The Copyright Clearance Center (which has, apparently, rebranded as CCC), announcing a new service for publishers on the hunt for read-and-publish lucre:
CCC, a leading provider of Open Access (OA) workflow solutions, has launched OA Agreement Intelligence, the only agreement modeling solution that enables publishers to prepare, build, and analyze their OA data so that they can create and communicate sustainable and transparent agreements with their partners. […] “Constructing data-driven publishing agreements at scale impacts all stakeholders in the OA environment,” said Frank Pepe, Director, Pricing & Strategic Analysis, IEEE. “OA Agreement Intelligence transforms the agreement modeling process by supporting better visibility and communications to facilitate collaboration with our partners.”m
Yikes—software to oil the read-and-publish gears.
Telling detail: The press release cites the OSTP guidance to pitch the service.
Silverchair will not be owned by an investment-oriented private equity firm forever. Sooner or later, it will likely end up in the arms of another owner, perhaps eventually through a strategic acquisition. We can be philosophical about this and recognize that much else will change in the market also over that period of time, so there may be little sense in worrying about this too much right now. Still, in the long run, the independence of commercially owned community digital infrastructure is never fully guaranteed.
That’s why we need our infrastructure nonprofit and community-led—so it can’t be bepress-ed.
Rachel Miles, writing on The Bibliomagician on the new crop of automated tools that spit out citation recommendations:
The Matthew Effect, in which advantage begets more advantage, is exacerbated by automated citation recommendation tools. These tools’ algorithms are based on current and past citation practices and function similarly to Google’s PageRank, retrieving the most “popular” results rather than the most relevant or accurate ones. In academia, scholarship from the Global North, in the English language, from high impact or top ranked journals, and scholarship with higher citation counts may be further benefited by these recommendation tools whereas publications in non-English languages, from the Global South, and in newer or emerging journals will be disproportionately disadvantaged.
It’s a great point, about cumulative disadvantage. Miles cites a number of other drawbacks of the tools, black-box algorithms, lazy citing, and confirmation bias.
Phil Hill, writing for EdSurge on hard times for the Online Program Management (OPM) industry:
Wiley posted an 8 percent drop in university partner enrollment for its OPM segment, Pearson lost its biggest OPM customer (Arizona State University) and reported falling enrollments (1 percent) and revenue (2 percent), Coursera saw a 4 percent drop in revenue and lowered full-year guidance, 2U dropped its full-year revenue guidance by 10 percent and began an across-the-board 20 percent set of layoffs, and FutureLearn reported that it may not survive another year without new investment.
Couldn’t happen to a better industry.
The company will reorganize as one entity under the edX brand, and it will increase its focus on sustainability (and profitability) and decrease the focus on growth. This acceleration unfortunately means that 2U will lay off approximately 20 percent of its staff across all functions in the second half of 2022. The claim made to financial analysts is that revenue estimates for full-year 2022 would be down 10 percent, but EBITDA (a popular measure of profit) would be up 30 percent.
I missed this important statement from cOAlition S back in June:
Scientific publishing is evolving rapidly. A number of initiatives have moved away from the notion that peer-reviewed articles must be published in traditional Open Access journals or platforms. They provide peer review services that are entirely independent from such journals or platforms. These include Peer Community in (PCI), Sciety, Next Generation Repositories, Notify Project, PREreview, and Review Commons, to name a few. These initiatives give the author the freedom to decide how and when to disseminate their peer-reviewed article.
The explicit point is to help break the journal prestige economy:
In light of the accelerating development of these journal-independent peer-review services, cOAlition S would like to explicitly state that ‘peer reviewed publications’ – defined here as scholarly papers that have been subject to a journal-independent standard peer review process with an implicit or explicit validation– are considered by most cOAlition S organisations to be of equivalent merit and status as peer-reviewed publications that are published in a recognised journal or on a platform.
From the department of creeping privatization: EdSurge’s Daniel Mollenkamp on Coursera’s move to sign university deals for industry-friendly certificates in the wake of falling enrollments:
To Coursera, the online learning platform and edtech “unicorn” that went public last year, this may represent an opportunity to serve as an institutional bridge for some of these universities in the struggle to stop the bleeding. The company’s latest attempt, launched today, is its “Career Academy for Institutions,” a program that stitches together the company’s existing career certificates with some new offerings.
