Universities make, disseminate and store knowledge. In an academic setting, knowledge-creation is largely measured in terms of the production of scholarly texts (e.g., books, journal articles and conference proceedings; and certain classes of creative work). These texts are initially constructed in the university but are then refined and made public through relationships with publishers (both within and outside the university). Science communicators, critics and popularisers, often operating outside of the university community, provide a bridge between these texts and the public.
Universities are also primary collectors of knowledge and knowledge artefacts: libraries and archives serve as dominant resource pools for the educational and research communities of a university. Each of these functions currently operates within primarily closed systems in which there are barriers to control who can create, publish and access knowledge.
An Open Knowledge Institution is one in which these barriers are eliminated in favour of a diversity of models for knowledge production and access. This shift is one of both technical and ideological revolution. Technical solutions diversify models of production and access, which in turn provide opportunities for broader dialogues in knowledge creation.
Communication is a key element of scholarly practices, often serving a critical role in building scholarly communities. Early systems of the exchange of scholarly information were often premised on explicitly bounded notions of community. The Europe and America-based 'Republic of Letters', a 17th-century intellectual commentary organised through informal exchange of letters, was the precursor the Royal Society of London, an explicitly governed institution with rules for membership and participation, and its journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Universities were not outside the publishing system: university presses such as those at Cambridge and Oxford universities in the UK predate modern scientific journals.
Scientific journals evolved into closed systems: hierarchically organised through an editor or publisher and subject to closed systems of dissemination. The 20th century observed a dramatic shift in knowledge communication from a book-based economy to one focused around journals. This evolution and rise of corporate publishing led to an increasingly closed system. At present, scientific publishing is controlled by a corporate oligarchy, with five publishers publishing the majority of scientific articles (Larivière et al., 2015). This has resulted in high subscription prices and an expensive dependence on the services of publishers maintained through bulk subscription licenses, even for developing countries. The cost for journal subscriptions now occupies the vast majority of the budgets of university libraries. This process entrenches even further the monopoly of the journal giants.
Journal publishing intensified in tandem with rising competition in universities: from the 1960s, when academics published one monograph after achieving their first tenured position, to the 1990s, by which time academics were chasing fewer tenured positions and thereby needed to demonstrate production far ahead of finishing their doctoral degree. Metrics to evaluate knowledge production increased in tandem with this increasing speed and volume of production, both individually and in the aggregate.
Metrics serve as a form of control in a knowledge system. Despite decades of critique, the Journal Impact Factor continues to serve as a dominant metric for evaluating journals and, by extension, authors of articles and the knowledge within. By providing a numerical value to journals (and thereby a rank), this metric serves to reinforce and materialise reputational signals in the scholarly publishing market. This operates as a closed system: only journals indexed by Clarivate (a for-profit corporation) are eligible to receive this indicator. In the aggregate, these and other citation-based metrics are used to make decisions about hiring, promotion and resource allocation in universities.
As such, journals have taken a central role in signalling expertise. Journal editors and publishers largely use peer review in defending this position: arguing that self-governance of the process of scholarly publishing serves as a mechanism to control against abuses. However, the concentration of the reputation market among a few key journals, and therefore key reviewers, mitigates the strength of this proposition. Despite this and other biases in peer review (Lee et al., 2013), universities still see publication in a small handful of prestigious journals which maintain their position through citation-based metrics as reliable indicators of excellence. Academics signal quality to their employer by achieving publication in high prestige journals which have a high barrier to publication because of the sheer number of submissions, preferred disciplinary content, and peer review. Universities then signal to each other, their funders and their clients, the university's quality with reference to the number of publications achieved in high-status journals. In many countries, research quality exercises exacerbate this tendency to use journal publications as proxies for quality.
Publishing is the act of making something public. However, the closed system of scholarly publishing currently fails to fulfil that goal. The current system is built upon a set of closed transactions that imagine knowledge as a private good that is commodified through corporate publishing. Built into this system is an implicit limitation on the role of the scholarly author and her institution, with the library as customer and the researcher as consumer. The university and its community are caught in the gap as financier. This closed system of knowledge is acknowledged to be broken.
