Humanities Commons: Collaboration and Collective Action for the Common Good

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (kfitz@msu.edu), Michigan State University, United States of America

Humanities Commons is an open-source, open-access not-for-profit social network and scholarly communication platform founded by the Modern Language Association and supported by a collective of scholarly organizations. Scholars and practitioners across the humanities and around the globe can create a professional profile, discuss common interests with colleagues, develop new publications, and share their work with other scholars and with the world.

Humanities Commons grew out of the MLA’s experiences with its January 2013 launch of MLA Commons; the earlier platform was designed to serve the needs of MLA members by providing a range of types of open, networked communication. Early adopters, however, exhibited a strong desire to collaborate with scholars in fields other than those represented by the MLA. At the same time, the MLA was approached by several other ACLS member societies seeking similar networked communication solutions. Further, increasing concerns among scholars about the future disposition of commercial scholarly networks, given the sale of both Mendeley and SSRN to Elsevier and the problematic profit models being developed by ResearchGate and Academia.edu, revealed a strong desire for a sustainable not-for-profit alternative.

Given its successful prior work in the area, the MLA was well-positioned to explore the development of a federated platform that might be jointly supported by multiple scholarly societies, bringing together proprietary membership-oriented spaces with a range of fully public functions. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA met with a group of societies to discuss the possibility and then designed a pilot project to test the technical assumptions behind the federated network. Working with three partner organizations — the Association for Jewish Studies; the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and the College Art Association — the MLA launched Humanities Commons in beta in December 2016.

The network currently comprises four primary functions:

  • a profile system permitting humanities practitioners to create a professional presence in a non-for-profit online space where they can easily connect with others in their fields;
  • an open-access repository that allows members to archive and share the many products of their work, and to notify other members of their availability;
  • a community platform, permitting members to join groups, share ideas, and discuss common interests;
  • a publishing platform, permitting individuals or groups to create articles, books, teaching materials, Web sites, and blogs, to make their research public and to seek feedback on work in progress.

The network is built on the Commons In A Box (CBOX) platform, developed by the CUNY Graduate Center; CBOX is in turn based on WordPress and BuddyPress, which bring together a flexible publishing engine with rich social networking capabilities. The network’s repository system is Fedora/Solr-based, with a WordPress front-end, developed in collaboration with the Columbia University Libraries and with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additionally, the network uses a federated authentication and identity management system, primarily based on COmanage and other Internet2-based systems, that communicates with the membership databases of participating scholarly organizations, thus allowing members to access all the organizations to which they belong through a single sign-on mechanism.

As of mid-April 2018, Humanities Commons has over 13,500 members who are actively developing their professional profiles. In order for the network to thrive, however, it must develop in a sustainable fashion. The planning and development for Humanities Commons were undertaken by the MLA as a service to the profession, as well as to its sister societies, with the goal of providing an open-source, scholar-governed alternative to the available commercial services. That development was partially supported through grant funding, as noted above, but grant funding is not a business model; funders expect a project such as this to develop a sustainability plan to ensure its future. Humanities Commons is thus working toward collective action by and shared services for scholarly societies and other kinds of scholarly organizations who want to work together to provide a rich scholarly communication infrastructure for their members and for the profession at large.

This poster presentation will include an active demo of Humanities Commons as well as discussions of its platform, its community, its sustainability plan, and its development roadmap. We want to encourage members of the ADHO community to join the network and connect with one another across the conference and throughout the year. We also want to invite active participation among ADHO members and constituent organizations in the network’s development process.