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Digital Knowledge Commons, Scholarly Connection, and the Evolution of Open Scholarship

Published onNov 03, 2023
Digital Knowledge Commons, Scholarly Connection, and the Evolution of Open Scholarship

The enormous growth of digital knowledge commons and academic social networking sites in the last fifteen years or so has enabled millions of researchers to connect and share their work with others online. But during this same period, the remarkable transformation of digital infrastructure has also raised many questions about the nature and trajectory of scholarly communication and practice. In dialogue with Lucas Power about rapidly changing online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, for example, literary and media studies critic Aarthi Vadde suggests that conversations around Web 2.0 and its maturation have occasionally fed into a growing tension between the meaning and value of “participation” versus “publication” (190). According to Vadde, this tension was exacerbated by the hyperbolic claims of Web 2.0 proponents, whom she accuses of having championed participation under the banner of social engagement and innovation even as they exploited it as a quantifiable metric or dataset that could be bought and sold. At the same time, publishing, too, inevitably took on new meanings as new venues for self-publication and user-generated content emerged. Vadde argues that this history can teach us not only about digital infrastructure and platforms in the present, but also about what participation and publication may look like in the future. Issuing a warning, she notes:

There are absolutely elements of today's Internet culture that extend beyond the wildest dreams of the architects of Web 2.0, but its founding ethos of scalability and monetizable data remains unquestioned. The largest platforms could be called “webs unto themselves” or highly complex walled gardens that monitor every aspect of user activity with the intent of keeping users within their information ecology. [. . .]

Extremist groups and disinformation campaigns weaponize Web 2.0 principles and take advantage of the social web that has grown out of them. If scholars want to study where the social web is and where it is going, they can meet the moment by historicizing particular movements as well as particular platforms. (190)

As Web 2.0 slowly and unevenly gives way to Web3 (or whatever comes next), the enclosure of digital spaces continues to transform the relationship between platforms and their users. In this way, the history of the tension between participation and publication, like the history of the internet itself, can be understood partially in terms of a shift from open to closed and commercialized forms of knowledge exchange.

But these histories are still being written. Against the currents of commercialization and weaponization, many individuals and collectives are interested in exploring how platforms can support both participation and publication—all while also remaining open; sharing information across seemingly discrete platforms or disciplinary domains; combating dis- and mis-information; and creating networks not for surveillance or the monetization of user activity and information, but for meaningful community building and communication. The authors in this volume do so “by historicizing particular movements as well as particular platforms” (to return to Vadde). In the process, their work builds on and feeds into growing bodies of research in the fields of scholarly communication, digital infrastructure studies, digital humanities, and many others.

My own research, as part of the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) Partnership, has benefited tremendously from these authors’ historical insights, and also their pragmatic attempts to parlay technological innovations and specific digital platforms or tools into positive, if gradual, changes to scholarly practice.1 Similar attempts are on display beyond the pages of this volume—including, for instance, in the Humanities Commons’ turn to a “fediverse”2 model of social networking as one possible response to the problem of commercial enclosure. Yet the concepts of interaction, connectivity, and openness themselves continue to be exploited rhetorically and commercially by social media giants such as Meta, which recently announced its own intentions to implement an open fediverse model (Woloshyn and Fraser 2023). Meta’s exuberance speaks both to the genuinely heartening potential of open infrastructure as well as its potential vulnerability to the very market forces and commercial entities that have always threatened to transform open, accessible spaces or resources into their opposite. While some critics may share the optimism of software developer and ActivityPub co-editor Evan Prodromou, who remarks of the fediverse that “it’s not about the platforms, it’s about the people” (qtd. in Woloshyn and Fraser), others might point out that any such claims must be considered against the historical record. For digital commons such as the internet, which is populated with platforms as well as people, that record remains a twinned record of innovation and exploitation, of inclusion and exclusion, of open commons and walled gardens.

