Innovation at the Edges: Driving Home the Case for “Open Science”

Last week’s NFAIS annual conference largely delivered on its themes of “open, global, and collaborative” in addressing the ongoing transformation of scholarly and scientific communication. The thrust of what I took away: new means of fostering innovation, drawing upon the full landscape of scientific research, could be critical to increasing the productivity of scientists and other researchers; but remain limited, if not stymied, by the persistence of publishers’ paywalls and other barriers to access.

NFAIS is a relatively small association that regularly punches above its weight in the quality of its programs. Its acronym stands for National Federation of Advanced Information Services, and its core membership consists of providers and users of the metadata and analytics that drive the discovery and evaluation of scientific and other scholarly research — as distinct from the original publishers of that research (though sometimes separation may be within a single company or scholarly society). And that distinction affords a relatively neutral perspective on the issues of “openness” and “sustainability” for both researchers and publishers.

The program through the first two days included insightful presentations on the status of “open access” to scholarly literature in universities, the problems posed to the scientific enterprise by publisher paywalls and subscription pricing strategies, how open-source information can be used by a diversity of laypeople to out-forecast professionals, and the like. But most striking to me was the way in which the sessions I observed were bookended by different but mutually reinforcing perspectives on the same core topic: the ways in which knowledge creation and innovation are generated at the boundaries and intersections of diverse disciplines and communities — with clear implications for the ongoing debate over “open access” to the articles and other artifacts generated by the work of scientists and scholars.

In a three-century historical overview of scientific communication, keynoter Cameron Neylon of Australia’s Curtin University (and an influential scholar) charted the continuous growth of published knowledge, and asserted that it is by nature a group activity. He recounted the history of scientific publishing in terms of alternations between periods of more “openness” (the advent of industrial-scale scientific publishing, and much later, the web) and more “exclusivity” (the development of peer review; today’s increasingly precise tools for discovery, evaluation, and analytics). And he described a theory of knowledge creation that posits diversity as a first principle, in which new knowledge is generated by the “friction” of interactions within and between groups of collaborators, and between specialist and generalist communities. In this way, he positioned knowledge as essentially a product of translation, produced at the boundaries of distinct groups that are in contact or conflict.

Coming at essentially the same phenomenon but from the perspective of a software architect and entrepreneur, the last panelist on the second day was David King, founder of a firm named Exaptive (after the biological term for the use of a structure or feature for a function other than that through which it was developed through natural selection — e.g., feathers, originally evolved for warmth and only later adapted for flight). King asserted that innovation happens when people come together who have both commonalities and differences of knowledge and interest. He described research on building mission-based teams that seeks to quantify the innovation potential of individual three-person teams by analyzing such commonalities and differences among different sets of researchers. He provided some compelling examples of innovation occurring at the juncture of completely dissimilar domains. And he outlined a vision of how such analytically-driven social networks could help pinpoint opportunities to optimize collaborations, organize teams, and improve overall productivity.

The takeaway from each of these conceptions of innovation and knowledge creation was that the rich layer of identity, description and analytics that is increasingly central to scholarly communication can be a powerful tool for illuminating the most-likely-to-be-productive relationships and intersections across different areas of knowledge. The rub is that realizing that potential requires and rewards a foundation of accessible knowledge unobstructed by publisher paywalls and the work-arounds and unacceptable piracy they engender.

The need for a compelling argument for “open science” as a critical driver of innovation and productivity is growing, as the energy of the “economic fairness” argument for “open access” publishing cools; as mainstream publishers adapt and incorporate the new models; and as the cost of “gold” OA to the most prolific sponsoring research institutions becomes clearer. For me, these presentations underscored the degree to which an “impact-on-innovation” argument must be central to the issues of whether, when, and how a dramatic “flip” from subscription models (still three/quarters of scholarly publishing revenues) to “open access” could occur — while also informing timely questions about the role and economics of discovery, metrics and analytics solutions in a more open and interconnected future.

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