Emerging (and a few established) practices provide examples of a successful shift from a closed to open knowledge infrastructure. Pre-print repositories, such as arXiv, are notable examples of community-based exchange of scholarly knowledge that operate with limited governance. arXiv, originally at Los Alamos National Laboratory and now hosted by Cornell University, provides a platform for the exchange of pre-prints, a technological manifestation of the Republic of Letters. However, much of what led to the success of the platform is that it merely facilitated pre-print exchange that was already happening within the disciplinary community. Furthermore, this platform has not disrupted the closed system of journal publishing but has co-existed peacefully with it (Lariviere et al., 2014). Therefore, it is clear that mere technical solutions will not address the problems of closed universities. Open Knowledge Institutions are a set of integrated open practices: there must be consistency in openness throughout the production chain.
Across the academic system, there is already substantial interest in creating better networks, although these are usually cast in quite narrow terms. Many institutions are developing and implementing policy that speaks to this overall shift, sometimes in response to external pressure from government and funders, sometimes in response to community and public demands, and sometimes through internal processes. By 2018 nearly 700 organisations across the world held such policies, as shown in Figure 5 below. Policy, strategy, and other public position statements are not a direct sign of change occurring, but they are a signal of intent and a proxy for organisational and institutional support of change.
Investment in publishing infrastructures is a signal of real action beyond statements of intent. For example, there has been a substantial growth in digital repository platforms by universities over the past two decades (see Figure 6 below), in part to meet the needs of these open access mandates. However, many of these repositories are under-resourced in terms of finances, expertise and personnel, and they are underutilised (as measured by the size and use of many of these collections). Furthermore, the construction of several institutional or subject-based repositories does not speak to a fundamentally open infrastructure, but one that remains bounded within institutional and disciplinary frameworks. To build open knowledge institutions across the global research enterprise, ideology must be met with a corresponding investment in shared infrastructure.
Moving beyond actions, what can we draw on as evidence of system-level change? Assessing the proportion of Open Access within formal traditional publications is one increasing indicator which is becoming easier to track. Figure 7 below shows the significant increase in this proportion for five selected institutions from 2000-2016: Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), Shanghai Jiaotong University (China), Curtin University (Australia), University of Cape Town (South Africa), University College London (UK). Alongside this, although it is harder to track and quantify, we see increases in data sharing. Good practice in data sharing and engagement increases that visibility. All of this ultimately contributes to a wider conception of publishing within institutions taking a leadership position. We also see a greater commitment from many institutions to a broader notion of publishing. Staff diversity is increasingly tracked and published. While it is being imposed from outside the system, reporting on gender pay equity is very much on the agenda.
The data shown provide some evidence of universities engaging with open access publication, both across the academic system and as individual organisations. There is some need, however, to be critical of the ability of available data to inform us on progress across the full range of relevant publishing activities. For instance, the sources of data on open access publication focus on a narrow slice of traditional and formal publications with a bias towards publications in the English language and within scientific disciplines. In assessing progress towards communication that supports Open Knowledge Institutions, we must be sure not to measure only a closed and traditional portion of what counts as publication.
Digital and networked technologies disrupt the established scholarly publishing models and traditional modes of knowledge communication. They open up access to knowledge by empowering and enabling users to participate in the creation, dissemination and evaluation of knowledge.
In a conventional scholarly publication environment, there is a narrow range of mediators: scholarly book and journal authors and publishers focused on communicating research to other scholars and to a highly literate and relatively small lay audience; academic textbook publishers and higher education teachers; and a relatively small population of academic popularisers who are able to translate research findings for transmission through the popular media.
However, in open knowledge environments, publication is no longer simply a matter of downstreaming research in print form for distribution to the different constituencies of a traditional readership that is close to the academy. Open access and digital distribution have expanded the range and reach of research dissemination. Networked technologies, especially social media, connect authors, readers, beneficiaries and other actors in knowledge networks more broadly and effectively than ever before. Social networks enable and demand more targeted and managed mediation for much wider potential audiences as knowledge co-creators. Thereby they unlock the potential of population-wide creativity and participation in research, learning and knowledge practices.
As the terrain of research communication has expanded, different specialisms have emerged to focus on the specific parts of the value chain: the production of the knowledge itself; the production of the texts arising from that knowledge; and, most particularly, the mediation of the research to reach a much more widely distributed audience.
While popularisation of scholarship was a feature of the traditional environment, the scope was narrower, engaging an audience on the boundaries of scholarly disciplines. By comparison, as a mediating space, online academic newsletters such as The Conversation have been able to provide a translational space, widening the potential users of scholarship to target journalists, for example, who in turn have been able to widen the readership to include policymakers; thus indirectly enabling and assisting the impact of research.
