Interview with Toby Steiner, COPIM

This blog post was orginally posted on the HardiBlog by NUI Galway Library on 26 March 2021.

As part of our Open Voices series we will talk to some Open advocates who will give us their perspective on where we are with Open Scholarship, how we got here and what to do next.

Hardy interviewed Tobias (Toby) Steiner who is Project Manager at the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) based at Coventry University, UK. You can follow Toby on Twitter.

Hardy: The first thing I would like to ask about – can you tell us more about your background in Open Scholarship?

Toby: First of all, thanks so much for having me, Hardy! And great question…  my background in Open Scholarship is quite a mixed bag of different influences, and more of a long story… In a way it even goes back to the formative years of my early teens. I guess underneath it all, it’s just this overall curiosity about all things Open. The culture of Open had sparked my interest from quite early on… going back to the early 1990s, that’s when I started dabbling around with computers, building my first custom-made desktop computer based on an i386 processor. From that point on, I was really into the DIY approach to personal computing, and it was then when I also learned about the underpinnings of Open Source. Just to note here that I’ve never really learned how to write proper code in a more sophisticated fashion, but I definitely was absorbing many of the basics of how computers worked, and the Open Source principles that were closely connected to that.

Later on, as a student, this interest quickly expanded into the realm of emerging digital media and other aspects of open culture. I was able to link my personal interests to a slowly emerging scholarly background, which started in American Literature and Culture, and then shifted more towards a Cultural and Media Studies approach, with an distinct focus on the medium of television. From early on, I had been similarly fascinated by the emergent commodification of music facilitated by the rise of MP3, and the correspondent emergence of cultural tensions and controversies surrounding questions of copyright in the music business, and the simultaneous emergent social practice of decentralized file sharing, and what this meant with regards to remix culture, etc.

What I found really interesting is combining the Cultural and Media studies approach with a distinct Open Scholarship-informed perspective on digital culture. I think this was particularly due to the realization that much of popular culture is in always in negotiation of being commodified and packaged into products that are then sold to us. Hence, we seem to always be stuck in this kind of conflict between corporate interests of the larger profit-oriented cultural sector[1] on the one hand – corporate interests that try to extract as much money out of cultural products as possible. On the other hand, you have a lot of grassroots initiatives for example from the GLAM sector – many galleries, libraries archives, and museums that try to make art and culture as accessible as possible to a wider public. And, in a sense, there’s always this quite fundamental conflict between these different interests.

So, soon after the completion of my MA, I started in my first project-based job in HE, in a project that was tasked with introducing a set of Open Source tools to the context of a Northern German university. These tools were thought to provide a pathway to early conceptions of open digital practices, and to be offered to all students, lecturers and researchers of the university.

This endeavour then neatly expanded more towards the Open Education sector, when a group of projects, including ours, were tasked to combine this work with emerging efforts to introduce the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) across all HEIs in the city state of Hamburg. And it was around that time, ca. 2014, when I dove more into the conceptual world of Open Education and OER [Open Educational Resources], and found that a very promising perspective with regards to connecting the bits that I had previously learned about Open Source to the wider context of Higher Education.

These emerging OER projects also quickly surfaced the need to learn more about different aspects of licensing, so as to be able to share content openly with others. I was already familiar with parts of the logic behind that from an earlier exploration of the topic through the lens of open culture and was therefore really excited to learn more about the interconnectedness! And it was also around that time when I was given the opportunity to participate in the OER17 conference, with its key theme on the “Politics of Open”, and I must say that the exchanges that had been possible during these two days, with so many amazing experts from the field of Open Education, had been a real eye opener and key experience for me.

Once the initial setup phase of the OER projects had moved towards a more mature phase, the project-related work similarly evolved to include approaches to Open Research, because we had plans to link open practices around creating OER, with more research-focused open practices, while also exploring and connecting this to practices of open publishing. The plan had been to advocate for this in a the setting of an integrated central support centre, conceived as an OpenLab, a space in which Open Scholarship practices in all shapes and forms would be offered for a variety academic backgrounds, ranging from STEM to the Humanities and Social Sciences, and including Education. 

