Open Scientific Writing

Arguably, we are witnessing the end of one era of academic cultural capital– I’d call it the proprietary era– and the beginning of another, which I think should be called the open era. In the proprietary era status was dependent, in part, on the possession of more or less rare forms of knowledge. The value of knowledge was dependent on keeping it secret until it was made public in a way which ensured that you would receive proper credit.

That’s one of the reasons that academic journals were so important: they were the gateway that allowed proprietary knowledge to become public without any loss of capital. The channels themselves, in fact, conveyed their own institutional cultural capital. It didn’t just matter what you knew, it matters where you worked and where you published. Slowly, though, for reasons that range from the political to the technological to the logistic, all of this is changing.

I don’t think it’s possible to know for sure what the new forms of academic capital will look like; there’s still too much turbulence in the system for any clarity. I think, though, that the open science and open notebook folks are the place to look for signs of the emerging paradigm. As a writing teacher, I am particularly interested in the open notebook projects, since they point to a very new model for audience and purpose in academic writing.

“Open Notebook Science,” Jean-Claude Bradley of Drexel writes, “is the practice of making the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online as it is recorded.” It sounds simple, but it’s not; it’s also not as transparent and democratic as it might sound, either. It pushes scientists towards writing notes that others can understand, but that “other” might be other scientists more than the general public. The rest of us can read but may not understand.

How will academic capital change if academics begin to be rewarded for sharing knowledge openly rather than keeping it secret until it can be revealed via the proper channels? “Openness” will itself have to be defined: do we reward most who most fluently speak the technical codes of their disciplines, or do we reward those who find ways to subvert those codes so that science itself becomes more widely accessible? It’s still an open question (pardon the pun).

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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