On Developing Networked Communities

I dropped what a friend of mine referred to as a “Twitter bomb” this morning, spurred on by a question raised by Tim Hutchings:

My thoughts have gotten a bit of attention, and in order to ensure that they’re not lost to the passage of time (and to do the editing that Twitter won’t permit), I thought I’d capture them here.

I’ve heard the concern about the way we named Humanities Commons a few times, and I have taken it to heart. I’ve tried, as much as I can, to put aside my somewhat knee-jerk desire to point out that few have complained about the ways that projects with “science” in their names limit their address. Because there’s a real point being made here: naming the humanities limits our reach. And to a significant extent, that’s purposeful.

The humanities have long been underserved by digital infrastructure projects. Scientists have loads of open science networks available to them. Social scientists have had SSRN. And given that Humanities Commons began with the MLA, and MLA Commons, it seemed only natural that we should serve our own constituency first.

But: First. Platforming outward from MLA Commons to Humanities Commons has been one step in a process. And more steps are to come.

It’s hard to develop community by simply throwing open the doors, though. Much as I resist the Facebook analogy (as I wouldn’t want a scholarly commons to take it as a model), it’s worth considering how the platform grew. First, they established internally-focused networks within individual institutions, enabling members to connect with people they already knew. Then they created means of connecting across those networks. And only once there was a critical mass of participation did they open the doors to everyone.

One of the mistakes that’s been made repeatedly in open scholarly communication projects has been the attempt to create the bucket of everything. Sometimes that bucket has been journal-shaped, and sometimes it’s been social network shaped. But they all face the same challenge: getting individual scholars who identify with their field or subfield and who want to speak with their colleagues to recognize themselves in “everybody.”

So Humanities Commons has begun with communities of practice — but they’re just a place to start. We welcome the involvement of new communities of practice, and we look forward to growing the network in organic, collaborative ways.

The Commons and the Common Good

The Commons and the Common Good

Earlier this week, I took a whirlwind trip back to my old New York stomping grounds, where I both had the opportunity to catch up with my colleagues at the MLA and to spend a day talking with the leaders of several scholarly societies who are helping us think through the future of Humanities Commons. I’m still a bit fuzzy-headed from travel and sleep deprivation, and I’m still processing the discussion and the challenges that it surfaced, but I’m excited about the energy in that meeting room and the possibilities that lie ahead.

Two things became clear to me in the course of our conversation. The first thing is that organizations and institutions across the humanities are facing many of the same challenges and have many of the same resulting infrastructural and communication needs. The second is that chief among those needs — if often unrecognized or unarticulated — is the ability to have some agency with respect to the solutions they adopt. Neither of these ideas really qualifies as a realization, but the degree to which the shared nature of the challenges risks obscuring the shared potential of the solutions did become a good bit sharper.

A huge part of the problem is that the most shared of the shared challenges is budgetary: everybody’s underresourced and understaffed; everybody is trying to figure out how to do more with less. Scholarly societies need to provide their members with more, and more compelling, services in order to keep those members involved and invested, but doing so often involves new systems and platforms, and supporting (much less developing) those systems and platforms is often beyond those societies’ capacity. Similarly, colleges and universities need to provide their faculty members and students with compelling ways to develop their research and make it available to and discoverable by the world, but they face similar challenges in developing the infrastructure — not just technical but crucially human — to facilitate that work.

This gap between needs and capacities has led to a thriving ed-tech and association management industry. Solutions (with a capital S) abound. The problem, of course, is that the end goal of those providing the Solutions is not the same as the end goal of the organizations and institutions they’re providing the Solutions for: not improving education, or facilitating communication, or supporting research, or whathaveyou, but instead (as Neal Stephenson would have it) increasing shareholder value. In order to do so, of course, their Solutions need to be pretty good, and pretty well-supported, but where the goal of increasing shareholder value runs up against the needs and pressures of the organizations and institutions they’re ostensibly serving, the industry’s goals are going to win. And the result is platforms and services that function more to extract value from organizations than to help those organizations serve their members’ needs.

These platforms and services, however, are generally speaking too difficult to develop and maintain for any organization or institution to manage on their own. And it’s that “on their own” that makes the Solutions industry a viable one. As long as organizations and institutions not only assume their needs to be idiosyncratic but feel the need, as Chris Newfield has put it, to “compete all the time,” they’re stuck, at the mercy of the market.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity over the last several years to work for an organization that recognized the importance of providing community-focused platforms for scholarly communication, and that gave me the latitude to work with other like-minded academic groups to develop an open-source, not-for-profit solution (with a small s) to fill that need. The MLA is large enough, and well-resourced enough, to have been able to take such a project on where many of its sister societies could not. But sustaining a solution like this requires more than even the largest and best-resourced organizations can provide.