In print-medium publishing, publishers were at the centre of the knowledge production process and handled the mediation, mostly as gatekeepers. There was little need for scholarly authors to engage with mediation of the text, other than the requirements of text preparation. This is still true for specialist scholarly monographs.
In digital publishing, mediation is primary; and mediation is non-linear and distributed. The linear or factory model, inherited from physical communication in the print and industrial era, modelled knowledge production as a value chain. At its simplest, active agency or causation ran from the 'upstream' producer (including author/artist, entrepreneur and industrial process), through the 'mainstream' distributor (transmission, including marketing), to the 'downstream' consumer (passive demand or active feedback). In such a model, 'open' knowledge applies to producers; consumers play little part in the process.
However, in a non-linear systems environment, such as that of the digital/network era, causation is not one-way and linear, and what counts as a cause seems to multiply endlessly. We have become used to the idea that 'everyone' is an author-journalist-publisher (each expression on social media can be held accountable in law as a publication), allowing for the expansion of agency, and hence creativity, across the users of a network or system. In principle, in a systems model, 'everyone is a knowledge-maker' within the terms of that system, making the concept of 'consumer' redundant as consumers are also producers and vice versa. Hence the new importance of the concept of user.
In the digital (computational and globally networked) environment, what drives the system is mediation. In the context of what used to be called the mass media, power and profit have shifted 'downstream', from producers (now satellite companies that supply content to networks), to distributors such as broadcasters, and more recently to platforms that aggregate traffic rather than publish content, allowing for 'consumer-created content' and 'enterprise-created content' to coexist in the same knowledge-making environment.
In Figure 8, derived from Paul Baran's originating model of the internet, the distinctions between closed (centralised) systems and open (distributed) systems, is clear: the centralised version has just one centre of command and control while in the distributed network control is reticulated. An intermediate, decentralised version shows the 'small world' model, where local organisation can thrive but the whole system remains tightly networked while inter-node links are weaker than in the distributed model.
In such a model, 'open' knowledge applies to users; they are part of a layered (micro-meso-macro) system of complex systems, in which mediation within and across systems is key not only to the distribution but also to the expansion of knowledge.
This model of knowledge production, as the mediation of a multiplicity or plurality of voices, follows the logic of (i) an 'open' system being more robust and resilient (adaptable) than a closed system; and (ii) technological acceleration – the growth of knowledge increases exponentially once it is 'open' to users as well as existing 'black-box' producers. Such a system allows for distributed expertise, crowdsourced problem solving and innovation from anywhere in the system (such as neglected groups or regions). Expertise escapes command-and-control restrictions (e.g., academic/professional certification).
The shift from producer-led knowledge to user-led knowledge, via mass media of communication rather than restricted institutions of learning (universities, disciplines, specialist publishers), puts knowledge-making into the same environment as popular culture, commercial entertainment, games, playfulness and purposeless literacy; and thus places knowledge-making into the same context as culture, communities, group-making, identity-formation, daydreaming, mischief, fantasy and inter-group or communal conflict.
Experts and scientists who venture into this terrain used to be labelled as 'popularisers' (less prestigious than 'original' or 'quality' researchers and scholars; this side of their work earned less institutional credit but was often very celebrated when they got it right). Some like Alfred Einstein or Stephen Hawking could remain credible thinkers as well as powerful popularisers; some like Brian Cox or Neil Degrasse Tyson could build a bridge between popular and professional science, and some like David Attenborough or Tony Robinson 'opened' the realm of knowledge starting from the broadcasting or entertainment perspective, with clear feedback impact on science practice in each case. As evident from these examples, however, it is worth noting that popular science has struggled with the same gender disparities of the wider science communication landscape (Sugimoto et al., 2013).
Open knowledge is a part of this system which exerts external pressure on provider organisations from the industrial era. Thus, for instance, the hyper-specialisation of knowledge into disciplines cannot survive into the open media space; here, celebrity is a more decisive signaller of quality than deep specialism, which tends to be illegible in that context. For example, in 2016, Kevin Kelley’s new book The Inevitable was published in Chinese first and promoted by a social media celebrity Mr Luo; 20,000 copies were sold within the first 2 hours (Kelly, @kevin2kelly).
The mediation of knowledge, in addition to creation, is a key function of open knowledge institutions that connect knowledge creators and broad communities. Social media and open publishing provide both technological and socio-economic affordances for open knowledge institutions to connect knowledge (text), authors (creators), and audiences (consumers or prosumers) in the dynamic, participatory and collaborative process of knowledge creation and communication. This process increases the impact of institutions while driving and diversifying knowledge growth. Open Knowledge Institutions must actively engage in mediation, exploiting existing technologies and creating new technologies that enable greater participation in knowledge production.
