25 Open as in Dangerous

Chris Bourg

Originally published on April 17, 2018

Below is the modified text of my keynote talk at the 2018 Creative Commons Global Summit. Video also available.

Sticking with the goal of talking about things I know, I figured I might start by talking a bit about why open access is important to me, a bit about the history and more importantly the future of OA at MIT, and then spend some time unpacking this “open as in dangerous” title I chose for my talk.

Working towards more open access to the scholarly record is a pretty core part of my professional motivation and identity. I took my current job because of my desire to work on open access issues, and in a rare (and admittedly crude) attempt at artistic creativity, I dyed only one egg this easter.


Open access easter egg

In the early days of the open access movement in libraryland, I think many folx came to open access via the scholarly communications financial crisis – the ballooning costs of journal subscriptions from commercial publishers who rake in 40% profit margins has crippled library budgets; and that has prompted many library administrators to embrace open access as a potential path out of this crisis in scholarly communications (#NotAllScholCommies).

I have to be honest that has not been my primary motivation. I have been privileged to work at Stanford Libraries and MIT Libraries – two elite and relatively well-funded institutions; so I have had the luxury of embracing OA from an admittedly moral and idealistic perspective, and a better science perspective. Echoing what Katherine Maher and others said yesterday, I’m also trying to be very conscious about the fact that working on open is a passion and an avocation for me.  It is not an economic imperative as it is for many individuals and institutions, and it is not a matter of survival as it is for many in severely under resourced parts of the world.

I pursue open access for the simple reason that I am convinced that when more people around the globe have free and open access to research and to the scholarly record, we do better science, and the world is a better place. It is a better place because individuals who have access to knowledge can live more informed and empowered lives; and it is a better place because societies and communities in which more people have access to research will be better and quicker at solving big challenges – challenges like ensuring everyone has access to clean water, adequate food, decent health care, and quality education. Challenges like climate change, clean energy, ethical application of algorithms and more.

When Jennie Rose Halperin interviewed me a few days ago for the Creative Commons blog, she asked a bunch of great questions about the future of the open movement, and part of what I said was

“There are compelling stories to be told about the harms of information scarcity and knowledge monopolies, and there are equally compelling stories about ways in which open access to knowledge and culture helps us solve big (and small) challenges across the globe.”


At MIT we collect those stories from people who use our open access collection.

We have plenty of stories from students who don’t have access to paywalled research, but who find what they need in MIT’s open access collection. We also get comments from just regular people, citizen scientists, who want to read and learn about something in our collections.

And we get comments like this one from a professor in Mexico who would otherwise have to pay out-of-pocket to access the literature he needs to enable him to educate the next generation of engineers in Mexico:

“My job is to teach physics and subjects related to electrical engineering in the University of Morelos. I am so grateful you gave me the opportunity to learn more about this subject. Thank you very much, because of this I can provide food and lodge to my wife and to my sons.”

And stories like this from a program officer at the Asia Foundation who was able to use an article in our open access collection to support work on water governance in the Ganges river basin.

“We’re currently working … to improve transboundary water governance over the next two years. This piece is quite critical in proving the connection between civil society intervention and better water governance. TAF does not have institutional access to this particular journal, and finding it openly available is immensely helpful.”

I want to spend a few minutes talking about MIT and what we have done and are hoping to do to increase open access to research and educational materials.

This is a slide I call “Chris Bourg’s totally incomplete, highly biased timeline of the Highlights of OA Leadership at MIT.” All of these happened before I got there, so this is not bragging, not even #HumbleBrag.


I’m just going to highlight a few items on this timeline, mainly as a way to highlight the work and vision of some remarkable women who I think should get more recognition and visibility.

I have to start with the Ann Wolpert article. Ann was my predecessor as Director of Libraries at MIT and just 8 months before she passed away, she published an article in New England Journal of Medicine titled “For the sake of inquiry and knowledge: The inevitability of open access”.

