“Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?”
– Emerson in Self-Reliance

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 There is much to dislike in Emerson’s Self-Reliance but at its heart there are two key ideas that have guided this project. The first is a repetition of the old trope that to worry too much about how much of our work is derivative, or original, is to miss what it is that we actually bring to the conversation. That examining our own thoughts for what they reveal has real value. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his”. The year 2015 brought changes for me that gave me the luxury to re-think and re-consider much of what it was I had done over the previous decade, to find how those threads built on others and where I might have added new ones.


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 My original background is as a research scientist, raised in a world where research communications was print based. I saw the transition from the print world to online through the course of my PhD. I can’t claim to have seen the potential of the web early on, it was an interesting toy that increasingly had useful work information on it. The realisation of how research could change with online tools came much later and was largely down to other people. But I started to realise that the web and the internet offered the potential to communicate research differently; that questions of data collection, publication, research assessment and ultimately new approaches to doing science were all coupled together. That change seemed both necessary and inevitable. So naturally I wanted to talk to other people about it.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In 2007 I started writing a blog, initially hosted at OpenWetWare, as a way of tracking my own thoughts and of testing the tools and systems that were available at the time for online writing. It was through writing in public that I made contact with the wide range of people who were writing and thinking online about how research is conducted. At the time it was a small community, small enough that everyone knew everyone else, and small enough that conversations moved quickly, problems worked through, solutions agreed.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 To the extent that I have any influence or standing today it was to a significant extent a result of being an early member of that online community. Compared to others I didn’t have any particular technical expertise, just an emerging interest in how the web could make research better. It was in those open conversations about what might be possible that the nucleus of many of my current ideas formed. I did what I had always done, and continue to do to this day. I took the disparate ideas that I read and pushed them up against each other to see how they fit. I tried to understand how different perspectives might illuminate each other. I shook the ideas up and saw how they settled. Writing was a great way to do this, and in the smaller community of the time, as we were all exploring these ideas and learning how to express them, it was a great way to learn.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I say I was early, but of course many others had been writing online about science by the mid-2000s. “Science blogging” as a label had been around for some years, blog networks were being formed both as business ventures and as communities. Of course there was online writing about research long before the first web logs as well. By the time I started writing online there were two things in place that were advantageous. The technical environment was there to make it easy to write online. But also that online community was both big enough to be a rich pool of thinking and expertise and small enough to be closely connected. It was the combination of these two factors that would lead to the explosion of online writing in future years. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from that explosion.


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 When I first started writing online I had, at core, one very naive idea – that somehow connecting the ideas of “Web 2.0”, the semantic web and the process of recording and communicating research would revolutionise science itself. As I wrote in a post from 2009 I was far from the first to see the potential in combining these ideas. I think I might however reasonably claim to be among those who have spent the most time working through those ideas in the intervening years.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It turns out to be complicated.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It also turns out to be easy to miss that complexity if you focus only on the technology, or only on the cultural issues, or only on the issues of information. If my skill is to sit at the junctions between spaces and help to translate between them then this space might have been tailor made for me. Looking through these old posts it clearly took me a long time to get beyond the technical possibilities and appreciate how deep the issues of cultural change are. It took me longer to lift my eyes beyond the narrow view of my own cultures, first to see beyond the sciences into other domains of scholarship, then beyond the boundaries of my (north) western European world. You may detect that process in the changing choice of terms, from science to research, from research to scholarship, from public to publics, from developing world to global south. Like any growth it remains a work in progress.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Much of that growth came from serendipity. Interactions and meetings that were never planned, often as disparate communities tested out new services and technologies. There are too many examples and too many people to name here. For many years I would start my talks with slides showing the avatars of the 1000s of people I followed on a range of social services. But one example perhaps illustrate the many others. In 2008 a service called Friendfeed was launched. Many of its features will be familiar to Facebook users, it was amongst the first services to enable a public feed of shared events and a “like” button that let you share interesting items with other users. Our small community adopted this service, forming a group we called “The Life Scientists”. Another early adopting group was librarians.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Our community, was basically a group of young, male techno-utopians. The community of librarians was more diverse, both in age and gender, but perhaps more importantly was embroiled in the implementation of Institutional Repositories as a means of providing access to research articles. Here was a community that sat at the junction of technology and information systems and was attempting to drive basically the same cultural change that we were seeking. And I don’t think it is too harsh with nearly a decade’s distance to say they were largely failing. Not due to a lack of passion or effort but due to the lack of political and financial support needed to make change happen. Today we celebrate the successes – and they were and are important and substantial – but they occurred where the environment was right to support change. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that watching that process was a turning point for me.  I certainly see in my writing before that time the assumption that if the technology was right then adoption would follow. After that, the questions change. What could drive change? How is the right environment created?