This Open Scholarship Press Connection collected volume includes reprinted critical interventions on the subject of digital knowledge commons or academic social networking sites and the forms of connection and open scholarship that they enable. Its ten full-length publications were previously annotated in the collection’s companion piece, the Open Scholarship Press Connection research scan / annotated bibliography, which is available on Wikibooks ( and PubPub ( That annotated bibliography was developed by me (Graham Jensen, University of Victoria), Tyler Fontenot (Independent), Alan Colín-Arce (University of Victoria), Alyssa Arbuckle (University of Victoria), Vitor Yano (Concordia University), Anna Honcharova (European Students’ Forum), Caroline Winter (University of Victoria), and Ray Siemens (University of Victoria), with the INKE and ETCL Research Groups. Like that earlier research scan, which includes a more extensive introduction to and survey of digital knowledge commons and related intellectual issues, this collection takes its cue from the research questions that animate the INKE Partnership’s Connection cluster ( Although the curated selections gathered here represent a range of critical approaches and opinions, they share a keen interest in how scholars share and build communities around knowledge.

Those scholarly practices and communities have unsurprisingly shifted over time. Knowledge commons and open access, for instance, are contested concepts with complicated histories informed by modern science’s evolution over the past 400 years. As featured author Shawn Martin (2019) observes, these histories do not always map neatly onto present-day forms of scholarly research, communication, or publication. Still, he suggests that, in many ways, contemporary scholarly communication and knowledge production practices resemble those of earlier researchers, underscoring a persistent tension in today’s academic communities and knowledge commons between open access ideals and the practical, economic pressures that frequently prevent them from being realized. Of note, Martin’s brief account of the simultaneous application and commodification of scientific knowledge in the United States from the eighteenth century to the present usefully foreshadows one of the central concerns of the subsequent authors in this collected volume.

Offering a survey of the history and distinguishing features of popular academic social networking sites (ASNS), which are often discussed as a variety of digital knowledge commons, Katy Jordan (2019) also synthesizes scholarship in this still-nascent field. Jordan posits that there are two kinds of ASNS: “those which have been developed primarily to facilitate profile creation and connection (analogous to Facebook; examples include and ResearchGate), and those with a primary focus on posting and sharing academic-related content and have subsequently added social networking capabilities (such as Mendeley).” Curiously, this taxonomy carries traces of the distinction—as summarized by Vadde—between participation and publication. Furthermore, these categories are prefigured by the pre-digital networks of scholarly connection and communication referenced by Martin, as well as the sometimes open, sometimes commercialized and relatively closed forms of knowledge production with which academics continue to experiment in today’s digital world. But Jordan’s summary of scholarship on the use of modern ASNS indicates the extent to which digital platforms embody radically new approaches to age-old questions about access to information, the quantification of scholarly activity and outputs, interpersonal interactions, and so on. What is more, this study closes by highlighting the need for critics interested in ASNS to better understand how these networks are used and studied in non-Western, non-Anglophone contexts.

Looking to the future of digital knowledge commons, Martin Hensher, Katie Kish, Joshua Farley, Stephen Quilley, and Katharine Zywert (2020) use the COVID-19 pandemic to reflect on serious problems with how knowledge is currently created, circulated, protected, and monetized. As the authors explain, open knowledge commons seem to provide an answer to many of these problems, as well as related concerns regarding intellectual property, knowledge scarcity, and misinformation. Their intelligence briefing demonstrates the immediate relevance of such issues to the fields of health and medical sciences, information studies, information policy, and beyond. Indeed, their use of COVID-19 as a case study underscores that these issues are of topical but also global significance. Advocating for open, publicly funded research and knowledge commons, the authors implore researchers and the public alike to consider new ways of anticipating and responding to global crises moving forward.