Never let an enrollment crisis go to waste.
Patrick Dunleavy, writing for the LSE Impact blog:
Other US-based promoters of open science, like the Centre for Open Science, also cover mainly the quantitative disciplines in social sciences (like psychology and health studies). Yet COS’s somewhat disturbing strategy for accelerating cultural change towards ‘open’ starts with ‘Make it Easy’, goes through ‘Make it Normative (sic)’ and then ‘Make it Rewarding’, but ends up with ‘Make it Required’. No apparent explanation is given of how that last stage would work outside of laboratory or experimental work, some kinds of randomized control trials, or purely computational research. A careful analysis of many psychology journals’ policies by Prosser et al suggests that ‘open science risks becoming a closed door’ for qualitative researchers in the discipline.
The piece is a good primer on the hidden parochialism of “Open Science” as a phrase and, to some extent, a movement. Make room for qualitative social scientists, Dunleavy suggests, and you’ll create space for humanists too:
Valuable as the insights about open science in STEMM disciplines are, a broader and more inclusive approach is needed if ‘open’ is to develop fully across the social sciences – in the process hopefully reshaping not just into crossover disciplines with the humanities (like law, social and political philosophy, contemporary history and the digital humanities), but also spilling over into a wider range of humanities subjects (like older history, philosophy and literature studies).
Marcio Rodrigues and his Brazilian colleagues, in a recent commentary, noting that funded researchers in Brazil have roughly $2,000 a year to conduct their studies:
A median cost of APCs equal to USD 2,600 was recently estimated. However, APCs can cost more than USD 10,000. It is noteworthy mentioning that the funding models discussed herein for the Brazilian system and others are not supposed to cover only APCs, but everything else. In summary, it is virtually impossible to cover APCs under these conditions, although it means exclusion from publishing open access papers.
From the paper:
To be inclusive, the APC system must change, and this is urgent. If not, scientists from low-to-medium income regions will not have their science known by the scientific community and the people in general. This situation strikingly contrasts with the widely accepted concept that science is universal by nature, and enhances the already existence of inequalities in science, negatively impacting the scientific-derived benefits for the people(s).
KU Leuven’s Demmy Verbeke and Laura Mesotten, writing in UKSG Insights on their APC-free Fund for Fair Open Access:
We should consider why we strive for OA. If it is only to arrange broader access to the published record, then the easiest approach undoubtedly is to continue working with the traditional partners in scholarly communication and simply accept the rise in costs. But what about the other hopes and expectations for OA?
Verbeke and Mesotten go on to cite the aims and aspirations that the current APC/read-and-publish tragedy sidesteps:
What about the goal to open up participation in scholarship, thus overcoming the exclusivity enjoyed by researchers affiliated with the richest universities in the world – which implies that you cannot trade a barrier to reading for a barrier to publishing (as happens in approaches to OA which make use of author-facing charges)? What about the desire to regain control, as an academic community, of the ecosystem of scholarly communication – which will not happen if authors continue to give up copyright in exchange for access to this ecosystem? And what about the wish to control the cost of scholarly communication – which we abandon if we are willing to pay whatever it takes to be able to publish in OA?
From yesterday’s blockbuster White House announcement on immediate OA for federally funded research:
Improving public access policies across the U.S. government to promote the rapid sharing of federally funded research data with appropriate protections and accountability measures will allow for greater validity of research results and more equitable access to data resources aligned with these ideals. To promote equity and advance the work of restoring the public’s trust in Government science, and to advance American scientific leadership, now is the time to amend federal policy to deliver immediate public access to federally funded research.
The no-embargo guidance, to be implemented by federal funding agencies over the next couple of years, is a huge win, full stop. SPARC North America and the ARL are right to celebrate the news. It is, in effect, a single-memo Plan (U.)S.
Still: the unintended consequences. Without lots of vigilance and careful policy revision, the edict—to be implemented across many agencies—could end up enthroning the article processing charge (APC).
Here’s the basic problem. As a growing number of studies document, most of the world’s academic authors (including most humanities and social science authors in the U.S.) can’t afford the often-usurious fees. The APC model, with its tolled access to authorship, is the subscription model seen through a camera obscura: author paywalls in place of reading paywalls. Thus the prevailing APC regime fixes one barrier to access, for readers, by erecting another, for authors.
