Envisioning future scholarly communication: The Vienna Principles

Note: this post was written in collaboration with Katja Mayer and first appeared on the F1000 Blog.


In June 2016, we published the Vienna Principles: A Vision for Scholarly Communication in the 21st Century. The set of twelve principles describes the visions and foundations of a scholarly communication system that is based on the notion of openness in science, including the social sciences and humanities.

Open science demands the highest possible transparency, shareability and collaboration in knowledge production, as well as in the evaluation of scientific knowledge and impact. The principles are designed to offer a coherent frame of reference to the often controversial debates on how to improve the current system of scholarly communication.

Mindful of the fact that systems of communication shape the very core of scientific knowledge production, we set out to envision guiding principles for scientific practice that we really want. In this post, we’d like to introduce the principles and provide context on how they came about. We’ll also share our ongoing work of turning the vision into practice.

“What science becomes in any historical era depends on what we make of it” — Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (1991)

Focusing on the benefits of openness

Our work started in Vienna during the spring of 2015, when the Open Access Network Austria (OANA) commissioned the working group “Open Access and Scholarly Communication” to sketch a vision of how open science can change scholarly communication in the long run. Over the year, we had five further meetings, each of them in a different Viennese location, hence the name “Vienna Principles”.

The group consisted of a diverse set of people, including librarians, science administrators, students and researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including arts & humanities, engineering, natural sciences and social sciences in both basic and applied contexts.

Many working group members are involved in related initiatives, such as Citizen Science Austria, Open Knowledge, Creative Commons and OpenAIRE, to name just a few, and several have a relevant professional background, including publishing and software development. The core group consisted of nine participants, but the overall work involved contributions and feedback by more than 20 people and the audiences of the 15th Annual STS Conference, Graz and the 3rd Plenary of the Open Access Network Austria.

At the beginning, there were a number of observations that were based on our own involvement in open science, and by the experience of group members that had joined the movement only very recently. Our first observation was that open science is still a fuzzy concept for many. People are often either unclear about its benefits or are overwhelmed by the challenges that come with it. Therefore, they tend to have a reserved attitude towards openness.

Our second observation was that the debate within the open science community is not necessarily focused on the benefits of openness, but mostly on what constitutes openness, how to achieve openness, and what steps to take next.

The classic debate around the “green” and the “gold” route to open access is a good example for this. In these discussions, many of the arguments carry implicit assumptions about the structures of a future scholarly communication system, besides highly emotional debates about the commodification of scientific knowledge distribution.

What do we really want?

There are currently no commonly agreed set of principles that describes the system of open scholarly communication that we want to create. Such a collection of widely shared cornerstones of the scholarly communication system would help to better guide the debate around open science. At the same time, a vision is needed that better conveys the need for openness in scholarly communication to academia and society.

For the definition of the principles, we adopted a clean slate approach. This means that we set out to describe the world that we would like to live in, if we had the chance to design it from scratch, without considering the restrictions and path dependencies of the current system.

Our aim was to be clear, concise and as comprehensive as possible, without repeating ourselves. What followed was an intense phase, where we devised and revised, expanded and reduced, split and merged. We also addressed and incorporated the valuable feedback that we received by so many.

From this, we established a set of twelve principles of scholarly communication describing the cornerstones of open scholarly communication. This is just the beginning, with this being version 1.0 and we invite everyone to comment on this version.

What next?

Our paper has been positively received. Besides hundreds of tweets linking to the publication on Zenodo and newspapers and blogs have also reported about it. This includes articles that have been partially translated into Spanish, Japanese and German. The PDF on our website has been annotated 58 times alone. We are delighted that several researchers are now trying to adopt the principles in their research and collaboration projects.

The working group, consists of 16 new active members, of which some are consolidating the latest feedback received in recent months, and others who are devising recommendations on turning each principle into reality. This allows us to study and discuss the different attitudes towards the twelve principles in a range of disciplines, especially in those fields which seem most sceptical about the principles, such as historical and art-related subjects.

We will consider stakeholder’s viewpoints, clarify legal framework conditions, and discuss incentive and reward systems to identify how the principles can be best applied throughout the institutions. In doing so, we hope to be able to illustrate the best practises and identify any obstacles to open science in the scholarly communication system.

We plan to hold group discussions and workshops with stakeholders, publisher and funders to explain how the principles could support the services they offer and articulate the capability of these principles to different stakeholders’ needs.

Furthermore, we are coordinating our efforts with other groups, such as the Force11 working group on the Scholarly Commons and SPARC Europe. By 2018, we aim to have an updated version of the Vienna Principles and several recommendations to support the adoption of open science based on the feedback obtained from the workshops and discussion groups.

We are looking forward to shaping the scholarly communication system of the future together with all of you.

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