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An open drifting away? Economic models of open and (informational) liberalism

Following a “mood post” on Facebook where I described my tribulations to access a scientific article, I am coming back to the economic models of "open" in order to initiate a collective discussion on possible market "abuses " (cf. conclusion thesis)

Published onAug 21, 2019
An open drifting away? Economic models of open and (informational) liberalism
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Unexpected reception of a mood note: "Brief/VDM from a non-academic researcher"

Recently (summer 2019), I shared on Facebook and also on Tumblr, a mood note entitled Bref/VDM of a non-academic researcher. I had written it one evening while trying to access meta-analysis in cognitive science on the effects of meditation. In my mood/irritation note, I was detailing the battle course to try to access scientific publications with several steps and obstacles on the way. Following the paywalls of the publishers' sites (the price of an article is 30 to 45 euros), I made a search on Google Scholar to find the direct access to the pdf in its referencing and interface. Secondly, I pointed out the frequent presence of scientific social networks as a source for downloading publications. I noted that it was often necessary to register to it in order to download the article. Without registration, you can only read the first page. This quest for publication was also combined with attempts via the "pirate" SciHub site, which now requires (in France) the use of a VPN or other methods (site blocked on French territory).

The objective in writing this post was to raise some discouragement about the open access situation in 2019 with:

- 1/ Still the paywalls of "traditional" publishers at the basis of the pre-digital economic model of rent to access a resource. The article is the property of the publisher who sells it as if it were a paper copy.

- 2/ Digital companies such as Google and ResearchGate, which are gaining in popularity in the field of scientific publications. These companies are based on new open digital business models (here: open = free = gratuit) underlying the use of our personal data when browsing or registering on a website.

- 3/ Thus, the same story is repeated within public research, which is once again surrounded by an apparent gratuitousness. After the "Boycott Elsevier", we will surely hear about the "Boycott Academia or ResearchGate" in a short period of time. But, for the moment, scientists are thinking of doing open access by posting their articles on ResearchGate.

In this sense, the conclusion of my mood post on a summer evening was:

Elsevier, Springer, Google Scholar, ResearchGate, Facbook. In short we are screwed up....

However, the comments that followed the publication of this post on Facebook showed me that I was completely out of line in terms of reception of my message.

The initial emotions at first: perplexity and "gendered" wrath

The ideas I wanted to convey were not necessarily understood (and so much the better, it helped me to be more precise). I would have liked to draw attention to a reduced open access with, on the one hand, the presence of the old Elsevier&Co and, on the other hand, the increasingly prominent presence of new digital companies. Many perceived my message as a call for help to access articles via SciHub in France.

On this point, I had very good advice! Thanks to the people who responded and wanted to help me access the articles. But above all - the most interesting! - I noticed a state of mind that would seem to be the norm in the scientific community. Please note the conditional in my last sentence, because it is not with a Facebook post and some comments that I can expect conclusions. On the contrary, it is rather an opening for future research questions in the sociology of uses and STS (Science & Technologies Studies). The answers were pragmatic: how, as a non-academic researcher, I can access publications by using the SciHub pirate solution more specifically. While I was waiting, by publishing this note, for the opening of a socio-political debate (situation of open access in 2019 and its evolution in recent years).

I confess that in the first place, it made me perplexed and angry too because - Be careful! understand that it is only my feeling! - I had the impression of a mansplaining: "how scientific men provide me with technical answers to save me from this embarrassment". Instead, the women's responses in comments indicated that SciHub was accessible in their country (news for them to learn that this was no longer the case in France). Gentlemen, don't take this the wrong way, I imagine that in responding in commentary, your state of mind was not this one. I am just giving you a feeling as a woman who hacks, programs a little and is sensitive to the issue of women's place in the "digital" (especially in its technical dimensions).

Apart from this "feminist" momentum, I mainly thought that I needed to share the content of my research work and to give a few ideas to develop a "meta" perspective on the economic and political framework in which ESR (Higher Education and Research) is embedded today and the directions that "open" is taking. This is a good coincidence, I wrote the conclusion of my thesis a year ago with this aim in mind. Entitled "Five years on from now: an "open' drifting", the last concluding lines of this "475-page block" were more committed and proposed precisely to bring elements for a collective reflection on this subject. I noted it this way:

My objective as "final word" is to formulate some points of vigilance regarding the current orientations of the "open" addressed to people associated with the research and higher education community as well as to anyone confronted with digital transformations in their daily activities.

