We live in an age of corporate consolidation — big companies continue to acquire or merge with smaller firms at a rapid pace. Where there once were dozens cor hundreds of companies in some industries, there are now a handful — airlines, brewers, and rental car companies are some examples, as noted in the clip below from the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:
The scholarly publishing business is quite consolidated as well, and becoming more so day by day. Ten companies control more than 75% of the market, and notifications about journal transfers from societies to the larger publishers sprinkle our emails. Yet, talk to most editors and publishers, and they think we’d be better off with a diverse market made up of many players — university presses, society publishers, successful non-profits. Many economists agree, seeing a diverse business space as more supportive of jobs, innovation, and long-term growth. Consolidation comes at a cost.
There seem to be counter-forces at work, where major slices of activity are made freely available to help foster innovation, level the playing field, and resist consolidation. Open source software is one such possible counter-force. Open source solutions are popping up around scholarly communication and publishing infrastructure. Recently, eLife and the Coko Foundation announced a new open source publishing platform. This new platform seems to spring from eLife’s prior open source platform effort, Continuum, which hasn’t been updated recently except for some recent incident tickets, and has had zero releases. eLife isn’t the only open access publisher dabbling in open source — PLOS has been developing Ambra as an open source platform, as well. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s investments in Meta and bioRxiv are also said to carry with them a strong preference for open source solutions.
Might open source save the day by leveling the playing field in some way? Or will it simply feed the same tendencies of the rich to get richer, the big to get bigger, and the small to pay the price?
In general, companies are relying on open source solutions more often. There are many good offerings at the infrastructure level for them to choose from, and saving money on boring old infrastructure is alway alluring. But there are carrying costs for any infrastructure, both seen and unseen. There are indications these companies may be playing with fire, as a recent survey found that only 15% of more than 800 companies had policies in place to manage their open source software pipeline, and that the majority worried about security exposures, license violations, and intellectual property liabilities. Even in the hands of large firms with deep resources, open source isn’t a slam dunk. It has to be managed, and that has a cost.
Open source has become such a norm in major swaths of the technology community that investment in infrastructure companies by VCs has effectively stopped, according to a recent interview with investor Maha Ibrahim:
On the enterprise side, we have been open sourced to death. Almost every part of the stack up to the app layer is getting open sourced. Which is phenomenal for the developer, it’s phenomenal for cost structure of enterprises — it’s a very difficult environment, though, in which to be an enterprise investor.
In our industry, open source is sometimes conflated with open access (OA), but the two are not related in any functional way. You can have an open source subscription platform, for example. Scholastica, an OA platform provider, specifically and nicely calls out the reasons OA works for them but open source does not, writing:
Most of the great open source software are meant for widespread use: Linux, PHP, jQuery. By being applicable to millions (or billions) of potential users, their ecosystem of potential contributors is suitably large so that if only 0.001% of users contribute code, the project still grows and can improve over time. Also, if the tool is meant for programmers, the user base has the skills to contribute.
We don’t think that scholarly publishing meets these criteria. There are a few million people involved in contributing research, but vastly fewer who actually serve as editors of journals and hence are the real users of such software. Similarly, while there are many scholar-programmers, most scholars are not Ruby or Python programmers, so the number of contributors becomes very very small and would not realize the potential of open source with tens of thousands of active contributors really growing the product.
When it comes to open source, scale poses a problem. Our market is relatively small — Google makes an Elsevier in revenue every few weeks and Facebook has more than 2 billion users. Compared to technology companies in technology industries, we have a relative paucity of engineers and computer scientists willing and able to devote volunteer hours to open source scholarly projects.
While unrelated in other ways, OA and open source may have similar dynamics when it comes to scale. Unexpectedly to many proponents, OA has accrued to the benefit of larger organizations via market consolidation — OA’s pricing and pace economics reward efficiency, production leverage, and market penetration. It’s easier for a multinational to hoover up authors in remote and emerging markets, impose bargaining power and economies of scale via production systems, and realize the efficiencies of dealing with the multitude of mandates for a broader portfolio, spreading the costs. Smaller players address smaller market segments, have less expansive production capabilities, and often have to reinvent the compliance wheel.
The way OA rewards and reinforces scale is captured in a particularly useful and reflective interview recently about this and other related topics. In the interview, Leslie Chan, one of the original signatories of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, expresses deep reservations about how OA has been coopted by large publishers. But the centralization effect doesn’t end there:
. . . [Gold OA] is simply re-solidifying the status quo, even more restrictively… because only the rich institutions are able to pay to publish!
Chan also asserts that funders are using the OA model to impose their points of view disproportionately:
At the same time, we see that multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, and a growing number of private funders – such as the Wellcome Trust , Gates Foundation, are also enacting open access policies. All of these donors have their own agendas and philosophies. By making their funded research open (while other, peer-reviewed academic material remains behind closed paywalls), these donors are actually becoming over -represented in terms of their contribution towards knowledge, particularly in the areas of health and development. Because they are the voices that everyone can easily access, their views and findings are more likely to be taken up and perpetuated by local institutions that cannot afford to pay for alternative knowledge sources.
