Scholarly Commons - 400-word essays on how to proceed with the principles

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After the San Diego workshop, we asked the SCWG and all workshop participants for their opinion in 400 words on how to move forward with the principles. Many answered that question in a broader sense, as well. These contributions provided valuable information in deciding on the direction(s) to take for the near future, to round off the current stage of the project as funded by the Helmsley Trust.

All contributions are listed here, together with links to other blog posts people wrote about the meeting.

400-word essays

other blog posts about the meeting

Sergey Parinov

I would like to develop a following thought from the Daniel Katz's recent post - :

"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: ..."

As we know, e.g. from Douglass C. North, there are at least three main forms of socio-economic communication and collaboration: a small group (direct interactions), an organisation (collaboration by a command system) and a market (collaboration by commodities exchange).

It has obvious projection on the science system: collaboration in a project team or a laboratory, collaboration within an organisation, and global scholarly collaboration by publications exchange supported by scholarly publishing system.   

Since a scientist, usually, at the same time, is a member of a small group, organisation and a global community, s/he perceives scholarly commons as a mix. But we should define and analyse them separately.  I think, scholarly commons principles should be formulated for 4 specifics cases:

  1. the most abstract position, like a theoretical model;
  2. a small group of collaborated scientist (it can be close to 1);
  3. a research hierarchical organisation;
  4. a global research community communicated by publications exchange.

I have a paper "Towards a Theory and Agent-Based Model of the Networked Economy, 1999. A link to English version -

Some concepts of this paper, it seems to me, can work to explain why scholarly commons should be presented as a nested multilayer structure. And it can help with reformulating principles for these 4 cases above.

If such work has sense for SCWG, I would try to make the first draft.

Neil Christensen

The commons is a sandbox for dissimilar behaviors using a common multi-dialect language towards greater good. The commons is not a monolithic platform; rather it is an evolving set of guiding principles that allow information to travel in network via a polylithic web. The principles described as FAIR criteria, Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable, are not interpreted as either-or criteria, but rather as this-and-that criteria. This is an as-much-information-as-can-be-included mindset rather than a with-us-or-against-us approach. Information will differentiate to the extent it meets the FAIR guidance, and hence how different information contributes, surfaces, and is used in the commons.  As an example, metadata to subscribed information is included in the commons, but may not surface or be used to the same degree as open access information. The goal of the commons should be to include as much scholarly information as possible, to whichever extent information is available. The commons are maybe similar to the parameter and value documentation of an API, where all contributors, developers and users have an agreed approach to how scholarly information travels, and each contributor can actively influence how much information travels. The commons is analogue to a common programming language in which different people do different things and in constant evolution. The success of the commons is determined by its ability to include and build on behavior that already exists, and most importantly adjust continuously to the diverse and unpredictable evolution of these behaviors. A commons designed tightly around current imagination is an outdated commons. No one can realistically predict evolution of language, behavior, and technology. Hence, in a general way, the commons is simply where everything may flow through to the extent that originators let it and the commons capture it. It is not a place where everything enters and exits with equal weight - not at the contribution level, not at FAIR levels, and not to users of this information. The commons is a collectively evolving protocol language for sharing scholarly information, and anyone can build on that protocol to the extent they wish. The commons is not a thing; rather it is the combined and evolving specifications of protocol behaviors that feed and make information requests. These behaviors will never be static enough to design a thing in which everyone behaves the same. The commons is a language that shapes and is shaped by its creations that recursively shape its language.

Björn Brembs

I don't feel competent to comment on the principles themselves but agree with Dan Katz that we need an organization to oversee that the infrastructure we implement to enable the scholarly commons actually is compliant. No matter from what perspective I try to see this issue, technical, social or political, I see no way around it.

Cameron's suggestion to "piggy-back" on existing initiatives is tempting, but may suffer from potential drawbacks.

Many of the existing initiatives are field-specific or have grown from an attempt to solve field-specific issues. I'm thinking of OLH, LingOA or COS for example. Cameron is right to emphasize the advantages of this approach. However, it is less clear if they outweigh the potential downsides. For one, field borders are subject to change. Any governance that arises from the different fields needs to be extremely pliable to keep up of current field borders will be cemented even harder than today. Second, placing the highest level governance at the field level risks alienating cross-disciplinary scholars. Third, by emphasizing differences over commonalities, it risks increasing silos, reducing potential re-use and interoperability. Fourth, by cementing fields in place by governance, it impedes that scholarship which is set to reduce between-field differences. Fifth, the emphasis on different practices between fields comes at a time when a united scholarly position is more necessary than ever. 'Divide et impera' is what publishers try to sow and governance by field is what they may reap.

