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PubPub From The Top Down

An attempt at a simple business case.

Published onJun 07, 2022
PubPub From The Top Down
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High-Level Vision

KFG is building infrastructure for the way research will be conducted in the future. Publishing will become increasingly distributed, with less reliance on unitary journal brands for verification and distribution. Research outputs will be published early and iteratively, not as a single journal article at the end of the research cycle. The article as we know it today will be supplanted by a myriad of different content formats and types, most of which have yet to arise. Both research and research evaluation will be increasingly conducted by private labs and distributed groups of scholars. As a consequence of the fragmentation of form, function, producer and evaluator of research output, the impact of research will be judged less as a factor of how many articles cite a given paper, and more as a factor of how other people publicly discuss and use research outputs.

KFG is uniquely well suited to thrive in this environment. In PubPub, we have a prose publishing platform that is already proving flexible and adaptable to many different research output types. In Underlay, we will soon have a platform for publishing data and computational research outputs with a focus on reuse. In our services business, we offer entrenched and new publishers alike an innovative team with experience in this emerging environment that can help them adapt to and succeed in this future.

Grant —> Earned Revenue Transition

We’re currently mostly supported by grant revenue. We’ve recently diversified beyond a primary benefactor in Reid Hoffman, but we’re still reliant on the goodwill of foundations and high net worth individuals. This is risky and costly, as it requires us to fundraise constantly.

Our plan is to gradually shift our revenue sources from grants to earned revenue from at least two, and up to four, business lines: memberships, services, hosting, and transactions. At a minimum, we’d like the majority of our baseline costs to not be supported by grants.

Business Lines & Value Propositions

Membership

In a for-profit context, membership would essentially be software licensing. Because we’re a mission-driven non-profit, that avenue is somewhat closed off from us, for both legal and mission-alignment reasons. Instead, our strategy is to drive PubPub adoption and convince adopters to pay at some level to support our continued existence and receive some nice perks, like support and invites to member events that help them learn and stay on the leading edge of publishing.

The downside of this approach is it’s hard to compel prospective members to pay more for features, because we can’t really (legally and morally) limit features to a certain group. However, we think we can design our programs and benefits in such a way that, a, the support and time with our team they get is well worth the cost, and b, they understand the membership as, effectively, the hosting costs they would otherwise have to pay.

A big issue we face here is that universities are currently the main facilitators and financiers of academic publishing. They spend large amounts of money on both submission fees/APCs through research labs and content subscription fees through libraries, but little on publishing technology. They are also notoriously slow-moving, bureaucratic institutions facing significant external disruption in the form of competition from digital education, decreased public trust, and decreased public funding. To ultimately succeed, KFG will need to convince these institutions to divert funds currently earmarked for publishing and subscriptions towards technology, on the theory that by doing so they are reducing their need to pay much more expensive subscriptions/APCs.

Our strategy for doing that is two-fold: first, bottom-up, to land and expand within universities by targeting smaller budgets of library publishers and labs/institutes within universities, then offer them the streamlining/savings of becoming a network member once we see critical mass.

Second, top-down, to work with progressive private labs, institutes, rxivs, and funders to show the promise of new publishing modes and then turn around and pitch Universities that they could be doing this, too. This pitch may need to take the banal form of “what if you built your institutional repository like this” to get in the door, but it’s much more interesting once you get past the first pitches.

Contributing Members

We expect that a significant amount of revenue will come from mid-tier memberships in the $1,000 — $5,000/year range. There are a few types of members with varying needs that we think fall into this category. Below I’ll try to describe them and their needs.

Independent/Library Publishers

Small groups of scholars publishing a small number of journals, books, and reports, often with experimental/interactive component.

Examples: Media Studies Press, COPIM, San Antonio Review, Appalachian State (e.g.), North Carolina State (e.g.)

