Interview with Leonhard Dobusch and Michelle Thorne
The 3rd Free Culture Research Conference (FCRC), Freie Universität of Berlin and Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (8/9 October 2010).
Name and theme of the conference?
The 3rd Free Culture Research Conference (FCRC), hosted jointly by the Freie Universität of Berlin and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, explored questions around the theme “Free Culture between Commons and Markets: Approaching the Hybrid Economy?”
Building upon workshops held at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in 2009 and in Sapporo, Japan in 2008, the third FCRC extended the scale of the event and the number of participants. Locating the conference in Berlin aimed to attract European academics, following the former workshops in North America and Asia. The conference was held in collaboration with COMMUNIA, the European Network on the digital public domain and Wikimedia Germany. Funding and support was also provided by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.
What were your goals in organising this conference?
The Free Culture Research Conference presented an opportunity for scholars whose work contributes to the promotion, study, and criticism of a Free Culture to engage with a multidisciplinary group of academic peers and practitioners, identify the most important research opportunities and challenges, and attempt to chart the future of Free Culture. In particular, we wanted to reflect on the contributions of Free Culture research to policy making and potential tensions between being a researcher and an activist.
To achieve these goals, we combined different session formats. In addition to panel discussions and two parallel tracks with traditional paper presentations, we had break-out sessions, lightning talks, and poster presentations. To ensure the quality of papers, an international academic program committee consisting of 39 esteemed scholars reviewed 40 extended abstracts, 30 of which were accepted and invited to submit full papers.
Do you think those goals were met?
With over 230 attendees from a wide variety of disciplines and countries, we met our first goal of assembling a large crowd of dedicated Free Culture researchers and activists. Nevertheless, possibly due to the very tight time frame providing less than three months in the call for extended abstracts, the number of submissions could have been higher. Also, during the concluding feedback panel, several participants noted that outreach to related research communities such as Access to Knowledge (A2K) and Open Access could be improved in future events.
Substantively, the policy research panel provoked a lively and informed debate about the benefits and challenges of the normative bias associated with the Free Culture label in research. One of the advantages of congregating researchers under the heading of Free Culture is that participants mentioned the opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration based upon a shared perspective on the same empirical phenomenon. Others in turn emphasized the need to abide by high (often disciplinary) methodological standards to succeed in scientific terms. With regard to potential dilemmas or contradictions between activist and research agendas, the majority of discussants described their approach as being responsive to their respective context.
Lastly, after many in-depth discussions, the lightning talk session at the end of the first day broadened the subject matter and allowed the speakers to float nascent ideas in a welcoming environment.
What did you learn in organisational terms?
First, six months from publishing the call for submission to the conference is too short – both for organizers and for authors. Second, we found that a continuous shift between plenary and working group sessions fostered a fruitful exchange and active participation; also, combining different sessions formats within the event encouraged discussion and helped to keep energy levels up. Third, we struck a positive balance with academic institutions and practitioners in the organizing committee, which similarly helped shape a diverse composition of participants as well. Fourth, conference documentation via live-blogging and the concluding feedback panel were worthwhile and informative.
With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently?
As mentioned, we would strive to begin the organizational process about one year before the event. Furthermore, to improve conference documentation, we would install etherpads so that all participants could take notes simultaneously and collaboratively during each session. We would try to secure funding for video streaming and documentation. Finally, we would also communicate more clearly about surrounding social events and opportunities for informal gathering.
Were there any particularly interesting, poetic or dramatic moments?
The debate on the tension between research and policy making was captured eloquently by one participant, “Our goal should be to pursue evidence based-policy, not policy-based evidence.”
Also, the lightning talk given by Mathias Klang of the University of Gothenburg featured over twenty slides presented in less than four minutes. His performance woke up the crowd and offered a light-hearted though convincing argument.
What was your favorite presentation and why?
What we liked was not only the presentations by the authors but also the informed contributions by the commentators assigned to each session. Their challenging task was to synthesize three related papers and open the discussions with provoking thoughts and questions.