Whose Utopia?

The Need for Meaningful Diversity and Human-Centred Design When Imagining a “Scholarly Commons”

A couple weekends ago, FORCE11 (The Future For Research Communications and E-Scholarship) brought together fifty people from various continents in Madrid to imagine what a ‘scholarly commons’ could look like. The goal of the workshop was to define the principles for a research communication system made possible by today’s technologies, but free from the archaic norms of 350 years of tradition in scholarly publishing, (which are largely rooted from restrictions from printed materials and distribution). What kind of knowledge-sharing world could we design if there existed no publishers, no journals, no articles, or no institutions?

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Workshop participants gather around a list of agreed-upon principles of an ideal scholarly commons.

Workshop participants consisted of a wide range of stakeholders in the current scholarly communication system: graduate students, senior-level researchers, librarians, university press employees, as well as representatives from funding agencies and relevant non-profits. The process was facilitated by YKON, a non-profit arts organization based out of Helsinki that works to imagine utopias in the context of modern sociopolitical problems. Utopia, as a general theme, was weaved into all aspects of the workshop: we were instructed to keep a positive attitude, to ‘not gather woes of the current system’, but to forget the old system entirely and design a new academic paradise from scratch.

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YKON made sure that the workshop deviated from the conventional format of traditional academic conferences: there were no keynote lectures, no 20-minute talks, no posters, and no panel discussions. Instead, participants exchanged ideas via ‘speed dating’, brainstormed thoughts on bright yellow post-it notes, and separated into small break-out groups to flesh out what their ideal research communication system might look like. Popular ideas that emerged from the meeting included specific outcomes, such as replacing the traditional scholarly article instead with research ‘objects’ that are continuously released throughout the research cycle, the need for curators of research outputs, the importance of metadata, as well as more general principles, such as the need for the commons to be a fair playing ground, the need for content to be openly accessible, and the need for equity in the commons. You can read the full notes from the meeting here.

Although it was certainly interesting to have so many different stakeholders brainstorming in a room together, at the end of the meeting, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. I‘ve since done a lot of thinking in the week following the workshop, and here I offer some of my opinions on how we can move forward from our learnings.

Whose utopia?

When the workshop facilitators announced that our job was to design an ‘academic utopia’, I immediately felt uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t easily place. A few workshop attendees commented that striving for utopia was undesirable because a utopian world was a boring one, but I knew this wasn’t what was unsettling me. By day 2 of the workshop, I realized that my discomfort stemmed from the fact that utopia looks really different across individuals coming from different circumstances. Whose utopia, exactly, were we imagining? Although the participants here were ‘diverse’ in that they came from different sectors and career stages, they were also overwhelmingly North American or European. In other words, they were mostly successful researchers coming from institutions with plentiful access to scholarly resources.

While content curation, metadata, version control, and bidirectional links might be elements that constitute an academic utopia for a senior researcher at an established Western institution, we can imagine that these might not be the most pressing issues for researchers from less wealthy regions. And so here was my discomfort: utopia may look like a world where research is efficient, productive, and transparent for the privileged scientist — but for the marginalized one, utopia might simply look like a world where all researchers can access resources, have their work noticed and voices heard in the academic community. But because the voices at the FORCE11 workshop largely came from places of privilege, these issues were not the aspects of ‘utopia’ that our discussions focused on. On the contrary, I felt like issues concerning underrepresented researchers were sometimes too quickly dismissed.

For example, a graduate student from Latin America at my table suggested that the ideal scholarly commons should facilitate article searches that disrupt the Matthew Effect, rather than perpetuating a cycle where the most ‘discoverable’ research is research produced by the most privileged researchers. Unfortunately, her concern was noted only briefly by the group before quickly switching topics, suggesting that her comment was irrelevant to our conversation. Similarly, during a discussion about transparency where our group decided that the scholarly commons should prohibit anonymity (all scholarly outputs in the commons would be attributed to their contributors), a team member pointed out that this could be a roadblock for researchers from countries with governments that surveil or muzzle scientists. This was quickly shut down by another group member — “we’re not at this workshop to fix corrupt governments”. I thought to myself: but aren’t we here to design a utopian system where we do our best to facilitate equal opportunities for participation in the commons? Wasn’t it a point that was at least worth discussing?

The predominant presence of Western researchers also meant that there were many assumptions made and many perspectives forgotten throughout the ideation process. For example, as one fellow participant pointed out to me after the meeting, what good is online infrastructure for collaborative data sharing and reproducibility for researchers in countries that don’t even have regular access to the internet? So much of our workshop discussions focused on digital features of the commons that I wondered how inclusive this ‘utopia’ that we were designing would actually be.

