Friday, June 30, 2006

Memory Practices in the Sciences: First Thoughts, First 40 pages

It’s eccentrically organized, and given the subject matter, I’m trying to decide whether or not it’s done on purpose. Bowker develops the concept of memory having close links, or even a foundation in the ability to categorize information (8-9), as well as other disguised memory practices that are not “an act of consciousness” that consist of what can be “called to mind”. Without giving him too much credit before finishing the book, I am circumspect that he is using an unorthodox organization that defies normal categorization in order to engage the concept of memory from a fresh perspective. Hopefully the following chapters will provide better insight into that thought.

Bowker also points out a difference in linear and categorical memory that I am hoping he further develops in the following chapters, most likely chapter 3. He compares different modes of data and information storage in object oriented programming (linear) and relational database storage (categorical) that he needs to develop further (29-30). He alludes to a change in western ontological thought processes, but then drops the topic entirely for other discussion.

Another interesting point that I’ll be waiting for in the following chapters is the consideration given to large-scale memory suppression. That is, a history of a nation or other population being shaped by a course of events that are important for its development, but are later forgotten in order to camouflage an unwanted past. A good example is probably the Armenian Genocide. He briefly speaks of science in the modern (postmodern?) age being readily used to remember and exploit past memories that some would prefer forgotten.

It’s definitely a dense read, as was referenced in the original post, but the book has real potential to develop a multitude of interesting ideas.

Monday, June 26, 2006

New Month, New Book: Memory Practices in the Sciences by Geoff Bowker

Greetings book clubbers

We had our first meeting last Friday afternoon on the Terrace - it was one of those beautiful afternoons where you feel bad for all the people out there who don't live in Madison: the band was playing, the boats were sailing, the brats were grilling, the beer was flowing... Ah, if only January in Madison was as sweet.

We had an invigorating discussion of our first book The Access Principle, various open access issues (mostly focusing on institutional repositories), and library OA advocacy efforts.

Our next book will be Geoff Bowker's brand new Memory Practices in the Sciences. Here is Bowker's homepage:

Here's how Bowker describes his book:
"My recent Memory Practices in the Sciences looks at information infrstructures and storytelling in a science over the past two hundred years. It looks at geology in the 1830s, cybernetics in the 1950s and environmental sciences today - weaving together their information infrastructure and the stories that they tell about their objects."

You may remember Bowker from Bowker & Star _Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences - which hopefully someone made you read in some SLIS class.

Be warned Memory Practices is not as easy a read as Access Principle! The SLIS library has purchased a copy & put it on 3 day reserve.

The meeting date for this book is the last Friday in July.

The way we record knowledge, and the web of technical, formal, and social practices that surrounds it, inevitably affects the knowledge that we record. The ways we hold knowledge about the past -- in handwritten manuscripts, in printed books, in file folders, in databases -- shape the kind of stories we tell about that past. In this lively and erudite look at the relation of our information infrastructures to our information, Geoffrey Bowker examines how, over the past two hundred years, information technology has converged with the nature and production of scientific knowledge. His story weaves a path between the social and political work of creating an explicit, indexical memory for science -- the making of infrastructures -- and the variety of ways we continually reconfigure, lose, and regain the past.

At a time when memory is so cheap and its recording is so protean, Bowker reminds us of the centrality of what and how we choose to forget. In Memory Practices in the Sciences he looks at three "memory epochs" of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries and their particular reconstructions/reconfigurations of scientific knowledge. The nineteenth century's central science, geology, mapped both the social and the natural world into a single time package (despite apparent discontinuities), as, in a different way, did mid-twentieth-century cybernetics; both, Bowker argues, packaged time in ways indexed by their information technologies to permit traffic between the social and natural worlds. The sciences of biodiversity today, meanwhile, "database the world" in a way that excludes certain spaces, entities, and times. We use the tools of the present to look at thepast, says Bowker; we project onto nature our modes of organizing our own affairs.

Synchronization of synchrony in the archive : geology and the 1830s
The empty archive : cybernetics and the 1960s
Databasing the world : biodiversity and the 2000s
The mnemonic deep : the importance of an unruly past
The local knowledge of a globalizing ethnos

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Some Phil Agre thoughts on tech determinism

In case you didn't get what I was saying about Willinsky being a technological determinist, here are some thoughts on different types of technological determinism from Phil Agre's (UCLA) article Internet Research: For and Against. He has posted it on his website at <> I think Willinsky's thinking would fall into Agre's "discontinuity" category.