This mood note gives me the opportunity to extract parts of it and to explain some key concepts that have helped me to think about the current situation.

An "open" drifting: the evolution of forms of liberalism as a reading grid

As a reminder, my doctoral research focused on the analysis of the different meanings of the term open in science, for the French case, based on the detailed study of debates on this subject during the Digital Republic consultation (2015). One article of the law (Article 9 during the consultation, which became Article 30 in the final text of the law) concerned "free access to scientific publications in public research". The consultative phase gave rise to many debates, the content of which I have analyzed by reconstructing the different spaces participating in the debates/controversies, i.e. the platform for consultation, NSNs (digital social networks, discussion lists, conferences and scientific journals, etc.).

If during my thesis, I took distance from my commitment to open science, which led me to the development of a particular posture and its analysis, summarized here:

Throughout the doctoral year, I tried, in a comprehensive approach, to position myself as an observer of the phenomenon under investigation while being aware of and admitting the intrinsic standpoint of my observations, hence the importance given to reflexivity (cf. introduction, part two).

...I have regained a more committed tone in the conclusion and wanted to look back since 2013 at the evolution of open access/science (2013 being the beginning of my questions on the definition of this "formula"). In this conclusion, I underlined a twofold evolution: "that of the integration of discourses on open within the spirit of the regime of knowledge in constitution in France and that of the transformation of my own conceptions on open as I progress through my doctorate."

I do not return here to the second part: reflexivity and evolution of my ideas with the passage through the "doctoral" area. I will focus instead on the evolutions of the open, which I resolutely described as "drifts". The negative connotation was aimed at to highlight an ethical and critical standpoint on the evolutions of the "digital" technologies, going beyond the world of "Science" to impact our daily life in general.

In order to illustrate my point in this conclusion, I had adopted, in the same way as in my Facebook post, the current path of a person wishing to read and/or download a scientific publication by focusing my analysis on the emergence of new forms of liberalism qualified as informational as I mentioned it:

Then, I will use the example of some common practices to access an online scientific publication. I would like to detail these practices in depth, because they are representative of the implementation of new forms of informational liberalism which, in addition to economic issues, raise epistemological and political questions about the nature of knowledge accessible on the Web.

A focus on a key concept: informational liberalism

The concept of "informational liberalism" has been a precious concept for my research. I have relied mainly on Benjamin Loveluck's work for this purpose. In his thesis entitled "Freedom through Information: a Political Genealogy of Informational Liberalism and the Forms of Self-Organization on the Internet", the author proposes to trace a genealogy of informational liberalism, namely the emergence of a new philosophy and political economy with the Internet (to be understood as socio-political and economic visions.) This was a central reference because my research problematic aimed to question the emergence of new ways of thinking and acting with the "digital" tech underpinned by different "world views" which are being developed by a result of a number of changes to our societies and to our society.) This was a central reference because my research problematic aimed to question the emergence of new ways of thinking and acting with the "digital" world which can explain the debates and divergences in the implementation of open access/science. To be more precise, my problem concerned the influence of the different "world views" of those who produce knowledge and technologies on the shaping of our societies, thus questioning in return the socio-political conceptions that gave rise to digital technologies.

In connection with the emergence of digital technology, Loveluck was more specifically interested in the evolution of ways of considering liberalism, hence a genealogical approach (reference to Michel Foucault) as mentioned in this extract below:

Through a genealogical approach, Loveluck shows how the concept of liberalism has evolved over the centuries, as well as the multiple meanings taken by the term freedom. While the notion of individual freedom was built as early as the 17th century around the notions of freedom of opinion and expression to make informed decisions and limit the power of the State, a strong economic dimension was added during the 19th century. Liberalism has thus meant the non-intervention of the state to respect the free market. More recently, as mentioned above, the concept of neoliberalism refers to the global context associated with a "new spirit" and the role of an entrepreneurial State, subject to the same logics of performance and accountability. For Loveluck, the Internet is giving rise to a new conception of liberalism and freedoms, this time informational, that distorts the usual points of reference. The new form of liberalism combines both a libertarian (self-organization) and a liberal demand in the sense of free trade with the Internet.

His analysis led him to define informational liberalism as the search for freedom through information and its free circulation based on principles of self-organization. Three main ideals-typical are distinguished:

- The institution is based on the notion of " processual governance ". The objective in this case is to establish through the current legal framework the foundations of informational liberalism (free flow of information) through a new mode of governance (political philosophy).

