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How Do We Find Ourselves Here? Context for Increased Institutional Investment and Ownership of Infrastructure

An annotated reading list
Published onApr 17, 2020
How Do We Find Ourselves Here? Context for Increased Institutional Investment and Ownership of Infrastructure

The Knowledge Futures Group (KFG) builds technology for the production, curation, and preservation of knowledge in service of the public good. It was founded, in the words of MIT Press Director Amy Brand, in the hopes of galvanizing “a real movement towards greater institutional and public investment in that infrastructure.”1 But why is there a need for institutions to invest in infrastructure? This post hopes to provide context by highlighting some key trends and offering a selection of articles for further reading.

Publishing generally has long been an industry with a wide variety of offerings. However, the latter half of the twentieth century (and early twenty-first) has been characterized by increasing consolidation of content by four large publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, SpringerNature, and Taylor and Francis), who now controlling the vast majority of journal publications in Science, Technology, and Medicine. More recently, a similar consolidation has taken place among the technology vendors that online content providers depend upon to host their content. Atypon, for example, now owned by Wiley, hosts a bit less than 50% of English language journal content.

This consolidation trend increasingly affects smaller society and independent publishers who find that their submission systems (peer review) and dissemination platforms may, in fact, be owned by their competitors. Not to be content with the consolidation of content, commercial publishers and other vendors are regularly acquiring workflow tools in what appears to be an attempt to “own” the entire researcher workflow. Universities may even find that the data about their own research outputs and researcher activities is now “owned” by private companies.

Another trend, on the university side, is generally decreasing support for affiliated university presses, in some cases the proposal of draconian cuts akin to UP death warrants. While university departments, and even individual researchers, develop promising research tools to solve key challenges, such efforts often have no choice but to either turn themselves into companies to obtain vital grant money or attract venture capital investors to survive. Once gaining a foothold amongst researchers and achieving some degree of name recognition, these start ups are often gobbled up by the commercial publishers and vendors, completing the vicious cycle.

How have institutions become so disconnected from the workflow and publication tools that their researchers depend upon to do research, communicate it, validate it? How can this tremendous outsourcing be corrected? How can universities better understand the need for investing in public infrastructure?

We hope that this reading list will provide background and food for thought.

Reading List:

How Academic Science Gave Its Soul to the Publishing Industry

Mark W. Neff, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2020.

The Essential Value of University Presses

Kathryn Conrad and Jennifer Crewe, Inside Higher Ed, February 5, 2020.

Academic Science Must Better Serve Science and Society

Hilal Lashuel and Benjamin Stecher, Times Higher Education, January 28, 2020. (Must register to read.)

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure

Ethan Zuckerman, Knight First Amendment Institute, January 17, 2020.

“One immediate consequence is the pressure researchers feel to prioritise individual achievements and monopolise their data to maintain a competitive edge for future publications and funding applications.”

The University of Western Australia to close UWA Publishing

Books + Publishing, November 8, 2019.

Stanford University Press and the Wrong Lesson of the Humanities

Karin Wulf, The Scholarly Kitchen, June 24, 2019.

Stanford Moves to Stop Supporting its University Press

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, April 29, 2019.

Welcome to the Great Acceleration

David Crotty, The Scholarly Kitchen, January 2, 2019.

“A community-owned not for profit service may be a better alternative to a private company that could be acquired by your competitor.”

“We’re just starting to see some of these systems emerging, and while the tools themselves look promising, what’s really needed are services built around those tools. Most publishers don’t have the internal capacity (nor the desire) to become software development and support companies, hence a need for outsourcing remains critical.”

Clowns to the Left of Me… Jokers to the Right: The Independent Publisher in an Age of Mergers and Acquisitions

Angela Cochran, The Scholarly Kitchen, August 6, 2018.

Clarivate acquires Kopernio. Elsevier acquires bepressPlum Analytics, and SSRN. Wiley acquires Atypon, etc., etc. We have also discussed with great interest the desire of the big publishers to offer start-to-finish workflow solutions. Roger Schonfeld warned of “lock in” while others argued business diversification.”

“For some of us, like my organization (American Society of Civil Engineers), it’s a double-whammy. Our platform with all of it’s content and user data is owned by Wiley. Our submission system with all of our author and editorial data is owned by Elsevier.”

“The paradigm shift today, is that societies on publisher-owned platforms or now publisher-owned submission systems are paying lots of money to those competing publishers. That is a particularly hard pill to swallow.”

“I am concerned about what I will call “lock out.” As some librarians are concerned about their faculty, students, and institutions being “locked in” to one particular publisher’s services, I am concerned about society and small publishers being “locked out” of critical technology services.”

Big Deal: Should Universities Outsource More Core Research Infrastructure?

Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka S+R, January 4, 2018.

