From Openness to Openings

Reflections on the Experiments in Knowledge Production workshop. Originally published June 18th, 2014. 

Science and Technology Studies (STS) has a long-standing interest in analysing the politics of knowledge production. One of its strengths has been the demonstration of the contingencies, blindspots and power-plays that are wrapped up in the creation, standardisation, and distribution of knowledge about the world across a variety of domains. STS has, however, been less good in confronting the challenge that the rise of digital publishing and the Open Access (OA) movement poses to the conditions of its own forms of knowledge production and distribution. This is the encounter that was staged at a workshop that took place at Goldsmiths on the 20th March earlier this year, organised and hosted by CSISP. Titled ‘Experiments in Knowledge Production: Open Access and the Politics of the Digital Academy’, the event brought together a range of OA publishing initiatives to provide case studies and provocations for examining how some of these challenges are being confronted in practice. It was an attempt to test the usefulness of thinking of such initiatives as knowledge production experiments.

The workshop featured presentations from three Open Access publishing initiatives. Limn, represented by Chris Kelty, Big Data & Society (BS&S) via one of its editors Evelyn Ruppert, and the new STS book publisher with which we are both involved: Mattering Press. Alongside the STS scholars at the event, including commentators Michael Guggenheim and Noortje Marres, were a number of OA practitioners, including Gary Hall (Open Humanities Press) and Janneke Adema (who has also written a comprehensive summary of the event).

These initiatives each stand for a distinct approach within OA publishing.

The most established of the three, Limn is a publication that sits ‘somewhere between a scholarly journal and an art magazine’, with each issue providing an interdisciplinary take on a specific contemporary problem. So far, Chris Kelty and his fellow editors, Andrew Lakoff and Stephen Collier, have published four issues, all of which consist of short articles that are assembled together as curated, rather than peer reviewed, collections (the image to the left is the cover of the recently published Food Infrastructures issue).

Big Data & Society is an online-only OA academic journal that has just been launched by SAGE. Alongside Evelyn Ruppert, its founding editor, are a wide range of scholars editing and contributing to the journal, which is envisioned as a multidisciplinary space that, in contrast to conventional periodicals, hosts not just journal articles but also looser forms of academic writing as well as a range of visual materials.

Mattering Press is an OA book publisher initiated by a group of STS scholars associated with the Flows, Doings, Edges collective, a group initially formed to offer support to early career STS researchers over the course of their doctoral research. It specialises in the publishing of empirical works (including both monographs and edited collections), with its first books scheduled to appear at the end of the year. Books will be made available to download for free online, with printed books available to purchase.

Discussions over the course of the workshop touched upon a number of themes. These included: the way in which authority is or could be performed within Open Access publishing; how – practically – such initiatives may assemble knowledge; what role peer review should play (or not); alternate ways to recognise and render visible a variety of forms of unpaid effort; and the status of the book within the contemporary academy. Partially as a result of a provocation by Noortje Marres, one issue emerged as particularly contested – that of ‘openness’. Having had the benefit of some time to reflect further on the stimulating questions that emerged, we will explore some of these further in what follows.

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Within the Open Access movement, openness is assumed as something of a general good.The Budapest Open Access Initiative, for instance, suggests that

Removing access barriers to [peer reviewed journal literature] will accelerate research, enrich education, sharing the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with a rich, make this literature as useful as can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

In such statements, openness is a force that is filled with transformative possibility. Here this extends to potentially stimulating more equitable, more global forms of academic discourse.

The provocation made to knowledge producers by the Open Access movement to ‘become open’ has of course been hugely influential. The sheer presence of the range of publishing initiatives represented at the workshop attests to this, alongside the expanding number and dizzying range of other OA projects currently in operation. What might STS contribute to the discussions around the role of openness in these practices? And what might the practical work of trying to do openness bring to STS’ understandings of its own practices?

STS can be seen to have exhibited a consistent if sometimes undertheorised interest in openness. It has become customary for STS scholars to describe empirical inquiries as the opening of various black boxes (of science, politics, economics, etc.). Practicing openness, in this sense, has been a political move. Part of the aim of opening up black boxes has been to show how various forms of expertise, including science, are always already entangled in politics and that this entanglement – and subsequent attempts at drawing boundaries between these domains – occurs across various knowledge making practices. The claim has not been that everything is political; it’s been that nothing can be considered apolitical as such. At the same time, and in a rather more explicit take on the question of openness, STS has often been sceptical about the invocation of transparency as a solution to such entanglements (as for instance explored here by Andrew Barry). To assume, for instance, that transparency can, or will, do the work of separating the scientific from the political suggests a rather too neat division of labour between the two.

As the various presentations and subsequent discussions at the workshop showed, doing the messy and practical work of trying to achieve openness renders apparent the ways in which any such achievement will always be situated somewhere. On the one hand, all three publishing initiatives aim to promote openness in specific domains. They do so within a scholarly environment in which the forms of expertise that are mobilised may pose significant barriers to entry for those unfamiliar with some of its more niche concerns. At the same time, all three initiatives are committed to the opening up of certain conventions associated with that closed scholarly environment: especially those related to formats, reviewing and editing processes, and the afterlife of publications. This points towards the fact that achievements of openness may depend on, or produce, corresponding acts of closure.

