Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. Edited by Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 381 pp. $36.00 (ISBN 0-262-08357-4).

The complete review will be published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

Understanding Knowledge as Commons tackles the dynamics of managing knowledge as a collective resource. While the exploration of national resources (e.g. wildlife, forests, etc) as common resources has a rich tradition in the economic and public policy literatures, the examination of knowledge (and information) as commons has been a recent line of inquiry. The study of information as commons, and especially information infrastructures (e.g. the Internet) as common resources, can be traced to the mid-1990s and to the work of Bernardo Huberman, Rajan M. Lukose, and Howard Rheingold, among others. The authors make a critical contribution to this stream of research by examining the critical dynamics that underpin knowledge as a collective resource, and the accompanying dilemmas, mainly social dilemmas, which govern the management of this resource.

The book is organized into three parts. Part I, “Studying the Knowledge Commons,” consists of three chapters. The editors, Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, open the book with an introductory overview on knowledge commons. In this chapter, the editors provide a historic account of the study of knowledge commons and traditional commons…The chapter concludes with a map of the remainder of the book.

In Chapter 2, David Bollier does an excellent job illustrating the growth of the commons paradigm. This chapter succinctly demonstrates that even through commons may differ across domains (e.g. environmental, technological, etc), the paradigm remains intact and has been growing in popularity.

The final chapter of this section is also authored by the editors. This chapter thoughtfully describes an analytical framework, The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework. The IAD framework provides a lens whereby anyone can dissect the various issues and dilemmas facing a commons…

Part II comprises three chapters and addresses the issues of protecting the knowledge commons. Nancy Kranich, in Chapter 4, describes the forces that are threatening the sustainability of knowledge commons and also negatively impacting scholarly communications. She proposes several strategies (e.g. open access to scholarly journals, the development of sustainable digital repositories and digital libraries, community-based preservation efforts and the development of learning and information communities) to counter these forces through the engaged collective action of librarians and scholars. Kranich also addresses the need to change the role of research libraries to meet the current and future needs of knowledge commons…

In the next chapter, “Mertoniansm Unbound? Imagining Free, Decentralized Access to Most Cultural and Scientific Material,” is authored by James Boyle, a leading scholar on knowledge commons. Boyle examines the impact of open access to all kinds of cultural and scientific materials by individuals and groups outside the academic confines, and what effect this might have on scholarship, science, and culture. I particularly found his notes on incorporating users into the design process of commons quite salient…Boyle talks about why there is a need to involve users as designers in the creation of commons and to be more appreciative of the knowledge and information they might possess.

Chapter 6 by Donald J. Waters addresses the issue of knowledge preservation. Specifically, Waters tackles citation in a digital world. In today’s world, it would be rare to find an academic article, report, or book without Internet sources. Waters tackles the issue of how knowledge commons are impacted by these citations not being available at future times, or not being available in their original form as cited by an author (as web pages might change or links may be broken)…

The final part of the book, “Building New Knowledge Commons,” contains six chapters. Peter Suber opens this section with a chapter entitled, Creating an Intellectual Commons through Open Access. Suber conducts a thorough expose of Open Access and its role in development of the intellectual commons. This chapter is dense and covers subjects such as an overview of open access, royalty models for open access content, legal foundations of open access, tragedies of open access commons and the role of authors in developing open access content.

The most provocative chapter of the book is by Shubba Gosh. Gosh considers the role played by intellectual property in the development of knowledge commons. I found this chapter to be highly entertaining, interesting, and deep. Gosh does an excellent job of providing an outline of the various roles that intellectual property can play in the development of knowledge goods, from being constructive, to facilitating, and even being irrelevant. Gosh then outlines several guiding principles for the design of commons. He outlines why imitation of knowledge (or information) should not be viewed through the strict lens of copyright infringement. With persuasive and vivid examples and creative arguments, Gosh argues that “imitation has important pedagogical and social functions” (pg. 227)…

The process of knowledge creation is discussed by Peter Levine, in Chapter 9. He rightly argues that this process should also be viewed as a commons. Ideally, the process of knowledge creation should be one of collective action, involve diverse stakeholders, and even call for civic engagement. Levine’s central focus is (1) on the need to involve youth, especially adolescents who are unlikely to attend college, in the knowledge creation process through associations, and (2) why universities need to take a more proactive role in ensuring that the knowledge creation process remains a common and not become an isolated and closed, or private, activity.