- Capturing associated with algorithmic ordering. The latter is based on the development of platforms that influence user behavior through algorithmic design. These algorithms classify and sort the most visible information according to user data and thus guide Internet users' choices with the suggestion of recommendations (algorithmic ordering). Loveluck studied in his thesis mainly the case of Google. In this case, the free flow of information serves as a new economic model. Unlike keeping a resource private and selling it, on the contrary here it is a matter of letting it circulate but acting on the control of users' behaviours through suggestions that are made (mediated by the underlying algorithmic operations) to obtain an economic value from it. As Loveluck points out, this model captures both the attention of individuals as well as their intention.

- The last, the dissemination or radical distribution consists in encouraging the circulation of information by distancing from the usual political and institutional orders, whether it be the State or the Market. Loveluck's examples are those of Wikileaks or peer-to-peer principles. And we'll come back to that in our case with SciHub!

Analysis of the business models of open science

This analytical grid that I applied to my field of study helped me to link elements of the debates on Article 9 during the Republic consultation to different forms of liberalism and to distinct political, organizational and economic visions that explain the tensions and disagreements regarding the implementation of open access in France. The framework of my analysis chapters was based on the identification of different forms of liberalism.

In this context, informational liberalism has only represented a small part. Because, and this is where my thesis in itself lies, I have shown that under the term open, in France there is mainly in the discourse both the reference to preexistent digital "models" that need to be adapted or renegotiated with the "transition to the intangible" (cf. chapters 6 and 7). In addition, one of the ideal-typical of informational liberalism was invoked: that of processual governance, which I have attached to the commons (cf. chapter 8). To summarize, in my field of study, a large part of the arguments justifying the transition to an open model are rooted in a vision that I have qualified as techno-industrial, which is expressed by a reconsideration of a deal with the commercial sector (mainly private publishers). This contract is no longer balanced with the shift from material "paper" to intangible resources (to the advantage of private publishers). For different actors in public research (at the institutional level or for people working in public research), open access to scientific publications is a question of reappropriation. The reasoning is that the knowledge produced by publicly funded researchers is the property of the public. In this perspective of reappropriation, the challenge is to develop public publishing and archiving infrastructures (example in France of HAL for example or Open Edition in SHS). Another (less "absolutist") view is the renegotiation of the agreements with private publishers and the establishment of public-private partnerships to ensure that there are benefits for all. In these two options, however, we remain in a neoliberal conception based on what I call a "copy and paste" approach to the traditional paper economic models in the "digital" world without taking into account the very specificities of intangible networks and the principles of informational liberalism (freedom through information and its free circulation).

Only one form of informational liberalism out of the three forms described by Loveluck was mainly represented in the debates: that of processual governance. This argument was related to the positioning of the actors defending the commons. Scientific publications and the fight for open access in this case were one element among other immaterial and thematics/commons (so-called open data/data of general interest open source/source code...). In this form of informational liberalism, the socio-political framework and modes of governance are re-considered with the aim of overcoming the usual private/public dichotomies, and of innovating in terms of legal framework (free and open licences) and rethinking both the role of the State and the economic models to be established. However, the other two standard ideals (dissemination and radical diffusion) of informational liberalism described by Loveluck were not part of the majority arguments raised in the debates on the article on "free access" in the Digital Republic Bill. These arguments were nevertheless present for other articles of law (web neutrality, open data, etc.). Their (almost non-existent) discourse does not mean that patterns are not represented today. This is the difference between what discourse analysis shows us and the "real" practices. For this reason, the purpose of my conclusion was to highlight the daily practices of researchers that include with SciHub radical diffusion and with Google Scholar and digital social networks dissemination/algorithmic ordering.

My conclusion thus aimed to provide some elements for discussion on the integration of forms of liberalism (freedom through information) and possible market abuses.

SciHub, Google Scholar and Research Gate: from radical diffusion to the introduction of "open" business models with algorithmic ordering.

