Resolving the question of how to provide an infrastructure for open access books and monographs has remained a persistent problem for researchers, librarians and funders. Knowledge Unlatched’s recent announcement of the open book platform – The Open Research Library – a project aimed at bringing together all available open book content onto one platform has been met with mixed responses. In this post Marcel Knöchelmann discusses the implications of Knowledge Unlatched business strategy and raises the question: Who really benefits from centralising access to open book content?

On May 16th, Knowledge Unlatched (KU) launched the beta version of a new product, the Open Research Library (ORL), a platform designed ‘to unite all Open Access (OA) book content’. According to KU, this new platform has been developed in cooperation with many partners, contributing a variety of services. A quaint news article claims that ‘[r]esponding to researchers’ requests for unfettered reach into the world’s open-access content, Sven Fund’s Knowledge Unlatched has created the Open Research Library’. Yet, instead of praise, the launch of the platform has mostly been met with concern amongst the library community.

Do we need a platform like this?

Arguing in favour of the centralisation of open book content, KU suggests that ‘[l]ibraries investing in the Open Research Library contribute to the development of a dedicated infrastructure for the global research community’. Whilst this is in accordance with KU’s mission statement to provide ‘a central place to support Open Access’, it raises the wider question: for whom does centralisation create value?

The ORL will host OA book content on a proprietary platform built by BiblioLab. It will not only host OA book content that is affected by the KU funding procedure, but aims to include all OA book content. KU remains vague as to what this means; in some material they state that the ORL will be ‘the most comprehensive single site for peer-reviewed Open Access books’. But, will KU check the peer review procedures of all the 20,000 books they aim to include? Another benefit KU emphasises is data: the ORL will offer ‘[r]ich metadata elements such as ORCID & DOIs’ and ‘[h]igh quality MARC records’. How this data adds value, when it is already offered by existing community-governed platforms, or by publishers, is again questionable.

In addition, titles on the ORL seem to be downsized for optimisation purposes of the platform. As Open Book Publishers illustrate, one of their titles which includes embedded multimedia was downsized from 120 to 2.9MB. While this may not clash with licencing, it considerably affects the quality of the content. If this were a partnership, KU would indicate this downsizing on their platform and provide links to the original, full-size versions.

During a subsequent webinar, KU offered to ‘clarify’ aspects of the ORL and further justified the move on the grounds of: discoverability and granularity. Yet, gathering all content on a single platform does not necessarily make research easier to find, rather it would require improvements to metadata, search engines, and expert curation. However, there is barely any curation on the ORL. Libraries can buy the option to curate their own collections with a premium supporter account (£1,800 per annum for a three-year period). Curation is therefore only possible within the limits set by KU’s platform.

Moreover, KU partners with Researcher App, a young, venture capital funded start-up that creates a reading app for researchers. Readers may eventually be able to read on various screens, annotate, and share aspects of their reading experience, which sounds nice, but is ultimately detrimental to the idea of openness, as the system locks the user into a golden cage.

Regarding granularity, it is argued the new platform will provide readers with more granular content – chapters or different versions such as epubs. KU further mentions, however, that chapters or epubs will only be offered if the publisher already provides this output. So, again, little value seems to be added.

Working with the best motives?

Without offering much additional value beyond centralising already existing efforts, one might ask what is the motivation behind the Open Research Library? Here we reach the crux of the debate around the platform and community approaches towards OA: motivation matters!

What researchers and librarians set out to achieve with the principles of OA, is a community – (i.e. researcher and research-related)-governed infrastructure of scholarly communication. This aimed to break with the reification of capitalist reasoning and replace its selfish values with a sense of purpose to benefit all those involved.

That KU transitioned to become a for-profit company is less important for the fact that they now make profits, but that they will surely be motivated by their own agenda and not those of the research community. What drives their business is the need to create a market and gain a substantial position in it. By so doing, they will be at the heart of a form of platform capitalism: Aiming to become the sole interface for transactions in the open book market, thereby ensuring other actors are dependent on their services and that they are too big to fail, irrespective of the minor value it eventually creates.

Collaborators, or free labour?

Most of the other developers of open book infrastructures never aimed to compete in a market, but do work in the interest of the community. If it was being driven by community-minded goals, KU’s latest product could have added similar value for all. Following the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures, the platform could have become an infrastructure that is ‘open, transparent, sustainable, and community-governed’. The goal of centralisation is likely to have the opposite result, creating a monopolistic infrastructure that threatens the existing open source community, whilst at the same time exploiting their work.

In the meantime, KU still calls itself a mere ‘open access initiative’ and claims to build the ORL with partners and publishers. These partners are for-profit and provide proprietary software—KU is essentially their customer and at least some of the publishers weren’t even informed that they were to collaborate with KU. Moreover, the ORL has incorporated content that was published with an NC-licence. NC—non-commercial—means that the material may not be used for commercial purposes, which is precisely what the platform aims to do. Yet, unless an author or publisher takes legal action, such a fact will remain a minor detail in the debate.

It Is About Trust

The strategy behind KU’s vision is apparently clear, the push for exclusive rights in publisher contracts, their aim to centralise funding opportunities through KU Open Funding, their monetisation of individualised statistics through KU Open Analytics, or their offer to help publishers to more OA impact through KU Open Services—these services are proprietary, not at all open, and likely to be further centralised on the ORL. How much can libraries and publishers trust such intense efforts of centralisation? And furthermore, should libraries and publishers entrust one company to be the key player in the funding of the transition towards OA? I would argue that KU’s, or rather, Frances Pinter’s original and still highly relevant idea, to create a community-driven funding structure for the systemic transition towards OA should be precisely this: community-driven.

The library community therefore has to make the decision about what they value more: the community—surely at times slow and fragile, but reliable and with openness as the primary motivation—or a one-stop-hub for which openness is only the means to a market. KU claim that a ‘minimum of 50 libraries’ is necessary to sustain the platform, leading to £135,000-180,000 (£900 or £1,800 per annum for a three-year period). Librarians – Imagine how much openness you could drive with that money!


About the author

Marcel Knöchelmann is a doctoral researcher at University College London, working on the sociology of authorship and the economics of publishing in the humanities. He blogs at Lepublikateur.

Image Credit

Anndrew Mason via Flickr (Licensed under a CC BY-2.0 licence)

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