Unfortunately, these plans then got shut down in the end because of a rather unexpected last-minute and fundamental readjustment of funding lines and strategic support at our home institution, and this meant that much of the effort building up to that point then effectively fell flat and hit a dead end. These sudden changes in strategic support also meant that our team came to realize that there wouldn’t be much room left to further explore and develop these ideas around Open Scholarship in this particular institutional setting. I guess all in all, this was also due to a fair bit of intra-institutional backlash against what was seen by some as reaching far too much into yet unchartered waters, with the underlying occupation with the Digital being dismissed as unnecessary and nice-to-have by some of the high-ranking adversaries to our ideas.

Hardy: The backlash happened while you were still working in Germany?

Yes, and this then led me to hand in my resignation and to start seeking for jobs in other contexts, because I could see no way to bring the work that we had started to the end that we had hoped to achieve.

I then was very lucky to have been invited to a job interview for a position with OpenAIRE, a European project for which the job’s home institution was also based in Northern Germany, at Göttingen State and University Library. OpenAIRE is a pan-European network that connects research infrastructure providers across most of the EU member states. The project focus, and thus our work, was very much about Open Science in its variety of facets, with a strong focus to provide access to open data and open research outputs, exploring questions of metadata standards, and to foster open research practices such as open data sharing, or the intricacies of how to deposit data in a FAIR[2] and open way, and working with repository providers and research institutions from all across Europe. Thinking back to that particular period, I must say that this has been a truly amazing experience that helped to further expand my personal horizon, as it meant that I needed to more thoroughly follow up in the early steps that I had begun to take toward an exploration of Open Science with a more substantial leap into the deeper end of the Open Research and Science pool.

A couple of months later, I then stumbled upon the job description that was issued for the COPIM project, and I was very intrigued by the advertisement, and found myself quite torn between the current occupation with Open Science on the one hand, and an option to refocus on my personal background in the Humanities. COPIM’s mission is to build community-owned, open systems and infrastructures to enable OA book publishing to flourish in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and as this very closely aligns with my own personal set of values, I decided to send in an application, which to my surprise turned in to a job offer and, subsequently, a contract. Soon after that, I moved from mainland Europe to the UK, and here we are… 😊

Toby Steiner
Toby Steiner

Hardy: You describe the wide range of Open practices you worked in. What are the limits of Open Scholarship and what is out of scope for you?

Toby: Oh, that is a very good question! I’d say to begin with, it depends on how you define Open Scholarship because I know there are lots of people using the term in a quasi-synonymous way to Open Science or Open Research. From my perspective, Open Scholarship is more than that, rather a meta-concept that covers the many facets that we might explore when we apply an Open mindset to all scholarship-related activities.

 So, basically, in my understanding, there is no limit to Open Scholarship because scholarly occupation with the world in which we live also knows no boundaries. Hence, Open Scholarship is the application of a perspective of open mindedness, an open mindset to scholarship in all forms required to facilitate the production and dissemination of knowledge through open practices, and via open outputs… it’s really an all-encompassing meta concept.

Next to that, Open Scholarship relates to all actors involved in the complex social sphere of HE: students, administrators, infrastructure providers, management, libraries, and researchers (in their multiplicity of roles). Because researchers usually also fulfil roles of teachers, lecturers, advocates, communicators, facilitators. 

Open Scholarship is the facilitation of open collaborative knowledge-building and sharing in all its shapes and forms. Or, in very short form (and I’m borrowing / remixing this from the late John Tennant[3]): Open Scholarship is just scholarship done right.

Hardy: I know that in the past you also talked about “Open silos”. You talked earlier about all the connections between Open practices, but a silo is quite the opposite, so what are these silos?

