MIT Libraries Tackles Grand Challenges | Peer to Peer Review

During the week of March 19–23 MIT Libraries convened experts from across disciplines and domains to identify and address grand challenges in the scholarly communication and information science landscape.

MIT Libraries director Chris Bourg addresses the Grand Challenges Summit

MIT Libraries director Chris Bourg addresses the Grand Challenges Summit
Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark

Academic libraries are at a crossroads of sorts, where innovation and disruption represent one pathway and continuing on course the other. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries, we have been busy formulating ideas about what the library space should and could look like—both as a model for other libraries and to advance our own objectives and commitments related to excellence, innovation, and service. In October 2016, we published a task force report called “The Future of Libraries.” It outlined a vision for libraries to serve as open global platforms for knowledge and made ten recommendations for how MIT Libraries can begin to realize this vision, articulating an ambitious reimagining of a modern academic research library. The task force recognized that building an open global platform requires significant investment in new kinds of models, services, and tools. Toward that end, the group recommended creating a new initiative dedicated to interdisciplinary research, development, and experimentation in topic areas related to the future of scholarly communication.

In summer 2017, MIT Libraries were awarded a grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to convene experts (practitioners, scholars, technologists) from across disciplines and domains to identify and address grand challenges in the scholarly communication and information science landscape led by co–principal investigators Micah Altman, director of research at MIT Libraries and head/scientist, MIT Program on Information Science, and MIT Libraries director Chris Bourg, 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 the practice at the MIT Media Lab).

The project defined grand challenges as critical research problems with broad applications, where solutions are potentially achievable within the next decade. Three different tracks for topic discussions were scoped scholarly discovery, digital curation and preservation, and open scholarship. In addition to articulating grand challenges, these discussions were expected to contribute to a research agenda.

During the week of March 19–23, invited members from the global scholarly community came together for the Grand Challenges Summit (GCS) held at the MIT Libraries. Each track had approximately 20–25 people from the United States, European Union, South Africa, India, and the Global South. Prior to the summit, participants were asked to submit what they perceived to be a grand challenge in their topic area of expertise. For example, one attendee from the open scholarship track pointed to the “lack of institutional investment in and ownership of the scholarly communication ecosystem, and the stranglehold that a handful of commercial entities maintain over not only the markets for research information, but also on academic reputation systems, publishing technologies, and digital innovation in scholarly communication.” Another participant from the digital curation and preservation track mentioned the need for conceptual approaches to born-digital information. They explained, “We are trying to impose traditional notions of curation and preservation onto a digital landscape that is very different than the analog world, especially when it comes to records and documents.”

Each group followed the same process throughout their track, generating a host of ideas, examining them, and filtering those for input into the report. As summarized by one attendee:

“We started by throwing the contents of our [intellectual] closet onto the floor. We have to get messy before we clean up; we are trying to get to a set of challenge statements that are reasonable, feasible, solvable, but we also admit that whatever we come up with will not be a full and complete list of all challenges.”


The first day and a half of the GCS focused on exploring potential grand challenges in the area of scholarly discovery. One of the MIT Task Force recommendations was that the libraries should develop and build new kinds of discovery pathways and help bridge and facilitate social connections across different areas of research. Another recommendation suggested that the libraries should undertake research studies on information discovery with both tangible and digital media, to understand the extent to which haptic affordances like touch influence the discovery and pursuit of information.

Similar ideas were raised by members of the scholarly discovery group. Discussions ranged from the importance of developing an “alt-Google” to economic incentives for quality information. The group converged on themes of transparency, inclusion, serendipity, expertise, and accountability. One GCS attendee stressed the need for libraries to develop globally diverse, pluralistic discovery environments to accommodate scholars from across the world. Another highlighted the importance of libraries acknowledging their existing relationships with for-profit companies (publishers, social media, search engines) and beginning to put a stake in public interest information. The idea of a library Knowledge Graph was also discussed, although concerns were raised about whose knowledge would be reflected.


The second topic area, digital curation and preservation, kicked off with a keynote by Anasuya Sengupta, cofounder of the global Internet reimagining campaign “Whose Knowledge?” and former chief grantmaking officer at the Wikimedia Foundation. Sengupta asked the group to consider how the act of curation itself can introduce and sustain biased narratives that are problematic. She recounted a story in which a Wikipedia article on the California Gold Rush raised flags during an annual meeting of Wikimedians. The professor and scholar Michael Connolly Miskwish, also a member of the Kumeyaay tribe from the San Diego area, showed how the article was written primarily from a colonialist, white settler perspective, enforcing century-long misconceptions about this time period. For example, one of the article’s images depicted Native Americans attacking white settlers—which runs counter to contemporary scholarly perspectives on this time period as one of state-sanctioned genocide. To reflect current historical thinking, the group edited the article to instead feature an image showing white settlers firing on Native Americans. This story was just one of several examples recounted by Sengupta, demonstrating both the inherent power and subsequent consequences of curating dynamic, online content.

Sengupta and members of the group also pointed to the complexities of capturing and preserving nontextual forms of knowledge, such as oral histories and photographs. Participants noted that these challenges require more than simply technical solutions. At their core, they also reflect fundamental social, cultural, and epistemological questions about whose knowledge is being represented, how it is being captured and presented, and for what purpose. For example, one attendee described how marginalized communities are often given strong incentives to document in dominant modes of discourse, as opposed to their own language and/or traditional forms.


The final day and a half of GCS focused on the topic of open scholarship, which broadly refers to the creation and sustainability of transparent and open knowledge infrastructure. Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, gave the opening keynote. Ito touched on a number of topics ranging from the idea of Making as a form of research and scholarly activity to the changing contours of copyright and fair use. He went on to describe a new partnership between the Media Lab and the MIT Press to explore open-access alternatives for publishing academic research.

Participants in this track discussed a number of challenges in the current landscape of open scholarship. The group converged on the importance of establishing incentives for pushing scholars towards open research and publication processes. On the one hand, alternatives to peer review such as preprint archives can help scholars move towards open research. On the other, the sheer volume of research currently being published in preprint form has introduced concerns about information overload. While attendees noted that open scholarship significantly improved the quality and validity of research (e.g., helping to ensure reproducibility), the group also recognized researchers’ underlying concerns about “being scooped.” Building trust mechanisms and measures of trustworthiness into research and publishing infrastructures is a critical task for sustaining open scholarship efforts.


The GCS highlighted the transformative role that libraries can play in developing a more accountable, transparent, and diverse scholarly communication ecosystem. GCS participants recognized this as an opportune moment to contribute to and help shape the conversation around knowledge production and dissemination. Group members demonstrated energy and drive that were both uplifting and inspiring. Though the grand challenges outlined represent significant, complex research problems, summit attendees felt that, given the right amount of resources, these were solvable challenges. In the coming weeks, the editors (including the principle investigators and selected program committee members and attendees) will draft a report of the discussions and summary of grand challenges. It will be open for comments and accessible on

Alexandra Chassanoff is currently a DLF/CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at the MIT Libraries. In this role, she is leading an investigation into strategies for curating research software in academic library settings. She received her doctoral and master degrees in Information Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores the challenges, benefits and implications of born-digital scholarly discourse, with an emphasis on archival practices. She writes and tweets regularly about archives, technology, and media.

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