The big risk is that the new policy will inadvertently crown the author-excluding APC. Thanks to the aggressive, profit-protecting moves of the big five publishers as well as some friendly fire from the Europeans’ Plan S, the APC is already in the pole position. Rich North American universities and well-heeled European nations have been signing so-called “read-and-publish” deals with the publishers for years now—deals that cover APCs for their faculty alone. In the last two years the pace of deal-making has picking up, under the “transformative agreement” euphemism—starving library budgets that could otherwise fund fee-free OA publishing. And since author fees are stitched into the deals, the approach serves to ratify—and secure in place—a scholarly publishing system underwritten by the APC.
So the OA transition is already leaning APC. The new U.S. policy could tip the scales still further—that’s the unintended consequence that needs addressing.
It’s true that the memo endorses the so-called “green” route, whereby scholars self-archive their accepted, but unformatted papers in nonprofit repositories. The new policy removes publishers’ ability to impose an embargo—a very happy development indeed.
Still, the White House memo is alarmingly mute on how its OA mandates will be funded, when scholars take the “gold” route: open access to the formatted version-of-record. The only reference I could find is a single line, five pages into the eight-page guidance:
In consultation with OMB [Office of Budget and Budget], federal agencies should allow researchers to include reasonable publication costs and costs associated with submission, curation, management of data, and special handling instructions as allowable expenses in all research budget
Elsevier and Springer Nature will tell you that $3,000 to $12,000 per article is perfectly “reasonable.” That word is an invitation for cost-concealing abuse. The rest of the language here, moreover, guides agencies to cover what are, in everything but name, APCs. Author-facing charges, in other words, seem to be baked into the plan—with no mention, as far as I can see, of just alternatives like collective funding.
The problem is potentially worse, since there’s no reference to any future ban on publishing in “hybrid” journals—those titles which accept APC-funded OA articles but paywall the rest. Librarians and other funders have rightly accused publishers of double-dipping with their hybrid titles—by charging for APCs and subscriptions. That’s one of the reasons the European Plan S is phasing in a hybrid-journal ban—one that isn’t telegraphed anywhere in yesterday’s U.S. guidance.
There is, however, some reason for optimism. The White House memo includes an additional reference to the funding question—one that calls out, in a single crucial clause, the core issue. It is, alas, buried in a long list of charges to be carried out by a designated federal committee:
consider measures to reduce inequities in publishing of, and access to, federally funded research and data, especially among individuals from underserved backgrounds and those who are early in their careers.
It’s this language, apparently, that led SPARC North America’s Heather Joseph to downplay the risk of author-excluding fees. She is quoted in today’s Chronicle coverage [paywalled]:
Some commentators worried that publishers would raise the article-processing charges, or APCs, associated with open-access publishing in their journals. But [Heather] Joseph, of the academic-resources coalition [SPARC], said she hopes language in the guidance that encourages “measures to reduce inequities in publishing,” particularly among early-career scholars and those from underserved backgrounds, will prevent that.
“Those publishers that try to charge ridiculously high APCs will find it difficult, because ‘inequity in publishing’ means ‘I’m priced out of being able to publish. I can’t afford to contribute my research article to the scientific record,’” Joseph said. The White House’s blog post also noted that it was working to ensure “support for more vulnerable members of the research ecosystem unable to pay rising costs associated with publishing open-access articles.”
I’m far less sanguine. We certainly can’t rely on blog-post prose, especially since the actual memo’s reference (“…reduce inequities in publishing of…”) amounts to a single, obscurely placed clause.
By contrast, Ithaka S+R’s Roger Schonfeld, quoted in Inside Higher Ed, cuts to the read-and-publish chase:
“Over all, this is a very important and positive development for openness, but not without second-order consequences,” said Roger Schonfeld, vice president of organizational strategy at Ithaka, a nonprofit focused on improving access to knowledge and education around the world. “The policy guidance provides a route to paying for data set deposit, through researcher grants, which should further stimulate the data repository ecosystem. But it is less clear how the mandate for free publications will be paid for, which may trouble some of the scholarly publishers, particularly those without well-developed U.S. strategy for transformative agreements.”
