Governing the scholarly commons: the Radical Open Access Collective

The Radical Open Access Collective (ROAC) is a community of 60+ not-for-profit presses, journals and other open access projects. One of the aims of the collective is to legitimise scholar-led publishing as an important alternative model for open access, while supporting our members and encouraging others to experiment with scholar-led publishing too. The ROAC therefore serves a similar function to other membership organisations such as the Library Publishing Coalition, the Association of European University Presses, and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, all of whom support certain approaches to publishing or kinds of publisher.

Unlike these membership bodies, the ROAC has no formal governance structure, bylaws or committees to help organise our activities. This has made sense while the collective was in its infancy. However, we are particularly interested in further encouraging mutual reliance by experimenting with ways of supporting one another (beyond simple lip service). Perhaps we need a way to encourage this through some kind of light-touch governance.

Mutual reliance for us is more than the mere sharing of advice through the listserv (although this is a key part of it) but implores each press to think about one another as partners or collaborators rather than competitors. This is why the only requirement for joining is a willingness to share with other members of the collective in a horizontal, non-competitive manner. This could be through promoting each other’s activities and publications at conferences, open-sourcing our tools and sharing documentation and other resources openly with the community. In doing this, we hope to resist the general trend towards marketisation in publishing by experimenting with cultures of resilience through shared efforts, all while still maintaining each press’s unique identity.

But these experiments are more than just about publishing – they intend to reveal the possibilities of mutual reliance in higher education (and beyond) so that others may engage in similar practices of collaboration. Janneke Adema, for instance, refers to this process as ‘scaling small’ whereby members engage in practices of horizontal collaboration within the collective and look towards vertical collaboration with other collectives. All of these practices intend to maintain the individual autonomy and identity of each member project while allowing them to benefit from the relationships fostered within the collective.

So the question this blog post wants to explore is: what system of governance will allow the Radical Open Access Collective to best promote the kinds of mutual reliance described so far? Currently the ROAC has no official governance and describes itself as a horizontal and democratic collective. Perhaps this lack of governance is limiting our ability to proactively work with one another as members and to fully explore the potential of mutual reliance. How should we address this?

The membership organisations listed above each have different governance models including highly formalised systems of voting and boards of governance that oversee decision-making. But these organisations usually charge membership fees of hundreds or even thousands of pounds a year and they can therefore spend resources on coming up with adequate processes for accountability and staff to maintain them. While such formalised systems might be fitting for the future, right now it is difficult to see how the ROAC could practically devise, implement and maintain such a system bearing in mind we receive no resources for maintaining the collective (only occasional support) and our members as not-for-profits are not always in a position to pay membership fees. We should therefore look towards more informal collectives to see how they are governed.

One interesting concept I learned about recently was that of ‘lazy consensus’. This is the form of governance employed by The Maintainers – a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, and repair – who themselves have borrowed the idea from Apache Rave. Lazy consensus requires members to follow discussions online and to speak out within a given time frame if anyone disagrees with what is being proposed (72 hours is the proposed time to account for numerous time zones). If no one disagrees, and as long as all proposals are made through the same channel, then tacit agreement is assumed. It is a light-touch approach to decision-making in relatively consensual organisations with busy members, as long as members are following the discussions online.

So lazy consensus will only work if there is regular activity or discussion that members of the collective can follow (and so they will see any items tabled for consensus). It requires collectives to get to know one another and to learn about each other’s practices and values, to care for another and to understand our situations. It thus requires commoning: practices of sustained social activity that maintain our projects as shared endeavours. Commoning is a highly situated activity of resource maintenance through community-building. I have theorised elsewhere how commoning is a practice of care for the relationships around shared resources. It does not refer to a specific or reified set of practices but requires us to learn how to get along and help each other out.

Most importantly, then, commoning requires that we know each other. This is why we hope to stimulate more discussion on the listserv. This was also a request from many of the presses we surveyed back in May. To this end, we wanted to suggest that one member takes control of setting topics for discussion for one month at a time (an idea borrowed from the empyre mailing list). One way to further encourage members to do this is by offering the opportunity to do so in their preferred/native language – with an English summary if possible (though this of course wouldn’t be a requirement) – in order to increase linguistic diversity within the community. Presses can then for example post one message for discussion each week and can moderate and encourage responses.

By stimulating discussion, we hope the ROAC will be able to further promote the conditions for reciprocity and trust between members, even if there exist significant differences of opinion. Having regular discussion as a community might allow us to employ concepts such as lazy consensus (and explore other governance structures as needed in combination with this). This might also give us the space to further influencing debates and policies as a collective – e.g. through consultations and general responses to the goings on in the world of open access. We are also interested in exploring the idea of leadership positions and committees – especially if members think this would be beneficia – but for now these two proposals seem like a good way of stimulating activity within the collective.

However, there are many other forms of informal/light-touch governance for horizontal collectives. One of the original inspirations for the Radical Open Access Collective was Open Humanities Press, whose organisational structure involves multiple, self-governing scholarly groups, organized around journals or book series, and includes academics, librarians, publishers, technologists, journal editors, etc., operating as a radically heterogeneous collective. Mattering Press also has a unique horizontal structure involving numerous committees, while meson press formalised their operations as a worker-owned co-operative. We would love to hear if you have any suggestions or yourself participate in any governance structures that might be appropriate for the ROAC, especially those that help promote mutual reliance between members.

In summary, we are seeking members’ opinions on this idea of lazy consensus and generating more of a community through the listserv. Do these light-touch proposals for governance sound workable or helpful? Do we need something more formalised? Are there any other forms of governance we should be considering? We will be reaching out to presses specifically to ask if they would be willing to facilitate and moderate discussion on the listserv for one month, but please do not hesitate to get in touch if you are interested! Look out for another blog post soon on the open-source bookstand for shared promotional activity at events.