The imposition of scale on individual, organizational, and philosophical levels as an unanticipated consequence of OA permeates the interview with Chan — from OA as anti-feminist to OA over-representing the philosophies and priorities of established funders and philanthropists, who represent a type of oligarchy coming into scholarly publishing.
The converse of this set of concerns about the changes caused by OA policies is that many of the business factors that allowed publishing to be diverse — business models that are value-based instead of cost-based, recurring revenues via subscription renewals, and strong advertising revenues based on audience reach — have been deprecated, leaving smaller and society publishers wondering about the future of their publishing programs. Some will survive, but many more will contract with larger publishers to remain viable, feeding market consolidation.
OA works for larger commercial firms because it scales up well for them. With OA publishers now pushing open source initiatives, might things change?
There have to be enough people with enough skill and enough time and enough passion deriving enough benefit from the open source solution for it to remain viable.
In the technology space, open source solutions have worked well. Projects like Linux, Ubuntu, Apache, MySQL, Node.js, and GNU are all well-known and heavily used. They are made by and for the technology community, so they are also associated with the “cool kids,” which seems to have a non-trivial effect on decision-making about adoption of the open source framework — some feel that technology should have a hip, altruistic flair to it, and embracing open source is like getting your hand stamped at the White Hat Club.
Yet, a key element in a successful open source environment is scale — there have to be enough people with enough skill and enough time and enough passion deriving enough benefit from the open source solution for it to remain viable. Programmers are in high demand, so they are the weakest link in any open source development effort. For the big, showy efforts in the tech space, it’s a badge of honor to be associated with major open source projects, and there are networking and professional benefits as well as the interest in solving tough problems with smart collaborators.
In our space, there are very few successful open source offerings. Some open source library management systems have attempted to defy the many sources of gravity in software development using an open source approach, only to be brought down by the fact that developers’ time is scarce, their interests vary, and there aren’t enough to go around. There are also very few indirect benefits to be derived from participating in niche and relatively uninteresting development projects around production systems or projects that will never scale past a certain size.
Open source tools succeed when used by larger technology firms that can attract the talent and make the investments to mine every ounce of value from these free services. This supports the notion of market consolidation. Within the technology community, such dissatisfaction with the consequences of open source software is not hard to find. As one programmer writes:
. . . we’ve built a system where the only major beneficiaries of Open Source Software are corporations and startups. Instead of empowering the people and regular computer users, we’ve empowered VCs and tech billionaires.
Does Google get more out of open source solutions like Node.js? Has Apache made it easier for Facebook to promulgate servers? Has open source accelerated the rise of the dominant commercial players in the digital space? If so, the trend echoes some of the concerns about OA now being voiced.
With open source, such animus stems from the unpaid nature of the work, which is essentially a barter relationship — I’ll give my time and talent to something I hope to indirectly benefit from later. The barter aspect of open source is worth considering. As Joanna Bryson implored us at the recent ALPSP meeting to stop bartering for data, the same might be said about software. Bartering for technology doesn’t deliver good-paying jobs, broaden the economic base via taxes or salaries, or create sustainable commercial models.
It’s also clear that open source isn’t required for success — commercial and proprietary technology tools on the market, including Java, Atlassian, Salesforce, and GitHub, are popular. Because they are commercial, their success delivers tax revenues, creates vibrant companies of their own, employs people, and speeds innovation in a more reliable manner.
There is also a fair and possibly growing amount of business risk in basing technology decisions on open source solutions. Most recently, the Equifax breach may have been made possible because of a vulnerability in some open source software the company used. While not absolving Equifax of responsibility, the incident reminds us that even open source solutions need to be vetted and managed and upgraded.
These indirect risks around the sustainability of open source efforts are worth considering. A critical factor includes programming person-power, which is dependent on goodwill. Not getting paid while seeing major corporations make hay from your volunteer labor both erode goodwill. Continuity is another issue, as noted in a Wired magazine article on the topic:
. . . despite this mainstream success, many crucial open source projects—projects that major companies rely on—are woefully underfunded. And many haven’t quite found the egalitarian ideal that can really sustain them in the long term. Some open source developers struggle with burnout, while others have trouble working their way into the open source community.
Can open source succeed in scholarly publishing? Maybe, but it faces a talent crunch to start. If it overcomes that, then we may see it supporting even more market consolidation as the larger players scale up the benefits while the smaller players watch from the sidelines. It’s happening with OA, and some fundamental dynamics suggest it could also happen with open source.
Budgets are moral documents, and business models are governance structures. These things matter. To preserve a multi-layered and vibrant scholarly publishing economy, we should think carefully about ensuring that the economics don’t all accrue to the benefit of the few and the largest, and that we are not building on sand.