The digital transformations of research practices and more specifically in this case on the communication aspect, publication of results and bibliographic research, raise a series of economic, political as well as epistemological questions that are at the very root of my first mood note on Facebook. Here are some of its elements:

1/ Google Scholar is a referencing system based, to use Loveluck's vocabulary, on an algorithmic ordering. The question arises about the components taken into consideration in the ranking algorithms. If Google's famous page rank is at the base of Scientometric studies, it nevertheless moves away from "traditional" metrics (impact factor) taking into consideration the articles from peer-reviewed scientific journals. Here, the referenced resources are much broader (article for a conference, technical notes). In addition to the citation criteria, the referencing parameters are linked to other usual web metrics, which can also be the subject of referencing optimization (SEO), for example the quality of the metadata associated with the resource. The researcher's reputation is also considered (in relation to the h-index), which is not the case for the impact factor, for example (metrics associated with a journal and not with an article neither a specific author). The implementation of SEO strategies raises a number of epistemological issues on the direction of the resources we will read because they will be more easily referenced or recommended on search engines as I noted here:

In addition to a question about the "self-marketing" necessary to carry out when you are a scientist, Google Scholar's model also raises questions about the homogenization of knowledge, such as the debates on filter and opinion bubbles on the Web.

By "self-marketing", I mean here the conscious or unconscious incentives that scientists receive to enhance the value of their research and make it visible. In the same way that it is a question of being present on digital social networks, having an account on ResearchGate or Academia becomes commonplace for researchers in order to keep up to date with the news in their field, make their work known, discuss with other colleagues, look for a job or future post-doc etc.. Twitter or Facebook are other "sound boxes" and discussion places, which was the one for "my mood note". Social networks serve as a space to share scientific articles and metrics now even take into consideration the "popularity" of publications on the network sphere with what are now called altmetrics (for alternative metrics but also metrics at the article level). The evaluation of researchers is transformed. Digital social networks have built their economic model on this very need for "dissemination" and legitimacy based on influential logic in a network. I will come back more precisely to the economic models of scientific social networks, a case that I have covered in detail in my thesis conclusion:

Scientific social networks constitute, in this sense, a space of visibility for researchers that is representative of a "self-marketing" considered necessary to be recognized within the academic community today. The marketing arguments of the platforms are therefore oriented towards greater recognition and control of the visibility of researchers' work.

The networks are based on models that appear to be "open". Registration is free, to be understood in the sense of free of charge. Open in this sense is reduced to the simple free registration to the platform, since most of the time access to full articles now requires a premium/freemium subscription. The market leverage is related to what are called network effects, iin other words, a profitability based on the number of people using the platform, which is the foundation of positive externalities. We can get everybody rilled up if some people start using the network, so others use it etc. In addition, the network is becoming more efficient because it capitalizes on the processing of navigation data and can thus offer more efficient services. The open side plays in this sense, a appeal effect encouraging registration and then mechanisms to capture attention (sending emails, recommending articles) as I noted here:

The models are based on capturing the attention and directing the users' behaviours. All the actions carried out by people registered on scientific social networks (submission of an article, updating of publications) contribute to a network effect. Platforms are becoming new and indispensable intermediaries to keep informed of the latest scientific advances in their field or of articles published by other research teams. E-mails are sent, for example, to indicate that an article or calls for projects and grants in our discipline are available for reading on the social network. The targeting of information is linked to the profile information completed at registration, or just by mentioning your name.

In this market logic, navigation information is not considered as "resources for sale" but as a key element of economic value through the orientation of future user actions through a network effect. Data as " traces " of action processes "feeds" the algorithms, which in turn influence the potential of possible actions.

Thus, with the use of ResearchGate or other social networks, it is certainly possible to share its publications with the scientific community and share them with others. And here "it is not a question of throwing the baby out with the bath water", these networks are a response to the needs of researchers and offer services that must also be paid for and that justify costs... Even if I am involved and an advocate of free software and the alternative models that are experienced in them, my position is not extreme. I myself use proprietary social networks (Facebook, Twitter) and am aware of the price to pay behind it (even if it is not monetary in the sense of buying a product), I find my account there. However, in the case of "Science", I would like to highlight the possibilities of guiding our research (among other orientations) through the recommendations made to us on these platforms and the interests that govern the choice even behind these suggestions: why is this or that publication proposed to us? How are our "traces" processed by the company or third parties? What are the objectives behind it? If in this example, we are talking about a private company, the issues of "algorithmic governance" apply more generally to platforms as long as they hold a monopoly position (on the scale of the technical solutions and infrastructures proposed) despite their apparent form of network. The concept of "algorithmic governance" (another term used in academic language) refers to the more subtle governance possibilities that play on the presentation of particular information underpinned by computer programs. The "code" layer becomes a political issue and the technical part an object of struggle as much as of counter-power, which is at the heart of the claims of "free cultures" as I mentioned here:

What are these algorithmic processes and who controls them? Asking this question is in line with the remarks of the defenders of a "free culture" for transparency and the opening of "black boxes" in order to be able to exercise counter-power in particular against platforms. Whether they are platform companies or what is also called a platform State, access to data and source code is intended to guarantee a degree of freedom of action and control over the use of the devices. This demand for freedom takes the form, among other things, of political actions and the radical diffusion of information held back by barriers of any kind, by those who have the IT skills to access and release them.