“While outsourcing is not uniformly good or bad, services with a principally academic market seem to be especially susceptible to monopoly or oligopoly dynamics among commercial providers.”

“And these providers are pursuing strategies that differ to some degree. Some are more focused on integrating with publishers, others are more focused on maintaining their independence. In some cases, links are being established to tie individual services into more coherent packages if not actual product bundles, and there are opportunities to create various forms of lock-in.[4]

“As individual university divisions acquire new categories of core scholarly infrastructure, it is virtually impossible for the university as a whole to have a coherent strategic position on key issues.”

“[H]ow can individual universities develop visions that are sufficiently shared that they can realize the economic and technical advantages in shared infrastructure that scales across institutional boundaries?”

“Balancing the desire for low switching costs with the need for a seamless end-to-end experience has been one of the substantial challenges with other outsourced academic infrastructure.”

“It is imperative that universities understand the nature of switching costs, not only for the university-facing assessment and showcasing tools but also for the increasingly integrated laboratory management systems. If universities cannot hold down these switching costs low enough to ensure they can take advantage of market competition, they will quickly find themselves locked into a single provider or set of providers.”

“If componentization may not ultimately be a good choice, some universities might conclude that research workflow infrastructure should be community controlled rather than commercially outsourced.”

Workflow Lock-In: A Taxonomy

Roger, Schonfeld, The Scholarly Kitchen, January 2, 2018.

“Institutionalizing services that are today already used by researchers is a form of lock-in… Providers will be inclined to offer larger and larger bundles moving up to the complete scientific workflow, an extremely powerful way to reach an institutional customer. Universities might come to license a single end-to-end solution from a given provider, such that there are institutions that provide — and support — the complete “Elsevier workflow” for example to their researchers. Even if individual researchers can still elect to utilize alternatives, they would have to use free services or pay for them from research funds. The draw of using the institutionally-provided infrastructure from a single provider would constitute a powerful form of lock-in.”

Strategy & Integration Among Workflow Providers

Roger Schonfeld, The Scholarly Kitchen, November 7, 2017.

“The not-for-profit open science community has as its starting point a series of important concerns about the integrity and reproducibility of science. The tools and services coming out of this community are less likely to see themselves in direct competition with others. While they may nevertheless find themselves competing with other providers, as some may wish to see, it is important to recognize that they will not necessarily define success by revenue, profitability, or market share.”

“The publishing business will change steadily over time, but by moving into the earlier phases of research, a publisher has a greater ability to control its destiny or at least shape its environment. As a result, integrations across individual components of the workflow are at a very high premium for such a publisher — integrations that will reach up to and including editorial, peer review, and other traditional publishing activities.”

“At its heart, Elsevier’s strategy is not just to provide the workflow from research to authorship but also to control an increasing amount of the underlying data and analytics.”

“As a not for profit COS can more credibly present itself as being “inside” the academic community and more of a friend to its values and an ally to its libraries. This may come with tradeoffs in terms of limited access to capital and investment required to compete in a fast-changing marketplace.”

The Value of University Presses

Association of University Presses, (downloadable PDF)

Konrad Hinsen:

Hypothesis: we (meaning: today’s occidental societies) have lost the sense for infrastructure as a public good. We only see products and services, without regard to how fundamental they are to keeping higher levels of organization functioning. Academic publishing is only a special case of this phenomenon.

Take the current pandemic as an example: if you consider protective equipment (masks etc.) as just another product, it makes sense to optimize its industrial production. If you consider sanitary precautions as an infrastructure, you come to very different conclusions.

Another example is software (which as we all know is “eating the world”). If administrational software written in COBOL is just another product, you accept that it can become unmanageable in extreme situations. If you consider it essential infrastructure, you plan ahead for its maintenance and evolution, which includes training people for doing these jobs. And it’s not just COBOL software from the 1960s, it’s basically all modern software (see here for a discussion of a more recent case).

The common point with all these phenomena is that maintaining the infrastructure is nobody’s job, and therefore it doesn’t happen. Industrial products end up taking the place of infrastructure, but don’t come with the necessary openness and robustness.

Heather Staines:

