21 April 2015
Books on brain research, on philosophy and psychology of mind are expensive, yet at the time of their appearance the publications themselves may already be obsolete. Thus, the Open MIND Project decided to take another path. It provides a compendium of high-quality specialist papers that is freely accessible online. The initiator of this huge venture is Professor Thomas Metzinger of the Department of Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).
Major concepts wander majestically across the small notebook screen: "… stream of consciousness … knowledge ... neural networks … minimalism … Buddhism ..." The various characters glimmer palely against the blue background. The deeper the user progresses into this world of words, the smaller they get, until they form a white nebula at the center – a galaxy of knowledge.
This cloud of keywords of philosophical and cognitive science can be moved in all directions with the mouse cursor and users can penetrate ever more deeply into it. If users clicks on one of the terms, they are taken directly to all texts in which it occurs. The cloud is a dynamic index, a gateway to modern philosophy, and of course it symbolizes the 'open mind.'
"This project turned out to be far more difficult than I had thought and I encountered a larger number of problems than I had reckoned with," says Professor Thomas Metzinger of the Department of Philosophy at Mainz University, "and I have still not quite finished it." He has an hour to talk about the Open MIND Project. Straight afterwards, he will be giving an interview to journalists from SPIEGEL magazine, but on a different subject.
Metzinger's office at the Department of Philosophy seems almost old-fashioned. He grows cacti on the wide window sill. Opposite it is a blackboard mounted on the wall above a red sofa. Chalk is also there ready for use. "If you had come a few days earlier, this board would have been full of bizarre formulas," recounts Daniela Hill. It was she who headed the student team of the Open MIND Project in the final phase and she has been particularly busy with organization in recent weeks. She has been making calls, correcting and reminding, but she has managed to retain an overview.
"I have never had to coordinate anything at this level before," she says, looking back. "It was a real challenge." "She was my top manager, together with my doctoral student Ying-Tung Lin from Taiwan," says Metzinger. "In fact, she had to herd cats to get everything done on time."
The result of all this effort is a compendium of very topical essays on questions of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience that has been put together in next to no time. These are original contributions by both leading researchers and promising young researchers – and they are now all freely available online. For some there might just be a language barrier as all the texts on the open-mind.net platform are in English.
The Open MIND Project is a gift. Metzinger calls it "a donation of intellectual property." "In 2003, I established an interdisciplinary research group, the MIND Group." Young philosophers and academics from all over the world, quite often still students, came together to discuss and to attend presentations by eminent experts – the same experts who would later contribute articles to the project.
A birthday present by the jubilarian
"We were thinking about what to do on the tenth birthday of the group," Metzinger explains. "We could have held a major conference but that would have involved creating an enormous CO2 footprint that would have polluted the atmosphere, just to celebrate our anniversary with a major but ephemeral event. Instead we decided to produce a collection of useful texts – something of lasting value to others that would help to promote young research talent while also enabling us to develop and test a new self-publishing model."
In many of the world's regions it is particularly difficult for students to get hold of topical and relevant articles on aspects of philosophy and neuroscience. Metzinger has Brazil, China, and India in mind. "The user numbers in these countries could be higher, but we are working on that."
Books are expensive. "It takes at least 18 months before an essay is published," he says. By then the author will have progressed in their field and the essay may already be obsolete. "It was a part of our concept to do it all ourselves, to maintain high quality standards, and to be quicker than any journal or commercial publishing company. In fact, we managed to publish the texts on open-mind.net within just a little over ten months."
Metzinger started by recruiting sponsors through his numerous contacts all over the world. "I then managed to attract 39 distinguished experts – the senior members of the MIND Group – by offering to pay them a fee and I made them sign a contract. The junior members of the group, many of whom are students in Mainz, were allowed to review the target papers."
Young academics review leading experts in their field
All texts were subjected to an anonymous peer review process by young members of the MIND Group and evaluated by them, as well as by Professor Metzinger and his Mainz co-publisher, Dr. Jennifer Windt, who managed to beat 300 other candidates in her first job application after completing her doctorate and is now a lecturer in Melbourne, Australia. "Not everyone found our approach easy to swallow. We even had to turn down a few articles due to poor quality." Quality was the most important aspect of all.
The junior members were allowed to write comments on the essays. "We could select any aspect we wanted to – we had all the freedom we wanted," explains Hill. The article she reviewed was "On the Eve of Artificial Minds" by the Canadian philosophy professor Chris Eliasmith. "It was not easy to choose a single concrete aspect. There were all sorts of things one could have written about. I have learned a great deal from this work and not simply as far as the subject is concerned."
During the course of the entire project, Metzinger focused on the development of new forms of promotion and mentoring of young research talents. The aim is to make it possible for the young members of his MIND Group to publish texts at an early stage and in a prominent forum. Metzinger had noticed that German students, in particular, often find it difficult to write their contributions in English. So his idea was to allow them to practice this here.
And more importantly, this was a way to bring these young academics into contact with the experts in their corresponding fields. They found that some of these experts were actually rather sensitive to criticism. "We also encouraged the researchers to respond to the reviews of their texts. Many have reacted well." But there is something in Metzinger's expression that suggests that this was not always the case.
From the Internet into print
However, Metzinger is highly satisfied with the results, despite all the pitfalls and problems. "Everyone was permitted to write about what interested them – from essays to straightforward natural science papers. The result is a varied cross-section of everything that is truly innovative in the neurosciences, psychology, and philosophy – an overview of the major trends."
In the meantime, the contributions to the Open MIND Project have even managed the transition from the digital to the analog world. MIT Press, one of the world's top academic publishers, will be printing the compendium as a hardcover book. "The volume will have approximately 1,700 pages and will be sold for just under EUR 200," Metzinger reckons. "This is perhaps one of the most important results of our project, in which Dr. Jennifer Windt also played a major role. As the quality of the content was remarkably good, we will now have the best of both worlds, i.e., world-wide, free availability and a book by a major publisher."
This provides an incentive to carry on, doesn’t it? Having only recently completed this mammoth task, Metzinger shakes his head. He invested the first two years of his fellowship at the Gutenberg Research College (GRC) in the project, to which he devoted a great deal of energy and effort. "For me, this was a one-time job," he says. And this is hardly surprising in view of the magnitude of what he took on.