two sides to sharing knowledge

[aka the good, the bad and the ugly]

Within discussions of making information freely available online there are numerous terms floating around. The open access movement is working to open up (make accessible) traditionally published material (ie, all those scholarly articles hiding behind expensive logins, or within expensive books). So most discussions assume that the material published remains the same, its just easier to access and share.

But scholars engaging in self publishing, blogging, and other forms of online distribution are beginning to share new kinds of information. Material that was previously considered unfit to publish (for reasons of print space, cost, quality, authority, etc…).

Is it okay to publish field notes? Does it work against confidentiality? Who can it harm? Max Forte’s recent comments point out that there is indeed a powerful intelligence gathering community that obtains most of its information from “open source” sources. For the U.S. military, open source information is all information that is not classified. They have teams of researchers compiling information from academic databases (which they pay to access), blogs, websites, etc. So the military is quite media literate, and benefiting from increased access to information. Anthropologists often deal with people struggling against such military powers – so what kinds of information should be published?

On the other end, are teachers in well off countries teaching at “lesser” academic institutions with no budget to access material. There are also hundreds of NGO’s, and schools around the world who would benefit from access to such material, but cannot afford it. Pamthropologist discusses the lack of material her students have access to. She writes,

“Every year we get lists of journals with a request as to what we can cut, not add. Our institution pays NO money to subscribe to any journal listing service. No JStor and very few books, most dating to the 1960’s. I loan students my own books, sometimes never to get them back. Honest.

To suggest that my students can “find articles” to post to a common wiki, ain’t going to happen. I hope that they can discuss an issue on a specified set of readings that I provide. And I still maintain there is precious little on the internet that is useful for students of cultural anthropology (the archaeologists do much better, IMHO).”

So there is clearly a need to make more information available, and at the same time there is a real possibility that such information could be used to harm and control. The Open Access movement is mostly concerned with pushing scholarly journals to make their material more accessible. So it hasn’t dealt so much with issues related to publishing new kinds of information.

As anthropologists begin to share more and more ethnographic information online the ethical issues relating to confidentiality and “doing no harm” magnify.  I had doubts as to how much ethnographic information intelligence communities would care to read, but Max pointed out a few interesting links which show just how active the intelligence community is. According to the OSIS website,

“About 85% of requirements in the intelligence business can be met with open source, unclassified sources, and can be exploited by qualified military reservists working by telecommuting.”

So there are all sorts of people out there digesting accessible content online. I’m not sure what kinds of information they gather, but it does reinforce the need to be careful with what one posts about particular people and communities. Is it worth exposing a communities practices just to earn a degree? How will the information be used in the future? Of course, these issues are not new, just made more important with increased accessibility online.

See also:

Max Forte’s comments on Open Access and Anthropology.

Pamthropologist wonders if she should publish old interviews online.

Kimberly Christen’s upcoming presentation.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Context of Knowledge Production.” Owen has since decided to produce a post titled, “Two Sides to Sharing Knowledge,” which effectively sums up the dilemma at the heart of this […]


  2. […] “Two Sides to Sharing Knowledge” […]


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