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Yet the fundamental questions that set me on this route remains. How can the technologies of the internet and the web – of modern networked communication systems – be used to make research and scholarship more effective, more valuable to our societies? What can we do to take the capacities that these systems provide and use them to create value? Where can we find incremental improvements and efficiencies? And where can we imagine entirely new ways of doing things? How is it that we can exploit the fuzzy region where information can transition from structured (semantic web) to unstructured (web 2.0) and back again. How can we exploit the social interactions of experts in that space to generate new structured knowledge while creating creative spaces where ideas and data can be brought together in new ways?


12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 However, while the questions may be the same, my motivations have changed. If you had asked me in 2007 what I meant by “making science better” I would have focussed on efficiency and cost effectiveness in generating discoveries. Essentially that open communication and better data systems would generate more science. Had you asked me my politics at the time I would have said I was “socially liberal and economically conservative”. I would have been impatient with the idea that things couldn’t be measured and patronising about how science could solve the problems of the world.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Today I would give a different answer. One which has developed through seeing more of the world but also through seeing it through different lenses. Today I would talk about enhancing “agency”, the ability of people to make their own choices. Whether it is through economic or social development, through (relevant and appropriate) education, better data or information, or through empowering people to take control over their own lives – these are the things we are trying to achieve. There is a fundamental change here, between providing “truths” that will help people and providing systems and information that help them make their own decisions.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This may be a more inclusive view and one that fits more easily into the political narrative that has developed during the financial crises of the last decade but it is one which is harder to act on. In the end I seek to design systems which are more effective, “better”, in some way. Some of those systems enable choice, but some of them do not, some of them must not to work. Balancing the needs of the many with the rights of the individual is hardly a new problem in political philosophy. But with todays technologies we build architectures that create new types of balance, while never really thinking what those are. At the same time we claim to work to remove the main comfort that political engineers of previous generations had – that the disenfranchised would in any case have no voice to complain with.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The political economics of collective action tells us that solutions to these problems of self organisation, of husbanding resources and managing the tensions between different stakeholders, are necessarily messy. They arise out of local compromises in a stepwise process. Successful systems can not in any meaningful sense be designed and implemented. Even small modifications can create massive unexpected side effects. What is different today is that these systems are emerging within architectures that we can design. This is perhaps the most interesting question – what are the architectural design principles that enable and encourage communities to build their own political systems? What values need to be imposed so as to allow the widest expression of values?

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Ultimately this is a question of design, albeit design in a space where we don’t yet know the rules of engineering. There is much more to understand here before it will be possible to even understand how to take principled decisions. These questions sit at the junction of politics, economics, sociology, technology, information theory, law and psychology. They combine the issues of user experience engineering and international law, the potential (positive and negative) of crypto currencies and the challenges of global development. It is perhaps unsurprising that as a person who is at heart a researcher that I should believe that the solution is more research. It should be even less surprising that as a dilettante in so many fields, I should frame that problem as one sitting at a junction – where the need is for someone who can make connections.


