Book Review: The Virtues of Openness

The Virtues of Openness

The Virtues of Openness: Education, Science, and Scholarship in the Digital Age by Michael A. Peters and Peter Roberts (2012) will appeal to anyone interested in open movements in respect to academia. The book includes eight chapters (three of which were previously published), an introduction, postscript, and extensive references. The authors are both professors of education in New Zealand (Peters at the University of Waikato; Roberts at the University of Canterbury).

In addition to exploring the many aspects of openness (which makes defining it so difficult), the authors make an important point that bears remembering when we are tempted by binary conceptions such as open or not (Introduction, p.6):

All open systems have limits, and there are limits to openness– limits to “open” markets, to open societies, to open code.

It’s a theme the authors return to repeatedly, particularly in the context of the philosophy of education, also noting that these limits can serve positive functions.

Chapter 4, “Open Education and Open Knowledge Production” (p. 55-76) covers the serials crisis and open access with the greatest depth, but I learned the most from Chapter 2, “The Philosophy of Open Science” (p. 30-42), and Chapter 3, “Openness as an Educational Virtue” (p. 43-54). Chapter 2 begins by emphasizing the narratives of openness in the West and their relation to Enlightenment thought, in particular the ways in which openness is freedom. The bulk of the chapter goes on to consider philosophies of openness from various thinkers. Of particular interest are the connections between thinkers leading up to the concept of open access for scholarly literature. Karl Popper (author of The Open Society And Its Enemies) was a strong influence on George Soros, whose Open Society Institute (now the Open Society Foundations) was the driving force behind the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Here the political conception of an open society contains both the market and science as primary institutions based on shared values of freedom and truth, though it’s worth noting how often these institutions are in conflict today. Indeed, the authors make this clear in their summary of Chapter 4 (p. 76):

In essence, the open knowledge economy provides a completely different model to the neoliberal knowledge economy and also challenges the underlying neoliberal ideas of ownership, authorship, human capital, and intellectual property rights as well as principles of the access, distribution, and creation of knowledge.

In chapter 3 (“Openness as an Educational Virtue”), a philosophy of openness in pedagogy focuses on the work of Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire. Openness, the authors contend, includes but is not limited to open-mindedness, and is contrasted with forms of closure such as “dogmatism, excessive certainty, and an unreflective rejection of either the old or the new” (p. 44). Throughout his career, Freire identified human characteristics of value in teaching and learning situations, such as “humility, the ability to listen, showing care and respect for those with whom we work in educational settings, tolerance, an inquiring and investigative frame of mind, and a willingness to take risks” (p. 49). For Freire, openness is a permanent orientation to life itself, recognizing that we are always unfinished beings.

The authors view the university emphasis on performance as a form of closure in Chapter 5 (“Scholarly Publishing and the Politics of Openness: Knowledge Production in Contemporary Universities”), stating that “it is performance, not knowledge, that counts” (p. 82, 83):

Performance, as measured by lists of “outputs,” becomes the accepted substitute for knowledge and is seen as translatable across individuals, departmental groupings, disciplines, and institutions.

And these outputs must be quantified (p. 84):

…research activity counts only insofar as it is measurable. Behind this trend lies a quest for certainty, a discomfort with that which is complex or messy, and an inability to deal with the immeasurable.

Although the ongoing revolution in scholarly communication also relies in part on measurables such as review and altmetric scores, it shows a willingness to deal with uncertainty and the immeasurable through open peer review and post-publication peer review. The authors identify an interesting casualty of the culture of performativity, which is time, or the lack of it (p. 87). One problem not addressed here is that being open is more time-consuming in the current publishing environment. Those who want to be open must make additional effort, whether it is seeking out an open access journal, archiving their manuscript, or organizing, describing, and providing access to their data. Clearly norms must change so that closure is not the easy, time-saving alternative. Time pressures also drive quantification in academic evaluation, since it is faster to look at scores than to read someone’s scholarship.

At times The Virtues of Openness shows considerable overlap in chapter topics; at other times the transitions between chapters are jarring, perhaps because some were previously published. As such, the book feels like a collection of chapters rather than a connected narrative. Also, a few of the figures and tables are either not particularly enlightening (“Applications of openness” on p. 67) or outdated (2001 scientific publishing market players, p. 58).

However, this volume is a solid resource for those interested in exploring the thinkers who have contributed to the philosophy of openness in a variety of disciplines. The authors do an admirable, mostly jargon-free job of introducing and clarifying different aspects of openness, and of emphasizing its limits.

The Virtues of Openness is available in Newman Library and from the publisher.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.
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