I don’t know which metaphor is most appropriate, but this seemed like a shot across the bow of the commercial publishers, and a maybe gauntlet thrown down for fellow library directors. It certainly was a mic drop. Especially this last line:

 “There is no doubt that the public interests vested in funding agencies, universities, libraries, and authors, together with the power and reach of the Internet, have created a compelling and necessary momentum for open access. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

In 2009, MIT passed a Faculty OA Policy, by unanimous vote of the faculty,

“Each Faculty member grants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nonexclusive permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles for the purpose of open dissemination.”

They turned to the library to implement the policy.  And the library was ready because …

In 2002, DSpace was released. DSpace is an open source repository software package currently used by over 1000 org’s worldwide for creating open access repositories for scholarly and/or published digital content. This project was led by another incredible woman and leader in libraries and OA,MacKenzie Smith, then the Associate Director for Technology at the MIT Libraries, now University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship at UC Davis

MIT gets a little credit for Creative Commons, since MIT Professor Hal Abelson was one of founding directors.

In 2000 OpenCourseWare launched, with the simple but bold idea that MIT should publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.

In 1994, Muriel Cooper introduced the idea of  Information Landscapes. If you don’t know who Muriel Cooper is, then she is probably one of the most amazing women you have never heard of. Cooper was a pioneering designer (she created the iconic MIT Press colophon) and a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab.

In one of the final talks before her death, at a TED 5 conference, she presented a demo of a dynamic, interactive, computer-based information landscape.

“In an information landscape, the user appears to fly effortlessly through the infinite zoom of a textual space, reading along the way, creating connections and making meaning.”

The information in Cooper’s information landscape was imagined to be open and accessible.

In the 1980’s, some MIT folks, notably Richard Stallman, were involved in some free software stuff: GNU, Free Software Foundation, and MIT License.

You can probably go back further to find MIT folks talking about access to knowledge, but I’ll stop with this seminal 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush, in which he challenged his fellow scientists and engineers to turn their postwar attention to the task of “making more accessible [the] bewildering store of knowledge.”

Fast forward a few years, and the amazing staff at the MIT Libraries recently developed and promoted an opt-in license that allows any MIT author to take advantage of the same OA policy and license available to faculty.

We have over 27,000 journal articles in our OA collection – representing nearly 50% of the articles written by MIT faculty published since the OA policy was enacted. And, any day now, we will pass 10 million downloads of those articles.

And while we are justifiably proud of most of our history with respect to open and our role in open movements, we think we can do more, and we want to do better.

And here I feel a tremendous and sobering responsibility to acknowledge MIT’s involvement in the events around Aaron Swartz’s arrest and prosecution, and his tragic suicide. While the narrative of MIT’s involvement, both the reality and the misperceptions, is complicated, I think it is safe to say this is a part of MIT’s history that we are not proud of, and our failure of leadership motivates us to do better now. To quote the MIT Report (colloquially known at MIT as the Abelson Report):

“In closing, our review can suggest this lesson: MIT is respected for world-class work in information technology, for promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse. The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas. Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership. As one person involved in the decisions put it: “MIT didn’t do anything wrong; but we didn’t do ourselves proud.”

So we are asking ourselves, what else can MIT do to advance open access to research and teaching materials?

And it started with an Institute-wide task force on the future of research libraries, and the report issued by that task force in 2016.

The report on the future of research libraries described a vision for research libraries firmly rooted in the library’s role in disseminating scholarly research to a global community of potential readers.

There are so many good pull quotes in that report. This one is the most direct and succinct:

“The Task Force asserts that the MIT Libraries should be leaders in … advancing more radically open systems for the discovery, use, and stewardship of information and knowledge.”

Here’s another one I like:

“For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research. Enduring global access to knowledge requires sustainable models for ensuring that past and present knowledge is available long into the future.”

