Grand challenges for open scholarship

MIT Libraries’ Grand Challenges will help set a research agenda for the development of open scholarship.

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In his keynote address, Joi Ito showed a picture of a briefcase holding the contents of Sci-Hub (tens of millions of papers), en route to India, where they may end up being legally distributed to teachers and students.

MIT Libraries just hosted a Grand Challenges summit on Information Science and Scholarly Communication. It comprised three 1.5-day workshops on (1) scholarly discovery, (2) digital curation and preservation, and (3) open scholarship (described here). The director of MIT Libraries, Chris Bourg, is on SocArXiv’s steering committee, and I was invited to participate in the open scholarship workshop, so we were well represented (participant list).

The workshops focused on defining core challenges and proposing a research agenda to address them in a 7- to 10-year time frame. This builds on MIT’s Task Force of the Future of Libraries report, among other efforts. The organizers and participants will produce a report on this agenda in the next few months; we’ll report back.

In the meantime, I wanted to highlight one of the recommended readings, a paper by Micah Altman (the libraries’ director of research) and Marguerite Avery, “Information wants someone else to pay for it: Laws of information economics and scholarly publishing.” It’s an excellent introduction to the problem of markets in scholarly publishing, very approachable for social scientists interested in the political economy of what the jargon calls the “scholarly communication ecosystem.”

In general, the trends in scholarly communication are more, more and more. In 2011, the value of the market in 2011 was estimated to be $23.5 billion. But there is one area in which the trend is “less” and that is in market competition. Although the number of publications and journals is expanding at approximately three percent a year, and the market is expanding at four percent, the number of mergers and acquisitions over the past three decades have dramatically decreased the diversity of and competition among publishers. Today, following the recent merger of MacMillan and Springer, the market is dominated by a handful of companies: Pearson, Reed Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Thomson/Reuters and Wolters Kluwer. These companies happen to be the top four publishing companies globally as well. And this is the culmination of a long-term trend: over the last three decades, there has been dramatic consolidation in the scholarly publishing industry. Profit margins are commensurately high, with some credible estimates of Elsevier’s profit margin as high as thirty-seven percent. Thus far, there are no signs that the general expansion of the content, contributors, and audience for scholarly outputs has countered this decline in competition.

The paper offers explanations for this failure of market competition, concluding:

Even in the long run, economic theory itself predicts that left to the market, too little knowledge will be created, too little used, and access to too much of what is available will be controlled by a small group of distributors.

They further caution that openness itself — especially defined only as free-to-read, does not a guarantee a system of “robust, sustainable scholarly communication.”

We may reach the point when the small number of for-profit companies that control academic publishing are able to describe their publishing output as “open access,” while simultaneously cementing their control over knowledge.

Finally, Altman and Avery offer a list of the “affordances” offered by current academic publications — the uses that different groups or institutions expect from them — and propose using new technology to unbundle these tasks, rather than presume they will remain bundled in the current, relatively ancient system of publication. This is a useful exercise for imagining future scholarly communication systems. Here is their table of affordances:

Table 1 from Altman & Avery 2015: DOI 10.3233/ISU-150775

One of my goals for the next year is assembling a curriculum on academic publishing, suitable for beginning social scientists and others interested in learning how this system works, the better to change it. This paper, and the work coming out of the MIT Grand Challenges summit, will be on the list. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments, or send them to me at pnc@umd.edu.

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