‘Optimal strategy’ or ‘contemporary necessity’: Debating OKI with the next generation of university academics: a review by Gemma Derrick

by Gemma E.Derrick
Updated Mar 26, 2019 (1 Older Version)chevron-down
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‘Optimal strategy’ or ‘contemporary necessity’: Debating OKI with the next generation of university academics: a review by Gemma Derrick

This is one of a set of solicited reviews of the work in progress, Open Knowledge Institutions. This review was written by Gemma E. Derrick of the University of Lancaster. If you have an interest in submitting a review in this form then please get in touch with the authors. Alternately feel free to comment directly on the book itself on this site.

Objecting to mandates when you are under their influences is hard enough for university academics, but inspiring the next generation of researchers to demand better is imperative to driving change.

I introduced the book Open Knowledge Institutions, to my students, and what follows is a critique of the book through the types of conversations it elicited.

I teach on a PhD programme that combines 2-years of coursework prior to a period that students dedicate to a completion of their PhD thesis. Within this module, “Evaluative Cultures in Higher Education”, students explore the role and value of universities and start the awareness of the evaluation structures, and practices under which academics currently operate and can expect in the future. Implicit in these discussions is the question about for whom do we do research; and to who, or whom does knowledge belong?

The book, Open Knowledge Institutions, takes the reader through the debates, tensions and realities associated with creating Open Knowledge Institutions (OKIs). In part of this transformation, universities play a central role and, as the book argues, becoming an OKI is essential for it to operate in the 21st century. By taking us through the open knowledge debate, the book challenges what we see as our role as both consumers and creators of knowledge.

The book echoes the student’s expectations of a university and accept that as a publicly funded researcher within a university they are ascribed distinct virtues and, arguable privileges that are not attached to knowledge makers in other industries. As such, there is an encouraging expectation by students that they will become active participants in developing the type of university this book advocates for in the future as they are firmly invested in the ideal that knowledge belongs to no one. It is also not difficult to convince students of the benefits associated with the transparency and rigour of open research practice, or of the public being the beneficiaries of their research outcomes.

However, there are still tensions associated with fulfilling this ideal of openness that this book is yet to address, especially for universities. One problem is with the book’s oversight in conceptualising the concept of “open” and it is unclear when it refers to open as “transparent”, “responsible” or “reflexive” or as the problematic concept, especially for universities, as “free”. For universities, this is an important distinction as there are many routes to access knowledge, and not all are “free” nor in a view to maintain a sustainable university sector can all routes to knowledge be “free”. In this way, there is a further challenge for universities to tackle this balance as providers of public knowledge, as well as learning institutions where this access is negotiated for a price through student fees, as well as through access charges.

Is it possible to have an OKI that is committed to provision of knowledge as a public good on one avenue to knowledge, but to tax the public for other available avenues? If an OKI is what universities ought to become, and strive to achieve, then how can it resolve the position they are in now where taxing access to knowledge is an economic necessity with this higher ideal?

In the UK context especially, where the development of a neoliberal university and its related discourse dominate, it is hard to envision an institution that is truly ‘open’. However, for my students, playing around with this concept is both an intellectual gymnastics that is governed by a determination that such a realisation can, and should happen; and also with ideas about how they, as the next generation of researchers can make this happen. This book therefore does more than just educate students about the tensions that underpin the status quo of knowledge as a public resource and universities as a public good, it acts as an important step towards inspiring ideas and difficult conversations about how we can change the role universities play in our societies, and the value of its contributions.

As the book states, universities cannot become OKI on their own, that it takes “two to tango”. I disagree in that I think it takes at least “three to tango”. If creating OKI depends on “community norms, protocols of acceptable behaviour and a shared purpose and vision” (chapter 4), and having these difficult conversations with PhD students, early on is essential. Moreover, it is important to take these debated further than the anti-neoliberal university discourse that dominates idealised forms of a university as a public good. In reality, these issues are more nuanced, more complex and the book puts aside some direct political line, in favour of a hypothetical discussion about what an OKI does, and should, look like. It inspires the next generation of academics around these principles and ideals, but also arms them with the principles and practicalities necessary to position them as an important partner in the complex dance. After all, it is these students, who will be burdened with dealing with the aftermath of open knowledge initiatives such as described in this book, and open knowledge manifestos such as Plan S, as well as operate with in the academic culture that such initiatives leave behind.

In this role, this book is an important resource.

Gemma E.Derrick
Roles: Writing – Review & Editing, Writing – Original Draft Preparation, Conceptualization



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