February 2013: The Openness Edition

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First published on ethnographymatters.net.

Last month on Ethnography Matters, we started a monthly thematic focus where each of the EM contributing editors would elicit posts about a particular theme. I kicked us off with the theme entitled ‘The Openness Edition’ where we investigated what openness means for the ethnographic community. I ended up editing some wonderful posts on the topic of openness last month – from Rachelle Annechino’s great post questioning what “informed consent” means in health research, to Jenna Burrell’s post about openaccess journals related to ethnography and Sarah Kendzior’s stimulating piece about by legitimacy and place of Internet research by anthropologists. We also had two really wonderful pieces sharing methods for more open, transparent research by Juliano Spyer (YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool) and by Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao in their inspiring piece about how they facilitated story-building exercises with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights (complete with PDF instructions!) Below is the editorial that I wrote at the beginning of the month where I try to tease out some of the complexities of my own relationship with the open access/open content movement. Comments welcome!

On Saturday the 12th of January, almost a month ago, I woke to news of Aaron Swartz’s death the previous day. In the days that followed, I experienced the mixed emotions that accompany such horrific moments: sadness for him and the pain he must have gone through in struggling with depression and anxiety, anger at those who had waged an exaggerated legal campaign against him, uncertainty as I posted about his death on Facebook and felt like I was trying to claim some part of him and his story, and finally resolution that I needed to clarify my own policy on open access.

I had worked passionately for open access in my previous life, helping educational institutions and foundations design open access policy, pushing for open government data and railing against those who didn’t ‘get’ why closing access to publicly-funded information was outdated and unsustainable. But nearing the end of my work with Creative Commons and its international offshoot, iCommons, I became jaded by the internal politics of the open content movement, and embarrassed by my previous zealousness. I started to realize that open access was definitely not revolutionising access to education in the majority of the world, and that the passion that myself and others had felt about pushing forward the openness agenda was becoming sinister as any criticism was met with aggressive denial, as definitions of openness became ever narrower and technologically defined, and as we seemed to get further and further from the goals that we started with.

In the wake of Aaron’s death, and the renewed calls by the open access community for academics to take a stand, I felt that I needed to resolve these feelings and to define my own perspective on the issue. Thinking about the openness of your research can be like going down a rabbit hole because if you’re attempting maximum accessibility for all people at all times, any open access policy looks incomplete. Open access definitions tend to be restricted to a particular medium (digital, online) and a particular definition of free (free of charge and free from most copyright licensing conditions) (see Peter Suber’s great introduction to open access here).But access, especially when it concerns the study of people and communities, needs to follow a multiply layered, contextual approach if it is to fulfill the ultimate goals of an open research process. What about accessibility standards for differently abled? What about the fact that Arabic speakers can’t read your final report about them? What about the fact that not everyone can understand academic lingo or appreciate layperson explanations? Researchers’ open access policies don’t generally cover these equally valid issues that necessarily close your work off to particular audiences.

When the ethnomatters team met on Skype a few days ago to talk about this month’s theme, we reflected on what we thought about the current debate and what we might do to contribute to it. We all agreed that, although we deeply respect academics and researchers who have written personal open access policy statements boycotting closed access publications, our own view is that the open access debate shouldn’t be limited to the intellectual property rights and/or price of final results of research.

This website is testament to the principles that we think are important: we started it so that we would have an avenue to make our research results more accessible to audiences, but perhaps more importantly so that we could have a conversation with other researchers about the changing role of ethnography. In other words, the fact that Ethnography Matters is free and openly licensed is less important than the fact that we are starting new conversations accessible to audiences outside (and in addition to) those who read academic papers – in closed or open access journals. Information, to us, is valuable not just as a neatly packaged product for journals, but as the signal of larger conversations and the enactment of social relationships.

Janet Vertesi and Paul Dourish’s 2011 CSCW paper is really instructive here. Vertesi spent three and a half years embedded with two NASA-led spacecraft teams both working in the field of Planetary Science and examined the differences between the two team’s data sharing principles and practices. She noticed that Paris team members shared raw data internally across all members of their mission and saw their data as an inherently shared resource, while Helen members did not automatically share internally and were on the whole more selective about where their data traveled. By examining the context of data production within the Paris and Helen teams, Vertesi and Dourish concluded that how the data is crafted and acquired (rather than distributed or used) is critical to understanding their members’ different data sharing values. They explained that, with changes in expectations of data sharing within NASA and the broader scientific community, there has been an imposition of Paris-like rules for data-sharing uponHelen, producing culture clashes, confusion and frustration.

Rather than ascribing the sharing regimes to generosity or selfishness, it became important to see data in its “interactional context” where data is not merely an end product, a commodity, but that data “enacts social relationships”; it is one of the interactional elements with which social relationships are performed. Vertesi and Dourish argue that the imposition of data-sharing systems that do not respect the context of production results from “a troublesome process of commodification”, where the interactional and social regimes that produced the data are obscured. In conclusion, the authors call for thinking about “data sharing” within a broader “data economy” that focuses on production as well as use and exchange, so that we might clarify the value of data within local organizational cultures.

Vertesi and Dourish’s paper resonates because it acknowledges the different stages of data sharing in research, rather than merely the end product, and ascribes different data sharing principles to local organizational cultures (rather than different research fields). It reminds us that data has deep sociotechnical origins and that those origins are essential to understanding different cultures of data sharing. ‘Data’ or academic papers or blog posts should not be merely seen as a ‘objects’ that are primed, packaged, ready for transfer, but rather as a speech acts within broader conversations, each of which are shared and ascribed with different value within particular cultures.

For the Ethnography Matters team, it is important for us to support and apply accessibility as a principle to each stage of our research and that strategies to enhance access would necessarily look different according to each of the groups (or conversations) we hope to affect with our work. For Tricia, it is important to share photographs of her fieldwith her research participants and her friends and colleagues back home. For Jenna, it is important that she write an accessible summary of each of her journal articles for Ethnography Matters or her blog. For me, it’s important to enable my research participants to speak back to the data about them. All of us recognize the importance of open access to our research materials, but we think of access somewhat differently from the way that it is traditionally defined.

What do you think ethnographers should do about open access? What does openness look like to ethnographic researchers or to any researchers who study technology? Jenna has written a thoughtful post that has attracted a lot of great feedback on open access journals relating to ethnography. Do you have other suggestions on thinking about data sharing, open access and broader accessibility issues? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us or share your comments below.

Pic: ‘Open window’ by Sharon Hall Shipp. CC-BY-NC on Flickr

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