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Debate: Is open scholarship even possible with Zoom?

Woman using videoconferencingn software
Open scholarship and the use of corporate software services such as Zoom are not always compatible. Anna Shvets/Pexels

In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, several major publishers came up with the idea of opening up access to scientific literature to everyone. The gesture was applauded both by the community and in the media. Yet, free access to literature does not equate to open access. Deciding unilaterally to remove barriers temporarily and then unilaterally put them back later is more akin to a technique of readers lock-in, one that is popular with software vendors.

Indeed, this is a good example of “open scholarship” ambiguity. It’s also a good reminder that open science and open access draw their inspiration from the free software movement. This movement began in the 1980s as a reaction to proprietary lock-in business practices originating precisely from the computer industry, and more particularly the software industry. The 1980s correspond to the irresistible rise of Microsoft. The victory of Microsoft Windows over IBM’s OS/2 operating system marks a turning point in the history of computing: the moment when the software industry superseded the hardware industry. This moment also marks the success of Microsoft’s “embrace, extend, extinguish” method at the expense of IBM, a business strategy at odds with free software, in reaction to which the Free Software Foundation established its principles.

Open science and open software

For science to be open, one can reasonably think that it would have to use open software. However, being completely open is not that easy. As anthropologist Chris Kelty has shown, each of the steps involved in the activity should be open so as not to risk any form of enclosure (open scientific software, open operating system, standard hardware, open protocols, open file formats, Internet neutrality, etc.). One can have a fatalist attitude and view it as unattainable. Yet, a vigilant view can be adopted: every part of science, every piece of software that could be free but is locked up by a company represents a defeat.

At the same time that the literature has been so generously made temporarily accessible, the pandemic has made videoconferencing crucial in academic circles and the existing open solutions put in place by national structures or universities have been shattered in front of the exponentially growing demand (which increases the need for bandwidth and therefore for infrastructure). It rushed many scientific institutions into investing in proprietary solutions: many of them opted for Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Video conferencing has become strategic in the sense that all of a sudden this medium has turned into an essential reality for thousands of academics who until the beginning of 2020 had only a vague understanding of it. It is a tool that allows to imagine new ways of teaching or communicating between researchers. It is also a piece of software, that is to say a device incorporating values, and one that shapes its users: for example, using Teams videoconferencing means aligning to Microsoft’s vision of what is a conference, a piece of software intended to lock in users within the Microsoft environment.

To be able to communicate between scholars in an era of computer mediated communication: this is historically how electronic mail was conceived, and e-mail remains today the last non-proprietary ubiquitous messaging protocol out there. It is a media born from the mutual acculturation of computer engineers and scholars. Forty years later, academics have given away their professional communication tools (like mailing lists) to proprietary systems (like social networking platforms such as Researchgate) that offer marketing services in return for data harvesting. In addition to publications, communication between scholars possesses many other facets, indeed. Video conferencing is increasingly becoming part of this academic landscape. Here again, scholars are becoming passive users.

Corporations, personal privacy and free speech

Many articles have already been written about Zoom’s propensity to harvest and use personal data without consent. As for Microsoft, its strategy of acculturation through lock-in is notorious. Yet, the recent case of alleged “Zoom censorship” is the most revealing event of this renouncement of academics to their tools of communication.

An academic event around a tribute to Palestinian activist Leila Khaled that was due to be broadcasted via the Zoom platform has been canceled by Zoom without justification. It turns out that Zoom acted folllowing a warning by pro-Israelian lobbies. While the involved academic personnel was outraged by what they consider censorphip of academic freedom of speech, the university administration only mildly protested: As a matter of fact, even though the claims that such an event would constitute “material support” promoting terrorist activity seem baseless and spurious, the eventuality to dispute it in court boils down to counting “how many divisions” in armies of lawyers.

On that basis, the battle looks uneven between a university legal office and a giant corporate platform. Several eventual Zoom events (but not all) denouncing censorpship were themselves cancelled or switched off while broadcasting. Academics are learning the hard way that their computer-mediated communication depends largely on the opaque terms of service of a proprietary platform. Needless to say, this is not exactly the best way to ensure academic freedom of speech is protected.

Stiff headwinds

It would have been possible for the academic community to invest in an open solution guaranteed by a national or university infrastructure (at country level, the cost is low). In France, this is even the role of Renater, the national network. In fact, for several years it created such services that were based on free software – for example, RendezVous Renater is a video conferencing tool based on Jitsi. Yet the state still needs to provide resources for its national infrastructure. RendezVous Renater crashed when users desperately turned to videoconferencing in the spring of 2020 and by the time it recovered, everybody was using Zoom or Teams.

At a time when universities are turning to Gmail for their academic e-mail service because Google is offering them for free what national infrastructures like Renater are forced to charge them a hefty sum, one can be pessimistic. As with the national health system, infrastructural decisions are dictated by the disengagement of the state and the demand for profitability. In such a context, open scholarship may well be heading the wrong way.

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