Looks at the introduction of radio and television and how different societies chose to regulate them, comparing the US, USSR, and British examples, to show that one particular business model is not inevitable. Next, explores internet models, including the American capitalist monopoly and the Chinese capitalist hypermonopoly, offering Wikipedia—a form of public service media— as a counterpoint. The growth of public media in the US and UK are compared and contrasted. In the internet space, the success of Wikipedia and open source projects “suggests that values-driven projects have an important role to play online.” We should think creatively about building public service digital media, perhaps by taxing surveillant advertising by Facebook, Google, and Alibaba. But this will still not generate enough revenue to support high quality independent news. Such funding could support research studies on the impact of social media. Zuckerman details the examples of Mozilla Firefox, an open source web browser that supports user privacy and builds tools for web navigation, and Public Spaces, “a coalition of Netherlands-based organizations dedicated to redirecting government funding from large U.S. tech providers to open-source alternatives.” Public Spaces is designing a badging system to help public service organizations select open source software. Values and goals define public service tools, not business models—which can be diverse. (“Public spirited, but diverse in funding”) “Public service digital media tools shouldn’t seek to dominate markets through scale – they don’t need to assemble millions of eyeballs for resale to advertisers. Instead, they should support diverse use cases, more like WordPress, a flexible open-source publishing platform, than like a commercially funded entity like Facebook.” (“Plural in Purpose”) Setting guidelines and enforcing them, for example on Reddit, trains a new generation community participation. (“Participatory in Governance”) “We need new tools to enable scholars and public interest advocates to review the algorithms that rank search results and order social media posts while balancing the privacy rights of users.” (“Publicly Auditable and Revieable”) One thing that could be built is auditable and transparent search and discovery tools, perhaps with provisions allowing review, or a non-surveillant advertising network, or an ecosystem of alternative social networks “designed to meet the needs of local geographic communities and communities of interest.” (WikiTribune and are examples.) Such advancements would require improved Single Sign On, aggregation, and interoperability. First steps might include enabling data portability, creation of an “affirmative vision to work toward,” proof of concept that revenue can be generated. “At this moment in the evolution of the Web, we are comfortable having wide-ranging arguments about the shortcomings and failings of existing digital platforms. We are nowhere near as good at proposing and exploring alternatives, and this failure of imagination means that we are ceding the future of the internet to the companies that have already taken power.”

Heather Staines:

Looks at the different objectives that commercial players may have in workflow tools, including start ups, financial investors, strategic investors, and commercially successful publishers. Considers ways that tools and products can be integrated: bundled sales, user accounts, user profiles, seamless workflow, and a data layer. For Elsevier, “integration is key.” Digital Science “has provided funding for, and taken substantial ownership stakes in, a variety of startups, such as Symplectic, figshare, ReadCube, Altmetric, and labguru.” The Center for Open Science has another approach. It has “built its workflow framework from scratch.” 

Heather Staines:

Explores how research workflow product vendors may explore models to “lock in” their customers. While licensing content via a “Big Deal” model seemed like a good deal, over time it proved to be a poor way to manage library budget. Digital Science, Elsevier, and Clarivate have put together tools to support researcher workflow. Schonfeld explores how “lock in” might play out, including “exclusive benefits for mutual customers”, “service interdependency”, “data portability and reusability limitations”, “institutional sales and product bundling”.

Heather Staines:

While outsourcing services has enabled universities to focus on core competencies, many have also outsourced “core academic infrastructure.” New tools and platforms “will variously improve transparency, reproducibility, accountability, and efficiency of the scientific research process, an enormous boon to scientists themselves and their universities that have so much invested in academic science.” Tools supporting the different steps in the researcher workflow have generally been owned by different companies. There could be benefit to making the process more seamless. Recently, scientists themselves have been more involved in improving this process. But investment in these tools typically comes from publishers or private equity. What are the implications for universities and science? “There is no individual or organization within any university that I am aware of that is responsible for the full suite of research workflow services.” Decision0making is fragmented across a wide variety of stakeholders, including the library, the VP of Research, or the PI. Universities “need to ensure that the appeal of the new category of workflow products is addressed not just at the level of existing university divisions but in a way that recognizes how the paradigms for research support is shifting under a workflow mindset.” Universities need to identify a point person for such conversations with tool creators. “Beyond this, a university should act with single purpose to establish strategy, set objectives, coordinate budgets, and act operationally.” Schonfeld uses the institutional repository as an example for more strategic thinking. When tools reach into the research workflow directly, there is a potential for vendor lock in. “It is imperative that universities understand the nature of switching costs, not only for the university-facing assessment and showcasing tools but also for the increasingly integrated laboratory management systems. If universities cannot hold down these switching costs low enough to ensure they can take advantage of market competition, they will quickly find themselves locked into a single provider or set of providers. “ One protection against this, and one that improves the university negotiated position, would be to “insist on loosely coupled discrete services rather than a single integrated workflow” even though this reduces the benefits from seamlessness. When infrastructure is community controlled, it will likely be done on a shared basis, making licensing terms particularly important. Data ownership, data security, and data privacy remain key issues. Who can monetize the data?

Heather Staines:

Details thinking around publisher acquisition of workflow tools. Both Elsevier and Wiley seem to be developing a “researcher-to-reader workflow solution.” While companies promise an extensive fire wall around individual publisher data, more may be needed to assuage publisher concerns, including lack of influence on roadmaps for tools and the possibility of being “priced out” of key services. Are these companies also buying customers? Are they buying data? As dangerous as the prospect of lock-in might sound, Cochran points to smaller societies being “locked out” as another concern. Open source alternatives exist, but many publishers may lack the “internal expertise and resources” to consider them.

