Open science and its weird conception of data

In an early draft of one of my dissertation’s background chapters I wrote a ranty section about notions of data held by the open science movement that I find really annoying. I eventually excised this bit of text, and while it isn’t really worth assembling into any publication, I thought it may still be worth sharing here. So here is a lightly adapted version, original circa May 2022.

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Abstract submitted for DAB23 (Bern, Switzerland)

Today I submitted an abstract to present at the DAB23 colloquium hosted by the Bern Computational and Digital Archaeology lab. The conference is about “advancing open research into the next decade” and my paper is titled Documenting the collaborative commitments that support data sharing within archaeological project collectives. Here is the abstract:

Archaeological research is inherently collaborative, in that it involves many people coming together to examine a material assemblage of mutual interest by implementing a variety of tools and methods in tandem. Independent projects establish organizational structures and information systems to help coordinate labour and pool information derived thereof into a communal data stream, which can then be applied towards the production and publication of analytical findings. Albeit not necessarily egalitarian, and with different expectations set for people assigned different roles, archaeological projects thus constitute a form of commons, whereby participants contribute to and obtain value from a collective endeavour. Adopting open research practices, including sharing data beyond a project’s original scope, involves altering the collaborative commitments that bind work together. This paper, drawn from my doctoral dissertation, examines how archaeologists are presently navigating this juncture between established professional norms and expectations on the one hand, and the potential benefits and limitations afforded by open research on the other.

I applied an abductive qualitative data analysis approach based on recorded observations, interviews, and documents collected from three cases, including two independent archaeological projects and one regional data sharing consortium with limited scope and targeted research objectives. My analysis documents a few underappreciated aspects of archaeological projects’ sociotechnical arrangements that open data infrastructures should account for more thoroughly:

  1. boundaries, whether they restrict membership within a collective, delimit a project’s scope, or limit the time frame under which a project operates, have practical positive value, and are not just arbitrary impediments;
  2. systems designed to direct the flow of information do so via the coordination of labour, and the strategic arrangement of human and object agency, as well as resistances against such managerial control, are rarely accounted for in data documentation; and
  3. information systems and the institutional structures that support them tend to reinforce and reify existing power structures and divisions of labour, including implicit rules that govern ownership and control over research materials and that designate who may benefit from their use.

By framing data sharing, whether it occurs between close colleagues or as mediated by open data platforms among strangers, as comprising a series of collaborative commitments, my work highlights the broader social contexts within which we develop open archaeological research infrastructures. As we move forward, we should be aware of and account for how the data governance models embedded within open research infrastructures either complement or challenge existing social dynamics.

Mastodon and the potential for community growth

It’s a weird time to be starting a blog. Twitter has imploded and many of my colleagues have started using mastodon instead. There’s a lot of talk about the virtues of decentralization and of establishing and maintaining firm community values as reflected in content moderation policies and practices. Of course, all of this discourse is happening in microblog format, and is restricted by the usual inability to have any kind of nuanced conversation on the web. I feel that when posting on twitter and on mastodon alike, I’m bound to a formal position, and I find it hard to establish a tone that is my own. This makes it difficult for me to be casual, and to express my thoughts in a way that makes sense to me, especially when my ideas are really half-baked or vaguely critical. So I started this blog to help me retain a more tentative voice that I often express in casual conversations, and which I’m terrified of letting out in more formal or professional spaces.

The shift to mastodon has been interesting. It definitely has a very different vibe, but there’s a chance that this might just be due to the novelty of the experience. Sure, there are affordances built in to the platform that enable or encourage certain behaviours, such as content warnings, image descriptions and various means of controlling post visibility, but the value of these features will depend on whether people take action and actually use them.

I think that the biggest change, whose ramifications we’re just starting to see, has to do with community governance. On twitter, the usual and pretty much only way of responding to inadequate content moderation was to complain and put up with it. But on mastodon there are three main ways you can deal with it:

  1. put up with it,
  2. switch to another instance, or
  3. get involved, give feedback, make change

People are very used to the first option, and the latter two require more work. The second option involves a bit of work to find another instance that appeals to you, to create a new introduction post and build out your profile again, and to re-link all your other socials, etc. The third option seems like the most exciting one, since it actually feels like a potential venue for dynamic community building, for personal and collective growth. The distinction between the second and third options may also have lot to do with a weird tension between techno-libertarian  and anarcho-syndicalist visions of (web-based) community building (but more on that in another post…).

This is the sort of thing that is on my mind as continues to develop. Joe Roe started as a mastodon instance for archaeologists, and I joined him soon after to help with content moderation and to plan some community guidelines (still in progress). I’m learning a lot through this whole experience. I’m learning to be more patient, more open to other perspectives, less controlling, and less apprehensive. It’s still early days, and Joe is encouraging me to sit tight, let the community do its thing, get them to shape the path ahead, which scares the hell out of me. Hours before launched, I even posted a very critical toot about how this would be bound to fail, but look at me now, riding shotgun!

Screenshot of two posts.First post: "Kinda concerned by all the rhetoric about mastodon vibes being inherently more positive than twitter, just because *federated*. Sure, it provides certain tools that provide greater *potential* for community members to become more involved in how their social network is governed, but I think these are community issues, not tech issues, and it risks falling back into uncritical platform-hype circa 2007." Second post: "Related: I think that academic units hosting their own units is a bad idea because I think that most unis have really bad governance strategies in general, and will be totally unequipped to deal with community management and content moderation if they just do it on a whim. Same goes for individuals wanting to set up an instance for their colleagues or subdiscipline"
Me being wrong on the internet, hopefully.

In retrospect, that kind of attitude I posted a couple weeks ago may be what’s holding us back. We need to try things out and play around to find out what else could come from all of this. I’m very eager to have been wrong.