In the next chapter, Charles M. Schweik describes how the dynamics of open source software (OSS) collaborations can be applied to other forms of knowledge commons. Schweik provides an overview of the OSS movement and the major practices that are employed in these commons…In a previous issue of JASIST, Yukika Awazu and I (Awazu and Desouza, 2004) outlined a similar argument on how the developments in OSS can be used to inform knowledge management practices in the organizations. The argument centered on moving to open, rather than closed, and collaborative, rather than protective, practices to foster effective knowledge management.

In Chapter 11, Wendy P. Lougee explores the changing role of research libraries in knowledge commons. Lougee conducts an expose of how communication conventions have evolved due to advances in distributed computing and the popularity of open-access protocols. She outlines the transformations that have taken place in content, the publication process, academic disciplines, and libraries. As we advance through the digital world and develop more sophisticated knowledge commons, libraries will need to shift their focus from being archivists and stewards of information goods to one of collaborators and catalysts of internet-based communities. The changes outlined by Lougee are salient. In a prior research project, several colleagues and I (Erat, Desouza, Schäfer-Jugel, et al., 2006) outlined how knowledge-based organizations (e.g. pharmaceutical firms) were undergoing structural changes within their sales force to take advantage of internet-based communities…librarians, as noted by Lougee, will need to embrace the need for changing from the reactive stance of archiving and stewarding information to the proactive stance of enabling the creation of information commons through being a catalyst and a collaborator with stakeholders.

The final chapter of the book by James C. Cox and J. Todd Swarth
out discusses the case of EconPort, an open-access digital library of microeconomics housed at the University of Arizona. EconPort was created to provide microeconomics educational resources to the general public. One specific goal of EconPort was to provide resources to facilitate the use of experiments in learning, teaching, and researching of microeconomics. The authors focus their comments on the role of incentives in facilitating the creation, utilization, and maintenance of knowledge commons.

Overall, I found this book very interesting. I commend the editors for assembling an eclectic group of scholars to contribute on an important topic. This book will make for an excellent supplemental text in graduate programs in areas of information science, library science, and even knowledge management. The book balances theory and practice. I found the book easy to read the chapters logically laid out. The only concern I have is the one-sided and unilateral focus on preserving knowledge commons. There are conceivably cases where knowledge commons are not a good thing. For example, knowledge commons can suffer from a bystander effect. By this I mean that everyone thinks someone else manages the common. This may lead to several undesirable consequences. In addition, in the current times, some information goods should be protected and secured (e.g. information on nuclear material and the materials and techniques required to make bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs)). Moreover, in the corporate setting of most private enterprises, the issues of how to manage internal knowledge commons is not as simple as the unilateral goal of making all knowledge available to all. This book does not provide the reader with a treatment of some of the unintended consequences of knowledge commons and the need for appropriate measures to secure them from these impacts. Even after accounting for this limitation, the book is an excellent resource for researchers who are examining the social dilemmas associated with the emerging field of knowledge commons. Furthermore, I would encourage that students in the library science fields pay particular attention to the chapters by Wendy P. Lougee, Charles M. Schweik, Nancy Kranich, and James Boyle.

Awazu, Y., and Desouza, K.C. “Open Knowledge Management: Lessons from the Open Source Revolution,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55 (11), 2004, 1016-1019.

Erat, P. Desouza, K.C., Schäfer-Jugel, A., and Kurzawa, M. “Business Customer Communities and Knowledge Sharing: Exploratory Study of Critical Issues.” European Journal of Information Systems, 15 (5), 2006, 511–524.

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