Clearing the Garden
By April Hathcock and Guy Geltner
[Under peer-review for UKSG Insights Magazine]
In eco-biology, an “invasive plant species” is one that takes over a natural habitat and competes with native species for food, air, water, and other resources. The invasive species grows exponentially such that native species are no longer able to survive. At some point, native plants die out, leaving the invasive species to thrive in a monopoly over its new habitat. Scholarly communications is one such habitat in which we as researchers have allowed an invasive species—the private, for-profit academic publishing industry—to take over the resources we need and use to create and disseminate knowledge. With a revenue stream of $10 billion (and growing), private, for-profit academic publishing is threatening to choke out all other, smaller forms of knowledge creation and dissemination, leaving companies like Elsevier, Springer, Sage and Wiley, as the sole plants in the scholarly communication garden. At ScholarlyHub, we’re determined not to see that happen and are working to clear the garden, a little space at a time, to allow for research to continue to grow and thrive in its natural environment: the world of non-profit, researcher-owned and operated scholarly communication.
That academic publishing has reached this scale of growth and financial invasiveness is scandalous. It’s hard to blame companies for wanting to expand, yet the ease with which they have been able to do so can also be traced to academics’ addiction to prestige and their and the general public’s willful ignorance and apathy. Publish-or-perish mentalities pervasive to many scholarly fields likewise play an important role in syphoning billions in public and foundation money and rerouting it towards for-profit publishing conglomerates. Funders are effectively financing publishers’ advanced infrastructures and unwittingly helping them to become major players in the data market evolving before our eyes. If data is the nutrient-rich soil feeding our scholarly systems of knowledge creation and sharing, then for-profit publishers (and not a few of the larger big-business model university presses, it must be added) are overrunning the scholarship garden, sucking up as much of that soil as they can get their hands on to claim the intellectual rights to and mine scholarly output at high cost to the researchers and institutions originally providing that data for free. These data are fast losing their inherent value and becoming a means for exploring the consumption patterns of academics and scholarship-using communities around the world.
As part of this concerted effort to capture that “nutrient-rich soil,” publishers have expanded their academic journal portfolios in recent decades, transitioning them from key resources supporting learned societies and academic fields to strategic and highly valuable financial assets. The greater market share thereby obtained is then used to jack up subscription prices (from which, to be sure, some learned societies benefit directly as well) and further bleed already depleted library and research budgets. Publishers simultaneously metrify their products and use their own control mechanisms to designate “winning” and “losing” parties in different academic fields, encouraging hapless academics to fight for their place amid largely irrelevant predictors and sometimes downright false indicators. The growing revenues are then used to purchase or create more journals and other services to expand their market share and increase their leverage in future negotiations with libraries, institutions, and governments, or else charge private individuals upwards of $40 USD for the privilege of reading someone else’s research. Research and education have consequently become more and more beholden to narrow private interests to an unhealthy degree.
What is more, the situation is bound to become worse. Publishing conglomerates are on a quest to assemble a suite of services that will allow them to cover all major input and output points in scholarly communications. One-stop-shopping is the future of the scholarly lifecycle, or at least its path of least resistance. Elsevier’s purchase of Mendeley in 2013 (for a reported $100 million), and its more recent acquisition of SSRN (for an undisclosed sum) is only part of an overall strategy to coopt preprint services and social networks into this apparatus. In part, that is why commercial services such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu are risky repositories for scholars these days. Their substantial weight as “free” services (where users are products) has no doubt put them on the shopping lists of for-profit publishing conglomerates or even major tech companies seeking to broaden their data streams. Transitioning into fee-based services has proven difficult for ResearchGate and Academia.edu; and after receiving a reported $100 million in investments, not to go down the path of Mendeley and SSRN, would mean folding or launching their own IPOs. The result would be the same, however: a stronger subordination of research and the critical exchange of ideas to the whims of the market (read: financial elites). As the Association of Research Libraries notes, “Commercialization of publishing in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors has led to egregious price increases and unacceptable terms and conditions of use for some key research resources needed by the scholarly community.” This rampant commercialization represents a major strike against the potential of the internet to liberate knowledge and democratize scholarly communications globally.