For these reasons I would second Dan's motion to form a governance structure that allows for a scholarly commons which enables a dynamic organization of fields which mirrors the fluidity and openness of social dynamics. Rather than copying 17th century container thinking, our governance should reflect that scholars may want to spread their message over several fields.

I'd propose to nominate (and probably call for nominations publicly, at some point?) a group of experts with two main tasks:

  1. Design a modern governance structure for the scholarly commons
  2. Identify and recruit the existing initiatives which aim for the common cause (in some cases I already know they would like to be contacted)

Once the governance organization is founded and populated, its tasks will be specified in its bylaws. One of these tasks will surely be to seek world-wide endorsement for the scholarly commons principles. Another obvious task will be to identify, assemble and roll out a minimal viable prototype, once the endorsements provide this organization with sufficient legitimacy.

I find the works of Cameron Neylon and Geoffrey Bilder quite convincing that such a governance organization can be designed and I would of course nominate both of them to this task force. My further nominations would be:

  • Martin Eve
  • Bianca Kramer
  • Jeroen Bosman
  • Saskia de Vries
  • Johan Rooryck

I would volunteer to help identify and contact the other existing initiatives which seem to be pushing in the same direction.

Fiona Murphy

The run-up to the workshop was fraught with challenges and a measure of self-doubt from the organisers. This is to be expected given the scale of transformation that we’re trying to envisage. In the short term, issues of access, equality of voice and opportunities to be consulted are sometimes antagonistic to the ability to organise, make coherent, progress.

In trying to articulate a Scholarly Commons the WG is looking to overturn a number of the inequalities of access, thought and practice which hold back so much of the world’s talent. However, given the metier within which we operate – where each of us has had to adapt their own behaviour (=value systems) in order to survive/succeed, it’s not surprising that the prevailing hegemonies sometimes infiltrate. Accordingly, it’s to the benefit of the overall undertaking for the group, its assumptions and methodologies, to be called to account by those most greatly affected by such inequalities. The challenge is not so much to do everything perfectly at first attempt but rather to be able to hear, value and respond to these critiques, and to adapt accordingly.

So, in thinking how to proceed, it’s already been noted that this is both a social (cultural) as well as a technological movement. To me it feels increasingly as though the social is the most urgently in need of addressing, being the most pervasive, insidious and difficult to quantify. As a personal – quite uncomfortable – exercise, I’m inclined to ask myself, how much does my own practice support the commons? I suspect it would be less ideologically impressive than I’d like to think. (Physician heal thyself!). This rather ties up with the unworkshop strand I worked on with Danny, as well as the grant proposal Danny and Maryann are developing – around decision trees and incrementally changing the compliance levels of knowledge workers and institutions.

There is also something around partnerships. During my span of involvement with the WG, it’s been noted that there are other Commons’ type movements springing up around the globe. These have rightly been welcomed as a sign that it’s the right time for this concept to gain some real momentum. Some sort of coordination could be called for? As well as this perhaps there are other sorts of groups and/or organisations that could be approached with a view to setting up partnerships. Those working on access to research outputs to Africa or building tech capabilities in the global south, for instance, could work with us as testbeds for whether what we’re planning does make a real difference, be a potential source of WG or SG members, partner for more egalitarian workshop set ups in the future, and so forth.

Robin Champieux 

For me, the most interesting and fruitful discussion at the workshops (especially San Diego), but also in between and after, occurred when the dialogue, direct critiques, or lack of engagement “broke” our understanding of the steps we should be taking, highlighted perspectives and in turn potential solutions we were overemphasizing or ignoring, or revealed a lack of shared and similarly scoped concepts and definitions (e.g. equitable).

I am concerned that we are not fully recognizing our failings in regards to diversity and inclusion (I disagree that we did our best), and that if we don’t face this head on and make some radical changes our next steps and future endeavors will suffer - both in their quality and impact.

