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

Published onJun 19, 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.” (Knowledge Futures Group: An Interview with Amy Brand, Director of the MIT Press, The Scholarly Kitchen, June 13, 2019) 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, How Academic Science Gave Its Soul to the Publishing Industry, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2020.

Kathryn Conrad and Jennifer Crewe, The Essential Value of University Presses, Inside Higher Ed, February 5, 2020.

Hilal Lashuel and Benjamin Stecher, Academic Science Must Better Serve Science and Society, Times Higher Education, January 28, 2020. (Must register to read.)

Ethan Zuckerman, The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure, Knight First Amendment Institute, January 17, 2020.

The University of Western Australia to close UWA Publishing, Books + Publishing, November 8, 2019.

Karin Wulf, Stanford University Press and the Wrong Lesson of the Humanities, The Scholarly Kitchen, June 24, 2019.

Scott Jaschik, Stanford Moves to Stop Supporting its University Press, Inside Higher Ed, April 29, 2019.

David Crotty, Welcome to the Great Acceleration, The Scholarly Kitchen, January 2, 2019.

Clowns to the Left of Me… Jokers to the Right: The Independent Publisher in an Age of Mergers and Acquisitions, The Scholarly Kitchen, August 6, 2018.

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.

Big Deal: Should Universities Outsource More Core Research Infrastructure? Ithaka S+R, January 4, 2018.

Workflow Lock-In: A Taxonomy, The Scholarly Kitchen, January 2, 2018.

Strategy & Integration Among Workflow Providers, The Scholarly Kitchen, November 7, 2017.

The Value of University Presses, Association of University Presses, (downloadable PDF)

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