Learning about commoning through open source software

Natural resource commons have long been an organic part of human existence: a community sharing and using a natural resource in a way that’s beneficial to all including the environment. One example is a community of fishers who live near a lake or river and have made their living off it for generations. The body of water may also be central to their culture and customs.

Many of us living in highly urban settings might not have much experience of being part of a natural resource commons. But if you have ever used open source software, you have in fact dipped into another kind of commons – a digital commons.

Communities behind open source applications often take part in digital commoning. The second logo is Tux, a general symbol of Linux.

This blog is made with WordPress, a content management system using which you can build websites and blogs. WordPress is one of the most popular and successful open source applications: it’s been estimated that 25% of the world’s websites run on WordPress. The WordPress software not only comes free of cost but gives the user rights to modify as they please at the code level. The software is maintained and improved by a worldwide community of programmers. Some do it as part of their day job and some do it in their spare time. So right now, you are reading something that is the product of digital commoning.

While it’s easy to set up a basic WordPress blog, if you want to use the full power of WordPress for your website in the long run, it’s best to host it yourself on a server. And you’re responsible for your WordPress installation by learning the ropes as you go along. You may need to think and act like a commoner, not just a user.

The ‘user’ is a standard figure in software. A typical user wants to get something done with a software application. They may not care how it gets done or the philosophy behind the application.

But not much has been said about who a ‘commoner’ might be in the digital world. This person isn’t necessarily a software expert or developer, and at the same time they are not as detached from the workings and principles of the software application as a typical user. They recognize that software is a big part of their lives, so there’s more to consider about software than its utilitarian aspect. What about software freedom, licensing, privacy, and security? A digital commoner cares about these things and often looks to open source software as a result.

The flip side is the increased responsibility and sometimes hassle of using open source software instead of commercial alternatives. I used the open source LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office for more than a year when I was experimenting with Linux (also an enormous digital commons), and I was always worried about compatibility issues because all of my work colleagues used MS Office. I however enjoyed using Linux and I was connected to the computing experience in a way that’s not possible on Windows or Mac. In hindsight, I realize I evolved from being a mere user of Linux to a bit of a commoner. I was particularly proud of figuring how to do a tricky installation of a Linux distribution called Crunchbang and posting the solution on a community forum.

Today Crunchbang does not exist. It was one of the smaller Linux distributions that was backed by one man. He thought it no longer served a purpose, but that didn’t stop some fans from developing some new Linux distributions inspired by the aesthetics of the minimal Crunchbang. All Linux distributions come with an open license that allows for modification and redistribution.

To me this was a lesson that a digital commons does not exist for its own sake, or for the sake of the market or state. A digital commons is mutable yet resilient. It is all about the community and the commoning they do.

Can an online course be a commons?

At my organisation we have developed an online course in research writing and we do two things with it: we run it by ourselves and we help our partner institutions in Africa and Asia take on this course and run it themselves. Having attended the Sloan Commons Patterns Charrette last month, I’m starting to make a link between the second endeavour and the idea of the commons.

The course I’m talking about is the AuthorAID online course in research writing developed by INASP, an international development charity in the UK. When we run this course ourselves, my colleague and I usually lead the course and we have a team of guest facilitators from the AuthorAID network. Over the past two years every offering of this course has been a massive open online course – or MOOC. The course is truly global and we have seen participants from more than 100 countries, most of which are in the developing world. Every MOOC is exciting: the rush of seeing so many participants join the course and the organically generated discussions full of interesting questions and thoughtful answers. Of course there are much bigger, much more global MOOCs.

But sometimes, global doesn’t help: you need local answers to local problems.

Imagine you’re a fisheries researcher. In the course of your work you have to kill some fish at the nearby lake to inspect their organs. You know how to do this in the most humane way possible, but there is no ethics committee at your institution or even in your country to grant you permission. You’ve got to do your research though. Later you get into trouble – your paper is on the verge of being rejected by a journal because you do not have proof of ethical clearance for killing the fish. What do you do?

