In the last few years, there has been a marked shift in the debate on open access publishing from a focus on (mere) outputs to one on infrastructures. With terms such as ‘community-led’, ‘the commons’ and ‘governance’ regularly bandied about, advocates for OA are increasingly looking away from commercial publishers and towards infrastructures designed by and for a more accountable set of stakeholders. One exciting new initiative that launched this week is Invest in Open Infrastructures (IOI), a coalition of individuals and organisations looking to sustain and promote open-source alternatives to proprietary infrastructures. IOI describes itself as a ‘global initiative to increase the availability and sustainability of open knowledge infrastructure’.
One thing that immediately sets IOI apart from other such initiatives is its awareness of the tensions between scale and diversity. The contributors come from a range of geographical and disciplinary areas and they have a specific remit to consider ‘local and contextual requirements’ where appropriate. Any infrastructural design has to find the right balance between the need for standardisation and a diversity of interactions.
Infrastructures, particularly those that are broad in their application, have a homogenising tendency that may flatten out difference, erase local contexts and promote standardisation of interactions. This is because they are designed for an ‘average’ user and can only realistically account for a finite number of possibilities. Take journal submission systems, for example, which are only able to handle a certain number of submission types, file sizes, image formats, etc. and can never do everything a user wants it to do. (I spent the first two years of my publishing career explaining this to authors, editors and reviewers.) The broader the remit of the infrastructure, and the more users it is designed to support, the more homogeneous the interactions will be.
Leigh Star illustrates this point neatly in one of my favourite academic articles: ‘Power, technology and the phenomenology of conventions: on being allergic to onions‘. Star describes a variety of ways in which difference is flattened by the dominant understandings of normality that impact on infrastructural design. She discusses how her onion allergy means that the burgers she orders at McDonald’s always take longer to arrive. This is because McDonald’s is not designed to cope with an order without onions and so it unsettles their standard procedures. For Star, the mild inconvenience of her allergy reveals the power that standardisation holds over us:
Stabilized networks seem to insist on annihilating our personal experience, and there is suffering. One source of the suffering is denial of the co-causality of multiple selves and standards, when claims are made that the standardized network is the only reality that there is.p. 50
In the pursuit of standardisation, infrastructural design has the potential to omit these multiple selves and standards. This is especially true for multi-stakeholder initiatives that require broad-ranging infrastructures and platforms for diverse groups of people and practices. Too often, advocates for open publishing infrastructures point towards the need for stakeholders to put aside their differences and collaborate on those issues where there is common ground. This sounds ideal in practice, but in reality, the drive for consensus benefits those with the most power (and financial/cultural capital). For example, the common ground between a linguistically diverse group of academics and publishers is to work in English, the lingua franca of our field. Though pragmatically sensible, this decision benefits English speakers, often implicitly, to the detriment of those from non-anglophone cultures and countries. This would no doubt impact on the kinds of infrastructures being designed.
Shared infrastructures are best conceived as spaces of conflict that lack consensus and naturally contain power imbalances between users. Standardisation and the need for scale have the potential to discount these differences for the sake of producing something workable. This is especially perncious because of the invisibility of infrastructures (borrowing from Star again) that mean we only notice them when they break down. Once a tool or service becomes widely adopted, it is difficult to unpick the assumptions that led to its design in the first place. These assumptions become embedded in the infrastructure and continue to impact on the resulting interactions in ways that cannot be seen.
Given these issues, the tension between standardisation and diversity in infrastructural design for scholarly communication is incredibly difficult to adequately address. It requires us to move beyond the naive idea that collaboration is a simple route to infrastructural perfection, when it is, in fact, a complex and conflicted process that can never be fully resolved. IOI is well positioned to explore the kinds of governance required to adequately account for a diversity of perspectives and interactions in infrastructural design. I look forward to seeing how it progresses.