17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 If the challenges looking forward are extensive what is the value of looking backwards to old writing? What is the value of wrapping that writing into an object so traditional as to merit the title of “book”. A cynic would reasonably point to my (now rapidly receding) fortieth birthday or the fact that everyone else is doing it. I will also admit to a certain frustration with the increasing volume of writing, both scholarly and “merely online”, that continues to re-hash or re-invent many of these ideas. A book may function as a stick in the ground, a defensible claim that these ideas are not new. Of course, I can’t claim any of those ideas are mine either. All of this writing arose out of conversation. Even if I could track which piece of it was mine I wouldn’t want to.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In some ways it is a return to the original point of the blog. I wanted to write online to explore what blogs could do and be. I was testing technologies and services as much as I wanted to test ideas. I started blogging more or less as it become easy, with services and softwares that (mostly) worked out of the box. Publishing a book in 2007, especially if you tried to do it yourself, would have been a bit like setting up a blog in 2001. Today it is easy enough that it is worth me exploring the ins and outs – to see how easy it is.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 But mainly I wanted to see what was there. To see if it made a coherent whole. It is only through going back over these old pieces that I have realised how little the underlying questions have changed, but how much the underlying motivations have. It is by taking eight years of ideas and pushing them up against each other in different combinations that I can start to see a way of synthesising a whole. The questions for the future arise out of an understanding of the route I took to get here. Over the years I have benefited enormously both from doing work in the open and from making available the results of that work – whether or not I thought they would be useful to others. In the end this book is just the same. I have benefited from putting it together. If others benefit from it that is a bonus.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Of course the real motivations are complex. It has been a useful process. I believe it will be useful to (some) others. It will be interesting to see through the details of production and I do want to put that stick in the ground. It will be nice to have a chunky object to point at and say “I did that” as evidence of some sort of contribution. In the end it is a combination of all these things. Human motivation is a complex, messy business. Understanding what that means is halfway to figuring out how to tackle the problems that we face.

why this book?

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The second key to Emerson’s essay is captured in the epigraph that heads this essay. That ideas and the environments they live in are dynamic. Having the luxury of considering how my thinking has changed has been important in charting out my next steps. That thought process is represented in the selection of essays here and their organisation into thematic sections. The order of sections is chosen to tell a story that represents the development of my thinking. Within each section, the piece are presented in order I wrote them with an introduction that provides some context and observes those developing ideas. Each piece is presented in more or less its original form, edited only to make clear any dates and times referred to, and to correct errors, mistakes and infelicities. You are free to compare to their original versions, linked from each piece. There are some topics that might appear to be missing, arguments on the value (or lack thereof) of peer review, or on the processes of scholarly publishing more generally. I have not made a representative or comprehensive selection, but one that tells a particular story, one of a developing view of how the research enterprise is evolving as a collection of technical and social systems.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Each of these pieces may tell its own story, but the context I have placed them in also twists that narrative of course. Towards the end of Self-Reliance Emerson tells us “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal.” And of course the context these pieces were written in is also lost, the world having moved on.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The narrative arch, if there is one is therefore artificial, although it reflects my recollection of how my thinking evolved. We start with advocacy, with words and the power they have to shape our thinking. Beginning with advocacy sets the context before moving onto the technological possibilities and techno-utopian visions that excited me to that role. A step sideways into personal reflections on my own motivations and interests as well as the issue of expertise, sets us up for the realisation that technology is not enough that context and community matters. This is followed by the strand of work in research assessment that best shows that gradual realisation, looking at how I approached questions of assessment and incentives, and the data and evidence behind them over the years. In the final section are three essays written between 2010 and 2015. Each is an attempt to synthesise aspects of the developing story. Their success is for others to judge but in each case we return to advocacy. They argue for a view of the world, for possibilities.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In the end this is where I depart from Emerson. At the end of self-reliance he rejects the satisfaction that comes from changing the world.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Principles matter, but for me principles themselves are empty, a guide to action but not the motivation itself or even the means of assessing success. They must as the epigraph tells us, be considered and reconsidered like all the other parts of our thinking. Change does not occur from the outside, it is done from within, with all the mess and contingency and lack of complete knowledge and compromise that that implies. This collection tells my story of some of that re-thinking.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0  

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Source: http://book-shaped-object.cameronneylon.net/wp/introduction/