The Scholarly Commons: Challenges in Philosophy and Governance


Recently (19-20 September 2016), a group convened at a workshop in San Diego under the auspices of FORCE11 (and with funding from the Helmsley Trust) to work on understanding the Scholarly Commons, a scholarly communications ecosystem designed for 21st century scholarship across all scholarly fields.  Since the Scholarly Commons doesn’t yet exist, the overall goal is to define and to bring it into existence. A previous meeting in Madrid in February 2016 led to the proposal of 18 principles for the Scholarly Commons, and shortly before the San Diego workshop, Daniel O’Donnell published a pair of blogs (blog I and blog II) about these principles, with one point being that perhaps there was a simpler theory or set of rules that could be used to generate the 18 principles. During the San Diego meeting, a subgroup proposed a variant of the Mertonian norms (via Wikipedia: universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism) as another possible way of simplifying the core concepts of the Scholarly Commons, building from them four core practices: evaluate, don’t discriminate; steward (nurture?), don’t enclose; reduce bias, don’t obscure conflicts of interest; and embrace constructive criticism, don’t circumvent scrutiny.

Maryann Martone, the chair of the Scholarly Commons group, challenged the participants in the workshops (I attended the San Diego workshop) to submit ideas on the best ways to further develop the principles, and that is the purpose of this blog post.

One reason that this is a difficult topic and discussion is that at its core, it is not a “scientific” discussion but rather a sociological and philosophical one. For example, the core idea of communing is framed as an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, which can lead some to discomfort, since our scholarly system is embedded within the larger capitalist system (for example, see How Economics Shapes Science.) There are also issues of colonialism involved, as were discovered during the workshop. Since we are talking about the Scholarly Commons, not the Scientific Commons, perhaps this is appropriate. But for me as an engineer and a scientist, the discussion has not been completely satisfying. I would like to see actionable principles, but instead, we seem to be heading towards a series of norms that sidesteps both the hard decisions and the processes by which they are made.

As was discussed during the meeting, one of my main concerns is related to scale. I believe a small to medium-sized group can agree on general principles and then use them to informally guide the group’s behavior, as happens all the time in families, neighborhoods, etc. But at a larger scale, simply having a set of principles is not enough: governance (judgment, enforcement, etc.) are also needed. While I don’t intend to say that the US model of government is what should be used for the Scholarly Commons, I think the that there are some high level parallels in concept between the Scholarly Commons principles and the US Constitution, though the Constitution is a lot longer and goes beyond simply stating principles: It delves into rules, though a fairly limited number of them. And the US population at the time the Constitution was written was around 3 million, which is probably fewer than the currently scholarly population. This makes me believe that a single set of 18 principles (or four core practices) is not tremendously useful, without some bodies to interpret and execute it (the equivalent of a judiciary and executive). I also don’t see how we will get to a representative group that will be responsible for creating the final version of these principles (the legislature).

While I use the US government as an example, one might look at other organizations of different scales to understand their governance as well. In software, these might range from small software projects like yt to larger effort like Software Carpentry to larger software foundations like Apache, though none of these approach the scale of the future Scholarly Commons.  For each, one might study the different groups of stakeholders and try to understand what the governance of the entity both requires of them and delivers to them.

For the Scholarly Commons itself, what else could we do? I propose we work further on the idea of norms, trying to develop a simple small set such as suggested by Merton and his “disciples” in the San Diego workshop. Then we could use the norms to create a larger conversation that leads to a set of “I will” actions, as has been proposed in a slightly different context by Goble et al., moving forward and trying to lead by example while recognizing that each of us is part of both the scholarly community and also the capitalist system and that both of these influence whatever decisions we make. We could also study the types of stakeholders of the Scholarly Commons, and try to see what mix of norms, actions, rules, incentives, etc. will be effective for each of them. But beyond this, I am very unsure how we move forward to create a Scholarly Commons that will work at scale, other than considering governance to be an equal concern to principles.



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Chief Scientist at NCSA, Research Associate Professor in CS, ECE, and the iSchool at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; works on systems and tools (aka cyberinfrastructure) and policy related to computational and data-enabled research, primarily in science and engineering

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