A Statement from ScholarLed on Knowledge Unlatched’s “Open Research Library”

… [e]verything we have gained by opening content and data will be under threat if we allow the enclosure of scholarly infrastructures.

~ Geoffrey Bilder, Jennifer Lin, and Cameron Neylon, “Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures”

On May 16th, Knowledge Unlatched (KU) announced a new initiative to develop and launch the Open Research Library (ORL), which they envision as a “a one-stop hub” for “all available [OA] book content under one search and hosting interface” that will also provide “corresponding catalogue data...to library systems.” It is KU’s claim that they are responding to the wishes of researchers and librarians who have expressed to them a desire for “all” Open Access (OA) book content to be accessible “in one place, for easy discovery and user-friendly navigation as well as further dissemination into third party systems.” KU further claims that the ORL is a collaboration “with publishers and libraries worldwide.” Claiming to be working in partnership with publishing and library communities, they are asking libraries to help fund the ORL at a rate of $1,200/year (at a 3-year lock-in), for which they will receive “a set of [value-added] exclusive services,” such as micro-branded library sites, COUNTER statistics, catalog records, and the like. This raises the worrisome question of whether or not the ORL engages in the business practices of “openwrapping” and “openwashing” (monetizing services, engagement, and infrastructural support around openly licensed content). KU has long positioned itself as a values-driven, community-minded initiative that shares a mission with research libraries to make knowledge accessible to the world, without barriers, although it has not been forthcoming, nor publicly transparent, about its transition in 2016 from a Community Interest Corporation (CIC) registered in the UK under Frances Pinter’s leadership, to a for-profit (GmbH) company registered in Germany under Sven Fund’s managing directorship. In a news update issued in March 2016, KU presented this transition as an “expansion” into a “new branch,” when in fact Fund, under the auspices of his for-profit, “strategic investments” firm fullstopp, was acquiring and transferring the majority of KU’s “assets” to his own for-profit portfolio of publishing services, leaving behind in the UK a completely separate research and analysis group focused on ecosystems for OA monographs, KU Research, which operates independently of KU.[1]

We share the concerns of our fellow ScholarLed consortium member Open Book Publishers (OBP) regarding KU’s under-publicized acquisition by fullstopp, and also question KU’s moves since 2016 into what increasingly looks like OA platform capitalism and rent-seeking, whereby those businesses, such as Facebook and Google, that are claiming to be “neutral arbiters and spaces of informational exchange” are, in fact, “siphoning value from socio-cultural activity,” and “rather than producing new value,” they “simply coordinate virtual properties and charge for their use.” Most worryingly, these platforms confuse “capital-flow and social form, rearranging the relationship of profit to community (and therefore class), and of intelligence to organization.”[2] We are witnessing an important moment in history where platforms are emerging as a “third institutional form, along with states and markets.”[3] ScholarLed was formed by a collective of OA books presses (Mattering Press, meson press, Open Book Publishers, Open Humanities Press, and punctum books), who share a commitment to opening up scholarly research to diverse readerships, to resisting the marketization of academic knowledge production, and to working collaboratively rather than in competition. With Heather Joseph, we want a more “distributed, globally networked infrastructure for scholarly communication” and we stand against the co-option of OA publishing by the “third” institutional form of platforms and platform capitalism. And with OBP, we agree that KU “is not an organisation that works generously with other OA projects – indeed its aggressive approach, exemplified in the creation of ORL, actively damages these organisations and impoverishes the wider OA community.”