What’s required is a more robust sense of the commonality of our interests and the collaborative possibilities of our solutions. We need organizations and institutions to put aside competition and embrace the sorts of collective action that might help protect all of us from the markets that promise solutions but provide only Solutions. That’s a significant part of what we’re hoping to build with Humanities Commons — not just a platform for open scholarly communication, but a model for collective development and support of shared services.

This is no small challenge. We know all too well how to think about market-based forces like competition. We have much less experience, as a culture, with thinking about collaboration. But solving shared problems sustainably is going to require just that shift.

Photo credit: Cooperation 2 by Erich Ferdinand. CC BY.

Parting Gifts

Today marks the start of my last week working at the MLA. It’s been a fantastic six years, and I’m enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to work on so many fascinating projects, and with such great colleagues and members, over that time. And I’m especially happy that I’m going to be able to continue working on one of those projects, Humanities Commons.

So this is the point at which I’m going to shamelessly use my imminent departure to ask you all for a little going-away present. We are super close to a major milestone in Humanities Commons membership, and I’d really, really like to see us cross that threshold while I’m still in the office, with the team.

Here’s the call: if you haven’t yet created a Humanities Commons account, please do! Accounts are open to anyone working in any field, in any capacity, in the humanities. You can create a professional profile, deposit and share work in our open-access repository, join discussion groups, build a website, and more. And if you’re a member of one of our participating societies — MLA, AJS, ASEEES, and as of last week, CAA — you can participate in your scholarly organization’s work as well.

If you already have an account, thank you! I’d love it if you’d give me — well, all of us, really — a small gift as well: deposit a syllabus, a conference paper, an article pre-print, or something else entirely, to share with the world.

Thanks, all, for all of your support and enthusiasm over the years. Here’s to our next steps toward building the humanities community of the future.

Sustainability

As we’ve just announced, the MLA is grateful to have received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of the next phase of our work on Humanities Commons. I’m personally grateful as well, both to have had the opportunity to work with an amazing team (about whom more in a moment) on this project over the last five years and to have been given the opportunity to continue that work from my new position at Michigan State University.

Our goal for Humanities Commons is to build an open access, open source, not-for-profit network that is focused on the needs of scholars and practitioners in the humanities, helping them share their work with one another and with the world. Humanities Commons is committed to an ethic of collective, collaborative, sustainable development, and this next phase of our work is focused on just that. Over the course of the next year, we will work with a group of prospective partner societies to produce a comprehensive business and sustainability plan to ensure the network’s future, as well as a governance model that will ensure that the network’s sustaining partners have oversight of its operations and a voice in its future development.

Real sustainability, after all, isn’t just about revenue generation and cost recovery. It’s about relationships, about personal and institutional commitment, about the willingness to work together toward long-term means of ensuring that the platforms we build today will not just survive but evolve with our technologies and the people who use them.

We want to thank our partner societies in the pilot of Humanities Commons — the Association for Jewish Studies; the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and, as of later this week, the College Art Association — for their willingness to build those relationships in the service of this new network. And we want to thank the organizations that have agreed to participate in this year’s planning process, about whom more in the very near future.

But we also want to thank the more than 4000 members who have joined Humanities Commons since we launched in December, for helping us create and promote a community of scholars, for scholars, by scholars.

And most of all, I personally want to thank the Humanities Commons team. The team of course includes my fabulous colleagues at the MLA, who have brought an astounding creativity, commitment, and spirit of member service to building a truly sustainable scholarly communication network for us all: Nicky Agate, Head of Digital Initiatives; Eric Knappe, Head of Web Development; Ryan Williams and Leo Fulgencio, Web Developers; Anne Donlon, Community Manager; and Caitlin Duffy, our social media maven. It also includes some amazing collaborators: Matt Gold, Boone Gorges, and the rest of the CUNY GC team who brought us Commons In A Box; Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Rebecca Kennison, and the rest of the Columbia University Libraries team past and present who have energetically participated in the development of CORE; Benn Oshrin, Scott Koranda, and the rest of the Spherical Cow Group for their work on the identity management system that makes this federation possible.

It has been a privilege to get to be part of this extraordinary collaboration, and I very much look forward to seeing where the next year leads us.

Things I Have Learned from Other People’s Use of My Email Address

Kevin Fitzpatrick’s monthly AT&T Wireless bill is creeping higher month by month, and unless he’s got family members on his account, he should probably seek a better plan.

Kevin also apparently had some serious damage to his 2013 Dodge, but his insurance company seems to be all over it.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick got a great deal on some lovely clothes at Nordstrom Rack in Eatontown, wherever that is, but she’s not going to be getting a copy of her receipt.

