At this point, we will deal with the notion of openness and its close relationship with citizen science. The issue of openness in science will lead us to deepen the approach of the commons. In this analysis, we will argue our proposal to consider science – and citizen science itself – as one of the knowledge commons. Throughout this section, we present examples of citizen science projects to illustrate our proposal.
Commons: Beyond Public Goods
In the section on networks of cooperation, we considered the expansion of the knowledge network system underlying the growing phenomenon of citizen science. That expansion leads to an increase both in the number of agents and in the flows of production and dissemination of knowledge. In this context, openness – as opposed to enclosure or exclusion – is key if we want knowledge to be as accessible, disseminated, and co-generated as possible. It could then be inferred – as has been widely assumed by Western culture, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century – that knowledge is a public good like the light of a coastal lighthouse or a road network. A public good is a resource open to use by all, including those who may not contribute to its existence or maintenance. Furthermore, a public good is managed by state institutions.
The mainstream view of social dilemmas (e.g. tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, etc.) and the possibilities of collective action takes for granted the selfish and opportunistic behaviour of individuals, which leads to the deterioration or loss of shared goods through over-exploitation. This justifies the intervention of external agents to ensure the maintenance of open, shared resources. This perspective proposes a scheme of governance with only two institutional forms, the state and the market, to address collective problems.
According to the mainstream view in economics, resources are classified into two types with respect to their intrinsic properties. On the one hand, there are private goods. These are excludable and rivalrous. On the other hand, there are public goods. These are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. However, a decade later this classification was shown to be insufficient, since it does not account for the case of club goods. These can be used to understand the basic properties of goods, namely, excludability and rivalry (also known as subtractability). Consider the example of the theatre. You can access the play only if you pay for the ticket. The play is an excludable good, because not everyone can access it. Nevertheless, the fact that other people enjoy the play at the same time does not diminish your enjoyment. The play is a non-subtractable good, because the fact that others use it does not prevent you from using it too.
However, in the 1970s, Ostrom and her team proposed an alternative thesis, based on their wide empirical studies. They introduced the concept of the common goods, simply known as the commons. These are excludable resources, as public goods, but subtractable, as private goods. Pastures and forests are examples of common goods. They are excludable because in principle everyone can access them. Nevertheless, they are also subtractable to use. The grass or the wood consumed by one user cannot be consumed by another user. In addition, the introduction of the commons led to a reconceptualisation of excludability and subtractability as gradual properties. Some goods are more or less excludable/subtractable than others (see Fig. 4.1 for a diagram of the classification of goods).
It is therefore the rules, rather than the intrinsic properties of the resource, that define how it is classified. Thus, management and property approaches to resolve conflicts related to their scarcity can be addressed in alternative ways to the market and the state. The emphasis is neither on property nor accessibility, but on the rules agreed by communities of practice. The property may be state or private or communal. The management may be communal, or communal-state-private, or state-private, etc. This depends on the agreements made. Resources are considered commons when the community is the beneficiary and when it develops the rules that define the uses of the resource, including self-monitoring.
Although there are no fixed or universal rules for the constitution of a commons, their sustainability is based on reciprocity, trust, and cooperation. Ostrom’s work shows that human beings have complex motivational structures beyond personal interest, as well as a greater capacity to solve social problems than the prevailing theories on social dilemmas. In fact, individuals in diverse communities know how to resolve their conflicts, without the intervention of external agents: through self-government, in a decentralised, or polycentric, way. In many different contexts, self-governance has reinforced the capacity to solve problems sustainably over long periods of time.
Commons had tended to be ignored in traditional economics analyses. However, the sustainability of certain commons, even over the centuries, has been demonstrated as possible through case studies around the world. It is also highly relevant to mention, albeit very briefly, the convergences of studies on commons and cooperation in different research areas. The emergence of cooperation as a key to the evolution and survival of various complex systems, from the cellular level to socioecological and social structures (Levin 2004), has prompted the research on strategies that lead to stable outcomes in the long term (see Levin 2004 on evolution theory; Axelrod 1984 and 2010 on game theory and political science; MacIntyre 2016 on ethics).
Finally, it should be noted that the classification of certain goods depends on the existing technological possibilities along with the current norms and laws. However, and above all, it depends on the will of those who have competences, responsibilities, and power for defining the resources towards one or another direction. The key question here is: should science be included among public goods as is currently often advocated to prevent its privatisation? Our proposal emphasises that science should be considered a commons in order to achieve its optimal governance.
