Whistleblowers sculpture. Image by Davide Dormino, CC BY SA.

The Battle for Open

The University of Manchester launched a postgraduate certificate in Higher Education in 2014, aimed at its academic and professional staff. This qualification seeks to encourage staff to think more deeply about their sector, and by doing so to increase their understanding of their roles and progress professionally. The course ran very successfully in 2014-15 and is now into its second intake.

This year, the University Library is very pleased to be leading an elective module: Open Knowledge in Higher Education, which examines the context, contribution and constraints of the relationship between open knowledge and higher education. The course represents an opportunity to bring people together to discuss the issues at a level of detail that is usually impossible to achieve. Instead of focusing on the operational priorities and policy compliance requirements which we tackle in university committees, we can instead engage in a more intellectual debate about why we are on a trajectory towards ‘open as default’, whether that’s a good thing, what the implications are for professional and academic careers, and whether tensions between openness and other drivers can be overcome.

sculptures
Whistleblowers sculpture. Image by Davide Dormino, CC BY SA.

As I prepare my notes to launch the module on 10 February, it strikes me that this is a fascinating time to be thinking about these issues, given that we are witnessing simultaneously the rapid rise of the openness agenda, new attempts to introduce censorship, and efforts to access data that many people would prefer remained personal. The image that accompanies this post epitomises for me the opposite sides of the argument: on the one hand, Assange, Manning and Snowden are regarded as criminals, recklessly putting lives at risk by breaching necessary security laws. On the other, they are perceived as heroes of free speech, to the extent that these sculptures of them now exist, alongside an empty chair which invites the viewer to join them and use the artwork as a platform for his or her own free speech.

Openness in higher education

But can we argue that, safe in our ivory towers, we are in a very different environment? The majority view now holds that published scholarly research ought to be freely available if it has been funded from the public purse, and open education resources (known widely as MOOCs) serve to bring learning to new audiences, and, we hope, drive new students through our doors. On the surface, at least, these seem to be sensible and entirely beneficial developments. But we should not analyse the Open Access (OA) and MOOC movements in a vacuum, somehow shielded from wider social debates about privacy, sharing, security and censorship. We might think that the distribution of academic research is very different from the release of the Wikileaks documents, or Snowden’s publishing of classified National Security Agency materials. But it would be a mistake to hold this view: the case of Aaron Swartz, facing 35 years in prison for sharing JSTOR documents when he committed suicide in 2013, is surely evidence enough that it is time to bring very careful thought to the issues raised by the growth of networked digital information and the existence of an environment in which anyone can be a publisher. It is difficult not to regard the heavy-handed response to Swartz’s case as being driven by anxiety about loss of control following the Wikileaks affair and it is a strong, if tragic, example of the need to understand the bigger picture.

We now live in an HE environment which, certainly in the UK, broadly encourages openness. Many of our research funders require it, and universities are putting policies, services and standards in place to achieve it. But we are part of a wider political, commercial and legal society which is a long way from making this as easy and free of risk as advocates of Open (and I count myself among them) think it needs to be. Commercial publishers still seek to protect business models which depend on paywalls, and initiatives like Open Access Button and the Elsevier boycott try to challenge them. Copyright legislation still lags behind digital and networked technologies, and so we witness illegal filesharing, and we see publishers fighting to prevent it. Meanwhile, university researchers are caught in the middle. While there are a number of encouraging stories about independent researchers making breakthroughs as a result of accessing open research, some university researchers face harsh penalties as a result of illegal, if arguably not immoral, sharing practices.

Looking ahead

In the first half of 2016, the Dutch Presidency of the European Union has committed to push the Open agenda very hard, having been through a fierce national struggle about the costs and availability of the research it funds. In the UK, HEFCE will introduce a policy that links OA to research assessment. Openness extends beyond publishing to encompass data, and the open data movement is gaining momentum. There are also signs that the world of online learning is growing faster than ever, but at the expense of the original concept, that it would be available for free. Now is an excellent time for staff at Manchester to be thinking about these issues. Indeed, this opportunity is not restricted to Manchester; it would be very hypocritical of us if we did not open our course up to others! To that end, we are making all of our materials available on Medium, and hope to see widespread interest beyond the course participants. We are working with excellent colleagues, and our academic lead, Professor Martin Weller, is a highly-regarded thinker and teacher in this space. I have taken the liberty of using the title of his book as my blog post heading. We will also see contributions from a major funder, a leading publisher, other academic experts and senior academic administrators, as well as what I know will be some insightful contributions from a strong group of students. So join us, contribute to the debate, and form your own views! Hashtag #OKHE

