MIT Press, Media Lab Launch Knowledge Futures Group

MIT Press and MIT Media Lab recently launched the Knowledge Futures Group (KFG), a first-of-its-kind collaboration between a major academic publisher and academic lab to create and share research information.

MIT Knowledge Futures Group logoMIT Press and MIT Media Lab recently launched the Knowledge Futures Group (KFG), a first-of-its-kind collaboration between a major academic publisher and academic lab to create and share research information.

The project’s mission to move publishing out of its traditional model—a closed, sequential loop—into a more transparent and community-driven process will be driven by open source technologies and shared resources for information review, provenance, and verification. KFG’s two pilot projects, open source platform PubPub and the Underlay, address this goal from both sides; PubPub is an open source collaborative publishing, research, and review platform; the Underlay is an open-source knowledge database.

The KFG website states, “The open source approach not only reduces the precarious dependency that most non-profit academic publishers have on costly outsourced technologies and a limited network of commercial vendors, but also provides a foundation for greater ‘insourced’ experimentation and innovation.”

KFG has received a $1 million commitment for its first year from LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, a member of the Media Lab’s Advisory Council, as well as smaller project-specific gifts from Siegel Family Endowment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Protocol Labs; and several individual donors.

MIT Press and Media Lab have worked together in various forms since the 1980s, when the Visible Language Workshop, brainchild of Muriel Cooper—the Press’s first design director and creator of its colophon—combined with the MIT Architectural Machine Group and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies to form the Media Lab. Cooper designed software interfaces at the Media Lab. Current Media Lab director Joi Ito has been a member of the Press’s management board for the past three years.

"These kinds of edgy R+D efforts, and possible partnerships and collaborations, are discussed regularly at the semiannual meetings that we hold,” MIT Press director for strategic initiatives Terry Ehling told LJ. An existing Media Lab project, PubPub, originally launched in 2016, caught the Press’s attention, and at one such meeting Ito and MIT Press director Amy Brand began a conversation about developing an incubator for research tools and technologies.

The Press expressed interest in supporting PubPub cocreator Travis Rich’s work and putting it into wider use. “We wanted to operationalize it and implement [PubPub] against a set of use cases that we have,” said Ehling. “So we decided to throw our lot in together.” After discussions with Ito and Viral Communications group director Andy Lippman, it was decided that a more formal alignment between Press and Media Lab was in order, and KFG was launched.


PubPub was created by Rich, Thariq Shihipar, and David Moinina Sengeh when they were graduate students at the Media Lab’s Viral Communications group. The open access, open source platform for creating, distributing, and reviewing journals and books emerged from the idea that publishing should be interdisciplinary, collaborative, and author-driven, rather than a means to drive citations. PubPub “supports publishing and versioning that is immediate and reviews that are post-publication, double-open [open access and open source], and public,” the project’s webpage stated. “It is a place for evolving ideas among communities large and small.”

Rich, who earned his PhD last year, continued to work on PubPub at the Media Lab. Among other features, it allows for real-time collaborative editing; inclusion of rich media documents such as embedded videos and interactive frames; and continuous, structured review before or after publication, either public or private.

Feedback for PubPub, with its ease of use and strong support for multimedia, has been positive. Version 5 was released in October, and KFG is looking at various business models to support it as it continues to grow. The platform has been implemented in a wide range of domestic and international publishing projects, and is open for use by anyone interested.

“You just write us over the transom, say you'd like to set up a little publishing community,” Ehling told LJ. “You're given a login, a password, and it's basically self-service publishing. There's a rich tool set that allows for open annotation and sharing collaborative workspaces, so you can see the wide variety…. There are new communities that open up almost daily."

“There seems to be a real appetite for having an alternative space to publish that is not a traditional publisher, necessarily, and not throwing something up on WordPress,” she added. “This is a way to get something out and to quickly be able to annotate and carry on a discussion. These are very dynamic publications.”

They include Frankenbook, an interactive edition of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, launched in January as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary, and the Journal of Design and Science, a Media Lab/Press publication led by Ito. The PubPub Works in Progress community invites authors and editors to submit work that isn’t under contract—and may never be—for open commentary.

“This could be gray literature, it could be a report of one kind or another, a white paper, a green paper” (a government consultation document produced in the EU, UK, or Canada), noted Ehling. “Depending on how the work evolves over time in response to that commentary, the Press may come back and say we'd like to offer you a contract for this—we see a book emerging here. Or we could say, this looks fine just the way it is, it will continue to be a work in progress. The authors, of course, are free to go off and do something else, or find another publisher."

KFG’s second project, the Underlay, is currently at a more nascent stage than PubPub. A global, distributed graph database of public knowledge “architected to capture, connect, and archive publicly available knowledge and its provenance,” the Underlay is also envisioned as a potential future search engine app, and is awaiting an infusion of funding to explore possibilities for development.

The network builds on Freebase, an early structured data repository developed in the 1990s by Metaweb Technologies. In 2010 the company was acquired by Google, which used Freebase as the foundation for its ubiquitous Knowledge Graph. Freebase was eventually shut down in 2016, but this year one of its cofounders, Danny Hillis—currently a Media Lab visiting professor—began work to resurrect it in nonprofit, open-source form, along with SJ Klein of MIT Pattern Labs and Joel Gustafson of the Protocol Labs. Hillis has called the Underlay project his “penance for having sold the other one to Google.”

The Underlay aggregates statements, observations, and citations, with an emphasis on transparency: it cross-references information from other sources and provides context, iterations, and chains of provenance, stored in language-independent, machine-readable format. Unlike proprietary knowledge databases such as Google’s, hosting for the Underlay will be shared among academic institutions and individuals.

“This could be a major breakthrough in the way machine learning is applied to information and knowledge,” noted Ehling.

As work proceeds on PubPub and the Underlay, as well as conversations with MIT Libraries on another research project to be announced, KFG is leasing We Work–type space in Cambridge’s Kendall Square and hiring staff to support its ongoing efforts, including marketers, UX/UI designers, and eventually more full-stack developers.

“It's very early days,” said Ehling. “But you'll be hearing more from us, certainly over the next couple of months and then more assertively in the coming year.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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