The academy at a pivot point

At current budget levels, over the next decade, governments in the US and Great Britain alone will invest about a trillion dollars (US) on higher education teaching and research. These are public monies spent either to create public goods (research outcomes) or enhance the public good (teaching outcomes). The academy — a term that here represents all of the institutions that receive public funding or claim tax-free status to support education and research — is charged with managing the returns on this investment.

We gratefully acknowledge key support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

In the early 20th Century, science portrayed an ethos of public knowledge sharing (publication) and a logic of knowledge pursuit intentionally disengaged from profit motives. Pure science, basic research, and a broad education for civil society participation were proclaimed as normative outcomes worthy of public investment. Later in the last century the boundaries of, and practices within, the academy became more interwoven with private, market-driven enterprises and logics. The current for-profit science publication enterprise is one key example. Science authors give away their research results and volunteer to review other science articles. Publication is linked to career advancement, and the copyrights on science content are given to journal and book publishers who sell content back to libraries and scientists. More recently, the internet and internet-connected platforms and services have enabled significant opportunities for open knowledge sharing across the academy and beyond. Many organizations now look to provide free public access through the internet to science objects, from hypotheses to research publications.

This effort is housed and hosted by Earth Science Information Partners. esipfed.org


However, having sharable research objects does not guarantee that these will in fact be shared, curated, and maintained in an optimal manner. This is a question that economists and sociologists familiar with peer production can help resolve. The challenges of re-imagining the flows of money for research funding, university and departmental budgets, library spending, journal revenue-models, data-sharing systems, ad hoc collaborations, and more, must be frankly addressed in order to reap the greatest benefits from the new modes of scientific and scholarly collaboration.

To date, the move toward open science has been focused on building the platforms that support open research publication and other services, but it is increasingly clear that “open” is merely the first step toward active, economically sustainable sharing as a broadly practiced norm and cultural practice. Most new platforms (and there many to choose from) support openness, but it will require a strong shift in the academy’s economic mindset, budget allocations and culture to support the active sharing and widespread reuse of scholarly data, processes, and results. Reuse is the key to both economic gain and research productivity here. If reuse means simply the free appropriation of open public goods by the marketplace and their subsequent resale as private property, then all of the known as well as currently unknown, emergent forms of reuse will be lost. Also lost is the potential for open public reuse to generate additional value and unforeseeable spillover effects that could be leveraged by the academy for future public benefit.

In our commons patterns charrettes we hope to develop a sharper articulation of the economic implications of new commons-based models of scholarly collaboration, especially for colleges and universities. What administrative and financial challenges are entailed, and what tradeoffs may be necessary?  Attention must also be paid to transition strategies to navigate the potentially difficult move from traditional paradigms of scientific research and publishing, to network-based models that mutualize costs at the outset in order to generate larger, expanding sets of “shareable” outcomes.

The Ostrom Workshop is hosting the initial design charrette.

Open resources offer novel opportunities for new science (e.g., data mining, data fusion, synthetic research, big data networks) and scholarship, but openness alone will not necessarily yield the optimal scientific use of these resources. The first problem is to identify social/cultural models that support the optimal sharing of open resources and then build an understanding of how these models might find a purchase in the academy. Social scientists have already done a great deal of work in this arena (see below). Much of the current research and experimentation points to the significant benefits that can accrue through “commons.” The call to define and propagate the commons framework for “open projects” signals a potential inflection point for the academy, but one that requires deeper inquiry and creative experimentation.

Scholarly Commons

We believe that scholarly commons as a versatile social/organizational form could provide a flexible but durable value-generating alternative to many existing forms within the academy. We are not talking about creating additional organizations for this, but rather about inserting peer-to-peer economic and social practices into existing organizations. Thanks to the power of digital networks and technologies, universities, research centers and libraries, scholarly associations and other academic institutions can reinvigorate  a praxis and an ethos of science strikingly similar to its earlier norms. Existing institutions can be reconceived as communities of researchers who are intentionally building the tools, skills and practices needed to manage, grow, share and protect their open resources, within an academic context. Several recent examples of shared knowledge and science are available to inform the economics and scientific merit of this endeavor. From Wikipedia to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and citizen-science to Big Data collaborations, researchers are opening up new solution spaces for advancing knowledge.
The proposed work will explore the idea of scholarly commons from many angles, and with the aim of building a body of synthetic understanding sufficient for academic institutions/organizations to build their own commons around the common-pool resources they use. The aim is to fortify the stable, ongoing stewardship of the shared resources and to expand the reuse of these resources to fuel new scholarly work. Understanding the economics of shared resources will be a key factor in the success of these commons.
If the commons is going to replace current practices it needs to offer visible economic and social advantages. While scholarly commons may have short-term disruptions to conventional academic practices and finances, we believe that they can leverage the enormous powers of open networks and sharing, collaboration, rapid creative iterations, commentary and critique, etc., that are often lacking in scholarly communications designed in another era.

The late Elinor Ostrom and other economists have identified general principles for understanding how a successful commons may be governed. One key element is the congruence of governance rules with the actual resources being managed. The rules, practices, values, and so forth must also reflect the community’s history and culture. Since every commons requires a different set of practices suited to its peculiar circumstances, various commons (schools, departments, laboratories, societies, etc.) within the academy will need to grow their own ways of commoning in order to leverage the efficiencies and innovation they can yield. Design patterns for a scholarly commons are an important tool for revealing promising solution spaces for this challenge, helping the academy make a transition from archaic print- and market-based models to commons models based on open network platforms.

Design Patterns

Design patterns offer solution spaces to problems that can then be localized for their resolution. Christopher Alexander (et al) introduced the concept of patterns as a heuristic in the 1977 book, A Pattern Language. Since then, patterns have been explored in a number of knowledge domains, most visibly in object-oriented coding. We have noted that any scholarly commons will need to be localized to the circumstances of its community and resources it manages.
It is likely that no single model for “the scholarly commons” or any set of “best practices” can be readily applied to any single local scholarly community. Patterns interrogate solution spaces to illuminate the problem spaces these solve. Patterns seek to reveal an invariant property (“a deep and inescapable property”) common to all solutions of the problem space, but also open to heterogeneous localizations of that property. Besides providing clearer solution spaces, patterns also provide a shared vocabulary to talk about problems that supports how a community might realize its objectives (See also:Patterns of Commoning).
Commoning for science/scholarship will include patterns from solution spaces across the breadth of the academy: patterns for data repository metadata standards, patterns for open platforms for scientific recognition, for university governance, and for the economic logic of global peer production. Patterns will need to explore a science that is no longer focused on scarcity (of data, or funding, or acclaim) as experienced by individual actors and institutions, but instead emphasizes the superior collective returns over time that can be achieved through mutual support and collaboration. Commoning is not just about the combined impacts of opening science across the board. It is about developing a body of new professional practices, ethics, and values for the stewarding of scholarly resources.