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?”