Heather Staines:

Although preprint servers, mergers, and open access have been around for a while, “we’ve reached a point where everything feels like it’s happening at once.” Disruption in one area of scholarly publishing could have unintended consequences in others. Crotty argues that “the two biggest forces driving change in the scholarly communication landscape [Mergers and Acquisitions] are consolidation and regulation. [Rules and Compliance]” While some acquisitions may be driven by need, some are driven by Wall Street demands. Anxiety among publishers and libraries has  this anxiety has “led to a growing consensus that the market needs a major investment in shared and open infrastructure and standards.”  Researchers are being asked to do more than ever, from pre-registration of experiments, to posting preprints, to posting data and writing up methods for reproducibility, to publicity, to funder compliance. Plan S is an example of this acceleration. Crotty suggests that if open source wants to make a difference, it should look at back end e-commerce billing systems to enable compliance.

Heather Staines:

Explores Stanford’s announcement to eliminate the subsidy for its university press. A professor, Ge Wang has created a petition: "If we use a purely financial metric to assess the value of academic books, the scholarly mission of the academy will be lost. Presses will publish only profitable books, graduate students will write only profitable dissertations, and tenure will be awarded based on scholarship that is profitable.” The Press has been a leader in “born digital” scholarship.

Heather Staines:

Details the contributions of university presses to society (including diverse perspectives, cultural heritage organizations, distinct local cultures, original works in the arts), to scholarship (including emerging interdisciplinary areas, translations, dynamic digital resources, teaching and learning), and to the university community (including extending the mission, influence, and brand; partnering with campus libraries, digital humanities centers, and other university departments; representing the full expanse of university research).

Heather Staines:

In the guise of reducing its subsidy to “right size” the Press, Stanford’s Provost (a physicist) proposed an extreme cut to the press’s funding. This article details the timeline of the proposal and the resulting backlash. Faculty member and author, Tom Mullaney, thinks “the treatment of the press is indicative of a wider misapprehension of how diverse scholarly fields function.” The Faculty Senate sees it as an example of how the Humanities and Social Sciences are marginalized in favor of STEM fields. Should a university press be judges solely on its financial contributions and returns? Wulf explores how “a failure to incorporate basic insights from the humanities is  impoverishing society.” She urges Stanford to be forward thinking and forward acting, to embrace the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Heather Staines:

Announcement that UWA Press will close as a result of a shift to OA Publishing. Community pushes back.

Heather Staines:

Publishers exert disproportionate control over the direction of science as a result of their power to make or break careers. Lashuel and Stecher propose reversing the relationship between authors and publishers to have journals compete for authors and publication move beyond the end goal to dynamically updated sources for knowledge. Incentives would rest upon a paper’s contribution to the advancement of knowledge. The rise in the use of preprint servers is starting to change the status quo. The authors argue for indexing in one large database where feedback would be shared and corrections indicated “Reddit-style.” At a minimum, peer review reports and responses should be published alongside papers. Supplemental data should be deposited. Lay summaries should be created. The system should reward updates to the papers. Funders and university incentive structures will be key to the success of this new vision.

Heather Staines:

This essay discusses the numerous value propositions articulated in the “Value of University Presses” list. The variety of university presses share the same purpose: the advancement of knowledge. However, university leaders may lack awareness of press activities. Conrad and Crewe detail “persuasive, qualitative evidence of our work’s impact on behalf of our universities.” Beyond the university, “books, journals and digital publications often also inform policy makers, journalists and opinion makers, to lasting effect.”

Heather Staines:

Provides historical context around the use of citation counts and journal impact factors to assess researcher advancement, and how that process in turn gives a few publishers a “significant, but invisible influence over science policy.” This form of measurement favors disciplines that “more rapidly yield publishable results.” Researchers with more interest in “assuring the social value of their research may thus be systematically penalized in systems built around publication and citation rates.” Also includes details on a system wherein “researchers have guaranteed the publication industry a supply of government-subsidized content, free labor for assuring quality through peer review, and a virtually guaranteed demand that our host institutions will purchase those products back.” Details early industry consolidation under Robert Maxwell who understood “scientific publishing was a market unlike others because there was an almost ceaseless growth of demand, and free labor,” as well as Eugene Garfield’s contribution in the founding of the Institute for Scientific Information, the Web of Science, the Science Citation Index, and eventually the Journal Impact Factor. Ends with discussion of new open access models and forays of large publishers into the researcher workflow with purchases or repositories, preprint servers, and collaboration tools. Scientific “self-governance” created the system in which a few publishers and outdated and biased metrics dominate, so scientific self-governance can break the dominance of that very system.