Open Knowledge - A proposed adaptation of Open Science

Open Knowledge - A proposed adaptation of Open Science, focusing on guidelines for knowledge claims

(This is a slightly edited reprint of an article published by Alan Cottey in SGR Newsletter, No 26, February 2003, pp 17-18)

By the phrase Open Knowledge I mean a certain schema that defines a standard of openness of knowledge. The central element of the schema is a set of guidelines for those who would participate in the generation of OK. A sketch of the guidelines is given below. Knowledge claims conforming to the guidelines would be published on the World Wide Web. Such a publication must provide ready access to supporting evidence and arguments for its claims. Criticism and testing of the claims should be made as easy as possible. The OK proposal is an adaptation, to the broader field of knowledge-in-general, of the Open Science proposal, which I have described elsewhere, for example in SGR Newsletter 21, Autumn 2000, pp 8 - 9, and on the Open Science page of this site.

Criticism As Well As Dissemination

This meaning of Open Knowledge differs from a meaning that has recently become widely used. If one makes a web search on the phrase 'open knowledge' one gets many hits and they relate to free access to knowledge but are not specially concerned with the question 'when should knowledge claims be accepted as knowledge?'

Open Knowledge in this article means something more, for it is not enough to have an excellent means of disseminating knowledge if audiences have inadequate means of critically judging what is made available. Instead of taking knowledge as a given, and just considering how it can be most widely disseminated, I focus first on the knowledge claim. Someone asserts or reports something. What structure can best aid critical judgement by audiences?

In science, criticism and testing of claims are fundamental. In the Open Science proposal, I make the case for some scientific projects to be done in a radically open manner - open from beginning (proposals to ethics committee and to funding body) to end (archiving of conclusions) - in conformity with an Open Science Protocol. Knowledge-in-general is produced in a much less formal way than is scientific knowledge. The project-oriented Open Science Protocol is too formal to be helpful in attempts to promote the Open Knowledge concept. Nevertheless, two central features of science, publication and criticism, are applicable also to the generation of knowledge. (Here, 'publication' is understood in a generalised sense, 'making public'.) Publication and criticism are the key to the transition from a knowledge claim (which can be as wacky as may be) to knowledge (which must be amenable to criticism and have gained a significant degree of public acceptance).

For establishing an appropriate standard of openness for knowledge-in-general, as opposed to scientific knowledge, guidelines, and not a protocol, are needed.

Sketch Of The Guidelines

I: Refutation

- the initial claim and all subsequent comments should be amenable to discussion. The main points made should be supported by an appropriate mixture of argumentation, evidence and references. There should be no avoidable obstacles to modification or refutation of the claim

II: Technical Means

- the initial claim should be launched in a formal way, that is, stated to be part of the Open Knowledge schema. The OK Guidelines would be published with the initial claim

- the initial claim should be widely accessible. This means that it should be published on the World Wide Web, using the simplest and most widely available IT standards adequate for the needed communications. These standards should be, as far as possible, compatible with older software and printer-friendly

- the web presentation of the initial claim should include an easy-to-use means whereby comments and additions can be added, so that the whole comprises a discussion thread

- subsequent contributions should, as far as possible, follow the formats of the initial claim, so that the resultant thread is easy to use

- the thread should be durable, an archiving process being part of the initial publication

III: Knowtiquette

- all contributions should aim to promote the production of critically tested knowledge. Robust criticism of the knowledge claim should be encouraged. Censure and disparagement should be avoided, as should personal comments (positive or negative)

IV: Democracy

- anyone presenting a knowledge claim conforming to sections I to III above should be treated by others as having presented a valid knowledge claim and be accorded a respectful but critical hearing

V: No Closure and No Gateway

- an OK thread has a beginning but no formally declared end. The aim of the contributions is to add to humanity's stock of reliable knowledge, while recognising the incomplete and provisional nature of all knowledge

- at no stage is a knowledge claim formally declared to have become knowledge. Accepting a knowledge claim to be knowledge remains forever the prerogative of each individual. In practice, however, wide public consenses often do emerge.

The Role Of The Open Knowledge Schema

Knowledge-in-general is generated as part of the totality of human discourse. Threads conforming to the schema here proposed would constitute but a minute fraction of humanity's knowledge production. I suggest that this minute fraction would nevertheless influence knowledge as a whole, because it would draw attention to the difference between knowledge claims and knowledge, and would clarify the nature of that difference.