At first glance, the Open Research Library feels like a natural outcome of KU’s work to “unlock” knowledge and make it as discoverable and accessible as possible to a global readership (with the support of consortial library funding). In an interview in Publishing Perspectives, Sven Fund indicated that “one of the key parameters or goals” in creating the ORL “was to not replicate what’s already there, not to build another layer of something that already exists.” Unfortunately, there are striking contradictions here. First is the fact that there already exist multiple highly-regarded open repositories and directories offering access to OA book content, including the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) and the OAPEN Library. The latter already houses close to 10,000 open books in the Humanities and Social Sciences, including titles that KU itself has “unlatched” from a broad diversity of academic presses. OAPEN and KU both list the other as a partner on their respective websites, and all of the books that KU has “unlatched” since its inception are curated at OAPEN and are also discoverable via the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB), which currently serves as the online catalog and discovery service for close to 17,000 OA book titles (as of May 2019). Both OAPEN and DOAB are non-profit, community-led, university-supported organizations that have gained wide trust in the OA community, and it is worth noting that over 110 academic publishers entrust the discoverability, dissemination, and preservation of their OA titles with OAPEN, which provides a vital service to libraries worldwide, including the open provision of catalogue records, usage metrics, and metadata.[4]

It is therefore clearly concerning that KU is now building an “open research library” that will be replicating and cannibalizing the efforts of OAPEN and DOAB (including offering services to libraries that OAPEN and DOAB are already providing), not to mention that KU also seeks to extract institutional funding for the aggregation of OA content and supposed “value-added” services that have already been provided by OA publishers in partnership with organizations such as OAPEN (such as the consortial library support programs of Open Book Publishers, Open Library of Humanities, and punctum books, among others). This is especially jarring when one considers that another of KU’s recently announced projects is KU Open Funding, a matchmaking service and “central database” that helps researchers and libraries identify suitable publishers for OA books, with KU taking a commission for all successful matches that involve publishing fees (to be “deposited” with KU by libraries). There is a worrying drift here in KU’s operations from a community-minded, non-profit initiative invested in helping libraries and publishers to work collaboratively to open front- and back-list book titles, to an aggressively competitive commercial firm intent on pursuing a centralized platform for the delivery of multiple varieties of OA content and associated “services” (KU has also recently moved into journal flipping and analytics). But perhaps we should not be surprised since, in an interview in Against the Grain in 2017, Fund indicated that one of the strategic goals for KU would be precisely to monopolise: to “create a neutral marketplace so that everybody can take advantage of just having this one infrastructure technologically but also one salesforce, one contact partner to talk to.”

This brings us to KU’s claim that they are building the Open Research Library (ORL) with publishers and libraries. In their beta release of the ORL, there are 15 “curated” collections of titles from a variety of academic publishers: Springer Open, Open Book Publishers, Manchester University Press, Cambridge University Press, Brill, and De Gruyter, among others. Investigation has revealed that neither Open Book Publishers nor Springer Open were aware of the ORL and had not, in fact, collaborated with KU on this initiative.[5] This is the behaviour, again, of a rent-seeker taking advantage of open content, not a collegial partner working to make OA books available to all. It is worth mentioning, again, that all of the titles curated within the ORL, along with their associated metadata, catalog records (etc.), are already hosted and curated by OAPEN. In a webinar that KU hosted on May 21st to respond to community concerns over the ORL, when asked why they would duplicate (and potentially compete with) the efforts of other organizations such as OAPEN, they indicated that other platforms for hosting OA books content are inadequate to the job of hosting all of the different types of content that are, and would be, available. They mentioned by way of a specific example that MUSE Open, a Mellon-funded OA books initiative of Project Muse, only hosts non-profit publishers, and thus there is supposedly a need for a centralized platform that would provide access to OA books from commercial platforms such as Springer Open alongside books from non-profit presses such as Open Book Publishers. Yet, again, OAPEN already accomplishes this! On the other hand, Fund also indicated in the webinar that he believes “other” OA books repositories have certain flaws relative to 3 areas: the ingest of books is too slow, the content is not “granular” enough, and Biblioboard (the for-profit company that provides the underlying software for the ORL) is technologically more sophisticated than whatever technologies other repositories are using.[6]

