What is the relationship between the commons and open access publishing?

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.

The next few posts will try to locate a more emancipatory understanding of the commons in scholarly publishing.

Why ‘open science’ is actually pretty good politics

How does the word ‘open’ modify terms such as ‘data’, ‘source’ ‘access’ and ‘science’? What is openness actually doing to these terms? This seems to be a subject of continual debate on social media, at conferences and in the scholarly literature. For the most part, it seems that the debate has moved on from the idea that there can be a strict definition of open access, data, etc. — openness thus implies a degree of flexibility of definition and practice. Yet does this fluidity or ambiguity mean that we would be better abandoning terms such as ‘open science’ altogether?

For the psychologist Tal Yarkoni, the answer to this question is yes. His recent post ‘I hate open science’ explains why he no longer refers to himself as an open scientist and instead chooses terms that he feels convey his practice with more specificity:

In most instances, “open science” can be seamlessly replaced with something like “reproducibility”, “transparency”, “data sharing”, “being welcoming”, and so on. It’s a low-effort move, and the main effect of making the switch is that other people will have a clearer understanding of what you mean, and may be less inclined to argue with you about it.


For Yarkoni, the ambiguity of ‘open science’ causes more problems than it solves. People refer to so many practices under the umbrella of open science that it no longer signifies anything useful. This, he argues, is ‘bad politics’ because it both leads to rifts within the movement — as there is no consensus on what the movement even stands for — and does not actually explain to newcomers what good open science practice is and how they can get involved.

Although I certainly agree that open science carries with it a degree of ambiguity (and I’ve argued something similar elsewhere), I actually disagree with what Yarkoni argues follows from this. Firstly, the problem with replacing a general concept of ‘open science’ with the more specific concepts of ‘“reproducibility”, “transparency”, “data sharing”, “being welcoming”’ is that these terms are subject to exactly the same blind spots that Yarkoni argues open science suffers from. How, for example, would ‘transparent science’ differ from open science? What does a science of ‘being welcoming’ look like in practice? All the concepts Yarkoni references carry with them the same kind of ambiguity when used in a general sense. Like the term ‘open science’, they need to be explained with a degree of specificity in order to carry any meaning.

This first point is all the more important in light of Yarkoni’s second point that the ambiguity of open science is itself bad politics. Using a general term as a cover-all for a disparate (often conflicting) set of values and practices is bad, Yarkoni argues, because it both leads to rifts within the movement and works against the possibility of enrolling new participants to the cause (in the absence of any positive identity politics to which they can subscribe). If you want to change people’s behaviours towards best practice, then, you need a coherent basis on which to do this. This is why Yarkoni asks for a return to specificity of language that defines what best practice looks like.

Putting aside the fact that many of the terms Yarkoni employs do lack the kind of consensus or specificity he desires, it simply seems wrong to argue that the ambiguity of open science is bad politics, when it is in fact quite the opposite. It is exactly the ambiguity of the term ‘open science’ that has allowed such divergent groups to rally around and promote it at policy levels, in different disciplines, and at various fora. Open science feels good to newcomers, even if there is no consensus about what it is, in a different way to concepts with more specificity (but mundanity). This is exactly why it is a highly successful movement within academia, even though this success has led to increasing amounts of conflict about what openness actually is (alongside awkward policy interventions, particularly with respect to open access).

The problem arises when open science is used as a replacement for a politics, as if sharing code, data and papers is a specifically defined political position rather than reflective of a range of individual politics in different situations. Open science is not necessarily (overtly) political, but it is also not neutral and thus requires different tactics and strategies if it is to be reframed as politically progressive or emancipatory. This is what groups such as the Radical Open Access Collective are trying to do by tapping into support for the movement from a particular position. It is easier to do this with a recognisable term such as open science, rather than having to invent terminology and build awareness from scratch.

So while I agree that ‘open science’ is vague and ambiguous, its primary benefit is actually ‘political’ in the sense of instigating change through a movement (even if this movement is comprised of a range of different positions from across the political spectrum.). But Yarkoni is correct to question whether the term has run its course as denoting anything helpful for people dealing in specifics. The problem is, I’m not sure that any terminology could ever convey the desired specificity or consensus while still appealing to a broad range of people.

Governing the scholarly commons: the Radical Open Access Collective

The Radical Open Access Collective (ROAC) is a community of 60+ not-for-profit presses, journals and other open access projects. One of the aims of the collective is to legitimise scholar-led publishing as an important alternative model for open access, while supporting our members and encouraging others to experiment with scholar-led publishing too. The ROAC therefore serves a similar function to other membership organisations such as the Library Publishing Coalition, the Association of European University Presses, and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, all of whom support certain approaches to publishing or kinds of publisher.