When it comes to policy, good intentions aren’t nearly enough. It’s easy to imagine publishers of all kinds scrambling to make read-and-publish deals to ensure that federally funded authors’ fees will be covered. In that scenario, the APC model would win new, and perhaps decisive, momentum.
Indeed, that’s the most likely scenario—at least without steady pressure for policy revision, to include, for example, APC caps and funding for alternative models. Those of us in the open authorship movement—fighting to keep the author-excluding APC at bay—should welcome the new mandate, but only provisionally. This could easily become a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Audrey Smith and co-authors, in a study published in MIT’s Quantitative Science Studies late last year, with still more evidence that APCs exclude authors from the Global South:
We found that for the overwhelming majority of articles published in the Mirror-Parent ecosystem, the Author Geographic Diversity of articles requiring APCs was significantly lower than that of articles requiring no fee. This was true regardless of whether the OA articles were published in the established Parent journals or the Gold OA Mirrors. The overwhelming majority of these OA articles also had lead authors based in high-income countries. Despite being based in countries nominally eligible for APC waivers, authors from middle-income countries published proportionately few OA articles, but authors in low-income countries published almost entirely subscription-only articles in Parent journals. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that APCs are a barrier to OA publication by scientists from the low-income countries of the Global South.
The paper‘s research design is deliciously clever: Smith et al. probe Elsevier’s own, deeply cynical use of so-called “mirror” journals—whereby a hybrid journal is cloned, complete with editorial board, in order to create a sham, Plan S-compliant gold OA title. (To its credit, Coalition S has slapped down the shameless ploy.) The paper‘s authors are, in effect, turning OA lemons into methodological lemonade, by using the mirror-parent journal pairing as a kind of natural experiment:
[…] the ability to compare OA articles published in Mirror and Parent journals means that we can control for many of the factors influencing these decisions. Most notably, the journals in a Mirror-Parent pair have identical editorial boards, editorial philosophy, and publication priorities.
The article processing charge (APC)—and its stealthy cousin, the read-and-publish deal—are finally coming under the ferocious assault that they deserve. This last year, both the UNESCO Open Science Recommendation and the Budapest Open Access Initiative came out strong against the author-excluding APC.
And consider the last month alone:
Emilio Delgado Lopez-Cozar and Ramon Feentsra, writing in World.edu on the “refusal to pay to publish”:
the publishing business is based on a great paradox: scientists must pay to publish articles based on research that consumes enormous economic resources financed by the universities and research centers where they work or by public funding agencies. […] Public capital at the service of private interests.
The University of Nigeria’s Oluchi Ojinamma Okere, writing in Research Information:
With an average annual salary of about €4,200 ($4,500), considering publishing a single article in even a moderately priced journal at about €1,220 ($1,510) is almost preposterous for an African academic. […] [H]ighly priced publication fees are another form of discrimination perpetuated by many gold, open access APC-based journals against disadvantaged researchers in an era that prides itself with openness, globalisation, diversity and sustainability.
MIT’s Katharine Dunn, in an Open Interview:
APCs and “read and publish” agreements are arguably a kind of commercial open access that exclude a lot of people, and, as we all know, there are other ways to go about opening up scholarship.
Pilar Santidrián Tomillo and colleagues, writing in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on how OA “perpetuates differences between higher- and lower-income countries”:
Unfortunately, scientists who lack adequate funding, especially those based in lower-income countries, have been and continue to be largely restricted from OA publishing. […] If the OA movement had – from the beginning – included the perspective of scientists from lower-income countries, such inequity might have been anticipated and avoided.
Leigh-Ann Butler and her University of Ottawa colleagues, in a conference proceedings:
Instead of making scholarly publishing sustainable and accessible for all, exorbitant APCs (and more recently transformative agreements) preserve the status quo of the academic publishing market. The author-pays model excludes large parts of the academic community from publishing, giving preference to well-funded authorsand institutions, those at a later career stage, disciplines, countries, and excludes marginalized communities. Instead of removing barriers from academic publishing, OA APCs have shifted inequities from readers to authors, often affecting those same individuals.