It is part of a larger collected volume: Mia Consalvo, Nancy Baym, Jeremy Hunsinger, Klaus Bruhn Jensen, John Logie, Monica Murero, and Leslie Regan Shade, eds, Internet Research Annual, Volume 1: Selected Papers from the Association of Internet Researchers Conferences 2000-2002, New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

"Progress in the social study of computing requires us to discover and taxonomize the forms that technological determinism takes in received ways of thinking. Two of these might be called discontinuity and disembedding (cf. Brown and Duguid 2000). Discontinuity is the idea that information technology has brought about a sudden change in history. We supposedly live in an "information society", a "network society", or a "new media age" whose rules are driven by the workings of particular technologies. These theories are wrong as well. Of course, new information technologies have participated in many significant changes. But many other things are happening at the same time, yet other things are relatively unchanged, and the changes that do occur are thoroughly mediated by the structures and meanings that were already in place. It is easy to announce a discontinuity and attribute it to a single appealing trend, but doing so trivializes a complex reality.

Disembedding supposes new technologies to be a realm of their own, disconnected from the rest of the world. An example is the concept of "cyberspace" or the "online world", as if everything that happened online were unrelated to anything that happened offline. The reality is quite different. The things that people do on the Internet are almost always bound up with the things that they do elsewhere (Friedland 1996, Miller and Slater 2000, Wynn and Katz 1997). The "online world" is not a single place, but is divided among various institutions -- banking sites, hobby sites, extended family mailing lists, and so on, each of them simply annexing a corner of the Internet as one more forum to pursue an existing institutional logic, albeit with whatever amplifications or inflections might arise from the practicalities of the technology in use. People may well talk about the Internet as a separate place from the real world, and that is an interesting phenomenon, but it is not something that we should import into serious social analysis."

Note: Agre's Real-time politics: The Internet and the political process, The Information Society 18(5), 2002, pages 311-331 also provides a nice typology for thinking about information technology and social change.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Meeting this Friday

Don't forget - our first book discussion meeting (Books, Brats, Beverages) is this Friday at 3:00 pm on the Terrace (or inside if it is raining) Look for Kristin and Greg - we will try to get a semi-shady table. You are still encouraged to come even if you haven't had a chance to read the whole book! I want to particularly encourage the real librarians lurking out there to come and share their experiences/thoughts.

Brief Notes

This might not be the most important note/question, but did anyone else think that Willinsky should have started the book with Chapter 10 "Rights"? I felt like this would have set up his philosphical approaches more strongly from the start.

For a brief moment at the beginnning of Chapter 12 "Reading" I was really excited. I thought that Willinsky was actually going to talk more seriously and technically about dialogic reading practices and reading in hypermedia environments. So much work has been done on these issues, and he didn't even acknowledge it (here is one bibliography). I'm surprised, based on his background and list of other publications. I would expect him to be familiar with what is going on in studies of multiliteracies (book by same name), new media studies, and programs in rhetoric and technical communication.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. Am I correct in assuming that it is quiet around here because of all of the ALA festivities?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Access and That 'Triple Sided Economy'

I keep thinking about Willinsky's charge of 'inefficiency' as being what I would think of as more varied access.

Kristin mentioned this earlier in terms of how he is discussing labor. When I read it, I keep thinking of A. Suresh Canagrajah's book The Geopolitics of Academic Writing which really shows some of Willinsky's concerns as being beside the point when it comes to access for periphery scholars. In areas where electricity is not guaranteed, scholars still use typewriters, access to paper for printing/photocopying is scarce, and where scholarly approaches different than those valued by western scholarship are used, this doesn't mean all that much. The journals and research Willinsky focuses on are those dominated by western scholarship. Even many of the so-called international journals have a decidedly anglo- or western European focus.

Anyway, part of my point is that those printed copies of journals are actually more reliable as information sources in some communities. Using them doesn't depend on electricity, computer hardware, software, etc. In the example Willinsky opens the intro with, I think this is evident. If this library had access to print subscriptions to these journals, scholars in this community would not need to sign up for the limited time available on that one computer.