The case study below is one example of how this process is already occurring.
Case Study: Action Dialogues in South Africa
In September 2012, more than 500 people – including NGO activists, academics, government ministers and policymakers – gathered at the University of Cape Town for a five-day conference directed at 'Strategies to Overcome Poverty & Inequality.' This conference was the culmination, in a democratic South Africa, of a long process aimed at addressing the overwhelming and crippling levels of poverty and inequality faced by millions of South Africans under the apartheid period and into the new regime.
The main mover behind this conference was Professor Francis Wilson, who had founded the South African Labour Research Development Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town some 30 years earlier, initiating a long period of data gathering and research on the gruelling problems of poverty and inequality in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Believing that solid data is the essential underpinning of good research of this kind, Prof. Wilson had decided in this earlier 1980s initiative to publish with the World Bank online the data they had compiled, yielding the award-winning data portal, Data First.
Having catalogued the data and analysed the environment for so long, the conference was aiming, in a now-democratic South Africa, to try to create policy and practice-based solutions that would address these so-far intractable problems. The conference provided a platform for discussion and debate amongst a multiplicity of participants: academic researchers, government and practitioners, with a strong focus on effective, practical strategies to address inequality and poverty and inspire change at a local, regional and national level. It gathered some 400 papers from the wide range of participants which then needed to be published and circulated, and finally published as a book.
These publication outputs were what would normally be expected as the culminating point of a project such as this. But, as Prof Wilson describes it, he read the book, closed it, and failed to see it as closure for the project. Wilson began to search for an alternative kind of research output that would better utilise the interactive potential of a digital environment. What emerged was a series of workshops, called Action Dialogues, and related reports which give a nuanced, critical analysis of current and possible policy interventions to overcome poverty and inequality in contemporary South Africa.
The dialogues each bring together 20-25 experts from universities, government, civil society and elsewhere to present their work on a particular theme related to poverty and inequality with the aim to think collectively about further possible action, such as multiplying and expanding successful projects. Research units – such as the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, and Centre for Cities in Africa at UCT – act collaboratively in these action dialogues and the results are disseminated in reports and social media. These dialogues have been extensively picked up by the media – newspaper and television – and there is evidence of take-up by policymakers.
As the Nelson Mandela Initiative describes it:
Action dialogues are gatherings of around 20-25 experts from diverse sectors, including universities, government, civil society and elsewhere who meet for 2-5 days on a particular theme. The interaction that develops from these gatherings affords all participants the time to speak about their work, and discussions can begin on further possible action including how to multiply and expand successful projects. Action Dialogues are university-led but do not focus solely on academic research; they seek rather to include many of those with experience and knowledge in the theme being discussed. Thus the purpose of an Action Dialogue is to feed academic research and other knowledge into strategies and productive projects which can have an impact on poverty and inequality.
As Prof Murray Leibbrandt, the current Head of SALDRU put it:
This is our country and our duty as researchers is to ensure that we have the right evidence in place to underpin an inclusive development strategy. We are determined to make an aggregate contribution − that’s greater than the sum of our parts − to cracking our inequalities. Everyone has a part to play, from the school governing body to the NGOs and civil society organisations. We need all hands on deck. When one is in the trenches each day as part of this research unit doing this important work, you know you are doing your research as well as you can to be part of something bigger.
One of the special functions of traditional universities is the collection, reformatting, preservation and archiving of crucial community resources. These resources may vary from key foundational documents of a community, through vast accumulations of periodicals or newspapers, to museum collections of musical instruments, furniture or even barbed wire. Some of these, such as original print publications, digitise well and can, with suitable licensing, be made available as open resources; others fiercely resist digitisation and limit openness. To these collections, mostly of physical objects and often held in trust rather than owned by the university, a 'keyholder' or gatekeeper role is often assumed. Aspiring users need to establish their credentials for use, hours of visitation need to be predetermined, and a users’ fee may be charged, even for members of the university itself. Digital archiving of websites, social media posts and user-generated-content all raise new issues for collecting open knowledge resources for public interests, which are increasingly valuable for research, cultural heritage and public record. Currently, many of these digital content resources are being mediated and thus archived by commercial sectors, particularly corporate platforms like Google Books and Facebook. There is also a need to keep social media posts deleted by censors.