Take Limn’s curatorial approach to producing content, for instance. Here, partly out of dissatisfaction with the peer review system, a cohesive body of content is created by forming a closed group of pre-selected authors to reflect on a particular topic. The focus can thus shift from the work of sifting through numerous open submissions to that of assembling, composing and designing unique spaces for intellectual discussion. This has a second crucial effect: it keeps down the (free) labour of the publication’s editors. This is a concern for many Open Access initiatives, given the usually constrained financial resources. Or take the existence of Big Data & Society: it is funded by a conventional publisher and can only exist by virtue of the income that is generated by the publisher from other, ostensibly ‘closed access’ forms of publishing. In both cases, then, openness for readers in one space is produced by acts of closure in another, whether it be for contributors or readers at another site.

As this makes clear, when thinking around what forms of openness are being practiced by Open Access publishing initiatives, we may want to attend to intersecting dynamics of openness and closure. Another site that is subject to routine acts of closure within Open Access publishing concerns the publishing infrastructures themselves. The knowledge associated with building the platforms and production models that produce Open Access texts has not circulated in the way many of the texts themselves have. The work of setting up Mattering Press has involved building from scratch an ever-expanding network of expertise, which we draw on to assist with innumerable day-to-day matters. These include legal and contractual issues, questions of design, questions of strategy, and how the press might accrue credibility amongst relevant academic peer groups. In this way, we have been involved in opening up a highly specific set of knowledges that was very much closed off from us when we begun. These acts of closure are often inadvertent – many publishing initiatives have more than enough to do themselves without also publishing about their publishing practice. Nonetheless, it is a clear feature of the day-to-day practice of Open Access publishing.

Within the work done by Mattering Press, we have also found that an ideal of openness is capable of only doing some of the practical and ethical work that we aspire to achieve. In finding ways to guide us through the challenges of constructing a publishing model whose practice – and not just its academic outputs – are informed by the concepts that have inspired us, we have found ourselves increasingly looking to the productive potential of ‘care’. This is a concept drawn at least in part from STS (for instance as explored byAnnemarie Mol and other sociologists and anthropologists of science), which has its roots in feminist ethics (see Virginia Held’s recent overview).

We won’t go into this too much here, as we have already discussed elsewhere (for instancehere and here), but in developing Mattering Press, thinking not just through openness but also care has helped focused our attention on the ways in which our own emergent experiment in knowledge production is involved – even if in small ways – in putting novel entities and relationships into the world. These include new configurations of authors, reviewers, texts, typesetters, designers, various regulatory and legal frameworks, markets and printers. These configurations also involve the regular gifting of effort given the extent to which the press is dependent on the favours and support of friends and colleagues. At the press we have found ourselves routinely asking ourselves how we might take care of these various relationships, while also producing a strong, sustainable and credible publishing house. This has involved, for instance, exploring ways to render visible contributions that often go unrecognised within publishing practice, or, during the review process, providing different forms of support for authors at different stages of their career.

It also involves recognising the closures in which we ourselves become sometimes uncomfortably implicated. We will, for instance, have to rely in part on Amazon to sell our books, an increasingly monopolistic enterprise well known for the way it shuts down its rivals. We will also publish works mostly in English, despite the fact that many of our editors, advisors and authors are non-native English speakers. More positively, there may also be good reason to consciously enact forms of closure: to protect the privacy of dialogue between reviewers and authors, for instance, or to impose certain conditions on the use and re-use of our texts. These questions are again wrapped up in question of care: how to simultaneously be attentive to the needs of actors including (but not limited to) authors, reviewers, readers, the press, and indeed the OA movement itself.

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It is impossible to talk comprehensively about the politics of knowledge making without discussing the details of a vast array of social and material practices. Experimentation, as many STS scholars have shown, is always implicated in the reassembly and renegotiation of relations between a range of actors and publics. With this in mind, let us return to the double question we posed in the beginning of this post: what STS may contribute to the discussion of Open Access publishing is the realisation that openness cannot be defined as a general good. All forms of knowledge production are situated achievements, whose success cannot be measured along an axis with the ‘good’ and the ‘open’ at one end and the ‘bad’ and ‘closed’ at the other. It is probably better to think of Open Access publishing as several interrelated attempts to open up the black box of academic publishing, and to acknowledge that such attempts necessarily involve acts of closure. The question is not whether OA is a good development or not, but what differences are we interested in making, for whom, and under what circumstances. This marks a shift, then, from working with apparently known states of openness operating akin to regulatory ideals, to situated practices of, and experiments with, opening. As experiments the effects these acts of opening generate are not quite knowable from the outset. It is this that makes it all the more important that when openings are made, they are opened with care.

While as STS authors we would be comfortable ending with this statement, as publishing practitioners we feel it only indicates a beginning. At the moment, in working through these questions, we are finding that attending to relations of care is helpful in productively unsettling the open/good vs closed/bad binary. As we move forward, there are however likely to be many more actors and conceptual resources that we will have to bring into our work. This points to the importance of exactly the kinds of forums represented by this workshop. For without both publishers and scholars keeping an eye on ongoing OA experiments, and actively engaging in those experiments, the black box of academic publishing (in STS and beyond) might become a bit more open, but is likely to stay largely unaltered.


Thanks to Big Data and Society and Limn for the images, to Noortje Marres for the comments on the post, and to all the workshop participants. Background of featured image by garyt70; used and adapted under a Creative Commons License. Originally posted on CSISP online.