Future Commons project designed to foster new research network

While the Internet was originally designed as a way for research scientists to share their work, people soon began using it for all types of communication from email to online shopping. The resulting revolution in global communication changed the playing field for many businesses and industries except for, ironically, research publishing.

“The Internet was designed as a system for scholarly communication and it’s really the only industry that hasn’t been radically disrupted,” says Dr. Dan O’Donnell, a University of Lethbridge professor in the Department of English. “The same journals are still in charge, the same five publishers still run the market and the profit margins are the same.”

O’Donnell concentrates most of his research in the Digital Humanities, a field of study that applies tools and methods from computer science to humanities fields such as history, philosophy and literature. The more he dug into the publishing system, the more he became aware that scholarship is still being evaluated and rewarded using performance indicators from the print era. Wanting to address the lack of innovation in scholarly publishing, O’Donnell began working on building a different kind of research network called Future Commons.

“The goal of Future Commons is to develop a set of principles that you can use to adhere to best practice across your research life,” he says. “One of our principles is that research should be freely and publicly available but another of our principles is that you can have closed tools or services. Openness is a principle of ours but we’re not solely about openness, in fact, we’re trying to find a space where corporations could still make profit.”

O’Donnell, along with Educopia Institute, a non-profit organization devoted to building networks and collaborative communities, Force 11, a community working to change scholarly communication through use of information technology, and the universities of Montreal and California-San Diego, recently received $200,000 over two years from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to move Future Commons forward.

The Open Access model provides scholarly research that is digital, online, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. The model is better developed in the Global South (mid-and low-income economies) than it is in the Global North (high-income economies). To build some bridges between academics and students on both sides, some of the research funding will go toward a summer school in San Diego in July. The goal is to teach people across disciplines about best practice in scholarly communication.

“The idea is that we can learn a lot back and forth across the boundary. In the north, we have very robust systems for academic freedom and investigator freedom,” says O’Donnell. “In the Global South, Open Access publication is far better developed and much more integral to the lives of individual researchers.

Another aspect of the program will provide opportunities for students through Innovation in Scholarly Communication Fellowships. Students will be invited to propose a project on innovation in scholarly communication and the U of L School of Graduate Studies will pay the tuition while the student does an independent study based on the proposed project.

O’Donnell expects work on the Future Commons will extend into the future as more partners are added and it becomes a full-fledged research network.

 “Academic research is a huge driver of our economies and yet, it’s a fairly inefficient system and there’s a lot of evidence that says, because it’s traditionally conservative, it’s not following best practice,” he says. “Given how much money the public invests in university research, one of the goals here is to at least improve the efficiency of the delivery system without selling the public good to private corporations.”