Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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“Nudge nudge, say no more”: What I think needs to happen next in the Scholarly Commons Project

Posted: Oct 02, 2016 19:10;
Last Modified: Oct 02, 2016 19:10


In the follow up on the Force11/Helmsley Scholarly Commons Working Group workshops in Madrid and San Diego, participants (and steering committee members) have been asked to write a brief description of what we think is the “best direction to develop the principles.” Here’s my two cents.1

I think that the lessons we’ve learned over the last year are the following:

  1. There is (or perhaps could be) such a thing as a “Commons” in scholarly communication;
  2. This approach to scholarly communication could have an immensely disruptive potential, as it could provide a way of completing the always-threatening development of research communication into a Common Pool Resource;
  3. The disruption (and the commons) will not happen without leadership; somebody needs to propose a definition of the boundaries of the commons; explain how this defintion can be used; and create the mechanisms by which it is.

Given this, I think the next step is to work on (3): providing the leadership necessary to properly define what we mean by Scholarly Communication as a Commons or Common Good, and then to develop the mechanisms by which this Commons could be implemented. If we could do that, we could have a radical effect on how research is promulgated and rewarded (i.e. bring about lesson 2).

Working on (3), in my view, involves taking some decisions and some risks. In the course of the last year, I think we have done a very good job of rapidly collecting good material from thought leaders in the Scholarly Communication world. We took a risk in doing this by invitation rather than an open call, but, as far as I can see, we did a pretty good job in the end selecting our informants. While I think that the criticism of April and others about the ironically closed nature of our process is relevant, I think we probably did about as good a job in getting together the raw materials as anybody would have been able to do under any method. I think it is telling that the criticism we have seen of the 18 “principles” is largely that they are not a coherent body of principles (which they are not) rather than that they are wrong. I think we have pretty clearly uncovered a strong consensus as to what Scholarly Communication should be within the commons (answering [1]); we just haven’t developed a strong statement of that consensus (answering [3] and serving [2]).

So if we have done a decent job quickly developing an answer to our Helmsley question (i.e. question 1, whether there is grounds for believing that there is something common, or a Commons”), we have been weaker on doing something with this answer: we haven’t taken that answer and the raw material we gathered and processed it into a position that others can agree with, disagree with, supplement, or modify. Some of the difficulties we had in the run up to the San Diego workshop, both internally within the Steering Committee and among the participants we asked to attend had to do with this lack of a position. We presented what we had distilled from what we heard in San Diego, but we had not got very far at that point in engaging with these statements critically—pointing out their errors, contradictions, and lacunae—or developing our own position on them or the larger question.

This is what (3) requires us to do, except now also with what we heard in San Diego as well. We need to take everything we have heard, analyse it critically, and use it to develop a position that we can propose to others for reaction.

I’ll conclude by anticipating my position on what we heard. I think that we now have the material required to propose a certification programme in which people and institutions certify their compliance (or aspiration to comply with) a “Commons” approach to Scholarly Communication. To do this, I think we need to analyse the statements we gathered in Madrid and work out the theory behind them—a theory that I naturally think will look something like the one I have proposed, though it doesn’t have to look exactly like my version. This theory needs to be stated in actionable terms (I do x, I don’t do y) and it needs to be generalised enough to be able to be used in analysing anything you can do in the context of scholarly communication—in any discipline or using any technology, currently known or not.

While that might sound impossible, it really isn’t. While there were some contradictions in the details of the Madrid statements (e.g. the presence or absence of reward systems) and while there were some things that were not fully worked out (e.g. governance), I felt that the statements we collected in Madrid could be shown to be based on a fairly coherent implicit philosophy of scholarly communication—one based on openness, equality of access, and the concept of research communication as a common good. These are terms that are technology and process independent and work as easily with current practices as they will with any future developments.

And finally there is the purpose to which this programme can be put. In my view, what is needed now, and what could be incredibly powerful in leading the transformation of scholarly communication, is a “nudge”—a programme that encourages socially desirable behaviour by providing a context by which people can voluntarily adopt these same behaviours. I think the Madrid statements imply a very strong consensus of what this socially desirable behaviour is; what we need to do now is produce a statement that is as strong explicitly as the Madrid statements are implicitly. And then develop that into a programme.

As a final note. I’ve been thinking about the difference between the “Mertonian” statements and my principles. As people in San Diego said, they seem to work together. So I’ve been wondering what their relationship is. In the end, I think that the “Mertonian” principles represent a world view and the seven I proposed represent a theory of practice. I.e. we were able to get statements with such a strong implicit agreement from our participants in Madrid because those participants on the whole shared the same “Mertonian” world view as to the purpose and ideal practice of research. But we asked them more specifically to apply this implicit world view to the practice of scholarly communication. The seven principles are the theory of action that lies behind those statements.



1. This is currently very telegraphic and “inside baseball”—the prompt is a need for discussion papers to support current deliberation within the Commons Steering Committee and I haven’t had the time yet to unpack some of the insider terminology and shorthand. I also need to put in some links.





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