Co-producing openness

A couple of weeks ago I spent at a few days at the annual conference of the RGS-IBG, where nearly 2,000 delegates had gathered to discuss a huge variety of ideas and interpretations linked to the conference theme of ‘geographies of co-production’ – a theme selected by conference chair Wendy Larner which had clearly resonated with the geography community. One of the highlights for me was attending the first meeting of Geo’s editorial board, and the journal had a strong presence throughout the conference both through sponsored events, promotional literature, and more informal discussions between colleagues about the meaning and practice of open-access publishing.

During the conference a number of different meanings of ‘co-production’ were doing the rounds, and here I just want to reflect on two. Firstly, co-production can refer quite straightforwardly to ‘doing things together’ – in the case of this conference, much reflection centred around the practices and politics of collaborative knowledge making which challenges conventional hierarchies of expertise and institutional boundaries. How academics publish their work of course has many implications for the co-production of knowledge. If the ‘subjects’ of research are re-cast as co-producers of research, then access to the finished products takes on an extra set of ethical imperatives. Is it right to co-produce knowledge with, for example, non-academics, only for that knowledge to then be trapped in the circuits of academic journals and institutional subscriptions?

Many at the conference argued that knowledge is itself always-already co-produced. Knowledge does not just spring forth from individual brilliance in thought or research, but rather is something with multiple authors, historically textured with many unacknowledged sources, and gathered through experience and encounter as much as through methodical ‘research’. Who, then, does the knowledge contained in an academic journal article belong to? To whom should it be accessible, and accountable?

These are the kinds of arguments that have been animating the debate about open-access publishing. Many feel an ethical imperative to open-up their research to broader publics both in its production and its dissemination. Open-access publishing can therefore rightly be considered one process of co-production – of unsettling conventional boundaries, be they epistemic, institutional or economic.

Another reading of ‘co-production’ which was gaining attention at the conference was that developed in the field of science & technology studies (STS) – a discipline whose core concern is the way in which human societies make and use authoritative knowledge. In this field (forgive the generalisation), ‘co-production’ is taken to mean not necessarily people doing things together, but rather the mutual structuring of society and its forms of knowledge-making. The argument is that the way in which we make sense of the world is co-produced with the way in which we live in the world. Knowledge is at least partly a social thing, reflecting social structures and concerns. But knowledge also in turn influences those social structures. So people in STS, like Sheila Jasanoff, talk about the ‘co-production of science and social order’, to refer to the way in which scientific change and social change occur together.

With this particular co-productionist hat on, we might start to think about open-access publishing as a site of co-production. It is a site in which new structures of knowledge-making are emerging, at the same time as new social relations are being developed. Open-access publishing is a site where much broader struggles about the relationship between the academy and broader society are being played out. Open-access journals like Geo have a radically different funding structure, with the costs of production not covered by readers but by contributors, or in practice from research funding bodies or the authors’ academic institution. So the power structures which are inherent in any form of knowledge production and dissemination are changing.

The move to openness in the academy parallels, and is arguably informed by, broader moves towards initiatives like open data and so-called ‘open policy-making’ in government. Notions and practices of accountability are also in flux, with visual metaphors such as ‘openness’ promising new forms of democratic space. Technologies like the internet alter the possibilities and meaning of ‘openness’ in relation to powerful institutions, potentially creating new lines of visibility where before there may have been none. Yet STS also encourages us to practice analytical symmetry and therefore to ask whether and where processes of ‘opening up’ may be accompanied by processes of ‘closing down’.

So open-access publishing is part of the process of co-producing knowledge. It is also a site where the broader co-production of knowledge and social order is taking place. Relationships between publishers, authors, readers, funders, the academy, the state and broader publics – all of these are up for grabs and under negotiation in a variety of ways. This demands constant sensitivity to the multiple, dispersed effects of an initiative like open-access publishing. Geo is just one experimental site where new social relations are being explored, reflected upon, and practiced. Being involved in the journal from the outset as a member of the editorial board is thus not only a great opportunity to see these processes in action. It’s also an opportunity to, in a small way, help shape them.

Martin Mahony

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