A well-functioning efficient market is characterized by the ability of participants to choose to enter into transactions informed by equal access to information. To decrease market efficiency, it is entirely common for firms to change the parameters of “choice” by trying to “lock in” their customers. Everything from affinity programs, such as frequent flyer miles, to pernicious tying strategies that elicit antitrust scrutiny are forms of lock-in. For the emerging category of research workflow products, providers can be expected to pursue, where they are not already doing so, a variety of forms of lock-in.
The Big Deal is a classic case of lock-in. It was a brilliant strategy, so tempting to libraries, which received vastly more content than ever before at what was at first a minor price increment accompanied by predictable pricing. It was also quite clearly, at least to some librarians with strategic foresight, a terrible strategy for managing a collections budget over time. Yet within just a few years, one after another academic library moved to the Big Deal model of bundled content licensing.
The Big Deal was a brilliant strategy for publishers because universities moved to this new model through a choice they typically made of their own volition. Since then, academia’s unhappiness with the predicted effects of the Big Deal has been channeled at commercial publishers who are seen to have exploited their position. Academia finds itself no less locked in than had it been forced into the model kicking and screaming.
In recent years, Holtzbrinck’s Digital Science has developed an impressive portfolio of tools that support researcher workflow, as well as university research management. So has Elsevier. Clarivate is building an interesting portfolio as well. Much remains unsettled. But there are substantial opportunities for these providers to integrate individual products and services and thereby over time lock individual researchers, and their universities, into these tools. Both Digital Science and Elsevier have denied that their strategies will result in an end-to-end lock-in for researchers across every part of their research lifecycle, but there are other forms of lock-in as well that we should expect to see develop over time.
What follows is a taxonomy of lock-in. For each of several types of lock-in, an example is provided, not as a prediction but simply as an illustration. Note that some cases will lock individuals in, while others may lock universities in, and in some cases there are elements of both.
Exclusive benefits for mutual customers. Providing exclusive benefits for mutual customers of a single provider’s many products is a form of lock-in. A year and a half ago, Elsevier and the University of Florida announced a collaboration that would over time link from an institutional repository to the publisher’s version of record for authorized users while enabling others to access an author-accepted manuscript version that the publisher directly populated into the repository. This arrangement was seen by the University as advancing its compliance obligations while improving access. If such an arrangement going forward were offered exclusively by a publisher like Elsevier to mutual customers of its journals and its institutional repository platform Digital Commons, this would be a substantial boon to customers of both products. Although ScienceDirect journals and Digital Commons would each continue to work independently for customers of only one or the other product, together they would add substantial value that would also serve to lock libraries in to Elsevier scholarly communications services.
Service interdependency. Developing discrete services so that they are interdependent, or preferentially functional, with one another is a form of lock-in. Research information services like Converis, Symplectic Elements, and Pure depend on a variety of data sources. Among these data sources is information about research citation and publication impact. The parent companies of two of these services also provide citation databases (Web of Science and Scopus). If Converis or Pure had a technical dependency or licensing terms such that the university also had to maintain a license to the same provider’s citation database, that could lock universities and their libraries into one provider’s research evaluation services.
Data portability and reusability limitations. Providing additional value for data in context such that data cannot be reused with the same functionality elsewhere is a form of lock-in. Scientists are utilizing workflow tools such as Tetrascience, Hivebench, Figshare, Mendeley, and Overleaf to design and manage their laboratory experiments, gather and organize data, work collaboratively, and write up their findings. Whether these tools become as integrated within each of the parent company workflow portfolios as I expect they will, the data that they are accumulating about scientific research and collaboration are of great value to researchers (and others). How exactly does data portability work and how will it evolve over time? One can download one’s Twitter archive fairly readily, for example, but only as static content, far less valuable than in the platform environment for which it is intended. It is possible that over time standards will be developed making workflow service data not only portable but also readily reusable in other systems, but I am skeptical. Unless that comes to pass, limitations on data portability and reusability will constitute a major form of lock-in.
Institutional sales and product bundling. Institutionalizing services that are today already used by researchers is a form of lock-in. We are already beginning to see bundled institutional sales of selected workflow products, such as repository and research information platforms that already have institutional customers individually like Figshare for Institutions and Symplectic Elements. Over time, other kinds of integrations will increase the logic of offering, though not necessarily requiring, service bundles. Providers will be inclined to offer larger and larger bundles moving up to the complete scientific workflow, an extremely powerful way to reach an institutional customer. Universities might come to license a single end-to-end solution from a given provider, such that there are institutions that provide — and support — the complete “Elsevier workflow” for example to their researchers. Even if individual researchers can still elect to utilize alternatives, they would have to use free services or pay for them from research funds. The draw of using the institutionally-provided infrastructure from a single provider would constitute a powerful form of lock-in.
In offering this depiction of where we may expect lock-in to develop for researcher workflow products, I want to emphasize that as the portfolios of research workflow products grow, so do the benefits of integrating them and thereby the opportunities to lock in researchers and their universities. And let there be no mistake: lock-in can be developed even when alternatives to a product or portfolio are available in a marketplace. As we know from airline deregulation leading almost immediately to the development of frequent flyer plans, competition does not prevent lock-in but, rather, can incentivize it.
Those who look to journals, each of which is its own copyright-enabled monopoly, as the only kind of lock-in do not fully appreciate how individual researchers and their universities can freely choose products into which they will become locked in. Academia through its libraries pursued the temptations of the Big Deal volitionally, and consumers choose loyalty for an airline over ticket price. Can we not expect research workflow providers to find ways to lock in researchers and universities to individual products and an overall portfolio? And can we not expect individual researchers, laboratory groups, and universities to choose of their own accord researcher workflow products, connections, and benefits that yield such lock in?