How Open Knowledge can make and break us

On: March 10, 2013
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About Maaike Hansen


When I was little, my best friend Emily came over one day, and asked for a peanut butter sandwich with chocolates sprinkles on top. I told her it looked disgusting, but she replied: ‘how can you judge something, when you didn’t even know it existed two seconds ago? Maybe you’ll love it!’. Obviously, she was right.
We live in a world where knowledge is everything; the moment we acquire new knowledge we can use and reproduce it in many different ways and can therefore connect with people around the world: information and communication have become a principal terrain through which power relations are established today. (Hall, 2008: 6)
According to Manon Ress, we live in a ‘knowledge ecology’, a multidisciplinary field of study recognizing the importance of relationships and links, the diversity of knowledge forms and types, and the need for community production, distribution, and use of knowledge. (Ress, 2010: 482)
This need for community production of knowledge is enormous: your computer can be a gateway to information that will take several decades to read. With Open Access, this database called Internet will become even larger. Open Access, which basically means providing knowledge for free and therefore making it accessible for everyone, can help us spread our knowledge worldwide. (Hall: 7)
This transparent business model seems too good to be true, but is it really? Many critics are skeptical, particularly about funding: if no one has to pay to get information, how will researchers be paid? More importantly, can we uphold the quality of articles once researchfunds are no longer available? Hall voices this concern as well: “there is a certain amount of concern and anxiety over whether open-access publishing can be sustained as a business model, and especially over how academic standards of “quality” can be maintained in the transition to the digital mode of reproduction.” (2008: 8)Thankfully, peer review is costless, and is used in many Open Access journals.
But what about open databases, where not only scientists can contribute but also the guy next door gets the chance to pretend he’s a writer? 

At SXSW, a media, music and movie festival that takes place in Austin each March, critics and experts have been talking about OA since 2007. In fact, tomorrow (March 11th) there will be an interesting panel discussion about Open Access in cultural institutions. According to the SXSW’s website “cultural heritage institutions are finding new ways to open access to their collections for remix and reuse, and promote new uses and interpretations of the works they hold.”
Opening up huge databases of information to the public can be tricky. Databases are flooded with articles full of mistakes and assumptions that aren’t backed up by theories or research.  When a class is asked how many of them have come over mistakes while Wikipedia or, more than 50% of the students raise their hand.
Gil Penchina, former CEO of Wikia, explained this decrease of quality at SXSW’s panel discussion Open Knowledge versus Controlled Knowledge in 2007: when a certain system transforms from closed to open, people will feel the urge to change something, even if their contribution won’t be valuable. (PC Mag, 2007: volume 4)  It’s like being the president for a day: you would be important and powerful, and feel like you could do anything with that newly acclaimed power (insert a laughing Leo DiCaprio screaming out ‘I’m on top of the wooooorld!’).

However, when something has been open for the public for a long time, like Wikia, people are accustomed to this responsibility and they won’t feel that same need. They’ll consider more carefully before contributing to a certain project or when writing an article. The balance between open and closed access is essential in this case. Like David Foster Wallace would say: ‘You give it up, to get it back, to give it away.’ (Fitzpatrick: 254)
Even though Open Knowledge is stimulated, there are some things that are best remained untouched. Even in an open and transparent environment not everything has to be out in the open. After all, there is a reason why bathrooms have doors; certain things you don’t want to see, even if you could.

Besides a smooth transition, there are other measures that can be taken. European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO) is an organization that stimulates free publishing of high quality articles and projects for cultural institutions. ECHO is an initiative by the Max Planck Society, who also created the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. ECHO provides a database where researchers can post their articles for free, while the organization checks the quality of the published work.
The Huygens Institute in The Hague has a similar policy; researchers (both professionals and hobbyists) who work together on several projects check each other’s contributions before it is posted online. In this way, output can be controlled.

Open Access can be a wonderful solution for acquiring knowledge, but you should be careful with the information you read and remain critical. Otherwise you might get disappointed when that sandwich tastes just as awful as you knew it would.

Gary Hall, ‘Another University is Possible’ and ‘Notes on Creating Critical Computer Media’, in Digitize This Book! The Politics of New Media or Why We Need Open Access Now, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 1-36.

Manon A. Ress, ‘Open Access Publishing: From Principles to Practice’, in Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds) Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property, New York: Zone Books, 2010, pp. 475-498.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, ‘Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing 43.4 (2012): 347-362.,2817,2103872,00.asp

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