Why is there an association between open access publishing and ‘the commons’? What is it about the two concepts that implies they are linked? I’m currently researching the relationship between the commons and OA, looking specifically at the application of the literature of the former to our understanding of the latter, and it is not immediately obvious why the two are so connected.

This is an important question because there is a rich and varied literature on the commons that is often elided within the commentary on open access, even though the commons is so frequently deployed as a concept within the discussion on OA. While I do feel that the term can be useful for understanding open access publishing, it is worth exploring a few instances of the commons that I feel require further clarification to be helpful.

For example, in her blog Sustaining the Knowledge Commons Heather Morrison defines the knowledge commons as:

…a system where the world’s scholarly knowledge is available to everyone, everywhere, to draw from and contribute to, one that prioritizes the values and needs of scholars, scholarship, and the public good, and is open to all by default, with exceptions as necessary to accommodate other social values such as the right to individual privacy.


Here the commons is a ‘system’ for providing scholarly knowledge to a global public. The end products (publications) are ‘open’ by default so that all may access them. For Morrison, then, the commons is the system for making the world’s research open access.

For others, however, the commons is framed slightly differently. The FORCE Scholarly Commons working group instead defines it as:

…an agreement among researchers and other stakeholders in scholarly communication to make research open and participatory for anyone, anywhere.


Instead of a ‘system’ the commons here is an ‘agreement’ to make research open access according to certain principles and best practices. What’s more, the scholarly commons is ‘owned by no one, to be realized, used and contributed to by all’. In addition to being an agreement, the commons is positioned by the working group (like Morrison above) as something that is freely accessible to all and to which all can contribute. Open access and participation are therefore key.

An earlier attempt to connect open access publishing to the commons is Peter Suber’s chapter ‘Creating an intellectual commons through open access’ in Hess & Ostrom’s 2006 edited volume Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: from theory to practice (MIT Press). Though Suber leaves the commons undefined in his essay, we can see a similar focus on freely accessible resources:

OA literature is a commons because free use is pre-authorized.

https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4552055/suber_intellectcommons.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y (p.11)

Much like the approaches above, free use and access are important to Suber’s idea of the commons. This is also true for conceptions associated with Creative Commons or the Bepress (Elsevier) ‘Digital Commons’ software, both of which focus on the free accessibility of publications (or data, code, etc.) to a global public, rather than how these publications are created or maintained.

But this is a mistake. The commons is about how resources are created and maintained. It is about the challenges involved with groups self-managing their resources, the labour involved, the decisions taken and the conflicts that ensue. Ostrom and Hess offer a definition:

‘a complex ecosystem […]—a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas’

Introduction to Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: from theory to practice (p. 3).

Although this definition may be simple, it helpfully shows that the commons is about complexity, locality and exclusion: how groups of people self-organise to maintain certain resources. I feel this is a better use of the term. The commons is less about global or indiscriminate approaches to resource maintenance, and even less about free access to resources produced. (consider the medieval commons, for example, where lords of the manor granted rights only to local commoners — estovers, pannage, agistment, etc. — they were never a free-for-all.) Open access may be a feature of resources generated by a commons, but it is by no means a precondition.

It is unclear, then, why open access publishing has an association with the commons, particularly one that is ‘available to everyone, everywhere, to draw from and contribute to’. Global approaches to the commons always seem oxymoronic to me (despite their ubiquity), but they are especially unhelpful when applied to a political economy of publishing that necessitates self-governance, locality and difference.