Commoning to share data, workflows, and results


This is the introductory talk I presented at the 2018 SciDataCon in Botswana.

Let me begin by saying how gratified I am to be here, and to see all of you, many of whom are unmercifully jet lagged, as I know I am.

I want to thank Mark Parsons for doing all the heavy lifting to organize this session, and I thank all the speakers for their hard work. We lost a few speakers when their institutions wouldn’t support international travel… This demonstrates a situation that local academics face every time they try to travel to conferences in the North. Anyhow, with fewer talks, we will have more time for discussion.

My talk is about commoning around data resources on a global scale. Commoning, I argue is the destination that open data and science deserves.

For more than a decade, open science advocates have been building the infrastructure and the cultural sentiment to support open sharing for science objects, from ideas, to work flows, to data, publications, and peer reviews, and to whatever comes next.

One vision of what should logically come next is a move to internally-governed academy commons. I use this term in the plural here, anticipating a great variety of these, where institutions, careers, and scientific research can be fostered outside of the global marketplace.

The exvestment of academy content, careers, and communication from the global capital marketplace will require numerous experiments in alternative markets and governance schemes.

In many ways, however, it also means a return to how science operated not so very long ago, only with new opportunities provided by the internet and subsequent technologies. We are looking at science as a public good — scientists produce real public goods too, in terms of new knowledge and a better informed citizenry.

We expect taxes will pay for this, and we can support the value of science to our governments in many different ways outside of capital-market based returns. That is why we now turn to building science commons.

Most of these commons will be localized experiments — localized, that is, through specific disciplines and their internal data resource needs, through the mosaic of academy institutions and repositories and their capacities for data storage and use, through agencies and funders with their need to advance specific science outcomes, and through a range of funded research endeavors where scientists collaborate between institutions and across national boundaries.

Ideally, these commons will be localized to foster cultural innovation based NOT on importing these ideas from the global north, but rather, beginning with local voices and local cultural issues in every corner of the planet. Science is science from Gaborone to Geneva. Out of this panoply of knowledges, capabilities, and visions, academy commons can be built and internally governed across the planet. This is the task ahead for open science.

We have to be clear that we are also talking about “data-near governance” for these commons: about ownership and stewardship by and for the individuals who really need these data, about collaboratives of scientists whose particular research depends on the long-term stewardship of specific shared data resources.

Collective ownership of the stewardship practices for these data will form the infraCULTURE and governance focus for international data commons in the academy. These governance schemes will need to be negotiated with the various repositories where the data are held.

In order for these commons to reinforce each other and so to build a planetary solution, they must also follow shared design patterns and interoperable cultural norms resulting in shared standards and principles.

These patterns and norms also inform the logic of commoning.

Look around today and you can see hundreds of newly fashioned open-science programs and software platforms being fashioned by a vanguard of scientists.

These are the launchpads for our shared cultural journey into the future of open science.

Here we are in Botswana. What a wondrous country this is. I was here some decades ago and I had the opportunity to visit some of its great natural preserves. If you buy me a gin and tonic some evening, I will tell you about the time I was stalked by a lion near Shakawe up on the Okavango…

Botswana also holds a special place in current theories of commoning and sharing economies. It turns out that AfroFuturism can be found not only in a fictional nation of Wakanda, but also in the deep, first-growth, hunter-gatherer cultures of Botswana and Namibia.

An advanced form of commoning can be found in the cultural logics of the sharing practices of traditional San societies in Botswana. Recent ethnographies by James Suzman and Thomas Widlok, for example, outline two powerful cultural norms found in traditional sharing economies that are significantly absent from today’s cosmopolitan, market-based sharing economies and services, such as Uber and Airbnb.

The ethnographies describe these norms as “fierce equality” and “demand sharing.” These norms, they claim, could productively inform modern sharing economies anywhere in the world; economies that can outcompete against Uber in the long-term.

Here I claim that these norms can help propel academic commons away from the perverse market incentives that currently intercept and corrupt the scholarly process. What Yochai Benkler calls “the tyranny of the margin,” the ratcheting up of ever larger productivity demands by the marketplace: this is the lion that stalks the whole academy. This is why we need to build commons and safeguard our practices with really strong shared norms.

What might these norms look like inside the academy?

Fierce equality puts the norm of equality first, at all levels of science. And yes, this is where #MeToo and #TimesUp enter into the heart of the cultures of science. But there is more:

Fierce equality will prompt significant changes to how societies, universities, and funders view and support the science endeavor. Fierce equality militates against what Cameron Neylon calls bullshit excellence and privilege in the academy, against the gamification of careers and reputations using external metrics, such as journal impact factors, and ultimately against all forms of the “Matthew effect” that amplifies inequality in funding and recognition.

“Demand sharing” takes “open” to its logical destination: every scientist on the planet has a need to find the resources that support her research. Any scientist should be able to demand their share. This demand is not automatic, however. It’s not some academy birthright. It doesn’t come with your PHD.

The cultural workings that support demand sharing also require that each scientist be open to sharing what is most valuable to her: data, of course, and findings, but also questions and concerns, pain points and critical observations, help for others as needed, and perhaps even kindness.

It’s interesting how difficult it is to consider kindness as a core norm for science. Why is that? I’ll leave this one hanging here… It’s another talk.

Injecting the norms of demand sharing and fierce equality into the cultures of the academy will require the widespread adoption of emergent intentional and reflexive cultural practices. Refactoring infraculture takes a lot of time and work.

Why should we bother? What do we get in return?

Here is one thing:

Science has already started the technological move from a logic of arbitrary scarcity and scarce data resources to a logic of resource abundance. This move is central to Fourth Paradigm science and the future of big-data use. The challenges of and the opportunities for a science based on data abundance is what brings us all here this week.

At the same time we build the cyberinfrastructure, we also need to build the cyberinfraCULTURE to grow the practices that support active sharing, mixing, mining and reuse of data and other science objects. Science will never achieve the full potential for resource abundance by clinging to exclusive property rights and building paywalls around science objects.

In some ways, the cultural future of science may look a lot like the ancient history of the peoples of Botswana. Their advanced knowledge of their surroundings has sustained them for tens of thousands of years. So too, advances in open science can sustain the global scientific endeavor into the future.

A vision statement for this future academy might be something like this:

We envision an academy where members openly share their most important thoughts, processes, data, and findings through self-governing commons that are intent on the long-term stewardship of resources, on the value of reuse, on the absolute equality of participation, on the freedom of scientific knowledge, and the right of all to participate in discovery, and of each to have their work acknowledged, if not with praise, but with kindness and full consideration.

We are all knowledge hunter-gatherers. Through open repositories, platforms and other cyberinfrastructures we are creating a provident big-data savanna that will nourish science across the globe. Through commoning cyberinfracultures we can teach each other to govern this savanna wisely. Wielding the norms of fierce equality and demand sharing, we can secure this future for all scientists.

And, with enough coffee, I think we might all make it through this day!

Thank you!

This talk was generously supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation