A conversation with Catherine Ahearn about the hand-in-hand development of open infrastructure and a culture around open knowledge
A conversation with Catherine Ahearn about the hand-in-hand development of open infrastructure and a culture around open knowledge
Jo: Alright, welcome to the show, Catherine. It's a pleasure having you. And for everyone, this is Catherine Ahearn, sorry for the pronunciation again. Catherine Ahearn from Knowledge Futures Group and yeah, so let's hear from you how you got into the organization. We've been working together because you're mostly in charge as I understand with pub pub and we've been communicating and collaborating because Africarxiv is using pub pub as one of our affiliated partner repository systems for making African research outputs more discoverable. And now we're moving the whole website well we can talk about that after we've heard of you and where you're coming from and why you're working, what you're doing at the Knowledge Futures Group. So welcome.
Catherine: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. Yeah, it's a big question. I think the answer starts many years ago. So I actually started working with Travis Rich, who's now our Executive Director, back in 2017 when we were really just working on Pub Pub. So Pub Pub, the product, precedes Knowledge Futures as an org, but now it's situated as a product that KF helps to build. And let's see, back then Travis and I happened to graduate at the same time, him from the MIT Media Lab. I did a PhD at BU and Editorial Studies, was feeling extremely burnt out after finishing that degree and basically took a summer to travel and think about what I really wanted to do and saw that the MIT press was becoming more involved in developing Pub Pub for books and journals and just law form content. I thought it sounded really interesting. I had started getting interested in the open sharing of information during my PhD because I had to work a lot in archives, and I was sort of appalled by how much is just locked up and inaccessible to people. Unless you have a big travel budget at your department or something that allows you to actually go in person and handle a lot of these materials. So I had already started kind of pulling on that thread a little bit and yeah, I was really interested when I saw that there was potentially a role there to help others do that as well. I should say too that at that point, as you can imagine, KF didn't even exist yet. So my job has actually looked very different year to year since then and I've been part of KF for over five years now. At that point I think my title was Community Manager for Pub Pub and it really just meant building any kind of community on the platform because there were a few groups on there and at that point you weren't able to create a community for yourself whenever you wanted to, like you can now. So everything went through us and then over the years as we hired people, Gab came on our head of product. We had some more developers eventually and now have a whole community team that I lead and then of course, we created Knowledge Futures as the wrapper, the home org around Pub Pub. Things have changed a lot.
Jo: Yeah, I think we said, well, I remember we started engaging in 2020, like with the infamous pandemic. That hit me.
Catherine: That one. Yeah.
Jo: So it's one of the few success stories that emerged from the disaster. And yeah, it's been really exciting to see the Knowledge Futures group grow and with the Pub Pub and also to be amongst the, can I still say early adopters of Pub Pub. I think there were a few before us, obviously, but also I think it's a good opportunity now with an audience and witnesses to express gratitude for the support given to us by the community with Africarxiv and just to see how easy going it can be to work with an institution on infrastructure. And I also admire the approach that Futures is taking. And also Pub Pub has been designed from the onset where it's being community driven, very much responsive, also listening closely to what the community needs are and also being agile and versatile to use digital systems and approaches to cater for different use cases. As much as I'm sure users also bring use cases to you that you might have not even considered.
Catherine: All the time.
Jo: Okay, so maybe you can talk about these for a few minutes. So what are your use cases?
Catherine: Sure. Now, I feel like you can do a better job of this than me. You should just keep talking. I think we do really put a lot of effort into being community driven. That's how we build our roadmap, that's how we build our services that we offer. It's really based on what we're hearing people want. But also, just like I said, anyone can create a community on Pub Pub at any time and so there's a lot of stuff going on that we have no direct involvement in. And so my team gets together once a month and we call it Pub Club and we kind of go through new communities and we look at what people are doing and we are really mining for inspiration and for ideas and sometimes we'll reach out and say, hey, this is really cool. We learned XYZ about our own platform by looking at your community. So we really do put a lot of effort and really enjoy that part of it. And we do offer some kind of expertise and services on how to use Pub Pub, but a lot of what we build on, a lot of those ideas are just really from the community. Like I mentioned earlier, originally Pub Pub was used internally at the MIT Media Lab to help share research more iteratively in a more dynamic way. Groups there were finding that they just didn't work in the traditional model of having defined beginning and an end and being able to publish an article in a PDF that kind of fully captured everything that they were doing. Since then, I think books and journals were the next kind of natural step. But even then we were trying to iterate and say, okay, well, this isn't just text on a screen. How did we really make something truly take advantage of being digital first and really kind of integrate some of that multimedia, some of the interactives that we do now directly into how you even conceive of a project, not just how you communicate about it. So that has really taken, I think, the projects on the platform and the platform itself into exciting directions. And now we see lots of kinds of iterative like evolving books, lots of open review conferences that will either live, stream or publish their talks and posters and things for community annotation and indexing and archiving all on Pub Pub. And so we kind of just try to keep track of what everyone's doing. And I think one of my favorite things, and I think the Africarxiv is kind of a good example of this too, is that I love it when people start using Pub pub for a thing. They're not really sure. Where it will go, or they have an initial use case, and then they're able to keep using it as their project evolves and takes on other forms or brings on other people or ideas. I think the flexibility and elasticity of those spaces is really valuable because it kind of doesn't pigeonhole you into being a preprint archive or just a journal or just a single thing and need to then add on more platforms as you kind of naturally evolve your ideas and then who you work with.
Jo: Yeah. And coming back to Africarxiv, we started or we approached in the first place because Pub Pub was obviously well suited to host audio visual content. And with the onset of the pandemic, we were really worried about how African researchers could contribute to the knowledge building, around how we could mitigate COVID-19 and its effects across discipline, societal impact of the virus across the continent, and also to allow African researchers to contribute to the global knowledge base, basically. And like our team were just really concerned with seeing everybody going into lockdown and knowing the difficulties in infrastructure. Also with the internet in most African regions, it's getting better by the day. So that's good. There's still also lack of capacity in wild areas and also unstableness of the connectivity. So we co-drafted preprints, really. And we were also very much helping in the design and the conceptualization on how the scheme unfolds and encouraging African scholars in particular, but also suggesting that as a blueprint for anyone to adopt, how African researchers could share the knowledge in audio or video just to their mobile phones for the lack of research equipment or computers that are usually in the lab or laptops that they may or may not have. Certainly many do have laptops and advanced skill sets, but just for the ease of contributing to the knowledge exchange and the adoption of this suggestion wasn't huge, but yeah, it was really
Catherine:But it was a good idea and it was creative. KF became its own. We got our 501 free certification in March of 2020 and that really could have gone either way for us. But I remember hearing about this project and we got proposals for feed to help out with a few other projects as well that were pandemic related or adjacent trying to help with the global crisis and we were really inspired by that. I think we often try to put pressure on what quote unquote, legitimate forms of knowledge communication look like. I think what's kind of tacitly being argued on platforms like PubPub is that things don't have to look a certain way to matter and to be effective. Oftentimes a journal article is not the most effective way of communicating what you know. Again, even though we had hoped for more uptake in that idea, I think the fact that you can experiment with it. There's open infrastructure that lowers the barrier and the cost of trying it, and then there's that idea out there and that model that other people can replicate for themselves. It's not to say that it wouldn't be really successful in a different context. And so I think we also try to have a similar mindset when we're developing, say, a feature with a specific community or partner in mind. We immediately make it available for free for everybody using the platform because oftentimes two weeks later we'll see someone use it or implement it in a way we hadn't even thought of when we were building it. And I think that kind of the ability for communities to experiment and learn from each other and kind of take the baton and go the other extra mile with an idea is really promising and just makes me really excited.
Jo: And also the fact that we publish as a preprint, sometimes the time is just not ready when the invention sees the light of day and it might still be worthwhile to consider for future scenarios and also help us to streamline communication and to also step into new ventures that also the other products Future develops. Like to blur the line between what we had this conversation the other day in the partner's meeting set up kind of thing, blurring the line between gray literature or what's usually referred to as gray literature and sophisticated, whatever that means, quality literature.
I think what bothers me most lately is also there's so much conversation around when it comes to scholarly publishing and it most often ends with now it's published which way, which way? Usually the journal article way and we try to loosen that up but the conversation usually ends with the publishing part. But isn't it with open science we want to ensure that the research findings reach societal levels and are accessible for societies or stakeholders explicitly outside academia and for that the open access alone is not enough. We also need translation into other languages. And I'm not referring to talk about that because it's also a hot topic and a passion project or multilingualism, but like languages that other communities can understand, the general public, the industry leaders and stakeholders, the nonprofit sector, they don't speak academic. So let's maybe dive a little bit into the other products besides Pub Pub that much. Researchers group is currently developing and already hosting and fostering that knowledge exchange and how ..
Catherine: By way of kind of pivoting to the other stuff too. I'll just say that as an.org we've really honed in on this notion of effectiveness of trying to help the people who use our products reach their goal to fulfill their missions more effectively. We had a really good conversation with a Criminologist at this point. It was probably about a year or more ago but we said, "What's your pie in the sky result of sharing your research and information?” And for most people it's not that you publish something that has to do with ten year promotion with your career which is not to say that's not important but it's often not the point itself of the work you're doing. And they were like well I want to influence police policy. Like I want police departments to be able to use my work and decide and make decisions and do their jobs better and we're like okay let's work for that, let's work for that. And so when we're thinking about products to build and I should say part of why we created Knowledge Futures is because we realized well, pub pub alone, an open publishing platform alone, it's great but it's not alone going to really influence the kind of changes we want to see in the academic publishing scholarly communications basis. And so we are also working on and we'll be rolling out just a platform for open data communications that people can share their data sets more effectively again so that people can actually use shared open data, build upon it, and grow communities around it. We learned a lot from building pub pub around a community model and I think when that rolls out people will see some good similarities. Another product that we have is called Commonplace. It's itself a kind of publication but to us that's sort of the cultural arm of what we do, right? It's the acknowledgement that just because we build things doesn't mean people will come and use them. We really do need to be a part of the conversation and a part of evolving the cultures and ideas that really kind of move people to use them to change their behaviors and to think more creatively about how they share what they're working on. So we're really kind of focusing on those three things but then there are other projects that we're involved with partners as well.
Jo: Maybe briefly into the data sharing when you say it will be more versatile or more engaging by the stakeholders. Can you share how that's going to be achieved compared to ..
Catherine: Sure, I'm not on the underlay team, so I'll do my best in doing this justice. But I think what we've seen with pub pub again is sort of the model for our development and bringing in communities to test, inform and help us develop projects is that initially you had to work through us to publish anything on pub pub. So I think for this next year at least, we'll be working with some specific communities that we've already kind of talked to. Underlay won't be something that anyone can just sign up for with a click of a button like you can for Pub Pub. And we'll be working really closely with them to see how they're using it and iterate and kind of build out the UI for underlay before we kind of give everybody the keys. But the idea is that you can publish a data set and define basically the fields and terms of the data, what they mean, and openly kind of track your changes, the evolution of that data. People can then fork it or suggest updates based on what they're doing. You can actually see how other people are using it. So it's not just that you publish your data or that you have a statement saying, get in touch with us, and that rarely goes anywhere. Oftentimes I see people complaining on Twitter all the time that they can't access what should be open data. So it's really meant to create a more collaborative, transparent interface for sharing your data and inviting other people to use it and inviting other people to contribute to it.
Jo: Yeah, I think that's brilliant. Also, considering it was just recently, something struck me that as much as it's often recommended to share data on CC zero like public domain to make it adaptable in whichever context, but then which data set is clean enough and contextualized enough to not possibly end up in a harmful way?
Catherine: Yeah, exactly.
Jo: Yeah, so data ownership. So as much as many institutions and individuals push for data being published in a public domain to make it reusable as widely as ever possible, I also bought into that first, but especially in an African context. For me. It struck me that that's an invitation to another form of misappropriation and recolonization of whatever research data is coming out of the continent. And it might just be harmful for other projects in other world regions or in whichever context first, because hardly any data set is contextualized enough to avoid any misinterpretation of the data or yet to see those. I think it's possible, but I think it requires a lot of information to avoid that from happening. But in the model that is laid out anything can be traced so misappropriation can easily be detected that way and also called out for and probably also prevent it if CC buys a share like would be a way forward for Africa with the current systems. But given that we adopt a tracing system or track changes system like the underlayers are developing, maybe that's another alternative that can be functional.
Catherine: No, I think that's a good point. It is a nuanced thing and even here in the US, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy just issued some guidelines to open up publications and data that receives public funding and yes, that in and of itself sounds like a great thing. We are supportive of that. And then there's all the nuance that goes into actually what that looks like in practice. I was talking to a friend the other day who's a pediatrician, she does research and they're now trying to comply with this new policy and knows that I'm interested in this stuff. And so it texts me to complain a little bit about a lot of the logistical implications and the costs even of just working to make some of that data anonymous so that they can publish it openly. And the time it takes to do that increased APCs because there are a few incentives built into the policy that will actually change publishing behavior. Instead it just means more money goes toward unlocking articles using APCs. So there's a lot to work on. But I do still think that these pushes, whether it's government policy or cultural shifts, are still kind of pushing us in the right direction.
Jo: Yeah, and I think to open up is good and cautiousness is necessary but I think we're also mature enough as a society, not only in academia hopefully so to have enough watchdogs to make sure that we don't screw this up.
Catherine: Yeah, I mean it's watchdogs but it's also just like perspectives in the room. Right? So Knowledge Features are partially sustained, hopefully one day mostly sustained by memberships. And our members range from whole foundations like the Bill Gates Foundation to societies to publishing houses, but also individuals who just want to support open infrastructure and be a part of the conversation. And so even just this week we emailed people about being a part of the process of developing a new feature we're going to be building this year and having the director of a press in that zoom call with our Dev team alongside just like someone in Switzerland who's supportive of our work. That's good. And we can do a better job of having a broader spectrum of groups and people in our membership list. That's always something we're trying to do. But I think just making sure we have a multiplicity of perspectives while we're building infrastructure is really important.
Jo: Right, and now coming to the third product or the second really in the pipeline since the umbrella is supposed to be launched, the Commonplace. I've read back and forth in the past and I found, like, highly informative thought leadership pieces there.
Catherine: Thank you.
Jo: And also my colleagues that I know from either directly collaborating with or from the research literature. So one question would be, technically, what would be the decision to publish on the Commonplace versus Pub Pub? Is the Commonplace also indexed through cross ref scholarly databases?
Catherine: Yeah, it is. We use Pub Pub to publish Commonplace, so it'd be funny if we didn't. We do consider it a bit of a sandbox for our team because it's another place where we're also using our own product. We have a few of those and I think that when we rolled out submission and review, we were one of the first publications to actually use it. And so we give that feedback to our dev team just like anybody else would. We use pub pub to publish Commonplace. From the outset, we were very clear that it should not just be a place where our own team and leadership publishes their thoughts. Right. This is not a publication that's just about what Knowledge Futures is doing. I think we actually only have like three or four pieces penned by pen, written by someone on our team. So it's really meant to highlight and amplify the work that groups are doing that we're learning from, that we think other people can learn from. And that just, again, sort of pushes the space in the right direction.
Jo: And the other question just opened my mind. No, what's the variety of topics or also stakeholder groups, as you see, embracing Commonplace to share their thoughts?
Catherine: Yeah, that's a good question. So we actually just pushed up some new mission and some updates on Commonplace and I'm happy to share that link. And we're also going to start paying contributors in 2023. We got the budget for that. So that's a huge, huge step in the right direction for us. But I think initially and now we've seen a lot of interest from librarians, scholarly communications researchers, whether they sit within a department or within a library, and honestly, both like early career and some tenured researchers, faculty that are kind of, again, mission aligned and thinking similarly. So it's been a range. But I would say that historically, librarians or people kind of in that space have been the first to sort of find themselves within Commonplace, which we love. And I also think we found some similar kinship on Pub Pup as well with those groups.
Jo: Yeah. Coming from a researcher's perspective. Also when we launched Africarxiv, I've only learned through that work how librarians think about open science. And we basically do the same thing with different approaches and different taxonomies. Sometimes it's highly confusing. So I feel like I really appreciate that in Commonplace and also as a place where librarians get a voice to express themselves because of such rich knowledge about anything from science, metrics, bibliometrics, publishing workflows, best practices, university presses, engagement, all of that.
Catherine: I think we enjoy hearing and this is relevant to commonplace. But really just for any product that we're working on. We sometimes like to say that we're not necessarily really trying to make the system that exists better or more efficient. Although if that's a side effect, great. I think we are trying to bring about new systems, we're not trying to make it easier for people to pay APCs. We don't think that's the right model. And so working with people and honestly, people are very good at finding us. We have no marketing team, we have no sales team, we've done no proactive outreach and that's something we plan on doing in the near future, if not this year. But so far we have been able to communicate clearly enough about what we're doing and why. We've been able to rely on people who have already found us and have done cool things to tell other people and we've grown that way. But yeah, I think we want to use Commonplace to try to connect better with fellow travelers and to really shine a light on what it is that they're doing too.
Jo: Great. Thank you. Also, being mindful of the time, I hope you'll be able to continue this conversation and discussion some other time to explore, maybe after the underlays have been launched. Also to wider adoption.
Jo: And again, it's a pleasure working together and thanks for making time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Catherine: Of course, thanks for the invite.
Jo: Yeah, any last words?
Catherine: Any final words?
Jo: I always find it difficult to close this but it's an ongoing story so the conversation has to be continued for sure. Welcome back any time and yeah, there's more to explore.
Catherine Thank you for having me.