New preprint: A tale of two ‘opens’: intersections between Free and Open Source Software and Open Scholarship

Finally, a project that has been in the works for around 2 years is now online! What started just from a simple idea exploded into this project, and I am grateful to have worked with some beautiful minds on crafting this together. Here it is, “A tale of two ‘opens’: intersections between Free and Open Source Software and Open Scholarship“. This article also inspired the concept of a MOOP.

I hope that it can be an important part of the evolution of a better scientific future for us all.


There is no clear-cut boundary between Free and Open Source Software and Open Scholarship, and the histories, practices, and fundamental principles between the two remain complex. In this study, we critically appraise the intersections and differences between the two movements. Based on our thematic comparison here, we conclude several key things. First, there is substantial scope for new communities of practice to form within scholarly communities that place sharing and collaboration/open participation at their focus. Second, Both the principles and practices of FOSS can be more deeply ingrained within scholarship, asserting a balance between pragmatism and social ideology. Third, at the present, Open Scholarship risks being subverted and compromised by commercial players. Fourth, the shift and acceleration towards a system of Open Scholarship will be greatly enhanced by a concurrent shift in recognising a broader range of practices and outputs beyond traditional peer review and research articles. In order to achieve this, we propose the formulation of a new type of institutional mandate. We believe that there is substantial need for research funders to invest in sustainable open scholarly infrastructure, and the communities that support them, to avoid the capture and enclosure of key research services that would prevent optimal researcher behaviours. Such a shift could ultimately lead to a healthier scientific culture, and a system where competition is replaced by collaboration, resources (including time and people) are shared and acknowledged more efficiently, and the research becomes inherently more rigorous, verified, and reproducible.


Open Scholarship might seem like a relatively new research term and paradigm, but it has deep historical roots in the very foundations of scholarship. Openness in one form or another has been part of the scientific ideal for centuries now. However, in the present way it is being discussed and often implemented, it could paradoxically lead to a more enclosed, monopolistic scholarly system dominated by ‘siloes’. It seems that Open Scholarship, if based more on morality around freedom, would align itself more closely with Mertonian norms (Bowman and Keene 2018). In this way, Open Scholarship parallels FOSS in that it challenges proprietary systems as well as exclusive methods of scholarly knowledge production. However, two key distinctions exist between FOSS and Open Scholarship. The first is the inherent diversity and fragmented nature of the wider scholarly community, which makes any sort of monistic understanding of ‘openness’ difficult. The second is that the principles, values and respective ‘freedoms’ for Open Scholarship do not seem to have been as rigorously identified and implemented as in software communities. It is likely that the intersection between these two factors, combined with an overlaid homogenised system of research evaluation, is likely responsible for the relative slow growth of the Open Scholarship movement, which in turn has allowed the unintended capture of many elements of the space by proprietary entities.

If we consider Open Source to be more more about processes and methodologies, and Free Software more of a community-driven ideological movement (with some overlap), which of these best describes Open Scholarship? It seems that at its roots, Open Scholarship is a combination of both. Often it is described as a more efficient, effective way of doing research, injecting more transparency and rigour/reproducibility into the process. Other times, it is described as an issue of equity and social justice. However, at least part of this divergence or ambiguity is due to the fact that Open Scholarship seems to encompass a diverse myriad of practices, outputs, and principles, which have not been connected together into a single, unified and unambiguous understanding. Thus, it appears that there is also no clear cut boundary – either in terms of principles/values, practices, or outputs – between ‘open’ scholarship and ‘closed’ scholarship.