From the press release announcing Arcadia’s $3.6 million grant to the Redalyc and AmeliCA:
There is no need of commercial negotiations or “transformative agreements” in a non-profit Acceso Abierto [Open Access] environment since research findings are communicated in Open Access without economic restrictions. Diamond Acceso Abierto works against the inflationary market caused by APC charges. […] By supporting open infrastructures for diamond Acceso Abierto, an economically more sustainable and more inclusive model is being strengthened. One, that doesn’t exclude less-favoured societal sectors.
COAR’s Kathleen Shearer, writing in Times Higher Education on commercial publishers’ “huge financial stake in transitioning the system to a pay-to-publish model to maintain their significant profits”:
Of course, we could quickly get to universal open access if we paid publishers the vast sums in open access fees they demand. But, in a system where the actual costs of publishing represent a small portion of the per article fees charged, wouldn’t this money be better spent if it were invested back into research itself?
August 11 (today)
And Gunnar Sivertsen and Lin Zhang, writing in the LSE Impact blog on APCs as the “new enclosure of research”:
[W]e consider the mainstreaming of APCs as a ‘paywall’ to perform research, using the same term as is used to characterise the subscription model in publishing from a reader’s perspective. […] While intended to make the scientific literature more accessible, it is now reported that OA publishing fees deter researchers in the global south from performing research and our own study has already raised the same concern from an African perspective. […] [T]his new paywall for performing research is at odds with fundamental norms of equal opportunities and sharing in scientific work.
COPIM’s Judith Fathallah, in an excellent Liber Quarterly overview of funding models for OA monographs:
Book Processing Charges [BPCs] may have their place in the publishing landscape, and no doubt will be used across a range of models for the foreseeable future. But they are not particularly sustainable – or reliable, or indeed equitable. They privilege funded researchers, wealthy institutions, and established academics on permanent contracts. In other words, they penalise those researchers and institutions least able to bear the burden.
UKRI may be listening. From their explanation document [pdf]:
We also sought to understand the potential for the policy to cause or contribute to disadvantages or inequalities, including in relation to early career researchers and researchers in low- and middle-income countries.
They have, however, punted (until November) on the key question: whether their OA monograph fund, set to open in 2024, will support non-BPCs funding models:
From January 2024, approximately £3.5 million will be dedicated to supporting open access for long-form outputs via a separate ring-fenced fund. The fund will be centrally held by UKRI and research organisations will apply to UKRI to access it. The process, and definition of eligible costs, for the long-form outputs fund are currently being developed. [… ] We will provide further information in November 2022.
The prospects for COPIM’s forthcoming mission-aligned funding exchange, the Open Book Collective, hinge in part on UKRI honoring its commitment—provisionally proffered—to support just alternatives to the BPC.
In its early days, PubPub was proudly sui generis. The team ignored most scholarly publishing conventions by design. Among many other things, there was no real support for submission or review. The ambitious point was to rethink what scholarly communication might look like—built around the atomic Pub unit, HTML-first, and unburdened by the dead weight of tradition. That blank-slate radicalism, admirable as it was, made it hard to implement even defensible conventions, like citation formatting. What has happened, over the last few years, is that the team has made thoughtful concessions to the inherited reality: support for formatted PDFs, for example, or more book-specific metadata fields. PubPub may have razed the house of scholarly publishing, but its tacit goal since has been to build back the rooms worth having.
An interesting, rarely surfaced point, in a reflection post from the University of Cambridge’s working group on open research in the humanities, on the drawbacks of the “green,” accepted-manuscript repository route to OA. For arts and humanities (A&H), self-archiving might be
… problematic because it neglects the import of the editing process in A&H research. Without undergoing this process, ‘accepted manuscripts’ are very vulnerable to errors, especially in the case of the very many scholars who regularly work in languages that are not their first, or in the case of early career scholars who are less familiar with critical processes and how to evidence them, or in the case of colleagues with various kinds of disabilities such as dyslexia.
In cases where scholars receive an acceptance that is subject to improvement, the final ‘date of acceptance’ is ambiguous for legal purposes. And in cases where the work in question uses copyrighted material, further legal issues emerge about when and how it may be possible to circulate this. In all these senses, then, many A&H colleagues simply dislike the thought of their ‘accepted manuscript’ circulating. In the case of institutional repositories, there seems to be a direct and obvious tension between the goals of open research and quality control.
