Rebecca Sutton Koeser bio photo

Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Lead Developer, The Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University

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Though-provoking keynote talk from Laura Czerniewicz (@czernie) about the uneven distribution of “open” knowledge.

Take a look at the slides, which include a number of fascinating maps that make different aspects of these global inequalities more visible and striking.

What shapes inequalities in knowledge production? Funding, but it’s not just about money; also it’s about what counts (reward structures, etc - e.g., compensation for publishing in particular high-profile journals).

We often measure impact by citation, but if research isn’t easily found it won’t be cited.

Culture of scholarship: publications by GDP is a more meaningful measure. How much of a country’s money is spent on research?

The digital affords openness, but it doesn’t equal open - there are new ways to be closed, too (licensing, closed networks, etc).

Infrastructure - at the most basic level, reliable electricity; availability of computers; bandwidth (the global north much more networked); rising use of smartphones, but cost of data is a hard limit (typically only enough for email and SMS, not multimedia or MOOCs).

Search engines play a crucial role, they are actors in these digital networks, but they are not neutral. Page rank is described as “collective intelligence”, but actually ends up working more like a popularity contest. Personalization and profiles means you will be kept closed in a narrower and narower loop. These algorithms mediate knowlede and create filters– the world gets smaller rather than wider.

Interesting to note that Opera is the browser of choice in Africa, because it is mobile friendly.

Unintended consequence of open access - there is a danger that the global north will drown out scholarship from the global south.

Case study on poverty alleviation - in spite of world class research on this topic in South Africa, a generic Google search doesn’t return any results from South Africa, even in some cases for researchers searching from South Africa.

Another case: climate change, which is a global phenomenon with different research approaches from different parts of the world, and potentially very significant impact for the world. Even though South Africa is deeply invested in climate change research, their work isn’t visible in the typical way people look for research. Google Scholar’s first result has a very high number of citations - which becomes a self-perpetuating thing (popularity contest, again).

Another concern: Google Scholar’s “fascinatingly vague” description of what content it actually includes; among other things, this bears on what kind of scholarly genres are represented.

One bright spot is the landscape of Open Source Software developers per thousand internet users, where collaboration on a wider scale is clearly happening.

Open scholarship is only meaningful if everyone can access and participate.

Thoughts & reactions

  • It seems that often we’re so busy working on promoting our own repositories and the scholarship from our institutions, trying to improve and update our infrastructure and services; it’s hard to take a step back and think about the larger, global picture. This seems like the kind of thing don’t even know is missing, because we’re ignorant of what work is being done elsewhere.
  • Physical location certainly does factor into what you see in search results, as I’ve noticed just from being here in Dublin for a few days. Are there ways to simulate searching from other, non-global-northern locations to get a glimpse of what other users see, and break out of our digital bubbles?
  • Perhaps the large-scale text and data mining approach is even more important, to get the bigger picture of the scholarship that is being done; but how can we ensure that marginalized countries and researchers and instutitions can participate?
  • How can we make better use of offline/low-bandwidth solutions and alternatives, so that we provide more efficient and accessible ways of getting to scholarly content?