‘A Big Science Publisher Is Going Open Access. But at What Cost?’

Grigori Guitchounts, writing last week for Undark on the usurious Nature APC:

Only the wealthiest universities in the wealthiest countries will be able to foot these bills. As a result, the range of researchers able to publish open-access papers in Springer Nature’s top journals will be narrow. The ivory tower, already full of inequalities, will only grow more divided. The “haves” will be able to publish openly in widely read and cited journals, which will in turn allow them to secure coveted research funding and academic posts. The “have-nots” may still choose to publish in Nature, but their work will remain hidden to much of the world, behind a paywall. The rich will get richer.

Maybe it will take a revolt of the privileged to weaken the APC scourge. It would be ironic if intra-elite inequality dented a system whose status quo—$3,000 APCs—has long gated off OA publishing for most of the world’s scholars.

To repeat the obvious, with Nature as late-arriving exclamation point: APC pricing has nothing to do with production costs. Almost two years out from the decision, Plan S’s doubling down on cost transparency as an APC-taming device seems more naive than ever.

‘The 360° Competitor’

From Joseph Esposito’s Scholarly Kitchen post on the trade book industry, back in October:

It is a remarkable fact that publishers have succeeded over the past two decades in reaping 100% of the efficiencies from digital media and workflows and shared none of that with authors. This will continue.

The observation, an apt one, is buried in an intelligent, insidery discussion of the mainstream industry. Esposito’s main move is to analogize to scholarly publishing—with Elsevier as sector counterpart to Amazon (and maybe Berelsmann, in the future) as a potential “360° company”. Esposito does not, however, extend the analogy to the “remarkable fact” above, so here it is:

It is a remarkable fact that scholarly publishers have succceded over the past two decades in repeating 100% of the efficiencies from digital media and workflows and shared none of that with university libraries. This will continue.

(Bertelsmann’s Penguin Random House, of course, did end up buying Simon & Schuster—an object of informed speculation in Esposito’s October column.)

Sciety: ‘eLife Team Discusses Agile Development of New Community-Driven Platform’

eLife’s Paul Shannon, in an interview with Scholastica on its new Sciety service:

So we started to develop features where you could see content in a Twitter-like feed and then follow different communities that you could come back to regularly. We’re effectively building social networking features into an aggregation service and that’s what Sciety is now. New users come to view a peer review on a preprint and then they’re encouraged to stay or come back to follow all of the work being shared in the different reviewing communities.

Sciety basically brings together existing preprint reviewing initiatives like PREreview and Review Commons, and serves up new preprint reviews in a feed. It’s getting released and iterated at the same time—the agile process discussed in the interview—so it’s threadbare for the moment. But it’s a promising tool in the march to a more robust publish-then-review model built on preprints.

Knowledge Unlatched Strikes Again and Again

With a hat tip to the indispensable Richard Poynder, here is a quick follow up to yesterday’s post on Knowledge Unlatched’s latest move to disguise its for-profit status. I focused on KU’s Open Research Community (ORC), launched last year as an implied nonprofit. In yesterday’s post, I focused on ORC’s “Community Manager” Pablo Markin and KU head Sven Fund.

The plot is quite a bit thicker, though I won’t do the topic—KU and Sven Fund’s persistent failure to disclose—justice in this short follow-up. I hope that a journalist like Poynder will pick up the trail.

It turns out that Fund’s use of an astroturf blog goes back to at least 2012, when he was De Gruyter’s managing director. Through a newly acquired subsidiary, De Gruyter launched openscience.com—a site with no trace of its corporate origins. Back in 2013, Poynder began digging into who owned the blog. With typical doggedness, he uncovered that Fund’s De Gruyter was its undisclosed backer. Poynder, however, had to muck through weeks of obfuscation to establish that fact, as he painstakingly detailed at the time. Fund, on initial contact from Poynder, professed ignorance of the blog, though he admitted to having acquired the openscience.com domain. Only later did Poynder learn that Fund had outbid the Open Science Federation for the domain. Two days after Poynder’s account was posted, the OpenScience blog added a one-line disclosure of its ownership by De Gruyter’s subsidiary (with no mention, initially, of the parent company).

Fund’s De Gruyter colleague at the time was none other than Pablo Markin, the current KU employee and ORC “community manager.” Markin joined De Gruyter in June 2012, a month before OpenScience launched. Markin wrote regularly for the site until December 2019, when he left for Knowledge Unlatched. Two months later, he announced the Open Research Community (ORC).

Markin, for years now, has been posting voraciously to a handful of apparently independent OA blogs, all of them hosted on the Francophone Hypotheses platform: Open Access Blog, Open Economics Blog, Open Culture, and Discussions Générales Open. A spot-check shows that most, if not all, of these blogs’ posts are authored by Markin. Many, but by no means all, are dated after his move to KU (and most of these are cross-posted from KU’s ORC).

In a fascinating twist, the fourth Hypotheses blog, Discussions Générales Open (DGO), is an acronymic shuffle from its previous name, De Gruyter Open (DGO), as the Wayback Machine shows. So the blog’s current title—its nod to French readers (though its content is in English)—appears to be a clumsy scrubbing of its De Gruyter origins. More to the point, Markin was writing for the same linked network of generically named Hypotheses blogs (each featuring sidebar links to the others) when he jumped to KU. To state the predictable, nowhere do the newer posts note Markin’s KU employment, even though his posting work is noted on his KU employee profile.

