Scholarly Commons and Decision Trees: what, why and how

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“The scholarly commons is an agreement among researchers and other stakeholders in scholarly communication to make research open and participatory for anyone, anywhere. It is not another sharing platform, but a set of principles, concrete guidance to practice, and actions towards inclusivity of diverse perspectives from around the globe. Though a FORCE11 initiative, the scholarly commons is owned by no one, to be realized, used and contributed to by all.” From

For the last few years, our working group has convened through FORCE11 to consider the question:  “Are we ready to define the Scholarly Commons? We hope that  many of you are already aware of the work the Scholarly Commons Working Group, and either participated in, or are participating in, our various activities designed to help us answer this question.  Essentially, we have been trying to determine whether the hundreds of manifestos, principles, declarations and charters produced around the globe calling for a change in the way we practice scholarship and research define a coherent vision for what we should do differently.  And if so, do we have the tools and wherewithal to actually do things differently?

These are ambitious goals.  But while we’ve been thinking about, working on and discussing the concept and operationalising of a transformation in research philosophy, practice and outputs, we haven’t necessarily come up for air as often as we could have or should have done. Consequently, many of you may be asking:  “Is the Scholarly Commons Working Group ready to define themselves?”.  In fact, we have come quite a long way, despite running into roadblocks and some dead ends.  

Briefly, then, this project is working to articulate and operationalise ‘The Scholarly Commons’, a digital, scholarly ecosystem that supports open research and output practices and extends the current understanding of Open Science and Open Research practices in several ways:

  • It reaches into all stages of the research process - from inception through to outputs and communications and then to re-use and sharing
  • It encompasses the processes, tools, decisions utilised during the research practice as well as the outputs themselves and
  • It requires the practitioners to consider the equality of access and participation across geographical, gender, racial, career stage and funding axes (among other potential resource or historically-originating inequalities)

After two inaugural workshops, entitled “Re-imagining Scholarship” and “Putting the pieces together”, held in 2016,  three sub-groups evolved to progress these concepts, each specialising in a particular area - ‘Self-Critique’ is developing ways to break down the various barriers that currently stand in the way of many scholars, ‘Principles’ is articulating the framework, and ‘Decision Trees’ is working out how to operationalise the whole. (A new sub-group - Enabling Technologies and Infrastructures - has recently come together in response to the direction of travel we’ve been taking.) This post focuses on the Decision Trees group, and represents a summary of work to date.

The Decision Trees  group is trying to devise workflows for commons activities - such as producing research outputs - that enable the users to be commons-compliant but which are also manageable within a realistic research environment.

First, what do we mean by “commons-compliant”.  As the Decision Tree group started in parallel with the Principles framework group, we decided to focus on the core principles that should govern the production of scholarly objects, which we encapsulate as:  Open, FAIR and Citable.  These core principles, or aspirations if you will, were distilled from the above referenced charters, the FORCE11 conferences and our own Scholarly Commons workshops.  

Second, what do we mean by “manageable within a realistic research environment?” We understand that research is a demanding activity in itself and that advances in technology have resulted in additional capacity to generate and analyse data, communicate and build research communities. At the same time researchers are increasingly burdened by the need to develop technical skills, deal with security and other digital risks, while retaining their expertise by remaining fully informed about the developments within their chosen field. With this in mind, we realise it is not only incumbent on the larger Working Group to provide the rationale and ethical structure for bringing the Scholarly Commons into being, it is also critical to make practising commons-compliant research a time- and effort-effective process in order for it to be a viable proposition for a future research ecosystem.

“If you have to cut and paste, then the Commons is broken” Maryann Martone

This in itself was enough of a challenge, but we also decided to work in as commons-compliant a way as possible while conducting this research. We took this decision for two main reasons: (1) in order to uncover the current gaps, issues and glitches that currently beset this process and (2) to try and reflect and use this experience to improve the overall understanding and movement’s potential momentum at the same time.

So, throughout the process, we have been faced with how difficult it is to ‘do’ proper, joined-up commons-work that is Open, FAIR and Citable. We believe it’s very important to explain the process and experience, to elicit help and comments from the wider community, and, hopefully, interest from some of the platforms, organisations and tools involved that will ultimately help make this.

The Method

The idea for the Decision Trees sub-group developed during a workshop in San Diego, during September 2016. During a discussion about how to assess existing - and potential new - tools and platforms for their alignment with commons philosophy and practice, it became apparent that while it is critically important to articulate the ideals and principles of The Commons, it is also vital to consider the practical question of ‘how does a regular scholar actually go about practising this level of open research’? Moreover, given that many researchers have to contend with multiple demands - from funders, institutions, publishers - it may not be possible to work in a completely commons-compliant way and retain their career trajectory at the same time. Perhaps in the first instance it is more useful to provide guidelines and maps that can help them be as commons compliant as is possible within the paradigms that they are working within.

So, in a concerted effort to ‘not let perfection stand in the way of the good’, we have endeavoured throughout this phase to work in a way that is Open, FAIR and Citable,  using tools and processes that are Open, FAIR and Citable, to produce outputs that are Open, FAIR and Citable. This means we need to move from analogue formats of biro on paper to fully digital, interoperable, citable and accredited entities that can be adapted and incorporated into a number of projects, workflows and outputs. For the moment, visit our Decision Trees webpage here: and our Scholarly Commons ‘Practice’ page here:

We're planning to post more updates very soon. In the meantime, we'd love to hear from other Force11 members as well as the wider community. Please contact us and/or comment.

NB: We have just introduced a ‘Contributorship’ element to our work. We did not formally track the origins of this research concept at its very earliest stages. However, Danny Kingsley (ORCID: first articulated and drew the initial decision trees, Fiona Murphy (ORCID: 0000-0003-1693-1240) developed the plan to conduct the research in a commons-compliant way and Maryann Martone (ORCID: 0000-0002-8406-3871) recognised the potential power of this line of enquiry, and led the effort to form the Sub-Working Group and start drawing up the trees in digital formats.


About Fiona Murphy

After completing a DPhil in English Literature, Fiona held a range of scholarly publishing roles with Oxford University Press, Bloomsbury Academic and Wiley.

As Publisher for Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wiley, she began to specialise in emerging scholarly communications with particular emphasis on Open Science and Open Data.... More

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