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2. Community Governance: The Romance Of Community, The Real Of Coalition

Published onApr 30, 2022
2. Community Governance: The Romance Of Community, The Real Of Coalition

One difficult question that comes to the fore when thinking about community governance is the issue of ‘community’. It is twenty years since Miranda Joseph explored how the relentless ideal of community serves to legitimise the social hierarchies of gender, race, nation, and sexuality that capitalism implicitly requires (Joseph, 2002).1 Yet the discourse of community remains all-pervasive. Across the literature dealing with open scholarship and open infrastructure, ‘community’ is often upheld as a guarantor of the values governance should enshrine. For Laurie Gemmill Arp and Megan Forbes, for example, the core goal in establishing governance is to ‘Plan and implement the governance model or models that best reflect the values of the program and community’ (Arp & Forbes, 2018: 11). Similarly, the OPERAS research infrastructure takes its principles by which infrastructures should be run and sustained from The Principles of Open Scholarly Infrastructure (POSI), which defines governance as follows:

Governance: a system to ensure that the central services serve the community, not themselves or certain interest groups, to ensure that they are responsive to changing needs, etc. (Mounier et al., 2018)

As Cameron Neylon (Professor of Research Communications at the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University and one of the co-authors of POSI) acknowledged in COPIM’s initial community governance workshop, POSI ‘dodged’ the task of defining a community because of how difficult this is to do in the abstract. The ‘slippery’ quality of the concept of community emerged strongly from this workshop with external supporters and allies of the project. Participants recognised how ‘community’ is used to impart an often ill-defined or unacknowledged shared identity, while also suggesting that ‘working out who your “community” may be is the most important question’ that an infrastructure project has to answer. These discussions are documented in a COPIM workshop report ‘On the Meaning of Community’ (Moore & Adema, 2020a), which we will discuss more in depth at the end of this chapter. We recommend this as a helpful introduction to the complexities of thinking about community. The authors, Sam Moore and Janneke Adema, also record there the lessons COPIM learned from these discussions. Among the most important of these lessons is the necessity of establishing a pluralistic understanding of communities, or what Leslie Chan (Associate Professor Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto) termed a ‘community of communities’.

One key aspect of the problem with “the community”’, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University), who also attended the workshop, puts it in Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University,

might be less about “community” than about “the”; it’s possible that acknowledging and foregrounding the multiple and multifarious communities with which all of us engage might help us avoid the exclusions that the declaration of groupness is often designed to produce, the “us” that inevitably suggests a “them” (Fitzpatrick, 2019: 11).

The homogenising and exclusionary potential of ‘the community’ emerged as another central preoccupation from COPIM’s first governance workshops. One example of homogenisation, raised by Arianna Becerril García (executive director of Redalyc, founder and chair of AmeliCA) during the workshop, is the way open access advocates in Europe and North America tend to talk about open access in Latin America, ignoring immense ideological and geographical distances between various groups and contexts. Florence Piron (founder of Éditions science et bien commun) meanwhile highlighted how a community that prides itself on being open to all can nevertheless function to exclude. She herself noted that she does not feel part of the open access ‘community’ that supposedly welcomes her, primarily because of its anglophone character which excludes many non-native English speakers.

Despite all these issues, ‘community’ clearly retains the power to suggest a different way of doing things. ‘Community-led’ and ‘community-driven’ suggest values and practices that operate in distinction to top-down or market-led approaches, such as bibliodiversity, open and public knowledge, and collaboration and anti-competitiveness. The notion of the community of communities, which encourages attention to the diversity of interests and stakeholders in a project, has been taken up not only by COPIM but by other infrastructure projects and organisations that aim to be community-driven. In practice, though, the tendency, at least in much of the English-language governance guidance cited above, is to conceive of this community of communities primarily in terms of institutional roles or functions: the various overlapping stakeholder groups, including publishers, researchers, librarians, and wider audiences and publics.

The extent to which these different categories of stakeholder are likely to be differently situated, to have differing goals and working methods, presents particular issues for infrastructure projects, particularly in terms of structure and representation (see chapters 4 and 5). As COPIM has grappled with the practical difficulties of ensuring that the Open Book Collective’s governance aligns with both its business plan and legal requirements without compromising its core values and principles, another important way of thinking about this ‘community of communities’ has become more apparent. Crudely put, this is the often unstable alliance between what we might call, in one unsatisfactory shorthand, ‘reformers’ and ‘revolutionaries’. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s influential essay ‘The University and the Undercommons’ frames this relationship in a manner that is especially relevant to the governance of community-driven infrastructure projects aimed at supporting open scholarly and intellectual exchange:

Worry about the university. This is the injunction today. […] Call for its restoration like Harold Bloom or Stanley Fish or Gerald Graff. Call for its reform like Derek Bok or Bill Readings or Cary Nelson. Call out to it as it calls to you. But for the subversive intellectual, all of this goes on upstairs, in polite company, among the rational men. After all, the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of all that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow lowdown maroon community of the university, into the undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong (Harney & Moten, 2013: 26).

