Saturday, October 10, 2020 News

Project Aims to Move Higher Education Incentives Towards Open

Imagine a world where higher educational institutions were ranked, not by their selectivity or prestige, but by their willingness to openly share knowledge and engage with their communities.

Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI) is using big data and cloud computing to measure how colleges and universities operate as open and equitable players in the scholarly ecosystem. Launched in 2017, the idea for the project grew from a frustration that Lucy Montgomery and COKI LogoCameron Neylon say they faced trying to elevate conversations about investing in open access and open science. 

Too often, leaders on campuses didn’t see open as a priority. The pair wanted to provide data to make their case and provide an incentive for higher education to become more coordinated in its efforts to share knowledge and to change how the information eco-system works.

“International rankings are drivers,” says Montgomery, co-lead for the project and associate professor of internet studies at Curtin University where COKI is based in Perth, Australia. “We saw a gap between the often genuine efforts of universities to do good in the world, and the day-to-day realities of the performance indicators.”

The team at COKI used existing information to create a data set of more than 12 trillion items related to scholarly communication, open access, equity and diversity and inclusion. It is both an attempt to show the progress being made globally and a mechanism to generate data about individual institutions. 

“We want to change the stories that universities tell about themselves,” says Neylon, a professor of research communications at Curtin and COKI co-lead. “The goal is to build the kind of rich, broad resources that can help people to understand where they are as a university, where they are doing well and maybe to look for inspiration to peer institutions for taking the next steps.”  

The COKI team pairs Neylon, who has an extensive background in science and technology with Montgomery, who has a background in the humanities and intellectual property, and nine other researchers with diverse backgrounds.

The project set out to develop a model for an “open knowledge institution.” More than simply focusing on producing open scholarship, COKI looks to measure how institutions bring different groups productively together to make progress and reach consensus, says Neylon. The measures places value on openly communicating research and commitments to building cross-cultural connections. By tracking these efforts, COKI aims to support university efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education and research.

“The sense here is of openness as interacting broader and more diverse groups,” Neylon says. “It shifts beyond the idea that we should behave better or more openly to changing the incentive structure and culture.”

COKI Booksprint Team

The book sprint author team: Front (left) Lucy Montgomery; (middle) Katherine Skinner; (right) Cameron Neylon.

The origins of COKI go back to a book sprint event held three years ago in Perth. A group of 13 experts from various fields (including Montgomery, Neylon, and Katherine Skinner, executive director of the Educopia Institute), worked for a week to define the basic concept for an open knowledge institution. Their resulting book is scheduled for publication later this year.

COKI was initially launched with $2 million in strategic research funding from the Research Office and the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University, as well as School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry. In-kind support was provided by the Curtin Institute for Computation.

 An international meeting was held in 2019 to bring together interested funders and key players, and a second meeting took place virtually last summer. Other funding has come in from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. The COKI team is working closely with Educopia, a not-for-profit educational organization that empowers collaborative communities to create, share, and preserve knowledge.

The team is exploring additional funding to move from a start-up to a sustainable organization. COKI has attracted broad interest, says Skinner, who believes the timing is right for COKI to get traction. Traditional ranking systems traps campuses into investing in areas that aren’t best for the students or for knowledge and COKI offers a new set of metrics centered around social good, she says.

“We are at a critical moment where decisions about what institutions measure and assess can yield true change,” Skinner says. “With the pandemic, the political strife, all of the social movement energy around equity issues – these things all coming together open up real opportunities for business landscape changes in higher education and knowledge industries.”

For COKI to be a useful resource in the future, Montgomery says it needs be continually updated. The visionaries behind the project believe the investment is worthwhile to help leaders recognize the importance of focusing on their institutions’ core values. 

“My hope is that the tool will help research communities and universities to think critically about what success should look like and how they would like to be measured,” Montgomery says. Rather than metrics to be gamed, the COKI information is designed to be useful to leaders as they review their goals.

Neylon says university administrators may be surprised to learn their institutions are not doing as well as they think when they look at the analysis and ranking based on knowledge sharing indicators. Many institutions in Latin American and Africa are doing better than those in North America and Europe, according to a recent article from members of the team.  COKI is designing comprehensive yet easily digestible reports with infographics to make a clear case for open to campus leaders.

“The dream is to enable change and to create the underpinnings that empowers the people who already know they would like to act; to give them the agency to do it,” Neylon says. 

It is particularly relevant now, he says, as libraries are facing shrinking budgets and need to decide where to put their research money.  Businesses are trying to offer services to manage data, which has raised concern among librarians. Neylon says COKI provides an opportunity for collective investment in tools and infrastructure that would provide data sovereignty for higher education. This would provide a system that is community controlled and community owned.

“We are excited to build community buy-in to the idea of a shared information resource that everyone should be involved in shaping and use to inform their strategy,” says Neylon; of the project, which itself operates with transparency with open licenses. “It’s a powerful way of taking back control of our own destiny.”


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