One of the specific recommendations of the future of libraries task force was that MIT convene another task force – this one with a dedicated focus on making recommendations about how to further the MIT mission of disseminating research and teaching. I am co-chairing the MIT Open Access TFwith Hal Abelson.  We are looking at many possibilities, and we are not yet ready to make even preliminary recommendations, but some themes are emerging

One theme is that open access to published journal articles is great, but the landscape is so much bigger and the potential impact is greater when we look at an expansive set of knowledge and scholarship that includes books, data, computer code, educational materials, lab notebooks, research protocols, and maybe even failed research.

We are also wrestling with how to create stronger incentives for openness for authors, publishers, funders and institutions; and we recognize that real progress on openness will require the right networked infrastructure, which can only, or should only, be built through global collaborations.

Those are some of the same themes that emerged at a recent summit we held at MIT devoted to identifying grand challenges in scholarly communication. The domain experts who participated in the summit spent significant time talking about the importance of opening up and preserving an expanded version of the scholarly record – one that includes many formats and forms of knowledge. We also talked about the challenges of incentives, infrastructure and collaboration.

And keynote speaker Anasuya Sengupta, co-director of whoseknowledge.org, challenged us to use the open scholarship movement to decolonize knowledge and the scholarly record. A video of her keynote, as well as keynotes by Kate Zwaard of the Library of Congress, and Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, are available on the Grand Challenges website.

In all of these efforts to push the boundaries of open scholarship, we have tried to be cognizant of the tensions, trade-offs, and potential dangers of open.

And that brings me to the title of this talk: Open as in dangerous.

Several months ago, I had the privilege of joining Lawrence Lessig, Jonathon Zittrain, Joi Ito, Ethan Zuckerman, Amy Brand, and several other scholars and creators at an informal dinner discussion about what’s next for Creative Commons.

It was a wide-ranging, heady, intense, and, if I’m honest, rather sobering conversation. Folks around the table, prodded by Lessig and Zittrain, talked not just about Creative Commons, but broadly about their hopes for an open digital commons; and they talked about their concerns for individual privacy and autonomy in our increasingly digitally mediated and commercially surveilled society.  We talked about many things, but what really stuck with me was how much of the conversation was about the increasing tension between the ethos of open, and the value of privacy.

On the one hand, these Creative Commons advocates, and open culture luminaries, expressed a continued desire for a world where scholars, artists, musicians, and creators of all kinds openly share their work and ideas with one another. These were folks who have, to some degree, dedicated their lives and their careers to the idea that culture and knowledge will thrive and grow via openness and through the participation and inclusion of people all across the globe. So of course they talked about how to make more things more open.

But/And, they also talked about their desire for privacy and control over their own information, from the data our Fitbits track to the digital trails we leave, knowingly and unknowingly, on social media sites, through online shopping, through our knowing and unknowing use of internet of things devices, and so on.

And this was before we knew what Cambridge Analytica and Facebook had done with all our data and our friend’s data.

So when Ryan asked me if I wanted to speak at the Creative Commons Summit, I knew I wanted to talk about Open as in dangerous.

And I wanted to talk about open not just as a feature of the internet and scholarship, but also at a personal level.

At a personal level, open as in dangerous is about loss of privacy, and loss of agency.  And for marginalized people especially — a very real danger of being open on today’s internet is the danger of being targeted for abuse, and harassment, for rape and/or death threats, and the danger of being doxxed.

It turns out that social media is not all rainbow poop emojis and cute puppies.

And yes, individuals can and do make choices and have tools for dealing with trolls and maintaining privacy and safety — but the very fact that these dangers  are unevenly distributed, and they are unevenly distributed in patterns that match existing systems of oppression means that the open commons we all dream of and labor to create and support is riddled with inequality and oppression. And that sucks.

Others have documented the dangers of shared and open data — dangers experienced disproportionately by those already most marginalized and disempowered.

You surely expected a librarian to give you a reading list, right? These are all must read books about the dangers of big data and algorithms.

