Knowledge infrastructures are robust internetworks of people, artifacts, and institutions which generate, share, and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds.
Like all infrastructures, they are composed of many systems and networks, each with its own unique dynamics. Because shared, reliable knowledge is among human society’s most precious resources, the institutional elements of knowledge infrastructures – such as universities, libraries, and scientific societies – have typically adopted conservative, slow-changing forms. Yet recently key elements of knowledge infrastructures, especially information technologies and communication practices, have changed very rapidly, creating a growing sense of disarray and disjuncture between established forms and new and exciting, but unproven, possibilities. This report argues for the need to consider knowledge infrastructures as wholes, rather than focusing only on their most rapidly evolving elements. It poses a series of challenges and unresolved questions as the basis for a new area of research, practice, and design. These include the changing status of expertise as knowledge becomes more open to contestation from all quarters, the shifting borders of tacit knowledge and common ground, the unrecognized complexities of sharing data across disciplines and domains, and massive shifts in publishing practices linked to new modes of knowledge assessment. The new knowledge ecologies will necessarily involve transformations of the research process: traditional institutions will adapt or die; new forms will come into being.
All infrastructures embed social norms, relationships, and ways of thinking, acting, and working. As a corollary, when they change, authority, influence, and power are redistributed. Knowledge infrastructures are no different; they create tensions and raise concerns that are best addressed early and often. New kinds of knowledge work and workers displace old ones; increased access for some may mean reduced access for others. As knowledge infrastructures evolve, attending to the social relations both created and broken by new modes may help societies reduce the negative distributional consequences of change. For example, citizen science projects can be designed in ways that maximize labor exploitation, on the one hand, or co-production and engagement, on the other. Approaching these tensions and redistributive consequences as a design opportunity — perhaps using the Scandinavian participatory design movement as a model — could help to energize a new kind of thinking about scale and structure in design.
The final section of this report reflects on what kinds of research might best engage the question of knowledge infrastructures. Participants emphasized that social scientists cannot remain simple bystanders or critics of the current transformations, which will not be reversed; instead, we need research practices that can help innovate, rethink, and rebuild. For example, a long-time-scale, historically informed framework can help situate our thinking by reminding us that infrastructural change normally takes decades rather than years, and that very substantial social learning must take place before the full benefits of new sociotechnical systems can manifest. Creating and nourishing standards and mechanisms for large-scale, long-term research in the qualitative social sciences, such as sustainable, accumulative, and shareable qualitative databases, could contribute to this goal. Improvements in qualitative data analysis software are urgently needed. New forms of cyberscholarship, such as new modes of writing or what one participant called a “knowledge zoom lens” for presenting qualitative evidence at any desired level of detail, need support and creative thought. Building better interdisciplinary collaborations across the natural and social sciences is an old goal, rarely realized — but more crucial now than ever in the face of such problems as climate change and biodiversity loss. A knowledge infrastructures perspective on the study of scholarship will promote more sustained, collective progress in research, design, and policy for 21st century scholarship.