Don't get me wrong, I love having as much electronic access as possible, but I don't necessarily think that open electronic access can ever truly be universal open access.

Yes, I am crabby about this. And I suspect I still will be crabby when I read further.

Eschenfelder overall comments

First, I want to begin by saying that there is a lot I like and respect about this book:

a. it pulls together a lot of disparate information about the motivations for and dreams associated with OA
b. in doing so, it provides references to a diverse set of research about the related issues in a very useful way
c. it's pleasurable to read : )
d. it's a book - I've never written one!
e. Willinkson's emphasis on "the access principle" (the principle of increasing and improving access, impact, participation and circulation: pg. 29) instead of a specific tool and or business model is a very useful way to approach the problems that drive the OA movement. Appendix A "10 flavors of OA" is extremely useful.

I will probably assign portions of the book to my class as a good intro to many of the issues associated with OA and the 10 flavors portion emphasizes the different possibilities/business models associated with the end goals (his "access principle")

But I have some complaints about the book:

1. It spans so much territory, that Willinsky can't do justice to all the subtopics he takes on. It values breadth over depth; but depth would be much more interesting in the end. I would have recommended that the book focus on and expand chapters 1-7 and 12.

2. Unsupported claims: The lack of depth in certain sections results in some unsupported claims about how OA will solve this or that problem that undermine the overall effectiveness of his arguments. For example, he claims on pg. 181/182 that the "prospect of even citation indexing's becoming an open access resource, the possibilities of building an integrated and open system of indexing... becomes more feasible." Well, maybe. Yes, the fact that bib information is online and thus harvestable via OAI-PMH makes it more feasible, but it doesn't make commercial/non-profit/library cooperation more likely. He has left out any sort of analysis of the history of interactions between different indexing organizations, their business strategies & what motivations they have to cooperate or not cooperate in this venture. It would have been great if he had included that sort of analysis. Another example is the unsupported claim that OA will improve science journalism (p.g 136). Again, well maybe. Maybe certain journalists will be dilligent and make use of OA articles to improve their stories; but maybe other larger institutional forces like deadlines, editor interests, and limited understandings will mean that they won't.

3. Tech determinism: This book employs largely technological determinist assumptions that OA will cause certain (typically good) things to happen. From a social informatics perspective (my particularly theoretical camp) broad assumptions like these are highly suspicious. While OA may cause certain good things to happen under certain conditions, they won't happen all the time under all conditions. So the real questions are under what (cultural/temporal/economic/etc.) conditions will these things occur?

Willinksy doesn't fall into the trap of assuming OA will necessarily disempower publishers. LIS researchers like Rob Kling and Phil Agre point out that many technologies which we initially hoped would change power structures and empower underpriviledged groups instead tend to reinforce existing power structures. It may be that OA, under one of the 10 flavors presented by Willinsky, will end up reinforcing publishers power instead of moving power to a publisher/author/library cooperative (as suggested in chapter 6)

4. The historical context/openness spin. Willinsky contradicts himself in placing OA in a historical context. In Chapter 1, he argues that OA is part of a larger historical tradition of libraries and scholars maximizing access to materials. He says something about scholars visiting the ancient libraries at Alexandria. But as our very own Madge Klais points out, access to scholarly resources in ancient times was hardly open; rather, it was directly tied to class. If you weren't a gentleman, you couldn't read and you certainly had no business in the Alexandria library - unless it was to wash something. In a much later chapter Willinsky admits that access has long been tied to the politics of reading and who can read. Instead of spinning OA as part of a tradition of openness and access, I think he should have spun it as progress away from historically closed acccess to materials.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Federal Research Public Access Act debate

From Inside Higher Ed comes a report on the debate over the Federal Research Public Access Act:

At first glance, it seems that the research world is united against the Federal Research Public Access Act. Scholarly associations are lining up to express their anger over the bill, which would have federal agencies require grant recipients to publish their research papers — online and free — within six months of their publication elsewhere.

Dozens of scholarly groups have joined in two letters — one organized by the Association of American Publishers and one by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. To look at the signatories (and the tones of the letters), it would appear that there’s a wide consensus that the legislation is bad for research. The cancer researchers are against it. The education researchers are against it. The biologists are against it. The ornithologists are against it. The anthropologists are against it. All of these groups are joining to warn that the bill could undermine the quality and economic viability of scholarly publishing.