From Natural Commons to Knowledge as a Commons
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Elinor Ostrom, Charlotte Hess, and other researchers began to develop the notion of knowledge as a commons (Hess and Ostrom 2007), extending the concept from the physical to knowledge. Knowledge can be considered as a commons because of its relatively high subtractability and relatively low excludability. These authors explained that, despite various difficulties, similarity can be established because knowledge commons are collectively sustained resources whose accessibility and durability are conditioned by the rules of use.
Science can be understood as a commons mainly because it requires common action within a collaborative project – the result of deliberation and agreement on the rules – to preserve knowledge. Science as a commons is not equivalent to public science but to ‘open science or extramural science yet not merchantilized’ (Lafuente and Estalella 2015, p. 29). In this sense, open science is related to inclusiveness. Lafuente and Estalella argue that science as a commons does not consist of professional science including citizens in their design and evaluation; it is not the usual science but ‘a democratic or postmodern version’ (p. 29). Science is a commons due to the application of ‘contrastive, collective and recursive cognitive practices, a historically differentiated way of producing knowledge, community and commitment’ (Lafuente and Estalella 2015, p. 29).
Unlike public and private goods, science as a commons is constituted from and together with its communities, according to the rules of use they themselves establish. Achieving a kind of science that constitutes the common (Dardot and Laval 2019), or a common science (Lafuente and Estalella 2015), requires collaborative action from all those involved – with common objectives, deliberations, infrastructures, and rules of use – as well as attitudes based on trust, reciprocity, and cooperation.
However, such a proposal must be achievable in practice, while science is widely developed on a large scale. Among current good practices of common governance, we can consider some that we have included as sound practices of citizen science, for example, SnowChange, Model Forests, and Biodiversidad Virtual (Table 4.1). Their main shared features are the cooperative management of resources and the co-creation of scientific knowledge beyond (or together with) official institutions. These practices consist of a type of collaborative action that favours a sustainable development of natural resources, as well as the knowledge and methodologies derived from such collaborative actions (see Fig. 4.2). We can also refer to hundreds of projects around the world or to the thousands of publications and studies about socioecological systems among many other topics. Or we can reference Alan Irwin (1995, p. 10) and why he chose environmental issues as a paradigm of the citizen science phenomenon. He indicated three reasons: first, they imply areas of encounter among institutions and citizens; second, environmental risks represent very well other areas of technical and social debate; finally, sustainable development also involves defining the sustainable way of managing science and expertise. Irwin’s last reason reflects a central theme in this chapter, together with the concept of cooperation as a methodological foundation of citizen science. Indeed, our proposal for the constitution of science as a commons through citizen science is valid for any cooperative action. Citizen science is particularly powerful because it refers to the sustainability not only of natural resources but of knowledge and science itself.
Citizen science has a particularly relevant role because it (1) allows the development of a multitude of projects in diverse fields with different scopes; (2) favours the constitution of self-regulated and polycentric systems; and (3) supports the conditions of governance and the conservation of the commons.
Citizen Science as a Commons
Lafuente and Estalella (2015) present an analysis of the role of citizen science in the open science context and specifically as a common science. They understand citizen science as science conducted outside the walls of academia, in which knowledge is developed by virtuous communities. They also highlight that there is not a unique citizen science but rather many citizen sciences (with respect to the diversity of citizen science definitions and interpretations see Haklay et al., Chap. 2, this volume). A relevant comparison is to the maker movement and hacker ethics. Makers and hackers can be defined, respectively, as people who build things and software, sometimes as anti-consumerism, but often for practical reasons based on do-it-yourself (DIY) culture (Toombs et al. 2014). The gift economy translates into sustainable practices and protocols, promoting an open, experimental, inalienable, horizontal, and distributed culture (Lafuente and Estalella 2015). Though not all activity is science, there is a lot of science undertaken by makers and hackers. In this sense, robust citizen science projects – for example, Debian as an emblematic hacker project – help to understand the constitution of scientific knowledge as a commons. In addition, it can be better understood that projects are constituted as knowledge commons. Each one of them consists of a resource sustained by a community, and the community is constituted at the same time as the resource.
Using a different approach we can find initiatives such as Model Forests where open and collaborative science is linked to concepts such as cognitive justice, situated knowledge, and knowledge commons, together with those shared by European policies (inclusion, sustainability, equity). In this way, the sociopolitical aspects of scientific knowledge are understood beyond its (necessary) economic conditions and implications. A set of relevant references for this topic can be found on the Open Collaborative Science Development Network (OCSDNet) website (OCSDNet n.d.).
