MIT’s Grand Challenges Issues Final Report

In March 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries hosted a working summit on Grand Challenges in Information Science and Scholarly Communication. After an open review period, the results were distilled into a final white paper, A Grand Challenges-Based Research Agenda for Scholarly Communication and Information Science, released December 18.

woman at lectern in front of room
Library of Congress chief of National Digital Initiatives Kate Zwaard gives keynote speech at Grand Challenges Summit
Photo by Bryce Vickmark

In March 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries hosted a working summit on Grand Challenges in Information Science and Scholarly Communication, inviting experts from around the world “to identify critical problems in information science that are solvable within ten years and which have broad implications across the scholarly community.” The Grand Challenges Summit consisted of three consecutive workshops examining scholarly discovery, digital curation and preservation, and open scholarship.

After an open review period, in which summit attendees’ notes were condensed and refined into a public draft and community members were encouraged to comment and provide feedback, the results were distilled into a final white paper, A Grand Challenges-Based Research Agenda for Scholarly Communication and Information Science. The report was released on PubPub, the open platform developed by MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group, on December 18.

The white paper’s preface states, “this report describes a vision for a more inclusive, open, equitable, and sustainable future for scholarship; characterizes the central technical, organizational, and institutional barriers to this future; describes the areas research needs to advance this future; and identifies several targeted ‘grand challenge’ research problems for knowledge generation.” It is less a recap of the summit than an outline of potential areas for change and the possible paths that can put those changes into action within the next decade. 


The concept of the summit originated with MIT’s Future of Libraries Task Force report, released in October 2016. The 30-person task force, organized by MIT director of libraries Chris Bourg, had gathered input over the previous year on how MIT Libraries should evolve to advance its vision for libraries as open global platforms for knowledge, and itself serve as a leader in the reinvention of the academic research library. Of the recommendations at the report’s conclusion, the final one stated, “The Libraries must become a center for research and development, fueling bold experimentation and new answers to the grand challenges facing research libraries and scholarly communication.”

In other words, Bourg told LJ, “The task force realized that in trying to design a future library and a future for scholarly communications, there are lots of unanswered questions—there's research needed to make smart decisions about which way to go.” And that process would need to start with an event that brought in voices from outside MIT, from a diverse range of perspectives and expertise. (Bourg had been advocating for such an inquiry as far back as her initial job talk at MIT almost five years ago, she added.)

With funding from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, MIT Libraries convened the Grand Challenges Summit in March 2018 to examine those challenges inherent in the scholarly communications and information science landscape. 

The summit was led by coprincipal investigators Bourg and Micah Altman, director of research at MIT Libraries and head/scientist, MIT Program on Information Science, and advised by program committee members Christine Borgman (distinguished professor and Presidential Chair in Information Studies at UCLA), G. Sayeed Choudhury (associate dean for research data management and Hodson Director of the Digital Research and Curation Center, Johns Hopkins University), Charles Henry (president, Council on Library and Information Resources), historian Abby Smith Rumsey, and Ethan Zuckerman (associate professor of practice at the MIT Media Lab). Keynote speakers included Kate Zwaard, chief of National Digital Initiatives at the Library of Congress for the scholarly discovery track; Anasuya Sengupta, codirector of  Whose Knowledge?, for digital preservation and curation; and Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, professor of practice at MIT and coauthor of Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future (Grand Central), for open scholarship. Each of the three tracks brought together approximately 20–25 people from a variety of sectors across the United States, European Union, South Africa, India, and the Global South.


Much of the summit’s discussion involved the need to examine and dismantle preexisting biases when it came to the ways information is produced, organized, accessed, gathered, stewarded, and curated. 

Program committee member Choudhury was particularly interested in using the lens of equity to look at the ways information is disseminated and discovered. Using as his starting point a definition of information science offered by Carole Palmer, professor and associate dean for research at the University of Washington Information School—“the systematic evaluation of how people absorb information”—Choudhury wanted to address who those people might be, and how they might be absorbing information.

One of the key ideas that came out of the proceedings, he told LJ, was that while the typical audience for scholarly output has consisted of academics, scholars, researchers, and students, “This group has done a very nice job of thinking about other people who need to absorb information, particularly that [which] comes out of the academy, in a time when people don't know what to trust, what to believe, what is fact, what is conjecture. I think that question—who are the people we're seeking to reach with our information?—is a critical part of all of these efforts."

The definition of that content was also a major topic of discussion during the summit. “There's a whole category of information that's produced in higher ed circles that gets disseminated through channels we know about,” said Choudhury, “but there's all this other information that's produced by people in ways we don't typically tap into. At the summit I met people who had amazing viewpoints about local populations, indigenous populations, how they produce knowledge, [and] how they disseminate their knowledge”—and about not placing a value on one method or source over another. For all participants, he noted, the summit was a rich exercise in cross-pollinating disciplines and broadening horizons. 

Choudhury wants to include some of this awareness in his work at Johns Hopkins, including linked data projects such as the RMap Project, a prototype service to capture and preserve maps of relationships amongst distributed components, and the ELOKA [Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic] project, based at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, CO, which has been gathering long-term climate change data from indigenous populations. “The author is not just someone who writes a paper,” explained Choudhury. For example, “it is the village elder who tells a story that's been passed down from generation to generation. You may be able to use something like linked data to actually identify people who haven’t published in the formal sense, that actually have the implicit or tacit knowledge that is critical in many ways…. [Academics] don't typically do that. We may put it in the acknowledgments or something like that, but in a machine actionable way through linked data, when you search, you realize, wait a minute, this is all…really important.”


