Sowing the seeds for change in scholarly publishing

The promise of open science to improve the speed, transparency and completeness of research sharing has attracted a lot of innovators and developers creating new, open source technology solutions. All too often, though, technologies are built by organizations that see themselves as competitive with one another and work at cross purposes.  

We’re focusing on changing this culture. That may seem a strange statement from a Foundation whose initial work has already launched open infrastructure projects such as PubSweet and INK, but bear with us. Coko is working to seed a new ecosystem of open source projects, tools and platforms that work together.

We envision building an evolving network of modular, interoperable, flexible and reusable open source projects that facilitate rapid, transparent and reproducible research and research communication for the public good. Rather than remaining independent and siloed, these projects will share resources and learn from each other, creating an open science infrastructure. Coko is striving to create a healthy ecosystem of projects that can thrive and work with each other to solve the many problems and opportunities that face STEM publishing today.

Our first small step in this direction — which we see as a giant leap — is pulling together complementary projects to create an Open Source Alliance for Open Science. This federation will actively work together to form the  ecosystem, agreeing on best practices that emphasize generosity and openness. The idea is to create a common pool of resources whose development is driven by community needs. Code is shared, so are tips for funding applications, report writing and outreach (etc).  

An apt analogy is a community garden: plants that grow well together in common soil are seeded, grown, harvested, shared and plowed back into the land. Individual “plots” may be tended by the gardeners who are most adept at cultivating the seedlings, yet cross-pollination and resource sharing where appropriate are encouraged. The gardeners work in a common space, find territorial solutions and share fruits of the “harvest.”

One example of how we are prototyping this process is with the Substance Consortium, we helped found along with the Public Knowledge Project (PKP), SciELO and Érudit in 2016. Consortium members all use (or intend to use) the open source Texture editor, which helps publishers improve structured documents without having to mess with the underlying markup of XML (extensive markup language). The Consortium started as a way to recognize that organizations using the tools as critical infrastructure have a responsibility to contribute to their upkeep. To that end, Coko has played a foundational role in establishing the consortium, as well as putting energy and funds that contribute to the sustainability of Substance and the codebase.

As another example we introduced the innovative new project, Stencila, to funders — and then stepped aside. Typically, in a competitive environment, smaller projects that are desperate for initial funds may be co-opted by larger ones who overshadow the smaller organization and take a large cut of the funding. The larger project may vacuum up the credit without adhering to attribution best practices. Instead, in a demonstration of good faith, we coached through the funding process and made the direct introductions to funders. Stepping aside to enable to operate as they need to, with the funds they need, and receive the recognition they duly deserve.

Our efforts to cultivate these projects differ from the typical competitive model where organization see what others are doing, then throw shade on the newcomers by claiming to be building the exact same thing. This land grab results in whoever has the superior budget, PR and grant-writing staff, and stronger name recognition “winning,” whether or not they intend to actually create the product, build it well, or share it in a meaningful way. This highly competitive landscape discourages healthy open source communities forming around projects and meaningful, productive, inter-project collaboration.

The garden model will give smaller projects a chance to thrive and grow so as to avoid being co-opted or plowed under. This will create a more diverse and rich ecosystem, since many of these projects arise out of specific expertise that larger projects may not have.

To lay the groundwork for this Alliance, we’re planning a meeting May 1 in Portland, along with founding partners DAT, the Code for Science & Society (CSS) and The California Digital Library (CDL). By meeting in person, discussing initiatives and directly collaborating, we seek to generate buy-in on shared goals and open direct lines of communication between organizations. The initial meeting will garner support for shared goals and values and establish a self-sustaining community with firm attendee commitments to continue the conversation. If you’d like to participate email us at