by Chris McGivern, 1 September 2022
September 1st saw Sean Jacobs and Chris Hartgerink graduate from our Fellowship programme and advance to become Shuttleworth Foundation Alumni.
Sean and Chris joined us in September 2019, just a few months before the world went into lockdown. While the pandemic undoubtedly impacted their experience of the Fellowship, we are delighted at how they overcame its disruption to advance openness in both their projects.
They are exceptional individuals working on distinct challenges, yet share a deep determination to ensure everything we know about the world is informed by truth, equity, and justice. Both have made thoughtful, generous and impactful contributions to the community and illuminated our collective insight. We are confident their ideas will continue to thrive as they take them further out into the world.
Thank you, Sean and Chris!
Sean Jacobs: Africa Is A Country
Sean is amplifying unheard African voices to reclaim the African narrative. He started Africa Is A Country (AIAC) in 2009 to counter inaccurate, lazy and damaging portrayals of the continent by Western media. It became an important space for authentic thinking on African politics, culture and society, but high praise equated to little in the way of access to resources. Sean joined us after a decade of self-funding, working in his spare time, and relying on contributions from volunteer writers. Our support gave him his first opportunity to invest at scale and pursue his bigger vision for the platform.
Sean’s Fellowship has been transformational on more than one level. Africa Is A Country began life as a personal hobby project. Today, it resembles a fully-fledged media organisation. Writing still functions as the heartbeat of AIAC but now it is complemented by a full spectrum of modern media including film projects, documentary series, podcasts and radio shows. Sean is also able to pay writers and creators for their contributions. This is important progress because working for free comes from a position of privilege; payment enables a broader range of underrepresented people to express themselves through professional writing. Sean’s investment in an in-house fellowship programme comes from a similar perspective: unlocking opportunity for African writers with a meaningful, paid experience.
The open aspect of Sean’s Fellowship has also proved fruitful. He came to the Fellowship with an understanding of openness as a value; a way of being or something good in the world. Now it is central to his thinking. The AIAC’s publishing model has been transformed by its use of open licences and CC-BY is now central to its mission to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. Because AIAC content is published openly, its articles are often shared elsewhere, re-published, referenced, adapted or translated into multiple different languages. Sean’s Fellowship is a clear demonstration of open as a strategy to amplify underrepresented voices at scale and make authentic knowledge more accessible.
We are also excited about Sean’s innovative use of open licensing agreements to attract engagement with other organisations. As partners in The Wire network, Africa Is A Country is explicitly publishing openly from a position of influence amongst the world’s leading left-leaning organisations. This is a higher-order application of openness than we have seen before and introduces intriguing possibilities for open’s potential in the context of global media.
Our Fellowship is about investing in people, and Sean’s transformation over these three years is an example of why we are committed to this model. He took a while to find his agency as a Fellow but slowly carved out ownership of a space to become a valued, fully committed and trusted member of the community. He works quietly in the background; often unrecognised and without fanfare, and is incredibly generous with his time to offer help, advice, or support to his peers.
He has also demonstrated a voracious capacity for learning to internalise an entirely new way of working. A decade of struggle to maintain this project meant Sean became a Fellow with a street-fighting, anti-establishment approach. Now, he is far more deliberate and able to piece ideas together and strategize in a way that is more about collaboration, perspective and openness. This transformation has laid the groundwork for the biggest realisation of his Fellowship: Sean has successfully institutionalised Africa Is A Country and it’s no longer reliant on his sole input and direction. It is his gift to the world, which we are honoured to have helped him deliver.
Chris Hartgerink: Liberate Science
Chris is reimagining the scientific communication process by democratising research work and testing community-based approaches to research culture and practice. His Fellowship idea is Liberate Science: a collaborative, for-profit social endeavour dedicated to creating an alternative scholarly communications system and exploring a new, equitable paradigm for the production of scientific research.
Scholarly publishing is dominated by a handful of powerful companies and is skewed to deliver profits, not social benefits. There is little appetite for change in the hierarchies of our halls of learning, and Chris is convinced his vision of a more sustainable science could only be realised from outside the restrictive confines of academia. Leaving that world to establish Liberate Science was a big risk involving many challenges, but he has managed the transition well.
In Chris’s first year, Liberate Science launched Hypergraph, a free and open publishing tool introducing the concept of step-by-step modular publishing. Takeup was good and revealed a solid base of support amongst researchers for a new, more equitable way of communicating science. It also served as a fertile testing ground to refine Chris’s ideas of speeding up the scientific process while ensuring delivery of greater accuracy and value.
There were issues, however. Chris felt he focused too much on developing Hypergraph as a cutting-edge application, rather than developing its viability and popularity as a community-based product. A reset followed, but thanks to Hypergraph’s open source infrastructure there was no need for a complete overhaul. Work on the new project - Research Equals - hit the same milestones in six weeks that took 18 months with Hypergraph, demonstrating the benefits of working openly.
Research Equals launched in February 2022 as a browser-based, open platform with a focus on developing the product around the needs of the community. It has already surpassed Hypergraph’s user base and is the testing ground for an interesting ‘Pay to Close’ business model. Under this system, researchers pay nothing to publish work under strictly open licences but pay incrementally more as they use more restrictive licences. The content remains free to access for all. Now, Chris is focusing his attention on developing and engaging with his community, helping researchers to learn about the platform, give them ownership and, ultimately, help shape what it will become.
Chris’s additional goal of creating the first Open Workers Cooperative was a compelling idea, but perhaps one that might manifest later in the Liberate Science story. A time-consuming, convoluted web of legal complications and a systemically rigid framework stood in the way of progress. Ultimately, formalising a new mode of organisation was not mission-critical, and distracted from the already-challenging work of building the organisation itself. But Chris continues to weave open principles into the fabric of Liberate Science and its community; it’s an Open Workers Cooperative in all but name, and ongoing work that will develop and mature over time. He sees openness as key to monetisation without exploitation or consolidation of power and will continue to experiment with open business models that generate profit but provide societal value.
Chris moves onto the next stage of his journey with confidence he can tap into an increased appetite for change in the scholarly publishing industry. Much of his optimism stems from a broad acceptance of the faster, process-based models of research that became critical during the pandemic. It is still early days, but he believes cracks are showing as more researchers move away from the traditional journal space and disentangle themselves from the power and inequitable reward systems of publishers.
It’s been an honour to partner with Chris over the last three years. He has overcome significant challenges to step away from academia and mature as an organisational leader. He is an engaged, supportive Fellow and a popular, valued contributor to our community who thinks deeply, considerately, and ethically about how his actions impact others. We are confident he will continue to advance his idea of creating an equitable community environment for researchers.