black box

“There’s a glassy transparency to things around us that work, made visible only when the glass is cracked and fissured. Look, it’s nothing. To dwell inside a well-functioning machine is to be largely unaware of its functioning. That’s its gift, and we accept it thoughtlessly, ungratefully, unknowingly.”

“In the late nineteen-twenties, the physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term “homeostasis”—joining together the Greek homoios (similar) and stasis (stillness). The capacity to sustain internal constancy was an essential feature of an organism, he argued. His work was rooted in his experiences working with Allied troops during the First World War, as he studied the physiological complications of traumatic shock. But it was also inspired by the work of predecessors such as the nineteenth-century French physiologist Claude Bernard, who wrote, famously, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre, indépendante”: the constancy of the interior environment is the condition of free and independent life.

What is true of a well-functioning institution may also be true of the bodies that staff it.”

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “My Father’s Body, at Rest and In Motion”, The New Yorker, 8 January 2018.



I started the new year ill. As usual, when one is ill one remembers how often we take good health for granted. We focus on other things. That our body is working generally OK is something we just forget about. Until we are ill. It is indeed until we don’t feel well that we realise how extraordinary it is to be healthy. Oh, how healthy we were, and we didn’t appreciate it enough! It is interesting as well how when we are ill some ideas and feelings are perceived with different acuteness. Somehow, limitations in one part of the organism create a type of heightened awareness.

It was in bed, during a rare moment in which I did not have a splitting headache, that I read Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s excellent New Yorker article, “My Father’s Body, at Rest and In Motion” (8 January 2018). The story he tells is very similar to what I experienced when I went from London to Mexico City to care after my father, who was suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia, conditions he painfully lived with until he died. Mukherjee’s detailed account of dealing with the health system in India in particular resembled my experience in Mexico very closely. I am grateful to Mr Mukherjee for telling a story that is also the story of many of us immigrants.

It was while my father was interned in a Mexican hospital that I became acutely aware once again of everything that does not work there. Living elsewhere, we come to take for granted those very same things, and therefore experience a great deal of frustration because we know that those things can work, and think they therefore should work. Like Mukherjee, it was impossible for me not to notice the series of essential components, small and big, that did not work. As an academic, one of those things not working was having quick and easy access to the full-text of medical research. I also confirmed, as a fact, that the doctors and nurses treating my father did not have access, from the hospital computers at least, to the latest published research. Or they could have, but only if they paid amounts they could not and would not pay. (Jonathan Eisen tells a similar story in Jorge Cham’s “Open Access Explained“).

Mukherjee’s article usefully introduces the concept of “homeostasis.” According to the physiologist Walter Cannon, Mukherjee tells us, the term referred to “the capacity to sustain internal constancy”. This capacity “was an essential feature of an organism”.  Mukherjee also tells us that Cannon was inpsired by the work of “the nineteenth-century French physiologist Claude Bernard, who wrote, famously, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre, indépendante”: the constancy of the interior environment is the condition of free and independent life.”

Mukherjee uses these ideas to refer to the importance of the oft-invisible work that, with “glassy transparency”, makes things work. As it happens with good design, what makes things work properly, and this also means those who work to make things work properly, i.e. invisibly, remain often invisible. It is only when they are not present, or when they stop doing what they always do, that we take notice. And we take notice because things stop working smoothly.

Mukherjee makes an explicit connection between the functioning of the human body and the functioning of institutions. Mukherjee went back to India from New York; I did go back to Mexico from London. Mukherjee was used to working in hospitals where things worked smoothly; I was used to accessing research from libraries in the UK or through university credentials.

“To dwell inside a well-functioning machine is to be largely unaware of its functioning”, writes Mukherjee. This “machine” is not only the human body, but our institutions. To dwell inside machines that have no cracks nor fissures is a privilege– but also a blind spot. Millions around the world make things work while inside inherently broken machines. The cracks are everywhere. Paradoxically, “that’s how the light gets in“:  realising what a privilege it is “to dwell” inside well-functioning machines can feel like an epiphany. Our personal privilege is not everyone else’s privilege, and that privilege has a cost that we and others pay for in different ways.

