Open source and open content: a framework for global collaboration in social-ecological research

This paper discusses opportunities for alternative collaborative approaches for social-ecological research in general and, in this context, for modeling land-use/land-cover change. In this field, the rate of progress in academic research is steady but perhaps not as rapid or efficient as might be possible with alternative organizational frameworks. The convergence of four phenomena provides new opportunities for cross-organizational collaboration: (1) collaborative principles related to "open source" (OS) software development, (2) the emerging area of "open content" (OC) licensing, (3) the World Wide Web as a platform for scientific communication, and (4) the traditional concept of peer review. Although private individuals, government organizations, and even companies have shown interest in the OS paradigm as an alternative model for software development, it is less commonly recognized that this collaborative framework is a potential innovation of much greater proportions. In fact, it can guide the collective development of any intellectual content, not just software. This paper has two purposes. First, we describe OS and OC licensing, dispense with some myths about OS, and relate these structures to traditional scientific process. Second, we outline how these ideas can be applied in an area of collaborative research relevant to the study of social-ecological systems. It is important to recognize that the concept of OS is not new, but the idea of borrowing OS principles and using OC licensing for broader scientific collaboration is new. Over the last year, we have been trying to initiate such an OS/OC collaboration in the context of modeling land use and land cover. In doing so, we have identified some key issues that need to be considered, including project initiation, incentives of project participants, collaborative infrastructure, institutional design and governance, and project finance. OS/OC licensing is not a universal solution suitable for all projects, but the framework presented here does present tangible advantages over traditional methods of academic research.
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