This was the theme of a discussion in an ongoing AuthorAID course at Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), one of our partner institutions. The course is being run by and for TAFIRI researchers, and this particular discussion was sparked by some of the content about research ethics in the AuthorAID course. Quickly two of the course facilitators shared their experiences of navigating the same tricky situation and a nuanced solution emerged. I am pretty sure no-one other than an experienced fisheries researcher in Tanzania could have responded to the question the way they did.

What does all this have to do with the commons?

A commons, as explained by David Bollier, is made up of three things: a shared resource, a community around the resource, and a set of rules and norms developed by the community for using the resource. Unfortunately, a commons is widely misunderstood to mean just a shared resource. This is the premise of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a phrase that has insidiously entered many minds. However, there is no commons without commoning, to quote Peter Linebaugh.

Consider the AuthorAID online course. The course materials are the resource. The course has been developed for use on Moodle, an open source learning platform, and it is made up of interactive lessons, quizzes, and writing activities that include peer assessment. The entire course can be zipped up and migrated from one Moodle site to another in a few clicks. So it is a shared resource that can be hosted on any Moodle site anywhere in the world.

While it is possible to make the AuthorAID course a self-study sequence with just the content and activities, it comes alive only through facilitation and peer-to-peer interaction. This also leads to better outcomes. In our recent paper on our MOOCs, we found a strong correlation between forum posting and course completion: participants who engaged on the course forums were far more likely to complete the course than those who did not.

So when we hand over the AuthorAID course to a partner institution, we train them on how to facilitate the course. In other words we train people to carry out the ‘commoning’ aspect of the course and prepare them to be stewards of the course in their local context. Our partners come up with creative ways to use the resource – the AuthorAID course materials – as part of larger capacity building initiatives. That is, they develop rules or norms on how they are going to use the resource.

As our partners run the course year after year, they become better at facilitating the course and start innovating. This evolution, I believe, is an important aspect of commoning – the shared resource may be more or less fixed in place but the community around the resource agrees to use it in a way that best fits their current needs while drawing on their experiences. Of course, in the case of an online course commons, unlike a natural resource commons, there is no risk of the resource being overused or depleted! If anything the resource can be adapted and expanded, as any other knowledge commons.

When it comes to scholarly work, open is not nearly enough


In the new game of scholarship, open is just the pitch

Over the past two decades a lot of talk, effort, and anguish; new services and platforms, and multiple proclamations (and principles, declarations, manifestos) have promoted the notion that scholarly content should be open. The Creative Commons endeavor got things rolling by providing licenses for open content. Open source software provided models for collaboration. Faced with a for-profit publishing marketplace that is deeply entrenched in the careers of academics, “open” is still an uphill climb, a goal instead of a reality. And it’s still a good goal. But it’s nowhere near where the academy needs to be in, say 25 years. Open is just a start.

If everything else (universities, academic careers, learned societies, publishers, etc.) were to stay the same tomorrow but all the academic outcomes were open, certainly a lot of time and (assuming a universal green open model) money would be saved. Nothing wrong with that. But the academy would still be broken in most of the ways it is today.

The symptoms of this disfunction show up across the academic workplace and across the planet: from faculties with a majority of underclass workers (adjuncts and soft-money researchers), publishers looking for “sexy science,” career decisions based on journal impact factors instead of integral value of the research, a fixation on “excellence” instead of competence, important primary-research intellectual property being pulled away from future reuse through patents that never pay a penny, research funding warped to favor the already funded, funding programs that consume all most as much gross effort in the proposal process than gets finally funded. OK. I’m going to stop here. You can add your own “Academy is Broken” stories HERE.

Nearly everything that is broken in the academy is broken because the current academy assumes a logic of scarcity; a false logic it has acquired from other markets. One of the promises of open academic outcomes is that these resources are non-rivalrous. As digital objects, they can be discovered and used by everyone, and their value actually increases the more they get reused. Open academic outcomes lets the academy dip its big toe into the logic of abundance. The point is not to stop here, but to dive in and allow this new logic to refactor the academy.


