Open access versus the commons, or steps towards developing commons to sustain open access

by Heather Morrison

Abstract

The concept of open access is complementary to, and in opposition to the commons. The similarities and overlap appear to be taken for granted; for example, many people assume that open access and Creative Commons just go together. The purpose of this post is to explore the essential opposition of the two concepts. The so-called “tragedy of the commons” is actually the tragedy of unmanaged open access. Understanding this opposition is helpful to analyze the potential of commons analysis to develop and sustain actual commons (cool pool resources) to support open access works. Ostrom’s design principles for common pool resources are listed with comments and examples of open access supports that illustrate the principles and a proposed modified list design to meet the needs of open access infrastructure is presented.

Details

The purpose of the Sustaining the Knowledge Commons research program (and blog) is to advance our knowledge of how to build and sustain a global knowledge commons. I define the knowledge commons as a collective sharing of the knowledge of humankind that is as open access as possible, in the sense of free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. My vision of the knowledge commons is one that is inclusive, that is, all who are qualified are welcome to contribute. The vision is simple. Understanding and articulating what is necessary to achieve the vision is not simple, and I argue that it will require developing new theoretical and empirical knowledge.

The purpose of this post is to focus on the relationship between two basic concepts, “open access” and “the commons”. There is an intuitive complementarity between the two concepts that might be best understood as an outcome of recent historical developments. The open sharing of Web 2.0 or social media, the open access movement, renewed interest in the concept of the commons, and the development and growth of Creative Commons, have all occurred in the past few decades. The nature and title of this research program Sustaining the Knowledge Commons reflects an ellipse of the two concepts. To advance our knowledge, sometimes it is necessary to question our basic assumptions. For this reason, acknowledging the complementarity of the two concepts, this post focuses on open access and the commons as oppositional in essence. I explain why this matters and how commons design principles might be used to develop and sustain open access organizations and infrastructure (as opposed to open access works).

As Ostrom (2015) points out in the second chapter of her ground-breaking Governing the Commons, the example of the “tragedy of the commons” as presented by Harding in an influential article – a pasture where any herdsman can graze – is not a commons, but rather a pasture that is open to all, an open access resource. A commons is not an open access resource, but rather a resource that is collaboratively managed by a group of people who benefit from the resource who develop, monitor and enforce rules for collective management of the resource. Ostrom presents empirical examples of successful and unsuccessful commons or common pool resources (CPRs) and articulates design principles for successful CPRs.

Ostrom’s research focuses on limited physical resources such as fisheries and water, and acknowledged that research on such CPRs is at a very early stage. The extent to which design principles based on physical CPRs can be employed to understand the potential for electronic commons, where there is no limit to the re-use of resource per se is not known. A few researchers have made an effort at this analysis. For example, Hess and Ostrom (2007) edited a book on understanding knowledge as a commons, one of the influences inspiring my own work and the title of this research program and blog.

Resources versus infrastructure

To understand why it matters that open access and the commons are oppositional concepts, consider the difference between open access works (articles, journals, books, data etc.) and the infrastructure that is needed to create and sustain open access resources. The only restriction to use of an open access resource is reader-side infrastructure (computer and internet) and ability to read and understand. However, the creation and ongoing support of open access works requires resources (hardware, software, internet connectivity, editors). This – the infrastructure to build and sustain open access works – is where Ostrom’s design principles for common pool resources is most likely to be fruitful. Examples of open access infrastructures that are, or could be, managed as common pool resources include: OA journals produced by independent scholars or groups of scholars (e.g. society or university-based); open source journal publishing (e.g. Open Journal Systems); university consortia sharing of infrastructure and /or support for open access (e.g. Scielo, Ontario’s Scholar’s Portal, Open Library of the Humanities).

Design principles for common pool resources

Table 3.1 of design principles is Ostrom’s (2015, p. 90) summary of her findings of characteristics of successful CPRs. Following are proposed minor modifications of the design principles for open access infrastructure, and examples of how these design principles might be useful for open access infrastructure (as opposed to open access works).

“Table 3.1. Design principles illustrated by long-enduring CPR institutions

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
    Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
  2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material, and/or money.
  3. Collective-choice arrangements
    Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.
  4. Monitoring
    Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators.
  5. Graduated sanctions
    Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms
    Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize
    The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.