It seems to me that we could apply the physiological concept of homeostasis to scholarly communications in general, and particularly to access to research. Quite a lot of work and focus has been done on the task of migrating to open access. The emphasis has been on performing a change. Mukherjee writes:

“Cannon’s insight inverted long-established logic. Physiologists, for generations, had described animals as assemblages of machines—as sums of dynamic parts. Muscles were motors; the heart a pump; the nerves electrical conduits. Pulsing, swivelling, pumping, sparking; the emphasis was on movement, on actions, on work—Don’t just stand there, do something. In shifting physiology’s focus from action to the maintenance of fixity, Cannon (and Bernard) had fundamentally changed our conception of how the human body works. A major point of physiological “activity,” paradoxically, was to enable stasis. Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Though it is unquestionable that there is a need to change the culture and business models of research communication towards a model where readers don’t have to pay to access and use research outputs, we should also be thinking about how to maintain the current open infrastructures and outputs that we already have.

This work, of course, already takes place, in many guises. However, reading Mukherjee’s article made me reflect on the need to further communicate the importance of Open Access as a means to reach a stable model that works without us not needing to think consciously about it. In my experience there are still researchers who have never experienced the cracks and fissures of the crystal palace of paywalled access.

The need for access beyond wealthy or financially healthy institutions has not become apparent to them. They can access what they need; they are the ones meant to access it; all is well because they are well. The need for wider public acces, i.e. for those who are not in their circumstances, or for them in a future where their circumstances may have changed, is a blind spot. (Paradoxically, expensive APC-enabled OA publishing and illegal access to paywalled research through the likes of Sci-Hub further ossifies this blind spot– what should be a temporary, exceptional measure becomes the norm: as long as they can personally access it, all is well).

For-profit and other legacy publishers of scholarly research have struggled to adapt to new paradigms of open licensing. They have created and recreated licenses of their own, introduced temporary “free access” measures, hide or semi-hide licensing and copyright information, obscure the actual cost of subscriptions through non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements with universities, etc. Researchers’ “blind spot” is indeed partly enabled by a “black box” (Lawson et al 2016). This means that it is not an easy task to demonstrate why the current system of subscriptions is unambiguously broken. It feels like it’s all healthy, when it isn’t.

Meanwhile, Open Access still feels to many as an exception to the rule. Perhaps this has been partly due to this emphasis on “change”. This is why critics of Open Access like to caricature those working towards wider adoption of Open Access as “advocates”. It is convenient for them that wider openness is perceived as a freak condition, not the normal condition of the organism itself. Until now “the glassy transparency of things that work” has referred to researchers having access to research via their institution credentials. If they have access to Open Access content trough them they rarely notice the difference: what they are looking for is the research, that they have accessed it is taken for granted. In a way this is the goal of Open Access: to turn open access to research into something we don’t even think about because the paywalls blocking access to research will have been permanently removed.

Homeostasis in relation to scholarly communications would perhaps help us understand the need for Open Access outputs not just to do something, but to stand there. For this we need to achieve not only permanence, but maintenance. (As I have said I know this work takes place already). And, importantly, we need to achieve and maintain an organic, unavoidable, unmissable presence. So present that you don’t notice it’s there, because it is what it’s there. To make Open Access invisible because it is the new normal.

Medical and physiological metaphors have limitations. Susan Sontag deconstructed that with brilliance. Rather than metaphorical value there is allegorical power in personal testimonies like Mukherjee’s. Editing an Open Access journal, like doing peer review and other scholarly committee and research data management duties, may often feel like invisible, unrecognised work. But it is precisely this work what contributes to a great measure to keep Open Access functioning. It is “invisible” to many precisely because it works.

Mukherjee says it better: “the effort is continual and system-wide—and unnoticeable. The valves must be oiled; the sheets tucked; carts stocked; the trash dispensed. Heating and ventilation have to pulse and thrum, unnoticed. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.”

[Published 8 January 2018; revised 9 January 2018. Revisions ongoing].