Towards recognition for the digital commons: Mapping researcher contributions to software innovation

Towards recognition for the digital commons: Mapping researcher contributions to software innovation

Free and open source software (FOSS) created in self-governed online projects is now ubiquitous in IT products and services. Microsoft’s purchase of the GitHub collection of FOSS repositories for $7.5b epitomises this integration. IT firms are paying developers to produce FOSS, though significant areas of the FOSS universe retain a hobbyist community character, relying on volunteer labour. Firm discourses present projects and firms as constituting a unified ‘community’ and characterise the issue of software licenses as an obsolete concern (O’Neil et al 2021). Another common rhetoric is that FOSS sustainability requires for-profit solutions. This hides the contributions of researchers to FOSS. To map researcher contributions to FOSS, we focus on two GitHub areas: repositories dealing with Deep Learning (DL), of high interest to firms, and with the R packages, popular in the research community. We collect 133,051 commit data from 19 DL-focused repositories and 264,461 commit data from 350 R-focused repositories. Building on the methodology used to map the network of firm employee contributions to highly active GitHub repositories (O’Neil et al 2021), we use the email addresses of committers as proxy for their employment status. We also use GitHub labels to classify the types of issues raised by contributors (e.g. bug reports, requests for new features, and requests for help). We compare the contributions of firm employees and researchers, and analyse which category initiated what type of issue, which responded, which was assigned to address which issues, and the speed at which issue types were opened and closed. Though our sample size is not extensive, this analysis will constitute a useful first step for mapping researcher contributions to FOSS and their role in the current innovation political economy.

O’Neil, Cai, Muselli, Pailler & Zacchiroli (2021) The coproduction of open source software by volunteers and big tech firms.


Mathieu O’Neil is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Canberra where he leads the Critical Conversations Lab, and Honorary Associate Professor of Sociology at the Australian National University. He researches political economy, information literacy, and the trajectories of issues in the online environment. He was a founding member of the Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks (VOSON) Lab at the Australian National University. He founded the Journal of Peer Production in 2011 and the Digital Commons Policy Council in 2021.


Chair: Robert Ackland

Date & time

Mon 15 Aug 2022, 11am–12.30pm


Room 4.69, RSSS Building


Dr Mathieu O’Neil


Rebecca Pearse


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