It is from somewhere akin to this ‘undercommons of enlightenment’, this ‘maroon community of the university’, that many of the first small-scale open access publishing and scholarship projects emerged. These are often precisely the sort of ventures from which COPIM grew and which its model of ‘scaling small’ sets out to support. Many of the scholar-led publishing projects arose historically out of intense frustration with—and in explicit opposition to—the marked indifference and structural hostility on the part of ‘upstairs’, exemplified by a lack of institutional support or interest in the kind of publishing projects they wanted to initiate (open access, not-for-profit, inter-institutional) (Adema & Stone, 2017: 44-45). More often than not, those who have led the way in opening up scholarship have found themselves in something resembling the ambivalent relationship towards existing infrastructures of scholarly, intellectual and educational communication that Harney and Moten articulate: ‘in but not of’ the university, unable to deny that it ‘is a place of refuge’, but forced ‘to abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment’ in order to do its real work. Similarly to the figuration of ‘para-academcs,’ punctum books’ Eileen Joy outlines how ‘These are not groups who reject the museum, the gallery, the conventional publishing world, or the university -- rather, they seek to inhabit the position of the ‘para-‘ [the ‘beside’], a position of intimate exteriority, or exterior intimacy’ (Joy, 2013).

As the open access movement has matured and developed, it has expanded its original focus to look towards a broader conception of open scholarship, taking in not only how research is accessed but the conditions of its production. In parallel with this development, the argument for opening access has begun to influence ‘polite company’, those who ‘worry’ about the university and look to reform it. This has opened up the possibility for significant change to the existing infrastructure, with initiatives such as Plan S promising to make ‘full and immediate’ open access the norm rather than the exception in scholarly publishing, and open access projects able to attract significant funding. But as we have seen, this has also brought with it risks of dilution, compromise and takeover. Led by a group of European national research funders and global charitable funders which includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Plan S has been criticised for promoting a ‘gold’ APC or BPC model of open access (‘pay-to-publish’) that entrenches existing inequalities and for its potential to reduce diversity in the scholarly publishing ecosystem.2 Early advocates of open scholarship understandably fear that commercial publishers and other interests deeply embedded in the existing infrastructure will have little trouble co-opting such top-down, policy-driven forms of openness (Kember, 2014).

This situation has led to perhaps the most complex coalition or ‘community of communities’ of all: the alliance between upstairs and downstairs, between those who find themselves occupying the position of the ‘subversive intellectual’ (in Harney and Moten’s terms) or ‘scholar-activist’ (in Joseph-Salisbury and Connelly’s), and those who ‘worry’ about the university. This uneasy coalition between the ‘maroon community’ on the one hand and ‘polite company’ on the other is fundamentally, deeply political. A situated and embedded recasting of the historically fraught relationship between reformists and revolutionaries, it has serious implications for any attempt to establish forms of governance. It cuts across the various other communities commonly identified in a way that gives rise to both conflicts and alliances and any discussion of community-led governance should take it into account.

Of course, in practice the alliance between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ is more complicated than this binary picture suggests. Those with secure positions near the centre of existing scholarly infrastructures are often in safer and more powerful positions from which to express and pursue radical change than those on the margins. Many of those working in the field of ‘community-led’ scholarly communication negotiate a position for themselves that looks to bridge the two roles of the reformist who worries about the university, and the radical.3 Others find themselves pulled relentlessly between the two positions, the alliance barely, painfully held together within the individual subject.

It is extremely difficult (and perhaps simply too early) to suggest any kind of ‘better practice’ for approaching this kind of upstairs-downstairs coalition-building. As with so much else in governance, this is as much (or more) a matter of politics as it can ever be of policy or procedure, and the best solutions or approach for any given project or organisation will be dependent upon its own contexts, and the (often highly specific) cultures and expectations of its communities. We incline to prefer an approach that, at least internally, makes explicit any differences in position and goal between members, as best facilitating the construction of honest, meaningful and effective coalitions and alliances. (This may mean in turn that an organisation’s values and goals are best articulated in relatively broad terms, as is discussed in the following chapter.) However, in many contexts and organisational cultures a certain vagueness may enable unlikely allies to work together in a way that would become impossible were their differences to be drawn into a sharper focus.