It has to be asked: is it, in fact, a public and universal community “good” that all OA books be aggregated in one, central repository? Do we in the OA community, in fact, want there to be one central “marketplace” for both the funding and aggregation of OA books content? Do we really want only “one salesforce” and “one contact person” for OA content, whether journals or books? At a time when it feels critical, within the landscape of scholarly communications, to reduce our dependence on proprietary platforms and service providers, does it make sense now to throw our collective support into a “one-stop” platform for all OA books content worldwide (a platform, we might add, that does not appear to have been developed in a transparent dialogue with a majority of stakeholders in the OA publisher community)? ScholarLed emphatically believes we should be looking instead to participate in the collective, community-led development of heterogeneous but also networked and distributed infrastructures for OA books that would allow the integration and interoperability of a multiplicity of OA books initiatives at various scales, yet would also “scale small” where that is desired and beneficial, such as in certain highly localized contexts. In other words, we value diversity that incorporates and thrives on different scales of alliance and interoperability in the OA books landscape, and we do not want a centralized, monopolised OA monoculture such as that presently "on offer" from Knowledge Unlatched. Of course, once scholarly works are affixed with certain Creative Commons (CC) licenses, anyone may (within a range of freer and more restrictive parameters) aggregate OA materials into a “one-stop hub” and even potentially monetize that venture (although the troubling question remains whether or not KU can actually monetize OA book content that carries a CC license with the “NC”/Noncommercial designation[7]). The more troubling issue here is how, historically, KU has positioned itself as a member of a community devoted to collective and collaborative forms of, and infrastructures for, Open Knowledge. Supposedly neither on the publisher’s side nor the library’s, KU presents itself as a “neutral” and “agnostic” broker between the two, yet, at this moment, KU appears to be emerging as a competitor in what it views as an OA “marketplace.” As OPERAS shared in their own statement,

While we can agree with [KU’s] observation that “free access to scientific content is often limited due to the fragile infrastructure around it”, we do not think this initiative is helpful in strengthening the Open Access infrastructure for monographs…. In our opinion, the ORL does not meet the criteria for open infrastructures. On the contrary...the approach of this platform closely resembles well-known internet strategies to quickly achieve a dominant position by aggregating all available content and offering a free service to the community, while aiming for a lock-in of users and stakeholders.

With OPERAS, we believe the best way to serve the scholarly community and the public good is through non-competitive collaboration and expertise-sharing among those who share a common cause (Public Knowledge / Public Commons). We embrace with them the principles of “open, transparent, sustainable, and community-governed” infrastructures for open scholarly communications. We call on the wider Open Access and Library communities to come together to oppose the commercialized centralization and proprietary enclosure of open books as represented by KU’s Open Research Library. We are not opposed to for-profit actors in the landscape of scholarly communications, especially when those actors support equitable and collaborative forms of knowledge exchange and are not just intent on extracting capital from libraries for the sake of profits only. However, we insist on “open knowledge for the public good” as that in which we invest our highest care and for which we will commit ourselves to collective stewardship. With OPERAS, we also believe “that vital infrastructures supporting Open Science should not fall in the hands of commercial operators.” Further, “[T]hese infrastructures should be a collective responsibility of stakeholders in scholarly communication.”

Therefore, we call on Knowledge Unlatched to reconsider its position vis-à-vis its newly launched Open Research Library and to recommit itself to investing, collaboratively, in truly open infrastructure, as enunciated by the newly launched project, “Invest in Open Infrastructure”:

… the existing scholarly infrastructure...is dominated by vendor products that take ownership of the scholarly process and data as well as by North Atlantic dominance and digital colonialism. The goals of these vendors is largely to generate profit, which stands in stark contrast to the values of mission-driven educational and research organisations where innovation and open access are central. These products favor vendor lock-in and monopoly models by nature, despite a clear incompatibility with the scholarly values of our communities. We intend to create a new open infrastructure system that will enable us to work in a more integrated, collaborative and strategic way. It will support global connections and consistency where it is appropriate, and local and contextual requirements where that is needed.