We can finalise this article by using two salient examples of how openness has failed to become normative in scholarly research. The first of these is the existence of the ‘pirate’ platform Sci-Hub, which provides illicit access to some 70 million paywalled research articles. Whether or not anyone agrees to the existence of this platform morally or legally is moot, given that it does exist, and exists purely for the reason that there is a fundamental access problem in scholarly research. The second example is the Wuhan Coronavirus, which became a global health emergency in the first months of 2020. The outbreak of this virus catalysed the rapid data sharing and publication of results by researchers around the world, essentially deploying what are considered ‘open research practices’ in order to combat the threat of the virus. This event shows that the tools and infrastructures for Open Scholarship now readily exist, as do the moral and practical reasons for using such services, and it is simply the imperative of researchers to actually commit to them (Kupferschmidt 2020).

The solution: A fully-open mandate

For the first few years of its existence, the Internet had the potential to form the technical and institutional basis for a new system of ‘openness’ in science. We believe that it has failed to achieve this for several reasons:

  1. Evaluation metrics have not sufficiently changed from the pre-Internet world, and reputation and success are conflated;
  2. Abuse of copyright (i.e., used counter to its initial intentions);
  3. ‘Closed’ scientific practices, from the pre-Internet world, have been institutionalised.

Much of this can be ascribed to the increasing commercialisation of science, which often seems to stand in contrast to the agenda of science itself. Most metrics used are for short-term evaluations, whereas openness in science only offers a better diffusion and quality of science in the long-term.

We believe that the pragmatic way to reverse this problem is the formulation of new national and supra-national mandates, which could be based around the Foundations for Open Scholarship Strategy Development (Tennant, Beamer, et al. 2019). Governments and funding bodies should provide modern, sustainable and technically interoperable infrastructures based around existing established repositories, and all their associated functionalities (e.g., persistent identifiers, standardised metadata, research data repositories, usage metrics), with immediate, unrestricted, and full access to all research outputs. If implemented, this would simultaneously solve the major outstanding issues with reliability, affordability, and functionality that global scholarship systems face and are in urgent need of fixing. We know that there is ‘enough money in the system’, currently being largely wasted on redundant services for commercial publishers, that would more than adequately finance this shift. The benefits of doing so would be immense, increasing the globalisation capacity of research, new services and infrastructures to be built on top of a huge knowledge database in order to, for example, help serve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We also know that such services readily exist, as exemplified by case studies like the Coronavirus. This mandate would help publicly-funded research to speed up with respect to the relatively faster industry cycles, boost innovation and development in research, and enhance university-industry partnerships. Ownership and the value of research would be retained by the institutes that funded and created it, and dissemination and evaluation would no longer have to be out-sourced to commercial third-parties. The problems of ‘predatory journals’ would be diminished overnight as a side-effect, as there would be no incentives to publish with commercial third-parties anymore. Commercial vendors would then actually have to compete fairly by providing real value-added services beyond the red herring of ‘prestige’.

To achieve this system, governments would need to simultaneously defund or depower the existing systems, including the highly profitable elements that exist within it, while constructing the new sustainable open scholarly infrastructures. But by having national funders working more closely with institutes (and research libraries), this would overcome the labour-intensive methods of mandating researchers to be more open, by more efficiently providing them with the tools and services to automatically do so. Critical infrastructure components including AmeliCA, OPERAS, SciELO, COAR and others are already running on limited finances and are highly effective. As another side effect of this mandate, it would prevent openness in scholarship from only being superficially addressed, or even corrupted by proprietary systems.

The capture of key elements of the open scholarship system by commercial players is not because they add any inherent value to the scholarship process, it is simply because they have the financial capacity to acquire such services. This amplifies the ‘prestige’ or ‘validation’ that these companies often distribute through their products in the eyes of public and academic institutes, while simultaneously alleviating the responsibility of public institutes and funders to fulfil the mandates given to them. Such ongoing privatisation of the research process is clearly not in the spirit of science and scholarship as fundamental to creation of learning and development of a commons around knowledge. Finally, by adopting a more commons approach to knowledge generation similar to FOSS, we expect that scholarship becomes an inherently more inclusive process, with equitable access and participation embedded in it as a core and fundamental value. Will the glass house of Open Scholarship be to ivory towers what the bazaar was to the cathedral in Open Source?

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