While clear better practice is hard to pin down, then, we’ve nevertheless felt it important to draw attention to this issue here, for several reasons. First, it can have such significant consequences for any community-led open infrastructure organisation’s effective governance that to continue to skim over it, as much otherwise excellent governance advice does, risks presenting a false picture of the challenges that governance of such organisations involves. Secondly, while we’re not (yet) in the position to offer any very concrete guidance that is anything close to universally or even generally applicable, the members of any organisation are likely to be in a position to identify localised, situated governance solutions and strategies. Thirdly, by drawing attention to this area, we hope to stimulate the sharing of such solutions and, as a wider community, move towards a better understanding of the specific challenges such ‘upstairs-downstairs’ coalitions entail.


Finally, perhaps, a better awareness of the kinds of alliances we are building can lead to a fuller appreciation of the importance of ‘killjoys’, and to a governance culture more accepting of them. Borrowing the term from Sara Ahmed (and noting that she is building on the work of Audre Lorde and bell hooks), the vision statement of punctum books (COPIM member and one of the founding members of ScholarLed) celebrates the role of the killjoys

who serve as “blockage points” that threaten the group’s social bond, and who “get in the way” of any group’s “enjoyment and solidarity.” The killjoy is a “willful” figure who might never “get over it,” who importantly enacts a critical “style of politics: a refusal to look away from what has already been looked over.” We need the killjoys, whether they arrive from the inside or outside of our community, to unsettle our so-called “successes” and “happiness” and to break the ground on which we think we stand, however disorienting (punctum books, n.d.).

When organisations recognise that they represent a coalition of interests, roles and positions (or at least as a community of often disparate communities), raising uncomfortable, difficult objections is less liable to be seen as merely obstructive than when they are conceived of simply as a community of shared interests and views. The killjoy can and should always remain in some sense the outsider on the inside, the one who refuses: but conceiving of the collective as a critical community, or, in Ambalavaner Sivinandan’s terms, as a ‘community of resistance’, may help ensure that the killjoy is heard (Sivanandan, 1990).

Better Practice Recommendations

Community is a necessary but not an adequate concept for thinking about the diverse actors and stakeholders involved in an open, community-driven infrastructure project, and for evaluating not only the risks but also the opportunities to which this diversity gives rise. The discourse of ‘community’ can easily become a way to avoid thinking about, benefiting from and addressing differences, tensions, and conflicts within a project.

Think in terms of coalitions, alliances, and even individuals, not just communities.

This will help to

  • make clear the areas in which different participants are in agreement, useful areas of discussion, compromise, and negotiation, and any ‘red lines’;

  • establish a space for healthy disagreement and debate.

This is one area in which the default best practice of outward transparency may not apply.

Regularly map both your existing community of communities, and the community of communities you want to bring about.

There are various ways to do this. One good starting place might be with an exercise such as McCandless and Lipmanowic’s Social Network Webbing exercise. This quickly illuminates for a whole group what resources are hidden within their existing network of relationships and what steps to take for tapping those resources. It also makes it easy to identify opportunities for building stronger connections as well as new ones. The inclusive approach makes the network visible and understandable to everybody in the group simultaneously, and encourages individuals to take the initiative for building a stronger network rather than receiving directions through top-down assignments. Informal or loose connections—even friends’ friends—are tapped in a way that can have a powerful influence on progress without detailed planning and big investments.

An excellent follow-up tool is ‘Vision in Formation: Articulating Your Community’s Purpose’ (available as either a PDF or a Google Doc), part of Educopia’s growing Community Cultivation Resource Library (check back regularly for new community-related resources). ‘Vision in Formation’ enables a facilitator to ‘guide the initial members of a new community or network to articulate and document the shared purpose of their collaboration’ and may also help ‘existing communities that are in transition and reconsidering their shared purpose’. The resource also includes useful templates.

Further Reading

Adema, J., & Moore, S. A. (2018). Collectivity and collaboration: Imagining new forms of communality to create resilience in scholar-led publishing. Insights, 31(0), 3.

Chan, L., Hall, B., Piron, F., Tandon, R., & Williams, W. L. (2020). Open Science Beyond Open Access: For and with communities,  A step towards the decolonization of knowledge. Ottawa: Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

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