Understanding Knowledge as Commons: From Theory to Practice

Charles Oppenheim (Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Oppenheim, C. (2008), "Understanding Knowledge as Commons: From Theory to Practice", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 478-480. https://doi.org/10.1108/00242530810895869



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book comprises twelve essays by a number of distinguished US academics and librarians that explore the concept of knowledge as a commons, available to all to be used by all. There is a heavy emphasis on the USA, and on scholarly publishing and software. The abiding theme throughout is Garrett Hardin's famous essay on the tragedy of the commons that appeared in Science in 1968, in which Hardin considers a piece of common grazing land and the motivation for local farmers to increase the number of grazing animals on it to maximise their personal benefit; the result is gross over‐feeding and the commons land becomes useless. Hardin's point, still relevant to the environmental movement today, is that if everyone acts selfishly, but logically, by maximising their use of resources, the result is catastrophe.

The authors have taken this idea and analysed it in for its relevance to knowledge (though in fact, to be more precise, they are discussing information and software code rather than knowledge) from various angles. The editors state they have used the terms “information commons” and “knowledge commons” interchangeably, but that is really a cop‐out as the two concepts are not synonymous at all. Nonetheless, the editors and authors have done a good job in exploring many facets, both theoretical and case‐study based, whilst keeping duplication of ideas to a minimum.

A number of the authors make the comment that Hardin's essay contains assertions that have repeatedly been found to be mistaken; for example, he assumed little or no communication between the users of the commons and that people only acted in self‐interest; they conclude that Hardin was totally wrong. The editors go so far as to say that Hardin's misconception has tended to discredit the commons as an effective instrument of community governance, a conclusion that this reviewer for one disagrees with, considering the well‐known problems of fish stock and whale depletion, oil reserves collapsing, global warming and so on. These are happening despite excellent communication precisely because people (and nations) continue to act in their own self‐interest. Nonetheless, the authors are right to point out that, unlike fish stocks, oil reserves and so on, information is rarely if ever used up, as it can be multiplied as often as is wished in an electronic environment.

The book, unfortunately, has some notable gaps. It fails to discuss knowledge management – a remarkable omission considering the title; it does not consider the various economic theories of information, such as that developed by Arrow. It has a heavy, and sometimes annoying US bias. There is cursory treatment of Lawrence Lessig's philosophical ideas (although there is coverage of his Creative Commons movement) and no apparent awareness that many of the ideas the authors are propounding were expounded (but not at great length) by Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality. It is surprising that Willinsky's text on the philosophical basis of OA, The Access Principle, does not get a single mention.

Some authors confuse Digital Rights Management ((DRM) – a broad concept encompassing identifying, recording and information third parties of who the rights owner is, as well as protecting the rightsowner's interests) with its sub‐set, Technical Protection Systems ((TPS) – the methods used to control access to electronic information to subscribers). One author goes so far as to call DRM an example of a TPS, when, if anything, the reverse is the case. The claim by one author that “higher citation counts lead to more research funding for the author” is self‐evidently wrong; the same author claims that Science Citation Index is “the main index of scientific journals”, which may cause the owners of databases such as Medline, Compendex, Inspec and Chemical Abstracts to wince.

Another author claims that universities are compelled to give their research “away to for‐profit publishers for free”, a gross oversimplification. The claim by the same author that when one cancels an electronic journal subscription, a library loses access to the material it previously had access to, may have been true years ago, but is no longer common. An author thinks that the JISC‐funded ROMEO project was led by Stevan Harnad, which, in fact, was led by – er – me. One author claimed “many readers will no doubt remember their own experience of awe and wonder when they learned how to interpret a footnote”. I doubt this was many readers' experience when encountering a footnote! The claim that authors who authorize Open Access by waiving certain rights can then “de‐authorise” the waiver later is unrealistic. Once you have let the genie out the bottle, you cannot put it back again.

One author claims that “knowledge is not a commodity”, an assertion that flies in the face of the experience of every consultant who knows that his or her knowledge is a precious commodity that keeps that consultant in business. The same author states “information should be free”, implying that all commercial information services, such as those involved in real time financial information, should not charge for their services – an unrealistic idea. Another author claims that patents deny access to knowledge, when the whole point of the patent system is that disclosure is mandatory. The claim that patent law prevent a third party from undertaking experiments on the patented invention is incorrect. The claim that basic scientific ideas can be patented is similarly incorrect.

The book, as for all MIT Press publications, is well typeset and is excellent value for money. I found one amusing typographical error – the claim that the US Information Security Office “reported a record 15.6 documents classified in 2004, an increase of 10 per cent over 2003”. One or two other minor typographical errors crept in elsewhere. The book provides a glossary and a good index. Overall, despite the numerous niggles, this is a rewarding book to read. It can be recommended to anyone with a broad interest in the philosophical and sociological aspects of scholarly communication.

Related articles