Open Infrastructures and the Future of Knowledge Production, part 1

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about the ways that the future of knowledge production depends upon the openness of the infrastructures that support our work. For a lot of people, the word “infrastructure” triggers a yawn reflex, and not without reason. As Deb Chachra points out in her brilliant new book, How Infrastructure Works, the best thing that infrastructure can do is remain invisible and just work. But as Chachra also argues, the shape of our entire culture is dependent on our infrastructure, and where inequities are part of those systems’ engineering, they constrain the ways that culture can evolve. Infrastructure matters enormously, and the scholarly communication infrastructures on which we build, develop, design, and publish our work have deep implications for our abilities to foster social and epistemic justice in our knowledge production and communication practices, to empower communities of practice and their concerns in the development and dissemination of knowledge, and to enable trustworthy governance and decision-making that is led by the communities that our publications and platforms are intended to serve. Our team is far from alone in thinking about these questions right now. We’re seeing the idea of “open infrastructure” pop up a lot lately, in no small part because folks are recognizing that a commitment to open, public infrastructures is necessary to ensure that scholarly communication can become actually equitable.

What do I mean by “actually equitable”? How might that sense of equity intersect with the aims of the open-access movement? Over the last twenty-plus years that movement has worked to transform scholarly communication, arguing in part that if our work could be read more openly by anyone, it might both have more impact on the world at large and create a more equitable knowledge environment. It’s of course true that open access in its many present flavors has done a lot to make more research available to be read online. But the movement toward open access began as a means of attempting to break the stranglehold that a few extractive corporate publishers have established over the research and publishing process – and in that, it hasn’t succeeded. The last decade in particular has revealed all of the resilience with which capital responds to challenges, as those corporate publishers have in fact become more profitable than ever. Not only have they figured out how to exploit article processing charges in order to make some work published in their journals openly available while continuing to charge libraries for subscriptions to the journals as a whole, but they’ve also developed whole new business plans like the so-called “read and publish” agreements that keep many institutions tied to them, and they’ve developed new platforms and infrastructures like discovery engines and research information management systems that serve to increase corporate lock-in over the work produced on campus.

For all these reasons, the 20th anniversary statement of the Budapest Open Access Initiative took on a slightly different focus, noting that “OA is not an end in itself, but a means to other ends, above all, to the equity, quality, usability, and sustainability of research.” In order to achieve those ends, the statement proposes several key recommendations – and chief among them?

Host OA research on open infrastructure. Host and publish OA texts, data, metadata, code, and other digital research outputs on open, community-controlled infrastructure. Use infrastructure that minimizes the risk of future access restrictions or control by commercial organizations. Where open infrastructure is not yet adequate for current needs, develop it further.

This recommendation recognizes that the control of the infrastructure by profit-seeking entities cements inequities – and this is true even where the large corporate publishers purport to create opportunities for the disadvantaged by offering fee waivers and discounts on their publishing charges. Those discounts only serve to normalize a culture in which it is considered correct for those who produce knowledge to pay corporations to host and circulate it.

What scholarly communication needs today, more than anything, is a broad-based sense of accountability to scholars and fields and institutions rather than shareholders. Hence the call in the 20th anniversary Budapest statement for hosting open access research on open infrastructure: infrastructure that is led by us, and accountable to us.

This is the fundamental orientation and driving purpose of Humanities Commons. Our goal is to provide a non-extractive, community-led and transparently governed alternative to commercial platforms. We also want to encourage our users to rethink the purposes and the dynamics of publishing altogether, in ways that might allow for the development of new, open, collective, equitable processes of creating and sharing knowledge that re-center agency over the ways that scholarly work develops and circulates with the scholars themselves. As a result, we have put in place a participatory governance structure that enables both individual users and our institutional sustaining members to have a voice in the project’s future, and we have developed network policies that emphasize inclusion and openness. We are committed to transparency in our finances, and most importantly to remaining not-for-profit in perpetuity.

We are also working to build and sustain the kinds of new platforms and services that will allow for rich conversations among members of our community and between that community and the rest of the world. A year ago, seeing the handwriting on the wall for the platform formerly known as Twitter (and frankly having suffered through quite a number of unhappy years there before the beginning of the end), we launched, a Hometown-flavored Mastodon instance, in the hopes of providing a collegial, community-oriented space for informal communication among scholars and practitioners everywhere. We currently have more than 2000 users on our instance who are connecting with users throughout the Fediverse, and we support those users through a strong moderation policy and code of conduct. We also work to ensure that new policies and processes are discussed with that community before they’re implemented.

This kind of openness matters enormously, not just to ensure that we’re living up to the values that we’ve established for our projects, but to ensure that there’s a worthwhile future for them. Cory Doctorow has written extensively of late about what he has famously called the “enshittification” of the internet, a process in which value is sucked out of the community and into the pockets of shareholders. Users are left with no control over the platform, or the content they’ve provided to it. And this, he notes in a post on the new corporate platforms seeking to replace Twitter, remains true even if their C-suite is populated by good actors, because they’re still walled gardens.

The problem with walled gardens is partly about their ownership, but largely about their governance. It’s not just that the owners of any particular proprietary network might turn out to be racist, fascist megalomaniacs – it’s that we have no control if and when they do. Choosing open platforms means that we as users have a say in the future of the plots of ground we choose to develop. This is especially true for the kind of work, like knowledge production, that is intended to have a public benefit. It’s incumbent on us to ensure that those gardens aren’t walled, that they don’t just have a gate that management may one day decide to unlock to let select folks in or out. Rather, our gardens must be open from the start, open to connect and cultivate in the ways that we as a community decide.

As Doctorow notes, Mastodon is far from perfect, and as much as I love our own instance, is far from perfect. But we’re doing our best to ensure that we’re running it in the open. And operating in the open, both for the Commons and for, means for us that we are accountable to our users and responsible for safeguarding the openness of their work. Together, those two ideals undergird our commitment to provide alternatives to the many platforms that purport to make scholarly work more accessible but in fact serve as mechanisms of corporate data capture, extracting value from creators and institutions for private rather than public gain.

But, as I note, we aren’t a perfect solution to the problems of corporate control in scholarly communication. More on why in my next post.