v31#4 Op Ed — Epistemology- Power, Control, and the Quest for Open Infrastructure

by | Oct 4, 2019 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  T. Scott Plutchak  (Librarian, Epistemologist, Birmingham, Alabama)  http://tscott.typepad.com

It’s not news that many librarians see the future of scholarly communication as a fight between the forces of good and evil.  Some examples from this week’s mail:

A data services librarian asks, “I’m curious if anyone has any concerns around who ultimately owns Digital Science (and Dimensions and FigShare and Symplectic and Springer)? … I have some feelings when I see lines connecting to publishing entities, but maybe that’s unfounded.”  (Not warm and fuzzy feelings, I’m guessing.) A research data manager replies, “Me, I have concerns! I definitely have concerns — DigSci/FigShare/Symplectic/Dimensions all go back to McGraw Hill, so…yeah.  So often commercial publishers are motivated by maximizing immediate share holder value, which is rarely in line with the values of academics/scholars/researchers, and is such a source of friction.”1

Pretty one-dimensional, but not as hostile as this post from Eric Elmore (UTSA Electronic Resources Coordinator).  “Librarians are interested in getting the most content and value for our dwindling budgets in an ethical manner.  Not an easy or simple task. Publishers, on the other hand, are concerned with extracting every penny, ruble, shekel, pence, yuan, yen, and/or ounce of blood they can from anyone who wants to use the content they “publish”.  … It’s Capitalism 101. Once you understand the frame of mind of someone who works for a publisher, of course they think libraries are leveraging a free resource such as SciHub. Because that’s exactly what they would do if they were in the libraries’ position.  When the only objective is the endless acquisition of money silly little things like whether or not a resource is legal or ethical no longer have relevance.”2

“Once you understand the frame of mind of someone who works for a publisher.”  Elmore’s condescension is breathtaking.  

Fortunately, even among those who share the Manichean view of things, most stop short of claiming that every person who works for a publishing company considers legal and ethical considerations to be irrelevant.  Mike Roy of Middlebury College also sees publishers and librarians working in opposition, but in much less inflammatory language: 

“The fight (and yes, it is a fight) over Open Access is about reclaiming control over a system that is now largely controlled by corporate interests.  Those who have power rarely hand that power over without a fight.”3  He makes a crucial point here.  The fight over Open Access isn’t really about Open Access.  It hasn’t been for a very long time. It’s a fight over control.  

It’s been obvious for years that the Big Five have fully embraced Open Access.  And the version they embrace — immediate access to the version of record on the publisher’s site — is much closer to the iconic OA ideals enshrined in the BBB declarations than the various green versions championed by many OA partisans (embargoed access to an author’s manuscript version buried in an institutional repository).  The disputes aren’t about whether to make articles open, they’re about who gets to set the terms. The pure of heart librarians are absolutists. Roy says, “A number of people have described the challenge as one of needing to organize and to act collectively in order to reclaim control and ownership over this system.”  Shared control isn’t an option.

Last December, Roy and a couple of his colleagues published a blog post in which they discussed their efforts to “map the infrastructure required to support digital scholarly communications.”4  They identify three “uncomfortable truths.”  One, there are two sets of actors working in this space.  There are several of the big commercial companies on the one hand, and on the other “a ragtag band of actors: open source projects of various sizes and capacities.”  The conflict is “a bit like the rebel alliance versus the empire and the death star.” Good guys and bad guys.

Second, the bad guy companies are well-resourced and the ragtag good guys are not.  And third, there is very little transparency, so it’s impossible to see where investments are being made by either group.  It’s this last truth that they hope to confront by setting up a mechanism for identifying what “the community” is currently spending on open infrastructure projects.  They argue that better data and more transparency are essential in order to leverage whatever resources the academic community can muster and make sound investments in developing open infrastructure that can compete with the death star… erm, the big commercial companies.

But data and transparency are still insufficient.  Figuring out where to make investments, and then making those investments happen, requires more, “…an organizational and governance structure that is trusted by the community.  Such an organization does not exist today. We need to start to [sic] thinking about how to create it.”

The results of some of that thinking were revealed in May with the launch of Invest in Open Infrastructure.5  IOI isn’t quite an organization.  It’s billed as a global collaboration among a number of highly motivated organizations and individuals with a shared belief in the importance of open infrastructure for scholarly communication.  The centerpiece of their effort, the fulcrum on which they hope to leverage their data and transparency, is The Framework. “To move [Open Infrastructure] forward, it is time to create a strategic, global body — The Framework — with a mandate to facilitate and shepherd a shared strategy and agenda across international stakeholders.”  

The IOI concept statement describes The Why, The Issue, The Vision, The Mission, The Framework.6  It is silent on The How, which is the crux of the issue.  And which leads us back to The Who and how dogmatic IOI is going to be about power and control.

One of the ironies missed by the commercial-organizations-bad folks is how many of the successful collaborative efforts in developing shared infrastructure have been publisher-led.  ORCID, CrossRef, CHORUS — they all got off the ground because people in publishing recognized that they could contribute their expertise to a shared effort that would result in a public good.  I suppose everyone involved wasn’t pure of heart, but they knew how to get things done.

