Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Working for a phase transition to an open commons-based knowledge society: Interview with Michel Bauwens

Today a summit starts in Quito, Ecuador that will discuss ways in which the country can transform itself into an open commons-based knowledge society. The team that put together the proposals is led by Michel Bauwens from the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. What is the background to this plan, and how likely is it that it will bear fruit?  With the hope of finding out I spoke recently to Bauwens.
Michel Bauwens
One interesting phenomenon to emerge from the Internet has been the growth of free and open movements, including free and open source software, open politics, open government, open data, citizen journalism, creative commons, open science, open educational resources (OER), open access etc.

While these movements often set themselves fairly limited objectives (e.g. “freeing the refereed literature”) some network theorists maintain that the larger phenomenon they represent has the potential not just to replace traditional closed and proprietary practices with more open and transparent approaches, and not just to subordinate narrow commercial interests to the greater needs of communities and larger society but, since the network enables ordinary citizens to collaborate together on large meaningful projects in a distributed way (and absent traditional hierarchical organisations), it could have a significant impact on the way in which societies and economies organise themselves.

In his influential book The Wealth of Networks, for instance, Yochai Benkler identifies and describes a new form of production that he sees emerging on the Internet — what he calls “commons-based peer production”. This, he says, is creating a new Networked Information Economy.

Former librarian and Belgian network theorist Michel Bauwens goes so far as to say that by enabling peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration, the Internet has created a new model for the future development of human society. In addition to peer production, he explained to me in 2006, the network also encourages the creation of peer property (i.e. commonly owned property), and peer governance (governance based on civil society rather than representative democracy).

Moreover, what is striking about peer production is that it emerges and operates outside traditional power structures and market systems. And when those operating in this domain seek funding they increasingly turn not to the established banking system, but to new P2P practices like crowdfunding and social lending.

When in 2006 I asked Bauwens what the new world he envisages would look like in practice he replied, “I see a P2P civilisation that would have to be post-capitalist, in the sense that human survival cannot co-exist with a system that destroys the biosphere; but it will nevertheless have a thriving marketplace. At the core of such a society — where immaterial production is the primary form — would be the production of value through non-reciprocal peer production, most likely supported through a basic income.”

Unrealistic and utopian?

So convinced was he of the potential of P2P that in 2005 Bauwens created the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. The goal: to “research, document and promote peer-to-peer principles”

Critics dismiss Bauwens’ ideas as unrealistic and utopian, and indeed in the eight years since I first spoke with him much has happened that might seem to support the sceptics. Rather than being discredited by the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, traditional markets and neoliberalism have tightened their grip on societies, in all parts of the world.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Interview with Kathleen Shearer, Executive Director of the Confederation of Open Access Repositories

In October 1999 a group of people met in New Mexico to discuss ways in which the growing number of “eprint archives” could co-operate.
Kathleen Shearer
Dubbed the Santa Fe Convention, the meeting was a response to a new trend: researchers had begun to create subject-based electronic archives so that they could share their research papers with one another over the Internet. Early examples were arXiv, CogPrints and RePEc.

The thinking behind the meeting was that if these distributed archives were made interoperable they would not only be more useful to the communities that created them, but they could “contribute to the creation of a more effective scholarly communication mechanism.”

With this end in mind it was decided to launch the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) and to develop a new machine-based protocol for sharing metadata. This would enable third party providers to harvest the metadata in scholarly archives and build new services on top of them. Critically, by aggregating the metadata these services would be able to provide a single search interface to enable scholars interrogate the complete universe of eprint archives as if a single archive. Thus was born the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH). An early example of a metadata harvester was OAIster.

Explaining the logic of what they were doing in D-Lib Magazine in 2000, Santa Fe meeting organisers Herbert Van de Sompel and Carl Lagoze wrote, “The reason for launching the Open Archives initiative is the belief that interoperability among archives is key to increasing their impact and establishing them as viable alternatives to the existing scholarly communication model.”

As an example of the kind of alternative model they had in mind Van de Sompel and Lagoze cited a recent proposal that had been made by three Caltech researchers.

Today eprint archives are more commonly known as open access repositories, and while OAI-PMH remains the standard for exposing repository metadata, the nature, scope and function of scholarly archives has broadened somewhat. As well as subject repositories like arXiv and PubMed Central, for instance, there are now thousands of institutional repositories. Importantly, these repositories have become the primary mechanism for providing green open access — i.e. making publicly-funded research papers freely available on the Internet. Currently OpenDOAR lists over 3,600 OA repositories.

Work in progress

Fifteen years later, however, the task embarked upon at Santa Fe still remains a work in progress. Not only has it proved hugely difficult to persuade many researchers to make use of repositories, but the full potential of networking them has yet to be realised, not least because many repositories do not attach complete and consistent metadata to the items posted in them, or they only provide the metadata for a document, not the document itself. As a consequence, locating and accessing content in OA repositories remains a hit and miss affair, and while many researchers now turn to Google and Google Scholar when looking for research papers, Google Scholar has not been as receptive to indexing repository collections as OA advocates had hoped.

For scholars, the difficulties associated with accessing papers in repositories is a continuing source of frustration. Meanwhile, critics of green OA argue that the severe shortage of content in them means that any hope of building an effective network of OA repositories is a lost cause anyway.

For their part, conscious that green OA poses a potential threat to their profits, publishers have responded to the growing calls for open access by offering pay-to-publish gold OA journals as an alternative.