Governing a Knowledge Commons: The Infl uence of Institutional Design on the Performance of Open Access Repositories
Wemheuer-Vogelaar, Wiebke – 2013
Knowledge is a rather new member of the “commons family”. For quite a while, it has played a minor role in the research on commons and governance systems. However, since last decade, both its relevance and attention gained have tremendously increased. Open Access (OA) to (scientific) knowledge will play an increasingly important role in (the study of ) the digital age. This paper focuses on the problems of collective action in the creation of an OA repository as a knowledge commons and thus contributes to this development. The case of open access to scholarly knowledge is relevant not only because of its recent nature; it also shows the story of a good whose use has severely suffered from the impact of privatization. While academic journals have been the traditional forum for making scientific information and innovation known to peers and other audiences, this format has gone through two big institutional changes during the last 30 years. Firstly, the publishing rights and habits changed in a way that the ownership of more and more journals ended up in the hands of a few very big and influential publishing companies (e.g. Oxford University Press, Routledge). Secondly, the upcoming of the Internet made it much easier and less costly to disseminate publications (Suber 2007; Hess and Ostrom 2007). The combination of these two processes produced a system of enclosure and rising prices: between 1986 and 2000 the average price for journal subscriptions has tripled (Hess 2005).1 Open Access in the form of online repositories is an attempt to counter this enclosure and turn scientific knowledge from a club back to a public good (Kranich 2007; cp. Table 1). The governance of OA repositories is comparable to that of all other commons. In a way it depends on the organization of collective action. It is prone to social dilemmas as well. For knowledge commons, this dilemma does not so much come in the form of the famous “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968), where the rationally induced overuse by individuals unavoidably leads to the destruction of a resource. Rather, OA repositories are likely to suffer from a social dilemma which the commons theorist Peter Suber labeled the “tragic stalemate” (2007:183). The tragic stalemate points to a situation of collective paralysis in which all potential users of a good would profit from its provision, but none of them wants to take the first step to provide it.