Visiting the “Open Science Lab”: My three takeaways

Pseudo-Selfie (Lambert, Maximilian, Ina) (Foto: @hauschke, CC BY)

Open science transgresses disciplinary boundaries. In theory, openness is an organizing principle that can be applied to every academic discipline. In practice, scientific processes and cultures vary greatly between disciplines (lab vs. desk, conference paper vs. monograph) and so do the points at which openness can replace closedness. Within the open science landscape, there are some institutions that try to develop generally applicable practices of openness. One of these institutions is the Open Science Lab (OSL) at Technical Information Library in Hannover (TIB).

Basically, OSL is part of the research and development department of TIB. The people who work at OSL experiment with ways to improve how academic information is created, stored, and shared. They focus on translating theoretical concepts from information science into usable prototypes and information services. As the name suggests, people working at OSL are predominantly concerned with the question how to make information more accessible (e.g. through Semantic Web technologies) and how to include a wider group of people into the process of knowledge creation (e.g. through collaborative tools like SlideWiki).

TIB is not only a project partner of the Open Science Fellowship program, but also home base of my personal open science mentor Ina Blümel. Today, I visited her and her colleagues at their office in Hannover to present my project and learn about their work. From all the things we discussed, I want to highlight three issues in particular:

(1) Technical vs. social openness or: “Why we use Google Docs”

One of the first posts on this blog was supposed to be one in which we justify our use of Google Docs. And then OER-guru Joeran Muuß-Merholz wrote an excellent provocation piece on why we should use Google Docs to create OER. As his blog post is written in German, it nevertheless makes sense to briefly summarize his argument: For OER-“realkeepers” Google Docs is not an option, mainly because it is a proprietary service. While being strict on the technical principles of openness (open code, open formats) is crucial for cultural heritage institutions, technical openness should be secondary for private creators of OER. It’s simply better to create OER on Google Docs that encourages others to collaborate and use it, than creating OER on a technically truly open but clumsy platform that scares off less tech-savvy educators and learners. Social openness trumps technical openness. For o2c2 we use Google Docs for at least two separate reasons: On the one hand, Google Drive allows us to have everything in one place. Google Docs for our manuscript, Google Spreadsheets for literature lists, Folders for literature in PDF format. On the other hand, the Google services allow us to work more easily with student assistants. While Leonhard and I have a certain level of experience with platforms that are technically open but less intuitive, we cannot expect this experience from student assistants. Training them in technical issues on top of their other work seems to overstretch our project’s resources.

(2) Working with longitudinal case studies or: “The drama of openness”

Rather than as a switch that can be turned on or off, we understand openness as a social institution – as something that emerges slowly, non-linearly, and from the interaction and interpretation of multiple actors. When we work with case studies it might therefore be interesting not to present them as snapshots, but over time. One example that we already included in our table of content is the development from GNU/Linux to the widely popular but more closed Android. A contrary example would be the leading linguistics journal Lingua that was hosted by a large proprietary publisher, but at some point was “forked” by its editorial board and rebuilt as an Open Access journal (named Glossa). The drama of openness can develop both ways. A great example that we spoke about today and that I would like to include in our chapter on Open Science & Education is the development from socially open and non-commercial cMOOCs to oftentimes commercial and more closed xMOOCs (at least this is one way to tell this story).

(3) Engaging the crowd or: “The tale of two anthills”

Once we made some progress on the first chapters of the textbook, we intend to make our drafts available to outsiders. To date, we want to allow outsiders to read and comment, but not actually edit our drafts. In today’s discussion the TIB-team raised questions whether this sort of openness was sufficient to engage outsiders to dedicate their time to our project. As Lambert Heller put it, “people don’t really want to be the ant in someone else’s anthill”. Point taken. However, I still think that allowing outsiders to directly edit our manuscript doesn’t fit our project, as it would either take too much editorial control from our handy, or would require extensive monitoring (cf. the discussion pages behind single Wikipedia articles). One alternative to get people on board, which we discussed today, is to create mini-case competitions and announce them on our blog and on Twitter. Calls for contributions could look something like: “Write a short case study (max. 500 words) on the hacker collective Anonymous. Take the position of an external observer and present the difficulties in determining the boundaries of the organization. Include three questions”. Incentive for the competition would be that we not only select one of the entries for our book and name the author, but that the case study will be assigned an individual DOI (digital object identifier). With that DOI, the case study becomes an official and individual piece of work on the Internet and therefore allows the author to not only contribute to our book, but also work on her or his own academic anthill.

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