Abundance is a new ball game for the academy

Think of open academic outcomes like the pitch in baseball (or the delivery in cricket). The player winds up and throws the ball. A pitch happens more than 700,000 times in the course of a major league baseball season and hundreds of millions of times across the planet in any year. Importantly, however, pitching is not the whole game. An afternoon watching only pitches would be a whole different experience than watching a game where the pitch starts a chain of open-ended events. The pitch is necessary. So too is open content for the academy.

Thinking about a new logic of practice takes a lot of imagination, and crafting this to fit real-world outcomes takes a lot of information and collective intelligence. The first argument against a “logic of abundance” is that we live in a world of finite resources. That’s just the surrounding field for this logic. There is an infinity between zero and one. The task here is to arrive at an understanding of how the academy can aspire to become generative, generous, and general (thanks Cameron) within its constraints, just like a ball game occurs within the limits of its field. Yes, the new academy is both aspirational and pragmatic, and we need to combine our imaginations to envision this and build the scaffold that can help it grow and re-place the academy we find ourselves bemoaning today.

This is why a small group (good things start with small groups) is meeting this month at the Ostrom Workshop in Indiana to begin a process to craft design patterns that can capture solutions for the next academy.

Images: from Wikimedia

[Coming soon: designing academy commons: what’s in it for the academy?]

Peer review suffers because of the growth of science

There is serious concern about how the growth of science should continue: more and more people are joining the scientific community as professional researchers. The act of counting scientists is not straightforward, since potentially everyone is a scientist in some way: we all ask questions and answer them by carefully examining data and coming up with conclusions.

Trained scientists with university degrees number in the tens of millions worldwide, and they work for governments, universities, corporations, foundations, schools, hospitals, and practically every other entity imaginable. Anywhere that a question can be asked about the world, and data can be gathered, a scientist will be there to ask the questions, collect the data, and answer the questions. Scientists recognize themselves as peers inside the scientific community.

Using this definition, in the USA alone, the number of scientists increased from 150,000 to 2,685,000 between 1950 and 2001 [1]. Some claim that most of the potential scientists in the US population are already part of the scientific community, but there is no such saturation in the EU, and in recent years, many fast-growing Asian countries have been catching up to the USA in numbers of scientists. The result is a steady growth of the population of competing scientists.

The global scientific community may be the largest self-organized community in the world, apart from religions. Scientists work with a strong sense of belonging, acknowledging the scientific values of their community and seriously considering the opinions of their peers worldwide.

This community, though self-organized, suffers strong pressure from national and international public bodies to produce scientific and technological results. The publication of results is the main, though not sole, measure of scientific output. Since modern scientists are highly professionalized, many of them are very sensitive to this measure that guides their promotions, grants, and even earnings. Consequently, a terrific growth in all types of publications has occurred, as the plot in Figure 1 (first published in [2]) shows, in physics, for the USA only. Although the number of PhDs granted each year has not been increasing recently, the number of scientific papers has increased exponentially over the entire period, so the number of journals created each year must also grow.

Screenshot 2017-06-26 12.13.53

Fig. 1. Growth of scientific journals, US physics PhD theses, and scientific community

The observation that, for over a hundred years, the number of scientists has been growing exponentially means, quite simply, that the rate of production of scientists has always been proportional to the number of existing scientists. We have already seen how that process works at the final stage of education, where each professor in a research university turns out a dozen or so PhDs, most of whom want to become research professors and turn out a dozen or so more PhDs. Hence, there is a lot of competition that may disappear if the growth becomes stagnant. Yet, this is what is already happening in the developed world, as Fig. 1 shows for the United States. We conjecture that, by the year 2050, researchers will struggle to have more than two PhD students during their entire lifetime, similar to what happened in the developed nations when the families there moved from having very many children in the 19th century to having one to three children today. This move motivated the developed societies to change and provide employment, pensions, and activities for the older generations. The scientific community may want to study these implications as it faces similar changes in the near future.