Toby: Well, I am drawing from both my personal experience and from the literature that I have come across so far. For example, there’s been a 2015 talk about Open silos from Open Education veteran Lorna Campbell from Edinburgh University. The Open Education initiative at the University of Edinburgh is quite invested in different facets of Openness, and Lorna has been speaking about Openness and Open silos for a number of years now, if I remember correctly.  Similarly, there’s Martin Weller from the Open University, who has written quite a lot about Openness, and there’s one blog post of his about Open silos that I think illustrates quite nicely what the problem is, and I quote:

The distance ed people don’t talk to the MOOC people, who don’t acknowledge the OER people, and vice versa. But even then, within OER, there is a reduction, where OER comes to mean “North American Open Textbooks”. (Weller, 2019)

And yes, this quite struck a nerve, and resonates a lot with my own personal experiences and reasonings, I think, because this can easily be translated and extrapolated to these different open movements that are out there on a larger scale, so from Open Access to Open Data to Open Repositories to Open Education. To adapt Martin’s bit here, I think there’s a point to be made about the open repository people who don’t talk to the open education people, who don’t acknowledge the open science people, and vice versa. And even within open science, which itself is understood to be an umbrella concept, there is a reduction happening, where open science comes to mean “STEM-based sciences”, which forgets to include the Social Sciences and Humanities, among other things. Sometimes, this is then solved by talking about “open research”. On another plane, there’s the open access movement that doesn’t want to converse with the open textbook-slash-OER people, and the list goes on…

In short, there are a lot of echo chambers. I think in a way, it is kind of baked into the nature of our social constructs of human networks… which means that these expert groups tend to gravitate towards a certain core and over time tend to focus on talking to each other, rather than expanding a given network’s reach to other movements or fields of interest.

Maybe to exemplify this, I’ve actually had this experience coming from a background in OER to the world of OpenAIRE, because in OpenAIRE, you have these tremendously knowledgeable open repository experts that are really invested in getting open infrastructures to work, but only very few have really started to look into connecting the research output side of things with that of open education, while in the world of open education, you have this parallel evolution of needing robust repository infrastructures… but connections between these two are just now slowly starting to emerge, with a bit of catch-up happening, particularly in the field of interoperable metadata, over the last couple of years. And that’s just but one example out of many where analogous developments are taking place. Taking a step back, one can quickly see that the overall spheres of research and education are not really connected, and finding ways to connecting them can really be a form of art in itself, which will surely prove valuable in the future!

Hardy: Whose job is it to connect the dots?

Toby:  Hm… that’s a tough one… I’m inclined to say that in a perfect world, everybody working in HE should do so… but that might sound just a wee bit utopistic… 😊 But you’ve got to start somewhere, right, so I suppose those who are already aware of these intricacies and the missing links, these advocates should seek to motivate others to also explore these varieties of open practices. People, for example, who are thinking about Open Scholarship on a broader scale, who are also looking at the plurality of open practices and the underlying set of values that inform these practices, the kind of open mindset that I had mentioned earlier. So, yeah, then start thinking about how to reconnect these silos.

Hardy: And from your personal Open history, which you said is going back to the 90s, where do you think we are on our journey to an Open world?

Toby: I consider myself quite an optimist, so I do honestly think we’ve already come a long way. That said, and looking back at the amount of time that we have already been traveling up to today, there is also quite a pinch of salt to take, a certain bitterness that comes into play, because so many of these Open approaches and movements have been co-opted by vested business interests from publishers and other corporate players. This co-optation is quite a serious and rather all-encompassing problem for Higher Education, because as long as we, as the larger collective of scholars working in academia, don’t begin in all seriousness to re-centre our efforts on creating a governance system that actually fulfils its goal of serving the public good instead of being side-tracked by stale promises of personal profit, we will continue to fail to make an actual difference…  

My hope is still that we will be able to move the needle, so to speak, towards a more Open agenda and towards more equitable inclusive science, research, and teaching/education, so all forms of scholarship. I think that’s what motivates me to continue my own work in this field.

Hardy: You mentioned corporate interests, and so I wonder what’s your view on this: is there a place for for-profit organizations in the Open landscape?

Toby: [laughs] Oh, that’s quite a contentious issue, I think. It depends on what you mean by “for profit”. I think if profit making is the absolute ends and highest priority of a given business, then that would quickly mean that endeavours to realign one’s mission towards open values will be compromised, because these two tend to be exclusionary and incompatible. On a more basic level, I also strongly believe that such a kind of neoliberal approach to the maximization of profit really runs counter to the mission of Higher Education. So, in that sense, I would say no, these kinds of corporations do not have serve the best interest of higher education, or the world of Open in a more particular sense.