Two depressing codas. I noticed that the longstanding, well-respected blog No Shelf Required had been running puff pieces about KU, in the course of researching this post. See, for example, its writeup of the 2019 launch of KU project Open Research Library—an initiative widely criticized at the time. Marked an “NSR Editorial,” the piece‘s headline was “Knowledge Unlatched and partners launch Open Research Library, an innovative platform with an ambitious goal to host open access books in one place.” The subhed: “Congrats, Knowledge Unlatched and its partners on this major achievement.” The post reads like a press release.

I soon figured out why, after a quick Google search for No Shelf Required’s current director, Mirela Roncevic. (The blog was started by an academic librarian in 2008, but transferred to Roncevic at some point.) You guessed it: Roncevic is in PR and marketing for KU—a fact nowhere acknowledge on No Shelf Required.

The second coda circles back to yesterday’s post: I had noted that KU’s new “Open Research Community” was run on a venture-backed SaaS platform, with Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature as other clients. What I didn’t know yesterday, but stumbled across today, is that KU’s Sven Fund is one of three venture investors in the company. This, of course, is nowhere disclosed on the ORC site, nor even in the KU press release touting the platform.

All of this, including the key 2016 stealth re-launch of KU as Fund’s for-profit, is shady at best. Fund repeatedly commits sins of omission in his companies and initiatives, KU above all. The initiatives wrap themselves in the cloth of mission-driven nonprofit-dom, down to .org and .community domain names and—in the case of KU—a genuine nonprofit pedigree. It takes detective work to discover these projects’ for-profit status.

Reasonable people can disagree about the place of profiteering in OA publishing and infrastructure. The same can’t be said for hiding for-profit status, repeatedly and after several call-outs. KU needs to start disclosing—early and often—its profit-seeking form, as a minimal step toward transparency. As Poynder phrased the question in his original post: “To what extent should we expect publishers who profess a commitment to Open Access (OA) to be open in other ways too?”

Knowledge Unlatched Strikes Again

Pablo Markin, in a recent post touting the Open Research Community‘s 2020 reach:

In the course of 2020, 153 posts and 151 documents have been added to the Open Research Community (ORC), which reflects its intention to serve as a resource for expert knowledge and content in the domain of Open Access.

What Markin does not mention is that the Open Research Community (ORC) is yet another initiative of the stealth for-profit Knowledge Unlatched (KU). Nor does Markin, identified as the ORC’s “Community Manager,” disclose KU’s backing in his original ORC announcement post from a year ago. Nor is there any mention of KU in the platform’s FAQs.

This is not a new pattern for KU. Founded as a nonprofit in 2012, the core of Knowledge Unlatched was acquired by Sven Fund’s for-profit consultancy in 2016. The organization’s new, profit-making status was, in effect, a shadily kept secret which—when revealed—caused an outcry. To this day, despite multiple pleas to Fund and his board, it is still almost impossible to unearth its for-profit status on KU’s flashy .org website.

Recall, too, that in 2019 Fund launched the Open Research Library, which effectively—in its first version—scraped OA books that it arguably had no right to host (for those with “NC” licenses, at least). KU was roundly criticized at the time. ScholarLed, the coalition of nonprofit publishers, issued a scathing statement. KU’s moves since Fund’s acquisition, the group wrote, “increasingly look like OA platform capitalism and rent-seeking”:

There is a worrying drift here in KU’s operations from a community-minded, non-profit initiative invested in helping libraries and publishers to work collaboratively to open front- and back-list book titles, to an aggressively competitive commercial firm intent on pursuing a centralized platform for the delivery of multiple varieties of OA content and associated “services” (KU has also recently moved into journal flipping and analytics).

Which brings us back to KU’s Open Research Community, launched almost exactly a year after Fund’s 2019 gambit, the Open Research Library. KU’s official press release does identify the ORC as a KU “initiative.” But nowhere does the release disclose KU’s for-profit status, not even in its ID footer. Quite the contrary.

So it’s no surprise that the ORC is built on the venture-funded SaaS company Zapnito‘s platform. Zapnito’s other clients, touted on its landing page, include Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley. CEO and co-founder Charles Thiede started the company (“Powering expert communities”) after a long career at Informa, the conglomerate owner of Taylor & Francis.

So yet again, and without repetence, Fund and KU have made a stealthy move to monetize OA infrastructure.

‘How the Pandemic Is Imperiling a Working-Class College’

This big Times story on Indiana University of Pennsylvania buries the lede. The 41st paragraph:

When the 2008 recession hit, many states decimated the budgets for regional campuses of state schools. From that point through 2018, Pennsylvania’s funding per student for higher education fell 33.8 percent, among the steepest declines in the country. In inflation-adjusted terms, the state gives these schools about $220 million less annually than it did in 2000-1. To make up the difference, base tuition rose steadily beyond the cost of inflation: to $7,716 in 2018-19 from $5,358 in 2008-9. In a nutshell, the burden for supporting the system shifted sharply — from the state to the student. In the 1980s, the state paid 75 percent of a student’s load. Now the student pays nearly 75 percent. In Pennsylvania, the average student debt taken on by graduates of state schools rose 35 percent between 2011 and 2018.

It’s a moving piece of narrative journalism on an American style of class warfare—the accelerating disinvestment in the regional public universities that serve a huge if invisible share of students.

Jeff Pooley is professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College and director of mediastudies.press, an open access scholarly publisher.

pooley@muhlenberg.edu | press@mediastudies.press

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