Open Access, Open Data, Open Education, Uncategorized

On Open ideology

I’ve spent a while trying to find the name of an eponymous adage recently. You know, like Poe’s Law —that extremist views and satire are often indistinguishable without an overt indicator otherwise— or Betteridge’s law —that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.

What I’m looking for is:

the smaller the difference between your worldview and another’s, the more you fixate on that small difference

For example: my political and social views are closest to the editorial line taken by The Guardian, but The Guardian makes me irate in a way that The Telegraph doesn’t (and this isn’t just because of The Grauniad’s anything-goes approach to spelling either).

Whatever it’s called, this adage in action looks a bit like this:

compromise flags fuck you

This is a fairly long way of bringing up OpenCon 2015 in Brussels a couple of weeks ago. OpenCon is an annual conference about furthering Open Access, Open Data, and Open Education… but it’s also wider than that, and also hard to define, because problems with Open Access, Open Data, and Open Education directly and indirectly lead to most problems in science in general (I can’t speak for the humanities, but it’s probably the same there). There’s a ton of literature out there on why openness is needed, so I won’t go into that here, but long story short: science is messed up, lots of people agree on this, and change isn’t happening fast enough.

It was an excellent conference full of excellent people doing excellent things, and I left feeling hopeful that we just might get these problems sorted out. Various people have blogged about the many, many positives already (e.g. here, here, and here, and there’ll be others out there), so I’m writing this blog as a note of caution.

OpenCon felt ideological. It was invigorating. It was like being back in undergrad, surrounded by strong ideas and forceful debate.

I’d say that about 95% of OpenCon attendees agreed on about 95% of things. Naturally, this meant that debate tended to centre around the bits where people didn’t agree, and when talking about ideas, this is great.

But the thing about ideology is that it rarely reflects the world at large.

The shitty MS Paint figure is obviously a massive exaggeration, but I am concerned that this is where we’ll end up — fixating on the small differences and not getting things done. I’m concerned that it’s like the late 1800s in Russia, and that we’ll end up like the Russian revolutionaries. In 1903, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks split over small, party-internal matters, which meant that Elsevier the Romanovs could continue abusing their power for several years without a coherent opposition… and when the inevitable revolution did happen, there were so many factions that it took a dictatorship to hold them together.

For the record, I’m an Open Menshevik. All the tools are out there already. Sure, the infrastructure isn’t the best, but it is workable. All it really needs is wider, much wider, uptake and everything else will gradually follow… which means moving away from the ideological things and back onto the practicalities of everything we already agree on.

venn diagram

Of course, let’s keep talking about the ideology of Open. It’s important to know where we’re going. But I feel that a long(er) view is needed.

The debate about the merits of Green vs. Gold OA doesn’t really matter if people outside OpenCon aren’t doing it that much in the first place; the debate about APCs for OA journals doesn’t really matter if people outside OpenCon aren’t publishing in OA journals because they still (mistakenly) think they’re a bit shit; the debate about making things machine-readable doesn’t really matter if most data isn’t made available in the first place.

Some of the best talks and workshops I saw were about teaching people how to use the existing infrastructure in Open ways; data archiving, green post-print archiving, making convincing pro-OA arguments to people who don’t know that much about it. We all agree that this is A Good Thing, but sometimes I think we get ahead of ourselves, and forget that we need to keep doing more of this.

Bjorn Brembs said in his talk that we are perhaps a little self-congratulatory sometimes, and while a lot of what people are doing really does deserve recognition and congratulation, I think there’s a lot more groundwork to be laid before we can start thinking about the ideological stuff in a practical way.

Hopefully there’ll be more groundwork laid by the time OpenCon 2016 rolls around, and more still each year, until the Open revolution is not just inevitable but successful.


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