Kathy Fitzpatrick’s mum, Mary, is super sweet, and I hope their upcoming trip goes wonderfully.

K. Fitzpatrick found a better deal on a Samsung Galaxy Tablet than what JohnLewis.com was offering, but JohnLewis.com did the right thing and matched it. Or would have, had she gotten the message instead of me.

Another K. Fitzpatrick and her husband have a really nice financial advisor, who reached out to them for a review to start the new year. I am glad her husband got the message but wish he’d noticed that his wife’s email address was wrong before replying-all.

And yet another K. Fitzpatrick’s nursing license renewal application has been received by the Tennessee Department of Health. Registered nurses are the best, and the Tennessee Department of Health is awesome too, as they’re the ONLY organization that has ever worked to track the correct email address of the correct K. Fitzpatrick down. Rock on, TN Health.

* * *

I will admit to being somewhat facetious in detailing the above, and I’ll also acknowledge that some of the misdirected email messages I get are the result of sender typos (see Kathy Fitzpatrick’s mum). That’s going to happen. But other instances of this problem are much more concerning. After several months of trying to notify someone about the problem, I am still receiving Kevin Fitzpatrick’s AT&T bill, as well as notices of when he’s paid, and because of that I know his account number and the last four digits of his credit card. And then there’s the teen several years back who signed up for a series of MySpace-like social networks using my email address, which proceeded to bombard me with notifications about her activity within the sites, in way more detail than I would have wanted.

The bottom line is that this is not safe. That a mistake can result in a stranger receiving all kinds of personal information about you points to a major flaw in many of the systems with which we interact today. And what’s worse is that in many cases this information leak is avoidable: if AT&T or any of the other sites and networks that have started sending me someone else’s information were to require email verification before employing user-provided addresses, they’d take an enormous step toward securing their users’ privacy.

I have undoubtedly mistyped my email address on several web-based forms. Kevin Fitzpatrick may well know more about me than I would like. All the more reason to find it astonishing that such a basic flaw in internet-based communication seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Reading, Privacy, and Scholarly Networks

Sarah Bond published a column on Forbes.com this morning on the importance of not for profit scholarly networks. I’m thrilled that she mentioned not only my blog post but also the work we’re doing at Humanities Commons. But if she hasn’t convinced you that it’s time to #DeleteAcademiaEdu yet, maybe this will: Friday, the network launched a new “prime” feature that allows members to pay to see the identities of users who are reading the work they share. That is to say: if you are reading things on Academia.edu, the network may sell your user info.

That they’re offering to sell this info to the author of the work involved does not make it okay. This is a frightening violation of the privacy standards that — a key point of comparison — libraries have long maintained with respect to reader activity. And selling your data to authors may only be the beginning.

I don’t want to read too much into the fact that they launched this “feature” on inauguration day. But the coincidence really begs scholars to become even more vigilant about where they’re sharing their work, and what networks they’re supporting as they access the work of others.

Academia, Not Edu

Last week’s close attention to open access, its development, its present state, and its potential futures, surfaced not only the importance for both the individual scholar and the field at large of sharing work as openly as possible, with a range of broadly conceived publics, but also some continuing questions about the best means of accomplishing that sharing. As I mentioned last week, providing opportunities for work to be opened at the point of publication itself is one important model, but a model that may well have occluded our vision of other potential forms: the ease of using article-processing charges to offset any decline in subscription revenue possible as previously paywalled content becomes openly available is so apparent as to have become rapidly naturalized, allowing us to wave off the need for experimentation with less obvious — and less remunerative — models.

Among alternative models, as I noted, is author-originated sharing of work, often in pre-print forms, via the open web. Many authors already share work in this way, whether posting drafts on their blogs for comment or depositing manuscripts in their institutional repositories. And recently, many scholars have also taken to sharing their work via Academia.edu, a social network that allows scholars to build connections, get their work into circulation, and discover the work of others. I’m glad to see the interest among scholars in that kind of socially-oriented dissemination and sharing, but I’m very concerned about this particular point of distribution and what it might mean for the future of the work involved.

Here’s the crux of the matter:

The first thing to note is that, despite its misleading top level domain (which was registered by a subsidiary prior to the 2001 restrictions), Academia.edu is not an educationally-affiliated organization, but a dot-com, which has raised millions in multiple rounds of venture capital funding. This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent, but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.