What would meaningful diversity look like?

FORCE11 released a data visualization of the demographic breakdown of their invited attendees. During the opening reception, they highlighted a 1:1 ratio for male to female participants, as well as noticeable representation from young people.

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When it came to geography, however, there were only a small handful of participants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, collectively.

The lack of heterogeneity of voices at the table didn’t go by unnoticed:

While I echo this concern, I also feel that the onus to “be a strong voice”, to push for the interests of those most marginalized by the current system, shouldn’t be on a small handful of workshop attendees sparsely selected form various developing regions. Workshop participants, upon reading this, might be thinking “but didn’t we all agree that equity should be an important aspect of the future scholarly commons?” After all, the diversity piece was one of the most popularly voted-on principles in our ‘dotmocracy’ exercise at the end of our workshop:

I couldn’t help but feel that there was a discrepancy between rhetoric and dialogue when it came to this principle. Meaningful diversity needs to be more than simply saying ‘we will have diverse voices’ — it needs to be putting the effort into having difficult discussions on how a scholarly commons could disrupt the power dynamics that exist in society. It means that we must do more than just have bodies present: we must engage marginalized researchers in the conversation, and we must listen to what they have to say.

Can human-centred design thinking help?

Design thinking is a way of strategically thinking about problems, products, or solutions that centres around the unique experiences and needs of particular ‘users’ (the humans involved in the problem, product, or solution). Intuitively, this approach makes a lot of sense: if we are to build a scholarly commons, then surely we must design for the vast array of scholars that comprise it. As David Bollier has stated in his introduction to the commons, “there are no commons without commoners”. So if we are to design an ‘ideal’ academic commons, mustn’t we focus most on the needs of those currently most marginalized by the current broken system?

This is where human-centred design tools can help with structuring a process for imagining an academic world that is utopian for all scholars, not just the ones whose voices are heard most often. Here are a few strategies and tools that might be used moving forward:

Co-design. Co-design simply refers to designing a solution or product with the stakeholders involved in the outcome — this avoids making assumptions about what they would need or like. It’s an approach that would democratize the process of imagining a scholarly commons by making decision-making participatory, rather than top-down. How different would the workshop have been if we had more researchers from developing regions help define the most pressing problems in the current system before we started imaging an academic utopia? What principles of the scholarly commons would we have focused on fleshing out then?

Problem framing. Although we were instructed to ‘forget the woes of the current system’ during the FORCE11 workshop, it may have actually been useful to concretely assess and define why we were gathering to innovate and imagine a new scholarly communication system. Rather than innovating for the sake of innovating, it would have been productive to consider what problem(s) exactly were we working together to address? An example of a carefully defined problem statement might look like: “How do we create a scholarly commons where diverse voices can meaningfully participate and diverse content can be discovered?” If each group at the workshop were to have focused on a different problem statement, the outcomes may have looked surprisingly different. Here’s a quick guideline to problem framing.

Journey mapping. This visualization tool asks designers to consider how a particular ‘user’ (in our case, the scholar!) interacts with the environment we are designing for them, by mapping out the significant time points, experiences, and locations someone comes across in their ‘journey’ through, say, the utopian scholarly commons. Coming back to our previous point, a journey map may have helped us realize, for example, that online infrastructure for data-sharing would be less useful for a scholar with infrequent access to internet. This would prompt us to go back to the drawing board and consider how we could improve on this scholar’s experience. Here’s a quick guideline to journey mapping.

Systems thinking. Complex problems, such as the non-inclusive nature of the current research communication system, are often embedded in complex systems with a multiplicity of stakeholders and institutions, each with varying degrees of involvement. It is often useful to map out how resources, information, and money flow between stakeholder and institutional nodes to understand what ramifications your proposed solution may have in a network. On a practical level, designers might use a systems map to identify strategic ‘leverage points’ for implementing change: where in the current academic system could you create the most impact with the least effort? You can read more about systems mapping here.

In recent years, design thinking has exploded, with entire degree programs devoted to the field. There are a plethora of tools that are not covered in this post (which is far from comprehensive!), so if you feel that this approach may be potentially useful for you, I recommend that you check them out.

I realize this may have been a long-winded post (and it is now quite late at night), so at the end of the day, my take home point, I think, is this: there are a multiplicity of scholars from radically different backgrounds and circumstances in the current academic system. If we are to design a utopian scholarly commons, we must consider all perspectives. This is a daunting task, so tools that take into account participatory, human-centred design can help guide us through the process of designing an ideal academic world.

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