Understanding that citizen science is a suitable practice to constitute the common implies a double sense, which Dardot and Laval (2019) propose for the common in general: science (and citizen science) is configured as a commons at the same time that, through common action, co-responsible communities are created and consolidated. This proposal is illustrated with the examples in Table 4.2 and in the scheme in Fig. 4.2. We understand that citizen science, by overcoming the fictitious fracture between science and its environment, represents a fundamental element for achieving this. However, this is also dependant on the motivations of the involved agents in the governance of a true scientific-technological and sociopolitical progress.
Paraphrasing MacIntyre (2002, p. 107) on the commons concept, we note that in many situations the key question that we should ask is not ‘how should I act’ but ‘how should we act’, since the common goods of concrete communities (e.g. the work team) are at stake. These common goods are achieved and enjoyed by individuals as members of communities. An example of success in maintaining the natural commons would be the case of fishing communities. But these achievements are fragile and depend, in large part, on the characteristics that define the agents of these communities. The networks of reciprocity must be created and protected mainly through the development of virtues, including the virtue of recognition of dependence. This is possible through common deliberation about how to define and obtain the shared goods of each community: different but interdependent with one another.
As we have seen, goods are one kind or another not so much per se but by how we use them. Particularly, good management of a commons is linked to cooperation and self-government including monitoring among the members of the community of practice. In this chapter, we have introduced a proposal to understand and manage science – and citizen science – as a commons, that is, as a vulnerable resource that requires rules of use and monitoring, agreed within the communities of use. Vulnerability results from the action of individuals who do not assume their responsibility in the maintenance of a shared resource. They are free-riders who simply consume at the expense of the work of others.
In fact, inequitable treatment of participants can take place, as many citizen science professionals have pointed out. Specifically, Vohland et al. (2019, p. 9) have warned about the need for vigilance ‘against instrumentalization by economical interests or the displacement of state duties to citizens’. There are also concerns about the intentions behind its promotion either by institutional science or by policymakers, for example, with respect to possible cost outsourcing (Resnik et al. 2015). In this sense, Mirowski (2018) explicitly argues against citizen science (and open science), understanding it as a tool exclusively for fostering the economy, encouraged by European policies.
With respect to European policy, Schade et al. (Chap. 18, this volume) explain that citizen science has been explicitly placed in different science policy frameworks, in line with the overarching objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy and in relation to specific areas such as the Digital Agenda, Science 2.0, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), and Open Science, the latter being the main current framework. Indeed, the European Commission (EC) proposes citizen science as one of the priorities of open science, to ‘encourage the inclusion of non-institutional participants, in other words the general public, in the scientific processes’ (EC 2016, p. 53) and ‘re-direct research agendas towards issues of concern to citizens’ (EC 2016, p. 54). In the founding document of this initiative, Carlos Moedas (2015, p. 1) states that ‘we are moving into a world … where new knowledge is created through global collaborations involving thousands of people from across the world and from all walks of life’.
The above statements do not seem objectionable, in principle. Nevertheless, they need to be addressed in more detail as they can be limited in scope by a reductionist interpretation of open and citizen science. This requires clarifying the analysis of practices in a system whose main goal appears to be the industrial and commercial exploitation of knowledge.
In this respect, the statement ‘the European Union will not remain competitive at the global level unless it promotes Open Science, and relatedly, Open Innovation’ (EC 2017, p. 4) can be seen as indicative of the instrumentalisation of ‘openness’. Citizens would be seen as ‘users’ with ‘a central and transversal role to play in bringing innovation to the market’ (EC 2016, p. 17) rather than as legitimate producers of knowledge.
Of course, this way of interpreting open science and citizen science is not the only one in the EC. The many citizen science projects funded through the last three Research and Innovation Framework Programmes (FPs) have involved thousands of people – including professional scientists, policymakers, companies, the third sector, and citizens in general – actively participating, aware of their co-responsibility for the generation of scientific knowledge and the maintenance and cohesion of their communities and societies. Regarding more specific ethical issues, we refer to research carried out by Tauginienė et al. (Chap. 20, this volume).
If the main feature of citizen science is cooperation (action for constituting commons), specific rules must be established in each project, so that ‘its practice … by different actors and interest groups … be monitored and reflected upon carefully’ (Vohland et al. 2019, p. 6). The current ambivalence of citizen science towards either strengthening or mitigating its instrumentalisation (Vohland et al. 2019) is related to its condition as a commons. Due to the gradual properties of resources, one type of resource can evolve into another quite easily. Commons are especially vulnerable as they share properties of both public and private goods. In this sense, in a neoliberal context, they face the risk of being privatised.
In short, citizen science represents an important occasion for sociopolitical and cultural-scientific change, which not only favours citizens to be more committed and co-responsible with respect to science but also to achieve better science in all its dimensions. However, it also represents a resource that we need to better understand in order to ensure its preservation.