Documentation and Access to Knowledge in Online Communities: Know Your Audience and Write Appropriately?

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Volume 70, Issue 6, p.619–633 (2019)


Virtual collaborations bring together people who must work together despite having varied access to and understanding of the work at hand. In many cases, the collaboration is technology supported, meaning that the work is done through shared documents of various kinds. We develop a framework articulating the characteristics of documents supporting collaborators with asymmetric access to knowledge versus those with symmetric access to knowledge. Drawing on theories about document genre, boundary objects, and provenance, we hypothesize that documents supporting asymmetric collaborators are likely to articulate or prescribe their own (1) purpose, (2) context of use, (3) content and form, and (4) provenance in greater detail than documents supporting symmetric collaborators. We explore these hypotheses through content analysis of documents and instructions from a variety of free/libre open source projects (FLOSS). We present findings consistent with the hypotheses developed as well as results extending beyond our theory-derived assumptions. As participants gradually gain access to knowledge, the study suggests, prescriptions about the content of documents become less important compared to prescriptions about the context, provenance, and process of work. The study suggests new directions for research on communications in virtual collaborations, as well as advice for those supporting such collaborations.

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