In one way or another, each of these books reminds us that some of the same tools and infrastructures that maximize sharing and open participation, especially where data is concerned, also maximize our exposure to collective and targeted danger.

Another danger of open is that it can result in loss of context – in her talk at our grand challenges summit, Anasuya talked about knowledge and ways of knowing as existing on a continuum from embodied (or tacit) knowledge to disembodied (or formal) knowledge. As embodied knowledge becomes disembodied – as it is written and captured and extracted and shared – local, personal, and tacit context is often lost.

This is too often amplified when knowledge and other forms of expression are made open. This is part of the danger Tara Robertson, now at Mozilla, warned libraryland about when she raised the red flag on Reveal Digital’s plan to digitize and make open the archives of On our Backs.

On Our Backs was the first women-run erotica magazine and the first magazine to feature lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience in the United States. The very real issues of whether the women whose images appeared in On our Backs gave anything like informed consent to have their images freely available on the web some 30+ years later is also about decontextualizing these images and the choices these women made. As one of the women told Robertson “I meant this work to be for my community and now I am being objectified in a way that I have no control over. People can cut up my body and make it a collage.”

Another danger of open scholarship is that it can (and will if we don’t actively intervene) re-inscribe global information inequity. At the most basic level, we have to think carefully about the implications of open access being primarily a movement for faculty at elite institutions in the global north. As scholarship from the global north becomes more open and more ubiquitously available, there is a real danger that current inequities in prestige, impact, and citation patterns will be exacerbated and open access will serve to re-colonize scholarship.

Let me wrap this up on a more hopeful note though, or at least a more defiant one.

First, I’ll turn to Rebecca Solnit, who reminds us in Men Explain Lolita to Me, that art and culture and books are inherently dangerous, but in a good and radical way.

 “Photographs and essays and novels (and I’ll add scholarship and science) and the rest can change your life, they are dangerous. Art shapes the world … if there is no one book that saved me, it’s because hundreds of thousands did.”

Second, I turn again to my friend and colleague Anasuya Sengupta. In herkeynote at our grand challenges summit, she offered up a post colonial manifesto for digital knowledge:

“At the heart of a post colonial manifesto for digital knowledge is the act of making explicit multiple forms of embodied knowledge and the authorities that either legitimize or delegitimize them. It is also the act of making explicit the ways in which power and privilege are embedded in our ways of knowing.”

I hear this as a call for openness in the content and in the process and in the messy inequities of it all.

Creative Commons and the OA movement have been closely intertwined from their inception — In 2002, Creative Commons launched the first set of Creative Commons licenses, and in that same year the Budapest Open Access Declaration declared that “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good.”

Perhaps a coincidence, but that’s the same year I started my career in libraries.

Sixteen years later, we have to acknowledge that realizing the potential of that unprecedented public good is a perpetually unfinished project.

And there is a way in which that is a good thing. Because we have the chance, the responsibility, to keep getting it better – by baking in respect for privacy, agency, and informed choice; and by making explicit not just multiple forms of knowledge and culture, but multiple ways of making and legitimizing knowledge and culture. And especially by actively, intentionally, and collaboratively centering the voices and the work of those who have been and are marginalized.

About the Author

Chris Bourg is the Director of Libraries at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she also has oversight of the MIT Press, and is the founding director of the Center for Research on Equitable and Open Scholarship (CREOS).

Chris is an advocate for equitable and open scholarship, and for the role of libraries in promoting social justice. She is co-chair of the MIT Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to MIT’s Research; a member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Roundtable on Aligning Incentives for Open Science; and a member of the Steering Committee of SocArXiv.

Twitter: @mchris4duke

Other work:

Bourg, Chris. 2018. The Library is Never Neutral. In Disrupting the Digital Humanities, edited by Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel. California: Punctum Books.



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Open as in Dangerous Copyright © 2020 by Chris Bourg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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