Participants were encouraged to document the proceedings as the summit progressed. "At any given moment there were probably four or five people who were taking notes,” Sue Kriegsman, deputy director of the Center for Research on Equitable and Open Scholarship (CREOS) at MIT Libraries, told LJ. Notes were made accessible to attendees in real time, she added, so “during the meeting and the conversations themselves, we were getting live corrections. There were occasionally some back-channel additions and comments happening.”

At the end of each track, contributors went over the summaries of what had been captured and compared notes. “By end of the summit it was already pretty clear that there were some really strong cross-cutting themes,” said Kriegsman—although these did not necessarily break down into the same three categories as the summit’s tracks. The final report "was going to have a different set of lenses applied to the conversation [than what was discussed at the summit], because we had built those lenses along the way."

Those emerging themes included the needs to include underrepresented voices and communities outside of mainstream publishing and academic institutions, to identify incentives that will motivate people to make changes in their own approaches and processes toward a more open framework, and to identify collaborators and partners from multiple disciplines.

Once participants had weighed in on the notes, the nascent report went to a public comment period during October 2018. Invitations to comment were sent out on a number of channels and Listservs. The process took most of the month. 

April Hathcock, scholarly communications librarian at New York University and a 2018 LJ Mover & Shaker, first saw the call on the American Library Association Scholarly Communication (SCHOLCOMM) discussion list. Much of her work centers around issues of diversity, accessibility, and inclusion in scholarly communications, and she was eager to be a part of the conversation, seeing the Grand Challenges as “exciting and very much in line with the work that a lot of people and a lot of places are doing.” 

Hathcock first concentrated on the sections that interested her most, in order to get a feel for the conversation, circling around later to the rest of the document. “Anything [on] their work about inclusiveness, equity, I dove into those areas,” she told LJ. “I took a look at the research question section to see what was the underlying basis of the work that they were doing, of what they were exploring. From there I made my way through the pieces I hadn't read.” 

She noted with approval the global nature of the conversation, and the deep dive into issues of openness and inclusion. "I appreciated the way they dug into some of the challenges and issues and took a close look at them, and some of the more systemic factors that become a part of the…challenges that they were looking at,” said Hathcock. In addition, she said, it “was helpful for me to read the comments of other people…and see some of the thoughts that were coming through, respond to some of those, as well as adding my own thoughts.”

Some areas, she felt, were lacking in the earliest days of the report—notably, issues around working with different forms of knowledge creation, particularly indigenous communities and traditional knowledge. “In that initial read-through there were places where it was clear that we were still thinking in terms of what we consider to be very traditional mainstream scholarly publishing formats or models. There was quite a bit of pushback about thinking of other ways of knowing. And I really appreciated seeing that pushback, and being able to add to that."

Hathcock invited her graduate assistant, Lingyu Wang, to read and comment as well. As an international student from China, she noted, he had good insights into the global perspective of the issues raised, and contributed some valuable perspective. A number of other Library and Information Science (LIS) instructors reportedly brought the draft to their students, both as an informational document and as a look at some of the big questions that concern the field. Grand Challenges collaborators hope that the final paper can also be used in LIS curricula going forward.


The final version of the Grand Challenges report lays out in detail the challenges, visions, and recommendations necessary to realize a more inclusive, open, equitable, and sustainable scholarly knowledge ecosystem. One area critical for these changes to happen is the role of libraries and archives as advocates and collaborators. The report states, “Librarians and archivists as professionals, and libraries and archives, as institutions, can go beyond advocacy to contribute and collaborate in the grand challenge research we have described in this paper. Further, these organizations can act as direct agents of change.”

In order for these shifts in library culture to transpire over the next ten years, "there are likely structural changes that would have to happen,” Bourg told LJ,  “but I think that prior to that is the change in the definitional scope of what a library is. For us here at MIT that work started with the Future of Libraries Task Force, and has had a thread that has moved all the way through the Grand Challenges, which is to conceive of the library and ensure that the community understands the library as more than just a service."

She added, “Reconceiving of the library as having a role in advocating for, promoting, and convening—and in some cases doing research that would inform—the future of scholarship is a conceptual shift, and the structural changes would follow from that."

While the document is intended to identify research agenda for libraries and archives going forward, said Choudhury, “My hope is that [the white paper] becomes one of those documents that people refer to when having conversations around how we conduct research in information science, how we implement the practices that reflect the research. I hope this becomes a document that's not just cited but used as a roadmap.”

MIT plans to continue the call to action, and will be working to generate both enthusiasm and workable partnerships; there is also an MIT Libraries–based research initiative in the works. Bourg hopes that the whitepaper will find a variety of uses—for example, as material for grant proposals. "That's one of the objectives, actually,” she noted. “We've provided some background source material so that people who want to do research can reference the paper as a way of establishing the relevance and importance of their research."

Ultimately, said Bourg, “We've produced a call to action that motivates people who maybe weren't already participating. I hope that it also gives people who are already engaged, ready to do it, [or] doing some work, a coherence and a framework to find each other and to pull together the stuff that is already going on in the community—a framework to knit it together and start to develop a coherent evidence base."

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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