One thought on “The Battle for Open

  1. This is a great article on Open, because it does address questions that should be asked about incentives that are driving the buzzword to be used in agendas that are not as open as one would assume. My experience with the Open “community” has not necessarily been very Open, and after indulging into some of the agendas I quickly found there were many closed agendas, thus my opinion is biased so anyone reading this comment should research this for themselves instead of taking a commenters word. I think the buzz in itself using a descriptive word like Open, really leaves the perspective and interpretation Open. I did not research every agenda close enough nor delved into the hidden agendas of some Open organizations prior to accepting a travel grant and go to a conference that introduced so many problems with how “Open”is being used. I was an advocate because I believe in the digital age, there is no reason for scientists to spend a larger percentage of grant funding on publishing and accessing their own information, over the experimental process. I also believe that limiting publishing to positive data and grandiose conclusions pushes prestige and bias, moreover it is contributing to the strain on funding and limiting our advancement. However, I am not completely open to being open and never was. As a scientist and inventor I believe that over sharing leads to exploration by those who do not innovate themselves. With science, I believe we should share on a need to know basis. This is for a couple of reasons, 1) often the first conclusion is not the right conclusion and can be misleading when extrapolated from the lab bench to a global issue, 2) those who do not fully understand the global issue may exploit the knowledge with an unexpected disastrous outcome due to lack of repetition. While there is no way to regulate exploitation, there are ways for scientists to protect themselves from those who exploit science. It should not cost 10k to publish 1 experiment in the manner in which the experiment did not occur because it “makes a better story.” Those that exploit science know that academic merit is worth more than money. Scientists do not become scientists for money, we do it for the knowledge and understanding of life. Not only can it cost 5-10k and sometimes more, but we actually have to pay more money to access our own information. Our institutions have to dish out a fortune in order to access the information their scientists are producing. If that isn’t bad, scientists get no royalties and the copyright is in the name of the publisher not the writer. When I addressed this issue to many of my colleagues and to some publishers, the answer tends to fall loosely on the subscription cost is also there for the general public. Which strikes me is funny considering I had to get a Ph.D before I really understood how to approach a scientific paper, let alone read and understand articles that are in a different scientific language then my area of study. Scientists publish to get the knowledge out to other scientists. It isn’t just to stake some academic claim, it is to advance knowledge through global collaboration. If publishers grasped science, they would not limit what we share for a story. They would understand that science is a process of deduction and to understand a global issue is to understand that negative data is simply information that did not contribute to the conclusion. We know a lot more of what a process is, then what a process isn’t. We will go no where as a society until the academic-publishing axis can balance out and start being honest, non-discriminative, non-biased, and most of all, stop equating money with prestige and the elite, but with the ability to advance those who will eventually replace us. Open is a buzzword. There is other agendas. There are many who are doing it for the greater good, but there is another side that is far beyond what I would have expected. Those who read this with any sort of compassion for the future. Do your research. News never addresses what we should know, but content that can influence the behavior of the audience. If you think that there is no government that will utilize the power of selectively sharing information, the technique is addressed in the Art of War. The Open movement is moving fast because it is hiding agendas in the open. Those that are hiding agendas in the open, are counting on society being dumbly entertained by social media. We are all subjects of study, and by not paying attention we are fulfilling the hypothesis of those who are exploiting media in order to govern. This is a global issue that effects everybody. I believe that those that contribute to knowledge or need the knowledge in order to contribute should be the ones in control of that knowledge until it is ready to be shared in a manner that will actually advance society. I will give you all advice I give my four year old, “those that don’t share, play alone” and “share with those who are willing to share with you.” It is actually that simple, but apparently being human, and especially science humans, we like to make things very difficult. It gives us a sense of importance. #OKHE #InPub #Science Data Publishing #non-discriminitve responsible sharing #private-to-public #Think Before you Speak #Think before you think #globalization will not solve the economy for those who support the economy but those who manipulate economy for support

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