Applying open source methodology and economics to academia

April 27th, 2010 |

I’d like to explore the potential parallel between academic knowledge production and open-source software development. Here’s my thought: while things are economically dire for universities (the de facto centers of scholarship), they are pretty good in open source communities (Linux, WordPress, Drupal and the like are more widely used all the time and supported by ever-growing communities). So maybe there’s something that scholars can learn from the open-source folks. Two possible lenses:

1) Economics – The open source economy is, arguably, a gift economy when viewed from the inside. But externally, the open source movement is largely dependent on the commercial world: companies like Google and Sun officially steward open source projects, and more broadly, many (most?) contributors to FOSS projects are only able to do so because of their gainful employment in the regular economy. To some extent, the academy already works like this: scholars can only create contribute to the scholarly economy because they are supported by their employers (universities) who enlist them for income-generating service (mainly teaching, but also financially attractive research, etc.). Are there other parts of the commercial economy where scholars can be parasitic? Or, in the way that a company like Automattic provides paid support to commercial users of WordPress in order to finance the continued development of the software, are there ways that scholars could independently charge to “support” (speaking gigs, consulting, etc) the ideas that they give away for free?

2) Process – Much of the pushback from open publishing models centers on the importance of peer review: good review costs money, and the closed model of an academic journal provides necessary funds. Take away pay walls, the argument goes, and you can’t have good review. In successful open source projects, code has to meet an extremely high standard of quality, yet many (most?) contributors are not paid for their contributions. What are the ad hoc models of review, hierarchy, and encouragement that emerge in open source communities? How might the structures that emerge out of open source communities – ideas like ‘commit access’ and ‘version control’, the notion of fluid and complex rather than fixed and linear hierarchies, and so on – play a role in the development of a new kind of peer review?

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2 Responses to “Applying open source methodology and economics to academia”

  1. Jeremy Boggs Says:

    Definitely would like to talk about this, too! In one chapter of Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software (2007), someone (and I can’t remember who right now) compares open source development to science, and makes a good point with science that while our models for publishing and sharing research have changed dramatically, our models for distributing credit and reputation have not.

  2. Zach Whalen Says:

    This parallel between open source and open publishing — I’m interested to explore it further, especially since I don’t find those familiar pushbacks all that convincing. At least for humanities publishing that I’ve been involved with, it’s not like anyone has ever paid me to review an article. In most cases, it’s a professional courtesy for a journal/book I believe in, and I get “paid” by putting listing on my annual activity report that I did some article reviews. I also get the intellectual satisfaction of contributing to a specific shape for one slice of a discipline.

    I know in some disciplines, journals routinely pass along the the costs of publishing to the authors themselves, so where does that fit into the analogy?

    Also, it seems worth bringing up Nick Montfort (and others) who have sworn off publishing in or supporting “closed-access” journals, on the grounds that these publish in bad faith. My response at the time was the economics of publishing (i.e. CV lines) make that a harder choice for grad students and junior faculty, but the ethical angle is pretty interesting. It’s been argued (I forget by whom) that employees of the state have an obligation to make the work they produce publicly available to the tax payers who support us.

    I don’t know about that, but I can certainly attest to the frustration of being at a smaller institution that can’t afford some of the (really expensive) journal subscriptions I’d like and that I got used to having at a bigger institution.

    Anyway, I think this is really interesting stuff, and I think the parallel implications for an economic model go broader than the efficacy or impetus for peer review.


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