Rethinking the Scaffolds of Open

Author: Emmy Tsang

tl;dr1: Research libraries need to re-evaluate how we are contributing to our knowledge ecosystem.

Shifting roles of research libraries

Libraries have traditionally had an important role in shaping the knowledge ecosystem: the library’s collection (books, journal subscriptions, heritage artefacts) and services (e.g. the library catalogue and its search functionalities, inter-library loan systems) helped users find the information they need. These services and assets, in turn, determined a large part of what scholars read and build their research and teaching upon. 

Fast forward to today, in response to the ideals of “open science”, academic libraries not only supports scholars in accessing and discovering knowledge, but also in producing and sharing it. For example, negotiating publishing and subscription deals with commercial publishers, and running research data repositories and providing research data management training. These services and infrastructure are established to enable researchers and teachers to share their research and educational output more widely and in more diverse forms, increasing the impact of the university’s work and encouraging collaborations and knowledge exchange between more academics worldwide.

The quest for “open”

So, is science more open? Funders’ and institutions’ commitment to open access has led to a new business model where commercial publishers can charge $10000+ to publish an open-access article. Scholars from outside of Europe and North America already have a harder time publishing in so-called “prestigious journals”. These high publishing fees imposed by commercial publishers only served to exclude these groups in knowledge production further. There is also a push for broader use of data management plans and all data to be published. International alliances and technology companies build infrastructure for the containerisation of research code and collaborative software development. All while large parts of the world struggle with having stable internet access, let alone the resources to access these infrastructures or training in data management and publication. The practise of open science intends to facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing. Yet, because it has so far fallen short of recognising and addressing the systemic exclusionary and marginalisation issues2, most current open science efforts “unintentionally” widened the divides in research and further excluded those excluded from scholarly discourses.

At the same time, it is ironic that with our advanced technology, privileges and wealth, researchers in the Global North have much less control over how our research output is shared, consumed, discovered and evaluated than our counterparts in the Global South. Because of the failure of the universities in the Global North to work collaboratively on shared infrastructure, our researchers and libraries are left in thrall to the power wielded by commercial companies. These companies are profit-driven, meaning not only do they not prioritise serving the marginalised, we, as users, have little oversight, control or negotiation power over how their products develop. 

Towards agency and equitable participation

Libraries urgently need to reflect on our role in shaping research and knowledge infrastructure: what is the future that we would like to help cultivate, and for that, what values and principles must we follow? Which voices should be amplified and heard in the infrastructure design and construction process? 

Why should all this matter to TU Delft and its Library? The TU Delft Strategic Framework 2018-24 detailed TU Delft’s vision of “contributing to solving global challenges” through our educational, research, and innovation activities. Solutions intended to address global challenges must be developed with stakeholders affected by these global challenges, or they risk becoming white elephants that fail to achieve any real impact, or worse, end up harming the communities they intended to help because of their ignorance of local needs and cultures. For stakeholders worldwide to effectively participate in co-developing interventions and solutions, TU Delft needs to contribute towards a knowledge infrastructure that centres marginalised voices, prioritises stakeholders over shareholders, and is designed for equitable participation.

To achieve this, we, the library and our community, need to have the power, resources and capacity to actively participate in the design of our knowledge infrastructure. We need to learn from the Global South, which has had much more experience with and knowledge in building open, shared and community-driven infrastructure. To (re)gain control over our scientific narrative and ensure that it serves our academics and partners worldwide, we need to invest in shared infrastructure. This is only possible if we start changing our behaviours.

People constructing scaffolds against against a blue-red sky
Photo by Igor Starkov from Pexels

A (rough) roadmap forward

Making changes in the right direction will first and foremost require outlining a vision: what are the qualities of knowledge infrastructure that fosters equitable participation and collaboration? Identifying these will help shape the principles that underlie our investments. We will need to understand the state of research infrastructure, nationally and internationally. 

It will also take capacity and knowledge building, and short- (e.g. assessing our current engagement with commercially and community-driven infrastructures, piloting months-long collaborations with community-driven projects, engaging nationally and internationally), medium- (e.g. hiring developers to contribute to shared, open-source infrastructure or engaging staff to contribute to community management), and long-term (e.g. redesigning repositories) investments. It will need buy-in from stakeholders across the university and from other national and international partners. 

Playing to our strengths

The TU Delft Library is well-positioned to drive change within our institution and nationally:

  • The Library has a historically important role in producing and disseminating knowledge and has been actively rethinking and experimenting with its roles in the digital age. Combined with our experience with driving change management programmes (e.g. the open science programme), we can design a step-wise approach towards changing the status quo.
  • Library staff have close working relationships with other teams, e.g. ICT, research integrity, graduate school, and scholars within TU Delft. We can engage with and galvanise diverse stakeholders to move this conversation forward within the university.
  • The Library is part of many national, European and international alliances. A fundamental change in the knowledge ecosystem will require a collective effort, and the Library can use its connections to influence and drive collective action.

This work naturally builds upon the library’s existing plans to transition into an active space for collaboration and knowledge exchange, with diverse stakeholders, including societal players. It should also be closely linked to the development of the new collection strategy. In addition, our mission here synergises with those of other ongoing, parallel initiatives within TU Delft, such as the Recognition and Rewards programme, the establishment of the Diversity and Inclusion Policy and Office, and the TU Delft Global Initiative. Involving these project teams and communities into the development of this work helps ensure that our roadmap considers the shared interest and vision of wider groups of stakeholders within and beyond the institute. 

We also benefit from growing conversations and research into this issue from all around the world: the work of Invest in Open, the Principles of Open Scholarly Infrastructure, the Global Sustainability Coalition of Open Science Services (SCOSS), the Knowledge Equity Lab, and many others have helped advance our collective understanding in this area, provided space and generated momentum for open discussions and amplified under-represented voices. We must participate in changing the status quo now to play an active role in shaping the future of knowledge and research. 

First steps

This blog post marks the start of reflections and discussions. In the coming months, we hope to approach the key stakeholders and partners that we have identified above to understand individual concerns and needs, further refine what we want to achieve, and build a shared vision towards an equitable and healthy knowledge infrastructure. The journey towards change will be difficult, but we are not alone – we invite you to help shape the conversations and actions forward. Book a chat with me to share your thoughts, or email me at f [dot] tsang [at] tudelft [dot] nl.  

Extended reading/viewing:


1 Too long; didn’t read:;_didn%27t_read 

2 We have picked examples that highlight geographic and socioeconomic inequities here, but these issues extend beyond geography, e.g. bropenscience, exclusion based on gender, physical abilities, thinking styles, etc.

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