What people like Elmore miss every time they bitch about the misalignment of goals and values between publishers and academics is that every one of us operates out of a multiplicity of motivations in almost everything that we do.  People talk about “mission-driven” and “maximizing revenue” as if they’re mutually exclusive. Yet every organization that has a mission needs to have a sound financial structure and a company that derives revenue from delivering a service can’t succeed if its services aren’t aligned with its customers’ missions.

I suppose it’s human nature to try to whittle the complexities of human behavior down to simplicities of good and evil.  But that’s not how people really operate. Scientists might be driven by the desire to make world-changing discoveries while also having financially rewarding careers and winning prizes and being admired by their peers.  An actor or musician might be determined to use their art to change how people think about their own lives, and still want to make lots of money and become famous. People in publishing can be passionately committed to using their resources to promote the public good, while at the same time working to maximize shareholder value.  We’re all a mix of idealism and venality, trying every day to live up to our best impulses while making up for how badly we failed the day before.  

Mike Roy is certainly right when he says that those with power rarely hand over that power without a fight.  But it needn’t be all or nothing. The leadership of the Society for Scholarly Publishing includes librarians and publishers on their board.  CHORUS recently announced the formation of an Academic Advisory Working Group (AAWG), with the avowed aim of increasing “the involvement of academic institutions in CHORUS’ development.”7  In 2006, when I went to my first STM8 meeting in Frankfurt, it was apparent that many people in publishing would have welcomed the involvement of librarians in figuring out how to take advantage of the new technologies in advancing scientific communication.  But librarians didn’t step up. With SPARC as the dominant public voice of academic librarianship, they adopted an adversarial stance.  No cooperation with the forces of darkness. Power and control.

Dan Whaley, CEO of Hypothesis, is on the IOI steering committee and I was encouraged by his interview in the Scholarly Kitchen.9  He’s dedicated to open infrastructure, but he’s not dogmatic about who he’s willing to play with.  Hypothesis, his organization, has a solid track record of working with partners of all stripes.  But Whaley is just one of the twenty-one member steering committee and some of the rhetoric on the IOI website implies that the commercial outfits currently operating in this space won’t be welcome.  Getting twenty-one passionate people to agree on anything is difficult. There are some hardcore anti-commercial folks in this group.  What will be the points of friction and what will people be willing to compromise on?

I want the IOI folks to succeed.  I want to see them build something real.  It’s important. Even if you don’t fall for the simplistic canard that the people running commercial companies and the people running libraries can’t possibly have shared values and work together, you should welcome more experimentation and diversity and transparency in developing scholarly communication infrastructure.  But there are big challenges. There’s a twenty-one person steering committee made up of passionate individuals with strong opinions. They haven’t figured out a governance mechanism yet, and they’re going to have to make some tough decisions. They have high ideals, but it’ll take more than those ideals to build something that makes a difference.  

I’ve worked on many different projects with librarians and publishers over decades.  I know that there are many people, working for many different types of organizations, who have knowledge and skills and passion and resources to contribute to such an effort.  If the purists insist that the commercial outfits or the people who work in them can’t participate, IOI will certainly run aground.   Believing you’re on the right side of history isn’t enough.  Building a wall of righteousness around open infrastructure is no substitute for some sound business sense.  The people on the steering committee are going to have to decide who they’re willing to listen to and work with in order to succeed.  Or if the most important thing is fighting for power and control.  

Endnotes

1.  Private email discussion list.  June 25 & 26, 2019.

2.  Elmore, Eric.  “Re: Frustrating story on Times Higher Education.”  Liblicense-L Discussion Forum. June 27, 2019.  http://listserv.crl.edu/wa.exe?A2=ind1906&L=LIBLICENSE-L&P=73583 

3.  Roy, Michael D.  “Re: Basic question about Plan S, OSI, and universal OA.”  The Open Scholarship Initiative.  December 18, 2018.

4.  Lewis, David W.;  Roy, Mike and Skinner, Katherine.  “The First Step Towards a System of Open Digital Scholarly Communication Infrastructure.”  In the Open. December 9, 2018.

5.  IOI Leadership.  “Invest in Open Infrastructure Launches.”  Invest in Open Infrastructure. May 14, 2019.  https://investinopen.org/2019/05/14/ioi-launch.html

6.  “Invest in Open Infrastructure: A concept.” Version 0.2.  Invest in Open Infrastructure. n.d.  https://investinopen.org/docs/statement0.2

7.  Girard, Sara.  “CHORUS Forms Academic Advisory Working Group.”  CHORUS. June 6, 2019.  https://www.chorusaccess.org/chorus-forms-academic-advisory-working-group/

8.  International Association of STM Publishers.  https://www.stm-assoc.org/

9.  Schonfeld, Roger C.  “Invest in Open Infrastructure: An Interview with Dan Whaley.”  The Scholarly Kitchen. June 12, 2019.  https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/06/12/invest-open-infrastructure/

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