If KU’s intent is to compete with organizations such as OAPEN Library (heretofore KU’s partner), and even with the presses (such as Open Book Publishers) whose books have so generously been provided to the public domain (and who also depend on libraries for support), they cease to be a partner in the Open Access community and emerge, instead, as a parasitic competitor in a dystopian “knowledge economy.”[8] The presses of ScholarLed affirm together that we reject this parasitic “knowledge economy” and with Invest in Open Infrastructure, we instead “imagine a world in which communities of researchers, scholars, and knowledge workers across the globe are fully enabled to share, discover, and work together.” Without walls. Without borders. Without bouncers. Without tariffs.

[1] According to Frances Pinter, in an interview with Richard Poynder, she has stepped down from KU Research and Cameron Neylon, KU Research’s new executive director, and Lucy Montgomery, Head of Research for KU Research, “are in the process of developing a new business plan for KU Research, which will include a formal change of name to avoid confusion.” Further, “Fullstopp and Knowledge Unlatched GmbH have no role in KU Research.” See KU Research’s press release regarding the leadership transition at KU Research here: https://kuresearch.org/news9.htm.

[2] Quotes from Leif Weatherby, “Delete Your Account: On the Theory of Platform Capitalism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 24, 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/delete-your-account-on-the-theory-of-platform-capitalism/.

[3] See Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).

[4] It is worth noting that while composing this statement, it was announced by the National Centre for Scientific Research, France (CNRS) that CNRS, Aix-Marseille Université, and OAPEN have established the DOAB Foundation to provide “peer certification for open access academic books,” in addition to the other services DOAB offers. This announcement indicates strong consortial community support for the work of DOAB, a project initially launched by the OAPEN Foundation in 2012.

[5] Read the statement of Open Book Publishers on the ORL here: http://blogs.openbookpublishers.com/open-book-publishers-statement-on-knowledge-unlatched-and-the-open-research-library/. Aside from Open Book Publishers and Springer Open, most of the titles currently curated on the ORL are those that were previously “unlatched” by KU in collaboration with libraries and publishers, but we can’t say whether or not KU made all of these publishers aware of the development of the ORL before aggregating their OA titles there.

[6] Although he was asked multiple times during the May 21st webinar what he meant by OA content not being “granular” enough in certain OA books repositories, Fund never elaborated on what that might mean, more specifically. In addition, he never explained in any depth why the technology of Biblioboards is better than the technology underlying other repositories, such as OAPEN. Nor did he explain how the content ingest protocols of certain repositories are currently too “slow,” or why that needs to be improved, and according to who or which organizations.

[7] Also in the May 21st webinar, Fund indicated that, regardless of the CC licenses attached to specific titles in the ORL, KU would not be attempting to monetize that content, but rather, are asking libraries to support the technical infrastructure underlying the ORL, with a “[f]uture development roadmap to be decided upon by a high profile board of publishers and librarians.” He also stated that it was important for KU to keep “infrastructure” and “content” split from each other, vis-a-vis what they are asking libraries to fund, which is a striking comment, given that KU is also asking libraries to fund the opening of both OA books and journals content via other of their initiatives. This indicates that, while KU wishes to draw a clean line between “infrastructure” and “content” in the ORL, in terms of its funding, they are already working, for profit, on both sides of the supposed divide. The fact remains that KU is still positioning the value of this technical infrastructure as a centralized gateway to a comprehensive repository of OA books content, and therefore, a for-profit company asking libraries for funding to support the current and future development of the ORL is, in fact, a commercialization of that content, without which, there would be no library at all. At the very least, KU should think more deeply about the potential legal challenges they could face from publishers whose participation in the ORL has not been collaboratively coordinated in advance.

[8] A key concept of the Knowledge Economy (a phrase first popularized in 1969 by the “management consultant” Peter Drucker) is that knowledge and education (often referred to as “human capital,” a term coined by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker) “can be treated as one of the following: (a) a business product, as educational and innovative intellectual products and services that can be exported for a high value return, and (b) a productive asset.” A Knowledge Economy can also be defined as production and services “based on knowledge-intensive activities that contribute to an accelerated pace of technical and scientific advance, as well as rapid obsolescence.” See Walter W. Powell and Kaisa Snellman, “The Knowledge Economy,” Annual Reviews Sociology 30 (2004): 199-220, DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100037.