Unlike these membership bodies, the ROAC has no formal governance structure, bylaws or committees to help organise our activities. This has made sense while the collective was in its infancy. However, we are particularly interested in further encouraging mutual reliance by experimenting with ways of supporting one another (beyond simple lip service). Perhaps we need a way to encourage this through some kind of light-touch governance.

Mutual reliance for us is more than the mere sharing of advice through the listserv (although this is a key part of it) but implores each press to think about one another as partners or collaborators rather than competitors. This is why the only requirement for joining is a willingness to share with other members of the collective in a horizontal, non-competitive manner. This could be through promoting each other’s activities and publications at conferences, open-sourcing our tools and sharing documentation and other resources openly with the community. In doing this, we hope to resist the general trend towards marketisation in publishing by experimenting with cultures of resilience through shared efforts, all while still maintaining each press’s unique identity.

But these experiments are more than just about publishing – they intend to reveal the possibilities of mutual reliance in higher education (and beyond) so that others may engage in similar practices of collaboration. Janneke Adema, for instance, refers to this process as ‘scaling small’ whereby members engage in practices of horizontal collaboration within the collective and look towards vertical collaboration with other collectives. All of these practices intend to maintain the individual autonomy and identity of each member project while allowing them to benefit from the relationships fostered within the collective.

So the question this blog post wants to explore is: what system of governance will allow the Radical Open Access Collective to best promote the kinds of mutual reliance described so far? Currently the ROAC has no official governance and describes itself as a horizontal and democratic collective. Perhaps this lack of governance is limiting our ability to proactively work with one another as members and to fully explore the potential of mutual reliance. How should we address this?

The membership organisations listed above each have different governance models including highly formalised systems of voting and boards of governance that oversee decision-making. But these organisations usually charge membership fees of hundreds or even thousands of pounds a year and they can therefore spend resources on coming up with adequate processes for accountability and staff to maintain them. While such formalised systems might be fitting for the future, right now it is difficult to see how the ROAC could practically devise, implement and maintain such a system bearing in mind we receive no resources for maintaining the collective (only occasional support) and our members as not-for-profits are not always in a position to pay membership fees. We should therefore look towards more informal collectives to see how they are governed.

One interesting concept I learned about recently was that of ‘lazy consensus’. This is the form of governance employed by The Maintainers – a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, and repair – who themselves have borrowed the idea from Apache Rave. Lazy consensus requires members to follow discussions online and to speak out within a given time frame if anyone disagrees with what is being proposed (72 hours is the proposed time to account for numerous time zones). If no one disagrees, and as long as all proposals are made through the same channel, then tacit agreement is assumed. It is a light-touch approach to decision-making in relatively consensual organisations with busy members, as long as members are following the discussions online.

So lazy consensus will only work if there is regular activity or discussion that members of the collective can follow (and so they will see any items tabled for consensus). It requires collectives to get to know one another and to learn about each other’s practices and values, to care for another and to understand our situations. It thus requires commoning: practices of sustained social activity that maintain our projects as shared endeavours. Commoning is a highly situated activity of resource maintenance through community-building. I have theorised elsewhere how commoning is a practice of care for the relationships around shared resources. It does not refer to a specific or reified set of practices but requires us to learn how to get along and help each other out.

Most importantly, then, commoning requires that we know each other. This is why we hope to stimulate more discussion on the listserv. This was also a request from many of the presses we surveyed back in May. To this end, we wanted to suggest that one member takes control of setting topics for discussion for one month at a time (an idea borrowed from the empyre mailing list). One way to further encourage members to do this is by offering the opportunity to do so in their preferred/native language – with an English summary if possible (though this of course wouldn’t be a requirement) – in order to increase linguistic diversity within the community. Presses can then for example post one message for discussion each week and can moderate and encourage responses.

By stimulating discussion, we hope the ROAC will be able to further promote the conditions for reciprocity and trust between members, even if there exist significant differences of opinion. Having regular discussion as a community might allow us to employ concepts such as lazy consensus (and explore other governance structures as needed in combination with this). This might also give us the space to further influencing debates and policies as a collective – e.g. through consultations and general responses to the goings on in the world of open access. We are also interested in exploring the idea of leadership positions and committees – especially if members think this would be beneficia – but for now these two proposals seem like a good way of stimulating activity within the collective.

