Forking the Academy: What Scholars Can Learn About Collaboration From the Open Source World

Konrad M. Lawson (@kmlawson)
2013.4.12 14:00-15:00 (Talk) and 15:00-17:00 (Workshop)
An Atelier Multimédia Digital History Workshop
Sala Europa, Villa Schifanoia — European University Institute, Florence

The open source world of software development has widely adopted practices of "social coding" which allow the easy replication and improvement of repositories of text through online services such as GitHub. This talk argues that some of these collaborative practices might point the way for significant innovation in the writing of our own academic scholarship, while pointing out some of the major challenges that stand in the way. The broader talk, from 2-3pm, will be followed by a workshop from 3-5pm, which gives a more thorough introduction to working with texts in git and GitHub.

Researchers and teachers who have embraced the open access movement have often gotten inspiration from the world of open source. While scientists and social scientists have led the way, historians too are increasingly recognizing the importance of sharing our work broadly and benefiting from the network effects of wide dissemination, rapid feedback cycles, and iterative improvements, as well as the spirit of experimenation found in the digital humanities. However, few of us have adopted some of its most powerful practices and tools found in the open source world. Whereas open access promotes "free as in beer," (gratis) we have been much more wary of embracing "free as in speech" (libre) distribution of our work that lie at the heart of the colossal scale of collaboration in the open source world. Beyond this we have little familiarity of distributed versioning, which helps facilitate active and passive collaboration, and the practice of direct collaborative production (at least for historians) itself is not as common as in some other fields.

This talk will discuss how open source has fostered and facilitated easy collaboration, especially in the last few years with the rise of "social coding" with GitHub in the software development world. GitHub is now used by over three million developers for over five million projects. In the open source world, not only is code open, and communities of coders driven to improve it through considerable efforts that often go uncompensated financially, but tools like GitHub are now making it extremely easy for even strangers to replicate, improve, and share back these improvements with authors of software through a system of "forking" and "pull requests."

Collaborative practices such as those in the open source world and on GitHub have successfully translated a taboo practice of plagiarism and a once feared dissipation of authorship into a virtuous cycle of mutual attribution and community recognition. At the same time, the decentralized nature of GitHub avoids some of the primary critiques of centralized collaborative efforts like Wikipedia which operate on a canonical text model. There are many challenges, however, and the talk will point out some of the technical obstacles to using GitHub itself for academic scholarship, as well as the huge disciplinary obstacles to adopting some these collaborative approaches in our own academic practice.

To be followed by a two hour workshop:

An Introduction to GitHub and Git for Academic Scholarship

This workshop will introduce GitHub, which together with Wikipedia is today one of the most important homes to collaboratively authored text in the world. Within the software development world, GitHub is now the dominant home away from home, serving as a host for open source as well as commercial code, a resume to show potential employers, and a service built on top of the powerful version control system git which captures the entire history and evolution of a repository of files.

This workshop builds on observations in the Forking the Academy talk which suggests that some of the key innovations of GitHub have much to teach us beyond the world of coding in our own work too. It introduces the basic features of GitHub and git, will show you how to get started with your own repository, track changes to it, share your work, and make changes or suggestions to respositories you find online. While GitHub, and the git tool it is built on top of is not ideal for academic writing, there are several emerging services which are increasingly targeting the academic world. Additionally, some government agencies and legal scholars are beginning to use GitHub as a place to share and collaborate on the composition of laws, regulations, and sometimes exchange official datasets.


  1. Setting up a GitHub/git repository

  2. Using the GitHub client software for the most common workflow

  3. Forking repositories and making Pull Requests

  4. Examining the history of a repository and going back in time

  5. Creating a branch, merging a branch

  6. Dealing with Merge conflicts

  7. Overview of some emerging alternatives


Before coming to the workshop, consider:

  1. Creating a free account on

  2. Downloading the free GitHub client for Mac or Windows. Linux users will unfortunately have to use git from the command line:

  3. Consider reading some of the posts by Konrad Lawson on Profhacker about GitHub here:

  4. The GitHub repository with outline and notes on this talk (as it develops), and the outline and drafts of an article in development can be found here:

The workshop will review all of this material but it will give you a head start and also a sense if the workshop is of interest to you.

This is the text of the event announcement for the EUI talk and workshop on Forking the Academy, 12 April, 2013