I’m still working through my thoughts on this (and how to articulate them), but I think we need to re-assess how tools and technology fit into the Commons.  We’ve explicitly and implicitly given them a preeminent role, especially in regards to implementation, but I'm now questioning this.  I am not saying tools and technology are not important, but they are not the key to understanding how the current system is broken or how it can be fixed.

In regards to next steps - Personally I feel we have too much to fix to move on to addressing governance structures, or specific implementation tools.  I would rather invest in systematically and critically addressing the weaknesses in our work thus far and fixing them (if possible) before we move forward.  

Bianca Kramer

The principles at this stage should not be prescriptive of one system, one way of doing things, but instead be an invitation to explore their applicability and possible implementations in different cultures and different disciplines.

They should reflect an overarching idea(l) on what makes good scholarly communication. This can either be through the current themes (equitable, open, sustainable, research- and culture-led), unifying logic/theory (Dan’s 7) or by linking to existing theory (Mertonian).

The principles can distinguish themselves from other declarations/charters etc. by not only outlining what is important (participation and open research objects), but also conditions for how this can be implemented (organization and governance).

This will make them useful as touchstone to check both current practices and future ideas/developments/systems for compliance.

The principles will be the final product of the Helmsley grant, but an interim product in the trajectory towards a scholarly commons.

More or less concrete proposals on how to proceed:

  • Have 2-3 people independently hold Dan’s 7 to Madrid’s 18 (including comments on these from San Diego): do Dan’s 7 cover everything, do we agree they work as a whole? Can they be used to check compliance?
  • Assess whether the Mertonian norms can be included in a more theoretical introduction to the principles
  • Decide which set of principles to continue with, how to write them up and how to hand them over to the community.
  • Decide what should be done within the scope of the Helmsley programme and what can be done outside in follow-up projects.

Jeroen Bosman

  1. It may sound radical and even antithetical but I think we should at least consider leaving out all references to commons/commoning/commoner. Simply talk about more equitable, open, sustainable and R&C-led scholarly communication. For people not familiar with commons all the commoning phrases will be an obstacle to understanding and acceptance. To people familiar with the commons concept it will not go far enough. And we have not yet answered the questions whether real commons will scale and whether scaled up commons will need governance. Note that the ideas could stay the same and perhaps at some stage we might conclude that what happens is indeed leading to something that we then could call a (set of) commons.
  2. Tone down the sustainable principles to increase chances of uptake. This is the section that got most comments in the sense of being too principled or going too far. I think that this too may help boost acceptance because some elements of the sustainable principles may come across as too stringent and posing limitations instead of opportunities. They could perhaps have a function in a more confined commons developed by an already actively cooperating community.
  3. Consider having 4 main principles: Research&Culture led, Open, Sustainable and Equitable, in other words: R-O-S-E, with (a selection of) all the rest simply being rules, implications and guidelines for implementation.
  4. Apart from being comprehensive and integrated find out what in our principles is not in any of the existing declarations and why that may be so. If it turns out that nothing is new rethink the intended use of the principle and consider working with the organisations that initiated those declarations to stimulate cooptation among them.
  5. Consider hiring an external copywriter/journalist to rewrite the text from scratch before really making it public. To be accepted and have an impact principles need not only be valid and relevant but also accessible and attractive.
  6. Discern between what has to be done within the Helmsley grant project and what can be done beyond that to clarify what the commons is and to get it going.

Chris Chapman

Continuing the conversations

The Scholarly Commons is, in large part, a political exercise, and we need to reach out to many communities and grow the ongoing discussions. This could be facilitated quite nicely with an open research system that would help curate these discussions and at the same time exemplify all these outcomes and principles by putting them into practice.

This system would:

  • Open a path for the conversation to continue while expanding participation.
  • Aggregate current and prior principles and declarations (and other defining efforts) from around the world pertaining to scholarship, and provide identifiers, versioning, annotation and open research capabilities for analyzing and mapping them.
  • Place people, positions, views, and organizations in the context of the Scholarly Commons.
  • Enable researchers to frame these defining efforts in the context of history, i.e. to describe how knowledge design has evolved over time.
  • Map technical projects and other efforts (including machine vocabularies) and their alignment with the principles of the Scholarly Commons.
  • Prepare the way and gather data for visualizations of the Commons.
  • This could be looked at as a “minimum viable product” (MVP) that several of the workshop participants called for.

