Why academia chooses open source

Open source software provides a concrete way for academic institutions to share the burden of common problems.
9 readers like this.


Participants of the Phaidracon 2021 roundtable on open source and academia recently discussed how open source delivers new or additional value to the academic space and its specific role regarding the long-term preservation of scholarly data.

Building on existing academic foundations

Universities have a long history of openness, pooling resources for research, and sharing with one another. Collaboration is part of this general phenomenon and the daily process of academic work. This spirit may be partly motivated by the realization that work is often funded through public money. And through this collaboration and connection, a community emerges.

According to Danese Cooper, who started the first Open Source Programs Office (OSPO) when she was at Sun Microsystems, there is a distinction between open code and open source software. Community is an essential component in building open source software. Being committed to openness and transparency is important for preservation and sustainability reasons. How often have we heard: I wrote a program and published its complete source code on my website, can my program be considered 'open source'?

When examining the forces that drive a community, the sharing of knowledge is a key factor. Another aspect that is vital for maintaining a community is contribution. Any open source project will survive longer and thrive if it is dynamic and fosters longer-term organic growth.

The human experience

Many projects fail to understand fully what motivates someone to participate in their community. One of the core challenges of inspiring people to participate in open source projects is instilling a sense of collective purpose. The feeling of belonging is also a key factor, and this sense of belonging only really comes through engagement and involvement. But shared purpose is not necessarily the only driver. Frequently, it can be the human experience of sharing in a purpose. The sense of belonging and being part of a bigger something can be an essential driver in itself.

"Most of us usually view open source as an adjective, but it is also a verb: describing methods and practices."

-Sayeed Choudhury — Associate dean in the Sheridan Library at Johns Hopkins

The level of contribution is vital for both the developer and user sides of any open source project. Developer contribution delivers obvious benefits. However, one should not underestimate the value of users because they can contribute requirements, along with vital feedback and experience.

A healthy, thriving community is essential for both open source and open data. As such, both the size and activity levels within a project can offer a significant metric for longer-term sustainability.

"One of the greatest challenges for open source projects is how to scale communities from what we might euphemistically call friend of a friend network, to an inflection point where the project receives a contribution, or feedback from a user, you do not know."

-Daniel Bernstein — Technical lead Fedora Repository Project

Open source as a catalyst for broader collaboration

Open source is not only about values and principles. There are pragmatic reasons for openness around software development, data, and stewardship.

For most projects, software development delivers a strong anchoring activity for broader collaboration around their focus area. By gathering groups from different institutions and solving problems together, software can provide a springboard to other activities. For most academics looking over a longer period, it's really not about the details of the software; it's about the data being able to move fluidly through time. Data holds value and importance. The role of technology is simply to preserve data as securely and cost-effectively as possible for the long term.

Learning the process that a project uses to develop software is a starting point to harmonize with other community members. People must collaborate over wide distances, often across time zones, so it can be hard to get to build engagement. A balance must be struck between cajoling and encouraging people to participate.

There can also be certain inherent tensions between encouraging new people to join the community and continuing to value the input and opinions of existing members. It is vital to steer a course that keeps those already deeply invested feeling content and comfortable while reducing the amount of friction working against the project moving forward.

Sharing solutions

Open source software provides a concrete way for academic institutions to share the burden of common problems. Frequently, the quickest way to find a solution is to see what worked for somebody else, and humans naturally look at how others have handled a specific challenge. Successful open source solutions are visible because they have dynamic communities behind them. They represent a lower risk because transparency shows us how others solved issues.

Even where communities focus on end-users rather than contributions, there can be immense value in the act of participation, sharing experiences, and targeting common goals. The way in which open source software can act as a catalyst for broader collaboration typically delivers value far beyond the software itself. Consider your own role in building and participating in open source initiatives, whether as a developer, user, or motivator.

User profile image.
Collaboration Strategist at Age of Peers. #yogaeverydamnday

1 Comment

Academia is where I learned UNIX and Linux, so glad I did. Great article!

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.