Other contributions to this volume focus their critique on specific for-profit knowledge commons, with particular attention paid to While this academic social networking site is immensely popular in certain disciplines, Katie Fortney and Justin Gonder (2015) analyze’s terms of use as part of a larger commentary on the differences between ASNS and institutional repositories—including how the financial interests of many academic social networking sites have led to unethical uses of member data. They also censure ASNS for adopting legal clauses that try to limit the control of users over their own research. Like Jordan’s survey, then, Fortney and Gonder’s essay clearly distinguishes between ASNS and institutional repositories, but it does so in order to draw attention to the ways that for-profit examples of the former have sometimes failed to live up to ethical standards and academic imperatives of the latter. Extending this critique, Brooke Erin Duffy and Jefferson D. Pooley (2017) take aim at’s Silicon Valley startup aesthetic and business model. They maintain that the popularity of this site, and others like it, stems from the intense pressures academics face to market themselves and their work. Discussing certain metrics, communication tactics, and features of the site’s design, they also explain how stands to gain from academic anxieties—and indeed, seems deliberately crafted to exploit them. In much the same vein, Gary Hall’s “What Does’s Success Mean for Open Access?” (2015) considers the fundamental differences between for-profit digital knowledge commons such as and institutional repositories, both ethically and in terms of their approaches to research data management. As Hall reminds readers, is beholden to its shareholders and is therefore tethered to an operational model that must ultimately prioritize profit over and above the goals of open scholarship, for example, or the long-term preservation of user-generated content. He critiques for profiting from aggregated research supplied freely by academics, but he also broadens his critique to include Google, Twitter, and other companies who sell and control user data in ways that are incommensurable with the Open Access movement and its guiding principles.

Taking a slightly different tack, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2015) summarizes the problems with while also recommending possible alternatives. Echoing Hall’s concerns about’s exploitation of academic labour, she calls for her readers to consider adopting disciplinary repositories such as the Modern Language Association’s MLA Commons (now the Humanities Commons) rather than institutional ones. Since the original publication of Fitzpatrick’s contribution in 2015, many more researchers, librarians, and other information professionals are now asking—as Zoe Wake Hyde, the Humanities Commons’ community development manager, does in a May 2023 blog post—how they might “facilitate meaningful connections that lead to the creation of new knowledge to be shared openly.” This vision, which is very much at the heart of the current collection, is also reflected in Jon Saklofske’s “Digital Theoria, Poiesis, and Praxis: Activating Humanities Research and Communication through Open Social Scholarship Platform Design” (2016). Saklofske argues that scholarly communication has not continued to reinvent itself through, and alongside, new technological developments. Such developments, he suggests, have the potential to transform scholarly communication, including in ways that might establish open scholarship as a more common alternative to commercial and traditionally closed forms of publication. To this end, Saklofske proposes the widespread adoption of open research practices and gives several examples of the kinds of unconventional knowledge-creation and knowledge-sharing platforms he has in mind.

Providing another example of an open, not-for-profit platform that responds to the many issues catalogued by the other authors in this volume, Matthew Gold (2011) describes how BuddyPress—which is an open-source platform and suite of WordPress plug-ins—has served as a valuable tool for teaching and building community. While BuddyPress, like the Humanities Commons, leverages many of the features of popular social networking sites to facilitate easy connections between students and other academics, it deliberately attempts to distinguish itself from those commercial platforms. It does so by prioritizing openness, for instance, and by taking concrete steps to protect students, their data, and their metadata from being exploited, commodified, or shared inappropriately.

Similarly, in “Foundations for the Canadian Humanities and Social Sciences Commons: Exploring the Possibilities of Digital Research Communities” (2020), Caroline Winter, Tyler Fontenot, Luis Meneses, Alyssa Arbuckle, Ray Siemens, and the ETCL and INKE Research Groups introduce the Canadian Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Commons as an open, online space for academics, research partners and stakeholders, students, and interested members of the public. After sketching out a history and theoretical foundation for the concept of the commons, they discuss how digital knowledge commons such as the Canadian HSS Commons—which includes a wide-ranging suite of tools for members both in Canada and beyond to build community and freely publish, share, and connect over research—can transform scholarly communication through open scholarship. As such, the Canadian HSS Commons constitutes another researcher-led response to the problem of enclosure outlined above.