There’s no doubt that many scholars do object to the legislation. But a rebellion of sorts is brewing online, where scholars who are, in theory, represented by some of these groups argue that the legislation would help research, that the scholarly associations are selling out their rank and file’s interests to prop up their publishing arms, and that the debate points to some underlying tensions about academic publishing in the digital age.

These scholars — with the leaders of this informal movement coming from anthropology — want Congress to know that their associations aren’t speaking for them, and they also want to draw attention to the fact that some scholarly groups didn’t sign on.

The bill that set off this debate is based on the premise — popular in Congress — that if taxpayers pay for research, they should be able to see the results of that research. That premise is being attached to a larger debate in scholarly publishing over “open access.” Proponents say that systems that provide for speedy, online, free publication assure the broadest possible access to cutting-edge knowledge. Critics of the idea say that the costs associated with journal subscriptions pay for quality control — and that open access is making their economic models fall apart because it removes the incentive for people (or, in the case of scholarly journals, institutions) to subscribe.

There are of course many types of open access — and professors and publishers have a range of views beyond simple pro/con. But in the reaction to the new legislation — sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) — has been swift and strong. The letter from the Association of American Publishers said that the bill would destroy the peer review system that assured journal quality and would turn federal agencies into competitors with scholarly publishers. The letter from the biologists’ group said that the legislation would do even more damage — hurting patient care in hospitals because the bill’s adoption would harm the continuing medical education programs subsidized by journals.

The full article goes into more detail. Connections to our book?


Scott Jaschik, "In whose interest?" Inside Higher Ed (15 June 2006).

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Chapter 1-3 comments: The division of labor in academic publishing

In ch. 1, "Opening," Willinsky points out that “scholarly publishing runs on a different economic basis than the rest of the publishing world”: “Researchers and scholars are not paid a penny by journal publishers for original manuscripts presenting the results of perhaps thousands of dollars’ worth of research.” [6] It seems to me that in the sciences, where this issue is most keen and where most of his examples originate, the research could be tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost, with not individual authors, but vast teams of authors. In addition, Willinsky neglects to note here -- and in many other places -- that peer reviewers and editorial board members of journals do not get paid for their efforts either.

A little later, Willinsky laments the “redundancies” of the “terribly inefficent triple-sided economy in the transition of journals from print to digital editions”: (1) “the traditional industrial apparatus of print” both on the publishing side and on the distribution/storage side with libraries; (2) publishers’ own “sophisticated Web-based systems for publishing, distributing, and indexing electronic editions within their own portals”; and (3) the infrastructures developed by libraries “for providing their patrons with access to these and other digital resources”. [10]
All these “redundancies” and “inefficiencies” imply wasted human labor and, thus, needless costs. Is the question here not one of ownership and access, but of division of labor in copyediting, digitizing, distributing, indexing, and marketing this information?

This labor question seems to lurk beneath ch. 2, "Access," as well. Willinsky points out that recent corporate mergers have left “Reed Elsevier with 1,800 journals, Taylor and Francis with over 1,000 titles, and Springer with more than 500 titles,” meaning “these three companies now control 60 percent of the materials indexed in the world’s leading citation index, the ISI Web of Science.” [18] But one of the main motivations for corporate mergers is cutting the kind of labor "redundancies" that Willinsky lamented in the previous chapter. Who performs the fact-checking, copy-editing, citation abstracting, and keyword indexing labor for all these journals, and how is this funded?

Finally, ch 3. on "Copyright" must deal with this issue as well. Willinsky argues “The copyright interests of researchers are to have their work reproduced, read, and accurately cited among as wide a readership as possible. The economic interests of faculty are not hurt, for example, as are those of publishers, by the distribution of free copies of their published work. Just the opposite.” [52] But Willinsky still hasn’t systematically addressed the user problem of finding research to “reproduce, read, and cite” in the first place — the abstracting, indexing, and searching problem which too requires labor, and therefore costs. Who is bearing the greatest burden of these labor costs, and who is reaping the greatest benefits?

So in a nutshell, let's try to gauge as we read on: Will Willinsky's multifarious open-access schemes address questions over "acquisition" labor and "retrieval" labor, as well as the original "authoring" labor of the research team itself?