientists, who will then be free to perform their research without having to be concerned with broader impacts.
It’s interesting to read Representative Lamar Smith’s statement on his circulating a draft bill to “improve accountability” at NSF.
Smith sees himself as ensuring accountability by “adding a layer” to NSF’s Merit Review Process, while also preserving that process (the direct quote of his characterization is that the bill “maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability.”)
Others, however, see him as impinging on the integrity of the Merit Review Process — or even starting down the road to dismantling it.
I partially agree with one point that Smith makes in his statement about the matter. It will be a shame if this turns into a politicized debate, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. This issue is too important to devolve into such petty politics.
I also agree that those of us who receive NSF funding should be accountable to Congress and the taxpayers who fund our research. But I think NSF’s recently revised Merit Review Process should be given a real chance to work before Congress intervenes in the way Smith is proposing.
There could be a conflict between a requirement to publish in open access journals and academic freedom.
What sense of freedom — or autonomy — is operative here?
Academics have tended to view autonomy as freedom from constraint by the state. We want to be able to go wherever our thoughts lead us, without ‘outside’ interference. This interpretation of autonomy as freedom from constraint is a negative definition, appealing to what is absent. It says, ‘Hands off!’
Politicians have tended to view accountability only in economic terms — that is, accountability has been reduced to accounting and conceived narrowly as something like return on investment (ROI).
Under such ‘old thinking’, autonomy is opposed to accountability, since accountability conceived as demonstrable ROI puts constraints on the autonomy of researchers conceived as freedom from such demands.
Autonomy means self-legislation, rather than freedom from constraint. Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy, the point is not for academics to be free from all constraint (the negative definition rooted in old thinking), but rather for academics to give themselves whatever constraints they are subject to.
Accountability means being able to give an account, in the Socratic sense of the term. This is by no means limited to a notion of ROI, though such may be included in the account one is expected to give.
Under this ‘new thinking’ on autonomy and accountability, the accountability demand is expressed as the formal demand that one give an account. There is no reduction of that account to economic concepts. One is free to offer whatever justification one sees fit. In other words, one is able to exercise one’s autonomy to respond to the generic accountability demand: account for yourself! Under this ‘new thinking’, then, accountability and autonomy are compatible.
Someone may be quick to point out that these are not really new definitions of the terms. So much the better!