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  • Philip Wilkinson

Standing on the shoulders of broken links: The Knowledge Commons in the face of the internet

Knowledge by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

All of those who have studied economics at any level will have been introduced to the concept of the commons. A Commons is a resource, shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas (Hess & Ostrom, 2007). In most cases this is taught alongside Hardin’s theory of the tragedy of the commons. The traditional example is that of an open pasture in which it is expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle on the commons as possible, leading to the phrase:

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin, 1968).

As such, the only solution was seen as privatisation or government. However, since then, many studies have found that groups can effectively manage and sustain common resources if they have certain design principles for institutions.

What is a knowledge Commons then?

The Knowledge Commons, is the institutionalised community governance of the sharing, and in some cases the creation of, information, science, knowledge, data and other types of intellectual and cultural resources (Frischmann, et al., 2014). This is not subtractive or excludable, making it a public good. However, technologies that allow global distribution of information have dramatically changed the structure of knowledge as a resource. With this has come a debate regarding accessibility. In theory, the internet allows more people to access the resource due to no/low cost associated with distributing information, but some argue there has also been a movement towards enclosure (Boyle, 2003). The scientific community has long supported the sharing of knowledge and resources, open dialogue and sanctions against fraudulent research, but the foundation of this scholarship is threatened.

The threat to continual advances

Almost all of those that have come across academic research, and even some of those that haven’t, have heard of the phrase by Isaac Newton in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This is in reference to the idea new innovations and thoughts build on previous works, re-iterating the non-subtractive nature of knowledge. This is particularly important in academics, shown by the prevalence of references which tie researchers to other researchers, and establishes durable scholarly communities, representing the knowledge commons. The issue is, with the movement towards the online knowledge commons and open access, digital materials are proving to be fragile and fleeting. For academic literature this is a serious issue. A study conducted in 2001 found that the percentage of inactive internet references increased from 23% at two years, to 53% at seven years after publication (Dellavalle, et al., 2003)This means that if we do not have the infrastructure in place to manage the knowledge commons online, then we may no longer be able to stand on the shoulders of giants to make these new discoveries, or validate those that do.

"The discovery of future knowledge is a common good and a treasure we owe to future generations. The challenge of today’s generation is to keep the pathways to discovery open" (Hess & Ostrom, 2007)


Boyle, J., 2003. The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain. Law and Contemporary problems, 66(1), pp. 33-74.

Dellavalle, R. et al., 2003. Going, Going, Gone: Lost Internet References. Science, Volume 302, pp. 787-788.

Frischmann, B., Madison, M. & Strandburg, K., 2014. Governing Knowledge Commons. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online.

Hardin, G., 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, pp. 1243-1248.

Hess, C. & Ostrom, E., 2007. Understanding Knowledge as commons. s.l.:The MIT Press.

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