Maryann Martone

By the end of the planned exercises on day 1, it was quite clear to everyone that the principles as they currently stood really were not a reasonable tool for measuring how well a tool conformed with the overarching premise of that thing we were calling the Scholarly Commons.   But the exercise was necessary to clearly show that and inform the group assembled as to what might be needed.  The fact that we could not use the principles in their current form as a means of evaluating how tools should be constructed to be “commons compliant” did not mean it was not a good thing to do;  it just meant we hadn’t gotten there yet.

But “what might be needed” was not the same to everyone and I thought the second afternoon gave some clues as to the way forward.  Throughout the workshop and the SCWG activities leading up to it, I often invoked the founding of the United States as similar in principle to what we were trying to do.  A group of people were dissatisfied with the current system;  a lot of good thinking had been going on about how to do things differently, including some great declarations like the Magna Carta;  not everyone was on the same page.  

When I look at what was produced in the afternoon, I see the beginnings of:

  1. A Declaration of Independence:  A statement of why we are breaking with the current system and what such systems should accomplish.  We have:  The restatement of Mertonian principles:  a statement of why we need something different and the core principles of any system of scholarly communication.  This is pithy and easy to digest and endorse (but “awesomize” needs to go).  I would put the purposes of scholarly communication in this document, which I think is there but probably it needs restatement.  I think it also needs to be supplemented with the equity pieces that were quite clear in Madrid and also I think insufficiently addressed in this formulation.  
  2. The Bill of Rights:  A set of things the system must guarantee and a set of things one may not do to be consistent with this.  I think  Dan’s reformulation along with the mertonian framing (Don’t enclose) would provide the framework under which many of the existing principles can be grouped.

I also think that any reformulation of the principles needs to lead to the ability to evaluate existing tools and also their behaviors when in things like tenure committees,  in a clear manner.   So we also need two other things that had a good start at the workshop:

  1. The MVP, which should be principles compliant
  2. The decision trees that provide the means for people, funders, institutions to give clear guidance to their constituents as to how “to do the best they can” to implement these ideas. I think these decision trees are the landscape that we are looking for and can provide the organizational framework for the many tools, people and organizations that are working in this space.  I am envisioning a GitHub instantiation of the basic decision trees organized around the different activities that are parts of the commons, e.g., data sharing, data citation, software citation. They should be forkable and customizable for each community to highlight tools and approaches that are available and to connect them to the sources of expertise most appropriate for them.  The decision trees themselves need to be checked by all who use them against the principles of the commons to ensure that they are compliant.

Moving forward:  I think we can have all of these things by the end of the year and that we really can’t decide on the next steps until we have them.  But I am confident enough in aspects, e.g., the decision trees, that I think we should encourage people to secure funding for different pieces of the commons.  But, I’d like to ask Bruce, whether he thinks one could, in fact, go a bit further in the idea of the maximal commons in a proposal and if so, how we might proceed.

Ian Bruno

We should recognise that if we want to see significant change in the next 10 years then we need to act urgently

  • We need to start somewhere - are there fertile territories where instigating a commons might have a meaningful impact now?
  • Would the act of implementing a commons help us understand how we need to refine the principles of the commons

Changing the way we communicate research is not enough - we need to fundamentally change the way we do research

  • This means challenging the current socio-political and economic factors that shape organisations today
  • This won't be easy because those running such organisations will have a strong belief that what they are doing is in the best interests of scholarship
  • We need to motivate those who underpin today's hierarchies to constructively and passionately challenge those at the top
  • The remixed Mertonian norms and their framing potentially provide a starting point for this

How might we enable others to:

  • Capture the perspectives of a broader range of communities
  • Attract the attention, input and energy of practicing researchers open to alternative ways of doing things

Does the Scholarly Commons extend beyond academic scholarship?

  • Should we engage industry more in the idea of and discussions about the commons?

What can we do to capitalise on the community created and connections made as a result of the workshops?

  • How can we effectively engage more people more frequently in defining and implementing the commons?

Daniel O'Donnell (external link)

"Nudge nudge, say no more" : What I think needs to happen next in the Scholarly Commons project

Dan Katz (external link)

The Scholarly Commons: Challenges in Philosophy and Governance

Cameron Neylon (external link)

FAIR enough? FAIR for one? FAIR for all!