For CPRs that are parts of larger systems:

  1. Nested enterprises
    Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises”.

Can Ostrom’s CPR design principles might be applied to OA resources? Examples, comments, and proposed modified design principles

Ostroms’ design principle “1: Clearly defined boundaries
Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself”.

Proposed modified design principle:

1: Clearly defined boundaries
Individuals or organizations who have rights to participate in and benefit from CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.

Examples

Scielo (Scientific Electronic Library Online): Criteria, policies and procedures for admission and permanence of scientific journals in the SciELO <country> Collection https://wp.scielo.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Criterios_Rede_SciELO_jun_2018_EN.pdf

  • Anyone with internet access can read the Scielo journals. Journals that wish to be included must meet the criteria.

PubMedCentral: How to include a journal in PMC https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/pub/addjournal/

  • Anyone with internet access can read the journals included in PMC. To be included, journals must meet scope, technical and quality requirements.

Ostrom’s Design Principle 2: “Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions. Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material, and/or money”.

Proposed modified design principle:

2: “Congruence between participation and provision rules and local and/or disciplinary conditions. Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local and/or disciplinary conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material, and/or money”.

Examples

Institutional repositories such as uO Recherche https://ruor.uottawa.ca/ are very well aligned with design principle 2. Policies are set by the university and reflect regional practice and law (e.g. copyright law). Staff are paid local wage rates in local currency. Decisions about software, hardware and support can reflect local preferences (e.g. for open source software or proprietary solutions, stand-alone or collaborative repositories) and budgets. In the case of my own university, the University of Ottawa, the institutional repository reflects the official French / English bilingualism of the university.

The HAL archives-ouvertes.fr https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/ is a collaborative repository reflecting the research community and language of France.

Ostrom’s Design Principle 3: “Collective-choice arrangements
Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rule

This principle fits smaller CPRs; see design principle 8 on nested enterprises for global open access. For example, university-based researchers can participate in policy consultations for the local institutional repository; members of the editorial board of a journal can participate in setting policy (the principle is the same whether the journal is open access or not).

Ostrom’s Design Principles 4:, 5, and 6 are treated together as OASPA provides examples of all:

“4. Monitoring
Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators”.

5. Graduated sanctions
Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.

6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms
Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials”.

Example: the Open Access Scholarly Publisher’s Association (OASPA) Membership Applications, Complaints and Investigations https://oaspa.org/membership/membership-applications/ displays characteristics of a CPR where members (appropriators) actively practice monitoring, graduated sanctions, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. Even after being accepted as members, OASPA members may be identified by other members as not meeting the criteria for acceptance (monitoring); these complaints trigger a conflict-resolution mechanisms that involves a series of graduated sanctions, investigation, possible requirement for the member to alter policies and/or practice and potential termination of membership.

Ostrom Design Principle “7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize
The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities”.

Proposed modified Design Principle “7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize
The rights of participants to devise their own organizations are not challenged by external authorities or bodies”.

Comment: this principle could be applied in the context of open access to the rights of researchers to develop their own institutions or organizations (e.g. based on common disciplinary requirements) and/or rights of local institutions to develop their own approach (as opposed to global open access policy).

Example

The Open Library of the Humanities https://www.openlibhums.org/ was developed by scholars in the humanities to support open access in the humanities. Design Principle 7 recognizes the right of scholars to organize in this fashion.

Ostroms’ Design Principle 8. “Nested enterprises
Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises”.

Comment: this is the principle that most needs development for sustainable open access on a global scale. Every country, region, and discipline needs to contribute to create and sustain open access. This requires many organizations of different types and sizes, each with its own set of principles and approach to monitoring, sanctions, and conflict resolution. This needs to be coordinated (but not controlled) at a higher level for permanent open access to succeed.

Proposed modified design principles for a global knowledge commons

  1. Clearly defined boundaries
    Individuals or organizations who have rights to participate in and benefit from CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
  2. Congruence between participation and provision rules and local and/or disciplinary Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local and/or disciplinary conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material, and/or money.
  3. Collective-choice arrangements
    Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.
  4. Monitoring
    Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators.
  5. Graduated sanctions
    Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms
    Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize
    The rights of participants to devise their own organizations are not challenged by external authorities or bodies”.
  8. Nested enterprises
    Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Acknowledgement

This post builds on conversations with prior SKC research collaborator Alexis Calvé-Genest.

References

Hess, C. & Ostrom, E., eds. (2007). Understanding knowledge as a commons: from theory to practice. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Canto Classics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316423936

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