Which leads us back to our scholarly communication garden: not only is the large, private academic publishing industry growing at alarming rates, it is simultaneously draining the lifeblood of open scholarly communications. Without a major intervention to protect this crucial aspect of the public sphere, private conglomerates will within several years be able to do to scholarship what their peers in criminal justice and security fields have been doing to national prison and defense systems respectively in the name of neoliberal efficiency. This may seem like a matter of course in countries where public transportation, education, environmental protection and health systems no longer seem central to the remit of governments (or never were), but it is already becoming normalized in wealthy and stable welfare states. An inspiring albeit isolated example is Germany, where academe boldly stranded Elsevier at the negotiating table, having refused to pay its ruinous subscription fees, but presumably also in recognition of the strategic threat conglomerates are posing to publicly funded research and, by extension, to the freedom of speech. We desperately need more alternative solutions to help prune the garden and make space for natural growth of academic knowledge creation and dissemination.
Little of what we said so far should come as news to anyone who is generally informed about the world of scholarly communications. Unfortunately—and that is sometimes easy to forget—few academics are, not to mention the general public. And of the former group, it is true that broader issues of sustainability tend to play a minor role in how they decide where and how to publish, peer review, or edit. It is hard to fault our junior colleagues for thinking first about a journal’s (or a publisher’s) reputation and only later (if ever) consider their open access policies. Yet, by the time we survey our more established and senior colleagues, paths have long been determined, coalitions and editorial boards forged, and a combination of inertia and addiction to a certain kind of prestige often get the better of otherwise engaged and critical minds. As Barbara Fister writes, many researchers approach the issue with indifference: “Access to knowledge—that’s somebody else’s problem. This uninformed indifference is laying the groundwork for . . . a world in which knowledge is turned into intellectual property, monetized, and made artificially scarce.” To make matters worse, private and public funders’ misconception of open access as a business model—or something that can be solved by throwing money at it—often manifests in the creation of special subsidies to publish the research they support, unfortunately in ways that do little more than pour money directly into the large coffers of for-profit publishers. These well-meaning funders are essentially pouring plant food directly on the invasive species and encouraging their already rampant growth. That is the opposite of clearing the garden and creating sustainable infrastructures for scholarly communications.
At ScholarlyHub, we think that the solution has to come from effecting a broad cultural shift. One that builds on strong awareness and commitment in certain circles, both in and beyond academe, but that does not rely solely on them. For this shift has to provide, in the not-too-distant future, a sustainable model for reducing the cost of knowledge; and this sustainability is more likely to develop by getting many different stakeholders on board, not just those who have a strong commitment to science or social justice. A successful, coordinated effort must therefore strive to scale the number of participants up, and quickly, to ensure critical mass. To our mind, that means starting at the front end, by forming a visible, attractive and vibrant scholarly social network for a variety of scholarly communities of practice, in lieu of simply seeking wealthy backers. It also means looking to build and include support outside the traditional boundaries of academia. It is this type of commons, designed to meet the basic needs of diverse communities of scholarly practice, that will lead to a significant uptick in a relatively short amount of time, without necessarily relying on mass mobilization of resources or a pre-commitment of learned societies, publishers, and other organizations—although that would no doubt help.
The bad news about beginning at the front end is that it is costly to set up, especially when your resources are minimal—as ours are, although donations are coming in. The even worse news is that setting up a social network without an existing constituency (e.g. a learned society, a university, a school system, a consortium of NGOs) is risky, since people are less likely to join without critical mass. And just to add to the challenge, we will be asking those who will join on to pay membership fees, however modest, when they can get some (but not all) of our services elsewhere for free, at least for the time being. The good news, however, is that important elements of a possible backend are already there, interoperable and not-for-profit. It is here, behind the social network façade, that years of individual and foundation-driven efforts may finally pay off on a large scale. Preprint services, indexers, review and editing protocols, safe mentoring spaces, conference wikis, social media feeds, metadata generators, and of course real open access repositories (decentralized and not) with stable and secure APIs: each and every one of these, provided they are committed to truly open access, open source, and public benefit, can play a major role in effecting a desired shift.
With all this in mind, we announced our plans in early November 2017. And although between the time this article goes to press in early January 2018 and its publication in March 2018 much can change, here is where we think we are and where we’re headed.
Our launch received significant media interest, with articles in Times Higher Education, Research Fortnight, and Inside Higher Education, followed closely by interviews in ScienceGuide, Wired, and EdSurge, among other outlets. Within our advisory board, which represents a diverse group of researchers across multiple disciplines, we reached out to our own social and professional networks directly via email, as well as through the ScholarlyHub website and social media accounts. Each of these channels turned out to be quite popular with open access scholar-activists and a range of other scholars around the world. Among the latter group, it was clear that some were learning for the first time about the increasingly toxic ecosystem within which they publish, access, or share scholarly work. Within less than a month, more than one thousand people signed up to our newsletter, nearly two thousand began interacting with us regularly on Twitter and Facebook, and nearly 10,000 unique visitors visited the website.
