Last updated on February 15, 2024

Open Source Program Offices (OSPOs) have become a familiar concept in large technology firms and technology-forward companies in a variety of other industries. Across the past couple of decades, companies have used OSPOs as centralized hubs for their open source software-related activities. OSPOs have been useful for establishing frameworks for how companies use and contribute to open source software, as well as making sure their engagement aligns with their broader business objectives.

For universities, OSPOs are a relatively novel phenomenon. Following John Hopkins University, the first university in the US to create an OSPO, 11 other schools have founded their own in the past few years through funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. These university-based OSPOs aim to oversee and foster the university community’s engagement with open source software. Their core activities include promoting open source best practices, building up open source communities, and generally advocating for the support of open source work on campus. Academic OSPOs are also engaged with broader open science communities and organizations such as CURIOSS, a community for those working in OSPOS located in universities and research institutions, OSPO++, a network of OSPOs in universities, government, and civic institutions, and the Higher Education Leadership Initiative for Open Scholarship (HELIOS Open), a community of practice made up of academic member institutions committed broadly to the promotion of open scholarship.

The Sloan Foundation has engaged Ithaka S+R to identify which characteristics of university OSPOs make them most effective within and beyond their respective academic communities. Still recent entrants to the academic sphere, OSPOs can face a number of logistical challenges. For one, it is often difficult to determine the administrative home of an OSPO within a university. This is an especially important decision as an OSPO’s home base will affect how it positions itself within a campus. The research we are currently conducting will shed light on the stakes of choosing administrative homes for the OSPOs, as well as on the extent to which these offices are able to develop and maintain open source software.

How Does an OSPO’s Location Affect Who it Reaches?

At universities, OSPOs have the potential to become a relevant resource across units and disciplines. However, given the decentralized nature of universities, especially in terms of how and where research is conducted, it can be challenging to decide where to place them. Therefore, one motivating factor is judging which administrative home will be an accessible point of communication and collaboration for a diverse, interdisciplinary, and often fragmented campus community. Additionally, when determining where to place an OSPO, stakeholders will benefit from understanding the specific organizational dynamics of their institution and identifying and leveraging existing channels of support for open source work.

One of the key questions for universities is whether their OSPO should be housed in a discipline specific unit or department, or in a unit that engages a wider swathe of the campus. During the question and answer session at the Early Lessons Learned from University Open Source Program Offices panel at the Coalition for Networked Information’s Spring 2023 Membership Meeting, an audience member asked the panelists—who were representatives from the first cohort of Sloan-funded OSPOs—where they thought OSPOs should ideally be housed. For those who sought a location that would be accessible across campus, the library, the office of research, or the office of the vice provost/president for research were popular choices. Academic libraries are often central points of collaboration on campus, and Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, and George Washington University have chosen that route. Indeed, as OSPO++’s Guide to Set Up a University OSPO notes, libraries at many institutions may be leaders in promoting open science and already offer related services, making them a fitting location.

Offices of research have a similar appeal in terms of their potential to increase the OSPO’s visibility and capacity to reach different schools and units, and depending on the type of institution and the way resources are allocated, they might be a more natural home for cross-departmental and interdisciplinary collaboration than the library. Rochester Institute of Technology houses its OSPO in the office of the vice president for research.

For other universities, data science institutes may yield more strategic benefits, especially as they often have existing expertise and support infrastructure that are already well positioned to advance the OSPOs’ mission. In addition, data science institutes have their own potential to increase the OSPOs’ outreach and visibility efforts. The University of Wisconsin Madison’s OSPO, for example, is hosted at their data science institute, which was created in 2019 as a part of the university’s five-year strategic framework for excellence in research and scholarship and thus has the potential to garner significant attention from the university community. Stanford University’s OSPO is located in the Center for Open and Reproducible Science, a unit within Stanford Data Science. This location may help its interdisciplinary aims since Stanford Data Science also strives to cut across disciplines, as demonstrated by its range of research areas and the vast number of departments from which it receives proposals.

Finally, certain universities’ priorities led them to house their OSPOs within STEM focused departments or schools. A school of engineering or computer science department is likely to give these OSPOs a high level of visibility to specific campus communities which may align well with broader campus strategy for the OSPO. Saint Louis University, for example, made providing students with open source software experience a priority. Therefore, their location in the department of computer science has allowed their OSPO to support software development projects that are now integrated into the course curriculum, while still remaining a resource for the wider university.

Some OSPOs may rely on close partnerships between libraries and other units. The University of Vermont’s OSPO, for example, is housed jointly in the library and college of engineering and mathematical sciences. Georgia Tech’s OSPO’s website advertises that it “combines expertise from Georgia Tech’s Center for Scientific Software Engineering Center (CSSE), the Partnership for Advanced Computing Environment (PACE), and Georgia Tech’s Library.” Along similar lines, the University of Texas at Austin’s OSPO “is led by personnel from UT Austin’s central IT services, libraries, iSchool, and TACC [Texas Advanced Computing Center] in order to form an umbrella organization that is more than the sum of its pieces.” In sum, thus far universities have found different ways of reaching out to their target audiences and combining different sets of expertise on campus. One size does not fit all for determining the correct administrative home for the OSPO.

Looking Forward: How Will OSPOs Become Sustainable?

Location is not the only strategic choice OSPOs need to make. Developing student and faculty programming, growing internal and external partnerships, and identifying champions for their office among higher administration are other important considerations. Ideally, the OSPO’s administrative location can help with these efforts, and each possible location brings different strengths and weaknesses depending on the specific institutional context. For instance, it may be easier for an OSPO to facilitate its relationship with a technology transfer office if both are affiliated with the office of research. The library, on the other hand, might be the locus for faculty programming, while a center for data science may be more prepared to work with students. Wherever the OSPO sits, forging relationships with other units at the university is an important step towards extending the OSPO’s outreach and giving it a better chance of sustainability in the long run.

As OSPOs look to become independently sustainable after the Sloan grant periods, securing long-term funding will be necessary. When juggling the options for an administrative home, OSPOs will have to keep this in mind as they consider the benefits and limitations of different units’ budgets. For units with tighter budgets, funding for OSPOs might be found through internal and external partnerships. Whatever the case, as the Sloan funding period begins to end for some institutions, their OSPOs will have to remain strategic in thinking through the issue of sustainability and funding.

What’s Next?

Ithaka S+R’s Assessment of OSPOs’ Role in the Academic Research Enterprise is focused on understanding how institutions can maximize the potential impacts of an on-campus OSPO. Over the next two years, we’ll be conducting in-depth research on the perspectives and experiences of administrators, staff, students, and faculty employed by or engaged with university OSPOs. Our first round of interviews for this multi-year project is well underway. We will continue to share findings with the Sloan Foundation and the general public throughout the course of the project. For more information about the project, please contact Dylan Ruediger at