There’s a lot of exciting momentum around swapping out the journal system for an interwoven repository infrastructure—with various publish-then-review schemes intended to sidestep the prestige lock-in propping up the current publishing oligopoly. In broad terms, the idea is that repositories could serve as an article’s iterative resting place, rather than as a “green” way station. The repository solution, if that’s what it is, seems to address most of the Cambridge group’s questions—and even the copyrighted-material concern could be answered with a culture of aggressive fair dealing/fair use invocation.
From June: A jaw-dropping paper, based on FOIA documents, that tracks the foundation-boring grip that for-profit Online Program Management (OPM) firms like 2U have on public universities. The authors combed through hundreds of private contracts, documenting widespread predation—like targeting marginalized students:
For example, the 30-year agreement between Purdue Global and private-equity-backed Kaplan states that the intent of the contract is to “create a new U.S. degree-granting online institution designed specifically to serve non-traditional students” and to “expand access to higher education for adult learner and other nontraditional students.” Zovio’s website, describing the University of Arizona-Ashford conversion, similarly notes that the partnership “will focus on serving underrepresented and non-traditional students.” Other contracts use similar terms—e.g., “non-traditional,” “working adult,” and “diverse populations.” […] the University of Texas at El Paso-Pearson contract notes that “UTEP agrees to provide Pearson with the following information for the purpose of promoting and marketing of the e-Learning Programs: Prospective students who applied for admission to UTEP but were not admitted.” Universities can even sell contact information for students who did not qualify for their online program to for-profit providers, who will then recruit those students for other partner university programs with open admission or very low requirements. The University of California, Berkeley-2U contract includes $4.2 million dollars in financial “compensation” to UC-Berkeley for such a provision: 2U can recruit students for lower-ranked partner school Southern Methodist University, if the students are those whom “UC Berkeley reasonably predict[s] are not otherwise academically qualified” or appear to “have disengaged with 2U” as is stated in the program criteria.
The research team identified four other “predatory processes” that characterize OPMs: revenue extraction, privatization by obfuscation, for-profit creep, and university lock-in. The paper—which deserves a much wider readership—is marinated in the damning words of the contracts themselves.
The authors drive at the fundamental misalignment of nonprofit higher-ed and the OPM profiteers. Indeed, the problems they document are worse, across the board, for firms financed by private equity and/or VCs.
Preprint platform Research Square exists to drive business to English-language editing factory American Journal Experts (AJE), which launched the platform in 2018. Preprint authors receive a Language Quality Score, and are then shilled to spend hundreds of dollars on AJE services:
What does my Language Quality Score mean? AJE used machine learning to develop a tool that assesses your language quality. The model was trained using more than 100,000 academic papers in all areas of study that had been scored by professional editors based on the quality of English. Your Language Quality Score reflects how the quality of English in your paper compares to the other papers in our dataset. Scores take into account all aspects of readability in English, including grammar, consistency, and clarity.
This is grim stuff: leveraging English-language hegemony to squeeze Global South scholars, by way of preprinting’s corporate capture. Why not throw in some bullshitty machine-learning claims?
Exactly no one should be surprised that Springer Nature acquired a majority stake in Research Square/AJE in 2018, the year the preprint platform launched. In a Scholarly Kitchen interview in 2020, Springer Nature’s Eugenie Regan cited the company’s ambition to transition its business from “content centric” to “service centric”:
Our vision is for researchers to be supported throughout both their publishing journey and careers, able to seamlessly access the right information, tools and services at exactly the point at which they need it; to help authors get published and create a level playing field for researchers around the world.
At many of its journals, Springer Nature now prompts authors to opt in to Research Square preprinting (“Journal-integrated preprint sharing from Springer Nature and Research Square”). No word about the English-language upsell, nor Springer’s majority stake, on the service’s about page.
Michael Vasquez, writing for The Chronicle [paywalled] a few weeks ago:
When a pair of professors stepped down from their posts at Arcadia University this year, without another job lined up, they did so to halt the creation of a physician-assistant program in partnership with 2U, the online-learning giant. […] After the full-time faculty members left, the program director also stepped down — further dampening any hopes of launching the program soon, as a program director must be on the job for 15 months before any accreditor visit. The resignations came several months after the accreditor’s virtual site visit to evaluate Arcadia’s fledgling hybrid physician-assistant program. That virtual visit did not go well.
