Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Academic Research Ideology Accords with Open Source


While many research initiatives are well integrated, humanities research sometimes works at cross-purposes with itself. Though its scholars and "mission" generally strive to share their research with one another and the general public, the academic publishing market's policies and practices restrict circulation of, access to, and use of such research. These conflicting movements underline the need for a different model of research and publication. However, in order for Open Source to act as a model for academic publishing, academic administration also needs to change. Currently, academics are offered jobs, tenure, and promotions based on their publishing. Within the requirements for publishing are hierarchies for published materials that view single-authored and printed publications more favorably than electronic or collaborative texts. For Open Source to serve as a valid and useful model for academia, academic standards for hiring and tenure would also need to change to reflect the value of collaborative and non-print works.
Academic Research Ideology Accords with Open Source

The Open Source property model predicates on a field of shared knowledge that developers use to create their own works. Azeem Azhar explains this idea, dubbed "commons-based peer production":

The commons refers to the sharing of the underlying code or the output that is open to all, akin to the public land that farmers once grazed their livestock upon. Peer production means that producers participate for their own varied reasons and in ad hoc ways, not necessarily via legal contract or management fiat. (2004)

Academic research works in similar ways—researchers contribute to journals and publish books that can be used by other scholars to produce more research. The general "body of knowledge" for a discipline covers all contributions to the discipline, and analogizes to the "commons" in the passage above. Academics contribute to this commons because they benefit from it simultaneously.

Gift cultures. Raymond suggests that the parity between Open Source and academia stems from their economic models; specifically, he notes that both systems are gift cultures:

In populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods [. . .] abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away [. . .] (2001, p. 81)

The economic conditions shaping both fields allow for the development of gift cultures, in which members give away knowledge and acquire reputation based on their generosity. Raymond also suggests that this model's ubiquity makes it "the globally optimal way to cooperate for generating (and checking!) high quality creative work" (2001, p. 107). Both academia and Open Source development benefit from the quality control created by gift cultures.

As a gift culture, academia usually uses citation to give scholars credit for their work. However, most academic citation methods serve to further re-inscribe outdated notions of individual authorship even for collaboratively authored works. For instance, some systems focus only on the first author, affording less credit to any additional authors for the work. Further, many academic departments do not have guidelines for collaboratively written works so that collaboratively written works often do not factor, or factor much less for issues like tenure and promotion. In Singular Texts/ Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford explore both issues of collaborative writing and their own struggles for credit for work they wrote together (1990). Open Source, however, provides a model in which individual and collaborative authors are given equal credit for their work.

Distributed control. Academia and Open Source also benefit from their distributed systems of control. Unlike hierarchical research projects, distributed projects lead to a wide range of solutions. For instance, both academia and Open Source development models allow for divergences. In the Open Source model, programmers who disagree with a project's direction can start a splinter group, or "fork," that takes the application in a new direction. Academia allows for similar splits in its conversation. Such splits differ distinctly from corporate research or other forms of collaborative work that use more centralized control structures.