For decades, however, groups of regional universities have taken to effective pooling of resources, by dividing up collecting concentrations (driven by different research or educational focuses of individual institutions), by facilitating inter-institutional loan and access arrangements, by consortial purchasing agreements and by collaborative governance arrangements (often part of broader institutional or regional alliances). An early model in the USA was the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) consortium, formed in 1958, and now part of the Big Ten Academic Alliance. By the 1980s, CIC had become an exemplar of consortial support for collaborative academic initiatives, influencing many similar developments in Europe, Asia and Australasia, such as the 'national site-license' initiative for e-journals of Australia (2001). Similarly, the China Academic Library and Information System (CALIS), led by the Chinese Ministry of Education, is a nationwide academic library consortium for resource sharing, which integrates library resources and services and provides digital library services for both higher education and schools.
Libraries, archives, galleries, museums and publishers likewise have long pooled resources, infrastructure and expertise to create diverse networks dedicated to such activities as collections management, digital publishing and digital preservation. The MetaArchive Cooperative, founded in 2004, bridges academic and public libraries, archives and museums across three continents into a digital preservation network that is owned and governed by its members. Institutions involved in this network host the technical infrastructure and use it to preserve their content. Europeana provides an open platform for cultural heritage materials for libraries, archives, museums and galleries who use it to showcase and federate their digital collections, as well as addressing shared problems like orphaned works; similar platforms are now available in the US (Digital Public Library of America), Australia (Trove). In national and consortial models, these open platforms provide bridges between individual collecting institutions and between these institutions and a broad user base that includes higher education, primary and secondary education and public researchers.
An Open Knowledge Institution clearly goes beyond the meso level of institutional collaboration so admirably achieved by some early consortia. This is because an open knowledge agenda involves more intensive external collaborations, both at the micro level of community individuals and groups, and at the macro level of collaborations with industry, professions and governments. Significant challenges emerge from this greater external collaboration, many driven by the unauthorised status of external collaborators within university permission systems, which is only magnified by the traditional gatekeeper role of universities over their collections, and in particular non-digital or restricted materials within their charge.
Some hurdles for the emerging Open Knowledge Institution to overcome might include securing more community-focused licences over digital materials, developing more open protocols for access to materials, rethinking hours of access, user support and catalogue presentation to facilitate a more diverse population of users, as well as new levels of collaboration with non-university libraries, archives or repositories.
Universities have traditionally played a broader role than simply mediating knowledge. They are also institutions of civic purpose, whose own staff and graduates need qualifications for work but are also civic and cultural agents who can contribute to the construction of social goods. A particular educational challenge lies in the retraining of specialist staff for more regular interface with broader communities and the wider world of working with companies, multinational entities, media and unaffiliated scholars. Universities need to develop these capabilities to educate a new generation of global citizens who can work with Open Knowledge Institutions to forward such aims.
The modern university is being disrupted and managerially refocused by new challenges in publishing, mediating and collecting. The signalling agenda comes from within, as internal labour markets are considerably shaped by quality signals of individual research performance; and from without, as universities position themselves in league tables and rankings to determine their relative attractiveness to students and government funding agencies. The mediation agenda comes from their role in curating and disseminating information and knowledge, a competition in which they are ever pitted against far more powerful and agile players in the new digital media spaces. Universities are, in important ways being strategically re-routed by these forces of mediation and signalling at large.
But some problems caused by new technologies can be fixed with even newer technologies. The first generation of the Internet gave us search engines, file sharing and social media. However, these also devalued many of the storage, mediation and curation of knowledge functions played by universities. Many of these functions have the potential to be rebuilt within the second generation of the Internet. Blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies are already being applied in reimagining how a university might function. Woolf University is the world's 'first' Blockchain University (https://woolf.university/). Blockchain technologies can also be used to rebuild institutions for decentralised storage of data and content (e.g. Interplanetary File System, Storj, etc.) and for tracking contributions and incentivising community quality assurance tasks such as refereeing (Extance, 2017).
The university has also traditionally been more than an aggregation of specialised knowledge held in courses and departments. It is also a curated bundleof such knowledge, an assemblage of different kinds of knowledge that enables new discoveries to be made and new perspectives to be seen. This role is not easily played by the digital platforms of content aggregation and dissemination. So we also need to recreate the forward-looking and imaginative institutions of bundling and combining knowledge in interesting and hopeful ways to reveal unforeseen possibilities.