However, there are many other forms of informal/light-touch governance for horizontal collectives. One of the original inspirations for the Radical Open Access Collective was Open Humanities Press, whose organisational structure involves multiple, self-governing scholarly groups, organized around journals or book series, and includes academics, librarians, publishers, technologists, journal editors, etc., operating as a radically heterogeneous collective. Mattering Press also has a unique horizontal structure involving numerous committees, while meson press formalised their operations as a worker-owned co-operative. We would love to hear if you have any suggestions or yourself participate in any governance structures that might be appropriate for the ROAC, especially those that help promote mutual reliance between members.

In summary, we are seeking members’ opinions on this idea of lazy consensus and generating more of a community through the listserv. Do these light-touch proposals for governance sound workable or helpful? Do we need something more formalised? Are there any other forms of governance we should be considering? We will be reaching out to presses specifically to ask if they would be willing to facilitate and moderate discussion on the listserv for one month, but please do not hesitate to get in touch if you are interested! Look out for another blog post soon on the open-source bookstand for shared promotional activity at events.

The politics of open access in action

Open access is a movement constituted by conflict and disagreement rather than consensus and harmony. Given just how much disagreement there is about strategies, definitions, goals, etc., it is incredible that open access has successfully transformed the publishing landscape (and looks set to continue to do so). As OA increases in popularity and inevitability, more conflict arises between those from a range of disciplines and positions, and especially those encountering OA for the first time (often through coercive mandates).

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Plan S: what’s the point of policy consultations? (part 2)

Earlier this year I wrote a post about the Plan S open access policy consultation process. I explored what I feel is the purpose of policy consultations, arguing that they are not radical or deliberative democratic exercises but are instead intended to confer a sense of legitimacy to top-down policy mandates:

The consultation process is not necessarily about changing the policy, but about understanding how it can be made palatable to the most important ‘stakeholders’ that will be impacted by it.


In essence, policy consultations are about tweaking and window-dressing. They are a way for policymakers to appear amenable to stakeholder concerns and show that policies have been subject to a certain amount of ‘democratic’ scrutiny.

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Standardisation and difference: the challenges of infrastructures for open access

In the last few years, there has been a marked shift in the debate on open access publishing from a focus on (mere) outputs to one on infrastructures. With terms such as ‘community-led’, ‘the commons’ and ‘governance’ regularly bandied about, advocates for OA are increasingly looking away from commercial publishers and towards infrastructures designed by and for a more accountable set of stakeholders. One exciting new initiative that launched this week is Invest in Open Infrastructures (IOI), a coalition of individuals and organisations looking to sustain and promote open-source alternatives to proprietary infrastructures. IOI describes itself as a ‘global initiative to increase the availability and sustainability of open knowledge infrastructure’.

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Common Struggles: Policy-based vs. scholar-led approaches to open access in the humanities (thesis deposit)

I’ve just made my Ph.D thesis available on Humanities Commons: http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/st5m-cx33

Title: Common Struggles: Policy-based vs. scholar-led approaches to open access in the humanities

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New preprint: scholar-led publishing and the pre-history of the open access movement

I’ve just uploaded a preprint of the article titled ‘Revisiting ‘the 1990s debutante’: scholar-led publishing and the pre-history of the open access movement’ to the Humanities Commons repository. The article is also being submitted to a journal and will no doubt change a great deal before publication. I’ve never shared an unreviewed preprint as a single author before and I thought it would be an interesting experiment.

You can read it here: http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/gty2-w177

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Revisiting the present future of scholarly communication: Bill Readings and the birth of online publishing

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Bill Readings. His monograph The University in Ruins is an essential text for anyone interested in critical university studies and the history of the marketised university. In the book, published in 1994, Readings argues that the university is no longer a space for the understanding of culture or knowledge for its own sake, but is instead a corporation driven by the pursuit of ‘excellence’ as defined by rankings and profits. Higher education’s emphasis on excellence has only grown more pernicious since the book was published, something my co-authors and I explored in a paper a few years ago.

Sadly, Bill Readings died in a plane crash before the publication of his monograph aged just 34. This year marks 25 years since his death.*

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No amount of open access will fix the broken job market

Open access has always been promoted for its reputational benefits. The OA citation advantage is one way in which advocates try to convince researchers of the benefits of publicly sharing their work. So too is the increased speed of publication and broader reach of open access research. At the university level, institutional repositories are often framed as a ‘showcase’ for a university’s research quality. In trying to change behaviour towards openness, people are more easily motivated out of self-interest than mere altruism.

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