But on the other hand, I can acknowledge the fact that there is a certain need for intermediate steps towards making the world a better place. In the world we live in, there is a certain need to make a limited amount of profit in the sense that one needs to be able to pay one’s bills, to sustain a certain way of living that enables you to continue what you’re doing… so for organizations that can showcase that their business model is aligned with an underlying set of open values, and does not contradict these values by acting in e.g. a non-transparent or overly competitive fashion, I would say there is a case to be made.

Hardy: That is going back to your experience in Hamburg, where there first was a political will but that disappeared, for whatever reason? In that sense sustainability is a big topic for the Open movement?

Toby: Oh, yes, exactly! Also, I think when talking about sustainability, efforts should be made towards making this a goal beyond the usual electoral cycle, because Open Education and Open Science, for example, have been framed as core values and goals by UNESCO. So, confirming and acknowledging those values and goals – the Sustainable Development Goals, which in a way are quite similar to the universal declaration of human rights, shouldn’t really be prone to be put into question every four or five years, with every new election cycle.

What we’re seeing is that each new government coming into term can change their focus on these rather fundamental issues and commitments that are required, and this makes it quite difficult to keep sustainability in focus, when a progressive Open framework and agenda might well be negotiated for years and years to come, transcending national election cycles. Personally, I think that is something that the European Union has been doing quite efficiently so far… one might of course argue about some of the specifics, but the strategic vision towards some form of an EU-wide Open ecosystem seems laudable.

Hardy: At the end of our conversation I was interested if you describe yourself as an activist?

Toby: I think so, yes. An activist and an advocate.

Hardy: Advocate is another good word.  You know that I work in a university library and I sometimes think I have this dual role: enabling a service for our researchers,  but I also think I should be an activist, and I wonder if there’s a tension here or if we can be both?

Toby: Ah, yes, I can certainly relate to that! For me, it has always been a negotiation of sorts, really, because you often run into situations where compromise in a variety of ways is unavoidable. That can start in the ways of how one’s own employment situation is framed, for example. From my personal perspective, it has been really interesting to see just how much the higher education sector in the UK is framed by rather strict, business-informed goals because many universities are bound by a for-profit logic and agenda. In comparison, that is quite different in Germany, for example, where universities are more formally situated in the public sector… and this difference in underlying systems can also challenge one’s own personal convictions, I think. That makes it quite important, I think, to keep track of what you are trying to achieve in the longer run, so as not to lose sight – and hope – of what your goals are.

So yes, to come back to your initial point, I’m still quite sure of this inner compass, so would still say that I’m an activist of all thinks Open. From my perspective, it’s really worth putting up a fight for the agenda of Openness, hence the continued activism. Because to strive for a more humane community-based and non-competitive approach to scholarship is to re-centre scholarship to work for the goals it originally was intended to – to foster the open collaborative production and dissemination of knowledge. And in my book, this is what Open Scholarship should be all about!

Oh, and maybe as a conclusion of sorts, if I may: This also harks back to what I’m currently working on in COPIM, for example, because while the project’s focus is on Open Access, with the particular twist of seeking to make research from the social sciences and humanities more accessible and equitable, it has a set of values at its core that we, in the team, define as “scaling small”, which is all about recentring the focus on scholarly collaboration, on non-competitiveness, on really working together towards a common goal and focusing one’s actions on open values, and this is really what I think scholarship should be about.

Hardy: That is a very good closing statement. Thanks for our conversation, Toby!

Thanks so much for having me, Hardy!

Toby’s recommended “Entry points to Open Scholarship” reading list:

Toby’s Bio:

Tobias Steiner has studied in Hamburg and London and holds an MA in Television Studies from Birkbeck, University of London. He has been working in a variety of research fellow and coordination roles in the fields of open source, open science and open education at Universität Hamburg and Göttingen State and University Library. Since early 2020, he is now Project Manager at the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project, and is based at Coventry University, UK. His personal website can be found at: https://flavoursofopen.science/

The interview was conducted by Hardy Schwamm, Open Scholarship Librarian at NUI Galway.


[1] see e.g. https://pluralistic.net/2021/03/19/the-shakedown/

[2] https://www.go-fair.org/fair-principles/

[3] https://figshare.com/articles/presentation/Open_Science_Just_science_done_right_/9759353