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Open Knowledge Institutions and the Book Sprint: A visceral, reflexive response - by Muriel Swijghuisen

Published onApr 15, 2019
Open Knowledge Institutions and the Book Sprint: A visceral, reflexive response - by Muriel Swijghuisen

This is one of a set of solicited reviews of the work in progress, Open Knowledge Institutions. This review was written by Muriel Swijghuisen of the University of Sydney. 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.

I was delighted to have been given the opportunity to read, reflect on and provide a response to the book sprint for Open Knowledge Institutions. It allowed me to examine my own scholarly communication preferences, my positioning as a 42-year-old research management professional and AHSS academic and the roles of ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’ in academic authorship and citation practices.

The process really emphasized to me the importance of subject-specific and professional knowledges and how these inform a reader’s interpretation of shorter, more experimental texts such as the book sprint for Open Knowledge Institutions.

First and foremost, however, what I came to realise was that my initial reactions to the book and its format were visceral, and an almost pre-conditioned response, suggesting there was something very personal at stake, related to my own relationship with academic literature. This, my anthropological training told me, was interesting, since reactions such as those I experienced often inform marketing strategies of some kind or another. The allegedly objective academic in me had to come to terms with the fact that I, in no uncertain terms, have a very subjective approach to evaluating and engaging with academic books , particularly when it comes to assessing a text’s utility and worth. Lastly, through reading academically informed texts on the history and purpose of universities, interdisciplinarity and through working in the UK and Australian higher education sectors as an administrative professional and academic, I have a specific knowledge base which facilitates a particular interpretation of the shorter book sprint. Others with different professional backgrounds may find my interpretations tricky to engage with.

What follows therefore, is an unashamedly honest exposure of my own preconditioned biases, which, try as I might, I find hard to rid myself of. The below will also serve as a useful indicator, I hope, as to how others, with fewer anthropological and reflexive leanings by comparison, might receive the book sprint format.

Let me start with the concept of Open Knowledge Institutions, the topic addressed in the book. As a researcher I am very much in favour of sharing new knowledge as widely as is possible, provided it is done ethically, responsibly and in a way that allows universities to remain sustainable economically: the sector has been under pressure for some time to diversify its income streams beyond student fees and research council support. The responsible sharing of knowledge has the potential to contribute positively to university coffers, if managed well and in keeping with institutional missions and the charitable status of universities. I agree with the notion that universities must act less as gate keepers to knowledge access and should focus more on becoming conduits of knowledge, for social good.

I also know for a fact however, that my own equal valuing of different types of knowledge and the importance I place on the responsible sharing of new knowledge are not ubiquitous within the university sector. In many cases the epistemological differences between STEMM and AHSS research paradigms still hamper true responsible sharing and openness. Simultaneously, the managerial and more conservative academic approaches to knowledge management often seem irreconcilable. I also know that due to the commercialisation of research and the competitive nature of research assessment, league tables and the low levels of funding available for blue skies research, some academic institutions actively seek to be less collaborative, preferring to ‘win’ rather than share knowledge. Intellectual property rights, patenting, copyright and commercial and research competition hamper responsible openness. Openness is a culture and attitude that must be operationalised and will manifest itself in policies, procedures, strategies and work ethic, as the book suggests.

This is where my visceral, preconditioned response to the book sprint format of Open Knowledge Institutions initially manifested itself. The academic in me wanted evidence to show that what the book is supporting as an ideology of openness is based on researched fact. I wanted much more in the bibliography, more citations, more quotes. I was looking for balanced arguments supporting the pros- and cons of developing open knowledge institutions based on many more pilot studies and sociological enquiries. I wanted an average of 7000 words per chapter, basically, to support my own enthusiasm for responsible openness and quest for more knowledge to complement my professional experiences.

I then realised of course, that if all these were provided the book would no longer be a ‘sprint’, would take a good chunk of research time to develop and funding to generate. I speculated that in all likelihood it would be avidly read by aficionados such as myself who are committed to the open knowledge cause anyway but not many other readers.

This then led me to reflect on the potential readership for a book sprint on the topic of open knowledge institutions. The succinct format, clear diagrams and frameworks and practical considerations on how to, at a strategic level, achieve a form of openness, might lend themselves well to an audience of senior managerial professionals in the academic sector or university leaders (possibly with a STEMM background, as unlike myself, STEMM-ists would be less likely to hanker after monograph-length exposes, was my gut feeling). Such an audience would probably be time-poor but sympathetic to the open knowledge cause in the altruistic sense, I hypothesized.

Whilst mulling over the potential target audience for this book sprint and my own longing for a deeper understanding, I asked myself the question: ‘Does the shorter length of the book sprint format, relatively fewer number of references and relatively more frequent use of diagrams influence ‘consumer reception’?’ I decided it probably does, if my own experiences are anything to go by. I myself of course, was aware the sprint format is experimental and designed to challenge the status quo of book publishing. This prior knowledge influenced my own reception and allowed me to rationalize my initial responses to the book sprint format.

Am I unusual in my reflexive response? Perhaps. What is needed is some additional research along the lines of work previously undertaken by projects such as The Academic Book of the Future to explore how ‘the book’ as an object, concept and marker of value is received by various audiences not just from an academic and commercial perspective, but also as an opportunity to communicate new approaches to facilitating the responsible stewardship of new knowledge to a more diverse audience. I therefore applaud the authors and publishers for trialling this format, which has the potential to speak to a different, potentially non-academic audience. Meanwhile, as a supporter of open knowledge institutions, I have come away feeling that others elsewhere also believe the responsible sharing of knowledge can be shaped and led by Universities, if institutions are prepared to embrace collaboration for the benefit of human and planetary futures. In this, the book sprint content at least is traditional: I have come away feeling I am in good company, which I hope in this particular case is a positive thing.

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