Scholarship is, by its nature, open source.

Let me explain.

The open-source (or “free” or “libre”) software movement centers around a single ideal: community ownership of software. Open-source software may or may not be free-as-in-beer (no cost), but it is always free-as-in-speech. Not only do users have the right to use the software, but users, developers, and re-developers have the rights to access, manipulate, break, rebuild the original code to fix bugs, add features, or create new projects. Open-source software is licensed in a semi-restrictive way. Limitations are placed on the use of the software that preserve the rights of the community (such as the requirement that all derivative versions use the same license). The author gives up the sole right to sell, distribute, and create derivative works in order to preserve those rights for the community, of which the author is, of course, a member.

Contrast this with proprietary software. There is a clear distinction between the creator and the consumer of a proprietary application, with access to the source code being the key difference. The creators of, say, Microsoft Word are likely users to some extent, but the vast majority of users cannot access, alter, improve, break, or reuse the source code — practically or legally.

For an open-source application, such as the Firefox web browser, the distinction between those who are primarily creators and those who are primarily consumers still exists. However, there is a third category — sometimes rather large — of creator/consumers, developer/users: hackers. These are the individuals who dig into code written by someone else and use it to (re)build an application, or to learn best how to use it. These developer/users are the key to the success of open-source software. They are also the key to scholarship.

To the extent that scholarship is the creation and curation of human knowledge, scholarship is an open-source endeavor. The end product — human knowledge — is not a fixed product, it is distributed, has diverse manifestations, and belongs to no individual or entity. Some scholarship involves the creation of new theories, systems, or tools. Some involves the repurposing of existing theories, systems, or tools for another domain. Some scholarship involves synthesis. Some involves critique. It always involves accessing the work of others in order to (re)build something that will enter public discourse (in other words, “publish”). And no matter how isolated the work, no matter how selfish the motivations, no matter how ignored the results, ultimately scholarship belongs to the human community.

Scholarship is, by its nature, open source.

This is not to say that scholarship is (or can be) done outside the economic and power structures of an institution. However, where scholarly activity has diverged from the idea of creating and curating public knowledge, the philosophy and practice of the open-source software community has much to offer academics.

First, open-source philosophy can offer a corrective in the way scholars and pedagogues view their identity and work. Scholars and pedagogues are not merely consumers (of journals, of textbooks, of ed-tech tools, of old scholars). Scholars and pedagogues are not merely creators (of journals, of textbooks, of ed-tech tools, of new scholars). Scholars are creator/consumers, developer/users… hackers.

I addressed this in an email I sent to the Society for Music Theory’s listserve last April on the issue of open-access publishing.

While the developer [v.] user (author [v.] reader, perhaps) model has its place in academia, I think the model of a community of developer-users (or simply “researchers” or “scholars” or “pedagogues”) makes more sense of much of what we do as music scholars and teachers. Academic research and teaching often necessitate manipulation, re-creation, breaking, rebuilding, etc.

This “manipulation, re-creation, breaking, rebuilding” — in other words, hacking — comes in many forms: using new data to refine existing models and theories, repurposing a tool from one discipline for use in another, supplementing a poor textbook reading with a lecture or better examples, revamping course materials as professors that we acquired from our graduate school mentors and colleagues.

This hacking is a core part of what we do as scholars and pedagogues. We are unapologetic tinkerers who neither invent the wheel, nor are satisfied with the wheels already at our disposal. The best scholarship and the best pedagogy take the best of what already exists and make it better, at least better for the task at hand. We need to embrace this identity as hackers, acknowledge our indebtedness to those who have gone before us, forsake the illusion that we are creating (can create, should create) something wholly original, but also refuse to take for granted the things that have been passed down to us.

A second thing that an open-source philosophy offers us as we seek to create and curate human knowledge is a new (or is it old?) publication model. The standard model of publishing today places restrictions on the public use of material in order to funnel financial profit to a single individual or corporation. To publish, in practice, is the opposite of entering material into the public domain. However, that is the original meaning of the word publish — to make public. In the past, economic realities required the use of expensive tools and personnel to distribute ideas publicly, and copyright protected those economic interests in order to facilitate the distribution of those ideas openly and freely. However, those expensive technologies are no longer necessary for us to put our ideas into the public domain and spread them openly and freely. Following the model of open-source software, we can enter our ideas and expressions into public discourse without going through corporate or institutional channels, and like the Free Software Foundation we can use the legal tools of copyright to protect the community’s access to our publications:

[W]e first state that it is copyrighted; then we add distribution terms, which are a legal instrument that gives everyone the rights to use, modify, and redistribute the program’s code, or any program derived from it, but only if the distribution terms are unchanged. Thus, the code and the freedoms become legally inseparable. Proprietary software developers use copyright to take away the users’ freedom; we use copyright to guarantee their freedom. That’s why we reverse the name, changing “copyright” into “copyleft.”

Lastly, the world of open-source offers us tools to do this work. Open-source developers and hackers have given us the internet, multiple publishing platforms, and amazing collaborative tools. I am not asking everyone to burn their MacBook Pro. (Though, the world might be a better place if a few more of them were running Debian Linux!) However, there are mature tools that were designed with this philosophy in mind and facilitate our hacking of the academic paper, the textbook, and the LMS. I hope to walk through some of these in more detail in future articles. For now, let me whet your appetite with a video on using GitHub’s website generation capabilities to hack the textbook.

The open-source movement can serve as a helpful model for liberal education, especially among those who value critical or hybrid pedagogy. Both open-source and critical pedagogy blur the boundary between creators and consumers. Both open-source and traditional liberal education build on — and critique — the past as they seek to advance their fields. Open-source, traditional liberal education, and critical pedagogy all are concerned with freedom and the good of the community. Where liberally minded scholars and pedagogues are seeking to create and curate human knowledge in a way that is more open, accessible, and valuable to the human community, we have a useful model in the open-source movement.

By viewing ourselves outside the binaries of scholar v. teacherteacher v. student, and author v. reader v. publisher, or even editor v. author; by using the laws of publication restriction to guarantee the rights of the community; and by using available open-source technologies as we embrace new models of publication, we can make great strides in the pursuit of truly liberal education.

Hackers, publishers, authors, consumers, developers, scholars, pedagogues. That’s what we are. Let’s work like those are analogues.

Read the practical follow-up from Kris: “Push, pull, fork: GitHub for Academics.”