Top PubPub Value Propositions
  • No software skills needed

  • Self-serve, can manage as an individual

  • End-to-end-ish

  • Good support from our team

  • Good-enough interface with academic standards

Top Desired Features
  • Submissions, so they can reduce need to learn/work with other systems

  • Review support, so they can reduce need to learn/work with other systems

  • UX polish across the board so their sites are easier to manage with a small team

  • Better integration with academic interfaces, especially aggregators/repos (crossref, doaj/b, google scholar, semantic scholar, etc.), so they can get credit for their work in existing ecosystem

  • Solution for long-term archiving (e.g. Portico, CLOCKSS, Internet Archive)

  • Solution for interactive development (probably an H5P integration)

  • Alternative impact metrics, so they can better show the value of their work

  • Financial solutions — both for “back of office” like processing APCs, and for finding business models for their activity, like membership/subscription

University Labs/Departments

Small groups of scholars doing small-scale publishing within a traditional academic context. Very similar needs to independent publishers, but with more support/services needs, as they’re typically less familiar with publishing in general.

Supporting Libraries/Smaller Universities

Institutions that aren’t publishers, but want to support the mission generally, because they see the value of the open content produced on PubPub.

Examples: MIT Libraries (e.g.)

Top Membership Value Propositions
  • Open content published on PubPub and Underlay

  • Access to conversations about the future of publishing and biz models

Top Desired Features
  • Discovery tools for finding PubPub communities, so they can see the range of scholarship they’re supporting

  • Usage of PubPub by researchers at their institutions (consumption and creation), so they can justify their investment and learn more about their research activities

Network Members

We suspect our main source of revenue will ultimately come from “network” members paying in the $25,000-$100,000/year range. In general these are institutions (research funders, private labs, entire universities/colleges at universities) employing many researchers who want their researchers to publish outputs directly on platforms they control, with minimal centralized intervention. We expect these members will also drive a fair amount of product innovation, though it may trickle up from our more progressive contributing members.

  • Examples: Arcadia Science, HHMI, Knight Foundation, Gates Foundation, Crimrxiv, Biorxiv

Top PubPub Value Propositions
  • Flexible tool for entire institution - can host many different types of outputs across many communities

  • Self-serve for individual communities (as in, an admin at an institute doesn’t need to provide a huge amount of support for researchers who want to use PubPub to publish)

  • End-to-end-ish

  • Good support and strategy from our team

  • Good-enough interface with academic standards

Top Desired Features
  • Workflow tools, so they can streamline the production of outputs

  • Pub “types”/custom metadata, so they can host lots of different types of outputs with custom search/display/etc. facets. (aka “repository” aka “archive”/“rxiv”)

  • Support for review, particularly “distributed” review, so researchers can get feedback on their work from their communities without needing to submit to journals

  • Usage metrics for PubPub/Underlay by researchers at their institutions (consumption and creation), so they can justify their investment and learn more about their research activities

  • Alternative impact metrics, so they can better show the value of their output

  • Solution for interactive development (H5P-like stuff, but also Jupyter notebooks, Underlay integrations for data hosting, etc.)

  • Better integration with academic interfaces, especially aggregators/repos (crossref, doaj/b, google scholar, semantic scholar, etc.), so they can get credit for their work in existing ecosystem

  • Solution for long-term archiving (e.g. Portico, CLOCKSS, Internet Archive)

Services

A lot of people want to publish in new, innovative ways, but lack the institutional knowledge or resources to do so on their own. We can help fill that gap.

We view services as a key piece of the sustainability puzzle, particularly early on, but don’t think it scales very well, because as the future arrives and our products improve, publishers will likely need less help from us. So, in most of our projections we’ve capped the number of services contracts and expect it to remain relatively constant, rather than grow.

Hosting

For both PubPub and Underlay, we may provide some form of white-labeled/on-prem/custom hosting packages at a premium. We are receiving a growing number of inquiries along these lines, though it’s not clear yet exactly what shape it would take (is it just SSO? Truly on-prem? Hosting in a particular AWS region? Disconnected or integrated with the broader PubPub.org?).

Transactions & business model strategy

It would help publishers of all types justify the investment in KFG if it could become a revenue center rather than a cost center. Helping communities figure out ways to be compensated for their activities by acting as a transaction processor (basically wrapper around Stripe) is an interesting longer-term bet. For PubPub, helping communities build their own membership businesses is a potential path forward, though there’s lots of uncertainty and friction. For Underlay, facilitating seamless data licensing for commercial use seems extremely promising.

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