In this libertarian movement and a vigilance towards the softer forms of control possible both by the State and for the Market, the radical diffusion model finds its "raison d'être" and for us the very popularity of the Scihub pirate network.

2/ Even if the technical protocol behind Sci-Hub is not based on peer-to-peer and free software, the initiative is representative of a possible counter-power, which is based on hacking and technical computer skills that reflect the original characteristics of the Internet as a distributed and decentralized network of networks outside any silo. Interestingly, it is important to note that the idea of radical diffusion emerged from the scientific ideals of the 1940s/50s (cybernetic matrix) that gave rise to the Internet. An ideal of self-organization and a community of peers that now feeds the digital landscape and this fuzzy view of apparent decentralization (cf. chapter 1). Certainly, we are on a disintermediation of communication: everyone can both produce and receive information unlike other radio telecommunications, mainly television. But we have been attending for several years the constitution of "silo" with the domination of a few intermediaries holding the infrastructures of these networks..... SciHub, in this context, seems to be a familiar or desired form of organization that tends to offer an alternative to this re-centralization. It tends to reposition research outside of economic and political considerations" by ignoring intellectual property rules and exclusive contracts for the distribution of articles by publishers. "However, the Mertonian ethos - in reference to the sociologist Robert K Merton - to be understood as the ideal of an independent "Science" functioning as a peer-to-peer network guided by scepticism but also disinterest remains nevertheless far from the realities of current research. Science" is part of a desired (imaginary) ideal as well as a framework with political and economic "realities" with which researchers are confronted and which they often consider as aberrations when it comes to funding or competitiveness between research projects. This dissonance between the free dissemination of knowledge and the "realities" of the field is at the very origin of the use of the term open science in order to find a lost ideal that would now be technically feasible with the Internet and the Web.

Thus, if for scientists, the SciHub initiative inspires admiration through the concrete technical possibilities that bypass the publishers' paywalls and embody the fight against inequalities at the "Robin Hood", it is important to remember that this is an ethos and a direction to be reached. This does not prevent us from investing in other areas of action. I am thus the first to appreciate the radical diffusion that recalls the interstices of concrete action through knowledge, technical virtuosity and a taste for bypassing with a touch of humor and sarcasm, characteristic of some digital symbols ("kind" hacker, anonymous). However, this is not the way to advance the political and economic framework of research, which involves more "classic" political games. With SciHub, it is always a question of a "cat and mouse game" between the legal power of publishing companies, regulatory authorities and the technical capacities of bypassing them. This does not resolve the question of the sustainability of the "pirate" model and the considerations on the open economic models to be put in place for immaterial resources and for the production of knowledge at present.

To conclude with my mood note, I wanted to highlight the need for collective reflection in order to bring attention and care for the global framework in which our knowledge is produced: for what purposes? By which governance? With which imaginaries and motivations? These questions are part of the questions that I have been asking myself at the end of my PhD and they shape some of the research-action issues that I tend to build. They are based on current queries and experiments around the commons, the institution and processual governance to loop back on Loveluck. Reflections, carried out by scientists and intellectuals today, who reflect on the actors (whether they are companies, public institutes, associative communities, etc.), the infrastructures, the artefacts and the rules of governance to be established in order to preserve, archive and enhance knowledge.

I must admit that it was very difficult to perceive all this behind a Facebook post written late on a summer evening. This has pushed me to share my own research questions as I go along, to keep track of the state of my thoughts in August 2019 and also to note my willingness to "get my hands dirty" and to participate in action research projects on the inclusion of a social and solidarity-oriented economy approach within the research production community. Research" remains a great productivist machinery like agriculture for example, even if it is less visible because of the icons it conveys and the spaces of freedom that remain, I concede it. However, if in other areas mechanisms of resistance through experience are put in place, why not in research?

For those who reach the end, bravissimo and here is the link to the general conclusion (in french) if you want to read the whole thing or help me to translate it !

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