There is an ever-shifting balance between a strong sense of community, driven by a desire to belong to a scientific community and by peer acknowledgement, and the pressure placed by societies and governments on their scientists to rapidly produce more results; this results in an environment in which the competition for resources and promotion creates a sort of global race, which shifts the focus from quality to quantity of results. The crises that science might face, as forecasted in 1994 by David Goodstein [2], are not limited to jobs and research funds. Those are bad enough, but they may be just the beginning. Under pressure from those problems, other parts of the scientific enterprise have started showing signs of distress. One of the most essential signs is the honesty and ethical behavior of scientists. If those attributes slip, the scientific community may lose community bonds, sense of belonging, and long-term thinking. Both the public and scientific communities have been shocked in recent decades by an increasing number of cases of fraud committed by scientists. There is little doubt that the perpetrators in these cases felt themselves to be under intense pressure to compete for scarce resources, compelled to advance, even by cheating if necessary. As the pressure increases, this kind of dishonesty is nearly certain to become more common, unfortunately.

Other kinds of dishonesty may also become more common. For example, peer-review, one of the crucial pillars of the whole edifice, is in critical danger. Scientific journals decide which papers to publish based on peer-review, and granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation in the USA and the European Commission in the European Union use it to decide what research to publish or support. Journals in most cases and agencies in some cases operate by sending manuscripts or research proposals to referees who are recognized experts on the scientific issues in question, but whose identities are not revealed to the authors of the evaluated work. Obviously, good decisions as to what research should be supported and what results should be published are crucial to the proper functioning of science.

Peer review is one of many examples of practices that were well suited to the time of exponential expansion but will become increasingly dysfunctional in the difficult future that we face. There are many reasons for this, not the least being the fact that referees have an obvious conflict of interest, since they are themselves competitors for the same resources. Referees would have to have very high ethical standards to avoid taking (often unconscious) advantage of their privileged anonymity to advance their own interests. As time goes on, more and more referees will have their ethical standards eroded as a consequence of having felt themselves victimized by reviews they perceived as unfair when they were authors. This is often the case for project funding.

For scientific papers, most often the true reviewers are younger scientists trying to learn and advance their careers. If, as forecasted, the ratio of PhD students to senior scientists decreases, the pressure to find qualified peer reviewers will increase still further, even though the reviewers are already overburdened. This overloading of the peer-review process is likely to reduce the quality of the reviews.

Thus, many authors concur with Goodstein’s claim from 1994 [2]: “We must find a radically different social structure to organize research and education in science after The Big Crunch [about the slowdown of the scientific community growth]. That is not meant to be an exhortation. It is meant simply to be a statement of a fact known to be true with mathematical certainty, if science is to survive at all. The new structure will come about by evolution rather than design, because, for one thing, neither I nor anyone else has the faintest idea of what it will turn out to be, and for another, even if we did know where we are going to end up, we scientists have never been very good at guiding our own destiny. Only this much is sure: the era of exponential expansion will be replaced by an era of constraint [or at least of organic growth]”. We share the main claim of Goodstein, adding that the new structure must be the evolution of Internet as a symbiosis with the scientific community. On the other hand, we are not so pessimistic, because we believe very much in the resilience of the scientific community, which will help it stick to its core values: love for science, commitment to the scientific method, support for communication and discussion of scientific results, belief in the fairness of peer-review, the value of bonds to the community, and the desire for appreciation from peers.

References in this post:

[1] Analysis from Current Statistics on Scientists, Engineers and Technical Workers: 2002 Edition, Plastics Engineering, January 1, 2002, DPE [Dept. of Professional Employees, AFL-CIO]: Programs & Publications: DPE Analyses: Scientists, Engineers and Technical Workers and is available at the following web site: http://www.dpeaflcio.org/programs/analyses/2002_sci_eng.htm

[2] David Goodstein, “Scientific Ph.D Problems”, American Scholar, vol. 62, no. 2, spring 1993, and “Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates”, Ethics, Values and the Promise of Science, Forum Proceedings, Sigma Xi, The Science Research Society, February 25-26, 1993, pg. 61, and Engineering and Science Spring 1993, 56(3): 22. A talk “The Big Cruch” NCAR 48 Symposium, Portland, OR September 19, 1994 is available at http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html