Beyond calling attention to our plans, we also managed to establish ourselves as one initiative among several—including Humanities Commons and the various existing disciplinary repositories, such as arXiv, Open Journal Systems, and Open Science Framework (OSF)—who want to clear the scholarly garden and challenge the status quo. Invitations for conferences, seminars, workshops, interviews, blog posts, and articles, such as the present one, soon followed. Given the great record and sophistication of existing initiatives, it was heartening to receive such attention early on, and we hope to continue building on this positive, forward-moving momentum to earn the trust of scholarly communities around the world. If we spotlighted existing platforms, we see that, too, as a success. The profound cultural change we want to help effect is not a zero-sum game; there is much ground to reclaim and the more hands weeding out the garden, the better.
The cooperative spirit is hardly unique to us at ScholarlyHub. Within this period, different organizations have reached out to us—including learned societies, grassroots organizations, libraries, open access publishers, ORCID, OSF, and numerous individuals—formally and informally connected to major stakeholders in open access. They have convinced us that a coordinated attempt is possible, especially in the back end, and stressed the importance of our intervention in the front end. Creating a new type of digital commons for scholars of different stripes seems to be a plan many wish to see brought to life, and they view the fee-based membership model we seek to test as a surmountable obstacle indeed, especially once the cooperation of enough communities of scholarly practice and other major stakeholders is secured.
Out of these preliminary talks and our in-house discussions, it seems that moving forward, with minimum redundancies, is quite possible once the social network portal is set up. We have already laid out the portal’s basic design and user interface and shared it with our subscribers and supporters (see images below).
Our innovative designs reflect a strong commitment to inclusivity across disciplines and beyond academe and to meeting the needs of a variety of scholarship-using communities. And by and large, they have been received as such. Beyond producing a critical and empowering meeting place, it is imperative that the site be designed for interoperability with key services already being offered, including, in particular, existing open repositories of pre-print and formally published work, so that members can immediately upload and share their scholarship. Therefore, we continue to consider how to integrate existing publishing software and protocols with opportunities for the creation and sharing of new, innovative, and on-going work. This can be done by inviting individuals and groups to create new journals or to migrate their existing journals and platforms to our framework. These are just some of the initial considerations we are exploring with potential partners among wide-range of scholarship-using communities. It is out of these community-driven discussions that we will continue to work together to think beyond these services and develop further ones, such as those related to teaching and mentoring.
Last but not least, donations. Three weeks after announcing our plans, we began gathering the necessary funds to realize those plans, with an initial target goal of 500,000 EUR. We chose not to use crowdfunding sites and opted to work mainly through our website for the sake of efficiency and cost-savings. We knew in advance that the target was ambitious and estimated that it would be possible, even desirable to reach it by spreading the burden as widely as possible, collecting small donations from enthusiastic individuals rather than large ones from private or institutional donors. After all, our goal is not to wipe out the entire garden with weed killer but to carefully and thoughtfully clear portions of the garden to make room for more and wider efforts. During the first month of the campaign, we raised around 5,000 EUR from about 100 individuals, mostly confirming our shared burden hypothesis, as well as a 5,000 EUR from a single donor. These were people who gave to our cause without asking for anything in return other than seeing the site go live and allowing them to become members. There are many more likeminded people out there, and we hope to reach them as well; meanwhile, we need to broaden our efforts to find people who would help the campaign with enough motivation and identification with our efforts. That is why, in subsequent weeks, we shared more specifics about our designs and offered those who donate upwards of 25 EUR (10 EUR reduced rate) a year’s free membership once the site is up and running.
Direct fundraising is key to our success, particularly as a demonstration that a grassroots effort can help turn the tide or—to stick to our original metaphor—reclaim the garden. It is too early to tell what’s on our horizons, but the enthusiasm with which our plans were received, and the support it lent directly and indirectly to initiatives whose agendas and values we strongly share, bodes well for the future of independent scholarly communications. The alliance of non-profit services we wish to integrate and synergize will succeed by bringing a critical mass of scholars and scholarship-using communities into one or several main environments. We believe we can make a difference in helping to clear and reclaim the scholarly garden, and we invite others who agree to join us in these efforts. Together, we can build a better, more open culture of scholarly creation, communication, and sharing.
 Association of Research Libraries. “Marketplace & Licensing.” ARL Focus Areas: Scholarly Communication, n.d. http://www.arl.org/focus-areas/scholarly-communication/marketplace-licensing#.WHeP2VMrLm4.
 Fister, Barbara. “Liberating Knowledge: A Librarian’s Manifesto for Change.” Thought & Action, January 1, 2010, 83–90.