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While many studies have examined contributors’ participation in open-source software (OSS) communities, limited attention has been paid to the quality of their contribution. We build on von Hippel and von Krogh’s (2003) idea of private benefits and develop a model to examine how newcomer contributors’ decisions regarding i) continued participation and ii) effort investment (in subsequent contribution) are affected by their beliefs about the private benefits they expect to obtain, and how the formation of such beliefs depends on their initial interactions with project gatekeepers.


Our model generates two sets of predictions. First, gatekeepers’ acceptance of newcomers’ initial contribution (initial acceptance) as well as their sharing of both specific and general knowledge will increase newcomers’ continued participation, because in all these cases, newcomers anticipate receiving significant private benefits from continued participation. Second, initial acceptance and sharing of general knowledge will decrease the average quality of newcomers’ subsequent contribution because low-quality newcomers can expect to receive private benefits without having to make an effort investment. Sharing of specific knowledge, by contrast, will increase the average quality of newcomers’ subsequent contribution because to receive private benefits, below-quality newcomers will need to undertake a significant effort to learn such knowledge to improve their contribution’s quality. We test these predictions by examining the interactions between OSS project gatekeepers and newcomer contributors on GitHub.


Applying an NLP method to measure specific vs. general knowledge and using an instrumental variable to address a concern about the possible endogeneity of gatekeeper behaviors, we find strong support for our predictions. For organizations seeking to leverage OSS communities as a source of advantage, our findings emphasize the importance of sharing product-specific knowledge with contributors to motivate both continued participation and high-quality contribution.


Tony Tong is a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder. He studies firm strategy, innovation management, and international business, recently focusing on platforms, digitization, and intellectual property rights. His work has been published widely in top journals in management and has received multiple awards from the profession. He has been the principal investigator of several NSF Awards.


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