If and when the delayed, staff-less program gets launched, 2U will receive 62.5% of tuition revenue for 15 years, The Chronicle reported.
Online Program Managers (OPMs) like 2U are stealth privatizers of nonprofit higher ed, even as they drain dollars from our universities and students. The Government Accountability Office’s mild-mannered May report [pdf] calling on more oversight was followed, earlier this month, by a hard-hitting Wall Street Journal piece (“2U Inc. isn’t a university, but it sometimes looks like one”), so maybe scrutiny of the sleazy sector is picking up. Just in time for 2U’s likely sale to an Indian ed-tech giant.
What looks worse than ever is Harvard and MIT’s shameless decision last year to sell edX.
We’re planning to support both centralized and self-hosted versions within our existing nonprofit by slowly building our new membership and community services offerings, as described in our sustainability update earlier this year. Our goal is to become deeply sustainable. Not just enough to keep the lights on, but enough to pay fair salaries and offer great benefits to our employees, to continue developing innovative features, and to build a robust rainy day fund. Unfortunately, some people in the ecosystem don’t like this approach. They see it as a false choice, and believe that focusing on making our core use-case sustainable compromises on openness. We respectfully disagree. Learning from the legions of projects that have either pivoted to serve the needs of well-funded incumbents, or simply failed when their funding ran out, we believe we are on the right path to sustainably meet the needs of an underserved set of users while maintaining our commitment to being as open as possible.
I’m right with Stein and the Knowledge Futures Group on the self-hosting question. One reason my own publishing projects have gone all in on PubPub is that they’ve made sustainability a top priority—with an ability-to-pay ethos and full-feature access for those who can’t afford memberships. PubPub’s key virtue, arguably, is its turnkey ease of setup, which—yes—rests on the team prioritizing the hosted version over self-hosting support. I’m glad that the PubPub team has medium-term plans to support self-hosting, but I’m relieved—more so, actually—to hear that they’ll continue to prioritize the central PubPub instance.
The Knowledge Futures Group’s Gabe Stein, in a sharp analysis of the peculiar market dynamics of scholarly publishing:
Because of this complexity, the academic publishing market imposes enormous social switching costs on its customers. For an individual researcher to change their behavior, they need to know that the university or lab which pays their salary, the funder which pays their research costs, and the library which pays for access to their field’s top journals won’t penalize them for it — or, in the best case, that they’ll be rewarded for it.
It’s true that there’s enormous inertia—resistance to experimentation—that props up the current publishing system. But Stein’s framing in terms of “social switching costs” hitched to a researcher’s three constituents (the university, funder, and library), while insightful, risks obscuring two facets of the problem. The first is that it’s really one of those constituents, the university, that imposes the switching cost, by way of the tenure, promotion, and hiring systems. The second missing piece here is the role of researchers’ own beliefs: Many scholars have internalized the journal prestige economy. It’s not merely a complex opportunity structure or the friction of too many moving parts. The bigger issue is that (1) scholars want to get published in Nature, which (2) universities reward in formal and informal ways, often (3) drawing on other scholars who serve every step of the tenure, promotion, and hiring processes. The problem of journal prestige lock-in, in other words, has a lot to do with belief and culture. We’ve met the enemy, and it’s us. One implication is that culture change, and efforts to overhaul tenure-and-promotion and hiring criteria, are where a lot of our attention should be.
Echoing some of the other feedback on Stein’s piece, I found the initial framing around for-profit startups and private research labs a bit jarring. In my view, profit-seeking and the university system are fundamentally misaligned. A more practical issue is incumbent acquisition. Many of the would-be disrupters that Stein mentions met their maker as new members of the Elsevier or Wiley families—one of a handful of desired “exits” for the VC firms that backed them. The main task (admittedly a long reach) is to restore the scholarly publishing infrastructure to the mission-aligned, nonprofit sector—which is one reason Stein’s Knowledge Futures Group is so indispensable. Stein agrees, I think, and the main thrust of the piece is that the next round of starry-eyed entrepreneurs will probably join their forebears in the startup graveyard. I look forward to the day when we find concepts like “total addressable market” (TAM) unseemly when applied to spheres, like education and medicine, oriented to the public good rather than private gain.