As digital knowledge commons continue to proliferate, they will continue to transform scholarly participation and publication, inspiring and embodying novel forms of each. But the evolution of digital knowledge commons—and digital tools and technology more generally—must also be accompanied by continued critical consideration of what creating and maintaining these complex and diverse systems will involve, and mean, for future communities of researchers or creators and consumers of knowledge. This responsibility is and necessarily will be a shared one. As Joseph North notes in “Criticism as a Practice of the Commons” (2023), “as soon as you describe something as a commons, you are inclined to pose questions like, ‘Who has access to this, and who controls that access?’—and you are inclined to want to answer both questions by nominating groups, rather than individuals” (4). While the authors in this collected volume address such questions of access, enclosure, and governance in various ways, and from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, their responses to the problems endemic in our current scholarly ecosystem suggest to me that the social, collective nature of commons is paradoxically both the source of many such problems and the reason one can nevertheless hold out hope for their resolution. As emphatically social spaces built by and for scholarly communities of practice, open digital knowledge commons such as the Humanities Commons and the Canadian HSS Commons can play an important role in supporting the continued success and growth of these communities. By prioritizing open scholarship over profit and connection over competition, it is our hope that digital knowledge commons of this kind can positively transform scholarly networks not only in the ways detailed in this volume, but also in ways we have yet to imagine.

Works Cited & Original Citations

Duffy, Brooke Erin, and Jefferson D. Pooley. 2017. “‘Facebook for Academics’: The Convergence of Self-Branding and Social Media Logic on” Social Media + Society 3 (1).

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2015. “Academia, Not Edu.” Really, We’re Helping To Build This . . . Business: The Files. Liquid Books.

Fortney, Katie, and Justin Gonder. 2015. “A Social Networking Site Is Not an Open Access Repository.” Really, We’re Helping To Build This . . . Business: The Files. Liquid Books.

Gold, Matthew. 2011. “Beyond Friending: BuddyPress and the Social, Networked, Open-Source Classroom.” CUNY Academic Works. Publications and Research, CUNY Graduate Center.

Hall, Gary. 2015. “What Does’s Success Mean for Open Access?” Really, We’re Helping To Build This . . . Business: The Files. Liquid Books.

Hensher, Martin, Katie Kish, Joshua Farley, Stephen Quilley, and Katharine Zywert. 2020. “Open Knowledge Commons versus Privatized Gain in a Fractured Information Ecology: Lessons from COVID-19 for the Future of Sustainability.” Global Sustainability 3.

Hyde, Zoe Wake. 2023. “The Web We Want.” Platypus: The Blog of the Humanities Commons Team, May 30, 2023.

Jensen, Graham. 2022. “Creating Connections in and through Knowledge Commons.” Open Scholarship Press Collections: Connection.

Jensen, Graham, Alyssa Arbuckle, Caroline Winter, Talya Jesperson, Tyler Fontenot, Ray Siemens, ETCL Research Group, and INKE Research Group. 2022. “Fostering Digital Communities of Care: Safety, Security, and Trust in the Canadian Humanities and Social Sciences Commons.” IDEAH, June.

Jesperson, Talya, Graham Jensen, Caroline Winter, Alyssa Arbuckle, and Ray Siemens, with the INKE Research Group. 2022. “Open, Collaborative Commons: Web3, Blockchain, and Next Steps for the Canadian Humanities and Social Sciences Commons.” Pop! Public. Open. Participatory 4 (October).

Jordan, Katy. 2019. “From Social Networks to Publishing Platforms: A Review of the History and Scholarship of Academic Social Network Sites.” Frontiers in Digital Humanities 6.

Martin, Shawn. 2019. “Historicizing the Knowledge Commons: Open Access, Technical Knowledge, and the Industrial Application of Science.” KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies 3 (February): 23.

North, Joseph. 2023. “Criticism as a Practice of the Commons.” PMLA 138 (1): 151–57.

Power, Lucas, and Aarthi Vadde. 2022. “Publisher 2.0.” PMLA 137 (1): 188–90.

Saklofske, Jon, and INKE Research Group. 2016. “Digital Theoria, Poiesis, and Praxis: Activating Humanities Research and Communication through Open Social Scholarship Platform Design.” Scholarly and Research Communication 7 (2/3).

Winter, Caroline, Tyler Fontenot, Luis Meneses, Alyssa Arbuckle, Ray Siemens, and the ETCL and INKE Research Groups. 2020. “Foundations for the Canadian Humanities and Social Sciences Commons: Exploring the Possibilities of Digital Research Communities.” Pop! Public. Open. Participatory 2 (October).

Woloshyn, Roxanna, and Ashley Fraser. 2023. “What Is the Fediverse and Why Does Threads Want to Join?” CBC, July 19, 2023.

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