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.
Mark W. Neff, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2020.
Kathryn Conrad and Jennifer Crewe, Inside Higher Ed, February 5, 2020.
Hilal Lashuel and Benjamin Stecher, Times Higher Education, January 28, 2020. (Must register to read.)
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.”
Books + Publishing, November 8, 2019.
Karin Wulf, The Scholarly Kitchen, June 24, 2019.
Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, April 29, 2019.
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.”
Angela Cochran, The Scholarly Kitchen, August 6, 2018.
“Clarivate acquires Kopernio. Elsevier acquires bepress, Plum 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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
Association of University Presses, (downloadable PDF)