And if the network is to turn a profit, that profit has a limited number of means through which it can be generated: either academics who are currently contributing their work to this space will have to pay to continue to access it, or the work that they have contributed will somehow be mined for sale, whether to advertisers or other interested parties. In fact, Academia.edu’s CEO has said that “the goal is to provide trending research data to R&D institutions that can improve the quality of their decisions by 10-20%.” Statements like this underwrite Gary Hall’s assessment of the damage that the network can do to genuine open access: “Academia.edu has a parasitical relationship to the public education system, in that these academics are labouring for it for free to help build its privately-owned for-profit platform by providing the aggregated input, data and attention value.” The network, in other words, does not have as its primary goal helping academics communicate with one another, but is rather working to monetize that communication. All of which is to say: everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before commiting our professional lives to it.

The problem, of course, is that many of us face the same dilemma in our engagement with Academia.edu that we experience with Facebook. Just about everyone hates Facebook on some level: we hate its intrusiveness, the ways it tracks and mines and manipulates us, the degree to which it feels mandatory. But that mandatoriness works: those of us who hate Facebook and use it anyway do so because everyone we’re trying to connect with is there. And as we’ve seen with the range of alternatives to Facebook and Twitter that have launched and quickly faded, it’s hard to compete with that. So with Academia.edu: I’ve heard many careful, thoughtful academics note that they’re sharing their work there because that’s where everybody is.

And the “everybody” factor has been a key hindrance to the flourishing of other mechanisms for author-side sharing of work such as institutional repositories. Those repositories provide rigorously protected and preserved storage for digital objects, as well as high-quality metadata that can assist in the discovery of those objects, but the repositories have faced two key challenges: first, that they’ve been relatively siloed from one another, with each IR collecting and preserving its own material independently of all others, and second, that they’ve been (for the obvious reason) institutionally focused. The result of the former is that there hasn’t been any collective sense of what material is available where (though the ARL/AAU/APLU-founded project SHARE is working to solve that problem). The result of the latter is that a relatively small amount of such material has been made available, as researchers by and large tend to want to communicate with the other members of their fields, wherever they may be, rather than feeling the primary identification with their institutions that broad IR participation would seem to require. So why, many cannot help but feel, would I share my work in a place where it will be found by few of the people I hope will read it?

The disciplinary repository may provide a viable alternative — see, for instance, the long-standing success of arXiv.org — but the fact that such repositories collect material produced in disciplines rather than institutions is only one of the features key to their success, and to their successful support of the goals of open access. Other crucial features include the not-for-profit standing of those repositories, which can require thoughtful fundraising but keeps the network focused on the researchers it comprises, and those repositories’ social orientation, facilitating communication and interconnection among those researchers. That social orientation is where Academia.edu has excelled; early in its lifespan, before it developed paper-sharing capabilities, the site mapped relationships among scholars, both within and across institutions, and has built heavily upon the interconnections that it traced — but it has not primarily done so for the benefit of those scholars or their relationships.

Scholarly societies have the potential to inhabit the ideal point of overlap between a primary orientation toward serving the needs of members and a primary focus on facilitating communication amongst those members. This is in large part why we established MLA Commons, to build a not-for-profit social network governed and developed by its members with their goals in mind. And in working toward the larger goals of open access, we’ve connected this social network with CORE, a repository through which members can not only deposit and preserve their work, but also share it directly with the other members of the network. We’re also building mechanisms through which CORE can communicate with institutional repositories so that the entire higher-education-based research network can benefit.

Like all such networks, however, the Commons will take time to grow, so we can’t solve the “everybody” problem right away. But we’re working toward it, through our Mellon-supported Humanities Commons initiative, which seeks to bring other scholarly societies into the collective. The interconnections among the scholarly society-managed Commonses we envision will not only help facilitate collaboration across disciplinary lines but also allow members with overlapping affiliations to have single sign-on access to the multiple groups of scholars with whom they work. We are working toward a federated network in which a scholar can maintain and share their work from one profile, on a scholar-governed network, whose direction and purpose serve their own.

So, finally, a call to MLA members: when you develop your member profile and share your work via the Commons, you not only get your work into circulation within your community of practice, and not only raise the profile of your work within that community, but you also help support us as we work to solve the “everybody” problem of the dot-com that threatens to erode the possibilities for genuine open access.

I logged in to Skype for a conference call yesterday afternoon and immediately received a message letting me know that it was the birthday of someone with whom I’ve collaborated on a few projects.

Don’t get me wrong — I have actually come to like Birthday Facebook, both the notifications and the resulting pile-on of greetings, which seem to me the best purpose that the network has come to serve. But Birthday Skype feels a bit more intrusive somehow, something like your kitchen telephone reminding you that it might be nice if you called your Great Aunt Helen every once in a while.

I did send a quick message of the “wow, weird, but HBD!” variety. I did not, however, send the Skype-minutes-gift-card that was on offer. (Sorry, collaborator.)